- Carl Jung came from a family of brilliant but unstable eccentrics.
- From an early age, he developed an interest in the occult and mystical.
- In later life, he defined himself against Sigmund Freud, and fell out with him.
Carl Gustav Jung was born in 1875 to Paul Jung, a poor rural pastor in the Swiss reformed Church, and Emilie Preiswerk, a melancholic who claimed to be visited by spirits.
His paternal grandfather, after whom he was named, was a physician who was rumoured to be the illegitimate son of Goethe, and rose to become Rector of Basel University and Grand Master of the Swiss Lodge of Free Masons.
His maternal grandfather, Samuel Preiswerk, was a theologian who had visions, conversed with the dead, and devoted his life to learning Hebrew in the belief that it was the language spoken in heaven.
When Jung was just 3 years old, his mother had a nervous breakdown and spent several months in hospital. In his memoirs of 1961, he wrote: “From then on I always felt mistrustful when the word 'love' was spoken. The feeling I associated with 'woman' was for a long time that of innate unreliability.”
Jung’s father was kind but weak-willed, and, in Jung’s mind, too accepting of the religious dogma in which he had long lost all faith.
Jung was a solitary child who imagined that he had two personas, that of a schoolboy of his time, and that of an authority from the past.
He once carved a tiny mannequin into the end of a wooden ruler, which he kept together with a painted stone in a pencil case in the attic. He periodically returned to the mannequin, bringing to it scrolls inscribed in a secret language of his own making.
Needless to say, he was bullied at school. At the age of 12, he received a blow to the head. He lay on the ground for much longer than necessary, and thought, “Now you won’t have to go to school anymore.”
For the next six months, he avoided going to school by fainting each time his parents tried to make him—an episode that gave him an early insight into hysteria.
Medical and psychiatric training
In 1895, inspired by a dream, Jung went to the University of Basel to study natural science and medicine. His father’s premature death one year later prompted his mother to comment, rather eerily, that “he died in time for you.”
During his studies, he had a dream in which he was battling against dense fog, with a tiny light in the cup of his hands and a giant black figure chasing after him. When he awoke, he realized that the black figure was his own shadow, brought into being by the light that he was carrying: “…this light was my consciousness, the only light that I have. My own understanding is the sole treasure I possess, and the greatest.”
After presenting a paper on The Limits of the Exact Sciences, he spent two years recording the séances of a young medium, his cousin, Hélène Preiswerk. He submitted his observations in the form of a doctoral thesis entitled, On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena.
As he neared the end of his studies, a reading of Krafft-Ebing’s textbook of psychiatry led him straight into psychiatry. The preface alone had such a profound impact on him that he had to stand up to catch his breath: “Here alone the two currents of my interest could flow together and in a united stream dig their own bed. Here was the empirical field common to biological and spiritual facts, which I had everywhere sought and nowhere found.”
He was taken on at the Burghölzli Psychiatric Hospital in Zürich as an assistant to Eugen Bleuler, the man who coined the term “schizophrenia.” Bleuler set him to work on Galton’s word-association test, and in 1906 he published Studies in Word Association, which, he claimed, provided hard evidence for the existence of unconscious complexes.
Relationship with Freud
Jung sent a copy of Studies in Word Association to Sigmund Freud, and on their first meeting in Vienna, the pair exchanged for 13 hours straight.
Jung needed a father as much as Freud needed a son, and Freud anointed Jung his “son and heir.” But Jung became increasingly dissatisfied with Freud’s assumptions that human motivation is entirely sexual and that the unconscious mind is exclusively personal.
For Jung, sexuality was but one aspect of a broader life force, and beneath the personal unconscious lay a deeper layer that contained the entire psychic heritage of humankind. This “collective unconscious” had been pointed to by his childhood dreams and experiences and by the delusions and hallucinations of his patients, which contained symbols that recurred in myths and legends from all over the world.
In his book of 1912, Transformations and Symbols of the Libido, he replaced Freud’s concept of libido with a much broader concept of undifferentiated psychic energy, which could crystallize into universal symbols such as the hero’s slaying of the dragon, which represents the struggle of the ego for deliverance from parental dominance.
Life’s purpose was individuation, which involves pursuing one’s personal vision of the truth, and, in so doing, realizing one’s fullest potential as a human being.
If this meant falling out with Freud, then so be it. In 1913, on the eve of the Great War, Jung and Freud broke off their relationship.
Confrontation with the unconscious
Jung spent the next few years in a troubled state of mind that verged upon psychosis and led him to a “confrontation with the unconscious.”
By then, he had had five children with Emma Rauschenbach, the daughter of a rich industrialist. Despite being happily married, he felt that he needed a muse as well as a homemaker, observing that “the pre-requisite of a good marriage… is the license to be unfaithful.”
The marital strife that resulted from his affairs, notably with a former patient called Toni Wolff, contributed to his troubled state of mind, and Emma tolerated Toni as much from a concern for Jung’s sanity as from a desire to salvage the remnants of her marriage.
As Europe tore itself apart, Jung gained first-hand experience of psychotic material in which he found “a matrix of mythopoeic imagination which has vanished from our rational age.”
Like Gilgamesh, Odysseus, and Herakles before him, he journeyed to an underworld where he conversed with Salome, a fair young woman, and with Philemon, an old man with a white beard and the wings of a kingfisher. Although Philemon and Salome were products of his unconscious, they had lives of their own and said things that he had not previously thought.
In Philemon, Jung at long last found the father figure that both Freud and his own father had failed to be. More than that, Philemon was a guru, and prefigured what Jung himself was later to become: the “wise old man of Zürich.”
As the war burnt out, Jung re-emerged into sanity, and considered that he had found in his madness “the prima materia for a lifetime’s work.”
Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of Madness.