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Jung Today, Jung Tomorrow

Andrew Samuels

A new play at Britain’s prestigious Royal National Theatre about the early days of psychoanalysis offers a chance to re-assess Jung’s reputation, suggests Jungian analyst Andrew Samuels

The presence of film star Ralph Fiennes as Carl Gustav Jung in the Royal National Theatre production of Christopher Hampton’s new play about Jung, Freud and Sabina Spielrein (The Talking Cure) determined critical and popular responses. Inevitably, we heard about Jung’s love affair with his patient (or ex-patient), the impact of the affair on his marriage to Emma, how Spielrein starts to shuttle between the two narcissistic oligarchs of the early psychoanalytic world (a compelling emblem of the belittlement of women’s role in intellectual endeavour, then and now), and how the whole shish-kebab made the rupture between the two men – always on the cards – into an inevitability. Sex, not the theory of sexuality, is going to be the main interest. In a way, this is apposite for, as John Kerr pointed out in the book on which the play is based (A Most Dangerous Method), Freud and Jung each had something sexual on the other: Freud knew about Jung and Spielrein, Jung knew about Freud’s supposed incestuous affair with Minna Bernays, his sister-in-law.

There was little focus on what Jung actually said and stood for. Yet, if the last century has been called ‘The Freudian Century’, there are reasons for thinking that this one could be Jung’s. Right now, there is collective agonising over what is meant by ‘the West’. Easy to define in contradistinction to a supposedly fanatical Islam (itself a political and media concoction and a distortion of that religion and culture), what it means to be Western is a much more complicated topic that cries out for a Jungian input. For Jung saw himself as a sort of therapist for Western culture and, if his criticisms of it do resonate with what many responsible Muslims are saying, then that strikes me as all the more significant. Jung despaired of the one-sidedness of Western culture, its materialism, over-dependence on rationality, the mind-body split, and the West’s loss of a sense of purpose and meaning. He even, in a characteristic moment of imaginative genius mixed with psychological inflation, tried to be the therapist of the Judaeo-Christian God, in his iconoclastic book Answer to Job.

Jung’s turn to other cultures as a way of addressing the West’s profound problems involved a lot of idealisation but the main point was always the same: there is something fundamentally ‘off’ in the way we live. Specifically, the lack of meaning in people’s lives was something that Jung (and today’s Jungian analysts) regard as a suitable matter for clinical work. Neurosis and emotional distress, according to Jung, always involve a catastrophic loss of meaning, implying a void that can only be filled from within, given that the great religions have ceased to be effective as conveyors of meaning from outside the self. It may sound odd in terms of linear thinking to see emotional distress as caused by a loss of meaning but it is a mode of conceiving of psychotherapy – and cultural critique as well - that, in their own ways, can be acute and tough-minded.

Another area where contemporary discourse is taking a ‘Jungian’ turn is that of gender roles. Jung was, on the one hand, rather conservative in what he thought were appropriate behaviours for women and men. But, on the other hand, with his theory of animus and anima (something that came to him during his relationship with Sabina Spielrein), he offers us a means of expanding what is possible for people of either sex. For a woman, her animus is not a little man in her head but a sign of her capacity to be and do more things than used to be thought possible for a woman; for a man, conforntation with the anima can lead to a similar expansion of roles. Animus and anima, as many feminist writers such as the literary critic Susan Rowland have noted, can be profoundly radical counter-cultural ideas.

When I give talks on Jung to non-Jungian audiences, I always ask them to do a simple word association test to the stimulus word ‘Jung’. The overwhelming response (virtually 100%) is ‘Freud’. This certainly makes a problem for Jungians if they are always defined in terms of ‘the other lot’; always Number Two, they have to try harder. More seriously, the association overlooks the fact that there was a very important pre-Freudian or non-Freudian ‘Jung’. Nevertheless, what surely gets highlighted is the relationship between these two. There are different ways of evaluating the split between Freud and Jung: as a disaster from which psychotherapy has never recovered, or a healthy ridding by the psychoanalytic world of an unfortunate ex crescence upon it.

Jung is certainly used by institutional psychoanalysis to keep itself together, as a sort of tribal enemy. This involves a degree of quite deliberate overlooking of Jung’s pioneering contributions. The distinguished historian of psychoanalysis Paul Roazen commented that ‘Few responsible figures in psychoanalysis would be disturbed today if an analyst were to present views identical to Jung’s in 1913’. Roazen was referring to such things as the move of the mother to the centre of psychoanalytic thinking, the realisation that humans are motivated by more than their sexual drive, consequent re-evaluation of art, literature and religion, an awareness that dreams tell us about ourselves just as we are and are not elaborate skeins of deception, the way in which psychotherapy has emerged as a two-person, relational business, not one expert interpreting the inner life of the other person in terms of a pre-existing theory – all of these hugely important developments in psychoanalysis were first introduced within Jung’s own school of analytical psychology.

It would be wrong to end on an upbeat note, from the point of view of Jung’s reputation. I have been prominent among Jungian analysts in insisting that we make reparation for Jung’s anti-semitism in the 1930s by acknowledging and apologising for it and the Jungian community as a whole is actively trying to fix those parts of the theories that are misguided or plain wrong. Jung always defended himself against the accusation that his ideas chimed with Nazi ideology, though, to some, his expression of regret seemed inadequate and insincere. Jung was an ambitious man (as was Freud) and he saw an opportunity to become the leading psychologist in Central Europe in the 1930s. He was also an intuitive person and, though his writings on what he called ‘Jewish psychology’ (i.e. psychoanalysis) are often deeply problematic, there are some nuggets therein that give one pause for thought. For example, Jung’s protest at the imposition of one system of psychology on everyone anticipates today’s transcultural and intercultural psychologists and therapists who hold that such a universal system, outside of a particular social context, cannot exist. And Jung’s musings about how the Jewish people’s possession of land, so far from their historic experience, would affect their psychological functioning as a group contributes to our understanding of yet another of today’s hot political topics.

Andrew Samuels is Professor of Analytical Psychology at the University of Essex and Visiting Professor of Psychoanalytic Studies at Goldsmith’s College, University of London. His most recent book was Politics on the Couch: Citizenship and the Internal Life.

This article was first published in the New Statesman magazine in December 2002.


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