Scott McLemee
The Shrink with a God Complex
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Newsday, 22 April 2001

back to Reviews

A LIFE OF JUNG, by Ronald Hayman. Norton, 522 pp. 

 

Ernest Jones, MD, a British disciple of Sigmund Freud who wrote the authorized biography of the great man, also published a number of technical articles that stand as landmarks in the early history of psychoanalysis, including one called "The God Complex." This is a fairly arresting title, almost irresistible in its satirical possibilities. We all know at least one person who suffers from the delusion that he or she is, at the very least, the Almighty's gift to the world. (Actually, most of the time, they don't appear to be suffering all that much.) But the paper itself turns out not to be funny at all. It is, however, very odd.

Jones starts out by indicating that his discussion is based on work with analytical patients who believe themselves actually to be God. This sounds like a pretty severe psychiatric disorder. But then Jones shifts gear. He begins to describe various consequences of the God fantasy, and the catalog is puzzling. Jones lists all manner of arrogance, greed and preening self-involvement. They are not so much profound behavioral disorders as the standard traits of a jerk. As if to make things more puzzling, the analysis hones in on very specific and idiosyncratic details. The wannabe diety believes he can foretell thunderstorms, for example; his handwriting is either unreadable or calligraphic; he is obsessed with ancient religions, and so forth.

You get the vague sense that Jones is talking about somebody in particular. But who? While first reading "The God Complex" some years ago, I had no idea that it was originally been presented as a lecture to a gathering of Freud's associates -- just after Carl Jung had broken with the master over various points of psychological theory. For a decade, Jung had been the number two leader of the movement.

The audience would have known about Jung's departure, and been angry about it. So imagine the great malicious satisfaction at hearing Jung diagnosed as a megalomaniac, with Jones dropping broad hints as to his identity, while never actually pronouncing the renegade's name. And I suppose it made everybody present feel all the more deeply committed to Freud's ideas-insecure in the knowledge that a team of character assassins would hunt them down if they defected.

"The God Complex" gets only a passing mention in A Life of Jung, but Ronald Hayman could well have taken it over as a title for his biography, which is a portrait of the psychologist as shamanistic visionary. Any for-dummies account of the Freud-Jung dispute will treat it as a conflict over the relative importance of sex and religion. To the founder of psychoanalysis, theology was just another symptom of the tragic conflict between desire and reality; like any neurotic, the religious believer represses this conflict, at the cost of sacrificing both. For Jung, by contrast, the passions of erotic life are in themselves merely symbolic of still deeper urges; in a way, sexuality is a kind of sublimated spirituality, not vice versa.

As Hayman portrays him, Jung was never all that repressed, in either department. The son of a Swiss Lutheran minister, his interest in religion and the occult emerged during childhood, and his dissertation was based on seances with a female cousin who (like most of the women Hayman describes) was clearly in love with Jung. As a psychiatrist, Jung showed a remarkable gift for work with schizophrenics -finding a thread of meaning in the patchwork of their delusions. The connection was sometimes more than conversational. His tempestuous relationship with Sabina Spielrein -a patient who later became a psychoanalyst herself-is only the first of several affairs in which the erotic and the therapeutic overlapped.

Discovering the early writings on psychoanalytic theory, Jung soon became an associate of the embattled movement-and something like a adopted son to its founder. Freud was gratified to find his ideas accepted by a talented clinician. And the fact that Jung was (1) Swiss and (2) Protestant was also reassuring to Freud; most of his original following had been Viennese Jews. Jung embodied the future of psychoanalysis. He was the goy wonder.

There are no surprises in Hayman's account of this meteoric rise. And Jung's theoretical innovations -- which led to the creation of a new school he called "analytic psychology"--are presented rather too sketchily to be acceptable from a biography of this size. But Hayman is a good storyteller; where the book fails as intellectual history, it remains quite compelling as a narrative of progressively developing personal weirdness. His studies in folklore, mythology and the occult led Jung to regard psychological symptoms as fragments of a collective unconscious. Both dreams and astrological symbols were each speaking to us from the deepest levels of the psyche. And therapy meant learning to answer back.

Which sounds kind of plausible, I guess, at least in the abstract. But it's still pretty unnerving to learn that Jung not only had names for his kitchenware -- which he believed to be inhabited by the spirits of his dead ancestors -- but that he expected visitors to say hello, as well. (Good day, Mrs. Saucepan. Hot enough for you?) And while he was in many ways the prototype of those New Age gurus who always turn up on PBS during the pledge campaigns, Jung's vision was not all woolly sweaters and follow-your-bliss. Two chapters document the thinker's profoundly ambivalent-and never admirable- response to the rise of Hitler. Hayman quotes Thomas Mann's very apt characterization of Jung as "always a half-Nazi."

While offering a very readable account of the steady progression from psychiatrist to guru, A Life of Jung is somewhat lopsided. Following World War II, he was ensconced in Zurich, playing the role of Wise Old Sage to an audience of rapt disciples right up until his death in 1961. But Hayman's account of the last decade or so zips over these years at bewildering speed, as if in a hurry to get away from Jung altogether.

Nor is there any effort to evaluate Jung's work or his influence -- whether as a psychologist, a religious visionary or a cultural icon. For that, you should turn to a couple of brilliant and eye-opening works by the historian Richard Noll, The Jung Cult: Origins of a Charismatic Movement (1994) and The Aryan Christ: The Secret Life of Carl Jung (1997).

What Hayman captures is the extraordinary charisma of his subject- which rendered him almost godlike, at least in the eyes of his followers. A recollection by one former patient conveys this very forcefully. Jung's presence itself was transformative: "Reality blurred," she recalled, "conversations happened unplanned. I felt someone, not me, spoke through me, and someone, not Jung, was speaking through him. There was the feeling of being swept into the depths to a perilous, dangerous underworld, but since Jung had descended into this strange world, so could I."

No doubt it was also like that around the Heaven's Gate compound, too, sometimes.