It goes without saying, almost, that the unexamined life is not worth living, but the question biographers need to ask themselves is whether the minutely examined life is worth reading. And the answer to this question, taken in the abstract, is that it depends.

It depends, principally, though not entirely, on the subject of the biography. If his life is so momentous, his achievements so great, or his effect upon history so tremendous (usually for the worse), that a detailed account of his life will increase our understanding not just of him but of the world in which we live, then a volume of large size need not daunt us, or cause us to fear that we are wasting time that might be better employed than reading about the fluctuations in the life of a person of limited consequence. Lamentably, Hitler is among the figures about whom we can hardly know too much: Lenin, Stalin, and Mao are of similar ilk. Professor Frank’s five-volume biography of Dostoyevsky is not a page too long: not merely because Dostoyevsky was a great writer (there are many great writers about whom one would not wish to read a five-volume biography), but because an understanding of nineteenth-century Russia, with whose problems Dostoyevsky wrestled so perceptively and prophetically, as well as wrongheadedly and idiosyncratically, is so vital to an understanding of the modern world. Indeed, once you have grasped the role of the intelligentsia in late Tsarist Russia, much of what seems at first sight opaque in the modern world becomes a great deal clearer.

On his intrinsic merits and interest, Jung deserves an essay rather than a tome.

Is Carl Gustav Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, of the company about whose lives we can afford to be spared no detail? I think the answer most decisively is No, though many fat books have already been written about him, and I suspect that there are yet more to come. His contribution to positive human knowledge was small and disputable, his writings diffuse and contradictory, his character dubious, and his only lasting effect that upon a small if devoted coterie, though he enjoyed for a time the status of omnicompetent guru of world fame. Jung’s career was mainly interesting as a social phenomenon rather than as a great scientist or writer. On his intrinsic merits and interest, Jung deserves an essay rather than a tome, though boiling his huge oeuvre into a few pages requires real intellectual labor, unlike an accretion of facts about his life. The present volume, Jung: A Biography by Deirdre Bair,1 fully partakes, alas, of the prevalent disease of modern biography, the literary equivalent of terminal and untreatable heart failure, in which there is a gross swelling of the body caused by the accumulation of useless fluid. The size of biographies in general has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished: and the first principle that biographers should learn is that all facts are not created equal. No, not even all extra-marital relationships.

Jung as a social phenomenon is certainly interesting. He died in 1961, and I vaguely remember him from my childhood as being one of the triumvirate of Germanic gurus who were listened to on all subjects, and whose utterances were considered of a gnomic wisdom so great that they were above contradiction or even analysis. The triumvirate was composed of Albert Einstein, Albert Schweitzer, and Jung.

They were all helped by their appearance, as well as by their accents, so well suited to wisdom. Einstein was the real thing, of course, a genius and a decent man, capable of brilliant insight expressed in few words (when, for example, he was told that 100 Aryan scientists had signed a letter condemning the theory of relativity, he replied, “Why a hundred? If I were wrong, one would have been enough.”). Schweitzer, a theologian, musicologist, and doctor, loved the natives of Gabon in a slightly condescending, and definitely abstract, way, and treated his wife and children abominably. As for Jung, the most famous image of him—the one that comes to my mind whenever his name arises (though I can’t claim I think of him often)—is of him in old age with his gold-rimmed spectacles pushed up over his forehead. Somehow, this conveys vastly greater wisdom, or at least concentrated effort after wisdom, than merely looking through them would have done. It was as though, by depriving himself of common-or-garden sight, the vulgar kind that you and I habitually avail ourselves of, he was achieving a more penetrating kind of x-ray or psychic vision, the type that gets to reality without passing through appearance. And indeed, the suggestion of charlatanry has clung to him as persistently as that of wisdom. However, if you sling enough praise, some of it sticks.

What exactly were his achievements? Oddly enough, although this biography is more than 800 pages long (649 of them are text, each of them so closely printed that they are the equivalent of two normal pages), by the time you finish it you will nevertheless be hard put to say. You will know a lot about the petty quarrels and squabbles in which Jung repeatedly engaged, and about the details of his domestic life, but relatively little about why any of these things matter in the first place. The author therefore assumes not only a familiarity with Jung’s ideas, and a sympathy towards them, but that the reader also assumes that Jung is worthy of such a lengthy biography. This is not an assumption I share, and though the book is written in serviceable prose, it contains not a single humorous remark. From very early on, therefore, I picked it up with some words that Macaulay wrote in a review of a two-volume biography of Lord Burleigh echoing through my mind like the insistent snatch of a tune (I quote from memory): Compared with the labour of reading these volumes, all other labour, the labour of thieves on the treadmill, the labour of children in the mines, the labour of slaves on the plantation, is but a pleasant recreation. That Miss Bair has been diligent is indisputably true; that her diligence has been wisely applied, unfortunately, is a more open question.

Some men are born charlatans, some achieve charlatanry, and some have charlatanry thrust upon them. Jung was decidedly not born a charlatan—or at least, he was not one throughout the whole of his career. True, he grew up in a family with a more than average number of table-rappers, which no doubt inclined him later to the study of the esoteric (for it certainly never occurred to him to wonder why the esoteric was, in fact, esoteric), and was subjected in his youth to that Teutonic windiness which comes so easily, though no means inevitably, to those who think and write in the German language. There is nothing quite like esoteric windiness for creating a penumbra of profundity, to which bored society ladies are drawn like flies to dung: and this no doubt explains how he became the Madame Blavatsky of psychotherapy. At the same time, however, he received a thorough grounding in classics as well as in science, spoke four languages fluently, could read Latin as if it were his native tongue, was not bad at Greek, and contributed several expressions to our daily discourse—complex, collective unconscious, archetypes, animus and anima, persona, introvert and extrovert—which by itself is far more than most of us will ever achieve. This is not the same as saying, however, that he contributed to human knowledge: for it is perfectly possible to give names to non-existent entities.

Some men are born charlatans, some achieve charlatanry, and some have charlatanry thrust upon them.

Jung was the scion of a distinguished family, but his father, a talented scholar of oriental languages without the dynamism to pursue his academic interests, was an impoverished evangelical pastor who died while Jung was still a student. At an early age, therefore, Jung became the head of a family, and the habit of responsibility reinforced the taste for dominance that he exhibited throughout his life.

Jung’s first choice of career after his graduation as a doctor was as a surgeon, but he needed a salary in order to pay back the loans that had kept his family afloat during his studies, and surgeons-in-training were unpaid. He therefore took a job as an assistant to Dr. Bleuler at the Bergholzli asylum near Zurich. There he remained for nine years, submitting to the almost monastic rules for doctors laid down by Bleuler who, aware of the impotence of doctors to do much for their patients, compensated for it by imposing a regime of meticulous, not to say pedantic, observation and recording of their every word and deed.

A man of Jung’s temperament chafed at this regime, with its seemingly pointless accumulation of observations, and he undertook some experiments that were to make him famous beyond the Bergholzli. These were the word association tests. He would present a subject with a word and ask him to reply with the first word that came into his head in response. By measuring the time it took for the subject to reply to various words, and to measure such things as rises in his heart and respiratory rates, as well as the electrical conductance of his skin, which was increased by the slight sweating that occurs when someone is emotionally aroused, Jung was able to detect which words carried an emotional load that could then be explored further. The subject himself was not aware of his own hesitations, or of the physiological changes that took place within him, and so Jung’s experiments proved the existence of pre-conscious mentation. (They are also the basis of lie-detection by the polygraph.) They confirmed at least an aspect of Freud’s theories.

A less ambitious man than Jung might have been content to continue with such experiments indefinitely, for they were clearly capable of infinite refinement. But Jung was an intellectual rather than an empirical scientist, however painstaking his original research had been, and he was not content to potter in a laboratory for ever.

His next contribution was the theory of archetypes and the collective unconscious. The Bergholzli was full of psychotics, a class of patient of whom Freud had little experience, believing their disturbance to be beyond the reach of psychoanalysis. Jung sensibly believed that chronic psychosis was probably caused by some as yet undiscovered injury of the brain, possibly by an internal or external toxin, since it is not very plausible that a person should be unable to talk sense for more than half a century as a result of some minor psychological trauma. He nevertheless also thought it worth paying attention to their delusions, which might uncover something about the way the mind worked.

Jung was a preternaturally unclear writer and thinker: he would never say anything clearly when obfuscation would do.

One of his patients, who has gone down in history as the solar-phallus man, thought (among many other strange things) that there was a phallus that emerged from the sun, and that by causing this solar appendage to move, he controlled the weather, particularly the wind. Jung subsequently discovered, in his reading about ancient myths, that there was a Persian Mithraic belief of exactly the same kind as his patient’s. Now his patient was not a well-educated or widely read man, so it seemed to Jung impossible that he had learnt of the Mithraic myth from external sources. He therefore concluded that the form of myths was almost—as we should now put it—hard-wired into the human psyche, and he called these forms archetypes. The collective unconscious was full of such archetypes.

Jung was a preternaturally unclear writer and thinker: he would never say anything clearly when obfuscation would do. Whether this was from lack of talent or an unconscious appreciation that clarity led to the possibility of contradiction and even refutation, no one can say, but the precise nature of archetypes, their ontological status as it were, has remained unclear ever since. At any rate, the solar-phallus man’s delusion, which he quoted for the rest of his long life, was the rock on which his theory was built: a somewhat inadequate basis for an entire, far-reaching theory about the mental life of all of humanity. But Jung’s theorizing was always like an inverted pyramid: a mountain of speculation resting on a pin-prick of fact.

There were obvious problems with the theory of archetypes. The theory suggested itself to Jung because of the exact, or very close, correspondence between the madman’s delusion and the original Mithraic myth: but how close did correspondences have to be before they were manifestations of archetypes, which were more platonic forms than actual contents of the mind? Only an analyst can say, of course, and there is no public criterion other than the analyst’s authority.

Of course, Jung’s theory suggests connections with Kantian philosophy, and even with Chomsky’s theory of language. The mind is not a tabula rasa, but has inborn or inherent capabilities or propensities: this follows from our biological nature, which explains why we, but not goldfish, can speak. But—as with much in Jung—his vague formulations are tantalisingly suggestive rather than probative.

He never successfully tackled the problem of the distinction between the psychotic expression of an archetype and a normal one. By suggesting that we all, sane and mad alike, make use of archetypes, he ignored, and helped to collapse, the distinction between the normal and abnormal. But even if we do in fact all carry archetypes in our minds, and make use of them, we don’t all end up in the Bergholzli believing that we can create the wind by moving a penis that emerges from the sun, and believe it so strongly that it impedes our ability to get on with our daily lives.

Nevertheless, Jung’s interest in myth suggested to him something that I think is probably true, though not easily provable: that we all have and utilize a mythmaking capacity, and that this capacity is necessary for us to carry on in the world and make sense of our lives (Freud thought, by contrast, that acceptance of the literal truth would set us free). Our memory of our own lives is full of personal mythology, both positive and negative: and not many of us can tell an unvarnished story about our past, for it is the varnish that makes our past meaningful to us. Even the mythologizing of psychotics can come to be useful to them, resulting (sometimes) in an accommodation with the world impossible for them to achieve without it. I recall, for example, a schizophrenic who believed that he was at the center of a vast world plot to assassinate him. He had lived for many years in one small room in a boarding house, from which he rarely ventured out, with a photograph beside his bed of his two children as they had been at the time of his first psychotic breakdown, since when he had not seen them. He told me that he was glad that he had not had any contact with them since, though naturally he was also sad to have missed them growing up, because their lives would have been in danger had they continued to visit him: for the plotters who were seeking to kill him would most certainly have sought to kill them as well. Not only was his deeply impoverished life in a single room full of meaning and even excitement for him on account of his being at the center of world events, but the indifference of his children towards him, otherwise deeply painful, was satisfactorily explained, or explained away. Clearly, restoration of such a man to normal, by removing his delusions, or personal myths, would by now have been cruel, for it would have brought him face to face with a very dismal reality. Jung would have understood this, as modern check-list or decision-tree doctors would not: though it is perhaps worth pointing out that it was the man’s tendency to psychotic mythologizing that resulted in the impoverished life from the true appreciation of which he had to be protected in the first place. Of course, it would be open to Jung to reply that the man’s mythologizing was itself a flight from a previous reality lacking a meaning for him, to which any unreality was preferable, and was therefore in one sense adaptive. But the majority of psychotic myths or delusions are not adaptive, quite the reverse. The extreme selectiveness of Jung’s evidence led him to false and even wild generalizations: or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that his false generalizations led him to the extreme selectiveness of his evidence.

Jung entered very murky waters indeed when he suggested that the collective unconsciousness of differing races and nations varied as to contents. He never offered any opinion about, or even evinced much interest in, the origin of the collective unconsciousness, whether it was in the genes of the people who shared it, or whether it was a cultural artifact: whether, for example, a man born of German parents but brought up in Bolivia would share the German collective unconscious. His very imprecision on this point, combined with his increasingly pagan mysticism and certain remarks he had made about the difference between the psychology of Jews and Germans, made him pleasing to the Nazis. “Each race has its soul, each soul its race—its own unique inner and outer architectonic shape, its characteristic form of appearance and characteristic expression of lifestyle.” Is this Jung? It could almost be—but actually it is Alfred Rosenberg.

Jung—in common with 99.99999 percent of humanity—was not a moral giant.

Was Jung in fact a Nazi sympathizer? This is a question that has agitated Jung scholarship for years, without producing a decisive answer. Miss Bair puts the case very fairly, and is a witness neither for the prosecution nor for the defense. On the one hand, Jung remained president of a Nazi-sponsored international organization of psychotherapists, ascending to the presidency after its previous president, Dr. Ernst Kretschmer, resigned rather than be a cipher of the Nazis. This gives the impression of opportunism, to say the least, akin to those “aryans” who availed themselves of legal opportunities to appropriate choice real estate from dispossessed Jews, or to academics who occupied university chairs vacated by proscribed Jews. Moreover, Jung is not known to have uttered anti-Nazi sentiments publicly when the Nazis were in the ascendant: on the contrary, his words were always very carefully ambivalent, so that they never unequivocally said anything at all, but had—like so many of his utterances—a vague penumbra of meaning, rather than meaning itself. For example, in an interview with Radio Berlin, Jung said that he thought it natural that German youth led the drive for nationalism. The interviewer asked him what he thought the task of his psychology was in such a period. Jung replied that it should help realize “more consciousness and self-reflection.” He went on:

If we do not succeed in getting this view, it may easily happen that we are as it were unconsciously swept along by events. For mass movements have the peculiarity of overpowering the individual by mass suggestion and making him unconscious. The political or social movement gains nothing by this when it has swarms of hypnotized camp followers.

This has something for Nazis and anti-Nazis alike: you could argue for a thousand years and not come to a firm conclusion as to whether it was pro or anti. Likewise, his concluding remarks in the interview are difficult to interpret in a simple way: “times of mass movement,” he said, “are times of leadership,” and the triumphant leader was “an incarnation of the nation’s psyche and its mouthpiece, the spearhead of the phalanx of the whole people in motion.” Well, is that for or against Adolf Hitler, answer yes or no? You could sift the entrails for ever and not quite make the pattern out.

On the other hand, Jung undoubtedly helped some Jews to escape from Germany, and supported them financially (not difficult for him to do, since he had married the second richest heiress in Switzerland, but still better than nothing). And Miss Bair presents evidence that Jung eventually became an informant for the OSS. One is strongly reminded of the career of the late President Mitterand, who became a resistant when it was clear that the good Marshal’s days were numbered.

Where does this leave the question of whether Jung was a Nazi sympathizer? A simple answer is not possible. He was an equivocator: I don’t think he would have been devastated if the Nazis had won, and he would undoubtedly have made his peace with them; still, he didn’t actually want them to win. All one can say is that he wanted to be on the winning side, and his equivocation, his inability to say anything straightforward about the most burning issue of his day, of his lifetime, was simply a manifestation of his uncertainty at the time as to who was going to win. In other words, Jung—in common with 99.99999 percent of humanity—was not a moral giant. Like most bullies, he was also a coward: or, as we say in Britain, he was not a man to go into the jungle with.

But was he an anti-semite? This is another question that has agitated Jung scholarship for many years. Freud thought so, but Freud was about as scrupulous towards those who crossed him, or dissented from his revelations by so much as one jot or tittle, as a sewer rat. The famous parting of the ways between Freud and Jung, which both Freudians and Jungians have always presented as a matter of profound principle, namely whether or not all human behavior is, at bottom, sexual in explanation, reminds me rather of the time when I had two Rastafarians in my ward who had smoked too much dope and each believed himself to be Haile Selassie. I asked one of them what he thought of the other. “Ha!” he said. “He’s just mad.” The struggle between Freud and Jung was between two would-be saviors of mankind, and each sought to impose monotheism upon the world, or that part of it concerned with psychotherapy, with himself as God.

One thing that Miss Bair’s doorstop biography brings out exceedingly clearly, though I doubt it was ever intended to do so, is the unutterable pettiness and self-absorption of the founders of psychotherapy. Their storms in a teacup make most academic quarrels seem like the First World War. Here was a healing discipline that was supposed to help people achieve some kind of mental equilibrium, and its founders were engaged upon court intrigues of Byzantine complexity, nastiness, and inconsequence.

What was Jung’s lasting legacy? He founded a small and on the whole harmless esoteric psychotherapeutic cult.

Jung’s character emerges from the book without much credit. No doubt he could be charming, and he had the kind of charisma that attracted rich society ladies with too much time on their hands (in one remark stunningly lacking in self-knowledge, Jung demanded to know what he had done to deserve to be surrounded by so many such women). But he formed a ménage à trois without ever acknowledging the suffering it caused his very decent wife, much less apologizing for it. He presented himself as a helpless victim of circumstance in this matter, alleging that there was nothing he could do to alter things. Supposed fate is the last resort of the scoundrel. Physically large, he browbeat his associates and was not above behaving with singular rudeness to those whom he disdained, for example by talking very loudly during their lectures or presentations. This is not attractive.

What was Jung’s lasting legacy? He founded a small and on the whole harmless esoteric psychotherapeutic cult. His doctrines will never attract large numbers of people because his writings and teachings are diffuse, contradictory, and overloaded with erudition that partakes more of pedantry than of scholarship. (He reminds me often of those enthusiastic amateur scholars of the nineteenth century who sought to prove by means of phonological coincidences such things as that the Mayans were really the lost tribe of Israel, or by numerological analysis of Shakespeare’s sonnets that Shakespeare, in the sense of the author of the plays, was really Francis Bacon. The determination and ingenuity are admirable, but the additions to knowledge exiguous.)

To read Jung is to enter a world more of connotation than of denotation, of meanings hinted at rather than expressed forthrightly. To extract a definite opinion from Jung is like trying to catch an eel with soapy hands, or trap steam with a butterfly net. His esoteric erudition is formidable: it is difficult to refute a man who will not say what he means, but backs whatever he means up with a plethora of references to fourteenth-century texts. Actually, Jung was grossly superstitious, had no idea what a logical argument was, and was capable of believing the purest nonsense. Writing of Paracelsus in 1941, for example, Jung said:

The firmamental body is the corporal equivalent of the astrological heaven. And since the astrological constellation makes a diagnosis possible, it also indicates therapy. This intuitive conception is, in my opinion, an achievement of the utmost historical importance, for which no one should begrudge Paracelsus undying fame. Its full development is reserved for the future.

Would you entrust yourself to a man who claimed to believe that? Only, I think, if you knew that there was nothing much wrong with you in the first place.

Yet for all his flatulence, there were elements of sense in Jung. Reading him is a waste of time, unless you are going to live several centuries at least; reading this biography is also unilluminating. I would recommend instead Anthony Storr’s bracing little book Jung written in 1973, which in 100 pages distills what good sense and worthwhile ideas there were in Jung, and leaves the thousands of his pages of dross to molder where they belong, unread on library shelves.


  1.  Jung: A Biography, by Deirdre Bair; Little Brown & Company, 860 pages, $35.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 3, on page 23
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