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Carl JungReview - Carl Jung
by Paul Bishop
Reaktion Books, 2014
Review by Jack Darach
Mar 24th 2015 (Volume 19, Issue 13)

Initially Bishop spends some time examining what trying to provide a critical life is up against. He opts, in the end, to define a critical biography as pursuing the textual life of Jung rather than the biographical Jung because the biographical details "must always remain a matter of conjecture".  The textual life of Jung stands as a supposed contrast to this inasmuch as we have all his written texts ready to hand. Bishop's book thus aims to provide "a biography of Jung in books". It's not obvious though that there is less conjecture in the interpretation of the textuallife of Jung. To give oneself over to the text – specifically to use Jung's own reflections on his life as a guide as Bishop does leaning much Jung's recollections in Memories, Dreams, Reflections -- is to give oneself over to the self-mythologizing tendencies that Jung exhibits or, if you want to credit him with less self-aggrandizing, to the way in which Jung at the end of his life reads his psycho-analytical conclusions back into it. Thus it sometimes feels like these conclusions end up being the premises from which the conclusions are drawn. Perhaps though this was inevitable, and so the complaint is unfair: pursuing a life through texts will require drawing upon a thinker's mature reflections of his youth. In any case, Bishop is not slavishly following Jung's word and notes the more glaring omissions from Memories, Dreams, Reflections -- for instance, that Jung neglects to mention Goethe's' interest in alchemy, even if Bishop's explanation of the omission -- "for strategic reasons" -- is rather cryptic.

Early chapters provide descriptions of Jung's youth -- via his mature reflections on it -- as well as a 'symbolic' reading of his childhood and biological origins. On the latter Bishop discusses at some length Jung's, in some sense, imagined relationship with Goethe -- there was a story that Jung was the grandson of an illegitimate child of Goethe - and the ways Jung played on this in his relationship with Freud. Jung seems to entertain this idea of a blood link to this German thinker partly, as Bishop puts it, because of his "complicated relationship to paternity...and God". It's not spelt out exactly how these contribute to Jung's promulgation of the apocryphal Goethe story but given his father's sad decline, and Jung's feelings about this, it's not surprising he sought an origin in something more grand, however tenuous. His relationship with Freud, a father of psychoanalysis, was similarly difficult and Bishop does well in disclosing the antimonies between them and the contrasts in their idea of the unconscious and psychoanalysis more generally. Jung describes his youthful experiences with women as defining his notion of their essence "a sense of strangeness, yet also a curious sense of familiarity."; the curious descriptions of Jung's early self-destructive urges and dreams with disturbing contents showing, for Jung, the existence of a realm in which the Judeo-Christian God is not authoritative or even present. His notion of the unconscious comes to eschew the negativity he saw in Freud's work, not least because it dispenses with the idea of the Father/God at its root. One still wonders though about the legitimacy of his notion and this book doesn't do much to dispel the unease. Overall, we have a sense of Bishop curating Jung's writing about the young Jung but it is interesting all the same.

Jung's early career sees his attempts at carving out a life in psychiatry, partly as a way of synthesizing his nascent interests in the occult and medicine. Perhaps it was also a way of trying to grasp an understanding of himself: his youth was also marked by a sense of there being another Jung, a second self, within him. Whether or not it was some Apollonian dictum motivating him this period saw the development of a great thinker and therapist. He distinguished himself as a sympathetic presence in Zurich in his clinical work at Burghölzli. Bishop describes Jung's view of psychiatry as, broadly, a dialogue between the 'sick' psyche of the patient and the 'healthy' psyche of the doctor.  In contrast with notions of a total cure Jung aimed to provide patients, considered mad, not with a life without pathology but with a pathology they could live with; transforming their difficulties into problems that they could live with in a way that let them live. For example, a young woman at the clinic was shocked out of her pathological state by Jung accusing her of murder. The shock of the accusation (and, presumably, the work of his word association technique at uncovering the possibility of this kind of accusation before it) allows her to grasp what she had done, to grasp the cause of her psychological difficulties. As Bishop puts it "the rest of her life would be spent in atonement and expiation, but at least she had her life back."

Subsequent chapters provide more detail on, but are not limited to, his relationship with Freud; the writing of the Red Book and its import; his break with psychoanalysis and the creation of 'analytical psychology' and his explorations of the alchemical world and the travels across the actual world. A complex life has been given a sensitive and complex treatment, with many small corners of thought to dwell upon. Bishop has given both the student of Jung and the casual reader much to enjoy.


© 2015 Jack Darach



Jack Darach is doing research at the intersection of Epistemology, Action theory and Normativity.



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