On Reading Jung

Dolores E. Brien relfects on the nature of Carl Jung's literary style.

On Reading Jung
by Dolores E. Brien, Ph.D.
Editorial Archive March 1998
Without Jung's memoir, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, and the popular Man and His Symbols, I wonder how many of us would have been drawn to Jungian psychology? Or having once been hooked, how many of us have gone on to read Jung's own works or have relied instead on secondary works? We know that Jung is notoriously difficult to read. How many have started Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious (or Aion, or the Mysterium Coniunctionis, or any other of his major works) and never to finish it? I once took part in a study group on Psychology and Alchemy. We did finish reading the book, and we had some interesting discussions, but at the end, one participant said, "Well, I could read this book all over again and it would be as if I had never read it before."

And yet, in attempting to read even the most "difficult" of Jung's works, one comes upon those inspired, luminous passages which make it all worthwhile and which motivate us to plow on with the reading. What we thought we had grasped, we now see in a different and better light. Jung may contradict himself, but what goes around with Jung, comes around. Little by little his ideas begin to fall in place for us.  For a time, at any rate, it all makes perfect sense until a new reading dislodges us from that place where we thought we understood something, and so we begin again.  It is the elusiveness which also attracts us to Jung because we sense there is always more there than we can take in during a reading or even many readings.

Recently, I borrowed from a college library (probably the only place you will find them) the two volumes of Jung's seminars on Nietzsche's Zarathustra which, together, comprise 1544 pages, not including the index. The seminar ran from 8 to 10 weeks in the spring, autumn and winter months from 1934 to 1939 which explains the length. Princeton has since published an abridged edition, one third the size. I was looking for a particular reference but found myself reading more than I had expected to, or had time for, or wanted, but I was hooked. No, I did not read the entire two volumes—nowhere near that.  Maybe I will some day because having searched through it to some extent, I know that I will find it as entertaining and vastly more interesting than an epic film or novel which are the genre to which I tend to compare it, if incongruously, in my own mind.

In this seminar, Jung is at his extemporaneous best--and worst--even more so, I’ll wager, than with the Dreams and Visions seminars which preceded this one. As a result there is much in it that we find "offensive" today, his remarks about women, for instance. "The natural mind of a woman consists chiefly in weaving plots." This is from a long passage in which he discusses differences between Logos and Eros--a distinction orthodox Jungians are wary of making today, and some reject entirely.   In fact, there is more than enough material here to embarrass loyalists, never mind to satisfy his enemies.

But there is also the earthy Jung which somehow, always surfaces, to rescue me, just at the moment when I feel like I am drowning in alchemical stews. In discussing psychological issues, he can be downright practical, knowing when a situation calls for the commonsensical rather than the archetypal. He is also a great story teller, a parablist. But it is his learning which is astonishing, its breadth and depth. It seems he retained everything and recalled it on command. I think that is what we miss today, and it is a great loss, for whom, among our contemporaries, can we point to as being comparably learned? And finally, there is his extraordinary, incomparable psychological acumen without which the rest would be empty of meaning. Of course, we are familiar with this many-sidedness of Jung in all his works, but in this extemporaneous setting it is all the more impressive.

The reference I needed to look up was the well known quote about "You can't individuate on Mt Everest." Mt. Everest wasn't cited in the index, so I went looking for it and found not one, but three references to it. Each time Jung is explaining in a slightly different way that you need relationships if you want to come to wholeness. I realized, in the process, that in the Nietzsche seminar Jung is constantly exploring the idea of the self. He returns to it again and again, and each time I stumbled on it, I came away with a little more light on the subject than I had before. This is but one example of the riches to be found in this seminar and, by the same token, in much of Jung's work that is not generally read.

It takes perseverance and some fortitude to take up a volume by Jung to read and not some interpreter, good as she/he might be. But in the end, the best source for understanding Jung is Jung himself even if he doesn't make it very easy.