The Star in Man : Jung and Technology


The Star in Man : Jung and Technology

by Dolores E. Brien

Jung's references to technology are few and pessimistic. Technology itself is neutral, he wrote, neither good nor bad. Whether it does harm to us, or not, depends on our attitude towards it, how we use it. But human nature being what it is, it is certain we will use it for evil as well as good. He thought that technology gendered an "imbalance" in life, dulling our "natural versatility of action" and dulling our instincts. Technology has given us an illusion that we are superior to nature and that we can do whatever we will to do. Unless we strip ourselves of our false sense of power, nature, both that within us and without, will one day destroy us (CW 18, paras. 1405, 1406) .We must ask ourselves: "Who is applying this technical skill? In whose hands does this power lie?"Our technical capabilities have become so dangerous that we must question what kind of people are they who control them. How, we need to ask, can the the mind of modern Western man be changed "so that he would renounce his terrible skill" (CW 11, paras. 869, 871).

According to Jung, we project onto technology what in earlier eras we would have projected onto the supernatural. For many, indeed, technology is experienced as numinous. Under the influence of science along with technology, we are less willing to attribute events to divine intervention. But unconsciously, we still cling to the hope of a revelation of that archetype of "order, deliverance, salvation and wholeness." We express this hope, however, in symbols derived from technology rather than from traditional religious beliefs or from mythology.

It is characteristic of our time that the archetype, in contrast to its previous manifestations, should now take the form of an object, a technological construction, in order to avoid the odiousness of mythological personification. Anything that looks technological goes down without difficulty with modern man. The possibility of space travel has made the unpopular idea of metaphysical intervention much more acceptable. (CW,10, para. 623. )

(As an apt if bizarre case in point, readers will remember the account of the Heaven's Gate cult of but a few years ago. The members of the cult members committed suicide in the belief that after death they would be re-united in a space-ship waiting for them in outerspace.)

A more ambiguous, but highly evocative association with technology came to Jung in the form of a youthful fantasy. In later years, he was able to recall it vividly, as he did in a letter to Aniela Jaffé (22 December 1942, Letters, V. 1, pp 325-326) and again in Memories, Dreams, Reflections. (80 ff ).

Aniela Jaffé had written to Jung about her dream of a copper pot which had been hung from a ceiling. Electrical wires which came from all directions made it vibrate but eventually the wires disappeared and the pot vibrated from "atmospheric electric oscillations." Jung found the dream was remarkably similar to what he referred to as "my first systematic fantasy" (at the age of about 15 or 16) which for weeks occupied him while on his long and boring walk to school. Some fifteen years later in Memories, Dreams, Reflections Jung related the daydream again, but in greater detail. He was, he remembered, king of an island in a great lake. On the island was a mountain with a small, medieval town at the bottom. He lived on the top of the mountain in a watchtower which was fortified with weapons and heavy cannon. In it there was a fine library "where you could find everything worth knowing." Below in the town there lived a few hundred inhabitants. Although there was a mayor and a council of elders, he held the post of justice of the peace and advisor but held court only occasionally.

The ego-centered imagery of this young "master of the universe," ruling wisely but alone from his mountain top tower, conveys a sense of order, rationality and benign power. His island is well defended against enemies, the affairs of his citizens are kept well in hand by his delegates. Everything is nicely under control leaving him free to explore the treasures of the library. But in the heart of his tower, this young ruler discovered a strange secret, which came to him, Jung tells us, as a shock.

The tower harbored a hidden "nerve center" which Jung first describes as a thick cable of twisted copper wire serving as a conduit for a flow of energy taken from the air. Initially its form reminds him of a tree with its branches resembling a sort of crown. But then he changes his mind and says, no, it is more like an inverted tree with its roots thrust into the air. Although Jung does not say so directly, the cable is an image of "the world-tree" reaching from heaven to earth, found in many mythologies and prominently in alchemy. Jung calls the cable vaguely and somewhat ominously, an "inconceivable something." An unknown, "mysterious substance," drawn from the air, is sucked down to the cellar and into a laboratory where he transforms it into gold, specifically gold coins. "This was really an arcanum" he remembered, "of whose nature I neither had nor wished to form any conception."

Jung recalled that he consciously refrained from figuring out how this transformation took place. It was as if "there was a kind of inner prohibition: one was not supposed to look into it too closely, nor ask what kind of substance was extracted from the air." He felt at the time that a very important secret of nature had been given to him and one which he had to keep not only from the council of elders, but also from himself.

Jung responded to Jaffé that her dream of an electrical circuit was an important symbol of the self. He must have had in mind his own fantasy as well. "Through the self," he wrote to her,

we are plunged into the torrent of cosmic events. Everything essential happens in the self and the ego functions as a receiver, spectator, and transmitter. What is so peculiar is the symbolization of the self as an apparatus. A 'machine' is always something thought up, deliberately put together for a definite purpose. Who has invented this machine? (Cf. the symbol of the 'world clock!') The Tantrists say that things represent the distinctness of God's thoughts. The machine is a microcosm, what Paracelsus called 'the star in man.' I always have the feeling that these symbols touch on the great secrets, the magnalia Dei.

This daydream of the fifteen-year-old Jung foreshadows the adult Jung's fascination with alchemy. We know from Memories Dreams, Reflections that the imaginings of his youth carried profound meaning for him that influenced him throughout his lifetime. But what more can we draw from this brief passage? His remarks to Jaffé very likely had a source in two of Jung's studies he had been recently working on. His lectures on Paracelsus were published in 1942, the same year as his reply to Jaffé. Earlier in 1938 he had published his commentary on "The Visions of Zosimos,"an important third century alchemist. The imagery of the fantasy-the copper cable, the world-tree, the transformation into gold-can be found in both studies along with Jung's interpretation of their symbolic meaning. It is reasonable to presume that when he wrote to Jaffé he was still very much immersed in their revelations. What intrigues Jung is something new-the association of the self with technological apparatus.

The self as tool, as machine

When Jung speaks of the self functioning as receiver, spectator, and transmitter," he is imagining it as a kind of instrument. That which exists outside the self-a thing-is received by the self, is observed by it, and is communicated further by that self. The self acts as a funnel for the psychic energy which is contained in the object. Here the role of the self seems passive, serving as a "spectator," somewhat analogous to a camera or television. What is communicated in turn to the cosmos, however, bears the imprint of the self through which it has been conducted. But the self is more than passive receptor mirroring, or imaging what it has received.

In the fantasy, the flow of energy ends in a laboratory hidden in the cellar. Jung refers to the laboratory itself as an elaborate machine. How strange, Jung writes to Jaffé, that the self should be symbolized in this way-as a "machine," an "apparatus," in a word, as a piece of technology. After all, a tool is something made by us, and for our purpose. The self it seems is not only a receptor, but an agent as well, or in alchemical terms, the artifex. It is the "self" who achieves the transformation of the energy into gold. Jung's wonder at this mysterious apparatus, reminds him of Paracelsus's idea concerning the "star in man" and therein he finds a possible explanation of its meaning.

The star in man

In keeping with the traditional alchemist notion of the macro-microcosm, Paracelsus believed that the human being is a small cosmos, and that what governs the great cosmos is identical with what governs the little cosmos of man.

[Man] can be understood only as an image of the macrocosm, of the Great Creature. Only then does it become manifest what is in him. For what is outside is also inside; and what is not outside man is not inside. The outer and the inner are one thing, one constellation, one influence, one concordance, one duration, one fruit. (From Paracelsus, Selected Writings, ed. Jolande Jacobi, trans. Norbert Guterman.New York: pantheon, 1951, p. 21.)

{Man} carries the stars within himself, . . . he is the microcosm, and thus carries in him the whole firmament with all its influences. (p. 154.)

[T]here is nothing in heaven or in earth that is not also in man. . . .In him is God who is also in Heaven; and all the forces of Heaven operate likewise in man. Where else can Heaven be rediscovered if not in man? Since it acts from us, it must also be in us. (p. 45.)

That which Paracelsus called the "Light of Nature," the "star in man" is also known as the filius philosophorum. In commenting on Paracelsus and the "star in man," Jung notes that this "natural light of man," this "filius philosophorum" "was extracted from matter by human art and, by means of the opus made into a new-light bringer." In the case of Christ's incarnation, the miracle of man's salvation is accomplished by God; in the latter, the salvation or transfiguration of the universe is brought about by the mind of man. Man, as it were, "takes the place of the Creator." In judging the outcome of this notion of the alchemists, Jung recognizes its contribution to the inevitable dominance of science and technology.

Medieval alchemy prepared the way for the greatest intervention in the divine world order that man has ever attempted: alchemy was the dawn of the scientific age, when the daemon of the scientific spirit compelled the forces of nature to serve man to an extent that had never been known before. It was from the spirit of alchemy that Goethe wrought the figure of the "superman" Faust, and this superman led Nietszsche's Zarathrustra to declare that God was dead and to proclaim the will to give birth to the superman, to "create a god for yourself out of your seven devils." Here we find the true roots, the preparatory processes deep in the psyche, which unleased the forces at work in the world today. Science and technology have indeed conquered the world, but whether the psyche has gained anything is another matter.(CW 13, para 163).

This statement is consistent with Jung's opinion, mentioned earlier, about the danger of technology as the result of the manipulation of nature. The alchemists made a distinction between God who became Man in Christ, the light of the world and the filius philosophorum, "the light of nature,"who was "extracted from matter by human art and, by means of the opus, made into a new light-bringer."( CW 13, para. 163.) In the case of the former man's situation is "I under God." With the other, it is "God under me." Jung excuses the alchemists as being naive and not aware of what they were doing. Nevertheless the splitting off of divine from human power had been irrevocably accomplished. From now on, human beings will think and act if they were God. Nature is subordinated too, becoming primarily a tool to fulfill our needs and desires.

In an excursus on alchemy in The Soul's Logical Life, Wolfgang Giegerich adds to Jung's insight into the profound and permanent transition initiated by the alchemists in humankind's relation to both nature and the divine. The ancient power of myth, Giegerich states, in which knowledge is reserved to the Gods alone is subverted with the advent of alchemy. No longer is knowledge something which is received, but rather as something to be acquired through experiment and invention. Under the sway of the Gods, man can only attempt to decipher that which has been given to him. The alchemist, on the other hand, "acts on his own resonsibility." "He is no longer in the status of passive recipient, as man had been on the mythological stage of the soul's development." (136 ff.) From this change in man's attitude towards God and nature, science and technology evolve.

What is inside is outside and what is outside is inside

It is significant, that in his letter to Jaffé Jung makes no judgment about the meaning of the fantasy and does not try to draw any conclusions from it. Instead he leaves open what this "star in man," might mean. What does it signify that we are "plunged into the torrent of cosmic events?" Echoing Paracelsus, he had said elsewhere that there is nothing outside, which is not also inside. Or conversely, nothing inside which is not outside. He writes wonderingly that he "always has the feeling that these symbols touch on the great secrets, the magnalia Dei."

Jung thought of the machine as a symbol of the self. This machine, in Jung's fantasy, transforms energy into gold. In his commentaries on Zosimos, Jung had observed: "It is in truth the inner man. . . who passes through the stages that transform the copper into silver and the silver into gold, and who thus undergoes a gradual enhancement of value." He admitted that the modern individual would find it very odd that metals could be symbols for spiritual growth. But he claimed this was an old tradition and was not unique to the alchemists. He cites a dream of Zarathustra in which he saw a tree with branches of gold, silver, steel and mixed iron. This tree, according to Jung, "corresponds to the metallic tree of alchemy, the arbor philosphica, which, if it has any meaning at all, symbolizes spiritual growth and the highest illumination." This is the same as the "world-tree" which his copper cable resembled (CW 13, para. 288). What is strange, of course, is that metal appears cold and without life and therefore the opposite of spirit. But if the spirit itself seems leaden perhaps one ought to seek that metal out because there may be hidden in it "either a deadly demon or the dove of the Holy Ghost."

In that same passage referring to the arbor philosophica, Jung wonders if the greed for precious metals was not nature's way "to prod man's consciousness towards greater expansion and greater clarity." (CW 13, paras. 118, 119). This is an unexpected remark especially given Jung's usual pessimistic attitude towards human intentions and behavior. It is reminiscent of Wolfgang Giegerich's controversial assertion that the magnum opus of our time is the "bottom line," the making of money. If we concede (many do not) that this is indeed the magnum opus of our time, we are still inclined to see it as more as an evil than as a good, despite the good that money also can do. The magnum opus was never sought in moral terms of good and evil. This question that Jung throws in somewhat offhandedly, is worth pondering. One may not want to honor human greed for money symbolized by "precious metals" as the magnum opus, but few can doubt that it is an overwhelmingly dominant force in our market driven, global culture. Is it possible to imagine that in the relentless pursuit of profit we will come to "a greater expansion and greater clarity?" Towards what and of what? we may well ask.

Technology tends to be split off from us; it exists "out there, " useful to us, but separate and distinct from us. It is surely not us, we believe. We depend on it, it is true. Life, despite the protestations of the modern day Luddites, would be inconceivable without it. At the same time we are suspicious and fearful of its seemingly autonomous, self-generating power. Jung returned repeatedly to Paracelsus's refrain, that what is inside is also outside but conversely what is outside is also inside. Are technology, as the art of making, crafting (in the original meaning of the word techne) and the end product of that making , in fact, external to us? Are they purely instrumental and merely subject to our purposes or intentions? Could it be that technology, this "machine," this "apparatus" is more than a symbol of the self, but actually partakes of the self in some integral way, could be a certain manifestation of the self? "Who,"asked Jung, "has invented this machine?" After all, this machine has been "thought up" and created by man. It was "inside" him in some sense before it was produced, that is, also found on the "outside." This suggests that there may well be a more intimate relationship between the individual and technology than has been so far acknowledged.

Jung's thinking on technology is not explicit nor developed, but, as is so often the case with Jung, seminal, richly evocative. Alchemy is arcane, but technology today is just as arcane even to the adepts of technology, never mind the rest of us. With Jung, not as a guide exactly, but as a kind of prod, the "star in man" of the former may cast its light on the latter.

© Dolores E. Brien 1999

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