Though I’ve been reading C. G. Jung all my life, and though I’m still learning from him today, I find many of his ‘Jungian’ followers offensive and, more importantly, often wrong.
In the early ’90s I took a university course called Archetype, Symbol and Myth, which was supposed to be an exploration of world literature from a Jungian perspective.
I wasn’t surprised to find the room full of these modern Jungians. Most of them young, they trooped in with their copies of Jung’s Man and His Symbols in hand, a book that is a kind of bible for them.
The trouble started with a discussion of the word ‘numinous’.
Dictionaries aren’t much help with this word, for they just say it refers to religiousness, to spirituality, to the sense of a presence of a divinity, to the supernatural, to ‘awe-provokingness’, or just to being mysterious. They dance all around it, unsure what it is.
Jung saw it as more than that. Unfortunately, he used numinous a lot in his writing, but he didn’t define it in any book I’ve read. He wrote in German, but in German the word is the same. Numinous in German means numinous in English.
But from my over-all reading of Jung, it was already clear to me what numinous meant to him – something is numinous if looking at it, or listening to it (a piece of music), or even reading it (a key line in a poem maybe), generates strong positive emotion in you. If a house you grew up in, a tree you played under when you were a child, or a favorite toy or pet, generates a strong emotional response, then those things are numinous. If a photo of someone you once loved but is gone does it, then that photo is numinous. It doesn’t have to affect the next person, to be numinous to you.
What about the opposite? When something generates fear, or loathing, or nausea, is that numinosity? I don’t know. I’ve read at least ¾ of what Jung wrote, and I don’t recall him ever addressing that. But fear can accompany a sense of mystery (like the fear of God), so I think he would have included it in numinosity.
Well, back to this university classroom. A debate started when a young woman who I knew to be a perceptive reader of fiction and knowledgeable about the visual arts, proposed that a Robert Bateman painting could be numinous. Bateman, for anyone who doesn’t know, is Canada’s most famous wildlife painter – in most paintings you see an individual animal in a wild setting – a bull moose stepping along the shore of a lake, a butterfly on a flower, an eagle on the wing, etc.
No! No! No!, came the refrain from all sides. Bateman was a realist painter, so his paintings could never be numinous. This woman was obviously taken aback by the number of her opponents, which appeared to include the professor.
Because I’d already thought a lot about numinosity, I stepped in on her behalf and said I had no trouble imagining many Robert Bateman paintings to be numinous and I began to explain why.
Before I could finish, the Jungian storm burst upon me, all these experts trying to speak at once, vying with each other for the right to put me down. It ended when a young blonde, who sat directly on my left, thrust her copy of Man and His Symbols in my face, open at the page with the Peter Birkhauser painting of a mysterious four-eyed spirit looking threateningly out of darkness and smoke.
“That,” she said emphatically, “is numinous”.
Everyone seconded this. Even the professor nodded her head in agreement.
The next morning I went to the school’s administration office and withdrew from that course. These ‘Jungians’ and I lived in two different worlds, and I had no desire to spend any more time in theirs.
Jung himself said many times that the last thing he wanted was to create an army of Jungian followers. He wanted people who could think for themselves. Unfortunately, he got the army too.
But my message here? Simply that if these Jungian know-it-alls put you off too, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read Jung. He has a lot to offer you.
PS – If you find this interesting, there is a very entertaining discussion of ‘Jungians’ in the book Lament of the Dead – Psychology after Jung’s Redbook, a series of conversations between psychologist James Hillman and psychology historian Sonu Shamdasani. During his life, Jung distilled from his journals and paintings The Redbook, a work that he didn’t publish during his lifetime, but insisted that he wanted published after his death (1961). But it wasn’t published until 2012 due to opposition from his family and the Jungian therapeutic/philosophical community. Shamdasani, fighting the Jungian establishment, persuaded the family to allow it to be published, and he assisted in the translation from German. Hillman, who was once a director at the C. G. Jung Institute in Zurich and was driven out of that position, and out of Switzerland, by Jungian members of the institute, fought them intellectually to the end of his life. I’ve wanted to do a post on Lament of the Dead for some time, but it’s simply too explosive with ideas to get a handle on it, especially Jung’s idea that modern civilization has forgotten how to listen to the dead, who still speak to us.