Does Carl Jung Still Matter?

Illustration for article titled Does Carl Jung Still Matter?

The upcoming publication of Carl Jung's Red Book — a record of his fantasies and hallucinations during a sort of breakdown — has excited Jungians the world over. But is Jung still relevant today?

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According to a New York Times Magazine article by Sara Corbett, the psychoanalyst Jung "got lost in the soup of his own psyche" when he was 38. He said he was "menaced by a psychosis" and that visions were coming at him in an "incessant stream." "In order to grasp the fantasies which were stirring in me ‘underground,'" he wrote, "I knew that I had to let myself plummet down into them." His method of "plummeting" was to write these fantasies down in what is now called his Red Book, a volume full of cramped text and intricate paintings that his family has guarded closely until recently. Now it has been translated into English, and will be published in October.

For Jungians, says translator Sonu Shamdasani, the publication will be a huge milestone. But, Corbett asks, "What about the rest of us?" It's a good question. Corbett notes that Jung has come under fire for anti-Semitic and paternalistic ideas, and his brand of analysis — which takes about five years and focuses on "self-discovery and wholeness" rather than diagnosis and treatment — isn't exactly in vogue in the HMO age. Some people champion analysis as an antidote to supposedly cold, results-based treatments like SSRIs and cognitive behavioral therapy (Lisa Appignanesi, author of Mad, Bad, & Sad, appears to be a qualified supporter of analysis). But analyst Stephen Martin likens Jungianism to a religion, and it can seem like a pretty hierarchical one, in which you bring your psyche to an analyst and he tells you how to interpret it.

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I once had a therapist who followed Jungian principles, and while I learned some interesting things from him, I definitely felt like he was telling me what to think about my brain. I got more and more weirded out by the secret violent impulses he claimed I had, and by his focus on my dreams — a big part of Jungianism. The last straw was when he told me not to tell anyone else about any dreams before I told him. I went back to cognitive-behavioral therapy, where at least I felt like I was in charge.

But there's more to Jung than what I experienced. Corbett writes,

The central premise of [the Red Book] was that Jung had become disillusioned with scientific rationalism - what he called "the spirit of the times" - and over the course of many quixotic encounters with his own soul and with other inner figures, he comes to know and appreciate "the spirit of the depths," a field that makes room for magic, coincidence and the mythological metaphors delivered by dreams.

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It's true that cognitive therapy, with its emphasis on homework and tasks, can sometimes seem to deny the complexities of the brain. And sometimes distorted "cognitions" can be valuable in ways that a traditional therapeutic setting doesn't really allow for. I still haven't found a way to reconcile the fact that contemporary psychotherapy helps me and so many other people with the fact that it sometimes seems to oversimplify human life, to divide everything into healthy and unhealthy and banish certain interesting, if painful, thoughts. I'm not sure what "making room for magic, coincidence and the mythological metaphors delivered by dreams" would look like, and frankly I tend to regard dream analysis — especially when it claims to tap into a "collective unconscious" — as bullshit. But I do think that knowing and appreciating your personal "depths," even if they are unhealthy, might be better than denying them. In the Red Book, says Shamdasani, "The basic message he's sending is ‘Value your inner life.'" It's a simple message, but one that might do a lot of good.

The Holy Grail Of The Unconscious [NYT]

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DISCUSSION

In most psychoanalytic/psychodynamic training programs, Jung doesn't get mentioned much - he's considered to be more of a pop culture guy, and his social views didn't help him much. I have patients with whom I do CBT, and I also do psychodynamic psychotherapy. You can get a good sense of who would benefit from what by discussing their goals, struggles and interests. Someone who gets really caught in negative self-talk and is suffering from social anxiety may do great in CBT, whereas someone who gets depressed episodically and can't figure out where these negative emotions are coming from may prefer psychodynamic work.

I prefer psychodynamic work because it's awesome to see people get in touch with their anger, insecurity and fear, and see them learn how to reflect on their emotions and identity without getting caught in an emotional storm. Studies show that the number one factor in whether someone will benefit from therapy is their relationship with their therapist, rather than the modality.

Modern psychodynamics can be really flexible and inclusive. I like Jung's idea about the shadow, for example: the idea that things we judge in other people are emotions we feel as well but supress because they're intolerable, and the more you can't see it in yourself, the more judgmental and angry you are at the world. That's awesome!

/I'm a huge nerd