Carl Jung’s Volume 5 titled Symbols of Transformation (SoT) is one of Jung’s more difficult texts to read and understand. Many years after writing the text, Jung looked back and said:
“I have never felt happy about this book… It was written at top speed… There was no opportunity to let my thoughts mature. The whole thing came to me like a landslide that could not be stopped. The urgency that lay behind it became clear to me only later: it was an explosion of all those psychic contents which could find no room, no breathing-space, in the constricting atmosphere of Freudian psychology.” (Forward to 4th Edition of CW 5)
Here, Jung is speaking of a surge of energy that took place as he took freedom from Freud and “reductive causalism”: an “outmoded rationalism and scientific materialism of the nineteenth century” (p. xxiii, Forward to the Fourth Edition CW 5)
Jung’s act of freedom was written in a fury. He acted on a deep urge to “understand the unconscious as an objective and collective psyche.” And the result, this text, is no ordinary text. It was an explosion of creative thought, the result of which was what he called: “fragments [strung] together in an unsatisfying manner.”
This explosion of new ideas is nonetheless unified by Jung’s fidelity to truth. It is an honest struggle with the difficulty inherent in this deepest of human concerns. Jung’s heroic striving after truth is an illustration of the very principle he seeks to elucidate. And ironically, this too was Freud’s struggle: to understand “instinctual dynamism.”
Something so antithetical would be hampered by premature unification, as we will see in our reading of Jung’s text. The deep instinctual urges of which Jung speaks are complex. On the one hand they are they are mystical: a life energy which seeks love and union, both human and divine. On the other hand they become the strife, antagonism, even splitting and fragmentation within. There is no unification here, except insofar as we stay true to an entire movement.
Jung kept fidelity to Freud’s “instinctual dynamism.” He followed it to its logical conclusion; and, therefore, he had to move beyond materialism into the religious. It is with this shift that we encounter the most difficult and challenging demand of SOT: a demand to enter into the religious dimensions of psychic life.
To meet this demand, we will have to give up our sole devotion to the “reality principle.” (Freud’s guiding principle: “the ability of the mind to assess the reality of the external world, and to act upon it accordingly”). We have to risk entering into the liminal realms world of dreams, fantasy, imagination. We have to read this text with a kind of religious-analytic eye, a relational eye: seeking the deep principles and truths — the instinctual dynamism– which draws forth the development of psychic life.
A working thesis for our reading might read:
The root of the word Religion is Religio meaning to reunite, reconnect. Religious symbolism expresses relational dynamics, representing the deepest aim and instinct of the psychic life: to unite, reconnect.
Such a thesis might serve as a decent summary of what a religious analysis would most need to honor and respect. To be faithful to this– to read with an eye to and respect for the deep instincts present in our religion– may be the key that opens new, fresh interpretation of Jung’s work. That is my gambit.
Religion, in its radical relationality, is an expression of our deepest instinct for the Other. Only through a respect for the relational instinct of the psyche can we elucidate the aims and diversions of libido, in its primitive and sublimated forms.
The basic premises of a religious analysis might be that there is an instinctual dynamism, a libidinal urge, that seeks the Other. This urge weaves through all aspects of our internal and external relatedness. Relatedness, or the urge for it, underlies our everyday interactions with each Other.
Our relatedness to that which is both wholly and holy Other forms the sacred aims of psychic life. Our relatedness to each Other weaves humanity together. Our relatedness to the manifold beings of the earth comprises our world. Some have realized that there is even a relatedness within the Self: a seeking of the Self, that is the becoming of a Self within this world– of Self and Others.
Religious analysis might seek to suss out and follow the deep logic of our seeking, of our relatedness. On the one hand we are multiple, a world of Selves and Others. And on the other, there is a unity, a shared essence. These two poles of being form a cosmic psycho-dynamic, the pulsation of being and becoming.
Working with such psycho-spiritual-dynamics might lead us to an understanding of the most subtle forms of spitting and integration: we are One and many; we are capable of knowing ourselves individually and collectively; we seek an Other and in the end find that they are, in essence, so very very close to our own Self. This is the Coniunctio Oppositorium of psychic life.
If intuited and reconciled, then such oppositions and unifications become the systole and diastole of mind– expressing primal pulsation of the Self. This is is an spiritual understanding that Jung’s work almost achieved. And even if not explicit in his work, it is found in the subtle language of art, of his dreams, expressed in his vague notions of ‘Self-realization.’
One way to read Jung is to offer a religious analysis of Jung. To look upon Carl Jung, the man, as a human being dreaming forth the path toward Self-realization, showing us the relational dynamics of Self-realization. On the one hand Carl Jung is a man ‘almost Self-realized.’ On the other hand he is a psychoanalyst, a healer of the human soul. This dual perspective gives Jung a unique preview into the religious dimensions of psychic life: one that is relational, instinctual, spiritual; one that seeks unification of the opposites; one that, subtly, plays with the dynamics of subject and object, Self and Other.
But, to really read Jung, we will have to go beyond Jung. Jung either never achieved, or never spoke from the place of, full Self-realization. Everything in his work hinted at this, everything aimed toward it. It is like speaking of the sun. We can study all the aspects, and placements, and concepts, and myths of the sun. We can know so-very-much about the sun. But, can we realize the sun within our own hearts– the Sun beyond sun which lights our inner world?
It is one task to describe the sun as an object of awareness. It is another task entirely, to realize the inner Sun as the light of awareness. Jung showed us the sun that is both inner and outer. Jung showed us the path toward the inner Sun. Jung showed us that the sun is a light: a light that may guide our way, even if there is no sun at all. It is another task entirely to realize that light as the light of one’s own awareness. It is this light of awareness that I seek to know.
From a place of awareness, we may re-think the archetypes in relation to the Self. From awareness, we may re-think the instincts and libido as the energy of the Self. From awareness, we may better understand the true nature of all object relations, of all seeking, and longing, and love– as a cosmic pulsation, the cosmic play of awareness.
Carl Jung, CW 5, Symbols of Transformation (1956)– a revision of (1912) Psychology of the Unconscious.
Note: this post was updated from its original version on 11/6/2015.