Open Book

Was Jung a Jungian?

A new biography takes the measure of the man

Deirdre Bair
Magazine Issue
September/October 2004
Was Jung a Jungian?


Was Jung a Jungian?

A new biography takes the measure of the man

By Richard Handler

Jung: A Biography By Deirdre Bair

Little, Brown. 881 pp. ISBN:0-316-07665-1

I have a friend, a cheerful but serious guy, who”s in Jungian therapy–in this results-oriented, high-speed culture, a treatment that might be considered more meandering and ethereal than most. He doesn”t seem to be especially troubled by anything, so one day I asked him, “What do you do there?” “We talk about my dreams,” he answered. “But why go there just to do that?” I pressed. “Because I want know where I stand in a Larger Story.” Needless to say, this isn”t an answer I”d get from somebody visiting their managed care-assigned shrink.

Along with Freud, Carl Jung is one of the two iconic figures in the field of depth psychology. He gave us the terms introvert and extrovert. He argued that we all possess male and female aspects, as well as an unacknowledged, forbidding region, called the Shadow. While Freud”s patients lay down on a couch, the old master uttering a few words of interpretation now and then, Jung talked to his patients, consoling them, taking their ideas seriously as they sat across a table. He was less interested in what stage of childhood they were stuck in than in how their spiritual journeys were evolving. If Freud believed that ego should replace the instinctive and impulsive id (making us all mature but rather dour folk, like the master himself), Jung believed that “individuation”–a marriage of the conscious and the unconscious parts of our being that reconciles our opposite character traits–was the highest goal.

Jung insisted that individual character flowed from an ancient pool of myth–archetypes, humanity”s age-old symbols that swim in the collective unconscious. He thought that people, in the second half of their lives, were concerned with questions of meaning–essentially religious questions. Without Jung, there would have been no Joseph Campbell or legions of myth-minded, spiritual authors and their readers–for many, Jung is the father of The New Age.

Deirdre Bair”s biography of Jung weighs in at 640 densely clotted pages (with 200 pages of notes). It”s a huge undertaking to write and a huge undertaking to read. There”s more here than anyone would reasonably want to know about the details of Jung”s daily life–the meetings, schedules, professional quarrels. But for those looking for the clues to what made Jung the genius many consider him to be, this obsessively, extravagantly detailed account of his life provides tidbits and anecdotes galore.

Details of a Life

Jung was born in 1875 in Switzerland; he died in 1961 at the age of 86. His father was a poor country parson from a distinguished family. His mother was a troubled woman who believed in ghosts and spirits and had periodic breakdowns. As a young boy, Carl read philosophy, theology, and mythology. He loved the legends of the Holy Grail. His dissertation in university was on the occult–an interest he”d maintain all his life.

It”s not that Jung believed in ghosts and little green men; he thought supernatural states were a manifestation of deep, psychological states of mind. Even his later obsession with alchemy, the medieval pseudoscience of turning lead into gold, was, for him, a metaphor for human transformation. As a young medical student, Jung chose psychiatry because of his interest in religion, and because he hated the sight of blood–psychiatry being one of the few medical specialties where doctors can avoid it.

Jung leapfrogged into Swiss society by marrying the heir to one of the biggest industrial fortunes in the country. His ferocious intensity could send psychic shock waves through his house, causing furniture to crack and plates to be broken seemingly without touching them. (Bair quotes one colleague who called Jung a shaman, and half mad.) He wrote his books in a white heat, as if to dispel ghosts. Small wonder that, in his middle years, he built a medieval tower where he could work–away from the crush of people who demanded a piece of him.

With his vitality, booming manner, and appetite for work, Jung spread himself thin–analyzing patients, making clinical rounds, writing, and teaching at the university. Early on, he became perhaps the first therapist-as-rock-star; groupies, mostly women, began attending his lectures and competing for his attention. As his fame spread, rich women, and some very rich men, especially Americans, went to Zurich to be analyzed by him. Jung was clearly a guru as a much as a psychiatrist.

His wife, Emma, was no wallflower either. She had a good dose of stiff Swiss character, and was very intelligent (she later became an author and an analyst herself). She realized from the beginning that she”d have to share her husband, which made her deeply unhappy, and Bair reports she almost divorced Jung three times. But Swiss society was stern and patriarchal, and she idolized her husband, as did plenty of other women.

When Emma was young and unhappy, Jung analyzed her–it was one way of getting his attention. Today that would be considered clearly unprofessional, but then therapeutic boundaries were looser. Jung socialized with many of his patients, and Bair even suggests he slept with some. Whether he did or not, there”s no doubt that Jung was a trial to live with. He installed his mistress and colleague, Toni Wolff, in his household (although she maintained an apartment elsewhere), in spite of the fact that his children hated and made fun of her. Emma was jealous, not, says Bair, primarily for sexual reasons, but because Toni was the intellectual companion Emma longed to be. In fact Toni was Jung”s analyst, and, for years, his “other wife.”

Jung wasn”t much of a father in the classic, American, good-dad sense. Like many a stern European, he didn”t seem much interested in his children. His life was filled with people, so at dinner he demanded silence from his five kids. Still, he loved to sail and camp. At these times, writes Bair, his children were “allowed to behave as they wanted, the louder the better.” Jung could be a rambunctious companion; he had no trouble joining his children, and later their children, as they all tried to light farts around the campfire (this isn”t something you could picture Freud doing).

Jung and Freud

Bair devotes a good deal of time to the volcanic Jung-Freud relationship–it”s the hinge on which Jung”s life story swings. Freud was almost 20 years older and already quite well known when they became aware of each other. Jung had established a small international reputation for his work in the word-association test, a personality profile that tapped into hidden “complexes” (as Jung called them). When they finally met in 1907, in Vienna, they talked nonstop for 13 hours. And so began their relationship–as complicated, ambivalent, and tormented as any in the history of Western thought.

Freud needed Jung. He didn”t want his psychoanalysis to become a “Jewish national affair” and had been looking for a gentile champion. So Jung became the “crown prince” of the movement from the day they met. But right from the beginning, they had their differences. Jung disagreed with Freud”s emphasis on sexuality, and Freud hated Jung”s mysticism. For Freud, religion was an “illusion,” a neurotic notion that needed to be debunked, in writing and on the couch. God was a mighty, castrating sky father, and a mystic feeling was an infantile hangover from the all-embracing safety of the womb. For Jung, rather than just a stew of pathology, the unconscious was a sea of meaning, filled with resonant symbols that cut across cultures and historical eras. Still, though a break seemed inevitable, they both avoided it for years. The result was an intricate oedipal dance.

In each other”s company, Freud and Jung suffered from a host of psychosomatic symptoms. Gastric distress plagued both of them when they travelled together to conferences; there are passages of this book that can only be read with a bottle of Maalox handy. The tension was so exquisite that Freud sometimes fainted dead away in Jung”s company; clearly, they could have used some couples therapy. The discrete Bair writes that in the midst of one disagreement, Freud “urinated in his trousers.” (Freud had a history of wetting himself in tense situations.) The best you can say about it was that both men practiced what they preached: in their voluminous, mutual correspondence, they endlessly analyzed themselves and each other. But this analytic truth-telling didn”t stop the back-biting and the growing suspicion between the two men and their camps. Reading Bair, you get the sense that great men are no better than the rest of us, just more supremely petty. And after they finally made the break in 1914, they both took their unresolved, painful, oedipal fantasies about each other to the grave.

Nazi Sympathizer?

In recent years Jung”s critics have zeroed in on his supposed Nazi and master-race sympathies. (Richard Noll”s 1997 biography is called, The Aryan Christ: The Secret Life of Carl Jung.) Bair ploughs through the evidence with her usual, compulsive diligence. And she draws a fascinating, complicated picture.

She finds that Jung was no Nazi and, on balance, no anti-Semite. But he was naive and, yes, at times, he did make some spurious, damaging, and damning statements. The Jewish problem was a “festering wound” and “Jews were not so innocent after all,” and the “role played by intellectual Jews in pre-war Germany would be an interesting object of investigation.” These last two statements he made even after the war had ended. Certainly, his decades-long fight against his Freudian critics inflamed his passions: he attacked Freudianism as a “simplistic Jewish doctrine.” That suited the Nazis because they wanted to destroy psychoanalysis, “the Jewish science,” and in the thirties, purge Jewish analysts from European organizations. Here they thought they could use Jung.

Jung did believe in racial and tribal characteristics; they were part of his mythic manner of thinking. That got him in trouble when he talked about Jews, but he also used dramatic imagery to skewer the Nazis, whom he hated. He believed that Germany, “the blond beast,” was possessed, a place where “archetypes went walking down the street.” He called Hitler “Wotan,” the German god of war. Even when the Swiss were afraid the Germans would invade Switzerland, Jung continued to denounce the Nazis and their sympathizers in the Swiss government (though it didn”t stop Nazi-lovers from crowding his own circle). But Bair finds that Jung did try to protect Jews and didn”t charge Jewish refugees who became his patients.

In one of her few negative judgments, Bair calls Jung “politically obtuse.”

Here”s where the great man, with his ego, his bluster, and large, admiring circle, may have been the fool. In his arrogance, Jung thought he could outsmart the Nazis after they purged Jews from one psychoanalytic organization he headed. He even gloried in his small bureaucratic triumphs. But the Nazis, blond, beastly, and Shadow-like, beat him. And Jung had to resign. The Nazis, unlike his patients, weren”t interested in individuation, only in power.

Walking the Walk?

Perhaps he thought that the power of his genius could trump the vindictive nastiness of the Nazis. So here we come to the question of genius: a term we reserve for a very rare, special breed of person. Biographies of great figures flirt with the idea of genius all the time, often without defining it. Whether or not you agree with Freud, he was a totemic figure, a genius. Evidence of his legacy is everywhere you turn, in our imagination and the wider world. And there”s no doubt the milder, sweeter Einstein was also a genius. His physics gave us the now-terrifying nuclear age. But was Jung a genius?

Bair never uses that term. And because she”s largely indifferent to his ideas, we get no sense from her of the significance of his work (beyond the infighting) and how it spread into the culture at large. But, with her overwhelming detail, Bair makes it clear Jung possessed certain attributes of genius: a daunting intelligence, an overarching ambition, immense energy, and a huge appetite for hard work (with an oversized ego to match). But genius isn”t just talent and audacious ambition: it requires real vision and lasting influence. And here Bair can”t or won”t judge.

But the one question Bair does help us with is the measure of his life. Great therapeutic figures, like politicians today, are judged on whether they embody what they preach. Was Jung a Jungian? Did Jung walk the talk? Did he live an authentic life? Or to use Jung”s own term, did he achieve “individuation”–that balancing of conscious and unconscious opposites?

Many of us have opposite impulses inside us, but don”t get the balance right, or never feel particularly reconciled. Bair suggests that wasn”t the case with Jung. Revered sage and political schemer, rational scientist and medieval mystic, proper bourgeois and peasant boor, sullen introvert and booming extrovert: in a lesser man, such opposites would open him up to the charge of confusion, or hypocrisy. But Jung lived out his polarities fully and well. Whatever its shortcomings as a chronicle of Jung”s ideas, Bair”s detailed portrait succeeds in showing us a man who, in Walt Whitman”s famous phrase, contained multitudes.

Richard Handler is a radio producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, Canada. E-mails to the author may be sent to Letters to the Editor about this article may be e-mailed to