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A Review of Deirdre Bair’s “Jung: A Biography”

The New York Times Book Review, January 11, 2003

Jung book coverCARL JUNG’S relationship with Sigmund Freud was probably doomed from the start. They met in Vienna on March 3, 1907, after having corresponded for a year. Freud sought a gentile to champion his “Jewish science.” Jung yearned for an influential father figure; Freud anointed Jung “his scientific ‘son and heir.’ ” In 1910, according to Jung’s “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” Freud made a request: “Promise me never to abandon the sexual theory. . . . We must make a dogma of it, an unshakable bulwark.” Against what, asked Jung. “Against the black tide of mud . . . of occultism.”

What did Jung’s face look like at that moment? After all, not only did Jung have growing misgivings about Freud’s theories of sexual repression, his past was a veritable cornucopia of occultism: as a child, he participated in family séances run by his cousin; his mother, a delusional hysteric with a split personality, believed their house was haunted by ghosts; and Jung’s dissertation (“On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena”) was sympathetic to the paranormal. By 1913, the Freud-Jung friendship was over. “The rest is silence,” Jung wrote.

Freud and Jung represent the twin therapeutic impulses of the modern age: neurotic self-scrutiny versus New Age spiritual redemption. Freud, the essential Enlightenment figure, meant for psychoanalysis to free man from the elements (the unconscious, superstition) that deprived him of autonomy. Jung, the German Romantic, for whom individuation meant returning to the archaic and the mystical, complained that Freud’s biological theories excluded the very Dionysian, polygamous spirituality essential to the fully realized life. Freud wrote about sex; Jung had it.

While writing her comprehensive biography, “Jung,” Deirdre Bair discovered that the battles between Freudians and Jungians are as nothing compared with the internecine war raging in the Jung world: “In a field whose history is inflamed by the quasi-religious status of its pioneers, partisans have been vocal. . . . Anyone who undertakes to write about him is confronted by the many charges against him.” Much ink has been spilled over Jung since his death in 1961; in “The Jung Cult” and “The Aryan Christ,” for instance, Richard Noll characterized Jung as an ambitious charlatan who lifted his central insights from other scholars. For its part, the Jung family has maintained an iron grip on his archives, refusing access to many of his writings, and even those by long-deceased colleagues. Bair, the author of biographies of Samuel Beckett, Anaïs Nin and Simone de Beauvoir, circumnavigated most of the family’s restrictions, noting only that she couldn’t use any document “unless a member of the family has read it first,” and that she had to know in advance which files she wanted to see, “because even the card catalog was tightly restricted.”

What is the Jung family so determined to hide? Jung’s parents, Paul Jung, a minister, and Emilie Preiswerk, were poor and unhappily married. Both were the 13th child in their families, which was regarded as a good sign. Jung’s father eventually became the pastor in a mental hospital. Carl, the first of their children to live past infancy, born on July 26, 1875, in the small town of Kesswil, Switzerland, was an introverted, solitary boy who, in keeping with family tradition, had dual personalities (“a clumsy, awkward, mathematical dunce of a boy living in real time at the end of the 19th century” and “an old man living in the 18th century who dressed in high-buckled shoes, wore a powdered wig and drove a fine carriage”) and mystical visions, including one of God dropping excrement on a cathedral.

Jung studied medicine at the University of Basel, incorporating a multitude of other fields — mythology, anthropology, comparative religion — into his work. He became a psychiatrist and worked at the prestigious Burgholzli Mental Hospital, where he developed a series of language association experiments that brought him fame throughout Europe and America. When nearly 28, he married Emma Rauschenbach, the second-richest heiress in Switzerland. Economic independence liberated Jung intellectually, encouraging him to test the boundaries of early-20th-century European psychiatry and to expound on the consciousness not only of individuals but of civilization itself.

Jung came to believe that the key to decoding the conditions of neurosis lay within the history of civilization and mythology. Sexual repression and family issues were of secondary importance to him; “Don’t waste your time,” Jung tells a patient who has the gall to mention her mother. With his eye on history, he developed the concepts — archetypes, New Age, collective unconscious, synchronicity, anima, the two dimensions of personality (extroverted, introverted), man’s four basic functions (thinking, feeling, sensation and intuition) – that made him famous.

Bair is less interested in the content of Jung’s ideas than in his life, which is just as well. Many of Jung’s intellectual passions — alchemy, phrenology, astrology, U.F.O.’s — are as woolly and suspect as his life story is vivid and dramatic. From 1914 on, he maintained a public “unorthodox emotional triangle” with his wife and a former patient, Toni Wolff, whom he called his “other wife.” He treated writers like Thornton Wilder and Hermann Hesse, and was acquainted with James Joyce, whose schizophrenic daughter he saw. Bair has unearthed fascinating new material about Jung’s role as “Agent 488,” briefing the Office of Strategic Services’ spy-recruiter Allen W. Dulles on the psychology of Nazi leaders. Back in Washington, Jung’s comments “figured importantly in the agency’s operational policies.” In 1945, Jung’s ideas for persuading the German public to accept defeat were read by the supreme allied commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Bair’s stated goal is to rise above the fray and answer the questions most often posed about Jung: Was he an anti-Semite? Was he a womanizer? Was his psychological theory a form of religion? She largely succeeds. Painstakingly fair, she digs up and scrutinizes sources with an admirable, if sometimes exhausting, thoroughness.

In a particularly perceptive chapter, “Falling Afoul of History,” Bair explores Jung’s conduct during World War II, which he spent in neutral Switzerland. Even as Jewish psychoanalysts were being purged in 1933, Jung accepted the presidency of the International General Medical Society for Psychotherapy, which meant working with Matthias Heinrich Göring, Hermann’s cousin. Jung vowed to resign on three occasions, and was finally kicked upstairs to a figurehead position of “honorary president,” which he held until 1940. Bair makes a convincing case that Jung was neither personally anti-Semitic nor politically astute. Rather, he played all sides: letting himself be used by the Nazis to legitimate their racial theories, belittling Freud (“insofar as his theory is based in certain respects on Jewish premises, it is not valid for non-Jews”), even as he tried to help other Jewish analysts.

Bair argues that Jung’s overriding goal was to rescue psychotherapy, to “see to it that it maintains its position inside the German Reich,” as he claimed. The sentiment shrinks in importance when one realizes just whose school of psychotherapy he was protecting. Pluralism was never Jung’s (or Freud’s) strong suit. Bair occasionally goes too far, as when she insists that the man — so canny and manipulative in every other dimension of his life — was naïve in his dealings with the Nazis. In this respect, Jung’s case resembles that of another charismatic intellectual, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who was much more of a collaborator than Jung. These ambitious men were not naïve; they were overconfident about their ability to manipulate the Nazis and were hopelessly outplayed.

Perhaps in reaction to the violence of the Jung partisans — pro and con – Bair is relentlessly judicious, often preferring to draw the reader’s attention to contradictory evidence rather than to draw conclusions. The result is a more academic book than she perhaps intended: some of these disputes, after all — Jung’s falling-outs with minor figures, the authorship of insignificant memos – could well have been relegated to end matter. As a result, the book sometimes reads more like an effort to assemble a puzzle than to offer a cohesive narrative. Still, Bair has presented a balanced, full-blooded portrait of a tremendously flawed and divisive figure. It will be praised by scholars, read by the general public and loathed by the partisans — just as a good biography should be.