Skip to content

Jungian Complexes at the Multiplex

This week, David Cronenberg’s feature-length shrink costume drama, A Dangerous Method, about the most famous – and doomed – love-affair in psychoanalysis, premières in the UK. I’m talking, of course, about the passionate, twisted, and teasingly unconsummated, romance between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

Despite very mixed reviews I’ll be going to see it when it’s put on general release as I’m a sucker for this kind of costume-drama nostalgia – and let’s face it, anything to do with psychoanalysis in the skin-deep Twenty First Century is nostalgia. Although both are good actors, the casting of Michael Fassbender as the moustachioed Jung and Viggo Mortensen as the bearded Freud seems, like some of the lush locations in the trailer, to be mostly an aesthetic rather than dramatic consideration.

Put another way, A Dangerous Method looks like Brokeback Alp. With cigars.

But this is a love-triangle, with Keira Knightly as Sabina Spielrein, an hysterical Russian patient of Jung’s that he ends up having a sexual relationship with, much to Freud’s disapproval. Spielrein, who despite (or because of) her entanglement with Jung ended up a patient and then confidante of Freud’s, was to become an analyst herself, and her work may have inspired both men – who were to end up bitter enemies.

Although it’s pretty clear that in most important things Freud was right and Jung just plain wrong, nobody is really interested in that. In fact, precisely because of the airy-fairy incoherence of his ideas, and because in his ruthless egotism he was more of the kind of person we can relate to now, Jung seems to be regarded more sympathetically these days than Freud. Jung the keen astrologer, who came up with the breathtakingly nebulous concepts of ‘racial memory’, ‘the collective unconscious’ and ‘synchronicity’ is hip. Or maybe, just a hipster.

But as an incurable Freudian myself I would say that. Here’s a partisan review I penned of a biography of Jung, The Aryan Christ: The Secret Life of Carl Gustav Jung’ by Richard Noll, back in the 20th Century – when such things seemed to matter.

Jew-Envy and Other Jungian Complexes

By Mark Simpson

(Originally appeared in Scotland on Sunday, April 1998)

On October 28, 1907, Carl Gustav Jung was in an uncharacteristically candid mood. On that day he wrote a love letter to Sigmund Freud, father of the new Psychoanalytical Movement that Jung had just joined. But this love letter, in keeping with Freud’s own theories, was a touch ambivalent: ‘My veneration for you has something of the character of a “religious crush”,’ he admitted.

‘Though it does not really bother me, I still feel it is disgusting and ridiculous because of its undeniable erotic undertone. This abominable feeling comes from the fact that as a boy I was the victim of a sexual assault of a man I once worshipped.’

It turned out just five years later that this something ‘disgusting’, ‘ridiculous’ and ‘abominable’ did bother the impeccably Aryan doctor from an impeccably pious Swiss German bourgeois family after all, and Jung split from the Jewish Darwin to found his own psychological movement.

Interestingly, the split with Freud was ostensibly over Freud’s insistence that the sexual drives were the original motor force of all human actions. Jung felt this didn’t allow for the ‘natural’ religious and spiritual inclinations of the human race. In other words, Freud refused to accept that ‘religion’ was some kind of basic drive and that a ‘religious crush’ might have ‘erotic undertones’ but wasn’t erotic in origin. In Jung’s eyes, he was once again a victim of a sexual assault from a man he once worshipped. (He even wrote later of Freud’s ‘rape of the Holy’.)

As Freud feared, Jung and his mythological mumbo-jumbo proved to be a rallying point for many who rejected the pessimistic and difficult view of the human condition that psychoanalysis put forward, preferring Jung’s romantic metaphysics of ‘the collective unconscious’ and ‘archetypes’ to serious enquiry into the nature of human desire. To this day people at parties talking about being in therapy often say, “Oh, but it’s not Freudian, of course. It’s Jungian.” As if this were something to brag about.

Richard Noll’s book The Aryan Christ: The Secret Life of Carl Gustav Jung should make them, and all the New Age Jungian groupies, think twice before using his name as a byword for artsy sophistication and rejection of authoritarianism.

For all Freud’s flaws, next to Jung he’s a blemishless as Lou Andreas-Salome’s foundation cream. If Noll’s research only claimed that Jung was a charlatan who lied about his research and took the credit for the discoveries of others – which it does – then few people would turn a hair. But his book goes much further than this. It shows how Jung set out to turn analysis into a Dionysian religion with himself as its lion-headed godhead, how he believed himself to be the Aryan Christ and how his Volkish, pagan beliefs complimented and fed into National Socialism and anti-Semitism. And how he brainwashed and domineered his mostly female patients who had a ‘religious crush’ on him (which he frequently exploited in that ‘spiritual’ way that religious cult leaders often do).

The picture that Noll – who is, it’s important to point out, is a non-Freudian psychologist – pieces together of Jung is worse than even Jung’s former Freudian colleagues suspected at the time. Jung was, by any standards, barking.

But it was Jung’s relationship with Freud that seemed to shape his madness; even his obsession with Mithraism. Just before his split with Freud, Jung wrote extensively about the tauroctony, or ritual slaying of a bull that was central image of Mithraism. Mithras is depicted as pinning down a bull and slaying it by plunging a dagger into its neck. A scorpion or lion is usually depicted attacking the bull’s testicles. Jung, naturally, was a great follower of astrology, and Freud’s star-sign was Taurus – The Bull. Even the scorpion attacking the bull’s testicles looks like Jung’s attack on Freud’s libido theory.

Freud had publically anointed Jung as his ‘son’, declared his love for him, and looked forward to him inheriting the leadership of Psychoanalytical Movement (as a handsome Aryan Christian he would bring the respectability to psychoanalysis which Freud craved, but which he knew he could never quite deliver). Hubristically, perhaps, Freud turned out to be a victim of the very Oedipus Complex he’d discovered. Jung failed to negotiate his ambivalent feelings towards Daddy Freud and ‘murdered’ him. Jung turned psychoanalysis into a religion to replace Christianity, and realised a long-held German aspiration by replacing the Jewish ‘Christ’ – Freud – with his Aryan self.

My own theory is that Freud was a victim of Jew-envy. Jung knew that Freud was a smarter, better, bigger man than him, and his ego was outraged and suffocated by this realisation. Like his brown-shirted countrymen were to do twenty years later, he resolved rid himself of the inconvenient reminder of his inferiority. Indeed, when the Nazis – strongly influenced by the same Volkish traditions as Jung – gained power in the Fatherland, it was Jung who persuaded the International Society for Psychiatry to accept the expulsion of Jews from the German Society.

Jung’s femme-fatale seduction-assassination syndrome was not only directed at Freud. As Freud put it, in a letter to Sandor Ferenczi in November 1912 about his last serious communication with Jung:

‘I spared him nothing at all, told him calmly that a friendship with him couldn’t be maintained, that he himself gave rise to the intimacy that he so cruelly broke off; that things were not at all in order in his relations with men, not just with me but with others as well. He repels them all after a while…’.

This is why Jung literally turned himself into a God – there wasn’t room for other men in his world, or, perhaps, the disgusting, ridiculous and abominable feelings they provoked in him.

But perhaps the most intriguing part of Freud’s observation was his reference to Jung’s trusted – and recently deceased – assistant:

‘His referring to his sad experience with Honegger reminded me of homosexuals or anti-Semites who become manifest after a disappointment with a woman or a Jew.’

Johann Jakob Honegger was a young assistant Jung took under his wing in 1909, telling Freud he had entrusted everything he knew to Johann. He was also to anoint him as his ‘son’ and heir in the way that Freud had done with Jung. But by 1911, when he was only 25, Honegger committed suicide with an overdose of morphine. Noll doesn’t go into the details of what prompted this – suicides are frequently acts of revenge – but he does give a startling account of how twenty years later Jung ‘murdered’ the dead man.

In 1911, the same year as his death, Honegger had discovered in a psychotic patient of his the famous ‘solar phallus’ hallucination – the basis of Jung’s theory of the ‘collective unconscious’ and notion of ‘racial memory’. But according to Noll, from 1930 onward, knowing that Honegger had been dead twenty years and had no living heirs to complain, Jung deleted Honegger from history and took the credit for the case himself.

Jung was so excited by this hallucination, in which the patient imagined that a large phallus hung from the sun moving back and forth created the wind, because it seemed remarkably similar to a ritual enacted in the pre-Christian Mithraic liturgies. But Noll shows how Jung later lied about the details of this case, claiming that the patient could have had no access to information about Mithraic rituals, in an attempt to use it to ‘prove’ the existence of the collective unconscious.

But the philosophies of East and West occult religions had anyway been disseminated for years by pamphlets and books that could be bought at newspaper kiosks. Fancy a bit of Neo-paganism? Hellenistic mystery cults? Zoroastrianism? Gnosticism? Hermeticism? Alchemy? Swedenborgianism? Spiritualism? Vegetarianism? Hinduism? Or perhaps a nice well-matured bit of Neo-Platonism? Jung’s whole analytical psychology cult was pieced together out of precisely this roll-call of despair; a pick ‘n’ mix of hysterical symptoms.

Noll’s case study is slightly more sympathetic to Jung (or at least non-judgemental) than I make out in this condensed version of his arguments (full disclosure: I’m an incurable Freudian). But I would imagine that after reading it, most people would find it difficult not to conclude that if Carl Gustav were alive today he’d be living in L.A., scanning the horizon for flying saucers, writing astrology columns for the National Enquirer, and selling Solar-Phallus key fobs on his website.

And still muttering about that old bearded Jewish guy with the cigar whom he worshipped once but turned out to have just one thing on his mind.

Become a patron at Patreon!

5 thoughts on “Jungian Complexes at the Multiplex”

  1. HH: Apparently Hollywood has been very keen on Jung and ‘archetypes’ at least since ‘Star Wars’ (via Joseph Campbell). Not because Hollywood has any religious impulse whatsoever of course – except, perhaps, idolatry – or believes in archetypes but because it believes in SUCCESS. And, as you say in regard to advertising, Jung/Campbell appears to offer a very affordable formula for global bums on seats.

    But as the God-awful Star Wars prequels have shown, there’s nothing universal about the experience of a man who has spent the last couple of decades in meetings with merchandising lawyers. The sequels made money in spite of Lucas’ dreary plots and characterisation, which even die-hard SW devotees hated. As I recall, the first prequel started with a boardroom meeting discussing a trade embargo!

    I’m not sure that Freudian symbolism, all the rage in mid-century High Hollywood, was a better way for Hollywood to make hits, but it certainly made for much better films. Excuse me while I blow my whistle and hurtle into a tunnel….

    Matthew: I suspect Freud would have agreed with most of what you say, but argued that it was the intellectual’s thankless job to be on his or her guard against the seductive appeal of Santa and the anti-science that goes with his big white beard. He saw religiosity as a product of the essentially infantile need for an all-powerful father – and since all of us so-called adults carry with us traces of our infantile urges we’re all susceptible. And frankly, much of what Jungians wank on about is infantile. Which is part of the reason why he’s popular with artists, who have to access their infantilism at will.

  2. Although I largely agree as mentioned in your other post, I think a better analysis of the function of religiocity is important. I certainly cannot live out my entire Eros or Thanatos in the confines of civilisation, that is why I am perpetually discontent. Religiocity of some sort if only in the most personal sense or via very good art gives opportunity to sublimate the rawness of desires and the necessicity of catharsis. Freud underplayed religion not fully grasping that most of humanity actually want and indeed need a Santa Claus to exist from time to time. I think what I want is irrationality for it’s own sake but we always need one foot in reason – Jung went a bit overboard to say the least towards an overvaluation of animism and everything Freud talked about in Totem and Taboo. My main criticism of Freud is that we cannot possibly within our lifetime analyse every Animistic Totemistic Incestual Thanatonic and Libidinal impulse we have. Most of it is under the radar screen. And not everyone is very good at creatively sublimating these desires.

  3. I have practiced my trade, sometimes called marketing communications, for a good many years.

    Fads have come and gone; business buzz-words have faded in our ears; gurus have proved either thoughtful, methodical practitioners, or blowhards. Some of these professional fashions have value, some show elements of promise, and others coat old tropes in new words.

    One such fad grips us now, and it is Jungian archetypes. Archetypal theory makes me long for the good old days of Freud and his symbolism. Now that was something a nefarious adman like me could use for his own venal purposes.

    In the end, though, professional communicators embrace both Freud and Jung because they provide science which is cheap to use.

    Both require no expensive surveying, neuroscience, nor even those pesky experimental controls.

    In the end, Freud is the true scientist of the pair. He was the first to lift the hood on the engine of the mind—have I not mentioned this before in a comment on your blog?

  4. Elise: I caught a re-run of ‘Dead Ringers’ on late night TV t’other week. I just switched it on and it was there. And I felt I couldn’t switch it off, because of you. You’re right it was all crazy homoerotic delusion with Woman as the reality principle (that is scary enough it itself!).

    Though given the bloody alien obstetrical ending seemed it was straight male homoerotics with a lesbian ‘twist’.

  5. I’ll be interested to see what you’ve got to say about the movie. I’m going to re-rec ‘Dead Ringers’ to you. Crazy Cronenberg homoerotics with woman as the “principle of reality” go-between. Take her away, all you’ve got is delusional, misogynous males staring in the mirror, that is, at each other. I’m betting anything this is a costume drama retread, but due to my own interest in Freud, I won’t be able to resist it!

Comments are closed.