Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Carl Jung

The long now

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In early 1965, Tom Wolfe noticed a book on the shelves of Ken Kesey’s house in La Honda, California, which had become a gathering place for the young, mostly affluent hippies whom the journalist had dubbed “the Beautiful People.” In Kesey’s living room, “a curious little library” was growing, as Wolfe recounts in typically hyperbolic fashion in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test:

Books of science fiction and other mysterious things, and you could pick up almost any of these books and find strange vibrations. The whole thing here is so much like…this book on Kesey’s shelf, Robert Heinlein’s novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. It is bewildering. It is as if Heinlein and the Pranksters were bound together by some inexplicable acausal connecting bond. This is a novel about a Martian who comes to earth, a true Superhero, in fact…raised by infinitely superior beings, the Martians. Beings on other plants are always infinitely superior in science fiction novels. Anyway, around him gathers a mystic brotherhood, based on a mysterious ceremony known as water-sharing. They live in—La Honda! At Kesey’s! Their place is called the Nest. Their life transcends all the usual earthly games of status, sex, and money. No one who once shares water and partakes of life in the Nest ever cares about such banal competitions again. There is a pot of money inside the front door, provided by the Superhero…Everything is totally out front in the Nest—no secrets, no guilt, no jealousies, no putting anyone down for anything.

He closes with a string of quotations from the character Jubal Harshaw, who had affinities to Wolfe himself, including the skeptical but grudgingly admiring line: “Ain’t nobody here but [just] us gods.”

One member of Kesey’s circle who undoubtedly read the novel was Stewart Brand, my hero, who pops up in Wolfe’s book as an “Indian freak” and later founded The Whole Earth Catalog, which became famous for a similar declaration of intent: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” (As I retype it now, it’s that one italicized word that strikes me the most, as if Brand were preemptively replying to Wolfe and his other detractors.) Much later, in the celebrated essay “We Owe it All to the Hippies,” Brand writes:

We all read Robert Heinlein’s epic Stranger in a Strange Land as well as his libertarian screed-novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Hippies and nerds alike reveled in Heinlein’s contempt for centralized authority. To this day, computer scientists and technicians are almost universally science-fiction fans. And ever since the 1950s, for reasons that are unclear to me, science fiction has been almost universally libertarian in outlook.

Heinlein and his circle don’t figure prominently in the Catalog, in which the work of fiction that receives the most attention is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But Brand later recommended the Foundation trilogy as part of the Manual for Civilization collection at the Long Now Foundation, which may have been a subtle hint to its true intentions. In the Foundation series, after all, the writing of the Encyclopedia Galactica is an elaborate mislead, a pretext to build an organization that will ultimately be turned to other ends.  An even better excuse might be the construction and maintenance of an enormous clock designed to last for ten thousand years—an idea that is obviously too farfetched for fiction. In an interview, Brand’s friend Kevin Kelly protested too much: “We’re not trying to be Hari Seldon from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.” Yeah, right.

Brand himself was only tangentially inspired by science fiction, and his primarily exposure to it was evidently through the remarkable people with whom he surrounded himself. In his book The Media Lab, which was published in 1988, Brand asks the roboticist Marvin Minsky why he’s so interested in science fiction writers, and he quotes from the answer at length:

Well, I think of them as thinkers. They try to figure out the consequences and implications of things in as thoughtful a way as possible. A couple of hundred years from now, maybe Isaac Asimov and Fred Pohl will be considered the important philosophers of the twentieth century, and the professional philosophers will almost all be forgotten, because they’re just shallow and wrong, and their ideas aren’t very powerful. Whenever Pohl or Asimov writes something, I regard it as extremely urgent to read it right away. They might have a new idea. Asimov has been working for forty years on this problem: if you can make an intelligent machine, what kind of relations will it have with people? How do you negotiate when their thinking is so different? The science fiction writers think about what it means to think.

Along with Asimov and Pohl, Brand notes, the other writers whom Minsky studied closely included Arthur C. Clarke, Heinlein, Gregory Benford, James P. Hogan, John W. Campbell, and H.G. Wells. “If Minsky had his way,” Brand writes, “there would always be a visiting science fiction writer in resident at the Media Lab.” In practice, that’s more or less how it worked out—Campbell was a frequent visitor, as was Asimov, who said that Minsky was one of the handful of people, along with Carl Sagan, whom he acknowledged as being more intelligent than he was.

To be honest, I doubt that Asimov and Pohl will ever be remembered as “the important philosophers of the twentieth century,” although if they might have a better shot if you replace “philosophers” with “futurologists.” It seems a reasonably safe bet that the Three Laws of Robotics, which Campbell casually tossed out in his office for Asimov to develop, will be remembered longer than the vast majority of the work being produced by the philosophy departments of that era. But even for Kesey, Brand, and all the rest, the relationship was less about influence than about simple proximity. When Wolfe speaks of “an acausal connecting bond” between Heinlein and the Merry Pranksters, he’s consciously echoing the subtitle of Carl Jung’s Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle, which may be the best way to think about it. During moments of peak cultural intensity, ideas are simultaneously developed by different communities in ways that may only occasionally intersect. (On April 6, 1962, for instance, Asimov wrote to Campbell to recommend that he investigate the video game Spacewar, which had been developed just two months earlier at MIT. Campbell spent the next decade trying to get an article on it for Analog, which Albert W. Kuhfeld finally wrote up for the July 1971 issue. A year later, Brand wrote a piece about it for Rolling Stone.) And Brand himself was keenly aware of the costs of such separation. In The Media Lab, he writes:

Somewhere in my education I was misled to believe that science fiction and science fact must be kept rigorously separate. In practice they are so blurred together they are practically one intellectual activity, although the results are published differently, one kind of journal for careful scientific reporting, another kind for wicked speculation.

In 1960, Campbell tried to tear down those barriers in a single audacious move, when he changed the title of his magazine from Astounding to Analog Science Fact & Fiction. For most of his career, Brand has been doing the same thing, only far more quietly. But I have a hunch that his approach may be the one that succeeds.

Quote of the Day

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In psychiatry, the patient who comes to us has a story that is not told, and which as a rule no one knows of…Therapy only really begins after the investigation of that wholly personal story. It is the patient’s secret, the rock against which he is shattered. If I know his secret story, I have a key to the treatment.

Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections

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February 27, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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September 26, 2017 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Carl Jung

Intuition is almost indispensable in the interpretation of symbols, and it can often ensure that they are immediately understood by the dreamer. But while such a lucky hunch may be subjectively convincing, it can also be rather dangerous. It can so easily lead to a false sense of security…The safe basis of real intellectual knowledge and moral understanding gets lost if one is content with the vague satisfaction of having understood by “hunch.” One can explain and know only if one has reduced intuitions to an exact knowledge of facts and their logical connections.

Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols

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March 30, 2016 at 7:30 am

A meditation on the tarot

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The Tarot of Marseilles

A few weeks ago, I picked up a pack of tarot cards. As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve long been interested in using forms of randomness to inform the writing process, largely because I’m such a left-brained writer in other ways. Raids on the random of various kinds have served as a creative tool for millennia, of course, although they were seen less as randomness than as divination. And regardless of your thoughts on their validity, accuracy, or philosophical basis, there’s little question, at least to my mind, that they offer a set of valuable approaches to modes of thinking that often go unactivated in everyday life. Jung, for instance, used tarot and the I Ching with patients undergoing psychotherapy, noting—and this is a crucial point—that the results thus derived were worth close attention when they seemed to converge on a single interpretation. Tarot and the like aren’t ends in themselves, but a medium in which intuitive thought can take place, and as such, I think they deserve to be sampled by creative professionals whose livelihoods depend on accessing that kind of thinking on a regular basis.

That said, I resisted the tarot for a long time, mostly because it carries so much symbolic and cultural baggage: it’s easier for an otherwise rational writer to justify drawing one of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards, say, than to lay out a celtic cross spread. Still, tarot has received serious attention from writers as otherwise dissimilar as Robert Graves, Thomas Pynchon, and Robert Anton Wilson, and when you strip away its distracting connotations, you’re left with a set of flexible, versatile symbols that have been subjected to a long process of historical refinement. Tarot, like most useful forms of creative thought, is primarily about combination and juxtaposition, both with the problem at hand and between the cards themselves. It’s really a portable machine for generating patterns, and while you could theoretically do this with any assortment of random words or ideas, like the protagonists of Foucault’s Pendulum, it probably helps—both pragmatically and psychologically—to begin with a coherent collection of images that other creative thinkers have used in the past.

The Tarot of Marseilles

With this in mind, I bought an inexpensive pack of cards depicting the Tarot of Marseilles, which Jung, among others, regarded as the most stimulating of the many possible designs. (It’s also the pack at the heart of Meditations on the Tarot, one of the oddest, densest books in my home library, although it’s less a work on the tarot itself than one that uses the cards as a gateway into a more discursive look at esoteric theology.) I’ve been laying out cards now and then as I outline a new writing project, and the results have been promising enough that I expect to continue. Occasionally, the readings I get seem to have an uncanny relevance to the problem at hand, and while it’s easy to chalk this up to the mind’s ability to see connections when given a set of ambiguous symbols, this doesn’t make it any less useful. Any practice that encourages ten minutes of loosely structured thought about a creative dilemma is likely to come up with something valuable, and even if it’s the ten minutes that really count, it’s easier when the process is guided by a series of established steps.

And what makes the tarot potentially more useful than other alternatives is its visual nature, as well as the way in which it results in a temporary structure—in the form of the cards spread across the table—that can be scrutinized from various angles. At its best, it’s an externalization or extension of your own thoughts: instead of confronting the problem entirely in your own head, you’re putting a version of it down where you can see it, examine it, or even walk away from it. It’s a variation of what we do when we write notes to ourselves, which are really dispatches from a past version of ourself to the future, even if it’s only a few seconds or minutes away. The nice thing about tarot is that it concretizes the problem in a form that’s out of our control, forcing us to take the extra step of mapping the issues we’re mulling over onto the array of symbols that the deck has generated. If we’re patient, inventive, or imaginative enough, we can map it so closely that the result seems foreordained, a form of notetaking that obliges us to collaborate with something larger. This can only lead to surprising insights, and even if it ultimately leads us to where we were already going, it allows us to pick up a little more along the way.

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July 9, 2014 at 9:55 am

The dreamlife of artists

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Sigmund Freud

Last week, I finished reading Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, essentially for the first time. I’ve long been familiar with parts of it, but I’d never managed to work through the entire thing from cover to cover, although I suspected that I’d find it useful as a writer. (David Mamet, for one, recommends it to aspiring screenwriters in On Directing Film, noting that the sequence of cuts in movies has affinities to the procession of imagery in dreams.) What I’ve found is that while Freud’s reputation has taken hit after hit in recent years, the caricatured version of his ideas that most of us have absorbed has little to do with his real body of work. Freud was a frighteningly inventive and perceptive thinker—and also an excellent essayist—who was right about most of the big things, even if many of the particulars, as ingenious as they are, no longer stand up to scrutiny. And nowhere is his originality more clearly on display than in The Interpretation of Dreams, which at its heart is a probing, sometimes difficult, but always enlightening act of literary analysis on the most intractable texts imaginable.

What Freud is really proposing, in fact, is nothing less than a general theory of creativity, except that it happens to take place in a part of the brain that we aren’t used to observing. In Freud’s conception, a dream originates as a repressed wish, often from early childhood, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be sexual in nature: it can reflect other physical and emotional needs, as well as such desires as those for power, respect, fulfillment, or the love and safety of those close to us. This primal wish is united with details from the day before—the more trivial and insignificant the better—that happen to provide raw material for the wish to take on a concrete form. The result is then subjected to several additional processes that make the underlying meaning harder to discern. There’s condensation, in which multiple dream thoughts are fused into a single object or image; displacement, in which an unsettling wish is transferred to something else or transformed into its opposite; and the tendency for dreams to depict abstract concepts and feelings in visual terms, often in bewildering ways that owe more to wordplay and association than to waking logic.

The Interpretation of Dreams

Finally, there’s a kind of editing function involved, an attempt by the brain to rework all of this ungainly material into something resembling a coherent narrative. (Freud notes that this interstitial imagery, as the mind stitches together unfiltered components from the unconscious into a sequence of events, is usually the least convincing part of the dream.) And while I don’t intend to get into a discussion of the overall validity of Freud’s ideas, I can’t help but think that this a surprisingly accurate account of how the creative process works in waking life. A story or work of art generally originates in deep-seated impulses—ideas and feelings that have been percolating in the artist’s inner life for some time—but it builds itself up from more recent pieces, images or fragments of experience that have lately caught the creator’s eye. These elements from the real world are progressively condensed, displaced, and dramatized in tangible ways. And ultimately, they’re edited and revised, often at more than one stage in the process, so that the result has a logic that wasn’t present in earlier drafts, but at the risk, as Freud identified, of ending up with something calculated and unpersuasive.

Whether this means that creative thought really is a kind of dream, as so many artists have suggested, or that creativity and dreaming are two aspects of the same process exercised at different times, is something I won’t try to settle here. I will say, however, that I’ve grown increasingly convinced of the importance of listening to the lessons that dreams present. (Freud points out, for instance, that dreams often express temporal or causal logic in spatial terms, so that instead of showing one event causing another, the two events are simply shown side by side. This seems like a promising area of exploration for writers, who are often called upon to compress long chains of causality into a single scene or image.) As Freud, Jung, and others have pointed out, our conscious mind is there for a reason: it’s what allows us to form societies, build bridges, and write novels that can be understood by more than one person, and none of this would be possible if we didn’t keep the unconscious under control. Like an analyst, however, a writer needs to make incursions into those deeper levels on a regular basis, while always sustained by diligence and craft, and in both cases, we may find that our dreams can point the way.

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June 16, 2014 at 9:40 am

The knowledge of the hands

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Carl Jung

Often it is necessary to clarify a vague content by giving it a visible form. This can be done by drawing, painting, or modeling. Often the hands know how to solve a riddle with which the intellect has wrestled in vain. By shaping it, one goes on dreaming the dream in greater detail in the waking state, and the initially incomprehensible, isolated event is integrated into the sphere of the total personality, even though it remains at first unconscious to the subject.

Carl Jung

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June 15, 2014 at 10:31 am

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