Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Carl Jung

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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The book and the tower

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The Red Book by Carl Jung

Over the last few days, I’ve been browsing with great interest through The Red Book of the psychiatrist Carl Jung, the massive illuminated folio that he labored over in private for more than fifteen years, and which was finally published in a handsome volume from W.W. Norton. As someone who has long been interested in learning more about Jung without quite knowing where to start, I’ve found The Red Book to be an ideal entry point, largely because the story of its own origin and development aligns with many of my own thoughts on creativity. It arose out of a long period of thought and introspection centering on one question: “What myth are you living?” Jung notes that he didn’t know the answer at first, and he continues:

So, in the most natural way, I took it upon myself to get to know “my” myth, and I regarded this as the task of tasks, for—so I told myself—how could I, when treating my patients, make due allowance for the personal factor, for my personal equation, which is yet so necessary for a knowledge of the other person, if I was unconscious of it? I simply had to know what unconscious or preconscious myth was forming me, from what rhizome I sprang.

The result was The Red Book, an unforgettable collection of illustrations and calligraphic texts expanding on Jung’s dreams and visions. (It currently retails for the daunting price of $145, although it should be available at most larger public and university libraries, which is where I found my copy.) When I leaf through it, it feels both like a look backward at such works as The Book of Kells and a prediction of the likes of the Codex Seraphinianus, but would be a mistake to read it as solely an obsessive work of borderline mysticism. In fact, as the lines I’ve quoted above indicate, its motivation was intensely practical. While Jung was working out his visions in private, he was also seeing patients as a practicing psychiatrist, and the work he produced was intended to serve as a kind of catalog or incursion into his own unconscious, as well as an intuitive form of exploration and meditation. For a man whose legacy and career rested on a sustained engagement with his own inner life and those of others, few projects could be more important or pragmatic, and the result served as a source of inspiration for his published books and papers. As Jung himself says: “The years…when I pursued the inner images, were the most important time of my life. Everything else is to be derived from this.”

Bollingen Tower

The Red Book can best be understood, then, as an elaborate intermediate stage in a singular creative process. Intuition and vision came first, followed by an extended phase of development that made equal time for serendipity and meticulous work. Jung went through countless drafts of the text for each page and did careful preparatory drawings for the illustrations, which comes as no surprise: a work as detailed and coherent as this doesn’t emerge out of nothing. As any writer or artist can testify, it’s in the selfless, almost detached process of mechanical perfection—drawing the grid, laying out the design, refining the raw material until the result is both aesthetically pleasing and formally sound—that we make our greatest discoveries. Jung already kept journals of his dreams and visions, but to drill down to their fundamental meaning and transform them into something with a wider application, something more was required. Hence this almost absurdly intricate work of illumination, which unfolded for his own benefit while nourishing ideas intended for a wider audience. (On a much lower level, I’m reminded of how I try to make the notes and mind maps for my own stories look nice for their own sake. No one else will ever see these preparatory stages, but I’d like to think that the effort pays off in the finished product.)

And it’s no accident that Jung’s great work of exploration took a form requiring considerable visual, manual, and conceptual patience, a work of the hand and eye as much of the mind. Later, he purchased a tract of land in Bollingen, on the shores of Lake Zurich, where he slowly built a castle of stone in his retirement, returning on a larger scale to the constructions of blocks that he enjoyed as a child. When you spend your life exploring the inner self, it’s easy to neglect the senses, which is why it can be so helpful to incorporate processes that require all parts of one’s body and personality. (At around the time Jung was building his castle, Winston Churchill was constructing walls on his property for much the same reason: an ideal day, he said, would include “the laying of hundreds of bricks.”) The Red Book is an expression of the same underlying need as Bollingen Tower, a form of thought that requires the artist to be dextrous and untiring as well as intelligent and intuitive. If the result often goes unseen—or, in Jung’s case, unpublished for decades after his death—the effects of such solitary, loving work can have greater reverberations than more seemingly practical pursuits. And if we’re trying to discover, as Jung was, what kind of myth we’re all living, the act of illumination often works both ways.

Written by nevalalee

June 9, 2014 at 9:37 am

Becoming a writer for the wrong reasons

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Anthony Storr

Earlier this week, I finished reading Anthony Storr’s The Art of Psychotherapy, which is probably the best book I’ve seen on the subject—it’s humane, richly informed, and full of useful details and advice. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’ve long been interested in the parallels between writing and psychoanalysis, and with that in mind, I was particularly struck by the following passage:

I once had a conversation with the director of a monastery. “Everyone who comes to us,” he said, “does so for the wrong reasons.” The same is generally true of people who become psychotherapists. It is sometimes possible to persuade people to become psychotherapists who have not chosen the profession for their own personal reasons; but, for the most part, we have to put up with what we can get; namely, ourselves.

Storr’s point is that psychoanalysis tends to attract people of an inward, reflective temperament who are looking for insights into their own emotional problems, a quality that can turn into a liability in a field in which the therapist necessarily needs to remain in the background. And much the same is true of novelists, who generally find that the reasons that drew them to the profession in the first place aren’t the ones that end up keeping them there.

Personality issues aside, it’s sobering just to look at the math. It’s often said that you need to write a million words or more before you develop your own voice as a writer, and although we can argue over specific numbers, the underlying principle remains sound. Ten years or more of focused work on different projects usually lie behind any debut novel, which means that, aside from the rare case of a writer who found his or her calling late in life, the majority of authors devoted themselves to writing sometime in their teens or twenties. Writing for a living often amounts to the systematic working out of a childhood obsession, as if you decided after college that you really did want to become both an astronaut and a ballerina, and there’s something inherently irrational about that decision: you’ve chosen to pursue it despite strong evidence that it will never become a viable career, regardless of how talented you might be. It’s the kind of idealistic gesture that a young, inexperienced person is predisposed to make. And if I’d be inclined to be skeptical of any major life decisions I made in my early twenties, why should my choice of career be any exception?

Carl Jung

Fortunately, what usually happens is that a writer’s original motivations, once they’ve been tested by the everyday experience of trying to tell stories for a living, are gradually replaced by their opposites. We’re driven early on by ego and ambition, a desire for fame, or simply to see our names in print, all of which yields over time to a realization of how much of himself an author needs to give up: far from enjoying the kind of fame we once imagined, we’re working in solitude, and days may go by before we have a meaningful conversation with anyone outside our immediate families. A writer may start with an urge for self-expression, only to find that detachment—or the ability to give voice to perspectives far outside one’s own—is much more important. (Storr usefully quotes Jung on the subject: “Feeling only comes through unprejudiced objectivity.”) Even if you begin with nothing more than the desire to tell a good story, you quickly find your attention being distracted by everything else: language, discipline, structure, the tedious housekeeping of keeping your ideas straight. By the end, even if you do start to think of yourself as a writer, it’s as a very different animal than the one you first envisioned when you put words on the page.

The writing life, like any other calling, shapes its practitioners in surprising ways, and the instruments that it chooses aren’t always the ones you initially expect. An aspiring monk soon finds that monastery living is less about ceaseless contemplation of the divine than about scrubbing floors, washing pots, and digging ditches, and a writer discovers that he’s defined less by his moments of inspiration than by what he does in the long stretches between those transformative insights. It reminds me a little of the protagonist of Chekhov’s “The Bet,” who agrees to spend fifteen years in solitary confinement to win a wage of two million rubles, then ends up—through long reading and contemplation—despising the physical world so completely that he leaves five minutes before the term is up. A writer’s situation isn’t so stark, and he never entirely gives up the reasons that brought him to writing in the beginning, even they ultimately give way to others. Sooner or later, though, he’s bound to wake up, look around, and realize that he’s no longer the same version of himself who made the wager on which he staked the best years of his life. The wager itself remains in effect, and the stakes, if anything, are higher than ever. But the person who made the bet has changed.

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December 19, 2013 at 9:00 am

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Quote of the Day

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October 1, 2013 at 7:30 am

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Quote of the Day

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August 10, 2012 at 7:30 am

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The curious beetle of Carl Jung

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My example [of synchronicity] concerns a young woman patient who, in spite of efforts made on both sides, proved to be psychologically inaccessible. The difficulty lay in the fact that she always knew better about everything. Her excellent education had provided her with a weapon ideally suited to this purpose, namely a highly polished Cartesian rationalism with an impeccably “geometrical” idea of reality. After several fruitless attempts to sweeten her rationalism with a somewhat more human understanding, I had to confine myself to the hope that something unexpected and irrational would turn up, something that burst the intellectual retort into which she had sealed herself. Well, I was sitting opposite of her one day, with my back to the window, listening to her flow of rhetoric. She had an impressive dream the night before, in which someone had given her a golden scarab-a costly piece of jewellery. While she was still telling me this dream, I heard something behind me gently tapping on the window. I turned round and saw that it was a fairly large flying insect that was knocking against the window from outside in the obvious effort to get into the dark room. This seemed to me very strange. I opened the window and immediately and caught the insect in the air as it flew in. It was a scarabaeid beetle, or common rose-chafer, whose gold-green color most nearly resembles that of a golden scarab. I handed the beetle to my patient with the words “Here is your scarab.” This broke the ice of her intellectual resistance. The treatment could now be continued with satisfactory results.

Carl Jung, Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle


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December 11, 2011 at 8:00 am

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