Jung’s a slippery figure to grasp, whether via his writings or via the miscellaneous details of his life scattered hither and thither. Deirdre Bair does a sterling job of bringing to light probably the greatest amount of detail and accurate history on this important psychologist that mainstream publishing would allow.
Quite predictably, the figure that emerges here, even—or especially—from such close analysis, is full of contradictions. An earthy, almost oafish man, who disgusted his family with his yolk-dribbling egg-eating habits, yet who reputedly had an astonishing sensitivity to patients’ complexities in their analytic hours. Reviled by Freud and his followers for rejecting the fundamental nature of sexuality in the psyche, his long-standing extra-marital relationship with Toni Wolff emerges as far more than an “affair”—probably as close to an honest non-monogamy as could be achieved in the social and historical circumstances. And yet, this earthy, open-minded man raised his children with the barest of physical affection; they shook hands.
Interestingly, his well-known and often ridiculed fascination with “occult” matters was far from being a personal idiosyncrasy; his troubled mother was somewhat psychic, and held numerous spiritualist séances. As a teenager, Jung and a few relatives from his mother’s side of the family, of his age, conducted quite a few séances, until professional life—for a while—sidelined his more unorthodox interests. But his spiritualist mother, his Protestant pastor father, and his physician grandfather, laid clear ancestral foundations for Jung’s adult synthesis of occultism, religion and medicine.
Jung’s name is to this day tarnished with rumours and accusations of Nazi collaboration or affiliation. It’s sobering to discover that he maintained active connections with the German branch of his analytic organization right into 1939, attending Nazi rallies as part of this role. His defence seems both naive and sincere: he wanted to make sure that Jewish practitioners in Germany were protected. Waiting in the wings in the German analytic community was Hermann Göring’s cousin, and if Jung stood down as international head presiding over the German contingent, he would have stepped in to say what’s what. A combination of naivety, bullishness, good intentions, and obdurate Swiss “neutrality” landed Jung with a dubious chapter in his history, unfortunate fodder for defamers for decades to come.
Accusations of anti-semitism date back to his break from Freudian orthodoxy, and seem to have been fuelled by his interest in the idea of psychological traits peculiar to certain races or cultures. The sometimes shocking bitterness with which Freud’s disciples attacked him and his work certainly seems to lie behind much bad press he received, and the often falsified evidence brought to bear on the question of his political tendencies. As to his ideas on the differences between races, this biography makes it abundantly clear that, whatever people have done with his incautiously phrased theories, Jung himself was no anti-semite. He was merely stupid to not temporarily play down his interest in the differences between peoples while destructively value-laden interest in this topic was rampant in Europe. As our culture still has itself tangled in the double-bind of wanting to acknowledge and celebrate diversity, yet frequently can’t bear to acknowledge real diversity for fear of political incorrectness, Jung’s tale is both instructive and dispiriting.
The arc of the book is the familiar one of many biographies. Fascinating formative years, exciting and turbulent forays into his chosen field, and revealing insights into his mature work. And then interminable legal and administrative details clog the latter years, making old age seem as bad as it’s cracked up to be. Yet, as Jung repeated in his resistance to being “biographized”, the outer aspects of his life were relatively uninteresting. Two dreams of his burst through into the narrative near his death, from what was obviously a rich psychic landscape. Their vividness and resonance redeem the sometimes tediously authoritative detail of the final stretch of this excellent work.
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