Jung as a Writer

An important case for Jung

Religion 37 (2007), pp 243-56

Susan Rowland, Jung as a Writer (London and New York: Routledge, 2005)


As someone working in the field of literary studies, I get used to reading critics who espouse a broad acceptance of the Freudian approach to literature, albeit one suitably mediated by later, more semiotically inclined theorists such as Lacan. Thus, if an article or book refers to Shakespeare, it comes as no surprise to see Hamlet being read exclusively in terms of the Oedipus complex. These days, of course, with the idea of an author being long-since declared dead, any suggestion that the text is symptomatic of Shakespeare’s own relationship with his father (Freud’s own claim, in The Interpretation of Dreams) is likely to be underplayed. But the point is that, no sooner has the word ‘textuality’ appeared than, as night follows day. we can expect the complementary rhyme ‘sexuality’. Perhaps this is a caricature, but my point is that Freud still rules, as far as literary theory is concerned. Seldom does one hear mention of Jung, except in the most dismissive terms.

Obviously, this is less likely to be the case in religious studies, but I think it is important to reflect on the probability that, if one were to convene a seminar on Jung which consisted of a broad spectrum of academics working in the humanities, certain fallacies about his work would find expression sooner rather than later. These would include the following: (1) Jung has little interest in history, since he is concerned chiefly with the idea of a collective unconscious which is atemporal. (2) Jung has little interest in culture, since he believes archetypes to be wholly ‘natural’. (3) Jung has, despite (2), little interest in nature in the sense of the material environment, since for him the term ‘natural’ refers exclusively to human nature. (4) Jung has little interest in the external world generally, since his focus is consistently on the internal world of the psyche. (5) Jung has little interest in the way mythology is extended through literature, since for him a myth only has meaning in so far as it can convey a message which will aid the process of psychic individuation. (6) Jung has little interest in gender, despite his recognition of the importance of the anima: like Freud, only more so, his interest in the female is tokenistic. (7) Jung has little interest in his own style: unlike Freud, he shows scant regard for the problem of expression, concentrating on getting his ideas onto the page, no matter how prosaically and clumsily.

Again, I might be guilty of caricature; but I sense that the above catalogue of complaints sums up the consensus amongst those academics who know of his work but have not felt obliged to read very much of it. Thus, it is to the lasting credit of Susan Rowland, a scholar who has already begun the process of re-reading Jung — in C. G. Jung and Literary Theory (Palgrave, 1999) and in Jung: A Feminist Revision (Polity Press, 2002) — that she dispels all of the above fallacies and more besides. Above all, her very title, Jung as a Writer, alerts us to the possibility that not only have we read Jung all too seldom, but that when we have done so we have largely missed the point – that the way he writes is inseparable from what he has to say, that the content of his writing cannot be understood without paying attention to the form. If Jung’s ‘project’ (to use Rowland’s term) is the revitalisation of Western consciousness by opening it up to the challenge of the ‘other’, then we should be prepared to find possibilities expressed in the very act of writing. It would not be enough for Jung simply to state the need to acknowledge and incorporate the power of marginal, frequently feminine, voices within Western discourse: the point, Rowland affirms, is that his own demonstration of creativity enacts the process of opening up.

At the same time, it would be naive to see Jung simply as a practitioner of that play of the signifier which will be associated with post-structuralism: what we find, rather, is a tension – contradiction, even — between his characteristically modern assumption that the masculine, rational worldview is important enough to merit revitalisation and his incipiently postmodern fascination with the infinite potential of the liminal feminine which borders and defines it. Rowland elegantly demonstrates how Jung’s writing works within the tension. Moreover, if it is to be conceived as a contradiction, she shows again and again how Jung’s texts work by moving between the claims of a magisterial dialectic — which would posit the question of gender in terms of a polarity — and an urge to a more ambiguous, androgynous, elusive process.

Having read this book, I am persuaded that Jung really did find a way of letting the ‘other’ have its being. It is hard to convey the way Rowland effects such persuasion: that would involve me in a detailed commentary on her own circumspect, speculative kind of writing. Suffice it to say that I think she is justified in speaking of her approach to Jung as that of ‘a certain friendly fidelity’ to the spirit of his words; certainly, she avoids that plodding literalism which would reduce his rich, varied discourse to an arid scheme.

Having testified to the effect that this book has had on me, I feel obliged to declare an interest. Rowland’s way of reading Jung is partially indebted to ideas that I developed in Myth (Routledge, 1997) and The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism (Routledge, 2000). However, I do not feel that such a declaration necessarily disqualifies me from assessing Jung as a Writer. Rather, I might consider myself uniquely placed to see what Rowland has done with those ideas. I had better state immediately that I not only approve of her argument, but that I am impressed by the sure and subtle way she has developed an approach to Jung that, while broadly confirming some modest insights of my own, extends them considerably by applying them in ways I had not envisaged to a body of work to which their relevance is not immediately apparent.

When I coined the term ‘radical typology’, I wished to offer a corrective to what I called, by way of shorthand, ‘allegory’ — the reading of mythology in terms of extrenal, independent concepts. Instead of translating narrative into idea – mythos into logos — one would do better to see myths as forming a series characterised by foreshadowing and fulfilment, as in biblical exegesis. The difference would be that the process would not involve any closure, so that the potential of the narrative would never finally be realised: the end would always be ‘not yet’. I must admit that when I formulated this idea, I did not have Carl Jung’s theory of myth in mind; but reading Rowland’s book, I realise now that I should have done, and that I should have made a lot more of the sheer exuberance and creativity of his formulations. Jung as a Writer has taught me to see ‘radical typology’ at work in the way his own creativity of expression furthers the cause of reading myth as a means of exploring borderlines and glimpsing horizons.

In particular, by comparing his work with Mikhail Bakhtin’s, she shows that Jung, while always mindful of the need for a received, unifying vision, knows full well that it is in diversity and marginality that the future lies. His thinking is not so much dialectical as ‘dialogical’. Hence his fascination with crossing boundaries: culture/ nature, male/female, eternity/time, sacred/profane. Moreover, his distinction between the ‘psychological’ and the ‘visionary’ dimensions of narrative allows for a much richer reading of both mythic and literary material than Freud’s. Confining himself largely to causal explanation, biographical information and the individual case study, it is Freud who now appears to lack a cultural, collective, historical sense – without which we lose the dimension of the ‘not yet’. It is Carl Jung who, on the evidence of Rowland’s skilful exposition, shows himself capable of that: his approach is more ‘visionary’ than ‘psychological’.

Looking for the key moment in Rowland’s book where she conveys the gist of her argument most succinctly, I settled on this:

Jung understood that this culture was built on structures of exclusion, and that this was a sickness. He tried to put back together the rational science derived from religious premises with ethical relating to the (unconscious) other. Mythically, these are represented by the transcendent Father-God of monotheism and in the relational web of the Earth mother-goddess. While Jung’s texts are limited by his own prejudices, his writing is yet to be fully appreciated as an experiential process of cultural healing. In the urgent task of addressing the world still haunted by apocalyptic narrative, now in the form of environmental crisis and global terror, Jung’s aesthetic-science is a resource in the writing. (p. 195)

That summation comes at the end of the penultimate chapter. I can honestly say that getting there, and being able to see Jung in a wholly new light, has been a rewarding experience for this particular reader. To those who are instinctively sceptical about Rowland’s assertion, I can only advise them strongly to make the effort to progress attentively through the substantial thesis set out in these pages, and to suspend their disbelief so that they might have a revelation as rich as mine.

In my case, an added bonus is offered by seeing how the ecological approach to culture – what I call ‘green studies’ in general, and which is known as ‘ecocriticism’ in particular — may acquire new significance once we allow Jung to speak to our age: one of environmental crisis, as Rowland reminds us above. If we are prepared to recognise his engagement with history and culture, we should also be prepared to learn how he enriches our concept of nature. Despite appearing to share in the masculine bias of monotheism and modernity, Jung effectively deconstructs the male ego and patriarchal law, releasing alternative possibilities which he finds to reside in the idea of the natural world as sacred. The ‘web’ of the goddess will always exceed the scope of the male-centred hero myth, just as she stands as a perpetual challenge to the male-centred creation myth. Yet Jung may teach us also to avoid the error of post-structuralism, namely its bias towards language at the expense of environment, towards the word at the expense of the world. Jung shows how the two realms may be brought back together, just as the inner life finds symbolic expression in the outer by way of such phenomena as ‘synchronicity’.

Significantly, he does so by reviving discourses that have been repressed by the Western mind, from animism to alchemy, all of which have something to say about the way humanity relates to nature, and how the male relates to the female. It is not that each of them simply anticipates ecocriticism, but that ecocriticism realises their potential in new and unexpected ways. If we forget how to read such discourses, then our alienation may culminate in a literal apocalypse, as we destroy everything that is ‘other’ in the name of ‘man’. Thanks to Rowland’s exposition of Jung’s thought, we can not only see where we may have got him wrong, but we can also see where our civilisation is going disastrously wrong insofar as it does not know how to attend to such creative, exploratory, audacious writing as his.

I began this review by musing on the dominance of Freudian thought in literary studies, so it seems appropriate to end where this book ends, with Hamlet. For, as if this major revaluation of Jung were not sufficient unto itself, we get by way of bonus an ‘epilogue’ on Shakespeare’s most enigmatic tragedy. Judiciously conceding the force of Freud’s Oedipal reading, Rowland proceeds in no more than twelve pages to sketch the blueprint for an alternative, Jungian reading of the play that relates it to the following topics, amongst others: the myth of the goddess; the transition between Catholic feudalism and Protestant capitalism (a brief allusion to Ted Hughes’s remarkable study of Shakespeare proving useful here); the move within patriarchy from sacred to political ritual; the birth of modernity and of the alienated consciousness; the death-awareness that grew in the early modern era, defining the individual in new ways, given the demise of an organic sense of belonging; the emergence of republicanism in the wake of the demise of sacred kingship. Not only are such complex issues addressed clearly and cogently, but the whole account of the play forms a coherent coda to Rowland’s case for Jung’s ‘visionary’ way of reading – and of writing.


Laurence Coupe