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Jungian Literary Criticism

Jungian Literary Criticism

       In an appreciation for Herman Hesse’s having sent C. G. Jung a copy of Journey to the East as a gift for his 75th birthday, he sent him in return a copy of “Psychology and Literature,” underscoring it with the words: “Allow me to reciprocate your gift with a specimen bordering on the domain of literature (italics mine, C. G. Jung Letters, Princeton, Bollingen, Vol. 1, p. 563).  To “border” on the domain of literature means that Jung saw his psychology as existing in an area outside the literary field, yet directly adjacent to it.  Jung was a psychiatrist first and foremost, who tried to maintain a psychological attitude toward literature and the arts through the lens of his scientific understanding.

       As others have pointed out, Jung was sometimes ruthless and dogmatic in his criticism towards poetry and the arts.  Jung’s attitude was not aesthetic.  In his interview with Serrano Jung arrived not at an artist’s standpoint but at a psychological attitude.  After the interview, Serrano began to wonder if there was a “second language” in the process of individuation described by Jung that is “waiting to be discovered” by one of his disciples, an “underlying language” which “is already there as a palimpsest” (Record of Two Friendships, 64).  Serrano felt that this hidden aspect of Jung’s works needed only to be interpreted by “a priest, a magician or a poet” (64).  To some degree, Serrano captured this latent shamanic meaning in Jung's works, although I think he mislabels it as the achievement of a poet.  For this reason I find Serrano's Record of Two Friendships to be only a first attempt to arrive at a synthesis between the two points of view.  Although there are clear dividing lines between psychological and aesthetic types of criticism, there are signs of a movement afoot toward increasing synthesis and unification between them.  Both attitudes are necessary to advance the field of Jungian literary criticism.  They are two sides of a single analytical field.

       I have suggested that there are two ways of approaching works of art within the Jungian literary tradition, two ways of seeing or visioning a work of art.  These viewpoints form two eyes that are needed to see with, if we are to arrive at an integrative standpoint.  The fields of psychology and literature must be seen as two distinct complex-fields, but they needn't be viewed as antagonistic to one another.  We can look at Whitman's Leaves of Grass, for instance, to uncover the archetype that distinguishes the aesthetic from the psychological field of criticism.  In Song of Myself, Whitman wrote: “Let the physician and the priest go home... / I am he bringing help for the sick as they pant on their backs, / And for strong upright men I bring yet more needed help" (Leaves of Grass, New York, Vintage, 1992, pp. 232-233).  When Whitman wrote Song of Myself  there was no depth psychology as we know it today.  Nevertheless, as an ur-psychologist, Whitman saw his poem as a way to heal emotional, psychological, social, and physical ailments—through an aesthetic or literary channel.  Thus, poetry was seen as a means to heal the collective malaise of the mid-nineteenth century, just as psychology is viewed as a means to cure the collective ailments of today.

       When poiesis and therapeutica have been joined to their “source” what emerges is a realization that the split in the shamanic archetype of the poet-healer is no longer valid. While on a higher professional plane, aesthetic and psychological criticism maintain their fundamental differences—as separate fields in their own right—both serve a similar function of healing for a person who submits to a work of art; and it is this variable of healing, I believe, that can lead us to a higher level of integration in the field of Jungian literary criticism.

       In the essay that he sent to Hermann Hesse, Jung postulated two different kinds of artistic creation, the psychological and the visionary.  In Jung’s view, it was the non-psychological type of literary creation that paradoxically offers the richest opportunities for psychological elucidation (Collected Works, Vol. 15, p. 88).  This has led some of Jung’s readers to assume that Jung did not care for artistic excellence so long as the work of art contained an envisioned archetype.  It is the deeper, shamanic domain of the human mind to which the literary critic and modern psychotherapist must turn for a solution to the problem of where the common channel lies between the two fields of criticism.

       When the study of psychic processes is brought to bear upon the study of literature, and conversely, when the study of literature is brought to bear upon the study of psyche, a new synthesis is bound to emerge through which both ends of the critical spectrum can be transformed into something new.

       In my view the field of Jungian literary criticism has been wrongly divided between the archetypes of the poet and the healer, and thus two engrams that ought to be related instead form the basis for a potential split.  What is needed within the field of Jungian literary criticism is a conscious descent to the shamanic core that underlies both the psychological and the aesthetic views.  As Whitman says, “Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems” (Leaves, p. 189).  To have arrived at the “origin of all poems” means to have attained the origin of mythical speech itself, the proto-language out of which all art, philosophy, religion, and science evolved.  This is shamanism, which is always experienced, as Whitman himself experienced poiesis, as an ecstatic state.

       From this brief overview of the Jungian literature it might seem that Jung’s approach to visionary works of art would offer an ideal model for interpreting such visionary artists as Dickinson, Melville, and Whitman; however, if we look deeply into the problem of how the works of a visionary artist "should" be viewed we find that the problem of interpretation cannot be easily resolved.  The crux of the problem in the field of Jungian literary criticism, as I see it, appears to lie in Jung’s whole approach to vision. Like all symbolic products of the unconscious, the visionary work of art can be interpreted from a number of differing points of view—until its meaning is gradually uncovered—through careful literary and/or psychological analysis.  Whereas the psychological type of literature does not require interpretation, visionary art forces the question of interpretation upon us (Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 15, p. 91).           

      When engaged deeply with a visionary work of art, the process of literary creation can become a way to lead a symbolic existence.  Like the vision quest experience the process of extending and amplifying an archetypal image—within the field of Jungian literary criticism—can open up an experience of direct encounter with the numinous, through an active imagination around the symbol itself.  To heal the split we must return to the notion of the quest-myth as a central mythologem of all literature.  The goal of the quest, as Jung knew it, can only be achieved through vision (i.e., active imagination), and this is why he placed so much emphasis upon visionary works of art in his approach to literature.