Thursday, December 1, 1994

Book Review: Richard Noll "The Jung Cult"


First appeared in the Boston Globe.

Richard Noll "The Jung Cult: Origins of a Charismatic Movement" (Princeton University Press, 336 pages, $24.95)

Richard Noll's mission in "The Jung Cult" is to answer the question posed early in the book: "Who, then, is the historical Jung?" It's the kind of thing you might ask about a religious figure, and this, according to the author, is one of the reasons an intellectual biography of Carl Jung has been so long in coming. For decades, to probe Jung's roots was to violate a kind of taboo. Jung's life, like Christ's, was wrapped in the protective aura of the sacred.

Christianity, of course, never pretended to be anything other than religion. Jungianism was supposed to be psychology. Richard Noll's analysis of Jungianism's origins, goals, and methods of organization strongly suggests that Jungianism is religion in twentieth-century disguise. Freud, Noll observes, "may still be the genius of choice for the learned elite," but Jung, popularized by men like Robert Campbell and Robert Bly, has kindled a mass movement that promises adepts the "mystery and the direct experience of the transcendent that they do not experience in any church or synagogue."

Jungianism was constructed out of volatile material, which is why Richard Noll is disturbed by the masks it wears -- and its unwillingness to acknowledge the historical Jung. In his search for Jung's roots, the author directs our attention to the same charged German counterculture that fueled National Socialism, and asks if the potent mix of themes and longings passed on from turn-of-the-century Germany to New Age America via Jungianism can once again take an explosive political turn.

The first half of "The Jung Cult" is a guided tour of tour of fin-de-siècle German culture. At a time when Americans were thronging to Coney Island, Germans (and German speaking Swiss like Carl Jung) were ringing in the new century in with Teutonic mystery cults, volkisch philosophy, Odin worship, rune reading, mandala study, Theosophy, Anthroposophy, Mithraism, mystical evolutionism, and the thoughts of Friedrich Nietzsche. These endeavors were typically marked by elitism, the desire to be initiated into a society of the elect, as in the secret Thule Society, to which many of Germany's leaders belonged, and later, the S.S., which Himmler liked to think of as a mystic order endowed with its own set of occult practices.

In 1908, two popular images of this thriving counterculture were fused to make a flag. The swastika, symbol of Aryan rebirth, was placed upon a white disk, symbol of sun worship, the supposedly authentic religion -- any similarity to sun bathing is purely coincidental -- of the Aryan race. When the Nazis adopted this flag for themselves, adding a red background to stand for pure blood, they were staking their claim to leadership of German counterculture.

Anti-Semitism was a point of unity in this culture, but it was anti-Semitism with a twist. Jews were blamed not only, as usual, by Christianity but this time, also for it. Christianity was conceived of as laundered Judaism, the devious means by which the alien Semites imposed themselves on the Aryan soul.

All of it came together at Bayreuth. There, whatever tenuous distinctions might have obtained between counterculture and official culture fell away as Odinists, occultists, and soon-to-be analysts shared the ecstasy of Wagner.

Much of this has material has been presented before, by George Mosse, among others. What is new is the way the second half of "The Jung Cult" tracks Carl Jung's path through this terrain, showing how he fashioned his psychology into a means of achieving spiritual objectives then in vogue.

The nature of memory was as central to Jung's enterprise as it is to contemporary psychology, embroiled in controversy over whether the memory of trauma can be repressed. Jung claimed that under analysis, repressed or hidden memory -- known in his day as cryptomnesia -- provided a window on prehistory. Traces of the pagan gods were imprinted on the minds of the Germans he treated. Psychology, then, was a way of escaping Christianity and returning, by way of the archetypes, to old time religion.

Mr. Noll counters that in Jung's most decisive cases, memory was implanted rather than recovered, and that Jung, though he claimed otherwise, was perfectly aware he was working with disciples or scholars already predisposed to finding artifacts of ancient mystery cults in the disorder of their dreams.

"The Jung Cult" recommends itself to anyone interested in Jung, psychology, or the making of a New Age, whether in Taos, New Mexico or Ascona, Switzerland. Only occasionally does the writing groan under a weight of reference and allusion but the reader is more than compensated for these lapses by the author's talent for observation and his usually robust prose. Here, for example, is how Richard Noll construes a distinction between Freud's collected works, arranged chronologically by his followers, and Jung's collected works, which are arranged by topic: "Freudians are interested in securing Freud's place in history as a major cultural figure, a scientific genius as cult-hero, whereas Jungians seem to place more value on preserving an image of Jung as a divinely inspired human vessel for dispensing the eternal truths of the spirit."

Prior "The Jung Cult" two disparate notions of Jung were current. On the one hand, we had a good gray psychologist dispensing timeless wisdom from his stone tower in Switzerland, and on the other, we had the Teflon sage, remarkably undiminished by evidence of his anti-Semitism, his flirtation with Nazism, his imperious and self-serving way with followers. By situating Jung within the intellectual environment of his day, Richard Noll allows a single Jung to emerge -- complex, comprehensible and much more a product of his day and age than he or his followers ever cared for the world to see.

If there is a weakness to "The Jung Cult" it is that in his eagerness to correct the distortions of Jungianism, the author seems to dismiss the longing for transcendence itself. Does Richard Noll mean to say all such longings are suspect, and all attempts to satisfy them must be discounted, from the start, as no better than deception?

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