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Cold prophet of a new age. Book Review. Jung: A Biography. By Deirdre Bair

Many people, if pushed, could come up with a few Freudian concepts, but they would be stumped if asked to describe what C.G. Jung contributed to our common understanding and language.

Yet it was Jung who invented terms such as "introvert", "extrovert", "the collective unconscious", "anima" and "animus", "archetypes", "personality typologies", and "individuation". Moreover, the modern "new age" movement owes much to Jungian ideas: Jung had a lifelong interest in spirituality, mysticism, yoga, Eastern philosophies and mythology.

Jung was, with Freud, one of the two towering figures in 20th-century psychoanalysis. In his own lifetime, Jung was fêted in Europe and the US (he was given an honorary doctorate by Harvard). The rich and famous flocked to Zurich to consult him - including a reluctant James Joyce, who brought his daughter, Lucia, to be treated by him. But Jung, in his own words fell afoul of contemporary history. And by the time he died he had become immersed in bitter controversies - controversies that have continued since and that a succession of previous biographies have not resolved. Among the accusations against him were that he was an anti-Semite, a Nazi sympathiser, an unmitigated womaniser, a professional plagiariser, that his theory was merely a new form of religion, or even that he was just plain daft.

For Deirdre Bair, a prize-winning biographer (her previous subjects include Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and Anaïs Nin), it was the entire question of Jung's sullied reputation that finally convinced her to write this biography. What was there about Jung, she wondered, that inspired such strong negative feelings? In this massive work (881 pages, including over 200 pages of notes and references), and with unprecedented access to the Jung family papers, Bair coolly addresses these questions by compiling "an objective compilation of the facts and events" of Jung's life.

Carl Gustav Jung was born in Switzerland in 1875, the son of a poor country parson and his unhappy and mentally unstable wife. Though both his parents came from illustrious Swiss families, they were known more for their personal eccentricities than for their families' high social standing. Jung's mother, Emilie, was taciturn, withdrawn, grossly fat, indifferent to her appearance, and, it seems, also indifferent to her husband. Their marriage was tense and unhappy. She was preoccupied by visions, and seemed truly happy only when talking about the ghosts and spirits that roamed the parsonage halls at night. Even the birth of a healthy son, after three stillborn births, did not rouse her. She remained indifferent to the increasingly anxious and insecure child.

His insecurity was further fuelled by the fact that several times his mother left abruptly for long stays in a rest home. His father reassured him that his mother still loved him. But, Jung recalled, from that time on, whenever the word "love" was used in connection with his mother, he became anxious that another separation was in the offing. For him, "the feeling of the feminine" became one of "natural unreliability" and he referred to it as the "handicap" from which his attitudes towards women were formed. Meanwhile, his father cared for him affectionately, but in his son's mind became synonymous with two emotions, "reliability and powerlessness". Left to himself for much of the time, he became a solitary and dreamy child, with an intense concentration on his inner life, and often troubled by frightening dreams and fantasies.

At the beginning of adolescence, the burly, always bedraggled Jung was constantly in trouble: unpopular with his peers and always ready to fight and brawl. But he was a star pupil, standing out from the beginning with his appetite for learning and his eagerness to show off what he knew. By the end of adolescence, however, his popularity had risen to match his grades. When he entered medical school, he was "exuberantly happy, more gregarious and sociable than he had ever been before". He felt as if "golden gates" had opened for him. And they had. At the age of 28, he was a highly successful psychiatrist and married to Emma Rauschenbach, the daughter of one of the richest men in Switzerland.

But already he was creating controversy. He developed a reputation for being brash, arrogant, bullying, vain, self-centred, a womaniser desperate for adulation. Handsome, successful, sexually charismatic, "clusters of women formed a phalanx around him before and after each of his lectures" and competed to see who could lure him to their homes for private consultation. He embarked on an affair with one of his female patients, a pattern that was to continue and culminate some years later in his lifelong liaison with another former patient, Toni Wolff, whom he simply introduced to his Emma as "his other wife". Referring to his theory that an element of the feminine - the anima - exists in every man, he explained the affair thus: "Back then, I was in the midst of an anima problem." As a justification for an affair, I'm surprised that one has not caught on.

Later in his life, the most damaging controversy centred on the allegation that he was a Nazi sympathiser. During the highly dangerous years when Hitler was propounding his racist theories, Jung continued to expound his theories of cultural types, and, unbelievably, continued to draw attention to the "differences between Germanic and Jewish psychology". He also continued to hold the presidency of what was then a Nazi-controlled psychoanalytic association from which Jews were being expelled. Bair is at her most authoritative in this regard, rebutting the allegation that he was an active Nazi collaborator with new evidence showing that, in fact, he worked for the Allies as Agent 488. She argues that the most Jung was guilty of was extremely poor judgment and political naivety.

Inevitably, one of the most fascinating accounts in the book concerns the relationship between Jung and Freud. This close personal and professional collaboration and the subsequent bitter break between Freud and his chosen "crown prince" arguably over-shadowed the rest of both men's lives. Bair writes:

Even as an old man, Jung became emotional whenever he spoke of Freud; Freud evidently thought Jung's letters and books important enough that he included them among the limited possessions he was permitted to take to England when he fled the Nazis in 1938.

Bair captures the drama of their first meeting on March 3rd, 1907: "Jung entered Freud's apartment at Bergasse 19 for lunch at 1 p.m., stayed through dinner, and left at 2 a.m. after a 13-hour marathon of non-stop talking."

Freud wanted Jung to become his intellectual "son and heir", making him the first president of the International Psychoanalytic Association. But it all ended in tears. The independent-minded Jung could not accept Freud's insistence on infantile sexuality as the central force in personality development and pathology.

In 1909, on the eve of sailing on their first trip to the US, Freud suddenly accused Jung of wanting him dead, and then promptly fainted, something he repeated on a subsequent occasion. After each fainting spell, Freud blamed Jung for causing it through "an act of resistance against the father" and a "death wish" against him. By 1912, the break between them had become final and irrevocable, with Jung accusing Freud of reducing everyone around him to the level of sons and daughters: "Meanwhile, you remain on top as the father, sitting pretty."

For his part, Freud accused Jung of being power-hungry. For Jung, the bitter break caused a severe psychological crisis that lasted the best part of a year, and which left Jung "completely devastated", unable to work. Instead, he devoted the early part of the day to analysing his dreams, the afternoons to playing like a child, and the rest of the time talking about himself to his mistress, Toni Wolff, who had now also become his professional collaborator.

During that year, he began to develop his own analytic technique, which emphasised not the curing of mental illness but rather helping ordinary people to function at a higher level of adaptation and contentment in their lives - what Jung would eventually call the process of individuation. He also went on to complete what is generally regarded as his most important contribution to psychoanalysis, Psychological Types.

But this creative output was poor consolation for his neglected wife and five children. Bair paints a bleak picture of family life. The Jung children recalled that "Tante Toni" was always there, dining with the family, walking alone with Jung in the garden. Meanwhile, adoring but steely Emma was left alone in the house, humiliated and resentful:

It was not until after the evening meal that she had any time alone with him. He ate in silence unless something was on his mind, and then he conducted a monologue that no one dared interrupt. Emma had trained the children not to speak unless he spoke to them first but as . . . he had little interest in children per se, he had no need for their conversation. Often, he rose abruptly to go to his study. Emma followed after giving directives to the children, who remained seated at the table, to wait for the maids, who saw to their bedtime. There were no kisses or hugs from Emma, just instructions for them to behave.

Her children remembered Emma as a distant, cool, and reserved figure: "Father was her chief interest. She was not really neglecting us, but her chief interest was Father. She was only here for Father. She lived in his work, and it took all her time and her interest."

Franz, his only son, told the poignant story of a rare occasion when Jung took his four older children sailing and bought them sweets. When they got home, the youngest, Marianne, ran across the lawn to her mother and cried: "Just look! Franz's father brought me a little cake."

Emma immediately said: "Now, look, Marianne, you must understand that Franz's father is your father too."

Even given the era, it seems extraordinary that an analyst, conscious of the importance of early childhood experiences, would have had so little interest in his own children.

Bair's book will become an essential reference for anybody with an interest in the history of psychoanalysis. But, disappointingly, unlike Peter Gay's equally painstaking but affectionate biography of Freud, there is little sense that Bair came close to her subject psychologically, or indeed, that she was very engaged with the development of his theories. For that perspective, you'll need to go back to Ronald Hayman's A Life of Jung.

"Did you like him?" is the question every biographer is asked. After this monumental work, Bair ducks the answer: "Liking really doesn't enter it for me. This is my chosen form of intellectual enquiry." But the same question inevitably arises for the reader. Bair's painstaking but cool portrait is unlikely to inspire liking for Jung. Intellectually brilliant, innovative, yes. But the lasting, overwhelming impression is of a monumentally narcissistic, cold and selfish man. 

Originally published in The Irish Times.

Posted: 31 January 2004