Carl Jung on Life and Death
“The sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”
By Maria Popova
In the spring of 1957, at the age of 84, legendary psychiatrist Carl Jung (July 26, 1875–June 6, 1961) set out to tell his life’s story. He embarked upon a series of conversations with his colleague and friend, Aniela Jaffe, which he used as the basis for the text. At times, so powerful was his drive for expression that he wrote entire chapters by hand. He continued to work on the manuscript until shortly before his death in 1961. The result was Memories, Dreams, Reflections (public library) — a fascinating peek behind the curtain of Jung’s mind, revealing a wonderland of wisdom, experience, and self-reflection.
Jaffe writes in the introduction in 1961:
The genesis of this book to some extent determined its contents. Conversation or spontaneous narration is inevitably casual, and the tone has carried over the entire ‘autobiography.’ The chapters are rapidly moving beams of light that only fleetingly illuminate the outward events of Jung’s life and work. In recompense, they transmit the atmosphere of his intellectual world and the experience of a man to whom the psyche was a profound reality.
Jung’s reflections span everything from the minutia of working for a living to the grand truths of the human condition to the nature of the divine. This particular passage, from the closing of a chapter entitled “Life and Death,” struck me as a powerful lens on consciousness and what it means to be human:
Our age has shifted all emphasis to the here and now, and thus brought about a daemonization of man and his world. The phenomenon of dictators and all the misery they have wrought springs from the fact that man has been robbed of transcendence by the shortsightedness of the super-intellectuals. Like them, he has fallen a victim to unconsciousness. But man’s task is the exact opposite: to become conscious of the contents that press upward from the unconscious. Neither should he persist in his unconsciousness, nor remain identical with the unconscious elements of his being, thus evading his destiny, which is to create more and more consciousness. As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being. It may even be assumed that just as the unconscious affects us, so the increase in our consciousness affects the unconscious.
The inimitable Austin Kleon — of Steal Like An Artist fame — has a lovely sketchnote visualization of the book:
Among the most fascinating elements of the book, especially for a lover of letters such as myself, is the Appendix, which features never-before-published letters from Freud to Jung. In one, dated April 16, 1909, Freud discusses — with an odd blend of reverence for mysticism and keen self-awareness of the selective attention at work — how he became obsessed with the idea that he would die between the ages of 61 and 62, and subsequently started seeing the two numbers everywhere. Freud concludes, with a subtle jab at Jung’s own views on “poltergeist phenomena”:
Here is another instance where you will find confirmation of the specifically Jewish character of my mysticism. Apart from this, I only want to say that adventures such as mine with the number 62 can be explained by two thing. The first is an enormously intensified alertness on the part of the unconscious, so that one is led like Faust to see Helen in every woman. The second is the undeniable ‘co-operation of chance,’ which plays the same role in the formation of delusions as somatic co-operation in hysterical symptoms or linguistic co-operation in puns.
I therefore look forward to hearing more about your investigations of the spook-complex, my interest being the interest one has in a lovely delusion which one does not share oneself.
Although not without faults, Jung’s was one of modern history’s most intriguing minds and Memories, Dreams, Reflections presents a rare, infinitely insightful glimpse of its inner workings. Complement it with Jung on human nature in a rare BBC interview and his delightfully disgruntled review of Ulysses.
Published March 13, 2012