Friday, October 30, 2009

Jung's Tales of Izdubar, pp. 277-88

In one of The Red Book's most significant passages, one that I believe will provide an important key to understanding Jung's thought, Jung tells of his encounters with the sick God, Izdubar (Gilgamesh). This God, who Jung pictures on page 36 of the Calligraphic Volume is described as possessing a ruffled black beard “decked with exquisite stones,” two bull horns rising from his head, with a “rattling suit of armour” over his chest, and carrying a “sparkling double axe in his hand” (278). We soon learn that Izdubar has been lamed by the “awful magic” of science, a science that humanity has gown accustomed to, but which, Jung acknowledges, has somewhat lamed man as well. Jung tells Izdubar: “We had to swallow the poison of science. Otherwise we would have met the same fate as you have: we’d be completely lamed, if we encountered it unsuspected and unprepared.” Science, Jung informs Izdubar, has also taken from man his capacity to believe in the gods. Somehow, Jung concludes that in spite of this, he must stand by Izdubar, who he calls, “my God,” and who he because of his love for this God, he cannot abandon (281). Jung tells us that his God his sick, and that he has no other choice but to attempt to heal him, for otherwise Jung’s life would be “broken in half.” Here we find Jung’s fascinating response Nietzsche’s “death of God.” Zarathustra had declared:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

For Jung, God, whether dead or only deathly ill, must be healed by man:

…our God is sick. We have seen him dead with the venomous gaze of the Basilisk on his face, and we have understood that he is dead. We nmust think of his healing (281).

Jung’s medicine is audacious in its formulation and radical in its implications: his God, Izdubar, must accept that he is a fantasy, as only in this way can he be trenewed in his life. Jung fears that Izdubar will reject his proposal out of hand as “he will claim that he is completely real and that he can only be helped in a real way” (282). But Jung succeeds in convincing the god to go along with his plan, suggesting to him: “I do not mean to say that you are not real at all, of course, but only as real as a fantasy” (282). In this statement Jung transitions to a way of thinking, an epistemology, that will characterize all of his future thought. The imagination, the products of the psyche, especially those of the collective imagination/unconscious are every bit as real, or even more real, than the objects of the so-called real and objective world! Jung tells us straight away: “The tangible and apparent world is one reality, but fantasy is the other reality” (283). Izdubar, is prepared to acknowledge that he is a fantasy, if only on the pragmatic ground that it might help to heal him. Jung then finds that he can carry the God, and indeed, without difficulty, squeeze him “into the size of an egg and put him in {his] pocket,” after which he walks the god into a “welcoming house” where he is healed. Jung notes:

Thus my God found salvation. He was saved precisely by what one would actually consider fatal, namely by declaring him a figment of the imagination (283).

Throughout The Red Book, Jung turns traditional epistemology on its head: placing his weight on the side of the imaginary as opposed to the real, the irrational as opposed to the rational, madness as opposed to sanity, and even the evil as opposed to the good. His position is not unlike the one Derrida would take 60 years hence: that of redressing the imbalance resulting from the traditions’ “privileging” of certain critical ideas over their opposites.

The Red Book can and should be read in conjunction with Jung’s major “scientific” work of the period, Psychological Types, which was apparently written between July 1919 and February 1920 (see note 230, Red Book p. 205), during a hiatus in Jung’s work on the Black Book 7, which was one of the notebooks that eventual fed into The Red Book.

In this context it is imporatnt to consider Jung's views on science and fantasy in Psychological Types, where he argues that creative fantasy is the bridge that unites thinking and feeling, and thus unites the science of psychology with a psychology of human experience (Psych. Types, par. 84) and, as Jung puts it, "the springs of life" (Psychological Types, par. 86). According to Jung, "every creative individual whatsoever owes all that is greated in his life to fantasy" (Psych. Types, par. 93).

In Psychological Types, Jung provides an account of the nature of God that might be spoken of as a scholarly version of his healing and in effect re-birthing Izdubar in The Red Book. In discussing the theology of Meister Eckhardt, Jung recites that God and the soul are identical, that “God must be withdrawn from objects and brought into the soul, and this is the ‘higher sate’ in which God is ‘blissful’” (Psychological Types par. 421). Jung quotes Eckhardt to the effect that God created the world so that He might be born in man’s soul, which on Jung’s interpretation indicates that “God is dependent on the soul, and at the same time, that the soul is the birthplace of God” (Psych. Types par. 426). Indeed Jung notes that Eckhardt himself writes, “ Know that without me God can no moment live: Were I to die, then He could no longer survive.” (Psych. Types, par. 432). Jung will later in The Red Book meditate on the implications of his being the “mother” of his God, and of his having the power to either heal or exterminate the race of Gods (RB 285).

Jung’s notion that humanity has, in the power of its imagination, the capacity to heal and give life to the gods recalls the Gnostic formula:

God created men, and men created God. So is it also in the world, since men created gods and worship them as their creations it would be fitting that gods should worship men.[1]

Of equal interest is the Chabad Hasidic formula that both earth and the heavens partake in reality and illusion, being and nothingness:

(Looking) upwards from below, as it appears to eyes of flesh, the tangible world seems to be Yesh and a thing, while spirituality, which is above, is an aspect of Ayin (nothingness). (But looking) downwards from above the world is an aspect of Ayin, and everything which is linked downwards and descends lower and lower is more and more Ayin and is considered as naught truly as nothing and null.[2]

Jung, with his concepts of the “Objective Psyche,” and the reality of fantasy provides epistemological content to these theosophical ideas.

[1] Rudolph. Gnosis. p. 93.
[2]Schneur Zalman Likutei Torah, Devarim, fol. 83a. Quoted in R. Elior, The Paradoxical Ascent to God, p. 137-8.


  1. While I haven’t yet had the opportunity to examine the Red Book in depth, the following thoughts struck me as I read this post.

    Jung refers to Izdabar as a “sick god” which is interesting to me since according to the epic, Gilgamesh was actually one third human. For much of the epic Gilgamesh struggles with his mortality and ultimately fails in his quest to become immortal or “godlike”.
    Perhaps, Izdabar is sick because his humanity is killing the notion of his Godliness. As human beings we have aspects of both godliness and humanity within us. [1] There certainly are elements within mankind that can be described as immortal, but that which is human can conflict with those elements. The concept of immortality is as incomprehensible to mortals as the concept of a third dimension would be to someone living in a two-dimensional world. I wonder if Jung’s “medicine” is in truth, a way to reconcile these two elements. By relegating that which is immortal or godlike to the realm of fantasy, it can in a sense, exist within man. Although that which is immortal is real, we call the reality in which it exists fantasy because that reality is “fantastic” to the reality we perceive.
    Perhaps this conflict within Jung was the seed that inspired immortal constructs such as the archetypes and collective unconscious…..
    [1]Nachmanides, commentary on Genesis 2:7

  2. This is indeed a very profound reading of Jung's notion of "fantasy." In Psychological Types Jung defines "irrational" as not that which is contrary to reason but as that which is beyond reason. For Jung fantasy is "irrational" in this sense and this accords quite well with your notion of fantasy as both imaginative and "fantastic." Certainly, Jung held that modern man is neurotic precisely by virtue of his failure to embrace anything beyond that for which there is empirical and rational warrant. For Jung, the suppression of the Gods (and by extension the devaluing of fantasy and myth, results in a return of this repressed aspect of the psyche in the form of neurotic symptoms. Perhaps this is the significance underlying Jung's claim that it is science that is poisoning Izdubar.

  3. Isaak Luria's Cabbalah and Body-Centered Imagination (BCI):

    I would like to add here the Jung quote about Isaak Luria's Cabbalah in a letter to James Kirsch, since it is the motto of BCI (a extension of A.I. to the body/subtle body):

    "The Jew has the advantage of having long since anticipated the development of consciousness in his own spiritual history. By this I mean the Lurianic stage of the Kabbalah, the breaking of the vessels and man's help in restoring them [the tikkun of Isaak Luria; RFR]. Here the thought emerges for the first time that man must help God to repair the damage wrought by the Creation. For the first time man’s cosmic responsibility is acknowledged."

    In another letter to James Kirsch dated Nov 19, 1952 Jung writes:

    "I am rather certain that the sefiroth tree contains the wohle symbolism of Jewish development parallel to the Christian idea. The characteristic difference is that God's incarnation is understood to be a historical fact in the Christian belief, while in the Jewish Gnosis it is an entirely pleromatic process symbolized by the concentration of the supreme triad of Kether, Hokhmah, and Binah in the figure of Tifereth. Being the equivalent of the Son and the Holy Ghost, he is the sponsus bringing about the great solution through his union with Malkhuth. This union is equivalent to the assumptio beatae virginis, but definitely more comprehensive than the latter as it seems to include even the extraneous world of the Keliopoth. X. is certainly all wet when he thinks that the Jewish Gnosis contains nothing of the Christian mystery. It contains practically the whole of it, but in its unrevealed pleromatic state.[/quote]

    And in a footnote we read:

    "The kelipoth are the daemonic forces of evil. According to the Kabbalist Isaak Luria (1534-72), they originated in the 'breaking of the vessels' of the sefiroth which could not contain the power of God. The world of the keliopoth is the counterpole to the world of the sefiroth."

    With 'pleroma' Jung surely means Erich Neumann's interpretation: a pre-worldly state which is only observable and reachable by mystical means. This way he says that in contrast to Christianity in the Cabbalah the mystic deals with this pre-worldly state, ie the unus mundus, the world before Genesis, before the big bang, which is defined in the same way. Since the dealing with the 'pleroma' contains also the dealing with the evil forces, it becomes similar to BCI in which we also deal with them. This is so since dealing with acausal acts was always looked at as being devilish, evil (will-based black magic).

    However, by accepting the acausal world out of which spontaneous incarnation happens (will-less white magic), one can compensate the real evil in the world. In this way it is perhaps possible to compensate the black magic of devilish nuclear power plants.

    Remo F. Roth

  4. Is it impossible for you to use the word "whom" where appropriate, or have you entirely transcended that silly old nominative/accusative distinction?


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