Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Coincidence and Conflict of Opposites in Jung’s Red Book

The notion of coincidentia oppositorum, the coincidence of opposites plays a central, if not the central role, in Jung’s thought. In his earlier work, Jung held that a “non-rational” union of opposites enables the individual to transcend and ultimately overcome his or her conflicts. Indeed, Jung held that there is a non-rational instinctive human function, which he termed the “transcendent function,” that mediates and combines opposites through the production of fantasies and symbols, and which enables the individual to gain a new perspective and more encompassing and rewarding attitude toward what he formerly regarded to be an insoluble dilemma or conflict. Unlike Hegel, whose dialectic of opposing principles and ideas Jung regarded to be conscious and rational, Jung held that the transcendent function involves a combination of conscious and unconscious elements and goes far beyond and is indeed opaque to thought and reason. In his later work, Jung regarded the coincidence of opposites to be constitutive of both the God archetype and the Self. Throughout his career, Jung traced the appearance of the notion of coincidentia oppositorum in such varied arenas as Brahmanic thought, Christian mysticism, Alchemy and the Kabbalah.

The Red Book is replete with Jung’s not as yet fully formed on the coincidence of opposites, and we see him struggling to make sense of the personal experiences that apparently led him to this notion. In the processes he considers a variety of oppositions: meaning and nonsense, fullness and emptiness, love and hate (343), action and thought (293), madness and reason (317), pleasure and thinking (247), above and below (315), etc. Jung tells us, for example, “immense fullness and immense emptiness are one and the same” (273), thinking and feeling “are each other’s poison and healing” (248), and “If no outer adventure happens to you, then no inner adventure happens either” (263).

Jung says that one only achieves a “presentiment of the whole” (248) and can only “achieve balance” by nurturing one’s “opposite.” However, doing so is very difficult as nurturing the opposite of one’s own thoughts, feelings and attitudes “is hateful to you in your innermost core, because it is not heroic” (263). We will see that this idea is essential to Jung’s polemic against the heroic in the Red Book, which he sees as inimical to individuation as it grows out of the “appetite for imitation” (249). Jung confesses quite candidly, “It is difficult for me to unite love and hate” (343).

Jung informs us that the “new God” he speaks of in the Red Book, the one that has been reborn subsequent to his demise at the hands of Nietzsche on the one hand and the poison of science on the other, is a union of opposing principle, and “develops through the union of [such] principles in me” (254). Presumably, Jung holds that the new God develops through the reconciliation of opposites in the mind and souls of individual men and women. Jung is here developing the notion of the identity of the God and the Self archetypes, which figures so prominently in his later psychology, and which later served as part of the foundation for Altizer’s death of God theology, in which the divine is effectively reborn in the psyche of man.

If God is associated with the union of opposites within the human psyche, it is the “serpent” which keeps the opposites separate: “It is always the serpent that causes man to become enslaved now to one, now to the other principle, so that it becomes error” (247). Interestingly, Jung is here beginning to develop the view that one can surmount evil only by accepting that it is part of God and self, an idea that was to later become the major theme in his Answer to Job.

Jung’s interest in the coincidence of opposites leads him to what logicians would describe as a violation of the law of non-contradiction. According to Jung. “The magical is good and evil and neither good nor evil.” Such multi-valued or dialetheistic logic was assumed by Buddhist logicians, but has rarely been advocated in the west, which, with the exception of the several decades when Hegelian logic rose to prominence, has been largely dominated by Aristotelian, either/or, linear thinking.

Jung is not of one mind regarding the unity of opposites. While it is absolutely necessary to unite the opposites in one’s quest for one’s soul, their complete unity is not wholly desirable, since:

"after the opposites had been united, quite unexpectedly and incomprehensibly nothing further happened. Everything remained in place, peacefully and yet completely motionless, and life turned into a complete standstill" (319).

While Satan derogates the union of opposites (“Reconciliation of the opposites! Equal rights for all! Follies!”, 326), we must give the devil his do and recognize that it may indeed be the case that “the conflict of opposites belong(s) to the inescapable conditions of life..(and that one) who recognizes and lives the unity of opposites stand(s) still…” Jung’s own soul asks him if he could even live “without divisiveness and disunity.” This is because one needs to “get worked up about something, represent a party, overcome opposites, if you want to live” (319). Life itself is the overcoming of opposites; when they have been completely overcome one, like the Buddha in his final reincarnation, has no further reason to live on earth.

The editors of the Red Book point out that later on Jung held that the concept of the coincidence of opposites itself must be complemented by its own opposite, radical difference if God (or the Self) is not to cancel itself out. Indeed, “The principle of the coincidence of opposites must therefore be completed by its opposite in order to attain full paradoxicality and hence psychological validity” (The spirit Mercurius 1942, CW 13, par, 256).

We can gain considerable insight into the theme of the coincidence of opposites as it appears in the Red Book, by examining this same themes as it is treated, more systematically, in Psychological Types, which, as we have seen, was written by Jung during a hiatus in the Red Book’s composition. This will be the subject of my next post.

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