Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Jung on Chaos

“Chaos,” in the sense of a disorganized and disorganizing confrontation with the unconscious, plays an important role in the Red Book, as it does in Jung’s later work. Perhaps inspired by Nietzsche’s aphorism in Zarathustra that “one must have chaos if one is to give birth to a dancing star,” Jung determined to welcome chaos as the vehicle through which he would encounter his own soul. “There in the world of chaos,” Jung writes, “dwells eternal wonder….Man belongs not only to an ordered world, he also belongs to the wonder-world of his soul. Consequently you must make your ordered world horrible…” (264). As the Red Book progresses Jung speaks of his own descent into chaos:

“Everything inside me is in utter disarray. Matters are becoming serious, and chaos is approaching. Is this the ultimate bottom? Is chaos also a foundation? If only there weren’t these terrible waves. Everything breaks asunder like black billows” (298).

The descent into chaos is perilous, but it also yields great rewards: “If one opens up chaos, magic also arises” (314). Psychic chaos is beyond logic, reason, expectation and control:

“If one has done one’s best to steer the chariot, and then notices that a greater other is actually steering it, then magical operation takes place. One cannot say what the effect of magic will be, since no one can know in advance because the magical is lawless, which occurs without rules and by chance so to speak” (314).

The “greater other” Jung speaks of, might be regarded as equivalent to the gods, the archetypes, the collective unconscious, and especially the “Self” that Jung would later contrast with conscious, rational ego.

Jung’s guide, Philemon teaches that “the chaos…is without measure and utterly boundless, to which justice and injustice, leniency and severity, patience and anger, love and hate, are nothing” (350). Chaos, to use Nietzsche’s phrase, is “beyond good and evil,” yet in spite, or even because of this, it enters into the essence of the divine: “The one eye of the Godhead is blind, the one ear of the Godhead is deaf, the order of its being is crossed by chaos” (231).

According to Jung, “one can teach the way that leads to chaos,” (314) even if one must be silent about the magic that can ensue from an encounter with it. Perhaps this is because such magic is non-rational, spontaneous and intrinsically novel, and therefore different for each individual who experiences it.

With his encounter with eastern alchemy, beginning with “The Secret of the Golden Flower” in 1929, and then European alchemy in the 1930s, Jung found a tradition that provided warrant for his view that an encounter with chaos is instrumental to the development and individuation of the psyche. Jung viewed the alchemist’s efforts to create gold as a symbol of their quest to transform the adept’s soul, and he saw the alchemist’s equivalence of their prima materia with “chaos” as verification of his view that such chaos is the raw ingredient of psychological transformation. The European alchemists identified this chaos with the "chaotic waters" which served as the raw material for creation (Mysterium Coniunctionis, 156, 197), prior to the separation of the opposites symbolized by the "firmament." Jung understood the alchemists to hold that all material transformation and psychic healing arises through chaos, quoting the alchemist Dorn regarding the disintegrating, yet reintegrative effects of the chaos:

Man is placed by God in the furnace of tribulation, and like the hermetic compound he is troubled at length with all kinds of straits, divers calamities, anxieties, until he die to the old Adam and the flesh and rise again as in truth a new man (quoted in Mysterium Coniunctionis, 353, n. 70). For Jung, the psychological meaning of such “transformation by chaos” is a confrontation with one's personal, and moreover, the collective unconscious. Jung writes:

"The meeting between the narrowly delimited, but intensely clear, individual consciousness and the vast expanse of the collective unconscious is dangerous, because the unconscious has a decidedly disintegrating effect on consciousness. Yet, even in the midst of the disintegrating chaos of the unconscious there exists a germ of unity, symbolized in alchemy by a globe, which provides the impetus for a higher reintegration (Mysterium Coniunctionis, p. 364).

The notion that chaos plays a critical role in all forms of creativity and change is a prominent theme in the Kabbalah, which, as I point out in my book, Kabbalistic Visions: C. G. Jung and Jewish Mysticism, was a major, if not the major spiritual foundation of western alchemy. For example, the Kabbalist Joseph Ben Shalom of Barcelona (c.1300) held that there is no creation, alteration, or change in which the abyss of nothingness does not, at least for "a fleeting moment" become visible. (Scholem, Major Tends in Jewish Mysticism, p. 217). Late in his life Jung celebrated his discovery that in the 16th century Lurianic Kabbalah, the symbol of Shevirat ha-Kelim, the Breaking of the Vessels, reflects, amongst other things, the notion that the structures of God, world and self, must each be broken and a portion of the “original chaos” reintroduced in order for their to be a creative tikkun or reintegration of the world and the individual’s soul (Jung, Letters, I: 157, 1954).

The notion of an “irrational chaos” as a precondition for transformation, rebirth and creativity is not without its dangers, and was likely a factor in Jung’s initial optimism regarding the Nazi state. In an interview conducted on December 26, 1969, and which Richard Noll quotes from the Jung Biographical Archives, Jolande Jacobi relates:

“His idea [about the Nazi movement] was that chaos gives birth to good or something valuable. So in the German movement he saw a chaotic (we could say) pre-condition for the birth of a new world” (Noll, Aryan Christ, p. 274).

One final observation: Jung is undoubtedly onto something very important in the Red Book and elsewhere when he avers that a confrontation with chaos often heralds a period of creative insight and both spiritual and personal transformation. There are too many testimonies regarding the transformative power of the “night of the soul” to seriously dispute this claim. We must, however, be careful not to fall into the belief that the results of our own confrontation with chaos must, in any respects, be like Jung’s, otherwise we are in violation of Jung’s own warning in the Red Book, not to imitate, but to find our own way:

“The new God laughs at imitation and discipleship” (245).

“The image of the hero was set up…through the appetite for imitation. Therefore the hero was murdered, since we all have been aping him... You must become your own creator” (249).

“The time has come when each must do his own work of redemption” (356).

While I can imagine that for some a confrontation with the chaos of one’s unconscious may result in active imaginative dialogs with biblical and other ancient interior figures, I can’t imagine this as the rule. Indeed, a danger of the whole so-called “Jungian” preoccupation with archetypes, symbols, myths, and ancient deities, is that one will ape the master, instead of venturing into one’s own creative unknown. Indeed, Jung at times, seems to have, perhaps unwittingly, encouraged this, through his archetypal interpretations of his patient’s dreams, his interest in their production of mandalas, etc., and his insistence that the opposites can only be unified through the creation of symbols (as opposed, for example, through reason or love), all of which were in part fueled by his efforts to achieve “evidence” for his hypothesis of the collective unconscious. The beauty of the Red Book, is that it is a relatively raw, unprocessed account of one man’s quest to find his soul, and his reflections about his journey. We must remember, however, that it is at most a general guide. As Jung himself put it:

“One can teach the way that leads to chaos, but one cannot teach magic. One can only remain silent about this, which seems to be the best apprenticeship” (314).

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