Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Red Book on Language

In the Red Book, we find Jung struggling with the question of whether words do or can have a definitive meaning, whether they point to specifiable ideas, kinds and things, or are rather always subject to an indefinite series of reinterpretations. This is a question that was paramount in the minds of many intellectuals during the period that Jung was writing the Red Book. It was, for example, during this same period that a young Ludwig Wittgenstein was writing in his Notebooks the ideas about language that were to eventuate in the “picture theory of meaning” in his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. In that work we find the idea (which Wittgenstein himself was later to repudiate) that the fundamental units ("Names") and statements ("Elementary Propositions") in language pictured unique states of affairs in the world (i.e. “atomic facts”), thereby saving language and thought from an indefinite series of interpretations of reality. Wittgenstein was later to trade in the picture theory of meaning for the notion of “meaning as use,” which opened up nearly infinite possibilities of linguistic use and interpretation. Jung, in the Red Book, seems to be torn between these two views, on the one hand he considers the idea that language and the world are indefinitely open to interpretation while on the other hand he is attracted to the notion that there are specifiable meanings (archetypes) that can be grasped and circumscribed by words. With regard to the first view, Jung’s “Anchorite” declares:

…”you must know one thing above all: a succession of words does not have only one meaning. But men strive to assign only a single meaning to the sequence of words, in order to have an unambiguous language….On the higher levels of insight into divine thoughts, you recognize that the sequence of words has more than one valid meaning. Only to the all-knowing is it given to know all the meanings of the sequence of words.” (268)

It would seem, at least on the view of the Anchorite, that language is completely fluid and subject to reinterpretation. Interestingly, Jung suggests (quite correctly) that this an essentially Jewish hermeneutical view. Jung responds to the Anchorite, “If I understand your correctly, you think that the holy writings of the New Testament also have a doubleness, an exoteric and an esoteric meaning, as a few Jewish scholars contend concerning their holy books.” For some reason, however, the Anchorite rejects this view, stating, “This bad superstition is far from me,” adding that the Jewish philosopher Philo Judaeus “was a clever head, but fantastically abstract, as the Jews are wont to be when they devise systems: moreover he was a slave of his own words…words should not become Gods” (270).

In another place, Jung attributes the reinterpretability theory to the Gnostics, commenting “that the sequence of words have many meanings…does not sound properly Christian.” Jung says it sounds Gnostic, adding that “they were really the worst of all the idolators of words…” Indeed, Jung bemoans the fact that in our scientific age, words have replaced the Gods. The sick god Izdubar asks Jung "Have you no Gods anymore?," to which Jung responds, "No, words are all we have...Science has taken from us the capacity for belief" (279).

Jung, proffers another seemingly more positive view of language, one that would seem to be diametrically opposed to the “fluid language” theory originally posed by the anchorite. According to Jung,

“The writing lies before you and always says the same, if you believe in words. But if you believe in things in whose places only words stand, you never come to an end. And yet you must go on an endless road, since life flows not only down a finite path but also an infinite one” (270).


“The word becomes your God, since it protects you from the countless possibilities of interpretation. The word is protective magic against the daimons of the unending, which tear at your soul and want to scatter you to the winds. You are saved if you can say at last that is that and only that. You speak the magic word, and the limitless is finally banished. Because of that men seek and make words” (270)

On this view, far from opening up an abyss of limitless interpretation, language actually fixes meaning—“protects you from the countless possibilities of interpretation.” It is the world itself, and not the words we use to describe it, which on Jung’s view here, is infinitely variable. Jung’s point is a valuable one and serves as a counterpoint to the one made by the “Anchorite.” When I say anything; for example, if I say, “I love you,” or “the brain is the organ of consciousness,” I am in fact closing off possibilities and constraining reality. Reality is far more complex than either of these phrases, or, for that matter, any phrase I can use to describe it, and there is indeed a strong sense that with language “the limitless is finally banished.” However, it is not banished for long, for a soon as one asks, “What does one mean by…love, consciousness, etc?” our words become subject to reinterpretation and the “finite path” again becomes “infinite.” It is perhaps for this reason that Jung reflects:

“In words, the emptiness and the fullness flow together. Hence the word is an image of God. The word is the greatest and the smallest that man created, just as what is created through man is the greatest and the smallest…So if I fall prey to the web of words, I fall prey to the greatest and the smallest” (298).

The debate regarding “fixity of meaning” vs. “openness to interpretation” is not really a debate about the nature of language, but is rather a comment upon two aspects of language and its relationship to the world.

Jung is wary of the aspect of language that leaves itself open to indefinite interpretation. Indeed, while in other places in the Red Book he is open to and even welcomes chaos, he appears to be of the view that one needs a language, needs some narrative or myth that grasps at least a potion of life and to prevent one from falling into an infinite abyss.

“But no one should shatter the old words, unless he finds the new word that is a firm rampart against the limitless and grasps more life in it than the old word” (270).

There is in the Red Book, and in Jung’s later writings as well, a tension between existential and mythological views of life and the world. In the former one discovers the depths of one’s soul through a courageous encounter with chaos, madness and the infinite possibilities of sense and nonsense. In the latter, one develops one’s soul through the assimilation of a personal/collective myth, which occurs via an encounter with the enduring meanings of the archetypes of the collective unconscious. This tension between the existential and the mythological is reflected, if somewhat dimly, in the double view of language in the Red Book.

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