Feature Articles – The automatic writings of Jung
Carl Gustav Jung is notorious for being more “liberal” in his psychology than his friend Freud. But what is less known, is that Jung was more of an alchemist and Gnostic, then a psychotherapist.
by Philip Coppens
Watkins’ bookstore in Cecil Court, just off Charing Cross Road in London, was founded in 1891 by John Watkins, and is still London’s premier hermetic bookstore. One of its many notorious visitors was Carl Gustav Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist who would, together with Freud, define the field. Watkins was later to become Jung’s publisher, bringing out the private 1925 edition of Jung’s “VII Sermones ad Mortuos”.
For a well-known psychiatrist to chose a hermetic bookstore as the publisher of a book might seem odd, and it is. The text is purportedly by “Basilides of Alexandria” and is a Gnostic text – a religious document, largely Christian in nature. Why Watkins was chosen as the publisher however becomes clear when we know that Jung had received this document via automatic writing – something most psychiatrists would push towards the lunatic fringe… but not Jung. Freud and Jung are considered to be the instrumental characters of defining psychotherapy. Both originally worked together, but Jung broke with Freud in 1911. Jung felt that psychotherapy was too narrow in focus – and his ideas were based on personal experience. Jung had “spirit guides”, one of whom was named “Philemon”. Jung observed that “Philemon and other figures of my fantasies brought home to me the crucial insight that there are things in the psyche which I do not produce, but which produce themselves and have their own life. Philemon represented a force that was not myself. In my fantasies I held conversations with him, and he said things which I had not consciously thought. […] Psychologically, Philemon represented superior insight.” To anyone else, Philemon might be a figment of Jung’s imagination, or evidence of his madness. But Jung felt that Philemon was real – yet somehow dead, and somehow “talking” to Jung – to Jung’s mind.
Jung thus felt he was not insane; he felt that Philemon was a source of information that was legitimate: somehow, Jung was able to receive information from a source of information outside of his head – not existing in this physical reality. It opened the way for his theory of the collective unconscious, a type of library containing everything ever known, and archetypes, “active principles” that interacted between that “dimension” and ours. Was Jung sane? He had a life-long fascination with Nietzsche, but he realized the need to distance himself from Nietzsche for fear that he might be like him and therefore suffer the same fate: Nietzsche (1844-1900) became hopelessly insane. But more than 15 years later, Jung spoke to a “highly cultivated elderly Indian”, who told Jung that his experience was identical to many mystics. In his case, his “spirit guide” or guru had been a commentator on the Vedas who had died centuries ago. Rather than be mad, Jung felt that he had stepped into the same shoes as the ancient priests and others thought have experienced the divine.
Thus, in 1916, Jung received the best-documented help from demons: Septem Sermones ad Mortuos, or “The Seven sermons to the dead written by Basilides in Alexandria”, “transcribed by Carl Gustav Jung”. Jung stated that the start of the work was very identical to a possession. “Then it was as if my house began to be haunted. My eldest daughter saw a white figure passing through the room. My second daughter, independently of her elder sister, related that twice in the night her blanket had been snatched away; and that same night my nine-year-old son had an anxiety dream. Around five o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday the front doorbell began ringing frantically. It was a bright summer day; the two maids were in the kitchen, from which the open square outside the front door could be seen. Everyone immediately looked to see who was there, but there was no one in sight. I was sitting near the doorbell, and not only heard it but saw it moving. We all simply stared at one another.”
With such madness about the house, Jung felt he had to act. He shouted: “For God’s sake, what in the world is this?” Then they cried out in chorus, “We have come back from Jerusalem where we found not what we sought.” Over the next three evenings, the book was written, and as soon as he had begun to write, “the whole ghostly assemblage evaporated. The room quieted and the atmosphere cleared. The haunting was over.” Basilides was a real person, born in Syria, teaching in Alexandria during the years 133-155 AD. Whereas most channelled material is often nothing better than that which can be found in gossip columns, Jung’s text has been labelled a “core text in depth psychology”.
The text is intriguing for several reasons. For one, he uses the name Abraxas to describe the Supreme Being that had first generated mind (nous) and then the other mental powers. Still, Jung did not teach the return of human essence to the Gnostic pleroma, where individuality was lost, but instead adhered to individuation, which maintained the fullness of human individuality. Most metaphysics today argue that both possibilities can be encountered – and are encountered in many religions: that the soul at its final stage can chose to melt with the One (the pleroma) or maintain its separate identity inside the One (individuation). The easiest parallel is with the hologram, in which each “replica” is unique, yet also the whole. If any “replica” was aware, and would at one point have to ask what it wanted, some would ask to surrender into the greater hologram, whereas other “replicas” would ask to retain their individual memories – even though they are part of the whole. It is clear that this experience created the framework in which later the collective unconscious would take a prominent place. He described it as such: “The collective unconscious is common to all: it is the foundation of what the ancients called the sympathy of all things. It is through the medium of the collective unconscious that information about a particular time and place can be transferred to another individual mind.” But analysts have stated that it was not just the automatic writing, but the contents of the writings themselves, that shaped his ideas. Jung himself wrote: “These conversations with the dead formed a kind of prelude to what I had to communicate to the world about the unconscious . . . All my works, all my creative activity, has come from those initial fantasies and dreams which began in 1912, almost fifty years ago. Everything that I accomplished in later life was already contained in them, although at first only in the form of emotions and images.”
As early as August, 1912, Jung had intimated in a letter to Freud that he had an intuition that the essentially feminine-toned archaic wisdom of the Gnostics, symbolically called Sophia, was destined to re-enter modern Western culture by way of depth-psychology. Of primary sources, the remarkable Pistis Sophia was one of very few available to Jung in translation, and his appreciation of this work was so great that he made a special effort to seek out the translator in London, the then aged and impecunious George R. S. Mead, to convey to him his great gratitude.
Subsequently, he stated to Barbara Hannah that when he discovered the writings of the ancient Gnostics, “I felt as if I had at last found a circle of friends who understood me.” Gnosticism would remain his main dedication for the rest of his life. With the success of books such as Holy Blood, Holy Grail, The Templar Revelation and The Da Vinci Code, all which carve out a special place for the feminine, and often the Pistis Sophia itself, it is clear that Jung successfully predicted the “return of the feminine”. Philemon and Basilides are but two of the “spirit guides” that were in contact with Jung. The list of other guides also included one “Salome”. In 1926, Jung had a remarkable dream. He felt himself transported back into the 17th century, and saw himself as an alchemist, engaged in the Great Work. Jung felt that alchemy was the connection between the ancient world of the Gnostics and the modern era, which would see the return of “Sophia”.
For Jung, alchemy was not the search for the substance that would transform lead into gold, but the transformation of the soul on its path to perfection. Jung’s dreams in 1925-6 and thereafter frequently found him in ancient houses surrounded by alchemical codices of great beauty and mystery. Inspired by such images, Jung amassed a library on the great art which represents probably one of the finest private collections in this field. Jung’s collection of rare works on alchemy is still extant in his former house in Küsnacht, a suburb of Zurich. His work culminated in his chef d’oevre, published in 1944, and entitled Psychology and Alchemy.
Jung believed that the cosmos contained the divine light or life, but this essence was enmeshed in a mechanical trap, presided over by a demiurge: Lucifer, the Bringer of the Light. He contained the light inside this reality, until a time when it would be set free. The first operation of alchemy therefore addressed itself to the dismemberment of this confining structure and reducing it to a condition of creative chaos. From this, in the process of transformation, the true, creative binaries emerge and begin their interaction designed to bring about the alchemical union. In this ultimate union, says Jung, the previously confined light is redeemed and brought to the point of its ultimate and redemptive fulfilment. Sigmund Freud Jung made it clear that his theory was not new. It is similar to the Cathar doctrine and he himself stated that he was restating the Hermetic gnosis and explaining the misunderstood central quest of alchemy. Alchemy, said Jung, stood in a compensatory relationship to mainstream Christianity, rather like a dream does to the conscious attitudes of the dreamer. It has been “underground”, part of a secret tradition that ran throughout Christianity, but always “subconscious” – visible by its shadows and theh traces it leaves only.
He also felt that this process allowed for a better understanding of male-feminine relationships, and notions such as love. It is in this approach that he no doubt left Freud the furthest behind. In The Psychology of the Transference, Jung stated that in love, as in psychological growth, the key to success is the ability to endure the tension of the opposites without abandoning the process, even if the process and its result appear to have been brought to naught. In essence, it is the “stress” that allows one to grow – to transform.
The union of opposites, the focus of the alchemist, was for Jung also the focus of the Gnostics, whom he felt had been incorrectly labelled as radical dualists, i.e. believing in the battle between good and evil – without any apparent union possible between the two. For Jung, dualism and monism were not mutually contradictory and exclusive, but complimentary aspects of reality. As such, there was no good or wrong, no order or chaos, just two opposites, who constantly created grey, and demanded of mankind to be united, transformed. It is clear that Jung’s psychology is that of the end of the 20th century. In essence, he was the father of the New Age, giving a theoretical framework for channelling and other “New Age practices”. Still, it is clear that Jung is seldom if ever mentioned in this line. Instead, he is referred to as the “opposite” of Freud, who was fixated in trying to reduce the entire human psychology to the sexual constitution of Mankind. However, it was Jung who stated that such opposites had to be integrated…