Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Jung in the madhouse

He's been through hell. He's conversed with a Red Devil. He's brought down an ancient Bull God with science and shrunk him to the size of an egg, small enough to fit in his pocket, and raised him up again. He's been compelled by a woman who calls herself his soul to eat the liver of a murdered child. He's howled to a dead moon and a dark sea about combining good and evil, but he doesn't trust his own shouting.

Now he's arrived at a library that may be a place of sanctuary and reflection. When the librarian asks him to choose the book that he wants, to their mutual surprise he names The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, a medieval favorite. Again and again, we notice that this desperate traveler is in his Middle Ages; he turned forty a few months ago. He debates with the librarian what it would mean to imitate Christ today. He decides that since Christ imitated no one, this would mean going his own way, and paying the full price for creating that way that no one before him has mapped or trodden.

He finds himself in a kitchen attached to the library, conversing with a plump, matronly cook. There's a great stir in the air and a host of the restless dead come flying through, yelling about going to Jerusalem. He demands why these dead are not at rest, and their leader tells him that he must explain that to them. He tells the dead that they can't rest because of what they failed to do in their lives. The dead clutch at him, and he shouts, "Let go, daimon, you did not live your animal" - by which he means the instinctive, natural life of the senses.

The noise of this altercation is so loud the police come and carry him away to a madhouse where a little fat professor diagnoses "religious madness" after the briefest of interviews. "You see, my dear, nowadays the imitation of Christ leads to the madhouse."

He is confined in a room between two other patients, one sunk in lethargy, the other with a fast-shrinking brain. He compares himself to Christ crucified between two thieves, one of whom will go up, the other down. His mind turns on the problem of dealing with the dead, which the kitchen scene taught him is vaster than he had known - "the dead who have fluttered through the air and lived like bats under our roofs from time immemorial." This will require "hidden and strange work", but it is not clear how he can do this from his confinement.

He listens to a voice praising madness, a voice he identifies as his soul. "Madness is a special form of the spirit and clings to all teachings and philosophies, but even more to daily life, since life itself is illogical."

In the night, everything heaves in his room in black billows. The walls become terrible waves. He finds himself now in the smoking room of a great ocean liner, where the professor reappears in beautiful clothes and offers him a drink, while telling him he is utterly mad and must be committed. The torpid neighbor from his room reappears and announces he is Nietzsche, and also the Savior.

"This is the night in which all the dams broke...where the stones turned into serpents, and everything living froze." Back in his locked room at the madhouse, he struggles with entangling webs of words and ideas. He has said to himself, "Do not turn anything you do into a law, since that is the hubris of power." Yet he finds himself pronouncing one law of life after another, in the mode of Nietzsche, the identity claimed by the madman on his left side.

He cannot tell whether it is day or night when he hears a roaring wind and then sees a great wall of darkness advancing on him, "A gray worm of twilight crawls along it. It has a round face and laughs." He opens his eyes and looks up into the jolly round face of the cook. "You're a sound sleeper," she tells him. "You've slept for more than an hour."

Unlike those clichéd stories where the impossible is explained and the action resolved when a sleeper wakens from a dream, this is just one awakening within a vast, rushing, inescapable dream that seems to be partly driven by the blood-red tide of the coming Great War, streaming from the future. The traveler, of course, is Jung. When he wakes in the kitchen and the cook gives him a glass of water he is still very far from his home in Küsnacht and the comfort of cuckoo clocks. My account of Jung's journey in and out of the madhouse is based on his Red Book, and is less strange and lurid than some parts of his own account, which is adapted from his journals from January 14-19, 1914. Once again, we see the price Jung paid for his knowledge of the depths.

He commented in his Epilogue to the Red Book, nearly half a century later, that he would certainly have gone mad "had I not been able to absorb the overpowering force of the original experiences." Some of the processes he developed in that cause are ones that are suitable for all of us. He wrote his way through, by journaling and then writing up his journals. He sought and created images of balance and integration, which became a fascinating series of mandalas. And he developed the approach he called active imagination, by which - instead of rejecting the characters and contents of dream and fantasy - we work with them, carrying the drama forward towards healing and resolution.

This account is based on Liber Secundus of Jung's Red Book, especially chapters 14-16. The image, often called The Shadow, appears on page 115 of the folio and has this legend in Jung's gothic calligraphy: "This is the golden fabric in which the shadow of God lives."


nance said...

I am a great admirer of Jung's courage to go into the depths, come out again and provide for the rest of us a guide to such journeys — chosen or spontaneous. His ability to walk both worlds is inspiring. I have not read this book in a long time. Thank you for reminding me of his genius.

Lou Hagood said...

Again, I quote Winnicott, "poor we are if we are only sane."

Alla said...

Well, I'm looking forward to finding out what made you so turned off in chapter 12 of Liber Secundus. I think you've seen so many quite unusual things in your life that my imagination is just slipping. Also, I feel that only those ones who had similar
experiences of traveling into the depths of psyche, where all the boarders are waterworn, could feel and understand Carl Jung from within. One thing is to read it as a journal, and another - to be there, to experience it first hand. I'll wait for my copy to arrive. :-)

Robert Moss said...

Nance - Perhaps you are recalling Jung's "Memories, Dreams, Reflections" in which he talks about the experiences he chronicled in the Red Book and describes this visionary period as the time when "everything essential was decided" in his life - the time that gave him "the prima materia for a lifetime's work." This memoir is much the best entry point into Jung's oeuvre, but I must note that reading the Red Book (which was first published in Octber 2009) is a very different experience. While reading "Memories, Dreams, Reflections" is like taking a tour of a zoo where fierce and previously unclassified beasts are visible behind bars, to read the Red Book is to go beyond all fences, into the wild territory where they live.

Wanda said...

I hardly know enough to feel that I have the ability to respond to such a journey and yet we all take some version of that journey don’t we – each in our own peculiar environment. As I read your beautifully drawn portrait of Jung in the Madhouse, I revisited a personal experience of taking care of my mother in the last days of her life when she was slipping into dementia. I recall sitting up late at night and my mother coming into the place where I sat in the kitchen. This was my first experience of trying to communicate with her in a condition unfamiliar to me when the veil thinned for her and she crossed into a nightmarish world of demons. She had tilted her head sideways and said, “don’t you hear them – they are the angels and they are singing the sweetest song I have ever heard. I think I know that song.” Then she descended rapidly into a long night of long hours of the two of us fighting demons together. The next morning, my mother and I both exhausted from hours of battle, the demons withdrew, the singing angels returned briefly, and she described aloud the final scene as a fat woman swinging on the fan and responded with a bit of humor and acceptance.
When my mother died, remembering her ferocious battle against the Night Demons, I asked for a dream that would show me what she saw when she departed life. It was important for me to ask – and have answered – that question so that I would know she was safe.

I saw what she saw - a gathering dawn breaking, the tops of tall pines silhouetted against the morning light, and friends and relatives waiting to greet her just beyond the line of trees.

Robert Moss said...

Wanda, thank you so much for this vivid account of what your mother was facing in that late and shadowed part of her life journey, which reminds us that Jung's hell nights aren't necessarily altogether remote from the experiences of ordinary people. Above all, thanks for describing to us how you were able to companion your mother and play soul friend and ally to her in those night battles. This is a service we can render to each other, as friends or therapists (or both) if we have gone deep enough into the territory to know how to help others get through it.

I wss just re-reading what Jung said in "Memories, Dreams, Reflections" looking back on his Underworld ordeals from the distant perspective of 1955: "I could not expect of my patients something I did not dare to do myself. The excuse that a helper stood at their side would not pass muster, for I was well aware that the so-called helper - that is, myself - could not help them unless he knew their fantasy material from his own direct experience."

Janice said...

Hi, Robert,

I certainly must add this book to my reading list.

I am reminded of something a therapist once said years ago:

Insanity is defined by the distance you put between awareness and your emotions.

Janice said...


My last sentence got cut off:

Here it is: I am wondering how deep the emotional well goes in the human experience.