[An Excerpt from ”The Boundless Expanse: Jung’s Reflections on Death and Life” by Sonu Shamdasani]
Jung’s lectures before the Zofingia society also provide indication of his first formulations of the concept of life and his clear commitment to vitalism.
It was clear to him at this time that a positive definition of an irreducible life force was essential for postmortem existence in any form to be conceivable.
As I’ve traced in detail elsewhere, throughout his career, Jung remained committed to a position that could broadly be described as neo-vitalist.
Thus works such as Jung’s 1928 paper on the “energetics of the soul,” which at first glance appear to be far removed from such questions have a critical bearing on them, in laying the basis for an ontology in which survival is at least theoretically conceivable.
For example in 1930, he wrote to Alice Raphael:
… Bergson is quite right when he thinks of the possibility of relatively loose connection between the brain and consciousness, because despite of our ordinary experience the connection might be less tight than we suppose. There is no reason why one shouldn’t suppose that consciousness could exist detached from a brain . . . the real difficulty
begins … when you should prove that there is consciousness without a brain. It would amount to the hitherto unproven fact of an evidence that there are ghosts. I think that this is the most difficult thing in the world to create an evidence in that respect entirely satisfactory from a scientific point of view . How can one establish an indisputable evidence of a consciousness without a brain? I might be satisfied if such a consciousness would be able to write an intelligent book, invent new apparatuses, provide us with new information that couldn’t possibly be found in human brains, and if it were evident that there would be no high power medium among the spectators. But such a thing is quite unthinkable … Trance conditions are certainly very interesting and I know a good deal about them—though never enough. But they wouldn’t yield any strict evidence, because they are conditions of a living brain.
Consciousness detached from the brain? Nothing could be further from the current fad for neuro-scientific reductionism.
In retrospect Jung recalled that a pivotal experience in his understanding of the relations between the living and the dead was a dream that occurred whilst he was at work on his book, Transformations and Symbols of the Libido. In the autumn of 1910, he undertook a bicycle tour in Northern Italy and was staying in Arona:
In the dream I was in an assemblage of distinguished spirits of earlier centuries;’ the feeling was similar to the one I had later towards the ‘illustrious ancestors’ in the black rock temple of my 1944 vision.
The conversation was conducted in Latin. A gentleman with a long, curly wig addressed me and asked a difficult question, the gist of which I could no longer recall after I woke up. I understood him, but did not have a sufficient command of the language to answer him in Latin.
I felt so profoundly humiliated by this that the emotion awakened me. At the very moment of awakening I thought of the book I was then working on, Transformations and Symbols of the Libido, and had such inferiority feelings about the unanswered question that I immediately took the train home in order to get back to work … I had to work, to find the question.
Not until years later did I understand the dream and my reaction. The bewigged gentleman was a kind of ancestral spirit or spirit of the dead, who had addressed questions to me—in vain! It was still too soon, I had not yet come so far, but I had an obscure feeling that by working on my book I would be answering the question that had been asked. It had been asked by, as it were, my spiritual forefathers, in the hope and expectation that they would learn what they had not been able to find out during their time on earth, since the answer had first to be created in the centuries that followed.
Here, Jung indicates that his first task was to attempt to reconstruct the question that had been posed to him, and that the manner in which he did this was to continue working on his book. In this connection it seems important that one central problematic in this work was actually the question of inheritance: our relation to the past and its continued relevance in the present.
In the last quarter of the 19th century, a number of figures became interested in organic or ancestral memory, a notion buttressed by Lamarckian views on inheritance and Ernst Haeckel’s biogenic law, the contention that the individual developed recapitulated the development of the species. Figures such as Thomas Laycock, Théodule Ribot, and Stanley Hall contended that many of our actions and reactions should be viewed as ancestral reversions, and denoted the activation of mnemonic residues laid down in the course of human evolution, and that such residues resided in a phylogenetic layer of the unconscious.
As Gustave Le Bon noted in 1894, “Infinitely more numerous than the living, the dead are also infinitely more powerful than them. They govern the immense domain of the unconscious, this invisible domain which contains under its empire all the manifestations of intelligence and character.”
As I’ve reconstructed elsewhere, the views of the organic memory theories became a constitutive element of Jung’s theory formation in Transformations and Symbols of the Libido. As Jung put it, “The soul possesses in some degree a historical stratification, whereby the oldest stratum of which would correspond to the unconscious”
It is not clear whether the bewigged gentleman would have been satisfied with a lecture on phylogenetic psychology, or that he would have followed all the twists and turns of Jung’s argument in this work, tracing the myriad transformations of the chameleon-like ever-present libido, which not a few of the living have had a hard time with. However, it is clear that Jung himself was not satisfied with the answers he had given in this work. As he recounted, soon after the completion of the work, a more serious question arose, to which he could not give an answer at that time, namely, what was his myth.
This question lay at the heart of Jung’s confrontation with the unconscious. Perhaps it would not be going too far to say that this question may have lain closer to the one which may have been posed by the bewigged gentleman, Viewed from this perspective, Jung’s self-exploration can be seen as his attempt to articulate an answer.
Further light on these connections may be shed by a consideration of Jung’s Septem Sermones ad Mortuos, written in 1916. Until now, the Septem Sermones has remained the one significant chapter of what I term Jung’s private cosmology that has been published. With the publication of Jung’s Red Book, the study of his private cosmology as well as its interplay with his scholarly writings will finally be able to commence.
Till then, there still remains much to be studied in the Sermones. To begin with, they shed important light on what could be termed Jung’s theology of the dead.
First, we should retrace their genesis. At the beginning of 1916, Jung experienced a striking series of parapsychological events in his house. In Memories, Jung recounted what followed:
Around five o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday the front-door bell 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 door bell, and not heard it but saw it moving. We all simply stared at one another. The atmosphere was thick, believe me! Then I knew something had to happen. The whole house was as if there was a crowd present, crammed full of spirits. They were packed deep right up to the door and the air was so thick it was scarcely possible to breathe. As for myself, I was all a-quiver with the question: “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.” That is the beginning of the Septem Sermones. Then it began to flow out of me, and in the course of three evenings the thing was written. As soon as I took up the pen, the whole ghastly assemblage evaporated. The room quieted and the atmosphere cleared. The haunting was over.”
The Sermones commence with the following lines: “The dead came back from Jerusalem, where they did not find what they sought, They requested entrance with me and wanted to learn with me, so I taught them.”
In the course of their interchange, the dead posed a number of questions to Jung. “We want to know of God. Where is God? Is God dead?” “Speak to us again about the highest God.” “Speak to us of gods and devils, cursed one.” “Teach us, fool, of the church and holy communion.” “There is still one thing which we forgot to say—teach us about man.”
In replying to these questions posed by the dead, Jung articulated a comprehensive psycho-theological cosmology. However, initially at least, the dead were apparently unsatisfied with Jung’s teaching:
“The dead disappeared grumbling and moaning and their cries died away in the distance.” “The dead now raised a great tumult, for they were Christians.” “Now the dead howled and raged, for they were unperfected.” What do their questions tell us about them?
These “unperfected” Christian dead apparently did not know whether God was alive or dead, as if the perturbations of the teachings of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra had reached the beyond; they appeared to be of a polytheistic disposition and were ignorant of the church and knew not of man.
If, like Socrates, these dead had sought to have their questions answered by those already dead, they appear to have been disappointed, and have had no recourse but to turn to the living.
At first glance, this scene provides a striking reversal of what is usually found in spiritualism and its literature, where the living seek and receive instruction from the dead.
Whilst quite struck by this, Jung did not consider it exceptional.
To Aniela Jaffe, he noted that it astonished him that the dead had posed him questions, as one assumes that the dead had greater knowledge than us. It seemed that the dead only knew what they knew when they died, hence their tendency to intrude into our lives.
In this regard he found the Chinese custom that events should be conveyed to the ancestors to be very significant.
It seemed to him that personal development did not stop at death, but was dependent upon the increase of consciousness among the living. Spiritualistic literature indicated that the dead really sought psychological insight.
Unlike his dream at Arona, Jung here was able to note the questions of dead and to reply with detailed answers.
This passage articulates a critical aspect of Jung’s private cosmology:
“What is vital here is not just a conviction of the survival of bodily death, but a view of the significance of human life, conceived as a process of the development of consciousness that does not stop at the grave—moreover, a process in which the further development of the dead is dependent on the increase of consciousness of the living. Within this conception, through our terrestrial development, we are in fact aiding the postmortem development of the dead.
The Septem Sermones do not merely articulate a private cosmology. To Aniela Jaffé, Jung commented that they formed a prelude to what he would later communicate to the world in his books. Hence the task was one of conveying to the living what he had already conveyed to the dead. This shift did not consist simply in a translation from one idiom to another, but through an attempt to fuse the products of his fantasy with scholarship and research through his therapeutic practice.
It is not clear at what point Jung became convinced of survival. From 1929 onwards, a few years after the death of his mother, Jung began to broach this question in public writings.
In his Commentary to the Secret of the Golden Flower, Jung noted that as a physician he attempted to “strengthen the conviction of immortality,” especially with older patients. Death, he argued, should be seen as goal, rather than an end, and the latter part of life denoted “life towards death.”
Two years later, in his paper “The turning point of life,” he elaborated on this theme. The notion of life after death was a primordial image, and hence it made sense to live in accordance with this. From the perspective of a doctor of souls, he argued, it made sense to regard death as only a transition.
Three years later, he wrote his most extended treatment of this theme in his paper, Soul and death. Here he characterized religions as systems for the preparation for death, and argued that it consequently corresponded more to the collective soul of humanity to regard death as the fulfilment of life’s meaning.
Belief in an afterlife was anthropologically normative, and it was rather secular materialism that viewed death as a pure cessation that was an aberrant development, viewed from a historical and cross-cultural perspective. The issue of death became particularly acute at midlife. From then, “only those remain living who are willing to die with life. Since what happens in the secret hour of the midday of life is the reversal of the parabola, the birth of death.”
Whilst there was no firm proof for the continuation of life after death, parapsychological phenomena, for which there was abundant evidence, pointed to the relativization of space and time, which from an epistemological point of view made the possibility of survival conceivable. In these discussions, one sees psychology and psychotherapy occupying a position previously held by theology and moral philosophy, in trying to articulate an answer to the question of life and death.
This took the form of a new articulation of the authenticity paradigm. Crucially, for Jung, in contrast to figures such as Heidegger, the question of the possibility of survival was central to framing an ethic. In Being and Time, Heidegger argued: “the this-worldly ontological Interpretation of death takes precedence over any ontical otherworldly speculation.”
For Jung, as for Myers, one could not reach an adequate “this-worldly” comportment to death without considering the issue of survival.
One reader who took note of Jung’s allusion to contemporary physics here was Wolfgang Pauli, who wrote to him after reading his essay. Their collaboration clearly has bearings on the question of postmortem survival, even though this question was not explicitly posed in their correspondence. For the theory of synchronicity was clearly an attempt to render parapsychological phenomena comprehensible in terms of physics, and as such, opened the door to postmortem transcendence.
The notion of the relativization of space and time that Jung was to articulate in his theory of synchronicity could be considered as the basis for an epistemology of survival.
A decade later an event occurred, which Jung described as a “great caesura” in his life and his most tremendous experience. After breaking his foot, he had a heart attack, and experienced a series of visions over a period of several weeks.
He found himself in space, far above Ceylon, he was gazing at Europe, and could also see the Himalayas. He saw a dark block of stone resembling those he had seen in the Bay of Bengal, floating in space. There was an entrance to this, and there was a Hindu inside, who was expecting him. There was an antechamber with small flaming wicks. As he approached, he had the painful experience of earthly experience being stripped from him and yet he felt that everything he had done or experienced remained with him, which gave a sense of poverty and fullness at the same time. He also thought that he was about to enter an illuminated room in which he would meet all the people to whom he belonged and he would know why he had come into being and where his life was leading. However, he then saw the likeness of his doctor come up from the earth, in the form of a king of Kos, the site of the temple of Asclepius, who conveyed the message that there was a protest against him leaving the earth. It took three more weeks before he decided to live again. At one point, he had a vision that he was in the garden of pomegranates, and the wedding of Tifereth and Malchuth was taking place. He was also Rabbi Simon ben Jochai, whose wedding was taking place in the afterlife. Following this, the Marriage of the Lamb took place, and angels were present. He himself was this marriage. Following this, he had a vision of the marriage of Zeus and Hera.
Some elements of these visions seem to stem directly from Jung’s preparatory work on Mysterium Coniunctionis.
In an undated letter to Rivkah Scharf, probably written in 1944, Aniela Jaffe thanked her on behalf of Jung:
“Please thank Fraulein Scharf in my name, and tell her that I am especially thankful to her for the Kabbalistic literature that she had got for me before my illness.
It was especially helpful for me in the darkest hours of my illness.”
These visions made a great impression on Jung.
In Memories, he recalled that “I would have never imagined that any such experience was possible. It was not a product of imagination. The visions and experiences were utterly real; there was nothing subjective about them: they all had a quality of absolute objectivity.”
He described it as a feeling of everlasting bliss. He was particularly struck by the freedom from the burden of the body and from meaninglessness, He described it as the blessedness and wholeness of a non-spatial state, where present, past and future were one. The result of “this knowledge and the vision of the life, death, and the end of all things” was an unconditional affirmation of existence and the courage to write his subsequent books.
Jung’s published writings up to that point had been preeminently aimed at a medico-scientific audience, in other words, he tried to convey as much of his conceptions that he felt such readers might be able to grasp, expressed in a suitable exoteric language.
Thus works like Aion, Mysterium Coniunctionis, and Answer to job simply would not have been conceivable prior to this point.
This experience seems to have given Jung complete conviction concerning the survival of bodily death.
In 1947, E. A. Bennet asked Jung about life after death. He records Jung saying: “I am absolutely convinced of personal survival, but I do not know how long it persists. I have an idea that it is ( . ) or months—I get this idea from dreams. My personal experiences are absolutely convincing about survival . . I am absolutely convinced of the survival of the personality—for a time, of the marvelous experience of being dead. I absolutely hated coming back, I did not want to come. It was much better to die—just marvelous and far surpassing any experience I have ever had.”
The question of the noetic value of such experiences is a vexed one. Whatever our individual perspectives are, it is clear that Jung considered that he had died and had returned to life.
On February 1, 1945, he wrote of his experience to Kristine Mann:
My illness proved to be a most valuable experience, which gave me the inestimable opportunity of a glimpse behind the veil. The only difficulty is to get rid of the body, to get quite naked and void of the world and the ego-will. When you can give up the crazy will to live and when you seemingly fall into a bottomless mist, then the truly real life begins with everything which you were meant to be and never reached. It is something ineffably grand. I was free, completely free and whole, as I never felt before . . . Death is the hardest thing from the outside and as long as we are outside it. But once inside you taste of such completeness and peace and fulfilment that you don’t want to return … I will not last too long anymore. I am marked. But life has fortunately become provisional. It has become a transitory prejudice, a working hypothesis for the time being but not existence.
This last statement encapsulates a critical shift in Jung’s perspective on life, brought about through his experience of death. This relativization of three-dimensional
existence was coupled with an apocalyptic view of the present. On November 2, 1945, Jung wrote to Cary Baynes:
“We have landed indeed, after the nightmare of the war, in the precincts of hell. The war was a long drawn out suspense, in which everything seemed to be still existent yet provisional. One lived from day to day, never certain of to-morrow. An incredible atmosphere of horror was secretly present everywhere. When peace came at last, the immediate of oppression vanished, but only to make room to a feeling of almost cosmic doom. The atomic bomb or at least the thought of such a monstrous menace fitted the picture completely. We are still the island in a sea of abomination and we feel like relics of a faraway Golden Age. It is wonderful that we still can enjoy the beauty of high culture, but we know, that it is a remnant and that it’s days are counted.
. Carol Baumann has given me some news about Kristine Mann. I hope that her suffering will soon come to an end. The soul seems to detach from the body pretty early and there seems to be almost no realization of death. What follows is well-nigh incredible. It seems to be an adventure greater and more expected than anything one could dream of. Whatever we do and try in analysis is the first steps towards that goal. That is the only thing, which has accompanied me across the threshold.”
The contrast between the beatific visions and life on earth could not be acute. In the penultimate line here, Jung articulates a critical reformulation of analysis, that follows on from his characterization of religious systems as preparatory systems for death. The whole goal of analysis is conceived here as the preparation for the detachment of the soul from the body. Not how is your life going, but how is your death coming along, would be the critical question from this perspective. Thus analysis became reframed as a modern form of the ars moriendi.
In 1948, in his address at the founding of the Jung Institute in Zurich, one of the topics that Jung singled out for further research was this. He said:
“The investigation of pre- and post-mortal psychic phenomena also come into this category. These are particularly important because of the relativization
of space and time that accompanies them.”
Thus Jung was clearly hoping that the newly founded institute would conduct empirical research into this field. In this regard, he would have been disappointed.
As we have seen, by 1944, Jung considered that he had achieved a glimpse behind the veil and experienced death. However, he was less certain about how long this postmortem state persisted.
Jung reflected further on this issue after the death of Toni Wolff in 1953 and Emma Jung in 1955
In the published version of Memories, Jung discussed the issue of reincarnation, and noted that:
“Until a few years ago I could not discover anything convincing in this respect, although I kept a sharp lookout for signs. Recently, however, I observed in myself a series of dreams which would seem to describe the process of reincarnation in a deceased person of my acquaintance.”
As ever, Jung’s discussions in the protocols were more candid: the person in question turns out to be Toni Wolff.
On September 23, 1957, Jung narrated a dream he had had of her to Aniela Jaffe.
In the dream, she had returned to life, as if there had been a type of misunderstanding that she had died, and she had returned to live a further part of her life. Aniela Jaffe asked Jung if he thought this could indicate a possible.. . who are the dead, and what does it mean to answer them?
Rebirth. Jung replied that with his wife he had a sense of a great detachment or distance. By contrast, he felt that Toni Wolff was close. Jaffé then asked him whether something that one has not completed in one life has to be continued in a next life.
Jung replied that his wife reached something that Toni Wolff didn’t reach and that rebirth would constitute a terrible increase of actuality for her. He had the impression that Toni Wolff was nearer the earth, that she could manifest herself better to him, whilst his wife was on another level where he couldn’t reach her. He concluded that Toni Wolff was in the neighborhood, that she was nearer the sphere of three dimensional existence, and hence had the chance to come into existence again, He had the impression that for her a continuation of three dimensional existence would not be meaningless. He felt that higher insight hindered the wish for re-embodiment.
As to the status of such metaphysical conceptions such as rebirth, he appealed to pragmatic rule, stating that one should judge the truth of such conceptions by seeing whether they had a healing or stimulating effect.
Finally, we come to the question, who are the dead, and what does it mean to answer them?
On June 13, 1958, Jung discussed this issue with Aniela Jaffe. He noted. that one could only find one’s myth if one was together with one’s dead. He felt that he had given answers to his dead, and had relieved himself of the burden of this responsibility. However, his answers were applicable to his dead.
There was a danger that others would repeat this parrot-fashion to avoid answering their own dead. The question of whether the dead were spiritual or corporeal ancestors was unclear.
In another sense, Freud had left him an inheritance, a question directed towards him, which he had tried to take further. There are several striking things in this discussion.
First, Jung indicates that his finding his myth could only take place in conjunction with his dead.
In this regard, his theology of the dead forms an essential component of his myth and the recuperation of meaning. He draws attention to the fact that the answers that he has provided to his dead, in the form of his work, may not at all be suitable for anyone else’s dead, and hence in the elaboration of their myths. Indeed, there is a danger that they would simply borrow his to avoid the difficulty of articulating answers to their own dead.
Finally, there is the question of the identity of the dead. Are Jung’s ancestors simply the previous generations of his family, his spiritual ancestry, such as Kant, Goethe, Nietzsche, and Swedenborg, or former associates such as Freud?
This issue of the identity of one’s ancestors and the questions that they posed was linked to the question of karma. In this regard, he was particularly interested in Buddhist conceptions of karma. In Memories, he reflected:
“Am I a combination of the lives of these ancestors and I do embody these lives again? Have I lived before as a specific personality, and I progress so far in that life that I am now able to seek a solution? I do not know. Buddha left the question open, and I like to assume that he himself did not know with certainty … It might happen that I would not need to be reborn again so long as the world needed no such answer, and that I would be entitled to several hundred years of peace until someone was once more needed who took an interest in these matters and could profitably tackle the task anew. I imagine that for a while a period of rest could ensue, until the stint I had done in my lifetime needed to be taken up again.
One may pose the question, how are we dealing with the questions that Jung posed and left unanswered?
If he is still around, is his continued development dependent on us? Whatever one’s own perspective on these questions may be, it is clear that we have yet to catch up with his work and understand its historical genesis, and that it is our task to safeguard this inheritance. This reconstruction of his thinking around life and death is one contribution to this end. ~”The Boundless Expanse: Jung’s Reflections on Death and Life” by Sonu Shamdasani