The Art of Life and Carl Jung:
This interview by an English journalist living in Switzerland, Gordon Young, was published in the Sunday Times (London), July 17, 1960, in anticipation of Jung’s 85th birthday (July 26), and in abridged form in the American Weekly (New York), February 19, 1961. A fuller version appears in the epilogue of Gordon Young’s Doctors Without Drugs (London, 1962), from which minor changes and several passages not included in the newspaper versions are incorporated here.
Young’s career as a newspaperman resembles Knickerbocker’s (see above, p. 115). He was Reuters’ chief correspondent in Berlin before the war; throughout the war he was a correspondent in the Middle East and Europe, and for a period he was attached to SHAPE and the American First Army. At the end of the war he made a secret trip to German occupied Denmark with the Danish underground. At the time of his death in 1964, Young was assistant director of the International Press Institute in Zurich.
What am I planning for my birthday? Why, to keep away from visitors, of course. Especially the high brows. Most of them haven’t the remotest idea what I am talking about. Trouble is, they don’t bother to read my books because they’re too high-hat. I’m not a bit taken in by intellectuals, you know. After all, I’m one myself. Do you know, I had an intellectual fellow here the other day—an American. I talked to him for half an hour without his saying one word. Then his eyes suddenly lighted up as though a sun were rising inside him and he told me in astonishment, “Why, Dr. Jung, what you are telling me is just plain common sense.”
As I say, the trouble is that some of the people who come to see me simply don’t bother to do their proper reading. They don’t even read my books. Do you know who reads my books? Not the academic people, oh no, they think they know everything already. It’s ordinary people, often quite poor people. And why do they do it? Because there’s a deep need in the world just now for spiritual guidance— almost any sort of spiritual guidance. Look at the popularity of astrology just now. People read about astrology because it offers them one form of mental inspiration, perhaps a form with limitations, but at least it’s better than nothing at all.
Do you believe that astrology has any definite value?
The whole subject, of course, is controversial. But you know I once did some statistical research on astrology and my final figures were examined by mathematicians at the University of Chicago. They told me that they found them not without significance. Naturally, when I heard that I pricked up my ears. We are passing out of the period of the Fishes just now and into the sign of Aquarius, which may well bring some new values with it. Some people quite seriously consider that this may be of great significance in the world’s imminent development.
Or take alchemy. To most people alchemy simply means a lot of old men who tried to make gold. But that was not the truth at all. If people would only take the trouble to turn up the actual writings of the ancient alchemists, they would find a deep treasure-trove of wisdom, much of which is perfectly applicable to the very events which are happening in the world today. After all, what can possibly be more important than the study of how men’s minds work, and have worked in the past? Everything which happens in the world today is the result of what is happening in men’s minds. Yet how many people are taking the trouble to consider the minds of, say, Khrushchev or Eisenhower, or the basic psychological reasons for such movements as
Nazism, Communism, or anti-Jewish trends? What would happen to us if one of the present leaders of the world suddenly went mad? Yet how many people are giving any serious consideration to problems such as these? But I must not talk too deeply about such matters or I shall be accused of trying to meddle in politics.
Although people are nowadays living much longer, they are still expected to retire at about sixty. They get forced into inactivity and sometimes loneliness. How do you think elderly people can best come to terms with life?
For a long time I have advocated schools for the adult. After all, we try to equip young people with all the education they need for the building up of a successful social existence. This kind of education is valid for about as far as the middle of life—say, thirty-five to forty years. Man nowadays has a chance to live twice as long, and the second half of life has for many people a structure which is thoroughly different from the first half. But this fact remains just as often unconscious. One does not realize that the rising tide of life carries young people forward to a certain summit of safety, fulfillment, or success. In this period one can forget bad experiences; life is still new and fresh, and every day renews its hope that it may bring the desired
things which one has missed hitherto.
It is when you approach the ominous region round the fortieth year that you look back upon the past which has accumulated behind you and the silent questions approach you, stealthily or openly: Where am I standing today? Have my dreams come true? Have I fulfilled my expectations of a happy and successful life as I imagined them twenty years ago? Have I been strong, consistent, active, intelligent, reliable, and enduring enough to seize my opportunities or to make the right choice at the crossroads and produce the proper answer to the problem which fate or fortune put before me? And then the final question comes: What is the chance that I shall fail again in fulfilling that which I obviously have been unable to accomplish in the first forty years?
Then, with the beginning of your life’s second part, inexorably a change imposes itself, subtly at first but with ever-increasing weight. Whatever you have acquired hitherto is no longer the same as you regarded it when it still lay before you—it has lost something of its charm, its splendor and its attractiveness. What was once an adventurous effort has become routine. Even flowers wilt, and it is hard to discover something perennial which will endure. Looking back slowly becomes a habit, no matter how much you detest and try to suppress it. Like the wife of Orpheus emerging from the underworld, who could not resist casting the forbidden look behind her, and consequently had to return from whence she came.
This sort of thing is what you might call the “way of life a revers,” so characteristic of many people and which at the beginning is adopted quite unawares: to continue in one’s accustomed style, if possible more and better—to improve on the past, as if your disposition, which accounts for all your past failures, would be different in the future. But without your being aware of it your energy is no longer attracted to its former objectives in the way it was before: enthusiasm has become routine and zeal a habit. The backwards look will not fail to show you sides and aspects of yourself long forgotten and other ways of life you have missed or avoided before. The more your actual life becomes routine and habit, the less it will be satisfactory.
Soon unconscious fantasies begin to play with other possibilities, and these can become quite troublesome unless they are made conscious in time. They may be mere regressions into childhood, which prove to be most unhelpful when one is confronted with the difficult task of creating a new goal for an aging life. If one has nothing to look forward to except the habitual things, life cannot renew itself any more. It gets stale, it congeals and petrifies, like Lot’s wife who could not detach her eyes from the things hitherto valued. Yet these insipid fantasies may also contain germs f real new possibilities or of new goals worthy of attainment.
There are always things ahead, and despite all the overwhelming power of the historical pattern they are never quite the same. They are “as good as new,” like human beings or even crystals which, notwithstanding their exceedingly simple structure, are never the same.
One might advise old people to live on with the times, and realize that time would provide them with all necessary novelties. But such easy advice takes it for granted that an old individual is capable of perceiving and agreeing with new things, ways, and means. But this is just the trouble: new goals demand new eyes which see them and a new heart which desires them. In all too many cases life is disappointing and even the most cherished illusions do not last forever. It is all too easy to reach the conclusion: plus fa change, plus fa reste la meme chose. That is a fatal conclusion, however: it blocks the flow of life and causes ever so many troubles of a physical or mental nature. Your pure rationalist, who bases his expectations on statistical verities, is thoroughly perplexed when he has to deal with such cases because he ignores the one important practical fact that life is always an exception, a “statistical random phenomenon.”
It is so because it is always the life of an individual, who is a distinct, unique, and inimitable being, and not “life in general,” since there is no such thing. Then what do you advise this inimitable being to do once he passes the ominous age of forty?
An ever-deepening self-knowledge is, I’m afraid, indispensable for the continuation of real life in old age, no matter how unpopular self-knowledge may be. Nothing is more ridiculous or inept than elderly people pretending to be young—they even lose their dignity, the one prerogative of age. Looking outwards has got to be turned into looking into oneself. Discovering yourself provides you with all you are, were meant to be, and all you are living from and for. The whole of yourself is certainly an irrational entity, but this is just precisely yourself, which is meant to live as a unique and unrepeatable experience. Thus, whatever you find in your given disposition is a factor of life which must be taken into careful consideration.
If you should find, for instance, an ineradicable tendency to believe in God or immortality, do not allow yourself to be disturbed by the blather of so-called freethinkers. And if you find an equally resistant tendency to deny all religious ideas do not hesitate: deny them and see how that influences your general welfare and your state of mental or spiritual nutrition. But beware of childishness: whether you call the ultimate unknown “God” or “Matter” is equally futile, since we know neither the one nor the other, though we doubtless have experiences of both. But we know nothing beyond them, and we cannot produce either the one or the other.
Then you don’t think it is futile for people to place their hopes in the possibility of life after death?
As there is no possibility of proof, it is just as legitimate to believe in life after death as it is to doubt it. We have experiences which point both ways. The only important thing is to find out which of your views agrees better with your general disposition. There are healthy and unhealthy, helpful and obnoxious ideas. Nobody in his senses will eat indigestible food, and correspondingly a sensible person will avoid unsuitable thoughts and opinions. In case of doubt, try to learn from the traditional wisdom of all times and peoples. This gives you ample information about the so-called eternal ideas and values which have been shared by mankind since earliest times. One should not be deterred by the rather silly objection that nobody knows whether these old universal ideas—God, immortality, freedom of the will, and so on—are “true” or not. Truth is the wrong criterion here. One can only ask whether they are helpful or not, whether man is better off and feels his life more complete, more meaningful and more satisfactory with or without them.
Agnosticism is never sufficient when it comes to the question of life as a whole. We need certain general views about things we cannot know in order to sum up our specific life experiences or to satisfy our desire for self-cognition and wholeness. And as nobody knows what the truth is, everybody is free to partake of such ideas or to reject them.
It does make a difference, however, whether your opinions or convictions coincide with traditional and universal wisdom or not, since if you agree, you are swimming in and carried along by the universal current of instinctive mental behavior, and, if you disagree, you have it against you. A negative attitude has its merit too, as it gives you the satisfactory feeling that you are capable of resisting the general temptation to fall in with collective prejudices. Such a resistance may even prepare you in a most efficient way for a later firm conviction of the contrary. The same is true in a reversed sense in the case of one who is carried along by the ideas of his time and milieu without ever questioning himself about their validity.
Young people today are often accused by their elders of being fascinated by a philosophy of despair. Do you agree?
Young people of today, inasmuch as they feel revolutionary, are simply realizing what their parents and educators did not admit openly to themselves, namely disbelief and doubt in religious and moral notions. In the absence of philosophic reflection, their parents based their lives on a positive and practical conviction of an entirely materialistic and rationalistic kind, being supported in this attitude by the enormous influence of the sciences.
One of the most impressive examples is modern physics, which has finally recognized the atom as a cosmic unity. Such a discovery might well have satisfied our desire for unity, oneness, and wholeness, but today we already know of more than thirty smaller particles making up the wholeness of the atom. That is typical of what happens in the science of nature; it never leads to simple oneness and wholeness, but into the multiplicity and segregation of—to, use an Eastern term—the “ten thousand things.” This is the strict contrary of integration into the oneness and wholeness of the individual as well as of the cosmos.
The older generation of today looks with startled eyes upon their children and their more or less curious behavior. But the children live by preference the unlived unconscious lives of their parents, that which their parents did not know, did not dare, and denied to exist, sometimes against their better knowledge.
Even today education in general has not yet discovered that for pedagogical purposes it would be far more important to know parent- instead of child-psychology. Parents should marvel at nothing except at their own naiveté and ignorance of their own psychology, which is, in turn, the harvest sown by the grandparents—naiveté and ignorance carrying on the curse of unconsciousness into an indefinite future. My answer to this problem is: education of the educator—or schools for adults, who have never been taught about the requirements of human life after forty.
What do you consider to be more or less basic factors making for happiness in the human mind?
i. Good physical and mental health.
2. Good personal and intimate relations, such as those of marriage, the family, and friendships.
3. The faculty for perceiving beauty in art and nature.
4. Reasonable standards of living and satisfactory work.
5. A philosophic or religious point of view capable of coping successfully with the vicissitudes of life.
Both the standard of living the work depends, of course, largely upon the reasonableness of one’s expectations and one’s responsibility. Extravagances can cause both happiness and unhappiness. And along with a philosophic or religious outlook must go a corresponding practical morality, since without that both philosophy and religion are mere make believe, without concrete effects.
A list of the factors determining unhappiness would be much longer! What you dislike and fear seems to be just waiting for you, and what you seek and desire seems to be most evasive—and when you find it at last it may easily be not exactly flawless. Nobody can achieve happiness through preconceived ideas, one should rather call it a gift of the gods. It comes and goes, and what has made you happy once does not necessarily do so at another time.
All factors which are generally assumed to make for happiness can, under certain conditions, produce the contrary. No matter how ideal your situation may be, it does ot necessarily guarantee happiness. A relatively slight disturbance of your biological or psychological equilibrium may suffice to destroy your happiness. No good health, no favorable financial conditions, no untroubled family relations can protect you, for instance, against unspeakable boredom, a boredom which might make you welcome even the change of circumstances brought about by a not too severe illness.
Yet you are a firm believer in the possibility of happiness in life—even in marriage?
The most elusive of intangibles! Be that as it may, one thing is certain: there are as many nights as days, and the one is just as long as the other in the year’s course. Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word “happy” would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. Of course it is understandable that we seek happiness and avoid unlucky and disagreeable chances, despite the fact that reason teaches us that such an attitude is not reasonable because it defeats its own ends—the more you deliberately seek happiness the more sure you are not to find it. It is therefore far better to take things as they come along, with patience and equanimity. After all, perhaps once in a while there will be something good, lucky or enjoyable for you in Fortune’s bag of relevant and gifts.
(Dr. Jung reached down and picked up his hat and his antique Malacca walking stick from the grass. I commented on the carving of the cane’s heavy silver knob.)
Yes, it’s an old Chinese carving. Look, you see it’s a dragon, and on his tail is a flower with a precious pearl inside it. It’s an allusion to the old alchemists’ symbol of the snake biting its tail, but the dragon, of course, is the Chinese symbol of good fortune. He’s always chasing after that flower, round and round the stick, but he will never catch it, because it’s on his tail. Really, he’s rather like those highbrows I was talking about, eh? ~Carl Jung; C.G. Jung Speaking.