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Mysterium Coniunctionis

Since C. G. Jung had come into contact with alchemy in the course of the twenties, he had been like a wanderer in the high mountains.

After a diligent search for materials in preparation and after a laborious ascent, he had climbed-menaced by steep precipices-peak after peak.

Roping down ahead of schedule was out of the question.

The danger of going astray in the labyrinthine heights was increased still more by the longing for new vistas, the intoxication of the mountain air.

Carl Gustav Jung, the enthusiastic mountain climber, could no longer extricate himself from the world of alchemistic symbolism, to withdraw from the secret path of the soul which Heraclitus said cannot be measured by steps.

So it is understandable that what had been somewhat tentatively put forward at first only to a small audience, for example in the Psychological Club or at the Eranos conferences (from 1933), and then developed in the weighty volume Psychology and Alchemy (1944 ), did not let the explorer rest.

His “investigations into the separation and combination of the psychic opposites in alchemy” were to accompany him to the last days of his life. Hence in his Memories:

“Since my aim was to demonstrate the full extent to which my psychology corresponded to alchemy-or vice versa-I wanted to discover, side by side with the religious Mysterium Coniunctionis questions, what special problems of psychotherapy were treated in the work of the alchemists.”

One of the central ideas in this effort was that of the coniunctio, the unification whose parallelism to the processes of integration on the path of individuation invited such studies-with the goal in both cases being to come closer to the secret of the unification of the opposites, the mysterium coniunctionis, and in this coming nearer to gain insights on the path of one’s own individuation which go beyond mere intellectual knowledge to the existential nature of transformation and maturation.

To this extent it corresponded to early Christian Gnosticism, the object of Jung’s earlier researches, because “Gnosis” was also not aimed at intellectual information, but at a thoroughgoing change in the person, his awakening to a new, higher life, which is not damaged by earthly death.

As far as his field of endeavor as a whole was concerned, Jung occasionally stated that it had always been painful to him that in depth psychology it was inherently necessary to deal with so many fields of culture that it could nowhere lead to a completeness of scientific specialization, particularly in the case of the pioneer who first had to locate and explore the hitherto disparate areas.

Alchemy, he said, was such a field, which it seemed profitable to him to go into.

And Marie Louise von Franz, who accompanied him in this as a coworker, remarks on this point:·

“The alchemistic tradition enabled him to connect the experiences and insights he had acquired through his direct, personal ‘descent into the unconscious’

with an objectively existing parallel material and to represent it in this way. This also made possible a connection with his insights into the historical roots of European intellectual development.”

As Jung was writing the Foreword to Mysterium Coniunctionis in October 1954, he cited a 1941 essay by Karl Kerenyi on the Aegean festival in Goethe’s Faust.

This essay, he said, had prompted him more than ten years ago to tackle his last great work, this very Mysterium Coniunctionis.

He must have read it in manuscript, because as early as 18 January of that year he had mentioned to the author his great interest in the subject.

He confessed to the “remarkable mood” this text had put him in.

It was above all the figure of Goethe’s Homunculus, he said, that fascinated him.

But this was not enough: Jung’s further comment that he would have to “mull over” Kerenyi’ s essay for a while suggests a meditative approach in

which what has been read once is returned to over and over again after being enriched time after time from the unconscious, especially if one or more nights intervene in which one has slept on the problem.

Jung aptly spoke in his letter of an “incubation,” a process such as was gone through in one of the ancient places of the healing mysteries, for example

Epidaurus: after one had called upon the god himself in the abaton or healing room, there was a chance of meeting in sleep and dreams Asklepios, the god of healing, in order to be cured by him.

Then Jung expressed the faint hope in regard to this work: “Perhaps I will manage to arrange my psychological material in a form that fits it better.”

Some eight weeks after this letter he returned to the subject.

He let it be known that he had already been thinking over the whole subject “for years,” admittedly without having come to a satisfactory result.

Naturally it was clear to him as an authority on alchemy that what had been called up was the central concept of the alchemical coniunctio, which was intimately bound up with the production of the Faustian Homunculus.

Thus Jung wrote to Kerenyi:

The Aegean Festival is one aspect of this problem, whereas the problem itself extends infinitely further: on one hand along the line of the hierosgamos to Gnosis and Christian mythology and on into Indian Tantrism, and on the other via the Homunculus into the psychology of alchemy.

Furthermore-he admitted here-Jung had been entertaining “for some time now” the plan of looking into this fascinating motif of the coniunctio, and so Kerenyi’s encouragement was welcome.

Ideally he would have liked to get straight to work, but then the Paracelsus anniversary intervened in 1941, to which he-the self-styled nonspecialist-was expected to contribute some “Paracelsica.”

But his absorption in the work of the great Hohenheimer could not have been very much of a distraction, for his considerable influence onthe alchemy of his time is well known.

Thus the researcher was on familiar ground.

In fact his efforts led into work on the subject of the coniunctio, for it soon became clear to Jung that a mere psychological commentary on Kerenyi’s essay would not be sufficient.

The size of the subject, the difficulty of the problems involved, and the wealth of the material to be considered explain why Jung spent more than a decade working on Mysterium Coniunctionis.

It should also be remembered that his heart attack in 1944 considerably reduced his efficiency and the pace of his work.

If his previous work consisted in opening up the side field of alchemy, as he did in Psychology and Alchemy, it was now time to go deeper.

Thematically, his study on “The Psychology of the Transference,” which appeared a little later ( 1946), also belonged here.

It might have been surprising that it was not only personal taste or mere theoretical interest that prompted the author to build a bridge between alchemy and psychology.

He was guided, as he remarked expressly, by practical necessity.

This arose from the concrete opposition of therapist and client, in which the “transference” arose as an autonomous influence of the unconscious, for example in the form of the projection of the ideas and feelings of one on the other, and thus not only from patient onto analyst.

Thus it is a process of relationship between two people.

Jung had compared the process with the mixing of two different chemical elements or substances.

If a “bond” is produced, both are “altered.”

It can only be noted incidentally that the original Freudian concept of transference is unlike that of Jung.

Obviously, the transference phenomenon and its psychological elucidation in “Psychology of the Transference” already led into the problem of opposites and already made familiar the process of both chemical and psychological unification.

Therefore Jung’s introductory statement there was:

“Clearly coniunctio represents an archetypal image of the development of the human intellect, which expresses sometimes as sacred marriage, sometimes as mystical or chemical wedding,  the deepest longing of mankind, be it more erotic or-with no contradiction-more religious or even more technical and chemical in emphasis.”

It is always the combination of what has been separated, by means of which the individual is raised to a higher state, that of wholeness or selfhood.

The outward process-be it a technical operation or a religious act-becomes the symbolic expression of an inward state, and even more: of a mysterium that encompasses the dimensions of both inner and outer and provides a hint of the unus mundus, the reality of a unified world.

It was to this that the author of the Mysterium Coniunctionis directed his readers’ attention, after discussing in the introductory chapters of Volume 1 the individual components of the coniunctio, the paradox-filled alchemical tradition and the diverse manifestations of the opposites, and then presenting in Volume 2 the paired entities of Rex and Regina (King and Queen) and Adam and Eve as personifications of the process of unification and transformation.

The wide scope of the subject and the great difficulty in mastering it lay not least in the fact . that it· considered not the material domain alone, nor solely that of psychic experience.

Across both of these extended conflicting tension-fields, such as heavenly versus earthly, as well as spiritual versus physical and material, to limit ourselves to these original pairs of opposites.

Arranging these two (or similar) pairs of opposites-as has often happened in iconography-perpendicular to each other results in the quaternio, a four-sided figure representing totality: above and below, right and left.

Draw a circle around this cross, and we have the basic structure of a wholeness-symbolizing mandala, as it has been practically ubiquitous in Christian and non-Christian tradition, in both East and West.

Though the objection has repeatedly been made against Jung that whatever he touched turned into a psychic phenomenon, his later work in particular shows how much importance he placed in the non-psychic, or more precisely in that which lay beyond psyche and material, which embraced and thus united both domains of existence.

The already-mentioned results of his researches into synchronicity, which should be included with his alchemy and coniunctio studies, showed how much it was empirical observations and not speculation that moved him, as a psychologist, to incorporate the material aspect.

Synchronicity, as is well known, comes into play wherever there is a connection between an inner (psychic) event-be it a dream, a spontaneous thought, an idea and an external fact, a “coincidence” that has the same meaning for the individual who experiences it.

To walk barefoot over broken glass in a dream and the next day emerge uninjured from a dangerous situation, for example, points in this direction.

A further characteristic is that the familiar principle of cause and effect seems to be suspended here, for ·which reason Jung conceived of synchronicity as an “acausal connecting principle.”

It is striking indeed that extremely analogous parallel phenomena are known in microphysics, which is why a dialogue between physics and psychology, and with parapsychology as well, has appeared promising at this point.

Thus over and over it was empirical indications which induced Jung to adopt the designation unus mundus, the original, one, unified world.

It was a concept of medieval nature philosophy which corresponded in turn to the agnosia of the Gnostics and was equivalent to a primeval unconsciousness.

Jung believed that the alchemistic nature-philosophers had anticipated the concept of the collective unconscious.

But this brings us to the question of where this uniform arrangement of the universal-in the strict sense-unus mundus comes from.

And clearly there is no more fitting sign to illustrate what is meant than the symbol, universal in its turn, of the mandala (Sanskrit, “circle”), for:

The mandala symbolizes through its central point the ultimate oneness of all the archetypes as well as the diversity of the world of appearances, and hence forms the empirical correlate to the metaphysical notion of an unus mundus. The alchemistic correlate is the lapis philosophorum and its synonyms, particularly the microcosm.

If the symbolism of the mandala is the psychological correlate to the alchemistic unus mundus, then the synchronicity which Jung described is its parapsychological analogue.

Jung continually pointed out the degree to which the alchemist’s experimentation was also determined by the meditative element, so that one could speak of a psychological correlate to the practical opus of the experimenter.

Yet the purely intellectual unio does not yet constitute the wise man, nor the work.

Likewise the mental effort does not yet represent the peak or end point of the opus a!chymicum, but only the first phase of the procedure.

The second stage is reached by the joining of the unio mentalis, that is the oneness of mind and soul, with the body.

But the completion of the mysterium coniunctionis can only be expected when the oneness of mind, soul, and body has been joined with the unus mundus of the beginning.

This third stage of the conjunction became the object of metaphorical representation in the style of an assumptio and coronation of Mary, wherein the mother of God represents the body.

The assumptio is really a wedding festival, the Christian version of the hierosgamos, whose original incestual character played a great role among the alchemists.

Thus there are elements, states, and aspects of the coniunctio which, because of the variety of their reciprocal relationships, their wealth of images, and the multidimensionality of their symbols-so far at any rate-are difficult to grasp.

And any attempt, as it were, to take into custody that which exceeds the rationality of the ego-consciousness, even for example in the service of the “proof of God,” resembles the questionable demands aimed at quantifying the qualitative and making it measurable, definable, and manipulable.

Such attempts are by their very nature doomed to failure.

One need not be a confirmed pessimist to admit this.

What nevertheless becomes clear from Jung’s studies, and what is rather suspected than conclusively proved from the aforementioned reasoning, is the transcendental background of a “reality of oneness.”

By this is understood the common background against which microphysics and depth psychology operate.

This is as much physical as psychic, and hence neither, but rather of a third, neutral nature which can be grasped at best allusively, as it is essentially transcendental.

And further:

The transcendental psychophysical background is equivalent to a “potential world,” insofar as in it all those conditions are at hand which determine the form of empirical phenomena.

With this are opened, as the Paracelsist Gerhard Dorn so often quoted by Jung expressed it, “windows on eternity.”

The horizons are widened with the widening of human con Mysterium Coniunctionis consciousness that is always implicit in our discussion of the coniunctio.

Therefore the alchemist and the depth psychologist arriving at an adequate experience are not far from all those who have achieved a qualitative extrasensory, or rather spiritual experience, be it in the style of Zen, through the samadhi-experience, or in a Western method of meditation better suited to the conscious disposition and mental structure of Western people.

When Jung came to speak of meditation and contemplation in the second volume of his work on the coniunctio, he was admittedly skeptical of their value to the West.

What he said in the early fifties was to be sure not entirely superseded by the “mystical movement” and the psychohygienic or meditative self-realization boom that arose later, but serious interest in methods of spiritual instruction had grown considerably in the meantime.

Jung’s high regard for self-knowledge, which included the precincts of the unconscious, on the whole most likely underscored the significance of meditative efforts.

What insights Jung had to pass on to his time are obvious, insights which he first related to himself.

He told himself, for example:

if l know that the nature of reality lies in the infinite, the unconditional, the eternal, then things lose their power to fascinate.

Their thingness becomes transparent.

And when we understand that in this life we are already linked with the unus mundus and thus with that infinity and eternity, our desires change along with our attitude.

Our “priorities” are adjusted.

This opens up a completely new view of life and a new relationship to our fellow men and the whole world around us.

For, as Jung wrote a few years after finishing Mysterium Coniunctionis:

In the final analysis, we count for something only because of the essential we embody, and if we do not embody that, life is wasted. In our relationships to other men, too, the crucial question is whether an element of boundlessness is expressed in the relationship. The feeling for the infinite, however, can be attained only if we are bounded to the utmost. The greatest limitation for man is the “self”; it is manifested in the experience:

“I am only that!” Only consciousness of our narrow confinement in the self forms the link to the limitlessness of the unconscious. In such awareness we experience ourselves concurrently as limited and eternal, as both the one and the other. In knowing ourselves to be unique in our personal combination-that is, ultimately limited-we possess also the capacity for becoming conscious of the infinite. But only then!

In an era which has concentrated exclusively upon extension of living space and increase of rational knowledge at all costs, it is a supreme challenge to ask man to become conscious of his uniqueness and his limitation.

Needless to say, these lines from C. G. Jung’s late years tallied with his manifold, deeply plumbed experience. One of the most drastic of Jung’s late experiences was undoubtedly his heart attack in the spring of 1944.

In the year in which Psychology and Alchemy appeared, this event was part of the process which the author of the coniunctio book had to undergo.

Hence it was no coincidence that Jung came to know from his own “intuition,” when near death, what the sacred marriage, the leitmotif of the entire work, ultimately meant!

Other events which pointed up the finiteness but also the uniqueness of human existence came in the time of the elaboration and composition of this late work, giving him, as it were, additional existential draft.

In the spring of 1953, totally unexpectedly, literally from one day to the next, Toni Wolff died.

Considering how close she had been to the explorer of the archetypal world and how she had been able to inspire his production from the unconscious, this loss was a heavy one.

To his friends Jung admitted that not only had he not reckoned with her death, as she was thirteen years his junior, but that conspicuously, despite their intimate relationship, there had been no hints whatsoever of Toni’s death.

Barbara Hannah, who was equally close to both of them, rescounted the great shock that Jung’s health suffered during those weeks:

… his tachycardia returned, he kept an unusually high pulse for several weeks, and was not well enough to go to the funeral. Outwardly he kept extremely calm, so that both his wife and his secretary told me they thought he had overcome the shock after a few days, but from my notes for April, 195 3, I see that he said himself that his pulse was still between 80 and 120; moreover, this trouble continued for some time ….

Although it took Jung a long time to overcome the shock physically, he was able much sooner to find a psychological attitude to Toni’s death and to accept the pain it gave him.

Thus it is hardly possible to comprehend the writings that belong to his late work without reading with them the fate runes of their author which lie hidden, as it were, between the lines of these books.

Jung was able to keep himself clear of any overestimation of what he had set down in Mysterium Coniunctionis.

For despite the daunting abundance of what the author had won in the way of knowledge and insight in connection with alchemy and psychology, he was fully aware of the fragmentary and incomplete character of his research results in this area.

Long after he had finished the work, to which as a third volume Marie Louise von Franz added an equally weighty volume of text and commentary on the medieval alchemical text Aurora Consurgens, he recalled the fate of some of the alchemists.

It spoke well for their honesty that after years of continuing toil they were able to produce neither gold nor the highly praised philosophers’ stone, and openly admitted this.

To these men, “failures” in the popular sense, Jung compared himself.

He too had in the end been unable to solve the riddle of the Mysterium coniunctionis. In a letter of 15 October 1957 he wrote, at the age of eighty-two:

On the contrary I am darkly aware of things lurking in the background of the problem-things too big for our horizons …. To deal with the coniunctio in human words is a disconcerting task, since you are forced to express and formulate a process taking place “in Mercurio” and not on the level of human thought and human language, i.e., not within the sphere of discriminating consciousness …. The “way” is not an upward-going straight line, f.i. from earth to heaven or from matter to spirit, but rather a circumambulatio of and an approximation to the Centrum. We are not liberated by leaving something behind but only be fulfilling our task as mixta composita, i.e., human beings between the opposites. ~Gerhard Wehr, Jung: A Biography, Pages 396-408