Letters Vol. I

To A. Zarine

Dear M. Zarine, 3 May 1939

Excuse the long delay in my response; I do not always have time to answer long letters such as yours.

And your questions are rather complicated.

In reading your letter I did not get the impression at all that your reasoning was morbid or unsound.

The reasoning itself seems to me normal, but the way that you apply it is not very fortunate, since I question whether you have fully understood what the “transcendent function” means.

In the normal man the transcendent function operates entirely in the unconscious, which tends to continually reestablish the equilibrium.

The arguments that you bring up in your letter concern the transcendent function, to be sure, but I do not think you have grasped the true nature of the process.

Of course, that is quite natural, since you cannot have had the experience of a psychologist and Consequently cannot picture how these things really are.

Yet I do not even need to take an abnormal case for an example.

There are many normal cases in which, under certain circumstances, a character opposed to the conscious personality suddenly manifests itself, causing a conflict between the two personalities.

Take the classic case of the temptation of Christ, for example.

We say that the devil tempted him, but we could just as well say that an unconscious desire for power confronted him in the form of the devil.

Both sides appear here: the light side and the dark.

The devil wants to tempt Jesus to proclaim himself master of the world.

Jesus wants not to succumb to the temptation; then, thanks to the function that results from every conflict, a symbol appears: it is the idea of the Kingdom of Heaven, a spiritual kingdom rather than a material one.

Two things are united in this symbol, the spiritual attitude of Christ and the devilish desire for power.

Thus the encounter of Christ with the devil is a classic example of the transcendent function.

It appears here in the form of an involuntary personal experience.

But it can be used as a method too; that is, when the contrary will of the unconscious is sought for and recognized in dreams and other unconscious products.

In this way the conscious personality is brought face to face with the counter-position of the unconscious.

The resulting conflict-thanks precisely to the transcendent function-leads to a symbol uniting the opposed positions.

The symbol cannot be consciously chosen or constructed; it is a sort of intuition or revelation.

Hence the transcendent function is only usable in part as a method, the other part always remains an involuntary experience.

Naturally, these experiences appear only in people without religious convictions.

For where there is a definite belief there are also definite concepts from among which a symbol can be chosen.

Thus conflict is avoided, or rather the opposite does not appear, being hidden beneath a dogmatic image (Christ, for example).

That is why you find no trace of the transcendent function in the psychology of a man with definite religious convictions.

What the term “transcendent function”designates is really the transition from one condition to another.

When a man is caught by a religious concept, he does not leave it; he stays with his religious conviction, and, furthermore, that is what he should do.

If any conflict appears, it is immediately repressed or resolved by a definite religious idea.

That is why the transcendent function can be observed only in people who no longer have their original religious conviction, or never had any, and who, in consequence, find themselves directly faced with their unconscious.

This was the case with Christ.

He was a religious innovator who opposed the traditional religion of his time and his people.

Thus he was extra ecclesiam and in a state of nulla salus.

That is why he experienced the transcendent function, whereas a Christian saint could never experience it, since for him no fundamental and total change of attitude would be involved.

You can find a detailed exposition of the transcendent function in Goethe’s Faust.

After his pact with the devil, Faust is transformed through a series of symbols.

But Goethe could describe them only because he had no definite preconceived religious ideas.

He too was extra ecclesiam.

The transcendent function is not something one does oneself; it comes rather from experiencing the conflict of opposites.

You can find a detailed exposition of this problem in my Psychological Types.

A semiotic representation cannot be transformed into a symbol, because a semeion is nothing more than a sign, and its meaning is perfectly well known, whereas a symbol is a psychic image expressing something unknown.

In a certain sense the symbol has a life of its own which guides the subject and eases his task; but it cannot be invented or fabricated because the experience of it does not depend on our will.

Hoping that I have been able to give you a rather clearer idea of what I mean by the “transcendent function,”

I am,

Very sincerely yours,

C.G. Jung ~Carl Jung, Letters Vol. I, Pages 267-269

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