Gary Lachman's new biography of Carl Jung, Jung the Mystic, explores Jung's fascination with mysticism and alchemy in a way that previous biographies have only glossed over. The volatile chemistry between Jung and Freud also gets some nuanced analysis from Lachman, a scholar of the esoteric. Lachman shared insights about his work below.
JD: When did you first get the idea for your book, and were you intimidated by your subject?
GL: I've wanted to write about Jung for some time. He is one of the big names in 'alternative thought'—or whatever you want to call it—and as I had already written about Rudolf Steiner, P.D. Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, as well as Swedenborg, it made sense to come to terms with him as well. Followers of particular schools, whether its Anthroposophy, the Fourth Way, or whatever, tend to celebrate their master at the expense of others, but what I find fascinating and important are the connections between these different 'ways'. There are many similarities between Jung, Gurdjieff, Steiner, and Swedenborg, and in the book I focus on some of them. Also, in my own case, I was reading Jung well before I discovered any of the others. "Memories, Dreams, Reflections" and "Man and His Symbols" were part of the 'countercultural' canon I absorbed as a teenager in the early 70s, along with Castaneda, Hesse, Suzuki, Kerouac, Watts, etc., so his ideas had a huge impact on me early on. I was intimidated by the amount of material already written about Jung, as well as by Jung's own huge body of work. Deirdre Bair's enormous biography covers practically every bit of Jung's life, but really doesn't go into the ideas. Ronald Hayman's book is very readable, but his antipathy to Jung is so obvious it gets annoying. Books by followers can often sink into hagiography—something that is true of Steiner and the others. So I thought that there's a place for a book about Jung's 'mystical' side by a sympathetic but critical outsider.
JD: Freud appears to be the shadow figure in JUNG THE MYSTIC. I was struck by the way you captured Freud's uncanny ability to drive Jung mad (metaphorically speaking) by reducing all that is spiritual, both culturally and philosophically, to something small and obvious. What do you see as the most significant aspects of their relationship?
GL: In many ways they were made for each other. Freud was 25 years older than Jung and was looking for someone to carry on his work. Jung thought his own father was a weak character, and was looking for a role model. Also, Jung was brilliant and understandably wanted to find a field in which he could shine. Championing Freud against the philistines provided him with an opportunity to display his own abilities. And he had already reached similar conclusions to Freud's about 'the unconscious', through his word associations test, before working with him. So they were two explorers, mapping out the same strange territory. But, as is usually the case with two brilliant people, the honeymoon couldn't last. If you're familiar with Freud, you'll know he demanded more or less complete obedience. Jung toed the line for a while, but when you study the relationship, it's clear that it was only a matter of time, and the hesitation and qualifications were there from the beginning. It's also clear that Freud needed Jung more than Jung needed him—the situation is in many ways similar to the relationship between Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, that I write about in "In Search of P.D. Ouspensky". Ultimately, Jung couldn't swallow Freud's preposterous insistence on sex being the psyche's deus ex machina, and in many ways Jung's vilification as a 'mystic' is symbolic of the reductionist, materialist view's refusal to allow any mention of spiritual or religious reality into the discussion.
JD: Several years ago a number of books were published that suggested Abraham Lincoln was likely gay, or at least had a long romantic relationship with his best friend and bed partner Joshua Speed. Yet, the idea of Lincoln's gayness is not part of mainstream awareness. It doesn't even make it into argument. Do you see any parallel with Jung? As in, he kept his mystic side somewhat in the closet, and because mysticism itself is so misunderstood in Western culture, people may still dismiss this side of him—out of prejudice as well as good old fashioned ignorance/obliviousness?
GL: I've never heard this about Lincoln, and I don't know if Jung's case is quite the same. What I find interesting about the whole 'mystic' business is that some people use it as a stick to beat Jung with, some pass over it quickly and get on to more 'serious' matters, some ignore it altogether, some celebrate it, and some recognize it as an inescapable part of his story, but want to say it really wasn't as important as those 'new age' loonies say it is. And then there's Jung's own ambivalance about it. To me, it doesn't matter whether Jung was a mystic or not, and in any case, what do we mean by 'mystic'? It was clear to me that one way to write an unreadable book about this would be to labor the reader with long attempts to clarify and define 'mystic', so I avoided that entirely. Like everyone else, Jung had his own quirks, and one was a need, or at least a desire, to be seen as a 'scientist'. In one sense this is perfectly understandable. He was doing rigorous, difficult work, and believed he was discovering facts about the psyche. In another sense, it was a kind of twitch, and reading his often difficult prose, one frequently comes upon a kind of speed bump, when he harumphs and explains, once again, that he is a Scientist and he is doing Science, what I call the Herr Doctor Professor effect. We can chalk this up to Jung's own ego, his awareness of his peers' fastidiousness, an honest attempt to convey the significance of his work, and also just poor style. But to me it makes no difference whether he was a scientist or a mystic. He was a thinker—not an entirely clear one—but an important one, and he made valuable discoveries in areas most mainstream scientists avoid. In truth, I wouldn't say he was a mystic, as he applied intellectual criteria to his insights, and he took pains to convey these to others—not always clearly. I think you're right, though, and that we—the West—lack a language to talk about the kinds of things Jung experienced. But I think that is what he, and Steiner, Ouspensky, and others have been trying to develop over the last century or so. It took science some time to work out its vocabulary, and that itself is constantly changing. The same applies to what Jung and the others were, and are, doing.
JD: That may be too nuanced to make it in the West but I'm hopeful! By the way this New York Times piece gives some good background on the Lincoln issue. I've read and enjoyed many of your books now, and even without your byline could easily recognize "a Gary Lachman book. "There's nothing ostentatious about your prose, yet it is unmistakable, I think. Other than the familiar themes in your subject matter, how would you describe the overall style and/or structure of your books? What makes a Gary Lachman book?
GL: You've given me the best compliment a writer can receive. What I've discovered about writing is that it isn't only about using words and sentences correctly. I wanted to write since I was a boy; I started out writing and drawing my own comics, then in my teens wanted to be a poet. In the late 70s and early 80s, when I was still a musician, I took a writing class at the New School in NYC. I knew all the tricks, but even then something was lacking. What I discovered is that I had to change, to develop, to mature. In some ways my becoming a writer is an example of the kind of 'unification of opposites' Jung was fascinated with. For a long time there was the musician 'me' and another me, who, to be honest, was more serious and mature, but who lacked confidence. It took a while for that 'me' to grow and to develop the honesty to accept its voice and not worry that other people would think "How could you write that? You're a pop musician?" (Sadly, it still happens in some contexts today.) The Austrian satirist Karl Kraus, speaking of journalists, once quipped "How can half a man write a whole sentence?" If you're serious about writing, then it becomes true that 'you' are in your writing more than anywhere else. It is the quintessential 'you'. This is why it is often disappointing to meet heroes, whether writers or other artists. You've already met the essential them, in their work. The flesh and blood can only be anti-climactic. So, in order to really write, you have to be really 'you', and sometimes that takes a while.
But on a more technical note, any style I have comes from reading writers who strive for clarity and who take the reader into consideration. I assume the reader is as intelligent as I am (with any luck more) and that he or she wants what I want: to understand whatever subject it is I'm writing about. This doesn't mean 'writing down', which is the bane, unfortunately, of much self-help, mystical, or 'new age' writing. That's just spoon feeding. It means going along with the reader on an attempt to clarify some matter: if I can explain some arcane matter to the reader, then I feel I've a decent idea of what it means myself. I guess I'm an optimist in that way, and believe in assuming intelligence in others. I imagine my master in this is Colin Wilson, and more times than not I re-read some of his work before starting a new book. There is a particular flow in his books, a conversational ease about often difficult ideas, that gets my own thoughts going. I've also learned a great deal from Jacques Barzun's books on writing. I have a didactic streak and I find it an absolute pleasure to convey some knowledge I've acquired to others; that's why I often go over time in lectures. I have no problem with being a 'popularizer' and find something sad about the reaction that triggers in some academic writers whose readers tend to be other academics.
JD: What are you reading these days and what are you writing?
GL: I've just moved to a new flat and the neighborhood is full of Victorian red brick mansions, so I've been re-reading the Holmes stories in the evening, getting in an 1890s mood. I recently read a fascinating book on drugs and writing, "The Road of Excess" by Marcus Boon. A tad academic, but full of good stuff. Anthony Storr's "Human Destructiveness", on the psychology of agression, was brilliant. And as I've been commissioned to write a book on Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, one of the founders of the Theosophical Society and an enormous influence on modern esotericism, I'm gearing up to finally sitting down and taking on her Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, parts of which I've read, but never front to back. There's well over 2000 pages between them so it will be a committment. I'm spending two weeks in France this August, in a farm house near Bordeaux, and am looking forward to reading Graham Robb's The Discovery of France, and also some books on wine, and I imagine I'll pull out some Maupassant and a few Maigrets to get the flavor. And I'm waiting to get the copyediting on a book I finished after Jung the Mystic, on Hermes Trismegistus, the mythical founder of alchemy, which will come out next spring.
Until next week I leave you with this question: what two sides of yourself are you trying to integrate, as a writer/artist?
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