Sonu Shamdasani rebuts claims that Carl Jung, one of the giants of psychotherapy, was a neopagan charlatan who was obsessed with starting a pseudo-religious cult
Modern psychotherapy has always held out the promise of a deeper understanding of human nature. It has held out, too, the hope that this better understanding would one day lead to a new social order, an era of transformed social relations. Today, however, the institutions of psychotherapy are in crisis, and the social legacies of psychotherapy are increasingly contested.
At the beginning of the 20th century, psychotherapy established its own institutions, distinct from medical schools and universities, which became the operative bases of modern psychology and psychiatry. A principal figure in these developments was Carl Jung, the first president of the International Psychoanalytical Association, who organised its first congresses and established its first journal.
Jung also tried to provide a psychological understanding of the processes of personality transformation underlying religious, hermetic, gnostic and alchemical practices. He developed this at a time when such subjects were simply dismissed out of hand by the positivist and behaviourist practitioners dominant in psychology. For many, Jung's non-derisive attention to such subjects was enough to brand him as an occultist, a charge which he persistently denied. Nor were such statements only made from a negative perspective; many proponents of hermeticism, gnosticism, alchemy and magic were quick to claim Jung as one of their own and used his name to lend credibility to their ideas. Hence the widespread presence of works on Jungian psychology in occult bookshops, amid the amulets, crystals and New Age music.
Jung claimed that all the patients coming to him in the second half of their lives suffered principally from having lost a religious or spiritual faith. His work on psychology and religion not only drew the scorn of secular critics, it also evoked much controversy among religious communities. Some saw Jung's work as representing the unwelcome encroachment of psychology on to sacred terrain. Others viewed him as someone who wanted to turn psychology into a religion.
Jung often affirmed his Protestant identity and denied that he had founded a religion, a charge which he described as defamatory. Rather, he claimed that his psychology could revive existing religious traditions. It was towards the revitalisation of Christianity in particular that Jung dedicated much of his later work.
In the past 50 years the ways in which Jung's work has been interpreted have changed very little. The charge that Jung revived ancient philosophical and religious systems in a modern guise and the characterisation of the founding of the Psychological Club in Zurich in 1916 as marking the formation of the cult of the Jungian movement have been recently revisited by Richard Noll in his controversial books The Jung Cult and The Aryan Christ.
One new twist is Noll's claim to have provided previously unknown prima facie evidence that Jung himself had formed a religious cult. The evidence takes the form of an allegedly misidentified text at the Countway library in Boston. Noll claims that this text was actually Jung's inaugural address at the founding of his cult - otherwise known as the Psychological Club.
The existence of a secret founding text would lend credence to the belief that there was an esoteric doctrine at the core of analytical psychology and its institutional organisation - as some have alleged before. These considerations fundamentally affect not only how one views the founding of analytical psychology but also how one understands Jung's conception of the psychological enterprise. Given the impact of Jung's work, they also affect how one views the place of modern psychotherapy within society.
In 1994 in The New York Times, Noll likened Jung to late 20th-century cult leaders David Korech, Jim Jones and Luc Jouret, and described analytical psychology as a "Swiss cult of middle-class, sun-worshipping neopagans led by a charismatic man who experienced himself to be Christ." More recently, he has claimed that there is "no question" that Jung is much nearer to Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, than he is to his contemporary Sigmund Freud.
Although there is nothing new in claims about the cult status of Jung's psychology, statements such as these raise an old argument to a new pitch. As Newsweek put it, there is today a worldwide pandemic of cults. Some also speak of a worldwide "anti-cult crusade." The term cult has become a confused sign of a widespread questioning of the legitimacy of religious institutions, as witnessed for instance by the controversies surrounding the status of Scientology. Is it a form of psychotherapy, as was suggested in the House of Commons, or is it a legitimate religion, as the Germans are asking?
In Noll's view, analytical psychology was based on nothing less than Jung's self-deification as the Aryan Christ. He contends that analytical psychology today, while masquerading as a genuine professional discipline, simply sells false dreams of spiritual redemption. But to argue that Jung formed a cult based on his own self-deification requires that one discount Jung's own testimony on this matter as unreliable, inherently deceptive and the mark of bad faith. Indeed, Noll claims that Jung "confused" and "deliberately misled" his followers, and that Christianity and psychology were simply masks that Jung hid behind to conceal his paganism. This issue is critical: it is hard to see how one can square Jung's own statements that he did not form a religion with Noll's allegations that he formed a cult based on his self-deification.
There have been few figures in 20th-century intellectual history who have been subject to such a high level of misunderstanding as Carl Jung. This shows no signs of abating. Few psychologists continue to be so frequently fictionalised. Jung is continually being re-invented and stereotypically remodelled. This not only occurs in the constant stream of novels and plays relating to him, but also in works purporting to be scholarly. Regardless of whether one is for or against Jung, what is critical is to develop sound reconstructions upon which to base evaluations.
Through my own research I have established that what Noll takes to be Jung's inaugural address to the Psychological Club in 1916, the revolutionary manifesto for his cult, was not even written or delivered by him.
Furthermore, Noll's account of the founding of analytical psychology is full of errors, miscitations, mistranscriptions, tendentious interpretations and fictional embellishments. Far from fitting into a simplistic B-movie of cult formation, in forming analytical psychology Jung was attempting to develop a psychology of the cult-making process, and to see whether principles derived from one-on-one analysis could lead to a better understanding of relations between people in society.
One may contend that there are insuperable obstacles to this, that the project was a failure, or that Jung's intentions were perverted into the very opposite by some of his followers, but it is nevertheless critical to establish what he was trying to do in the first place. With the development of psychotherapy and new religious movements in the 20th century, such questions have taken on an unprecedented significance - yet in important respects they remain unanswered.
Sonu Shamdasani is a research fellow at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London. His book, Cult Fictions: C. G. Jung and the Founding of Analytical Psychology, will be published by Routledge on March 19, Pounds 12.99.