Folk fictions

November 22, 1996

Was Carl Jung a fraud? Richard Noll has no doubts. In Ben Jonson's searing satire The Alchemist, an alchemist deceives one customer after another, promising the "philosopher's stone" or the "philosopher's elixir," stringing each dupe along with scientific-sounding jargon. Jonson's indictment of the conceptual confusion of the alchemists can be applied today to those in academia and the mental health professions who are proponents of the notions of the psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and self-styled alchemist of the human soul, Carl Gustav Jung.

Since the 1950s Jung's ideas - particularly the notion of the "collective unconscious" and its "archetypes" - have spilled out from departments of literature (Jung's traditional stronghold) and psychology (less so) to those of classics, religion, art therapy and psychoanalytic studies. Many educators and therapists, unfortunately, are themselves dupes, victims of their own unwillingness to put Jung's ideas to critical scrutiny. Unfortunately such dishonesty (or intellectual laxness) has granted an undeserved measure of scientific legitimacy to these Jungian notions. The result is that many thousands of people, who look to Jung for solace and to his theories as a totalising religious world view and path of spiritual redemption, are deliberately misled.

Since the publication of my book The Jung Cult, in which I argue, with historical evidence, that Jung was not only mistaken about these particular ideas but consciously, and repeatedly, lied about his evidence for them when he realised his mistake - Jungians on three continents have categorically denounced me and my research. Most complaints have been from narcissistically injured Jungian analysts, or instructors of religion. What few of my critics have been honest enough to admit is that there is much about the man and his ideas that I do admire. His theory that the mind is comprised of many "complexes", his concepts of introversion-extroversion for the study of personality, and his high regard for the place of spirituality in life are among those elements I regard highly. Jung's deliberate deceptions, his overvaluation of the irrational side of life (and undervaluation of reason), his messianic zeal to promote his own psychological theories as if they were a post-Judeo-Christian religion, his anti-Semitism, and his claimed scientific validity for the idea of a collective unconscious and its archetypes, I do not.

Although Jung achieved world renown by the age of 31 (1906) for his experimental research on the nature of human memory, he is best remembered for the theories he devised after turning his back on a promising scientific career. Beset by religious longing, Jung followed the Volkish trends of the German culture of his day and promoted a form of psychoanalysis that was essentially an amalgam of spirituality fused with biology. Jung believed that the mythological images and motifs found in the hallucinations and delusions of psychotics and in the dreams of modern individuals were evidence of an archaic layer of the unconscious mind, a phylogenetic reservoir that produced primarily religious symbols. By 1916, Jung no longer held so closely to the biological hypothesis, claiming instead that the "collective unconscious'' (as he now called it) was not "inherited'' but was more like a field of energy which merged human souls with the landscape upon which they lived. After his break with Freud in 1913 he reframed his practice of psychoanalysis as a path of spiritual redemption and rebirth that only those of Aryan ancestry could follow, and it involved a transformative visionary encounter with the "gods'' (later archetypes) in the "Land of the Dead'' (later the "collective unconscious"). Analysis became an initiation into mysteries, and Jung believed that his own initiation made him into a god - indeed into no less than an Aryan Christ.

The hypothesis of the collective unconscious - so widely known and accepted today in popular culture, in the lecture halls of academe, and in consulting rooms and clinics - is flatly contradicted by the experimental work that Jung himself conducted from 1900 to 1909. Jung demonstrated, time and again, that previously learned material (such as things seen or read) could interfere with present thought, emotion and behaviour. The idea that memories of personal experience could be "forgotten" or "hidden" from consciousness and yet exert a powerful influence on the present - a phenomenon called "cryptoamnesia'' at the turn of the century "implicit memory'' in modern cognitive science - is sufficient to explain all the phenomena that Jung attributes to a mystical collective unconscious. Myths, fairy tales, fiction and folklore are the stuff of everyday life: absorbed, forgotten, but potentially ever-present in one or more of our multiple memory systems. There is no independent evidence for Jung's concept that the mythological images occurring in individual dreams emerged from an archaic layer of the unconscious mind. In fact, as I have shown in my research, he actually fabricated dates to make it seem as if his patients had not been exposed to mythological or alchemical material prior to producing such symbols in their dreams and visions. But they had.

How is it that so many educators and therapists have accepted Jung's ideas? For example, Anthony Storr, a prominent British psychiatrist who knew Jung personally and has written extensively and favourably about Jungian psychology, argues even in his most recent book, Feet of Clay (1996), that the collective unconscious is a "perfectly sensible idea''. Storr is silent on the issues of Jung's fabrication of his evidence for the collective unconscious, or on Jung's racialism and Aryan mysticism.

Jungian analysts, most of whom have no formal medical, psychological or scientific training promote Jungism as a popular neopagan religion of sorts. For example, Edward Edinger, a well-known American Jungian analyst and a physician, like Storr, openly preaches that Jung's ideas are a "New Dispensation'' to replace the Jewish and Christian ones of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Andrew Samuels, the holder of an academic chair at Essex University in Jung's "analytical psychology'' and a Jungian analyst himself, has been silent on the issues of Jung's deliberate fraud and the additional lack of scientific support for most of Jung's post-1916 constructs. Although the number of its members runs into the thousands, there has never been a position paper from the main association of Jungian analysts concerning the scientific status of Jung's theoretical constructs. And with good reason: new patients would stop knocking at their door if the truth were more widely known.

Richard Noll is a clinical psychologist and historian of science at Harvard University. The Jung Cult is published by HarperCollins and will be followed by The Aryan Christ, Macmillan.

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