Volume 11 Number 6
Jung, According to Van Der Post
01 December 1998
Jean Brown eavesdrops on relationship between two 'large souls'-- and comes home to herself.
'Jung and the story of our time' by Laurens van der Post, Hogarth Press 1976, Penguin Books 1978, 1985
Some 20 years ago, when I first read Jung and the story of our time, it detonated a series of life-changing explosions deep in the recesses of my imagination. Author Laurens van der Post had long been a favourite of mine. In this book, he reflects on the life and work of Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), whom he knew personally. It set off a chain reaction of definitive 'ah ha' moments, that helped me to come home to myself both as a woman and as a rooted human being.
The Jungian scholar may be impatient with a book in which van der Post, himself a dreamer, philosopher and adventurer, regurgitates his understanding of the thought and experience of Jung, the 'father of modern psychology'. But for me it was a heady mix. While giant intellects and great souls go deep-sea-diving, thousands of the rest of us wriggle our toes in the shallows, and gaze across the surface to ooh and aah at the sunrises and sunsets and ask a few questions. But even the toes have a story to tell, the sand on the edge has been stirred and the environment is changed a little and for ever.
Let me explain a couple of things about myself. In spite of my personal experience of God up to that point, and my sense of meaning as part of a Divine plan, I still suffered from a feeling of isolation, the 'pimple on the skin of the universe' syndrome. Jung's belief in a Collective Unconscious connected me with a deeper sense of rooting and being.
Jung, like Freud, believed that the unconscious part of the mind contains personal drives and experiences of which the individual is not aware. But Jung also thought that members of every race share a deeper level of unconsciousness which he called the Collective Unconscious. 'I found,' Jung told van der Post, 'that the more I looked into my own spirit and the spirit of my patients, I saw stretched out before me an infinite objective mystery within, as great and as wonderful as a sky full of stars spread out above us on a clear and moonless winter's night.'
This glimpse of a common story and a shared memory knocked me off my lonely perch and into relationship with the totality of the human experience. Jung believed that every person has a 'myth' of their own derived in part from the shared mythology of the peoples of the world. He saw 'myth' not in the reductive sense of illusion, but rather as the container of the great truths and beliefs and symbols that are passed down through the generations.
While growing up, a process in which I am still engaged, I also went through a not unusual, but rather elongated, period of self-rejection. It was a rejection of myself as woman. The complexity of that issue is not for these pages at this time. Perhaps I was identifying, unknowingly, with 'the rejected, despised, deprived and persecuted feminine in life...' which Jung took as his guide at one stage in his inner journey. In Jung and the story of our time I found myself captivated for the first time by the vision of the essential feminine aspect in life.
How could I have missed it? My mother is a competent professional woman, musical, spiritual, literary, story-teller and nurturer extraordinaire, a role model with few parallels. My father is visionary, artistic, strong, inclusive. I grew up in an adventurously feminist period-still, I missed it.
Van der Post describes in detail Jung's quest for 'the lost feminine principle'. Its rebirth and its 'reliance on love as the only true transformer of inadequacy and imprecision of spirit, is as urgent today as it was 2,000 years ago on the first Christmas Day in the Roman colony of Palestine'.
Van der Post then adds, 'In our own Western history we have betrayed the vital honouring, in equal proportions, of the masculine and feminine in being.' He continues, 'History remains unilluminated by any realization that just as man has a feminine self through which he creates, woman has this masculine self... through whom she is equipped to make a contribution to life; not only as wife or mother, but in her own unique right.... A greater relationship between man and woman, a complete renewal of their attitudes to one another, promises a richer partnership of the human spirit than any life has ever seen, despite the chaos and confusion of the present moment.'
These thoughts and their tracing through ancient mythologies, broke a log- jam in my spirit that had me stuck in a narrow definition of myself. Interestingly the call to wifehood and motherhood was occurring simultaneously for me. Soon afterwards a remarkable experience in my spiritual life brought me into relationship with Jesus Christ and affirmed and consolidated this new understanding of my meaning and contribution as a woman.
Van der Post had been introduced to Jung by his wife, Ingaret Giffard, soon after the war, when he was struggling with a sense of 'isolation and loneliness... the sickness of our time'. In the 'debris of war and disaster... men had lost their capacity to dream.... I knew that somehow the world had to be set dreaming again'.
Particularly fascinating are Jung's and van der Post's-sometimes hard to know which are whose-insights into the national souls of Germany, England and Switzerland for example. They stress the importance of geography, of culture and symbol, and of deep unresolved myths in shaping national characters and historical agendas.
Van der Post describes Jung at their first meeting 'listening with great attention. This was one of his most moving characteristics. He himself was full and overflowing with ideas. Yet he managed to be one of the best and most understanding of listeners.... His face possessed what I think is permitted to the faces only of those who are naturally and permanently filled with reverence for all the multitudinous detail of life, however drab, for whom there is no frontier between what is ordinary and extraordinary, great and small, but where all are equally charged with their ration of universal wonder.'
From the start it was a meeting of dreamers and explorers. As a reader, like a fly on the wall, I eavesdropped on a relationship between two large souls of my time, and found myself becoming more whole because of it.
And where did Jung stand on religion? Its importance in the journey to wholeness, and of wholeness as a prelude to 'holiness' was never in doubt. 'Jung never defined precisely where he stood in terms of religion perhaps because the transcendental is ultimately beyond definition,' writes van der Post. 'But he did stress how all-important his Christian heritage was to him. He worked scientifically to keep the door open in the imagination of his time for admission of the full meaning of Christ.'
He recalls Jung being asked in public if he believed in God. 'He said, "I do not believe..." and then paused. I who heard him at the time remember the sense of darkness that came in at the windows at the pause, and how it dissolved swiftly into light when he added, after what seemed an age, "I know".'
This is not a big book but a dense book, as exquisitely rich as a dark fruit cake. The Holy Grail, Cinderella, Aeneas, Beatrice, Paracelsus, Bushmen, Lear and St Paul are among those who rub shoulders in it. Van der Post devotes most of a chapter to the powerfully productive yet troubled association Jung had with Freud.
And it is not all doom and gloom either. 'If I had any doubts about the quality and character of Jung,' writes van der Post, 'that laugh of his settled them... I never knew him to laugh at life but rather with life.' And I was able to laugh too. With a lightened heart and with a far firmer step.