Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Mr Jung goes to the East

'Jung and Eastern Thought' by J.J.Clarke is an admirable survey of Jung's indebtedness to 'Eastern thought' - Taoism, Yoga and Buddhism especially. It defends him effectively against most charges of 'Orientalism' and sees his thinking in this space of continuing relevance - though marred by certain infelicities of expression, a certain (and familiar) disorganization of thought; and, the utilization of sources that were (by contemporary standards) inadequately translated. W. Y. Evans Wentz, for example, when 'translating' the 'Tibetan Book of the Dead' did not even know Tibetan and used a Tibetan monk's English version that he then filtered through his own understanding of Vedanta! (This does not detract from the pioneering nature of his work but one does need to step beyond it)!

Jung was fascinated by the Orient partly because he wanted to see how its patterns of thought would help diagnose the ills of the West, a West that for Jung was in spiritual crisis; and, because they offered a set of confirmatory analogies for his own developing work in psychotherapy especially around individuation, archetypes and the collective unconscious. He was, except with perhaps Buddhism in his later life, always concerned that Westerners should not practise Oriental patterns of spiritual discipline because (a) they should look to their own historical/cultural traditions for spiritual revival and (b) because Western mentalities were different being more extroverted than Oriental ones such practises might be positively dangerous.

Where the book fails, I think, is to play down the very real conflict in Jung between the empirical scientist, heroically founding a new psychological discipline; and, the esoteric Jung whose primary concern was spiritual transformation of a decidedly Gnostic bent. It is clear that Clarke favours the former over the latter. He quotes Jung's dismissal of Theosophy (and takes it at face value) and indeed 'helpfully' adds a wonderfully disparaging description of that complex women who was Madam Blavatsky.

Thus, Clarke's Jung does present a series of problems when thinking of the usefulness of his approach to the Orient.

First and foremost is that Jung the psychologist bracketed any metaphysical question - this was sometimes seen as beyond his scope as a scientist and sometimes seen as beyond anyone's scope given Jung was a follower of Kant (and Jung flips back and forth unhelpfully). So what, say, the author(s) of the Tibetan Book of the Dead are really doing (with inadequate tools) is describing a series of psychological processes projected onto the pattern of a person's dying or contemplation of death. It is as if one day they should 'wake up' and realise, like the character in Moliere, they have really been speaking prose all their life. This may help Jung in developing his psychology but does not do justice to what the author/practitioner behind the Book of the Dead thinks they are doing. This is a manual about what to do when dying built on both a set metaphysical assumptions and observation (though the later would be discounted by any form of materialist science).

Second, Clarke supports this reading by seeing Jung as an early and explicit practitioner of hermeneutics - a pattern of thinking and dialogue later structured and codified by Gadamer. There is a significant truth here (both as to Jung and in understanding how we understand texts in historical consciousness) but herein lies another problem. Hermeneutics as so structured - seeing everything as historically conditioned and the discernment of meaning as an infinite spiral that is never closed - is an epistemological structure, that if not explicitly Western, is identifiable with it (and post/ modernity). What is never discussed is that the a-historicity of the metaphysical positions held by Buddhist, Taoist and Vedantic thinkers (in complementary but different ways) have the capacity to radically undermine this approach. If my consciousness is capable of a liberation from given space-time categories, liberated from my history, what then of a historically bound, indeterminate hermeneutics? We beg the very question that an encounter with the 'East' might be an invitation to address.

Interestingly Jung himself dismissed precisely the kind of consciousness - where the ego is radically transcended by a supra-consciousness - that is at the heart of Buddhism and Vedanta - as a logical impossibility - for any experience to be, there must be an experiencer according to Jung and, in any case, there is, in Jung, never a place where we come to anything other than a balance in the opposing opposites, never to a liberation from opposites.

Interestingly too both Clarke and Jung focus on the 'strangeness' of the texts before us and the distance between them and it (in their preferred hermeneutics). This is a wonderful demonstration to my mind as to how theory continually undermines phenomenology because one of the things that we consistently notice (not always but significantly) is the familiarity of an unknown text. There is no distance - understanding will require a journey but love and knowing has struck at first sight.

Strangely then at the end of the book, Clarke has made an admirable case for Jung's use of the Orient, a use that is never less than respectful and admiring, but never feels more than a 'use'. It never appears to rise to the level of a genuine dialogue that reaches into a genuine encounter with the 'other' that fully respects and struggles with the other on its own terms.

But what about the other Jung - the esoteric version - you get glimpses - the very vehemence of his dismissals of Theosophy are suspicious, his descriptions of the Buddha as the perfect instantiation of the Self and his later belief about the efficacy of Buddhist practice (maybe).

As so often with Jung, you admire the way he turned elements in the contemporary world to a (semi) respectable consideration of the more than rational, of the symbolic and the 'unconscious' by placing it within the frame of empirical science but are saddened by its perceived necessity and wishing he would shelve the neo-Kantian baggage for a more radical exploration in life and science of the multi-dimensional nature of consciousness.

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