C.G. JUNG -- IN THE HEART OF DARKNESS
Michael Ortiz Hill
In 1925 Carl Jung traveled in East Africa. Although he had imagined initially he was involved in a scientific inquiry into "primitive psychology" (the Bugishu Psychological Expedition), he was later to admit that in all honesty his true intent was to pose to himself "the rather embarrassing question: What is going to happen to Jung the psychologist in the wilds of Africa?" (Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 272).
During his stay in Africa, Jung had only one dream with a black person in it. In the dream he was with an "American Negro," who had been his barber in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when he had visited the U.S. twelve years previous. The barber held to Jung’s head a red-hot iron in an attempt to render his hair nappy. He awoke with terror. Jung took this dream to be a dire warning from the unconscious that he was in danger of being engulfed by primitivity. "At that time I was obviously all too close to ‘going black.’"
It is far too simple a distraction to use this essay here to piss on the clay feet of the great man. Throughout Jung’s memoirs, one is impressed by the subtlety and complexity of his mind and the depth of his psychological insight – except when he writes about "the others." The tenacity of his racism, covering five decades of his writings, the radical lack of psychological reflection with which he mistakes his fantasies about the "other" for real people, is embedded in a discourse that is more often than not exquisitely perceptive. His racism raises questions about human ignorance and human wisdom far beyond the personal psychology of Carl Jung because, in spite of, or alongside, his blindness, he was, nonetheless, a wise man. Moreover, since depth psychology has taken the lead of its founding father in interpreting the mythic substratum of human culture, hard questions are raised about the Eurocentrism and racism in Jungian thought and practice.
In a 1977 interview with Jung’s autobiographer, Aniela Jaffe, she claimed that Jung’s African memories formed the lion’s share of what had been edited from their taped conversations to put together the memoirs and that a whole book could have been made from his reminiscences of Africa alone. As it stands, Jaffe was able to whittle Jung’s recollections down to twenty pages. Clearly, for the octogenarian Jung, the pilgrimage that was to touch "every possible sore spot in my own psychology" (MDR, 273) was still very much alive fifty years after the fact.
That Jung literally regarded Africa as the heart of darkness is clear from his memoirs. The British colonies of Kenya and Uganda were for him that primordial place of time before time, unconsciousness before consciousness, the geography of the primal psyche before it reflects on itself and brings light upon its own nature. Having seen a lone hunter leaning on his spear as his train passed through the outback of Kenya, Jung reflects, "This was the stillness of the eternal beginning, the world as it had always been in the state of non-being; for until then no one had been present to know that it was this world" (MDR, 255). Africa was a domain saturated in unreflected light which was at the same time a darkness, a quality of unknowing. The strange statement that no one had been present to know, and therefore bring into being, Africa will deepen in its strangeness as we examine Jung’s ideas of the nature of African people. As we shall see, the darkness of Africa’s non-being inhabits the dark bodies and souls of the Africans themselves.
To understand how Jung found his bearings in such a dark place, it has to be appreciated how unselfconsciously he inhabited the venerable the old European archetype of the continuous "Chain of Being" that stratifies and holds in order a hierarchical cosmos. Aristotle first articulated the Chain of Being. It is, "as usually conceived, commenced with inanimate things and ranged upward to the lowliest forms of life through the more intelligent animals until it reached man himself; but it did not stop with man, for it continued upwards through the myriad ranks of heavenly creatures until it reached its pinnacle in God, " writes Winthrop D. Jordan in White Over Black. In the late 1700s the European and American intelligentsia racialized this idea, Jordan continues, to satisfy that "century’s ravenous appetite for hierarchical principles in the face of social upheaval." Blacks, of course, being the lowliest of humans, stood in proximity in the chain to their near cousins, the orangutans, with whom, Thomas Jefferson among others believed, they sometimes mated. In the first four decades of this century, another time of overwhelming social upheaval, Jung encoded the "Great Chain: into his model of the collective unconscious. Europeans, being at the pinnacle of evolutionary development, carry within their psyches the whole history of humankind from the "primitive" (instinctual, animal-like) to the civilized (differentiated, European-like). "In the collective unconscious, you are the same as a man of another race. You have the same archetypes, just as you have, like him, eyes, a heart, a liver, and so on. It does not matter that his skin is black. It matters to a certain extent, sure enough – he probably has a whole layer less than you. The different strata of the mind correspond to the history of the races," writes Jung (CW 18, 46).
This whole layer that is lacking in "non-Europeans" of course makes all the difference – makes it in fact possible for Jung to understand them better than they can understand themselves.
It was with this map of culture, psyche and history that Jung went to a place that he called Africa, a place that ipso facto mirrored perfectly a dark domain of his own interior life.
And the blacks that he met in the "interior"? To illustrate how Africans unreflectively think in feelings and act upon feelings without European self-consciousness, he offers the following anecdote about "a bushman [who] had a little son whom he loved with a tender monkey-love characteristic of primates" (CW 6, 239).
It seems that the father had a bad day fishing and when he was met by his little boy at the day’s end, he throttled him in pure unconscious rage. Later he grieved with the same, "unthinking abandon" with which he had strangled his child.
The opposite of this thoughtless acting out from "instinct" is what Jung called individuation. The individuated person has extracted him or herself from the slag heap of unconsciousness to meet the world creatively, unfettered by personal or collective fantasy. Ironically, the quality of ureflectiveness that Jung attributes to the primitive psychology of blacks is displayed consistently in Jung’s fantasies about the "other". As much as any other European intellectual in the last two centuries, Jung lived unconsciously within the collective fantasy of the "Chain of Being." Indeed, inscribing the chain into psychological theory elevated it from "description" to a sacred way of knowing. When one unreflectively makes the kind of pilgrimage Jung made, the psyche will insist on finding, conjuring or hallucinating an epiphany of darkness that is raw and overwhelming in its terror and vitality.
This inevitable moment came to pass one night during a ngoma in the Sudan, a ceremony that Jung took to be a "frolic." Sixty men appeared with lances and swords, and soon the women and children joined them around a blazing campfire.
Looking around nervously, Jung noticed that his "boys" and the government soldiers had disappeared. He began passing around cigarettes and safety pins to demonstrate his good will.
When the men began singing in the firelight and dancing fiercely with their weapons, Jung joined in, swinging his rhinoceros whip above his head. Apparently delighted about the European giving himself over, the dancing and drumming increased in vigor. Jung became frightened that "the dancers were being transformed into a wild horde." He suggested to the chief that it was time to stop and disperse, that it was time for the people to go to sleep. The chief, clearly having a good time, was not inclined.
Recalling the story of another Swiss who had been " struck by a stray spear: during such an event, Jung disregarded the chief, drew the people together, distributed yet more cigarettes and made a gesture of sleeping. That being ineffective, "I swung my rhinoceros whip threateningly, but at the same time laughing, and for lack of a better language, I swore at them loudly in Swiss German...General laughter arose; capering, they scattered in all directions and vanished into the night."
When I read this section of Jung’s memoirs years ago, I was struck by its cartoonish quality. I tried to imagine, say, a Nigerian businessman securing a deal in Munich and then going off into the Bavarian countryside during Oktoberfest. Wanting to make a good impression, he passes out the African equivalent of cigarettes and safety pins and even, to the laughter and delight of the crowd, attempts awkwardly to dance a few of the local dances. Late at night, however, overwhelmed by the wild drunkenness of the natives, he appeals to the Burgermeister to rein things in a bit. This failing, he curses at the vigorous young Aryans with mock anger in the Ibo language while swirling a whip over his head and laughing. "Capering, they scattered in all directions and vanished into the night?" Well, I suppose some lunacies do not translate across the line that separates colonizers from the colonized.
Whatever the merits of my minstrel fantasy of a black doppelganger of Jung in the heart of whiteness, it cannot do justice to this moment once one understands that the ngoma, far from being a "frolic," is actually one of the most durable and sacred ceremonies in Bantu culture. Ngoma ceremonies, in which the ancestors come forth to inspirit the lives of the living, is probably the most pervasive form of healing and festivity over a rather large portion of black Africa. Ngoma is very much at the root of what would become African-American culture, and it is critical to understand if one is to speculate upon a depth psychology of American Blacks that is not Eurocentric. As an initiate into the ngoma of the water spirits in Zimbabwe, I find my mind nearly breaking with astonishment trying to imagine this moment as it was viewed by the villagers who had gathered to honor their ancestors. It says something of the forbearance and generosity of African people that Jung wasn’t in fact stuck by "a stray spear" that night, given how he was acting.
As terrifying as this dark epiphany was, Jung also discerned in Africans an unconscious yearning for the light, and it moved him deeply. In a pivotal passage in his memoirs, he writes of his habit of waking before dawn to greet the rising of the sun. Having witnessed a ritual by a local Bantu (Elgonyi) people that welcomes the new day and having taken note that a clan of baboons also seem to honor the coming light, he writes, "When the great night comes, everything takes on a note of deep dejection, and every soul is seized by an inexpressible longing for light. That is the pent-up feeling that can be detected in the eyes of primitives and also in the eyes of animals" (MDR, 269).
This triptych – Jung, baboon, Bantu people, all swept up in the longing for light – seems to have been tattooed on Jung’s psyche. Over fifty years later he would write, "My greatest in this respect had been my discovery of the Horus principle among the Elgonyi" (MDR, 274). The god Horus, divine light reborn morning after morning, greeted Jung from his temple in Abu Simbel, Egypt, as he sailed "back towards Europe, towards the future." The Horus principle, he writes, "is a myth which must have been told after human culture, that is, consciousness, had for the first time released men from the darkness of prehistoric times...By following the geographical course of the Nile and hence the stream of time...the journey from the heart of Africa to Egypt became for me a kind of drama of the rebirth of the light." Jung, having made a pilgrimage to that prehistoric darkness, was profoundly touched to see the longing for light in the eyes of baboons and African people.
These two kinds of "Africans" – the bushman who unconsciously strangles his little boy, the noble savage whose love of light holds the seed of potential evolution – share an obliviousness to themselves, and yet they are not beyond admiring. Like Jean Jaques Rousseau, or for that matter Herodotus, Jung often invents an "other" who is simpler and purer, both to illustrate the European burden of being the most conscious of humans as well the what Europeans risk losing. Of himself he says, "I have not been led by any kind of wisdom; I have been led by dreams, like any primitive. I am ashamed to say so, but I am as primitive as any nigger because I do not know" (CW 8, 286).
It is possible now to understand Jung’s astonishing thought that no one had been "present to know" Africa before he had arrived. Africans, living in the primordial soup of uncreated existence, could only meet unconsciously the splendor of the land that surrounded them.
Jung consistently refers to his fellow Europeans as "we" and presumes that "we" are the bearers of consciousness, writing of "our" special relationship to the created world. Reflecting on the Pueblo Indian belief that their rituals assist the sun in its passage across the sky, Jung had searched in vain for "a myth of our own." His pilgrimage to Africa was a critical turning point in his life because it was on that dark continent (his European-ness revealed to him in contrast to its darkness) where he discovered the myth that is at the root of Europeans’ special place in the world: man is indispensable for the completion of creation; that, in fact, he himself is the second creator of the world...without which...it would have gone on in the profoundest night of nonbeing down to its unknown end" (MDR).
I find this vision breathtaking in both its grandiosity and its solipsism. Columbus was merely content to discover America. Had he been Jung, he would have stood alongside God and created it. I don’t see here the "cosmic meaning of consciousness" as Jung described this myth of individuation as much as the way colonialism constructs a private cosmos. Having vanquished the possibility of reciprocal exchange within which one might suffer the risk of being changed by another, the universe at large becomes a vast colony of Europe. Martin Buber’s criticism of Jung comes to mind: The mysteries of dialogue and reciprocity never enter the picture in such a universe because there are no others as fully human as oneself – at least not in Africa.
It was immediately after his recounting of the ngoma incident that Jung writes of the dream with which warned him that he was in danger of "going black." What does it mean in Jung’s view to go black under the skin? What is it that terrified him that night?
Jung was quite specific in his collected works about the dangers of white people living side by side with black people. "Even today the European, however highly developed, cannot live with impunity among the Negroes in Africa; their psychology gets into him unnoticed and unconsciously he becomes a Negro..." (CW 10, 121).
That "the inferior man has a tremendous pull because he fascinates the inferior layers of the psyche" was a spiritual dilemma that Jung believed very much shaped the American (that is to say, white American) soul. "Americans present a strange picture: a European with Negro behavior and an Indian soul: (CW 10, 507).
The same unreflective exuberance of spirit that Jung found among African primitives he found among black American primitives as well. He tells the story of having dinner in a stiff New England household. Being served by black servants, he felt as if he were in a circus, and he found himself looking at the dishes for the "imprint" of black fingers. The sheer ridiculousness of the situation inspired Jung to crack jokes which made one servant laugh uproariously. "How I loved that African brother," he writes (CW 10, 503).
American laughter ("unrestrained, unsophisticated"), the wildness of the revival meeting, the naivete of (white) Americans so similar to the "childlikeness of the Negro" – these qualities that sit so strangely in whites Jung ultimately found odd but not especially dangerous. "Ultimately the Negro, just because he is a minority, is not a degenerative influence, but rather one which, peculiar though it is, cannot be termed unfavorable – unless one happens to have a jazz phobia" (CW 10, 45).
White Americans emerge in this portrait as affable, charming and perhaps slightly imbecilic, first cousins of Europeans. Though they behave somewhat like blacks, they have not gone full black under the skin and degenerated into moral laxity and instinctuality as Jung himself almost did that fateful night of ngoma in the south of the Sudan.
If psychological theory is a disguised form of psychological confession as Jung claimed it is, what might Jung be confessing in his racist psychologizing? Analytical psychology is not reducible to a simple by-product of Jung’s neurosis. Nonetheless, the fear of being overwhelmed by the psyche, by instinct, by the anima, by the shadow, by the female or ethnic "other" is such a persistent theme in both Jung’s reflections and his theories, an unanswerable and very Freudian question is unavoidable: What was the moment of being engulfed that led Jung to see himself a potential victim of being overwhelmed by the "otherness" within and outside himself?
In 1925 Jung hallucinated a whole continent of instinctual "others" and called it "Africa." The African "other" whom Jung did not know accompanied him to his deathbed. Like the rest of us, it seems he was wedded to what fascinated him and what he least understood. [from Spring Journal #61 (Spring 1997)]