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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

From Oedipus to Anima: Carl Jung’s `Psychology and Literature’

Carl Gustav Jung’s ` Psychology and Literature’ (1930) can be read as a critique of classical Freudian psychoanalytical approach to literary studies. 

The essay is notable for its ambitious attempt to discuss the social role of a creative writer from a psychological and psychoanalytical perspective. It is also remarkable for its similarities with the impersonality theory’ of creative process put forth by TS Eliot in the early part of the twentieth century.

Carl Jung (1875-1961) believes that though the psychologist’s approach to literature varies significantly from that of a literary critic, there is a possibility of an interesting dialogue between the two as all the sciences and arts have a common origin- human psyche.

Jung notes that the primary difference between literary critic’s approach and the psychologist’s approach is that psychologist may be interested in the works which might be of little artistic merit for the critic such as pulp romances or popular detective fiction. For a psychologist, a` psychological novel’ may be the most uninteresting one as most of the elements of fiction like motives or thoughts of the characters are explained and are made explicit by the author. The more interesting novels for a psychologist would be the works where these things are not explained and made explicit by the author and there is a room for interpretation.

Jung goes on to make a distinction between ` psychological’ literature and ` visionary literature’. Jung points out that as a psychologist, he would hardly be interested in ` psychological literature’ which primary deals with the material drawn from conscious mind. `Visionary literature’ draws its imagery, content from materials drawn from unconscious mind and hence is of great interest to a psychologist.
Jung points out that the first part of Goethe’s Faust is an example of `psychological literature’ while the second part is `visionary’ in nature.

Jung critiques Freudian emphasis on the personality of the author in interpretation of the text by stating that author’s personality is not the most important aspect of a literary work as the writer usually has to transcend the personal and the subjective in order to make his work appealing to others. Freudian approach which hardly goes beyond deriving the work from author’s neurosis, fails to explain why not all neurotics are authors. Moreover, such an approach cannot understand the function of a creative writer in the society.

Jung notes that the contents and materials of `visionary’ literature are not just drawn from the author’s psychosexual history as Freudians would insist, but are also from `racial memory’ or the collective unconscious of the entire human race. Such images, figures and symbols are primordial and not specific either to an individual or even to a culture. Such contents of `collective unconscious’ are called `archetypes’ by Jung. He gives an example of the figure of cross which becomes a sacred symbol among the Christians as well as other pagan cultures (like `swastika’ among Hindus). Archetypes manifest themselves not just in mythology, folklore or `visionary literature’ but they affect human behavior deeply.

Some of the most important archetypes in Jungian psychoanalysis are the persona, the shadow, the anima and the wise old man. The goal of human life, Jungian theory is `individuation’ of the becoming complete and whole by synthesizing the varied fragments of our being.

The persona is the mask which human beings carry around all the time and when it drops, they have to encounter their dark repellent side- their shadow. As the process of individuation continues, one comes across the anima or the creative and feminine aspect of our unconscious self. In Jung’s scheme of things visionary creative writing is often a manifestation of this feminine component of our self. The archetype of the wise old man is the archetype of guiding higher wisdom which leads us towards completion of our individuation. Individuation is often represented archetypally as closed geometric figures like the mandalas.

The function of creative artist, according to Jung, is to express the contents of collective unconscious in a society which is gradually losing its touch with this side of its personality due to the processes of modernization and secularization. A work of art, thus in Jung’s scheme would lead to man’s reconnection with the collective unconscious thus assisting him in the process of individuation.

Shifting of the focus of psychoanalysis from the personal psychosexual history to collective spiritual history in Jungian `analytical theory’ made it extremely influential among the writers and critics. However, Jungian theory fell out of favour with more materialistic oriented and relativist cultural theorists along with scientific psychologist due to its universalizing and idealistic notions and its preoccupation with vaguely spiritual orientation.

Freud himself criticized Jung of compromising with the basic principles of scientific psychoanalysis in order to make it more palatable to large section of public by reducing its emphasis on infantile sexuality and neurosis. As a doctor, Freud probably thought, giving sugar coated pills was ok but distributing sugar was definitely a form of deception and a compromise with the basic ethics of medical practice!!

However, Jung’s ideas have greatly influenced ` Myth and Archetypal’ theorist of literature like Northrop Frye and Maud Bodkins. 


  1. Thanks for sharing as it is an excellent post would love to read your future post
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  2. Thanks, Mr. Ketkar for this summary, which is simple, yet relevant. I may use it in the class and hand it to my students.

  3. thanks, for this will help me in my exam...

  4. The reviews on Oedipus by Freud is globally accepted and acclaimed for his diverse thoughts on human mind. However, it is a less known fact that the postulations of Jung on this are of great significance. It is in this context that any writings on Jung becomes relevant.
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