Jung’s early solitude

The juxtaposition of Freud and Jung is famous, and their break was both of substance and personality. Among the differences of substance was diagnosis of ills. While Freud believed that one’s childhood revealed the source of neuroses, and developed the analyst’s couch to allow the patient to explore a forgotten or repressed world, Jung concentrated psychological healing in the here and now, on the innate potentials of the self, consciousness, and the unconscious.

Jung’s childhood solitude (described in his Memories, Dreams, Reflections) is the source of his imaginative and flexible professional methods. He was not interested in the scientific character of psychology or psychiatric methodology. He was even less interested in a scientific criteria for his personal beliefs. Solitude suggests the formation of Jung’s personality but also his rejection of a mechanical or material foundation for his work. A person growing from an intuitive and imaginative childhood often has little interest in what more “normal” upbringing affirms as reality.

One factor in Jung’s childhood was the prolonged absence of his mother (prolonged hospitalization due to mental illness) beginning when Carl was three. It did not leave him insecure so much as profoundly distrustful of others and skeptical of the concept of love. Here is the root of a break from Freud, for whom eros played a central part. Jung concluded that the central role of love and interpersonal relations in general was negative or insufficient to account for growth and potential. The self is necessarily autonomous. It develops its protective devices through introversion. By introversion Jung did not mean mere reticence in the social sense but the defining of self by an inner world, versus extroversion which defines the self from external stimuli. The ongoing depressive invalidism of his mother left his experience of nurturing not suspended so much as displaced from an external object to an inner world, and this ability Jung carried on successfully through his life.

While bullied in school by classmates as much as by schoolmasters (who distrusted his intelligence as plagiarism), Jung intensified his imagination and intuition. The masterfulness of Jung’s personal responses at this time is that he did not wallow in bitterness or resentment, did not fight back with anger and aggression, and did not succumb to depression. Rather, one could say that in his solitude, he successfully transcended his vicissitudes.

There were necessary devices. Once he was struck on the head by a companion and fell in a faint, but a little too long, reflecting that this incident would get him out of school for a while. He deliberately avoided other children, preferring to play alone in his home, or stroll through the woods — a wonderful setting for the imagination. At home, for example, he hid a favorite manikin in the attic, where he would steal away to converse with it, bringing secret documents in strange languages to the manikin. In the woods he would hold dialog with a great stone upon which he liked to sit. Observers have traced the attic to his adult study, where he pored over arcane subjects and ideas in his library. The dialog with the stone reflects a notion of nature that goes beyond mere interest — we might say “Gaia” if it was popular in his day, but certainly a simple alchemy.

Perhaps the most obvious childhood memory was that of dreaming or imagining a castle on an island in a lake, a grand castle with a hidden keep and tall watchtower — later a clear symbol of the unconscious inner citadel of self. Such a dichotomy has been called schizoid; indeed, Jung described his outer self, child of his parents, as “number one” and his true self, remote from the world and human society, as “number two.” But this dichotomy exists in everyone, if less articulated. Jung’s research and writing often explores the interplay of opposites between ego and self, between self and culture.

While Jung’s mother was absent, his father was a poor influence. Though a vicar, Jung’s father had lost his faith. Because of the comfortable income — and lack of any other skill or means — his father kept his position, living a dichotomous, if not hypocritical existence, with a social face of believer and pastor, and a domestic face of shame and contradiction. Jung’s mother did not respect her husband for it, and neither did his son Carl. Naturally, Carl came not to accept dogma or religious belief, and his solitude made him self-reliant, seeing the mature self as a prototype of God, guiding him through dreams, insights, and personal vision. Jung’s disdain for his father increased after being forced into confirmation in adolescence.

Jung’s father died when Carl prepared to go to the University of Basel. His mother remarked, coldly,”He died just in time for you.” Jung seemed thereafter to blossom, reading widely in literature, philosophy, and religion, though he was to study science and medicine as a career. (His favorites authors were Heraclitus, Meister Eckhard, and Goethe.)

Jung presents the image of solitude resolving its negative sense of isolation and alienation with a positive sense of personality, imagination and intuition. Though withdrawn and self-occupied, there is no evidence that he succumbed to dysfunction. For example, aural hallucination (hearing voices) he took in stride as evidence of a psychological need for thoughtful input, and so he dedicated himself to consciously working at his own inner problems. Jung turned a mid-life crisis into constructive insights into the workings of the mind. In contrast to Freud’s dogmatism and his proverbial reluctance to accommodate others or revise challenged ideas, Jung’s curiosity and catholic interests shine forth in all his work, which remains fresh today. Even in youth, Jung responded to the challenges of his parents’ personalities with efforts to improve himself, developing traits that were the opposite of his father’s lack of courage and intellectual curiosity, and his mother’s neurasthenia.

How Jung overcame youthful vicissitudes and transformed a potential crushing childhood and adolescence into a positive and constructive use of solitude is a model of psychological well-being.

Minimalism & simplicity

Minimalism is often confused with simplicity. Minimalism is negative, a cutting away. Simplicity is positive, a selection and assembling. Minimalism is conscious after the fact, simplicity before.

Minimalism is usually reduced to modern experiments in aesthetics, to architecture lacking ornament, or to art works reduced to mathematical exactness — while ignoring the equally exact fractals in nature. Because they have things “taken out,” works of minimalism are supposed to be more functional, more logical, more efficient, or more aesthetically pleasing. But the difference between minimalism and simplicity is really between modernism and those minimal works that transcend mere modernism.

Simplicity does not mean lacking in knowledge or depth. Anymore than minimalism means apprehension of the essential and discarding of all the rest. A haiku is structurally minimalist, but that is a structual criterion. Is it simple? Only those inspired by past masters will be.

Simplicity involves removal of complexities and superfluities, but it begins from the ground up. Minimalism suggests a baroque extravagance followed by a purgative. Simplicity stops before the first bite, the first brushstroke, the first line of poetry. A Japanese Zen calligraphy student struggled to paint an enso, always failing at the point of completion. All the while, his instructor lingered over his shoulder. Then the instructor stepped out a moment. The student seized the moment and drew a perfect enso. The instructor returned, expressing approval. He had left the room, intentionally, at the right moment. Sometimes we need to be alone to figure out beauty and perfection. What was taken out (the instructor’s overbearing presence) minimized the scene, but what was created from scratch (the enso) was a profound simplicity.

Our first obligation is to recognize what our task entails: they is much to get rid of, but that alone will not make for creativity. Both minimalism and simplicity are inadequate to the point of our human project when we miss the criteria that makes for psychological and aesthetic satisfaction, namely the fulfillment of harmony with nature.

Nature here means not the picturesque world of flora and fauna but that pattern of existence that predominates in an overarching way the activities of human beings (and everything else, though humans can identify with their our species’ dilemmas more readily). Without evidence of the connection of human imagination and sentiment to larger issues of proportion, function, and flow in nature, the product — be it an art work or a life style — is not genuine and is merely a cerebral contrivance, as so much minimalist art and architecture is, and so much simplicity is in the pages of advice books and glossy magazines.

Everything is necessarily contrived, but art is intended to minimize this obvious contrivance and shape the object and ideas into something that harmonizes with ourselves, creating an art form that is what used to be called — somewhat ambitiously — “universal.” Thus we sense the wider applications of minimalism and simplicity. We need not be artists, writers, composers, etc. Rather we are crafting the art of living every day.

So there is every possibility of making things that project a universal quality, and making our lives as close to that quality as possible because of the harmony it will bestow upon us. Our universalism will be small, local and modest, in keeping with the character of nature in a given time and place. Everything must be where it is supposed to be. Everything that is in contradiction to nature is not where it is supposed to be. It can be cut down (minimalism) but ultimately must be redone (simplicity).

A true minimalism would be simplicity. Making a living or making one’s clothes may be a minimalism if executed with anger or resentment, chopping or cutting our way through life and money. But they may be a simplification if we rethink our direction in life, make priorities, stake out our purpose more carefully. A work of music, a cottage, a painting, a routine of exercise, can all be approached with this dichotomous purpose and difference of mindset: cut after the fact or create before the fact.

Economy and efficiency are not achieved by cutting out from a faulty grandiose plan. Better to have begun with modest ends that harmonize with the modesty of nature, and our human nature. We learn more from applying the simplicity about which we may read to that which is naturally simple rather than works of human contrivance: a night sky, a bird in flight, the colors of a vegetable garden, the cleanliness of a snowfall.

Whether we have exceeded the natural and must cut back, or we are venturing on a new path of interest and can afford to begin simply, our methods always have a wider social context. Our lives are patterned after larger social and cultural patterns. We are not autonomous little experiments all our own. We are bundles of cultural and environmental inheritance: our language, habits, preferences, fears. We must make friends with them and not abhor what we are. Then we can selectively decide what to cut, what to nurture.

Modern society takes advantage of our interconnectedness to culture and the world around us by playing up the grandiose from which we can only retreat with great pain from the cutting and bleeding. Modern society encourages consumption, compulsion, acquisition, satiation, social networking — an inevitable clash of spirit with nature, harmony, health, and self. The prospect of anything less than relentless power smacks to some of renunciation, sacrifice, and asceticism. Yet these are historical forms of creating, in simple fashion, personal strength; they become painless efficiencies from which larger projects can be founded.

The stranglehold of modern society on the self is built not on individual empowerment but parasitism, wherein each self is rendered an object to feed a grand organism. It is the opposite of host-parasite relationship because it is the opposite of nature. We deal more with these human abstractions and contrivances than we do with fellow-humans.

Minimalism may be a necessary tool because so much must be knocked away to save the very structure. But the structures of society and culture are not eternal. They were assembled as controls. They will not survive. Individuals do, but not structures, which are only the projection of humans. We must give up things in minimalist style, but ultimately pare down that which obstructs a view of the self, of the spirit. At that point can we begin again, but from principles of simplicity. Simplicity is a component not of art but of life style. No structure is simple.

Simplicity is a disengagement from the furor of the world, from the social mileau that ultimately cannot be knocked down from without. Rather we must walk away or dispel it, like the ancient Chinese recluses. Whether we minimize painfully or begin modestly to create from little, a philosophy of eremitism can provide a versatile philosophical tool for slashing brambles or pruning vines. How we work our gardens is how we work life itself.

J. D. Salinger

With the recent death of J. D. Salinger, a spate of articles on the famous “recluse” is appearing in the media, most of it adding little to the understanding of solitude, reclusion, privacy, or psychology.

Salinger’s reclusion consisted in neo-Confucian reclusion from the empire, from society — in which the supposed important things always happen — to go to the countryside, the village, the outlands, where nothing important happens, where people live simply and not very self-consciously.

Salinger’s daily life in Cornish, New Hampshire, is neatly described in a New York Times article: “A Recluse? Well, Not to His Neighbors” that shows Salinger a recluse to the world of fame but not to his town neighbors. He made regular rounds to the post office, the restaurant, the church supper. His neighbors conspired to protect his desired privacy, not unlike the privacy they valued for themselves. New England is like that and Salinger’s decision to recluse there was a conscious and deliberate one.

A Washington Post letter to the editor by a then-feature writer recalls how one day in 1978 he managed to find Salinger’s house and pull into his driveway. When Salinger asked what he wanted, the feature writer started to explain. “Get out of here,” Salinger told him in curmudgeon-like fashion. Was the feature writer invading Salinger’s privacy or was he not also invading the ethos of the entire community?

Reclused in a village, Chuang-tzu was sitting by a river bank, swishing his feet in the cool stream waters when a contingent of imperial bureaucrats, having tracked him down, began urging him to accept appointment to the palace. “You know that ancient turtle in the palace brought out for public viewing once a year? Compare that turtle to the one there, on the river bank, enjoying the cool mountain stream. Do you think that turtle here wants to be like the one in the palace?” The bureaucrats understood and left. Chuang-tzu, not so curmudgeon-like, had told them, “Get out of here.”

In so many articles on Salinger, no one seems to offer an explanation for Salinger’s decision to recluse. They perceive fame and glory as a norm, a goal. They cannot conceive of turning away from the lights, the glitter, the falseness — for something so primitive as a small town and solid simplicity. Not that Salinger was a hermit or solitary, as the New York Times article rightly shows. Not that he could not afford to recluse, given royalties from his ever-popular The Catcher in the Rye. Rather, Salinger reverted to the status of every other resident in a typical small town. He intended to blend into an anonymity toward outsiders, but perfectly himself to his neighbors, who value autonomy and privacy.

Perhaps Salinger did not publish much because he did not want to risk failure after the pristine success of The Catcher in the Rye. He did publish Franny and Zooey, with its memorable evocation of the starets, the iconic hermit elder of Russian Orthodoxy. Nor did Salinger every really quit writing — he reportedly left many notebooks of scribblings and manuscripts that he would probably wish, like Kafka, be destroyed after his death. Or perhaps not, since he seemed to have one eye on worldly dealings, jealously protecting his Holden Caulfield creation with copyright lawsuit.

Sam Anderson, author of a New York Magazine article titled “Social Salinger: Literature’s Oddly Companionable Hermit,” captures the meaning of Salinger better than most. Just as the disaffected adolescent protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye appears as a disembodied voice who rejects his origins, so too did Salinger effectively reject his “origins” in big city social complexity to get on with the real story of his life, which didn’t matter in the end after all. Says Anderson with great insight:

Salinger always struck me as an odd candidate for hermitude. Despite his misanthropic characters and flights of antisocial mysticism, the energy of his prose was relentlessly sociable, charming, and connective — he was practically sitting right there with you as you read, reaching over and turning the pages. He captured, in his sentences, the urgency of humans talking to actual humans. It seemed ridiculous — a parody of his work, almost — that in real life he was nowhere to be found. That became, in the end, one of the odd pleasures of reading him: You had to imagine Salinger, the actual man, the same way you imagined his characters, to summon a reality out of a disembodied voice. … It’s hard to know how to mourn a recluse — all we have is the absence of an absence.