The Essential Jung by Carl G. Jung (edited by Anthony Storr)

jungcg-essentialjungCarl Jung, who is known for an approach to psychology known as psychoanalysis, was a very prolific writer. It would be nearly impossible for the interested reader to collect every volume he wrote, so Anthony Storr has put together this 400-page compendium of excerpts in an attempt to give the reader a comprehensive overview of Jung’s concepts. Some of these are: the idea of the unconscious, archetypes, and dream analysis.

I won’t kid you; I found this a difficult book, so difficult that my reading time spanned several years. Many of Jung’s ideas seem wildly abstract and speculative. However, there is definitely something interesting here, at least in part.

Jung coined the term “unconscious,” recognising that our minds contain information that we are not always aware of. This is undoubtedly true from experience. He also uses the term “collective unconscious.” This is sometimes misunderstood as a unified consciousness (in a mystical, metaphysical sense), but what Jung really meant was that our minds contain inherited information from the past – such as our natural fear of fierce animals. The common childhood fear of monsters may have its roots in our hunter-gatherer ancestors’ very real conflicts with wild beasts. This fear is collective in the sense that we all inherited it. Jung intended nothing spiritual or paranormal by the term “collective unconscious.”

Related to the collective unconscious is the idea of “archetypes” – recurring images in dreams that can be spotted across a multiplicity of cultures, hinting again at the notion of a collective inheritance. Jung named certain archetypes as anima, animus and the shadow. I found a lot of this material confusing, because I can find very little correspondence in my own experience. I do like the idea of the shadow, as a way of identifying the unsavoury aspects of our personality that we try to repress because they’re socially unacceptable. I can relate to that. But it’s important to realise that the shadow is not a thing, not an entity – just an idea, a way of representing an aspect of human experience in language. In man’s more primal prehistory, he probably wouldn’t have had a shadow, because he would have been more at one with his natural instincts, without the pressure of civilisation’s often unnatural ideals on his head.

Jung puts a lot of stock on dream interpretation – in therapy, using dreams as signposts to the root of a personality problem. From personal experience, I would say this can sometimes be the case, but more often than not my dreams are full of playful nonsense. How does a therapist avoid placing massive significance in an aspect of a dream that might be completely random?

Jung is essentially a mythologist of the psyche, in the way that ancient man was a mythologist about the material world – inventing a pantheon of gods and goddesses behind the forces of nature. Some of the words invented by Jung (such as unconscious, introvert, extravert) are still in common use today, which is a testament to his insight. Although this is a useful book, for me personally it was one that I had to laboriously dig through to find the nuggets of gold.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

vonnegutk-slaughterhouse5I started reading this novel because of its status as a classic, but I must confess I knew nothing about its theme. As the story got underway, I had the distinct feeling that this was going to be a thoroughly depressing tale about reflections on the horror of war. Not my cup of tea. Imagine my surprise when the story made a weird tangent into Twilight Zone territory. The narrator, Billy Pilgrim, becomes unstuck in time. What I mean is, one second he could be in the trenches of World War II, and the next he could be cuddling up to the woman he married after the war. Two days after that, he could be on exhibit in an extraterrestrial zoo, where he spent some time after being abducted by aliens. Then he might be back in the war. He has no control over what point in time his consciousness leaps into, or when these jumps are going to occur, but his weird condition gives him a perspective on time that allows him to see “the present” as more than just a single knife-edge that exists at only one point in time and is always racing forward. His alien captors, the Tralfamadorians, live in four dimensions all at once, seeing every moment of time as the present. When events happen, good or bad, their reaction is always “So it goes.”

Slaughterhouse-Five is a war story, an absurdist science fiction tale, and also an entertaining philosophy text on the nature of time – which might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but is definitely mine. As someone interested in esoteric knowledge, I had my own eureka moment about time a few years ago. It’s a real delight when I’m reading a story and the author lets me know that we’re both privy to a life-enriching secret: the idea that no matter when you are in time, you’re always in the present.

Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell

russellb-whyiamnotachristianThis volume brings together a collection of speeches and essays by the famous philosopher Bertrand Russell. They are all, directly or indirectly, about the topic of religion. In the titular essay, the author explains his reasons for being unconvinced by Christianity. In contrast to the typical view that Jesus was a good man but not the Messiah, Russell has no qualms about suggesting that he is not as good or as wise as we often make him out to be. He provides some compelling examples from the gospels, and makes an interesting comparison between the characters of Jesus, Socrates and Buddha, with Jesus seeming rather crude by comparison.

The lecture touches on the themes of what it means to be a Christian; the “first cause” argument for God’s existence; the natural law argument; the argument from design; moral arguments for deity; the remedying of injustice; the character of Jesus and defects in his teaching; how churches hinder progress; how religion uses fear. It’s a good lecture, uncompromising and informative. The only misstep, I felt, was Russell’s suggestion that Jesus may not have existed at all.

The main problem with Russell’s speech is that it doesn’t go deep enough. As an ex-Christian, I recognise that the primary mistake at the heart of religion is the erroneous notion that mankind is defective and in need of some kind of redemption. When you put in the time and effort to understand your own nature, and nature itself, then religion’s entire sales pitch evaporates. Essentially, my answer to the question “Why are you not a Christian?” is “Because I am not broken.” Religion is based upon a profound misdiagnosis of the human condition.

The titular speech is the high point of Russell’s book. The other chapters are variable in quality. The more interesting ones were those where Russell talks about sexuality; he was daringly forward-thinking for the time in which he spoke.

Overall, I have to report that I’m a little disappointed. It’s not that this is a bad book. Just that I was hoping to be blown away by it, given the author’s reputation as a philosopher. I found myself wincing at times at the manner in which Russell occasionally makes overly dramatic accusations which appear to be more emotional than rational. An interesting read, but not an essential addition to my library.

Philosophy in the Bedroom by the Marquis de Sade

desade-philosophybedroomWhile everyone’s feeling naughty for reading E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey these days, I thought I would instead delve into something by the man who gave sadism its name. My fascination with reading Philosophy in the Bedroom actually stems from the fact that I’ve got a soft spot for an old Jess Franco movie called Eugenie, starring the gorgeous Maria Rohm. According to the film’s opening credits, it’s based on the de Sade book here under review. The story is simple: a rich and powerful woman, Madame de Saint Ange, with her brother, Le Chevalier de Mirval, take a naive teenage girl, Eugenie, under their wing and proceed to give her an “education” in the ways of being a libertine, over the course of a weekend. While Franco’s movie does little more than tease the viewer, the original work is quite a different beast.

The book is written in the form of a play, consisting entirely of dialogue – except for occasional stage directions about sexual positions, which were came across as unintentionally comedic. I couldn’t imagine this actually taking place with actors, and I doubt it was ever made real in that fashion. However, I couldn’t help but visualise the actors from Franco’s adaptation in their respective roles. I use the word adaptation loosely, because Franco essentially did his own thing. Trust me, if he followed de Sade’s script, he would’ve been jailed.

I’m not easily shocked when it comes to sexual content, but I have to admit that I was surprised at the extremes depicted by the author. I won’t go into detail, but I simply had no idea that many of de Sade’s sexual kinks had even entered the imagination of man three centuries ago. I was under the impression that the excesses depicted in modern pornography were largely a product of modern pornography. Not so, it seems. They were here all along.

Parts of the book are actually very intelligent. There is a lengthy non-erotic portion concerned with libertine politics, which was rather boring for me. But I thoroughly enjoyed de Sade’s rant against Christianity. It was strikingly blasphemous for the time period, displaying a remarkable courage in a heavily Christianised society.

Central to de Sade’s philosophy is an appeal to nature. He views man, rightly, as a part of nature, not as a thing alienated from nature, as religion teaches. Man is not a creature that has to beat his natural instincts into submission in pursuit of some “higher” ideal. The passions of man have every right to be expressed and enjoyed without guilt, because man is an animal. Arguing thus, de Sade is well ahead of his time. It wasn’t until Charles Darwin proposed the theory of natural selection in the mid-1800s that we were able to scientifically defend what de Sade already saw clearly. Sadly, the author is unable to separate his ideas about nature from his own personal sexual neuroses. To him, every thought that excites him, no matter how deranged, is natural. It looks like the old cliche about genius and insanity being very close companions.

The erotic element of the story, frankly, does get tiresome after a while, and I almost gave up reading halfway through. I did like the philosophical side, though. How do I sum up the Marquis de Sade? Deranged genius? Maybe.

Satan Burger by Carlton Mellick III

mellickc-satanburgerThe reason I read this novel was because of the author’s introduction, part of which I now quote:

I wrote this book (basically) when I was 20 years old and on the verge of self-murder. Not sure if my verge was due to a fascination with an unknown afterlife or due to utter boredom. Most likely the latter. The world becomes clearer and clearer the older we become, much less mysterious/exciting and all of its appeal we experienced during childhood turns logical, and logic is a dirty and boring word. This story is from the viewpoint of the rebel, who I am still deeply in love with, who refuses to accept the beliefs (logic) that have been issued to him like a uniform …

Wow, right? Anyway, the story goes something like this. The protagonist is a guy called Leaf, who lives with a bunch of punk friends in a squat. The world is semi-apocalyptic due to the presence of a weird big portal (the Walm) that is steadily stealing souls and also spitting out weird aliens from other planets, who then typically get up to mischief. Leaf and friends team up with Satan, who is a very real being, running a local fast food restaurant called (you guessed it) Satan Burger. The idea is that people have to sell their souls for a burger, and they’re all too willing to do it. And the story just keeps getting weirder from there.

So, apparently I’ve stepped into a genre called “bizarro” fiction. Honestly, I’m not that impressed. Traditional narrative structure has been abandoned in favour of a disjointed, surreal fantasy where anything goes. I had no idea where the story was heading until it got there. And when it got there, I had no idea why it was there. I got the feeling that the author had woven some subtext into the plot, particularly the material about how easy it is to lose your soul – in the sense of becoming a passionless human being who just wanders aimlessly through life. But for the most part, the novel just seemed to be a joyride through a lunatic dream. The weirdness had a creativity and a humour about it that maintained my enthusiasm for a time, but the more it dawned on me that this wasn’t going to ultimately make sense, the more I wanted to stop reading. So I plodded my way to the last page and finally put the book down with a shrug.

Finally, a word on the cover. It has nothing to do with the story. It’s just … bizarro, I suppose. Maybe a photo of somebody’s arse in the air does help sales, in the sense that you can’t help noticing it on the shelf. But I think it has to be one of the worst book covers in history. In bizarro fashion, maybe that’s a plus, in some weird way.

On the strength of the author’s introduction, I really thought I was in for a treat. With regret, I have to report disappointment.

10% Happier by Dan Harris

harrisd-10happierI was especially attracted by the title of this volume because I’ve noticed that spiritual teachers have an unfortunate tendency to promise a lot more than they can actually deliver – Eckhart Tolle with his Zen-like persona being a prime example. I don’t believe in total freedom from suffering; that’s just not realistic. But “ten percent happier” is a phrase I can work with, because it suggests that ordinary human consciousness can be improved rather than transformed.

Dan Harris is a news anchor. Some years ago he took a panic attack in front of the camera. This, and a number of other factors, conspired to lead him to take an active interest in the subject of meditation. 10% Happier charts this journey. It contains fascinating interviews with Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra, Harris’s personal struggles with meditation, his time at a retreat. What makes this book unique is that it is told from the perspective of a genuinely interested sceptic. If you’ve read a few volumes on meditation and struggled to understand the practice, Harris’s book will be a welcome relief.

I noticed that the author appears to be a very extraverted person. This might be part of the reason why he struggled so much with meditation. He was accustomed to paying attention to the world of his senses and not to the internal landscape of the mind. Meditation was a way of redirecting that focus. You take away the outside world and you are forced to pay attention to the mind. This helps you to see your own motivations. In short, meditation can show you what an asshole you are.

If the book lacks something, it’s metaphysics. Meditation without metaphysics is a bit of a half-empty sandwich, for me personally. It serves as a form of self-therapy, but you never really tackle the issue of the “self” – coming to terms with the non-existence of an entity sitting between your eyes, while undersanding that consciousness is real. But that’s another story.

Harris also never fully questions his own lifestyle – the whole notion of climbing the ladder of success. He’s looking for a way to maintain his game, but the game itself might be part of the problem. But Dan Harris is who he is. And this book is the most down-to-earth and objective examination of meditation that I have read. For me, it’s one of the more important reads of recent years.

Revival by Stephen King

kings-revivalI don’t read every Stephen King novel that comes out (because he’s too prolific for his own good), but this one attracted me because religion is a topic that I find endlessly fascinating. I consider myself a survivor of the brainwashing exercise of my youth and early adulthood.

The book starts in the mid twentieth century and charts the lifetime of a young boy, Jamie Morton, who is befriended by the new pastor in his hometown, a young man called Charles Jacobs. Pleasantly, this is not a tale of sexual scandal – which makes a change in stories of this type. The friendship is genuine. The real story begins when Jacobs preaches what local folks would later refer to as the Terrible Sermon. The pastor is forced to confront head-on the veracity of his religion’s claims; the placebo pill about God taking care of us no longer works for him, and he is determined to make everyone face the stark truth behind the comforting lies we tell each other. Unsurprisingly, he quits his job and leaves town. But this is not the last time Jamie sees him. Their paths are destined to cross in the future, more than once.

I don’t want to say too much about where this story weaves, because I don’t want to spoil any of it. Suffice it to say, yes it is about a revival tent, as you may have guessed. Does Pastor Jacobs become one of those fraudulent faith healers? Well, it’s not quite as straightforward as that.

The best part of the novel, for me, was the conflict between the assertions of faith and the realities of experience. I became very involved with the lives of the characters, and King is his usual masterful self at bringing them to life. Some may consider this story too humdrum, but I think that depends on what topics you find interesting. Things get very dark at the end, tapping into our religious superstitions. King likes to dig his claws into the reader’s head as far as he possibly can. Unfortunately, in my case, this isn’t a place where I possess a button to be pushed. If I weren’t so self-assured, the ending would have disturbed me a lot.

Overall, an above average Stephen King story. It works for one read, but suffers from being too gloomy to ever revisit.