Six Cardboard Boxes Full of Love Letters And Old Picture Postcards: The Search For Jung's Symbol

One of Carl Jung's major contributions was exploration of that ancient philosophy called symbolism and symbolism's contemporary expression through symbols. Now, almost half a century after his death, it's ironic that Jung's life is beginning to merge with the target of its lifelong exploration, and, starting to become a symbol itself.

One of Carl Jung's major contributions was exploration of that ancient philosophy called symbolism and symbolism's contemporary expression through symbols. Now, almost half a century after his death, it's ironic that Jung's life is beginning to merge with the target of its lifelong exploration, and, starting to become a symbol itself.

Jung once remarked "Eternal truth needs a human language that alters with the spirit of the times." And so too has the "truth" of Jung's life ? perhaps one of the most symbolic ever lived ? needed (and received) various interpretations that have altered with the spirit of the times.

A major part of these interpretations have come from that particular literary genre called biography. The biographer's task is always a difficult proposition. As Virginia Woolf lamented "How can one make a life out of six cardboard boxes full of tailors' bills, love letters and old picture postcards?"

Constructing a biography of Jung has proven substantially more difficult than making a life out of "six cardboard boxes." For one thing, there is the sprawling substance, the vast quantity far greater than Woolf's "six cardboard boxes." But more than this are the paradoxes and circular paths that coil back into themselves. Even for those who have a good understanding of the basic structure of the Jungian edifice, some rooms within still remain locked or inaccessible ? their contents removed from inquiry, protected by that particular few who keep watch over a particular version of the Jungian legend. Or if not locked away, lost forever with the deaths of those who personally knew Jung. There is also the habit of various groups and movements over the years to appropriate Jung for their own purposes.

However, the treacherous terrain of the Jungian landscape has not prevented a number of biographers from setting forth on their journey towards the legendary symbol. In the article "Understanding Jung" from the April 2000 Journal of Analytical Psychology, F.X. Charet provides the most comprehensive list of Jung biographies yet published. As one might suspect, the biographies approach Jung from a number of perspectives and attitudes. Finding an overriding theme in these is a difficult task.

There is that great "mother lode" of Jungian biographical material contained in Jung's final autobiographical work Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1973).

There are the relatively straight-ahead biographies such as Frank McLynn's Jung (1996). And there are the outright critical biographical attacks on Jung such as Richard Noll's The Jung Cult (1994) and The Aryan Christ (1997). And there are the "disciple biographies" from those who personally knew Jung such as Aniela Jaffe's From the Life and Work of C.G. Jung (1972), Marie Louise Von Franz's His Myth in Our Time (1975) and Lauren van der Post's Jung and the Story of Our Time (1975).

Many of these are grand works of scholarship and many capture "snap shots" of the overall man. Yet, even considering the current musings that Memories, Dreams, Reflections might be more biography than autobiography, F.X Charet suggests there still is reason to suspect the great Jung biography has yet to be written. At the conclusion of his article in The Journal of Analytical Psychology he writes:

In the end Jung has not yet found his biographer ... New biographies of Jung will, no doubt, be written. In addition to marshalling the accumulating details about Jung's life and thought, whether and how these biographies will address the question of Jung's spiritual life and his myth we do not know. It might be in one of these Jung will have found his biographer and we will be able not only to see him more clearly within the context of his times but also to understand how it is that his myth has spoken to so many today.

When the final version of Charet's article was completed (in October 1999) there were undoubtedly a number of other biographical works in progress. Two highly anticipated ones are from the literary scholar Deirdre Bair and the historian of psychology Sonu Shamdasani.

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Despite the difficulty of the task, the elusiveness of the goal, a contemporary understanding of Jung has a growing, urgent importance. This is so largely because the "spirit of the times" has tended to confirm Jung's ideas and warnings.

The ascent of the Jungian edifice has seen a concurrent decline of the Freudian one. Once viewed with Freud and Adler as part of triumvirate of depth psychology, the split Jung initiated with Freud has finally received acknowledgement in the mind of the general public. This separation from Freud has left Jung less harmed by the recent onslaught of Freudian criticism.

As one waits for new Jungian biographies ? and perhaps the one where Jung will find, as Charet suggests, his true biographer ? there is an interesting trend of attempts to take Jungian psychology into the outside world of popular culture.

For the most part, this has been undertaken through a number of edited collections of articles. There is the recent attempt to create a Jungian political perspective in The Vision Thing: Myth, Politics and Psyche in the World edited by Thomas Singer (Routledge 2000) where organizational and political consultants, scholars of mythology and culture mix with Jungian analysts.

There is Pathways Into The Jungian World: Phenomenology and Analytical Psychology edited by Roger Brooke (Routledge 2000) which attempts placement of Jung in a philosophical, phenomenological perspective with its articles from the areas of medicine, psychology and philosophy.

There is The Soul of Popular Culture: Looking at Contemporary Heroes, Myths and Monsters edited by Mary Lynn Kittelson (Open Court 1998) which places Jung into the "soul" of popular culture with its use of depth psychology to explain the hidden symbolism of television programs, movies and other contemporary media or the public preoccupation with issues and events like abortion, the Simpson trial and AIDS.

And there is The Cambridge Companion to Jung edited by Polly Young-Eisendrath and Terence Dawson (Cambridge 1997) which attempts placement of analytical psychology in a general social context and to show the connection of Jung with our post-modern world.

On the Internet, one would be remiss not to mention Don Williams' ground-breaking Jung Site ( and its increasing number of articles offering Jungian perspectives on those key symbols of contemporary culture, films.

These are just a few of the more noticeable published attempts to bring Jung into contemporary culture. But the Jungian perspective towards culture has moved outside the relatively limited markets for these books into articles from a far wider and more diverse international community. The interesting fact is that more are utilizing a Jungian perspective and method without realizing this. And just as Jung was surprised at being called a "Jungian" so too would many members of this growing new community.

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While many might anxiously await new biographies and interpretations of the Jungian symbol in light of the contemporary "spirit of the times" one needs to keep in mind that these views of Jung will continue to change with the times they find expression in.

And, too, one needs to also wonder if a Jung biography will really be written by one person. Rather, one wonders, if it will ultimately be the product of a number of people ? the growing Jungian community ? all somehow coming together.

Here one needs to briefly take leave from the popular modern meaning of symbols and consider their original ancient meaning. This modern meaning of symbols came to prominence half a millennium ago in the 15th century. As leading dictionaries point out, the word symbol put forth in this time involved an authoritative summary of a faith or doctrine, a creed. It also centered around the connotation of something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention or accidental resemblance. A symbol came to be etched in common cultural perception as a type of visible sign for something invisible. In this way, a lion became a symbol of courage.

Today, this meaning of symbols finds a new relevance in our virtual, hypertext Internet world of images and words pointing to other words beyond them. And then other images and words beyond these, and still others. In essence, in our loud entertainment economy and consumer culture, symbols have come to be considered mere tools or slaves to Madison Avenue and Hollywood ? little more than effective, subliminal modes of communication for the transmittal of persuasive messages.

But long before the 15th century, symbols (and communication itself) were based on ritual and communion rather than communication through transmission. The etymology of the word symbol derives from the Late Latin word symbolum and the Late Greek word symbolon both meaning token or sign. This token was literally a token of identity, a piece, like that of a puzzle piece, fitting ultimately into a larger whole. Once, the identity of the person offering up this token piece was verified by comparing its other half. Perhaps this was one of the ways masculine fused with feminine, Ying with Yang. The ancient derivation of symbol also come from combining the word symballein made from the combination of syn and ballein which means to throw together.

Often, this symbolic communion involved a ritual coming together centered around a broken slate of clay. In ancient Greece it was a custom to break a slate of burned clay into several pieces and distribute them within the group. When the group reunited the pieces were fitted together (Greek symbollein). This confirmed the members belonging to the group.

Rather than transmitting outward ? like the light of the Sun ? the original connotation of symbols was one of pulling together ? like the gravity of a planet or galaxy.

Communion rather than communication.

Throughout the ages, the pieces of symbols came to be held by various secret sects ? such as Christians. One great symbol of early Christianity, noted many times by Jung, was the symbol of the fish. As a Christian logo, the fish predates the cross, and its Piscean connotations of baptism and magical bounty (the miracle of loaves and fishes) reaches back to the time when the harshly persecuted cult secretly gathered in the catacombs of Alexandria. Ichthus, the Greek word for fish often inscribed within the symbol, is also a code, an acrostic of the phrase "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior." One apocryphal story claims that Christians would secretly test the spiritual allegiance of new acquaintances by casually drawing one curve of the fish on the ground. If their companion was "in the know," he or she would complete the fish shape.

One of Jung's last great works was the relatively obscure and difficult Aion. A central tenet of Aion was the grand symbolic change from the era of Pisces to Aquarius ? from the symbol of the fish to that of the water carrier. Suggested in Aion was the change from being contained in a ubiquitous context (like a fish in water) to being able to rise out of this context and to, in effect, carry this context. Containing context becomes carried content.

The real challenge posed by Jung's life might be in bringing the scattered pieces (tokens) together into a new symbol in tune with the spirit of the times. This seems the real task much more than the continual output of more and more Jungian biographies, of breaking up that grand old Jungian symbol into smaller and smaller pieces. Jung posited that our current segmentation of information and knowledge into smaller and smaller pieces was the result of a failure to find the gravity of that one great symbol for our own age which would pull things together and alleviate all our broken pieces and psyches.

And perhaps, in his late book Aion, Jung may have provided us with the secret to creating that one great biography and Jungian symbol for our own age. For once we can escape from all the biographies that swim in the sea of Jung's life like so many fish in the sea ? maybe we will crawl out of the seas for a second great time in history and found a new land rising above the crumbling studio lots of Hollywood and the sprawl of our homogenized suburbs.

Perhaps then the Jungian context can be "contained" and "carried" forth into this new land by the Aquarian water carrier which replaces the Pisces fish with our new millennium. Not that "water carrier" of new Jung biographies but rather the water carrier in all of us.

When this happens Jung will achieve that whole individuation in a symbol he searched so hard to find through his own life. It was a wholeness he wanted so much for himself but also for the world he lived in.

Once this happens perhaps Jung will acquire in history what he sought in life. The wholeness of that one grand symbol.

And too, in this coming together, "tokens," pieces of the grand whole symbol fit into the embrace of matching tokens. All of us may be made whole again.

John Fraim is President of GreatHouse Company a research, consulting and publishing firm centered around the symbolism of popular culture. His articles have been published in a number of leading publications. His book Spirit Catcher won the 1997 Small Press Award for best biography. His email is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Visit the CyberBeacon Café at