Aniela Jaffé. The Myth of Meaning in the Work of C. G. Jung

In this work it is the author's intention to explore the basic philosophical/religious question of "the meaning of life" within the context of Jungian psychology. Zürich: Daimon, 1983. Trans. by R. F. C. Hull. 188 pp. 3-85630-500-9, SF 29.10 paper.

Reviewed by Harry Polkinhorn, English, San Diego State University


In this work it is the author's intention to explore the basic philosophical/religious question of "the meaning of life" within the context of Jungian psychology. This she does admirably, negotiating the tricky ground between philosophy, theology, psychology, and physics. Part of the problem she faces has to do with the relentlessly empirically based culture in which we live and on whose terms she must present her analysis of matters that have little to do with quantifiable measurements. Rather than offering a critical summary of the philosophy-of-life dimension of Jung's thought, of which several had already been written before Jaffé's work was published in its original German in 1967, she organizes her argument around the underlying concepts of individuation and the individual, especially as they have been approached by the theology of Tillich and the prime existentialist question of "meaning." These concerns lead her to detail Jung's notion of how a schema derived from his work in the consulting room is then applied to the culture at large through his method of amplification. This line of Jaffé's argument culminates in a chapter entitled "The Individuation of Mankind" that takes as its central document Jung's Answer to Job, in which he traces the evolution of what he calls the "God image" in the Western world: from the distant, arbitrary Jehovah to the close, loving Christ (evil having been separated off and consigned to the flames and to Satan) to the situation today in which external religious imagery has been replaced by the internal imagery of the individual psyche.

Perhaps Jaffé's most creative contribution, however, can be found in her application of myth theory itself to some of these ideas. That is, Jung's whole notion of the individuation of consciousness as a basic pattern in which the Self orchestrates (or attempts to orchestrate) meaning over the course of a lifetime is understood by Jaffé as a myth. Just as creation myths go back to origins out of chaos, the ego emerges from its background in the unconscious, then enters into a dynamic and changing relationship with different aspects of that background as it proceeds through its phases of development (order out of chaos, separation of the elements, creation of life, and so on). Meaning becomes equivalent to " 'fullness of life'," and lack of meaning is " 'equivalent to illness'" (146). Jaffé points out how Jung always tried to hold the opposites together, in this case meaning and meaninglessness, in spite of the radical contingency involved. As she sums up his position, "A universally valid formula for meaning does not exist" (146) because each individual incarnation takes on shades of difference.

The general applicability of these considerations has of course been a central preoccupation of much of the best cultural production of our time, which Jaffé points out through citing the entirely relevant examples of Kafka and Beckett in the domain of literature. Both of these writers brought the "no" that symbolizes a full acknowledgement of meaninglessness into the very structure and texture of their works in such a way that it is turned inside out, remaining itself while at the same time becoming its opposite, then back again, in an ongoing set of transformations. We see something similar in the late poems of W. B. Yeats, the works of Paul Celan, and elsewhere especially through mid-twentieth-century European literature, which reflected the impact of the war and the social disorganization and sense of despair that followed it. These events more or less coincided with the time of Jung's late writings that form the basis of Jaffé's study. It is precisely the concentration of these extremes in a single individual, poem, or novel, for example, that causes Jaffé to characterize them as manifestations of the archetype of meaning (148). One might speculate that, as in the case of the concomitant appearance of Existentialism itself, they emerged at this particular historical juncture as a kind of cultural antidote to post-war despair. When all the traditional sources of meaning in life have been definitively done away with, the individual is left with his own psyche. What is unusual is how Jaffé conceptualizes this aspect of Jungian theory in strictly mythological terminology. Because her work is ambitious in scope and daring in reach, readers unfamiliar with the disciplines she spans may have some difficulty seeing the real brilliance of her central argument.


© Harry Polkinhorn 2002