3 Objections to a Jungian Approach to Literature

My previous post presented two examples of a Jungian approach to The Master and Margarita and offers my addition to a Jungian interpretation of the novel. Gareth Williams warns that while “some of the more puzzling issues raised by the novel” may be interpreted psychologically as Bulgakov’s desire to express “this or that painful aspect of his own experience” in an artistic manner to “gain a feeling of release,” approaching the novel as a form of psychotherapy removes “certain aspects of the work” from their “artistic context […] and obscures rather than clarifies the issues involved.”[1] However, the process of active imagination does not call up arbitrary “painful aspects” of an individual’s experience. Rather, as part of the process of increasing psychological awareness and facilitating psychological and spiritual balance, active imagination responds to specific conflict that requires healing. Jung believes creativity is a psychic process; thus, a creative, artistic response to crisis cannot help but tap into an artist’s unconscious, archetypal imagery. This process, Jung argues, reinforces the artistic nature of a literary work.[2]

Garrett’s objection is not the only concern facing Jungian theory. Below are three of six objections:

Objection 1: The purpose of a Jungian literary critique is to create a psychological profile of the author.

Jung himself addressed this issue in his rejection of Freudian theory. A student of Freud’s until 1913, Jung credits Freud with encouraging literary critics to relate “certain peculiarities of a work of art” to the life of its author[3], a practice through which, Jung warns, the literary work becomes “a symptom […] of [an author’s] psychic disturbance.”[4] A Freudian literary method presupposes “some highly personal experiences must lie behind” the contents of a work.[5] From this starting point, an author becomes “a clinical case” in need of evaluation and the resulting interpretation is, according to Jung, “not in the least specific of the artist and has even less relevance to [her or] his art.”[6] When interpreting art, Jung writes, psychology may deal only with “the process of artistic creation”[7] and must leave aside any “medical prejudice” because a work of literature “is not a disease.”[8] While knowledge of personal causes that may have influenced literary elements can provide information about an author’s peculiarities this same knowledge cannot help discover everything about the author.[9]

Objection 2: Jungian literary criticism insists that an archetypal analysis is the only valid form of analysis.[10]

According to Jung; “there is no such thing as the meaning of a text waiting to be discovered by the correct interpretation.”[11] Jung himself found the view that there is one valid interpretation of literature problematic, and maintained that there was not even a single “therapeutic technique or doctrine […] generally applicable” to all patients.[12] A single method is hazardous because of its dangerous tendency to get more out of the literature than what the literature actually says, which can limit the meaning of a work before interpretation begins.[13] Although we live in specific collective or cultural groups, we are all individuals who experience “any abstract or general notion in the context of the individual mind” and come to understand these notions in unique ways.[14] Thus, Jung writes, every word or image “means something slightly different to each person, even among those who share the same cultural background.”[15] While there may be similar experiences of certain archetypes, the meaning each reader attaches to the archetype will be distinctive to her or his interpretation of it. No single and universal meaning attached to an archetype will satisfy even a handful of interpreters. It bears repeating here that my study is a record of my interpretation of Bulgakov and cannot be held as definitive.

Objection 3: Jungian literary criticism does not pay attention to the artistic work, but instead structures the work as a simplistic pattern of images that follows Jung’s archetypal theory. [16]

Jung advises against memorizing a list of archetypes and their meanings, since the effects of archetypes “come upon us like fate, and […] are felt in our most personal life” and the images themselves take on new meaning according to experience of the individual encountering the archetype.[17] Keeping a list of archetypes and matching them with literary characters based on a preconceived meaning at each occurrence is a reductive practice that assigns characters a predetermined definition and function in a text. To move beyond this reductive danger, the Jungian critic must remember that archetypes serve a purpose in the imagination of both author and reader. The author’s imagination (consciously and unconsciously) dictates the form in which archetypes will appear in a work. The reader decides (consciously or unconsciously) how this archetype will perform in her or his interpretation, endowing the archetype with her or his own cultural and personal associations. Reductionism is only a danger when the archetype is flatly used as a tool of identification rather than as a tool of meaning-making. A true Jungian interpretation of archetypes restores meaning to the image and situates the archetype within a complex meaning-making process, for example, the process of balancing conscious and unconscious elements to restore wholeness to the psyche. While Jung discourages making a comprehensive list of every archetype and their exact meaning, he identifies certain common figures (i.e., the devil and Jesus) but leaves their meaning up to the individual. Furthermore, if Jungian literary theory interpreted a work based on a pattern of archetypes, each reading of a novel would be the same. Therefore, Jungian literary theory can do nothing except pay attention to the content of the artistic work, since the content and artistry of the work endow it with meaning.

Next time: Three more objections to Jungian literary criticism.
[1] Gareth Williams, “Some Difficulties in the Interpretation of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and the Advantages of a Manichaean Approach, with Some Notes on Tolstoi’s Influence on the Novel,” The Slavonic and East European Review 68, no. 2 (Apr., 1990): 234.
[2] See C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature, trans. by R. F. C. Hull, Vol. 15 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), par. 115-161.
[3] Jung, CW 15:101.
[4] Jung, CW 15:146.
[5] Jung, CW 15:144.
[6] Jung, CW 15:101.
[7] Jung, CW 15:97.
[8] Jung, CW 15:107.
[9] Jung, CW 15:107.
[10] Daniel Russell Brown, “A Look at Archetypal Criticism,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 28, no. 4 (Summer, 1970): 465.
[11] Stephen Kings, “Jung’s Hermeneutics of Scripture,” The Journal of Religion 77, no. 2 (Apr., 1997): 249.
[12]C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Symbolic Life: Miscellaneous Writings, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Vol. 18 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), par. 515.
[13] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Civilization in Transition, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed., Vol. 10 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), par. 319. Jung made these comments in relation to dream interpretation.
[14] C. G. Jung, ed. Man and His Symbols (New York: Dell, 1968), 28.
[15] Jung, Man and His Symbols, 28.
[16] Brown, “A Look at Archetypal Criticism,” 469.
[17] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed. Vol. 9.1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), par. 62.


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