JUNG: A biography

JUNG: A biography

Gerhard Wehr; translated from the German by David M. Weeks
Shambhala Publications. 1988; paperback, 548 pages.

The biographer of Jung must proceed with caution. After all, Jung's autobiography (Memories, Dreams and ReflectionsMemories, Dreams and ReflectionsMemories, Dreams and ReflectionsMemories, Dreams and Reflections) details many of the inner concerns which Jung claimed composed most of what was significant in his life: times when the “imperishable world” erupted into the mundane. Jung more than hinted that the mundane events of his lie were, if not superfluous, at least subservient and easily forgotten.

Among other accomplishments, Gerhard Wehr's biography clearly demonstrates that the “mundane events” in Jung's life were both rich and varied. Wehr presents Jung as brimming with a steady vitality which perfectly complemented his more studious, introverted side. In complete accord with Jung's own principles, the “complete Jung” emerges when polarities are united: mundane and imperishable, introvert and extrovert, irascible and gentle, earthy Swiss peasant and psychological sage. As Jung himself would have expected, by bridging polarity, Wehr uncovers a mandala (and vice-versa).

A simple event-narrative could never give an accurate picture of Jung's lie. That lie was a lifework, developed via themes, projects and concerns not confined to a single period and often experienced most profoundly in solitude. A strict chronology of events might give all the facts, but it would miss the thread of meaning through which those facts become resonant.

Wehr therefore interweaves event-narrative with chapters devoted to a number of Jung's ongoing concerns or investigations (e.g., alchemy, religious questions, his confrontation with the unconscious, etc.). These chapters are presented in the order in which each theme cohered as a separate field of activity or study. In effect, Wehr interweaves time and meaning (another pair that occupied Jung for many years) and thus mirrors Jung's own concerns while presenting Jung as a man of enormous energy and integrity, great warmth and courage, and above all an inexhaustible yet circumspect generosity.

In bringing together these apparent opposites, Wehr presents the coniunctio of Jung's own lie, the alchemical union of opposites which so closely parallels the process of individuation. The reader is led (in the words Wehr uses to describe the “mysterium coniunctionis,” or “sacred marriage itself),” beyond mere intellectual knowledge to the existential nature of transformation and maturation. Nothing could be more appropriate than to present Jung on his own terms: not only does Jung himself appear more clearly, but the reader comes to a more visceral understanding of what Jung meant by the individuation process and the union of opposites.

Wehr makes it clear that the coniunctio was for Jung not only an area of study, but an inescapable aspect of human lie, manifest in his near-fatal coronary just as he began work on Mysterium ConiunctionisThis confrontation with the most mysterious pair of opposites, life and death, enabled (or forced) Jung “to know from his own ‘intuition,’ when near death, what the sacred marriage, the leitmotif of the entire work, ultimately meant!” (p. 406) The ideas in Mysterium Coniunctionisthen, were themselves a coniunctio of intimate personal experience with intellectual study. (At the same time, from a practical level, Mysterium developed from practical, therapeutic problems arising from psychological transference, prompting Jung to remark that he was guided by practical necessity, another example of the same union.)

The concern with opposites-or the need to unite them-made Jung a builder of bridges, spanning gulfs between unconscious and conscious, past and present, theory and practice, intellect and emotion, and finally, East and West. Whatever his empathy with Eastern thought, however, he remained firmly rooted in the European tradition, insisting as he did that man's spiritual growth grow from his home soil and not be imported or purchased from other cultures. Even a bridge builder lives on solid earth, not the bridge itself.

Wehr's book also remains firmly rooted in the European-Christian tradition, and this rootedness enriches even as it sets limits. The enrichment comes from Wehr's own rootedness: he writes like a man for whom the individuation process is not just someone else's theory, but an ongoing personal encounter; for whom the lode of European mysticism enriches heart and intellect alike.

His very success, however, becomes a problem. (Jung, and the sages of ancient China, would no doubt be pleased!) By demonstrating the universality of Jung's vision, Wehr casts light into shadowy rooms he does not enter; and writing from a European perspective (which, I suppose, he must), he sees the East as “other” and misses an opportunity to place Jung against a more encompassing backdrop.

The problem is unavoidable. Paradoxically it shows the great scope of Wehr's book. He not only presents the mandala of Jung's life, he points to the space on the fringes of that mandala, to the ripples caused when the peasant-mage of Bollingen dropped into the world. A writer often succeeds most when he illuminates his own limitations. Success and failure become irrelevant: this is a remarkable book.


Winter 1989