Jungianism and the Proliferation of Meaning-Seeking Esotericism

 I also asked about Carl G. Jung, who is commonly ranked as Freud's greatest heretic. For Marc-François as well as Lacan, Jung “did everything except psychoanalysis.” It was certainly a back-handed way of Marc-François's in discussing Jung to say that he and Lacan agreed that Jung was “interesting in all areas” except the one that mattered most to Jung. Marc-François went further, maintaining that Jung, who made much of the positive possibilities in religious thought, was “a complete stranger to the real Christian tradition.” In fact, Marc-François insisted that Jung was so far from Christianity as to represent “a dangerous deviation” from it.[1]

Marc-François is Marc-François Lacan, brother of the famed psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, and a Benedictine monk of the conservative Solesmes Congregation. Paul Roazen, who interviewed the aging père in 1992, did not visit Notre Dame de Ganagobie to discuss psychoanalysis’ most infamous heretic Carl Gustav Jung (who publicly broke with Freud after being his heir presumptive), but this passing remark invites a question that, while rarely asked by your average Christian, is more pressing than ever: what is the role of psychoanalysis in religion?

What should the two have to do with each other? Freud wrote Moses and Monotheism, an exploration of Western faith as a repressed murder manifested as messianic neurosis. More scathingly, in his Civilization and Its Discontents he complains that “It is still more humiliating to discover how large a number of people living to-day . . . cannot but see that this religion is not tenable, nevertheless [they] try to defend it piece by piece in a series of pitiful rearguard actions.”[2]

The average believer hears Freud and thinks only of sexual fixation and, if of a more liberal persuasion, neurotic homophobia. And then, of course, there’s the cigar that is sometimes just a cigar. But, as with any matter of the psyche, things are more ambivalent. Freud himself compared analysis to the confessional; Lacan thought the analyst to be “like that solitary being [a monk] who in past times ventured into the desert.”[3] To figure oneself as a Desert Father implies respect, while Freud’s analogy betrays a debt to a historical and conceptual faith foreign to his Jewishness.

The relationship between faith and analysis, however, is even more intractable than these instances make it seem. Since at least Augustine’s Confessions, Christianity has been obsessed with the subject, or, at least, the individual human person. Charles Taylor might tell us that believers paradoxically laid the foundation for the over-inwardness of individualistic modernity. And in our day one psychoanalyst above all reigns supreme in terms of popular influence on Christian conceptions of the self: C.G. Jung, that “dangerous” foe of the faith (or so Marc-François intimates).

Even before returning to Roazen’s interview recently, I was often struck by how often Jung and his epigones show up in religious circles. Jonathan Pageau, for example, an Orthodox personality greets new viewers with a banner, white text overlaid on an image of Adam: “THE SYMBOLIC WORLD.” Pageau himself is an admirer of Jordan Peterson, who has called Jung’s intelligence “bloody terrifying.” Peterson’s influence on young men is well-known, and he himself derives much of his Jungianism from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a work of Jungian literary criticism and comparative mythology (as well as the bane of English teachers the world over). Psychoanalysis’ greatest heretic first theorized the “introvert” and the “extrovert”; his theology (and that is, I think, the right word) lies behind the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. I myself have several friends who live entirely different lives, ranging from the coastal liberal to the heartland conservative and all the IT guys in-between, who swear by Peterson and Jung, because, they say, he has given their lives “meaning” (more on that below).

Jung, in other words, is everywhere. Any time you watch a movie and your eyes glaze over at some Psych 101 explanation for a character’s motivations, you can play six degrees of separation from Carl Jung. Give it a try next time (preferably with cold beer or glass of wine handy). If Jung represents a “dangerous deviation” from Christianity, then why is he so popular among the faithful? My goal here is to answer that question.

In doing so, I suggest that Marc-François is right, and, indeed, that it is his brother, Jacques, who represents a much more fruitful encounter for contemporary Christians. In choosing our psychoanalytic heretic (Lacan was thrown out of the International Psychoanalytic Association by Freud’s daughter after all), we ought to truck with the Parisian analyst and not with the Swiss mystic. The uncertainty and listlessness of our moment demand not a fixation on archetypal meaning and the quest for value, but rather an explication of the intensified lack at the heart of humanity, that is, of a full-on stare into the pit of original sin in the age of capital. In this, we will find the meaning of Simone Weil’s paradoxical formulation: “Religion in so far as it is a source of consolation is a hindrance to true faith; and in this sense atheism is a purification.”[4]

Un-Symbolic Fixation Psychosis

Chiefly our concern here is not with C.G. Jung as such, but rather with the tendencies exemplified by those he has influenced. To understand this trajectory, however, we will need to be familiar with a couple of his most enduring ideas. I do not pretend that this analysis is exhaustive, nor that what follows implies that no one should study his thought. Not at all! What concerns us is, by contrast, what is most religious about psychoanalytic thought.

Jung posits the existence of a collective unconscious, which refers to the accretion of symbolic frameworks that have built up over the long history of humanity, or, as the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy would have it: “The term collective unconscious refers to the inherited instinctual substrate of human psychological functioning.”[5]

Within this unseen background we find both archetypes and archetypical images. While Jung sometimes discusses the former in almost Platonic terms, they are perhaps better understood as “biologically inherited, instinctual patterns of cognition and behaviour.”[6] Archetypal images, by contrast, are the semi-conscious representations we produce of these deep-seated archetypes. So, for example, “the hero” is an archetype demonstrating the human desire for mastery. The precise way that an individual manifests their desire to become a hero is mediated by a mixture of personal and cultural determinants, producing a particular image of heroism (say, in seeing oneself as a latter-day George Washington who must redeem a fallen United States).

As a matter of analysis, this seems relatively sound to me (even if I might quibble with it here and there). Matters get iffier when we consider the simplified application of these concepts to literary, personal, and historical events. When sloppily applied, these ideas tend to fluctuate between triteness and psychosis (in its peculiar Lacanian sense). In the former case, they remain analytic tools (if somewhat uninteresting ones). So, for example, we might look at Jordan Peterson’s lecture on The Lion King as illustrative of the principles of Jungian psychology. Though part one alone is nearly an hour, I can’t say I found much in it (aside from a few interesting asides about human biology, like a section on voluntary and involuntary eye movement) that did not boil down to a series of truisms about life, struggle, and self-control—sort of like advice you might get from your dad but dressed up in highly-complex language with an undercurrent of Steven Pinker-like scientific rationalism. Or, as Nathan J Robinson has put it, talking about a different work by Peterson, to be like him you must:

Take some extremely obvious platitude or truism. Make sure it actually does contain some insight, though it can be rather vague. Something like “if you’re too conciliatory, you will sometimes get taken advantage of” or “many moral values are similar across human societies.” Then, try to restate your platitude using as many words as possible, as unintelligibly as possible, while never repeating yourself exactly.

The latter “psychotic” case is often prompted in individuals by over-exposure to these sorts of readings. In this instance, archetypal understanding creates a counterfeit religiosity; it invites an over-emphasis on meaning and tends to naturalize the existence of currently reigning historical forces and structures, even as it claims to refute them. Thus, people look to the lobster or postulate unchanging masculine and feminine dynamics from biological dimorphism.

If you read the comments on many a Peterson video (or those on pages associated with any author I’ve mentioned), you will often see people saying his words have changed their lives. When you dig into what these say, it is rarely more complicated than “he goaded me to self-control” or “he convinced me my decisions mattered.” Good enough! Nothing wrong with a little gumption. But here these platitudes come dressed up in a lot of Jung-infused language that mystifies and supercharges; it invites the listener to analyze oneself in terms of these categories and thus go on a positive search for meaning.

You are no longer Chase Padusniak, graduate student and suburb dweller; you are now Chase Padusniak, protagonist of your own story equipped to synthesize the complex matter of life into a mythopoetic narrative; you are capable of deciphering the hidden meaning of things, the noumena buried beneath the surface of an existence that had once seemed barren; you are in the business of integrating yourself as a whole subject who can use the various means before you (religion, diet, exercise) to assert the natural, meaningful order as it secretly really exists. And all the better if you can convert others to the same.

The very form of these lectures (or should we call them sermons?) betrays this process of fervent meaning generation. By deploying mystical or just plain opaque language, such lectures invite the viewer or reader to believe that they simply do not understand, that the truths shared are beyond their simple ken. And so, even if the moral is no more than “decisions matter” the very act of decoding suggests that something of greater significance has taken place. In this way, the audience learns to seek meaning (whatever it may be) by way of complex puzzlement. The universe itself proffers the simplest lessons, but in a way that fulfills and generates an excess feeling of meaning, one that can be sustained across a long period of time. We have taken Peterson’s Jungianism as our example, but a Myers-Briggs test or online “introversion” exam works just the same. Even if all we discover is a basic personality formula (and often, a delimiting or inadequate one), its translation through an official mechanism renders it meaningful.

This pop Jungianism works much the same in the realm of religion; it reduces faith to a kind of astrology in which what matters is the creation of value, not the possibly transformative insights of the thing itself. Put otherwise, what we have is a positive religion, one that instigates not self-evaluation or tarrying with the negative, but a chase after significance. Most often this takes the form of religion as social utility, as an ideological code that boosts virtue (or some other value in a society). Here we have the religion of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone or the American spirit of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Faith becomes a value-added proposition that creates more (somehow quantifiable) meaning in human lives and thereby preserves and enriches existing social structures. Hence, we can have Jordan Peterson declare that,

[Chaos is] what extends, eternally and without limit, beyond the boundaries of all states, all ideas, and all discipline . . . It’s the foreigner, the stranger, the member of another gang, the rustle in the bushes . . . the hidden anger of your mother . . . Chaos is symbolically associated with the feminine . . . Order, by contrast, is explored territory. That’s the hundreds-of-millions-of-years-old hierarchy of place, position, and authority. That’s the structure of society. It’s the structure provided by biology, too . . . It’s the flag of the nation . . . It’s the greatness of tradition, the rows of desks in the school classroom, the trains that leave on time . . . In the domain of order, things behave as God intended.[7]

“As God intended” indeed. On this model, religion imposes further order, that is, has a function within the previously ordained way society is supposed to work. All of this can be true regardless of individual faith or the content of a belief. What matters most fundamentally is that religion be an engine of value, that is, of meaningfulness in human life and in the “natural” way of things. How things are is fine; you are the problem. No wonder Peterson’s magnum opus is called Maps of Meaning.

In Lacanian terms, we might read this as a form of psychosis. Of course, I do not mean this clinically (I am in no position to be handing out diagnoses!). Rather, I mean that Lacan’s structural understanding of psychosis unveils the trajectory of such meaning-chasing. In Lacanian analysis, there is no “normal” subject; instead, there are three linguistic formations that individuals inhabit as a result of their childhood experiences and traumas: the neurotic, the perverse, and the psychotic.[8] Within this last structure, the subject experiences a failure of differentiation as an infant and ends up severed from the normative discourses—legal, social, political, and so on—of their society. As a result, they thrash out and form connections legible only to themselves, thereby establishing a complicated and ever-expanding network of valuations that are simultaneously all-encompassing and ultimately incommunicable. In a literal (or clinical) sense, therefore, the psychotic speaks to no one or announces themselves with gibberish.

It goes without saying that Jordan Peterson (to continue with our example) can communicate with others just fine (even if some might say he speaks gibberish). What interests me, rather, is the way in which the aforementioned goading-to-meaning can rapidly produce something substantially more esoteric. Jungianism has a certain currency within the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web” (in which Peterson is sometimes included). Whether it is the cyberpunk race realism of Nick Land or the faux-Gematria turned literal Gematria of QAnon, it is hard not to see a downside to inviting this kind of thinking about the world.

Indeed, the so-called “religiosity” of QAnon might instead be read as a natural extension of our society’s turn toward this sort of meaning-seeking esotericism. In this way, it not only tends to reduce churches, mosques, and synagogues to mere generators of social utility or purposefulness, it does not just naturalize society as it is, it also positively invites their supplementation by all manner of out-there ideas. When the world feels sucked dry of value, when meaning (however ill-defined) can (and must) be found around every corner—it will be.

There’s a Sadness in the Heart of Things

“Blue feeling to the maximum”—that seems to be where we are these days. Pick your poison—climate change, stagnating standards of living, war in Yemen, deaths of despair, or the epidemic of anxiety and depression. It is a truism at this point that people are looking for answers, and so none of the last section should really surprise us. A few years ago, I offered a suggestion, that is, wrote a piece for this publication entitled, “Embrace Negativity or Risk Never Being Happy.” That is the heart of why and how Lacan presents an answer to the problem of meaning fever. Or, as put more succinctly and poetically by Warren Zevon: “there’s a sadness in the heart of things.”

Lacan’s oeuvre is notoriously sprawling, incomprehensible, and just plain weird. I am not going to attempt to explain the whole thing (or even try to come close). What matters for our purposes is the centrality of lack to the French analyst, and more specifically the way in which he credits that emphasis to the Christian tradition. In seeing our own tradition’s value for Lacan, I hope we might rediscover something about ourselves by way of psychoanalysis.

At the heart of Lacanian theory is “manque-à-être,” for which the man himself proposed the translation, “want-to-be,”[9] where “want” means both “to desire” and “to lack.” Desire characterizes life. Desire is about apprehending and possessing something and thereby quelling the sadness at the heart of things. But no object truly eliminates desire—we are hungry, we eat, and yet we will be hungry again. We come home after a hard day of work and lie down, hoping to rest; before we know it, the night is gone, and our endless hours of scrolling (“resting”) have made us no happier or more fulfilled than when we started. We get up the next morning and do it again, prisoners to a routine that always makes us think: “today my hours on Netflix will rejuvenate me!” In this sense, life is an endless dance between lack and desire, with each generating the other until we reach the ultimate manque-à-être—death itself.

If this sounds familiar, it should be. Lacan is simply restating what St. Augustine offers in his Confessions when evaluating the famed pear-stealing incident:

What then did wretched I so love in thee, thou theft of mine, thou deed of darkness, in that sixteenth year of my age? Lovely thou wert not, because thou wert theft. But art thou any thing, that thus I speak to thee? Fair were the pears we stole, because they were Thy creation, Thou fairest of all, Creator of all, Thou good God; God, the sovereign good and my true good. Fair were those pears, but not them did my wretched soul desire; for I had store of better, and those I gathered, only that I might steal.

The point here is not merely that we desire endlessly, but that our desires themselves are opaque. We do something we know to be wrong or know will not make us happy. In this sense, we do not do what we want. And yet, as Augustine so eloquently puts it, we must, at some level, wish to do what we do—why else do it? St. Paul says much the same:

For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want. Now if [I] do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand. For I take delight in the law of God, in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body?10]

Note here that this principle does not beckon us to seek the meaning of life in the world; it does not demand that we draw connections from x to y to form the grand theory of z, nor does it implicitly or explicitly endorse the reigning order as natural (hence Augustine’s famous question: what is an unjust state but an organized band of thieves?).[11] If anything, such a theory draws us inward toward self-evaluation even as it begs us to ruthlessly search for the ways in which the world is unjust, how it might be changed for the better to mediate the dance of lack and desire. Within this paradigm, we do not slay any dragons or relate ourselves to any mystical archetype; rather, we develop a horizontal relationship to all beings as lacking beings (that is, subject to original sin), even as we develop a vertical relationship to God, whose infinity is the only possible (if, in this life, not fully accessible) answer to the infinite abyss at the heart of humanness.

This echo is no accident. Lacan does not just happen to agree with Augustine and Paul. His mother was a devout Catholic; he attended a hyper-selective Catholic high school. In fact, he devoted part of one seminar to Paul (taking the passage from Romans cited above and substituting “id” for “sin” in each instance). According to his son-in-law, he called himself the product of priests, and even produced a series of lectures collected under the title The Triumph of Religion. As Zachary Tavlin tells us, he announced his total indebtedness to Augustine’s De Magistro:

One of Lacan’s early (1954) seminars deals explicitly with Augustine’s theory of language; entitled De locutionis significatione, and initiated by Father Louis Beirnaert, here Lacan claims that “the linguists, in as much as we are entitled to make up one large family through the ages bearing this name, linguists, have taken fifteen centuries to rediscover, like a sun which has risen anew, like a dawn that is breaking, ideas which are already set out in Augustine’s text [De Magistro], which is one of the most glorious one could read” (Lacan, 1991, p. 249). Indeed, Lacan goes as far as to say that “[everything] I have been telling you about the signifier and signified is there.”[12]

The meaning of life (and of religion) is not a quest for meaning, either for the saints or for Lacan. Indeed, in an age in which everyone seems to agree that things are getting worse, an age when false positivity and a thrashing about for something would seem to endear us more and more to a system that is not working, we owe it to ourselves to embrace the reality of lack, that is, of fallenness, of existing imperfectly and impermanently.

From Hysterical Misery to Common Unhappiness

And so, we come back to Simone Weil. Which is preferable for the faithful of the new millennium, the Catholic-soaked atheism of a prophet of original sin or the vague mysticism of a series of indeterminate believers? It is no coincidence that the book on Jordan Peterson and faith is called Jordan Peterson, God and Christianity: The Search for a Meaningful Life. What Jungianism (at minimum in its pop variety) can promise us is meaning—but so what? Is acting as if God exists the same as believing?[13] Is religion just about ethics? Is life a hysterical chase for value? Is the church a social club? Is cleaning your room a quest? We believers remain alienated even if we answer “yes” to all the above. Lack and desire are always there. Paul knew it. Augustine knew it. Lacan knew it. If we must rediscover this by way of an atheist, then we ought to call it a purification of an idolatry.

In his Studies on Hysteria, Freud puts the matter succinctly: “I do not doubt that it would be easier for fate to take away your suffering than it would for me. But you will see for yourself that much has been gained if we succeed in turning your hysterical misery into common unhappiness.” We find ourselves in a state of hysterical misery, looking for answers—any answers, as if this reality could merely be fixed. But it cannot. Not in this life, and certainly not in this way. The hope that inheres in faith is not cheap; it is born of lack and desire, of suffering and ontological inequity. In seeing this, we might, if we are lucky, attain to common unhappiness. Indeed, I pray we do.

[1] Roazen, Paul. “Lacan’s First Disciple,” (Journal of Religion and Health, 35:4, 1996), 327.

[2] Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey.

[3] Ibid., 328. The bracketed explanation is Roazen’s.

[4] Weil, Simone. “Faiths of Meditation: Contemplation of the Divine,” The Simone Weil Reader, ed. and trans. George A. Panichas, 417.

[5] Hogenson, George B. “The theory of archetypes and personality theory,” “Jung, Carl Gustav (1875-1961),” Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” 

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[12] Tavlin, Zachary. “Signifying Truth: Augustine, Lacan, and a Theory of Language,” (Language and Psychoanalysis, 2:2, 2013), 69. The text in brackets is Tavlin’s.

[13] This question is taken up regarding Peterson at some length here: https://unherd.com/2021/08/does-jordan-peterson-believe-in-god/

Featured Image:Christian Satin, Surrealist Cemetery, 4 February 2015; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0.


Chase Padusniak

Chase Padusniak is a PhD candidate in Princeton University's Department of English, where he specializes in medieval literature. In addition to his academic pursuits, Chase spends time working on creative projects such as films, poetry, and cultivating negativity.

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