A Mid-Life Perspective: Conversations with the Unconscious — Book Review

Breaking Jungian Psychology Out of the Ghetto of Intellectual Containment

by Klemens Swib

Individuation, the blossoming of individuality, is one of the major themes of Jungian psychology. Jung’s empirical observations of his own and his patients’ interactions with the unconscious contents of the psyche led him to conclude that the concept of individuation was a key to understanding and making sense of this experience. He also recognized the self-realization derived from this phenomenon inevitably gave purpose and meaning to his own and his patients’ lives. Individuation constitutes a force that allows us to develop our potential as both individuals and human beings.

Jung’s empirical observations led him to conclude that the blossoming of individuality particularly occurred during the second half of our existence. I unequivocally agree. I would only ask: how can individuality blossom before the individual exists? Ergo, the synthesis of the individual may well constitute the essence of the individuation process in the first half of the human life cycle. I believe Jung implied as much when he wrote of the young sometimes needing to be caustically disillusioned of their fantasies in order to focus on meeting the demands of adulthood. Establishing one’s own ‘individual’ position and place in the world is definitely a Herculean task taken on by the young.

In any event, Jung did not attempt to write a general theory of individuation. He had too much respect for this dynamic, living and open-ended concept to prematurely limit it to a simple and sterile formula that prospective analysts could memorize and apply by rote. He did, however, leave a record of his own personal encounter with individuation. He did so in his posthumously published Red Book. He also hoped others would follow his lead and record their own experiences with this phenomenon. In this way, a consensus and perhaps even a general theory of individuation could eventually emerge. To that end, he encouraged his patients to document their own personal encounters with the individuation process.

In his book, A Mid-Life Perspective: Conversations with the Unconscious (A Subjective Study of Science, Religion, and Consciousness)Evan Hanks has taken up Jung’s challenge. He has supplied us with a unique, retrospective take on his own personal individuation. It is his effort to make sense and deepen his understanding of the profound personality transformation emanating from that encounter — a subjective one as he indicates in his book title, and one that will undoubtedly deepen and extend our understanding of individuation. I will have more to say on Evan’s revolutionary and historic contribution to the study of individuation in due course.

Individuation not only transformed Jung’s personality and character but proved to be a primary source of his creative genius as well. Otherwise, he would not have attributed the genesis of most of his psychological concepts to ideas he originally formulated in the Red Book. The same applies to Evan Hanks. His experience of the individuation process opened up his own unique creative capacity. His metier lies in the realm of narrative poetry. Goethe is his heroic role model. Even a Philistine such as I can sense the beauty inherent in Evan’s poetry. Fortunately, he also included a descriptive, interpretive framework to support his poetic visualization.

“My head is crowded, night and day are one;                                                                     I search in vain the reasons for the things I’ve done.                                               The lion’s courage in my heart I thought was real                                                       Is now the frightened victim of the pain I feel.                                                               dark entanglement surrounds the steps I take;                                                             I stumble through the maze of each new choice I make.                                     Emotions once repressed have broken through their guise;                                       Faces once familiar I no longer recognize.                                                                       A strange force has turned around the world I used to know;                                 Right is wrong, the sun is gone, the stars are down below.                                 The mannequin of yesterday lies far behind me:                                                       The tattered remnants of a man who once defined me.”

At this point, I would be remiss if I failed to re-emphasize that Evan Hanks’ work is a retrospective effort to make conscious sense of a life-altering psychological transformation. It is a subjective effort, and there are times the reader may temporarily lose sight of the trail. With that said, this particular Philistine’s own incapacity for poetic visualization may be the ultimate source of this critique. If not, individuation is a mystery: a mysterious blossoming of individuality occurring in the second half of the adult life cycle, and one that gives meaning and purpose to an individual’s existence. Yet, it is an experience that is so profound, far-reaching and transformative that the uninitiated may not always be able to fully follow the writer’s effort to integrate it.

So, what makes Evan’s book a revolutionary and historic document? How will he deepen and extend our understanding of individuation? It all stems from the intensity of his poetic perception. That will ultimately provide us with the battering ram to break Jungian psychology out from the ghetto of intellectual containment it currently resides in and into the literary and civilizational mainstream.

In the first part of the chapter, An Objective Evaluation, Evan mercilessly and relentlessly exposed his perceived failings as a human being. His critique was so intense and visceral, it vividly reminded me of another powerful self-critique I had previously encountered in literature. In the Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky’s central character performed a similar searing, self-analytical deconstruction. There is no way around it. The persona and the maladapted and collectivist aspect of the ego must give way before individuality can blossom. I fully understand where Evan and Dostoevsky were coming from. However, this led me to wonder whether Dostoevsky documented any other aspects of his own encounter with the individuation process.

Dostoevsky’s very next major publication was, Crime and Punishment. Gone is the 40-year-old Underground man, and a university student of exceptional talent emerges onto the stage. Yes, there definitely was a lot more to the underground man’s self-flagellating character than one might first imagine. The new hero’s youthful character is attributable to his individuality which is just beginning to blossom. He lives in an era before the concept of the unconscious was fully elaborated. Thus Dostoevsky placed the struggle to individuate within a real-world temporal context. As Edwin Muir succinctly put it:

Dostoevsky wrote of the unconscious as if it were conscious; that is in reality the reason why his characters seem ‘pathological’.

His hubris and his poverty lead him to commit a morally reprehensible crime. This is a literary character you must remember; one Dostoevsky undoubtedly was using to make sense of his own encounter with the individuation process. Heinous as his crime was, he did not feel guilty over murdering the pawnbroker. He was a superior man — a future Napoleon in desperate need of ‘material’ sustenance — and he would perform many benevolent acts to compensate for his transgression. Yet, his action propels him into an unbearable world of suffering and pain. He doesn’t understand why. How could a superior human being, a veritable Napoleon, be tripped up by his own superior prerogative?

During the course of his mad meanderings, he meets his beaten-down anima projection, Sonya. She eventually helps him to admit defeat and accept his punishment. Only after he is imprisoned does his rehabilitative transformation begin. He finds his faith and then starts the long journey toward his own resurrection. The Jungian characters are all there: the shadow, along with the moral dilemma it inspires, the anima, the psychological change and turmoil of life-altering intensity. Dostoevsky had the genius to depict the life-altering, transformative state of mind of the individuate. Jung also experienced tremendous psychological turmoil during the initial stages of his own individuation. This turmoil led him to question his own sanity.

Connect Jung’s and Dostoevsky’s acknowledgement and understanding of the individuation process together, along with Evan Hanks’ and a host of other individuates’ accounts, and we are well on our way to breaking Jungian psychology out of the ghetto of intellectual containment created by mainstream academia and the psychological establishment. Evan Hanks’ pivotal role in the process makes his book, A Mid-Life Perspective: Conversations with the Unconscious (A Subjective Study of Science, Religion, and Consciousness), well worth the read.

Klemens Swib is the author of, Dionysos Archetype of Individuation.

2 Comments

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2 Responses to A Mid-Life Perspective: Conversations with the Unconscious — Book Review

  1. susan mcdonald-timms

    Very interesting and a depth-and-weight Jungian site. Not a fluffy one.
    I am gonna buy this book.
    Is at at all possible to subscribe to this site-so that I can be notified
    when a new post is added?
    I cant see how to do this. Archetypes: I’m all over ’em. Websites: clueless.
    Thank you Evan

    • Hi Susan,
      Thank you for your comment. Your description of my website is exactly what I hoped it would be. Unfortunately, my mindset is similar to yours in that I’m more about Jungian psychology than I am about being a ‘webmaster’. My technical expertise is so basic that I never spent the effort to make subscriptions available, though I will say that I try diligently to post about every 7 to 10 days, if that helps. Thank you also, Susan, for your interest in my book — I’m not much of a marketeer, either; but I can sincerely say that the ideas in it were the result of a very intense confrontation with the unconscious and an honest look at myself which could never have been really productive without the tools I gained from Jung’s studies. Please let me know what you think of it, and thank you again!
      Evan

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