[Religious Types 1] Carl Jung’s Liber Novus and Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis

15 04 2012

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I have recently spent some time reading Jung’s Liber Novus (aka The Red Book); it reminds me of Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis. Anyone who has read both texts will probably not be surprised by the comparison. Both are the works of intellectual men dealing with powerful religious experiences that transform their relationship to themselves and their world. Both approach the experience with their full intellectual and creative capacities. The many substantive differences between the two works has a lot to do with the resources, cultural and personal, available to their creators.

Despite their personal differences, the works articulate a common spiritual cosmology that shares much with Gnostic Christianity. The spiritual perfectibility of the person is central, but it is a perfectibility that requires the aid of spiritual beings. They also share an underlying skepticism of this cosmology, willing to consider that what seems like a spiritual experience may be reducible to some other (sometimes quite exotic) scientific explanation. However, in both works, the hypotheses they develop fail to provide them with an adequate means of engaging with their experiences. While neither seem to quite abandon these hypotheses, they seem compelled to work with the material on its own terms, as a spiritual or religious experience.

I want to enter into the discussion at this point, at the tension between the scientific/science-fictional hypotheses and the religious-spiritual content of the experiences. At its most basic, the tension shows up as a concern on both men’s part with their potential madness. Both men are particularly sensitive to this possibility: Jung because of his personal experiences as a psychiatrist and PKD because of his experiences as a psychiatric patient.

Both manage to resolve this basic tension in similar ways. First and foremost, they note how their psychological states improve through an engagement with the material. Second, both record mysterious events, witnessed by others, that surround their experiences. From Jung’s reports of ghostly interventions to PKD’s reports of miraculous insight, the stories are related as proof of their being forces at work greater than themselves or mere madness.

Despite this, neither take the inability of traditional scientific accounts to explain their experiences to be a sign of science’s or reason’s fundamental inadequacy. Instead, they treat it as an occasion for the expansion and elaboration of science, as a sort of laboratory for study. At no point do they abandon a scientific worldview for another, even as they give themselves the freedom to explore the material both emotionally and conceptually.

This refusal is a productive failure. The refusal to accept a ‘simply’ religious or supernatural explanation creates a fertile dialogue between the hypotheses and the experience. Out of this dialogue, new concepts develop, some more productive than others. However, while they explore and develop alternative forms of understanding, the experiences motivating them retain their mystery and power. They do not become more comprehensible or explicable. They become neither religious nor scientific, but remain insular and dense productions of their authors. They can serve as neither models nor exemplars for others.

This isn’t in itself a failure. There are elements of any experience that remain recalcitrant to conceptual and aesthetic explanation and this recalcitrance is often productive, encouraging those experience to press more firmly to lay hold of the experience. However, the recalcitrance here has another dimension, indicating that there are elements in these experiences that exceed the purely personal. In trying to lay hold of it as personal, as something exclusively for themselves, both Jung and Dick distort the experience and prevent it from acquiring its full expression as something for others.

This full expression would require communal engagement. Both only flirt with that. Jung founds a mode of therapy, but the relation between analyst and analysand is a strong length of chain, at best, not the mesh of links defining a community. Dick develops a mode of literary presentation to express the vision of reality his visions forced upon him, but the relation of reader to author is tenuous, like sparks cast by a fire. They are hot for a moment, but quickly cool.

Both modes of sharing also preserve the distortion toward the personal. The author-reader and analyst-analysand dyads are intrinsically weighted toward one participant in the process, rather than a shared endeavor in which the content acquires a communal and external character. By preserving their work in this fashion, by treating it as a study of personal interest even as they acknowledge its broader import, they seal off their work from communal engagement.

Communal engagement demands communal forms. The preeminent form for this sort of material is religious, ritual. While concept and affect play a role in ritual, ritual is not the sum of them. Ritual, unlike affect and art, demands participants take seriously the externality of what they experience, that they confront it, as a community, as something to which they must address themselves, not just as the shadow cast by their own actions, thoughts, or feelings.

While Jung and Dick show us how we can bring our intellectual and creative capacities fully to bear on religious experience, how do we carry that even further and bring to bear our social and spiritual selves as well?

I am going to start by stepping back a little. I want to talk about Jung’s typology a little, particularly some more contemporary developments of it, then proceed forward to my own personal experience with that typology. From there, I want to move into a discussion about the distribution of types in a human population and what we might be able to draw from that.

[Next Post in the Series: Getting Philosophical about the Types]

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4 responses

15 04 2012
fcbertrand

A really great and relevant topic that tends to get overlooled in PKD criticism. What might help are notes about Jung’s “influence” on PKD that i put together. They can be found at:

16 04 2012
Ian

Thanks–that’s useful to see how directly Jung’s Psychological Types influenced PKD.

16 05 2012
Randall Baker

As a nonbeliever, I’ve often struggled with the role of ritual and communal religious experience in my life. There is, indubitably, a mystery and glory to existence, especially to human life, which we can know and also somehow feel. Experiencing that viscerally is important to me. But private experiences quickly become hollow if not shared. However, the only communal experience of that sort that I’m familiar with is religion. That would be alright, but every religion I know comes with some metaphysical baggage centrally located in it’s intellectual framework that I cannot accept. Do I right off this aspect of human experience? Do I hypocritically take part in a communal ritual, when I don’t prescribe to its metaphysical underpinnings? As much as I appreciate and have benefitted from Jungian psychology, it’s too bad he did not attempt to communalize his insights. I believe a failure to meet this need is a real problem in contemporary society, and I know it is for me. Thanks for this post.

17 05 2012
Ian

I hear you on that. This whole series of posts is mostly me wandering around that issue of modernity, community, and religion. There don’t seem to be many easy answers there.

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