Thursday, August 11, 2011


by Randall Mishoe, D.Min., IAAP

Let’s talk about madness. Madness is in the air, both as a topic of conversation and as a description of senseless acts of individuals and groups.

Just prior to this writing, the shooting in Tuscon, Arizona, occurred, prompting many references in the media to the alleged shooter’s “descent into madness.” This violent act is, of course, only one in a series of what has become random acts of murder and terror that kill and maim innocent people. Meanwhile, Black Swan, a movie that had been nominated for an Oscar, filled the airways and movie houses with a jarring portrayal of mental illness. At this time, also, still hovering in the minds of many psychologically curious individuals is C.G. Jung’s description with pictures, of his self-professed “creative illness,” recorded in the century’s-old Red Book, recently published and now in its seventh printing. 

Of course, madness is a phenomenon with many portals: clinical, biological, genetic, developmental, social, environmental, cultural, archetypal, and political. Consequently, there may be many explanations for why someone does not stop in traffic at the red light or go on the green. But within the scope of this paper, I intend to return to a very basic understanding of the natural urge of life to follow a pathway that permits a human being to live out one’s capacities to the fullest extent possible and the realization of mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body). And, I ask, what happens when this archetypal urge is frustrated or denied? My underlying assumption is that this frustration, blockage, or misdirection may occur because of: (1) disturbances within the collective consciousness, leading to the ego’s impairment of perceptual and cognitive functions, states of dissociation, as well as projections of one’s shadow upon others; (2) the unbalancing and fragmenting intrusion of the collective unconscious, prompting states of possession, regression, and psychosis; (3) both of these happening simultaneously.

It is the latter upon which I will focus in my analysis. But rather than say more about our contemporary acts of violence and terror, enflamed as they are with politicized commentaries, I will draw upon the madness that engulfed the German nation in the period following the end of World War I and extending through World War II. My reason for choosing this period will become apparent in the paragraphs that follow. After this reflection on madness, I will move to a consideration of the movie, Black Swan, and finally, Jung’s portrayal of his own mind caught between the tumultuous events of his outer world and the emergence of potentially destructive figures from the collective unconscious.

With these three sources, I will offer a view of madness in its three-dimensional manifestation:
  • madness as everyday insanity,
  • madness as pronounced insanity,
  • madness as heightened sanity.

Now I begin with my first point of reference, Germany in the years just following World War I. The date is 1924. The scene is the Black Forest, and the observer is D.H. Lawrence, the prolific English writer of fiction, poetry, prose, and – thankfully – letters. This letter was written on February 13, 1924, following extensive travel in Germany and one day before Lawrence and his wife left for Paris. Here are some excerpts:
Money becomes insane, and people with it.
At night the place is almost dark, economizing light. Economy, economy, economy – that too becomes an insanity … .
But at night you feel strange things stirring in the darkness, strange feelings stirring out of this still-unconquered Black Forest. You stiffen your backbone and you listen to the night. There is a sense of danger. It is not the people. They don’t seem dangerous. Out of the very air comes a sense of danger, a queer bristling feeling of uncanny danger.
Something has happened. Something has happened which has not yet eventuated. The old spell of the old world has broken, and the old bristling, savage spirit has set in. But something has happened to the human soul, beyond all help. The human soul recoiling now from unison, and making itself strong elsewhere. The ancient spirit of pre-historic Germany coming back, at the end of history. (pp. 108-109)
Lawrence is describing here a whole people’s “descent into madness.” And, indeed, the people did come to be possessed by the “ancient spirit pre-historic Germany” in the ancient god of storm and frenzy, Wotan. But before that fall into barbarity, there was the chaos of the people’s conscious life in their economic, political, and social worlds.

For example, the Versailles Treaty that formally closed World War One in 1918, and enforced by the punitive allied powers against Germany, acerbated that nation’s sense of victimization through loss of land, severe economic deprivation, and general humiliation. Of the 440 clauses within the Treaty of Versailles, 414 of those clauses dealt with measures of punishment directed toward Germany.

The trauma they experienced was not only political, economic, and social, but also spiritual and psychological. The resulting destruction of the old European world gave way to an onslaught of extremist political movements throughout Europe in the 1920’s. The fragmenting unity of the old world reflected the psychological states of dissociation and projections upon scapegoats who could carry blame for the people’s sufferings.

This world of dissociated states came to be the new normal of everyday life. And in that bizarre world, a civilized people lost their rational and moral center. The functions of perception and cognition gave way to a state of collective dissociation in which enjoyment of the highest forms of culture, the arts, commerce, and religion existed side by side with acts of barbaric brutality and dehumanization.


The madness of dissociation and projection within the collective conscious is not the same as madness of pronounced insanity when the floor of rational perception and cognition collapses and one falls into the unconscious and psychosis. This is the disturbing, terrifying course of derangement we see in the movie Black Swan. This movie is the nearest thing to a documentary that reveals the impact of a deranging family and work environment upon the threatened structures of sanity within a vulnerable individual.

The characters are Nina, the ballerina chosen to dance the coveted and challenging lead role of the Black Swan; her devouring mother, Erica, a former ballerina herself, with features of a borderline personality disorder; Thomas, artistic director of Nina’s dance company, narcissistic as well as histrionic, preying upon his dancers with a predator’s cunning sense of entitlement; and Lily, free-spirited, hedonistic, street-wise, and a sensual, feared competitor of Nina.

These brief sketches of the characters in Nina’s world convey a sense of the darkness and madness around her. In the carefully developed scenes with each of them, we follow Nina in her deepening disorientation. For example, Erica encourages Nina to become an adult, professional dancer, but fills her bedroom with a little girl’s ballerina music box, a bed full of stuffed animals, and a door on which the lock has been removed to ensure no privacy as well as no respect for her psycho-sexual-social development. Erica professes love for Nina but most often inflicts pain in her behavior. For example, when Nina scratches her back to the point of bleeding, Erica responds by roughly cutting Nina’s nails to the quick. Erica also confuses Nina with encouragement of a Spartan diet but tempts her with a “congratulatory” cake for having won the role of Black Swan and then flashes vindictive threats to throw the cake away when Nina hesitates to eat it. We can assume that these contradictory expectations and demands have been long-established patterns of relationship between Nina and her mother.

Nor is there any relief for Nina in the ballet company. At her dance studio, Nina competes to win the approval of Thomas, the artistic director, who sends her very contradictory messages. Thomas announces she is the prima ballerina, chosen to perform the lead role of Black Swan, and that he expects a great performance from her; but then he informs her that she is weak in the role, without the seductive presence required for a believable performance. Thomas introduces Nina to the ballet company’s patrons as a great talent and rising star; but then he asks her on that same night to come to his apartment, obviously for sex, an act for which she is not psychologically nor morally prepared, given her arrested development and fear of violating her mother’s strongest injunctions not to have sex with the artistic director. For Erica, that injunction given to Nina is in the service of Erica’s own terror at the thought that should Nina become intimate with any other human being she would therefore abandon her mother. This is the crippling, deranging psychopathology at the heart of their relationship, and it comes to a head in the choices Nina imagines that she is facing. Either she will have sex with Thomas and disobey her mother, as well as her own infantilized moral code, or Nina will remain faithful to Erica and lose her hard-gained shot at reaching her star. When Nina fails to perform as amorous lover for Thomas, he dismisses her with instructions to go home and practice on her own body.

It is difficult, however, to masturbate when her door has no lock and her mother comes into her room at any moment, falling asleep often in the chair next to Nina’s bed. But Nina is desperate to please Thomas, to make up for a lifetime of arrested psychosexual development. And so, when the street-smart, sensual Lily invites Nina to go out with her to a bar, Nina’s desperation pushes her to agree even though she does not trust Lily. Through Nina’s eyes, Lily is too worldly, not disciplined enough in her dance, maybe even plotting and maneuvering to grab the role of Black Swan for herself. Even so, in a frantic effort to awaken her own sensual life so that she might perform for Thomas – personally and professionally – Nina joins Lily at a neighborhood bar for an introductory lesson in drugs and alcohol, as well as a later surprising sexual encounter.

However, when Nina oversleeps the next morning and arrives late at rehearsal, to find Lily already there and working with Thomas, Nina then sinks more deeply into her isolation and disorientation. She cannot trust anyone in her shrinking world; nor can she be sure of her own perceptions because the conflicting messages from people closest to her contain the traumatizing contradictions of a double bind.

The double bind becomes traumatizing in its insidiously pathological double layer of communication that may be experienced as unbearable. The messages are positive on the surface but on the sub-surface level are hostile and/or demanding of an impossible course of action. Further, the victim usually is dependent on the person who sends the message and cannot escape the dependency for whatever reason. Then, as was the case with Nina, the very structures of perception and cognition fail and can no longer separate reality from unreality. The movie concludes with Nina’s free-all into unreality and her death, brought on by her pronounced insanity, a state of possession and psychosis when she “becomes” what was beyond her reach in sanity – the Black Swan.

Jung reminds us, however, in cases like this when one is taken over by the unconscious “monsters of insanity,” that “the pathological element does not lie in the existence of these ideas, but in the dissociation of conscious that can no longer control the unconscious” (CW 9i, para.83). The implication here is that in states of dissociation when the pressures from the unconscious are pronounced, the end result may be a psychosis. In this circumstance, the contents of the unconscious cannot be integrated into the conscious, thereby making impossible the synthetic process Jung termed “individuation.”

That synthetic process of individuation assumes an ego capable of performing an act of integration, an ego not subjected to the deranging abuse such as we see in Black Swan. It is the most heinous of acts by a parent to derange a child’s developmental process of mental growth, thereby undercutting the strength and defenses necessary for maintaining an essential balance between the opposites of conscious and unconscious.


It is the ego’s level of functioning that makes the difference in our encounters with madness. Describing his own such encounter, Jung says this: “To the superficial observer, it will appear like madness. It would also have developed into one had I not been able to absorb the overwhelming force of the original experience. “ (Red Book, p. 360) What does he mean when he says he was “able to absorb the overwhelming force of the original experience”?

I think he is saying that he maintained the strongest commitment to discernment at all times in his confrontation with the unconscious. In fact, it was the question of what is sanity that prompted his withdrawal from professional positions and responsibilities. He could no longer be sure of the ground on which he had stood, the scientific rationalism of Freud and the academicians; nor could he fall back on the security of religious communities or the governmental leaders who would plunge their countries into a World War. Increasingly he felt himself to be alone, facing a formidable task of negotiating his way through a very chaotic collective environment, about to undergo a catastrophic world war, and a hitherto unexplored world of the unconscious depths that he had discovered in three places: (1) his mental patients at the Burgholzli, (2) his mythological studies, and (3) his word association experiments which demonstrated to him the reality of autonomous psychological complexes.

The thread of sanity running through the external chaos as well as the internal flux of his psyche was Jung’s sense of the psyche as being purposive. This was the thread he would follow, but to do so meant he would have to expand the boundaries of sanity as they were understood at that time. The challenge was not only to understand the nature of madness, but the nature of sanity as well. Perception would be expanded to include the function of intuition as well as the senses; cognition would be expanded to include the function of feeling as well as thinking. To understand this much more expansive world of perception and cognition, Jung worked on two levels. By day, so to speak, he researched the sources of history and literature in search of data to support his emerging theory of psychological typology; by night he descended into his own unconscious to map the ways and objects of the underworld, a search that led eventually to the home of Philemon, the magician.

Jung’s experiences in the creative fantasies of his active imagination confirmed his emerging conviction that the “spirit of the time” had become inflated in the service of a rationalistic science, domination, control, and exploitation. This spirit made people into objects, statistics, and robbed them, including Jung himself, of their humanity, their moral center, and their capacity for empathy.

And so, Jung set off to a far country located in the depths of the psyche, searching for a great magician of whose reputation he had heard (Red Book, p.312). Why a magician? Jung understood the magician’s nature as someone of ancient skill, before “the spirit of the time,” someone who held presence within the supernatural realm in which the opposites were not split by the moralistic forces of religion or the rationalistic forces of scientism – hence, the natural world of the archetypes (CW 6, pp. 114-188).

At last, Jung came upon Philemon. Of course, try hard as he might, Jung could not constrain Philemon within a box of identity or role. Philemon would not readily submit to Jung’s investigations. Philemon appears as a kind of shape-changer in Jung’s psyche, appearing in his dream as an old man with kingfisher wings; then later in active imaginations as the elderly husband of Baucis who was killed in a fire instigated by Mephistopheles in order to acquire their land by development for the would-be superman, Faust; or, yet again, as husband of Baucis with whom he welcomed into their humble home the disguised gods, Jupiter and Mercury, when no one else would show them hospitality.

From these conflating images of Philemon, Jung came to acknowledge him as a father/mentor with whom he came to see himself as an advocate for the hospitality shown the gods, as well as an advocate for those who suffered under the dominating control of the Fausts or Siegfrieds of the world who, in their attitude of superiority and entitlement, marched ruthlessly over those without power to counter them. The monument to this image of Philemon would be the inscription over his gate at the tower of Bollingen: “Philemonis Sacrum – Fausti Poenitentia” (Philemon’s Shrine – Faust’s Repentance).

But Jung would contribute a second monument to yet another image of Philemon. This is Jung’s legacy of many writings that witness to the image of Philemon as psychopomp who taught Jung psychic objectivity, reinforced the reality of the psyche, clarified the “distinction between myself and the object of my thoughts” (MDR, pp. 207-208), demonstrated “superior insight” when viewing the events of life. This guide and mentor accompanied Jung in his contemplative strolls through his garden at Kusnacht and spoke of matters that touched the depths of Jung’s soul while bringing to mind the contents that would go on to embed themselves within the theory and practice of his psychotherapy.

All of this is the “madness” Jung presented to the world. “I know that Philemon had intoxicated me and given me a language that was foreign to me and of a different sensitivity” (Red Book, p. 339). Jung’s experience with Philemon brought forth a co-mingling of inspiration and enthusiasm but with Jung’s ego’s steadfast awareness of what was happening perceptually and cognitively: to be inspired by a god but not possessed, to be filled with the breath of new life but not made delirious, to be animated but not frenetic, to be ecstatic with emotion and information that carries one beyond the commonplace of the ordinary but not to be lost.

This is the madness of heightened sanity. A person in such a state approaches a fuller, more powerful, and more meaningful capacity to realize what it is to be human. This is unlike the experience of the German people when, as D.H. Lawrence described their psychological state, they had arrived at “the end of history” and were absorbed within the madness of everyday life, carrying on with a “peace-and-production hope” while surrounded by a latent sense of “danger and suspension” and the “half-mystical assertions” of roving bands of youth (p.109). Nor was Jung’s experience the same as Nina’s pronounced insanity in Black Swan. Her infantilization came through the hands of a sadistic mother, artistic director and culture that worships images of young women whose psychosexual development is arrested. The introjection of that madness blurred the distinction between perception and hallucination, reality and illusion, truth and delusion until the chaos of Nina’s outer world could no longer be held separate from the overwhelming instinctual forces and images that came to possess her.


I take it to be a striking example of synchronistic phenomena that Jung’s experience with madness should surface within our world culture at this moment of extreme necessity for a discussion about the nature of sanity. From his vantage point, it is as if Jung foresaw the gathering of forces and conditions we are experiencing today. And from his vantage point, Jung offers these words, warning, and – possibly – hope: 
What else is the meaning of the frightful regressions of our time? The tempo of the development of consciousness through science and technology was too rapid and left the unconscious, which could no longer keep up with it, far behind, thereby forcing it into a delusional position which expresses itself in a universal will to distraction. The political and social isms of our day preach every conceivable ideal, but, under this mask, they pursued the goal of lowering the level of our culture by restricting or altogether inhibiting the possibility of individual development. They do this partly by creating a chaos controlled by terrorism, a primitive state of affairs that affords only the barest necessities of life and surpasses in horror the worst times of the so-called “Dark” Ages. It remains to be seen whether this experience of degradation and slavery will once more raise a cry for greater spiritual freedom. (CW 9i, par. 617)

Randall Mishoe, D.Min., IAAP, is a Jungian Analyst and Pastoral Psychotherapist in private practice in Charlotte, NC. He is on the faculty of the C.G. Jung Institute-Boston, where he also serves as Analyst Director of the Summer Intensive. Visit his website and blog at


Jung, C.G. (1934/1954). “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious.” CW 9i.
________. (1961/1965). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vintage Books.
________. (1933/1950). “A Study in the Process of Individuation.” CW 9I.
________. (1921/1971). Psychological Types. CW 6.
________. (2009). The Red Book (Sonu Shamdasani, Ed. and Introduction). Philemon
Series. New York: W.W.Norton and Company.
Lawrence, D.H. “A Letter from Germany.” In E.D. McDonald (Ed., 1936). Phoenix:
The Posthumous Papers of D.H. Lawrence. New York: Penguin Books. (Original
Letter written 1924)

    Abstract: Madness is considered as a topic that is both timely and timeless. Drawing upon examples given by D.H. Lawrence’s description of madness encountered in the German nation of the 1920’s, the cinematic portrayal of madness in Black Swan, and Jung’s self-description of his “creative illness” in Red Book, the article may be considered an amplification of “madness in 3-D”: madness as everyday insanity, madness as pronounced insanity, and madness as heightened sanity.
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