BOOK REVIEWS (2013): CG Jung’s (1955-6) Mysterium Coniunctionis: An Inquiry into the Separation and Synthesis of Psychic Opposites in Alchemy

31 March 2013

Summary (in One Sentence)

“The experience of the self is always a defeat for the ego” (CG Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, ¶778).


imagesLast year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These reactions will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to that when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow.

Consequently, I may provide spoilers, may misunderstand books or get stuff wrong, or get off on a gratuitous tear about the thing in some way, &c. I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reaction I offer for a book is a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it is further up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever it is we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you can’t be bothered to take up your end of that bargain, that’s part of the problem to be solved.

A Reaction To: CG Jung’s (1955-6)[1] Mysterium Coniunctionis

Over the past two or so years, I’ve been reading a lot of Jung’s writings,[2] and will continue to do so,[3] in part (1) because his approach to psychology resonates with my own experience, (2) because his phenomenological approach (though still rooted essentially in a not radical constructivist epistemology) seems correctly oriented toward the realm of human experience, and (3) because when I read his works I experience a dislodging of psychic imagery that is interesting and/or fruitful and/or inspiring.

On point (3), one may read a literary example I wrote here, but my play Lucifer in Therapy (staged in Chicago at the 2013 RhinoFest) is a direct product Jung’s writing, as are two symbols. The most recent symbol is a snake, squiggling in a backward S—or, perhaps even more accurately, like a Coptic letter hōri, Ϩ—with three heads; “coincidentally,” the snake at the end of Toppi’s (1987) graphic novel Warramunga that I recently bought (and reviewed here) resembles this symbol, though with only one head. Longer ago, I received the image of a Venus of Willendorf type figure with a halo, which adds an aspect of consciousness normally absent from the interpretation of those chthonic goddesses.

With respect to point (2), Jung is careful not to overstep the boundary of experience into metaphysics, however much he might have wanted to in his personal life:

It therefore seems to me, on the most conservative estimate, to be wiser not to drag the supreme metaphysical factor into our calculations, at all events not at once, but, more modestly, to make an unknown psychic or perhaps psychoid factor in the human realm responsible for inspirations and such like happenings (¶786, emphasis added).

With the word “psychoid,” Jung directs his reader to another essay. And at the risk of quoting too much, I want to illustrate the attention and care he characteristically devotes to his use of terminology and to the consistency he exhibits both in keeping his distinctions distinct and his use of metaphysics outside of his discussions:[4]

If I make use of the term “psychoid” [34] I do so with three reservations: firstly, I use it as an adjective, not as a noun; secondly, no psychic quality in the proper sense of the word is implied, but only a “quasi-psychic” one such as the reflex-processes possess; and thirdly, it is meant to distinguish a category of events from merely vitalistic phenomena on the one hand and from specifically psychic processes on the other. The latter distinction also obliges us to define more closely the nature and extent of the psyche, and of the unconscious psyche in particular (“On The Nature of the Psyche,” Collected Works 8, ¶368).

And hence statements like:

It seems to me advisable under these circumstances and in view of the limitations of human knowledge to assume from the start that our metaphysical concepts are simply anthropomorphic images and opinions which express transcendental facts either not at all or only in a very hypothetical manner.

Indeed we know already from the physical world around us that in itself it does not necessarily agree in the least with the world as we perceive it. … Knowing this we have no encouragement whatever to think that our metaphysical picture of the world corresponds to the transcendental reality. …

Nothing provides a better demonstration of the extreme uncertainty of metaphysical assertions than their diversity. But it would be completely wrong to assume that they are altogether worthless (¶781–2).

red bookAs far as point (1), the claim made by Hindu scripture (e.g., the Bhagavad-Gītā or the Śivasūtrāṇi) is that simply reading them induces enlightenment.  Encountering these texts only in translation may hinder this, though reading them usually does spark some kind of beneficial thought and experience (in my being) when I do. Jung (despite writing originally in German) is not so alien, and it is certainly the case that reading his works is enlightening (for me) in the sense that the Hindu scriptures claim.

Enough gush. This book is the third of Jung’s extended investigations into alchemy.[5] It is considered his acme, unnecessarily I would say. It is his last full-length book, and tends to be described as difficult. It is not particularly difficult; rather, it is (often) overwhelmingly detailed, in part because he undertakes to study 1,700 years of European alchemy. It becomes easy to get lost in the forest for the trees. I took  number of digressions while reading this book to read others (not by Jung).

At root, what the mysterious conjunction consists of is the unification of opposites, but opposites that are in no wise equally weighted. Ultimately, it involves the unification of the conscious and the unconscious as it expresses itself in archetypal images, which—if a stretch of metaphor is permitted—could be likened to a unification of (an avatar of) Brahman and Atman. The italics here are necessary. Jung unambiguously states that nothing can be said about the unconscious, precisely because as soon as we say anything about it, we cannot be talking about it. Consequently, instead of taking up Wittgenstein’s (cowardly) maxim,[6] in line with the insight of Eastern philosophy and logic Jung notes that we not only may make hypothetical statements about the unconscious (just as we may only make hypothetical statements about any reality that may have being beyond our perception), but may only do so—so any archetypal material we encounter can only be an embodiment of a (hypothetical) archetype. So the union of opposites that occurs is between the ego and this embodiment of archetypal material, which is exactly analogous to an avatar of the Supreme Consciousness in Eastern philosophy like Kṛṣṇa or Viṣṇu, &c. another way to say this, changing the framework slightly, would be that it is a unification of the ego and the Atman; hence Jung says, “The experience of the self is always a defeat for the ego” (CG Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, ¶778).

jung-mandalaIndividuation, our process of becoming as human beings—or perhaps I should start saying human existings—consists in the reestablishment of something like an equilibrium between an excess of one-sidedness in some part of the ego-consciousness—be that too much rationality, too much sensuality, too much affectivity, intuitiveness—that gets presented with the opportunity for compensation by archetypal material/imagery that comes forth. This process of individuation makes death a goal, not an end.

Over the course of his alchemical studies, Jung exhaustively digs out all sorts of strange symbolical talk from the alchemists. The basic procedure, which varies by alchemist practically, involved something like a three-step process: the blackening (or nigredo), by which the present-given is broken down into component parts, the whitening (or albedo), by which the broken down components are washed, and finally the reddening (or rubedo, heating), which merges the ingredients involved into the new thing. Psychologically, there is a break-down, then a purging, then a reforging of ego-consciousness. For illustrative purposes, Jung will often focus on very dramatic episodes of this, and biographically experienced it himself, but this emphasis on the dramatic does not dismiss that it happens in small ways as well.

On the most abstract level, the break-down (or nigredo) gets signaled by the appearance of archetypal material. As Jung has detailed elsewhere,[7] there are different ways to address this. One is to repress the contents, which Jung insists will ultimately only defer whatever “issue” is being presented by the archetypal material, usually in a more violent form than previously. Another is to identify with the material, which due to its archaic an archetypal quality leads to ego-inflation and various problems in the long run.[8] A third is to, by active imagination, temporarily inhabit the “logic” or the “realm” of the archetypal imagery toward integrating it, which means, of course, that the ego-consciousness must be modified.[9]

Jung devotes considerable attention to the death of the old king. That is, the old king must be killed, torn to pieces, dissolved in a bath, &c., in order that a “spirit in matter” be liberated or made manifest, i.e., in the form (ultimately, at the end of the work) of the next (new) king. All of this is simply a detailed elaboration on the nigredo again, the breaking down of the old ruler, who then (through his mysterious conjunction with his opposite, the Queen, or his mother, or our Mother, &c) emerges anew, an simultaneously different and the same. It is worth remembering here that in the Bhagavad-Gītā, the name of the primary villain of the episode depicted may be translated as “He Who Holds the Kingdom Together”, i.e., the ego. Thus, the disquisition to Arjuna by Kṛṣṇa at Kurukśetra points also to the breaking-down of the old king and the present (unrighteous) kingdom.

Jung does not dwell overly on this, but the creation of a child by the mysterious conjunction of her parents carries very nicely the numinous stragenesses that we tend to gloss over. There is a way to view myself as, literally, the product (the multiplication) of the people who are deemed biologically my parents. For child not like myself (i.e., children who are not adopted) the possession of one’s father’s eyes and one’s mother’s nose, &c., highlights the weirdness of this. Even with the highly detailed genetic record we might have of both the parents and any child they would have, still the 1 + 1 = 1 of (human) reproduction points to the strangeness that is involved in the re-production of the king (in the case of a son) or a queen (in the case of a daughter) as offspring. Thus, when the mysterious conjunction of the King and Queen (or, more broadly, the Sun and the Moon) occurs as a symbolic description of the mysterious conjunction between archetypal material (now in consciousness) from the unconscious and the consciousness itself, we may begin more clearly to sense the strangeness of what goes on in the process Jung is describing. It is not as if the unconscious presents us with a bauble that we drape around our neck—or, rather, we may do exactly that, and this doesn’t count as integration at all. If the unconscious is “satisfied” with this gesture on our part, we may be off the hook for whatever compensation had otherwise been intended. But if things get more serious, then we will be presented, Jung says, with another such gift, only this time it will come in the form of a demand we might not be able to be so gracious about.

Again, Jung’s examples may draw on the more dramatic episodes he encountered, but one From Jung's Psychology And Alchemything that became clear to me reading this book: just as the “mother” provides a most adequate symbol for the numinous Source out of which each of us issues, so is “death” the most adequate symbol for the transformation that occurs by the integration into ourselves of that which is undesired.[10] Once again, then: “The experience of the self is always a defeat for the ego” (CG Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, ¶778). To the extent that the Other is not the Self, then one might say that the “integration into ourselves of that which is undesired” could be rephrased as “the integration into ourselves of the Other,” however this misses some points. Moment by moment, we are confronted by billions of bits of information, almost all of which is ignored—perhaps a metaphor of digestion might be appropriate here—while what remains is generally supportive of ego-consciousness, so merely the Other in itself (as that which is not me, even if I unconsciously or consciously project my “me” out into the world to include whatever I re-cognize as simply my me-in-the-world-already) does not capture the sense of threatened defeat proposed by the Self against the ego. Russian has the distinction of a “friendly Other” (drugoi) and a “not-friendly Other” (chuzhoi)—in which case we gladly welcome the Other as drugoi while feeling the Other as chuzhoi as something that demands integration.

Something from the Bhagavad-Gītā is relevant here.  Satchidananda (1988)[11] translates Kṛṣṇa saying, “Beyond these manifested and unmanifested states, there is yet another unmanifested, eternal reality which continues forever when all else appears to perish” (VIII.20). Here, the manifested corresponds to consciousness, the unmanifested to the archetypal material that has presented itself in and to consciousness, while the other “unmanifested, eternal reality” corresponds to the unconsciousness itself. The object of yogic liberation is precisely first to realize the identity of—to achieve a mysterious conjunction with—one’s ego consciousness (the self in its limited sense) and one’s Atman (the Self in its theoretically unlimited sense). But just as Viṣṇu and Kṛṣṇa make clear that they are not the Inconceivable but only a limited manifestation of the (inconceivable) Inconceivable, so then the realization (the experience) of union with one’s Atman can only be a step along the way, a first conjunction. Jung speaks of three conjunctions, and I need to read them again more closely to follow them more precisely.


[1] Jung, CG (1970). Mysterium coniunctionis: an inquiry into the separation and synthesis of psychic opposites in alchemy. (Vol. 14, Collected Works, 2nd ed., Trans. R.F.C. Hull) Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, i–xix, 1–702.

[2] Psychological Types (Collected Works 6, [1921], 1971), Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (Collected Works 9, Part 1, 2nd ed. 1968), Two Essays on Analytical Psychology (Collected Works 7, 2nd ed 1966), Psychology and Alchemy (Collected Works 12, [1944], 2nd ed. 1968), Alchemical Studies (Collected Works 13, 1968), Mysterium Coniunctionis (Collected Works 14, [1955-6], 2nd ed. 1970).

[3] I have Symbols of Transformation (Collected Works 5, [1911-12], 2nd ed. 1967), and Aion (Collected Works 9, Part 2, [1951], 2nd ed. 1968) lined up next, and probably for the hell of it will go all the way back to the beginning of Jung’s career for contrast and read Psychiatric Studies (Collected Works 1, 2nd ed. 1970) and Experimental Researches (Collected Works 2, 1973).

[4] The whole passage is worth reading. The portion I have italicized at the end (the part reprised from earlier in this blogpost) particularly reflects the point illustrated in the course of the whole argument Jung presents along with how he arrives at his position:

In using the term “psychoid” I am aware that it comes into collision with the concept of the same name postulated by Driesch. By “the psychoid” he understands the directing principle, the “reaction determinant,” the “prospective potency” of the germinal element. It is “the elemental agent discovered in action,” [29] the “entelechy of real acting.” [30] As Eugen Bleuler has aptly pointed out, Driesch’s concept is more philosophical than scientific. Bleuler, on the other hand, uses the expression “die Psychoide” [31] as a collective term chiefly for the subcortical processes, so far as they are concerned with biological “adaptive functions.” Among these Bleuler lists “reflexes and the development of species.” He defines it as follows: “The Psychoide is the sum of all the purposive, mnemonic, and life-preserving functions of the body and central nervous system, with the exception of those cortical functions which we have always been accustomed to regard as psychic.” [32] Elsewhere he says: “The body-psyche of the individual and the phylo-psyche together form a unity which, for the purposes of our present study, can most usefully be designated by the name Psychoide. Common to both Psychoide and psyche are … conation and the utilization of previous experiences … in order to reach the goal. This would include memory (engraphy and ecphoria) and association, hence something analogous to thinking.” [33] Although it is clear what is meant by the “Psychoide,” in practice it often gets confused with “psyche,” as the above passage shows. But it is not at all clear why the subcortical functions it is supposed to designate should then be described as “quasi-psychic.” The confusion obviously springs from the organological standpoint, still observable in Bleuler, which operates with concepts like “cortical soul” and “medullary soul” and has a distinct tendency to derive the corresponding psychic functions from these parts of the brain, although it is always the function that creates its own organ, and maintains or modifies it. The organological standpoint has the disadvantage that all the purposeful activities inherent in living matter ultimately count as “psychic,” with the result that “life” and “psyche” are equated, as in Bleuler’s use of the words “phylo-psyche” and “reflexes.” It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to think of a psychic function as independent of its organ, although in actual fact we experience the psychic process apart from its relation to the organic substrate. For the psychologist, however, it is the totality of these experiences that constitutes the object of investigation, and for this reason he must abjure a terminology borrowed from the anatomist. If I make use of the term “psychoid” [34] I do so with three reservations: firstly, I use it as an adjective, not as a noun; secondly, no psychic quality in the proper sense of the word is implied, but only a “quasi-psychic” one such as the reflex-processes possess; and thirdly, it is meant to distinguish a category of events from merely vitalistic phenomena on the one hand and from specifically psychic processes on the other. The latter distinction also obliges us to define more closely the nature and extent of the psyche, and of the unconscious psyche in particular (“On The Nature of the Psyche,” Collected Works 8, ¶368, emphasis added).

[5] The other two being Psychology and Alchemy (Collected Works 12, [1944], 2nd ed. 1968), Alchemical Studies (Collected Works 13, 1968).

[6] “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”

[7] e.g., Two Essays on Analytical Psychology (Collected Works 7, 2nd ed 1966)

[8] Also referred to as godlikeness, such an inflated sense of ego can register as very charismatic to other people. Cult leaders may frequently be in a constant state of godlikeness, at least until it wears off and they rest on the laurels of past inspiration to keep the faithful hooked (or hoodwinked). One way to describe the most serious consequence of godlikeness is that it is “out of touch” with (social) reality, and so where (social) reality is in an especially fucked up state, such godlikeness might well be a kind of remedy or escape from it, but only through the assertion of a hypothetical that can never be realized. One might be able to keep the party up for a while, but eventually sheer biology or physics will overtake things. One could imagine godlikeness as resembling the circumstance in the Wachowski Brother’s (1999) Matrix, where were it not for the fact that the sleeping bodies are artificially kept alive, then people in the “reality” of the matrix would gradually just blip out of existence. One could similarly say that capitalism suffers from godlikeness: its salvific claims rest on an ultimately untenable depredation of worldly resources, so its charismatic cult, now spread over the face of the whole Earth, may have considerable staying power, but eventually physics and biology will lay bare the emptiness of its claims.

[9] It means also, as Jung makes clear, that the unconscious is changed as well, even if those changes remain invisible behind the uncrossable divide that the unconscious imposes.

[10] Jung has a section on the dragon and the worm that elucidates these images of death in a very compelling and thoroughgoing way.

[11] Satchidananda (1988). The living Gita: the complete Bhagavad Gita. Buckingham, VA: Integral Yoga Publications.


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