Jung’s Blake part 2: Psychology and literature

The second of Jung’s references to Blake appears in his 1929 essay ‘Psychology and literature’. In this essay, Jung distinguishes between two types of literature. The first is psychological, in the sense that the author is doing a sort of psychology – and, often enough, Jung thinks, doing it very well. In literature of this type, which includes what we would conventionally call the psychological novel, human behaviour and characteristics are elucidated and explained. The second type is visionary: here psychological phenomena are exhibited which call for psychological interpretation. It is this second type which is of particular interest to the practising psychologist: in the first, the psychologist’s work is, as it were, already done. A further difference is that the first type largely concerns the conscious mind; the second type reaches down into the unconscious.

Jung does not think of psychology as concerning itself with the visionary writer, but rather with the writing itself. This chimes with the way he spoke throughout his career of unconscious phenomena as having symbolic content. Such content is available to be expressed in literary work. Blake is twice mentioned, in this essay, as an example of a visionary writer.

Visionary writers express a “primordial experience” which is obscure, amorphous, and in itself imageless and wordless. They typically reach for mythological characters and situations in order to give literary form to what is, in itself, formless. In 1929 Jung says that “Blake invents for himself indescribable figures” in order to achieve this. In a 1950 expansion of the essay – which is what appears in Jung’s collected works – he recognises that Blake did not invent his mythology out of whole cloth. Instead he “presses into his service the phantasmagoric worlds of India, the Old Testament, and the Apocalypse.”

I think this is an interesting way of approaching Blake’s work. But it’s important to notice that it strays far from Blake’s own conception of his work. Blake always emphasises definiteness and precision as characteristics of visions and of good art: it is precisely here that we see clearly, and are able to delineate the true shapes of things. Blake’s visions, in his own conception, are very far from being amorphous or ineffable. This does not put Jung in the wrong: it may be that his conception of Blake’s work is more accurate than Blake’s own. But it does show an important gap between their ways of looking at things.

So far we have been looking only at Jung’s reaction to Blake as writer. In the next section we will glance at Blake the visual artist.


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