Illustration of Dante’s Inferno, Canto 22, by Stradanus, 1587
In many accounts of the lives of individuals of genius, there are mental and/or physical breakdowns, where the person is hurled into a torturous abyss for a time. Their souls become a whirling vortex of suffering, confusion, and disintegration. Usually, this experience precludes normal activities and is many times accompanied by some physical malady. The person becomes withdrawn as if buried alive under the weight of suffering. Usually, their souls split into fragments and war against each other. Jung used the Greek word, nekyia to describe the “perilous adventure of the night sea journey” (Jung Alchemy 329), which he describes as a “descent into the dark world of the unconscious” (ibid.).
In my last article, we learned about Gustav Fechner and his breakdown, which eventually culminated in deep melancholia and total blindness. Fechner penned the following words after returning to the land of the living, after his journey through Hades:
My inner self split up as it were into two parts, my self and my thoughts. Both fought with each other; my thoughts sought to conquer my self and go an independent way, destroying my self ’s freedom and well being, and my self used all the power at its will trying to command my thoughts, and as soon as a thought attempted to settle and develop, my self tried to exile it and drag in another remote thought. Thus I was mentally occupied, not with thinking, but with banishing and bridling thoughts. I sometimes felt like a rider on a wild horse that has taken off with him, trying to tame it, or like a prince who has lost the support of his people and who tries slowly to gather strength and aid in order to regain his kingdom (qtd. in Heidelberger 48).
Since Western man has lost all sense of initiation that ancient man once knew, the soul, at times, necessitates this experience, “whose end and aim is the restoration of life, resurrection, and the triumph over death” (Jung Alchemy 329). Know this of a surety, there is much danger in the Underworld. Joseph Campbell wrote,
The unconscious sends all sorts of vapors, odd beings, terrors, and deluding images up into the mind-whether in dreams, broad daylight, or insanity; for the human kingdom, beneath the floor of the comparatively neat dwelling that we call our consciousness, goes down into unsuspected Aladdin caves (Campbell 8).
Jung said once, “the gods have become diseases” (Jung Secret 37), hence the state of psychopathology that eventually brings about a healthy state of peace and normality. We have lost the practice of initiation that once existed in, for instance, the Eleusinian mysteries, where the powers of the unconscious were given recognition. Now, we push all shadow material down into ourselves where it festers and erupts suddenly at times in violence or sickness. The unconscious is not a garbage dump where we are to dispose those things we feel are contrary to our egoistic natures. If we treat it as such, it will eventually destroy us. If we explore the “Aladdin caves” of the soul, and pass through the dangers therein, it will absolutely transform us.
Carl Jung, writing about the descent into the Underworld, writes that
The Nekyia is no aimless and purely destructive fall into the abyss, but a meaningful katabasis eis antron, a descent into the cave of initiation and secret knowledge. The journey through the psychic history of mankind has as its object the restoration of the whole man, by awakening the memories in the blood. The descent to the Mothers enabled Faust to raise up the sinfully whole human being-Paris united with Helen-that homo totus who was forgotten when contemporary man lost himself in one-sidedness. It is he who at all times of upheaval has caused the tremor of the upper world, and always will. This man stands opposed to the man of the present, because he is the one who ever is as he was, whereas the other is what he is only for the moment. With my patients, accordingly, the katabasis and katalysis are followed by a recognition of the bipolarity of human nature and of the necessity of conflicting pairs of opposites. After the symbols of madness experienced during the period of disintegration there follow images which represent the coming together of the opposites: light/dark, above/below, white/black, male/female, etc. (Jung, The Spirit in Man, 139-140).
Jung himself experienced this, and now we have the account of his journey in The Red Book. Similarly, Fechner confronted his monsters, those that attempted to imprison him in a strictly materialistic prison of scientism. The nekyia experience totally transformed his life.
Most of us who seek self-knowledge have undergone a dark night of the soul, as St. John of the Cross called it. I, myself, had a particularly harrowing journey through the dark lands, of which I will not speak of here. I can say, however, I emerged from the black of night a changed man.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton, 1949.
Heidelberger, Michael. Nature From Within. Trans. Cynthia Klohr. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 2004.
Jung, C.G. Psychology and Alchemy. The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 12. Princeton: Princeton, 1953.
Jung, C.G.(1929). Commentary On The Secret Of The Golden Flower. In Alchemical Studies. In The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Vol. 13. Princeton: Princeton.
Jung, C.G. The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature. The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 15. Princeton: Princeton, 1966.
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