Our Flabby and Inchoate World: A Jungian Glimpse Into Why Things Suck

From the anarchist Knight Sir Herbert Read, to modern psychology, I stab at the heart of our systemic problems with the knife of curiosity.

Our Flabby and Inchoate World: A Jungian Glimpse Into Why Things Suck
“The Dialectician (Der Diaektforscher) (1911) print in high resolution by Moriz Jung. Original from the MET Museum. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel” by Free Public Domain Illustrations by rawpixel is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Sir Herbert Read, the anarchist knight, wrote that “from the family to the State, the group in modern society is a flabby, inchoate, uneasy organization, and until we have discovered what is wrong with these organizations, we shall fail to effect any widespread readjustment of individual neuroses” (1994, p. 121). What he means by this is simple, in Jungian terms: there is a contradiction between persona and personality, between the group’s identity and its fundamental “beingness” in the world.

A persona is when someone’s fiction about themselves is presented to the world. This is dictated in part by the individual and in part by the society. However, the persona is not the personality. “You are not identical with the way that you appear,” Jung said in a 1957 interview (2019). The personality goes deeper, layered atop a vast ocean of unconscious information, and itself intangible to our direct attention — yet visible to those on the outside.

Groups have personas of a sort as well, outward-facing images maintained through unified belief, or coercion. But these images usually differ from the personality underneath, the actual functioning of the group at its deepest level.

In an individual, contradictions between the persona and the personality create a clash, and this emerges as neurosis. What Sir Herbert Read was saying is that the same neurosis can be seen on the level of groups, as this clash creates an inner turmoil that must inexorably force either growth or self-destruction.

The question is, how can we begin to comprehend and alter these patterns of behavior? How can we work to shift the “uneasy organizations” of our world, and avoid the more disastrous aspects of a persona clash? The answer may lie deeper in Jung’s exploration of the human mind.

Jung and the Collective Unconscious

As a child, Carl Jung was imaginative and socially isolated, and his frequent exploration of his imaginative fantasies soon led him into contentious debates with his father. “‘You always want to think,’” Jung’s father would complain, “‘[o]ne ought not to think, but believe.’ [Jung] reflected inwardly, ‘No, one must experience and know!’ But aloud he said, ‘Give me this belief.’ Whereupon his father merely shrugged and turned away” (Stevens, 2001, p. 8).

As an adult, Carl Jung spent several years in a deep isolationist funk. His personal relationship had crumbled (due, in part, to numerous extramarital affairs — a relatively common occurrence in the Edwardian era), as well as a break with his friend and sometime mentor, Sigmund Freud.

While Freud believed that the basic motivating drive of all human beings could be identified as Id-focused and primarily aggressive and sexual, Jung believed that there was something even more powerful at work. This, Jung thought, was a sense of being connected to something meaningful, to some motivating idea larger than oneself.

In a 2013 lecture, Dr. Sandra Portko described how, with Jung’s relationships crumbling, he found himself experiencing bad dreams and depression (GRCCtv, 2013). These dreams seemed to be filled with horrific imagery that didn’t fit with his life’s experiences. Only with the start of World War One did he realize that these dreams were partially an unconscious response to the “vibe” of the time period. People had been terribly afraid during the lead-up to the war, and that aura of fear had permeated Jung’s dreams.

This led Jung on a search for answers about the deeper aspects of the mind and collective experience, and while serving as the commandant for a Swiss prisoner of war camp, he spent his time developing his concept of the Collective Unconscious. This, Jung came to believe, was a sort of common structure of the human mind, innate in our species and traceable back to our earliest period of cognitive existence.

“Things happen in the psyche,” Jung wrote, “that are not produced by conscious intention: they possess a life of their own” (Stevens, 2001, p. 31). The collective unconscious carried within itself the ability to inform our actions — and even to promote action.

Now, one of Jung’s most important early concepts was that of individuation, the idea that “the goal of personal development is wholeness, i.e. to become as complete a human being as personal circumstances allow” (Stevens, 2001, p. 13). Archetypes, Jung believed, were units of meaning within the collective unconscious, and these units naturally manifested themselves within an individual’s life. Jung described them as “identical psychic structures common to all … which together constitute the archaic heritage of humanity” (Stevens, 2001, p. 49). Therefore, Jung thought, this vast store of unconscious information was the most important determiner of a person’s existence, and that ultimately “life is the story of the self-realization of the unconscious” (Stevens, 2001, p. 39).

Modern ethologists, who study the behavioral biology of animals, have garnered evidence that suggests Jung’s approach to this concept has merit as viewed through a wider lens. The behaviors of animals are “dependent on structures which evolution has built into the central nervous system of the species” (Stevens, 2001, p. 53). Therefore, archetypes are not inherited ideas, but rather inherited modes, or patterns, of function.

Taking Jung into the World

“[Jung] argued that in the course of development people come to adopt habitual attitudes which determine their experience of life” (Stevens, 2001, p. 38). If we return for a moment to the point made by Sir Herbert Read regarding “the group,” a clear line of thinking between the two positions can be drawn.

Read saw collective habitual attitudes emerging in the world, specifically within groups “from the family to the state.” These habitual attitudes were determining a mode of existence that Read, a deeply empathetic non-violent anarchist, saw as utterly alien to the ideals of peace, mutual-aid, and responsible self-governance.

This idea is important and shows up in the later work of psychologist Murray Bowen, whose “Family Systems Therapy” approaches psychological and physiological healing from the perspective of group dynamics.

What we essentially arrive at, is a situation where a group behavior overrides the ability of individuals within the group to become a complete human being, to experience as “self-realization of the unconscious.” Instead, individuals end up substituting their own growth with the ideology of the group. They enter into a feedback loop, where they feel fulfillment because of the group experience, but ultimately lose their ability to continue growing beyond the confines of the group. This seems likely to cause significant psychological distress.

As the therapist Drago Jerebic describes in an essay on Family Systems Theory, “the family is a dynamic social organism that works on the basis of mutual influence and interdependence of its members. … The family system is a complete system, which means that the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts” (Jerebic, 2019, p. 174). This sort of system is not linear, like a string of dominoes, but cyclical, with every piece of the system continually creating reverberations throughout the whole unit.

If we extrapolate out farther, it becomes possible to see this same reverberating effect taking place within groups the world over. Read saw it happening in the 1940s and 1950s, with the rise of totalitarianism and the unchecked power of the corporate State. But that process has continued and leaves in its wake individuals who are undifferentiated from their group, who view themselves in absolute attachment to some group.

Without the ability to seek their individuation, they are at the mercy of a cyclical effect, unable to seek their own growth and fulfillment (and, thus, unable to effect grand change on the world around themselves, save for in those ways the group demands).

And yet, we must find hope in this as well, for, if the effects are cyclical, then improvement in the one must cause change within the other. The more individuals who wake up to the interconnected state of the world around them, who delve deep on the path to self betterment, the more likely the group is to undergo radical change.

Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider subscribing!


GRCCtv (Director). (2013, February 18). Our Connection To Something Bigger: The Archetypes of C.G. Jung. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gAE4bFKpUlA

Jerebic, D. (2019). Addiction as a symptom of the family system. Strong Families — Strong Societes, 173–191. https://doi.org/10.15633/9788374387637.10

Read, H. (1994). A one-man manifesto and other writings for Freedom Press (D. Goodway, Ed.). Freedom Press.

Stevens, A. (2001). Jung: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press.

The Introverted Thinker (Uploader). (2019, April 8). Interview with Dr Carl Jung 1957. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bs3HK3pxVAY

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