Interview by Ryan Smith
Richard Noll is an Associate Professor of Psychology at DeSales University in Pennsylvania, a clinical psychologist, and the award-winning author of two famous books on Jung, namely The Jung Cult: Origins of a Charismatic Movement (Princeton University Press, 1994) and The Aryan Christ: The Secret Life of Carl Jung (Random House, 1997). A third Jung volume, Mysteria: Jung and the Ancient Mysteries, was also slated for publication (1994/1995) by Princeton, but suppressed at the behest of the Jung family. As an independent researcher delving into the history of medicine, Noll was one of the first scholars worldwide to adopt a critical view of Jung in his works. Publishing at a time when almost all biographies of Jung portrayed him in an excessively positive light, Noll’s books provoked a forceful pushback from the Jungian community. Noll never answered his critics, though, but moved on to other research interests of his, such as shamanism and dementia praecox/schizophrenia.
Dr. Noll, thank you for being with us.
You’re welcome. Your persistence paid off. You’re getting me to talk about my old mentor Dr. Jung, with whom I spent so much time 30-some years ago. He still visits me in my dreams. He wishes all your readers a fond “Howdy!” from the Pleroma.
When your books on Jung came out, you were savaged by certain pro-Jungian authors, yet (joining Nozick and Hume) you never answered your critics. Indeed you simply moved on to other fields altogether. Why did you decide to let the critics have the last word?
Once a book or article appears, it follows its own fate and speaks for itself. I feel it no longer belongs to me but instead must undergo its own ordeal in the arena – that is, if anyone reads and comments on it at all (most publications are totally ignored, by the way). I place great faith in the mechanisms of scholarship as a multigenerational project in which we all interpret and correct each other’s texts. In other words, we wash each other’s diapers because that’s our job – indeed, perversely, it’s our passion. All scholarship, including mine, has a short shelf-life. So that’s one reason.
The other is that by 1998 my interests had changed and I began researching other topics. I simply had moved on. I was “done” with Jung. I know that is not how many current readers of the books I produced 20 years ago view me, but – hey – I often feel just like William Shatner in that old Saturday Night Live skit in which he tells Trekkies at a Star Trek convention: “Get a life!” In the minds of many of today’s readers I am frozen in time as the “Richard Noll Avatar” who wrote those books in the mid-1990s, but from my perspective I was out in the real world just living my life.
Oh, and I should mention that I became a father for the first time in 1999, and my son, Wolfgang, became a beautiful distraction from the outside world. Over the past 18 years I have been vaguely aware of critiques of my work being published, but I was so detached and dissociated from anything and anyone Jungian that I just didn’t care. I often learned about the criticisms many years after they had appeared. If I had critics, they too, in time, would provoke their own critics (as is happening now in challenges to Sonu Shamdasani’s work, I see), and so on and on and on the fractal dialectics spin…
Over the years I’ve generally thought, “Well, I’ll give it 20 years or so and then check in on Jung scholarship to see if my books hold up.” And they do! I am proud of my Jung scholarship. I raised new questions and stimulated historical interest in Jung, which had been sorely lacking. And for some of my central claims, controversial as they may have been at the time, evidence has emerged that suggests I was correct.
So you moved on to studying the history of schizophrenia (Dementia Praecox) and shamanism. How would you explain those topics to someone who does not have a lot of background knowledge of them already?
Actually, my interest in both of these topics predates any interest in Jung. Jung’s name kept coming up in texts on these topics, so I eventually looked into him. As a teenager I was deeply interested in anthropology and was fascinated by descriptions of shamans as both medical and spiritual; magical and religious figures. I was intrigued by the claims that what we generically call “shamanism” was found on all continents by ethnographers and that it was presumed to be a living survival of the original religious and medical traditions of human beings. Interest in schizophrenia came from living on the Upper West Side of New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s and interacting with so many deinstitutionalized psychiatric patients on the streets in my neighbourhood. I then developed a scientific interest in schizophrenia and pursued it in grad school and throughout the rest of my life. Both my experimental and historical research on schizophrenia are still central activities for me today.
Are there any particular works of yours that you would recommend as good introductions to those fields? Where should the interested reader start?
A 1985 article, Mental Imagery Cultivation as a Cultural Phenomenon, published in Current Anthropology on the techniques shamans use for learning to have visions is regarded as a sort of “classic” in anthropology because it is now regarded as offering an innovative theoretical perspective in the anthropological study of religion that contradicted the reigning explanations based on discourse analyses associated with the linguistic or postmodern turn in academia that prevailed at the time. It is also regarded today as an early seminal text in the new discipline known as the “cognitive science of religion,” which I teach. The article is available online in both Academia.edu and Researchgate.net, as are two articles I wrote about the elderly Tungus (Siberian) shamans I interviewed in Northeast China in 1994. My recent (2011) book on dementia praecox, American Madness, reflects my interest in the history of schizophrenia and of psychiatry in general.
Getting back to Jung: Granting that you maintain only a limited interest in Jung these days, what is your impression of the subsequent scholarship since the days of your own work? I understand there’s a new book out which partially validates much of what you wrote about Jung’s pan-Germanic and racialist leanings in the interwar years – findings of yours which (among other things) greatly incensed the Jungians when your books came out.
Carrie B. Dohe’s new book, Jung’s Wandering Archetype: Race and Religion in Analytical Psychology, has already generated quite a stir among a wide range of scholars who admire it, particularly in the field of religious studies. Although it is not derivative of my work, her excellent scholarship focuses on themes and topics that I could only cover in an inadequate, somewhat superficial fashion 20 years ago. I tried to do too much, tried to open too many doors to raise new scholarly questions, in my books. Sometimes I cringe when I skim them. But I am my own harshest critic.
Seeing as you have now worked within multiple areas of research, would you say that the scholarly climate pertaining to Freud, Jung, and Psychoanalysis is different from other scholarly milieus in general? Some of your comments would seem to suggest that it can be extraordinarily pernicious and hostile.
I don’t know what it is like now, but in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s both scholars and analysts (Freudian and Jungian) conducted themselves as if they were members of some weird radical cell – private backstabbing, public denunciations, and atrocious manners in public. I believe that on the Open Journal of Jungian Typology you have a link to an “Open Letter to Sonu Shamdasani” regarding reports of his public behavior toward, and about, Jung’s biographer Deidre Bair. His behavior as described in that letter – if accurate – is a good example of the sort of deplorable behavior I witnessed among such scholars. I suspect it still goes on among them and nothing has changed. They tend to have a grandiose sense of entitlement and irrational proprietary claim on their scholarly subject, whether it be Freud or Jung, and cannot bear to have any other scholars as competitors. Being so thin-skinned – a bit like Donald Trump, actually – they launch vicious personal attacks rather than engage in reasoned public dialogue, complain loudly that others are “stealing” from them, claim that other scholars are fabricating evidence, and use every opportunity to malign the character of their competitors in personal interactions with their colleagues and their students. If one minor scholarly criticism is made of their work – say, challenging a translation of a word or passage – they scream bloody murder as if greatly injured and they threaten the editors of scholarly journals with legal suits for libel.
Serious scholars really have no patience for such prima donnas, no matter how “preeminent” they may regard themselves as being. When I was in India some years ago and looking for a toilet I stumbled upon a sight I will never forget: a king cobra, erect and vigilant, perched atop a huge mound of human shit, aggressively protecting his treasure from anyone who came near it. This is how some of these prima donna psychoanalytic scholars appeared – and still appear – to me. Their male “display” behaviors are often successful in scaring off younger scholars from entering their field of expertise. And like all bullies, they tend to attract loyal followers and defenders who, as young or insecure dupes, often do the bully’s public dirty work for him. But influence is fragile and fleeting no matter who a scholar may be. O Ozymandias!
Why do you suppose that Freud, Jung, and psychoanalysis scholarship are so uniquely plagued by these unfortunate behaviors?
I put it down to extensions of the unhealthy cultic, intergenerational group dynamics that infested the psychoanalytic movement as a whole since its beginning. These are waves still lapping up on shore caused by distant events far back in the ocean of time.
It seems to me that other scholars (even those who have adopted a more neutral view of Jung) have received some of the same vicious treatment that you did. For example, as you’ve already mentioned, Deidre Bair has penned a piece in which she seems quite shocked at the treatment she received from the Jungian community and from certain pro-Jung scholars.
Bair spoke up in public, but as for other Jung scholars who have found themselves shut out of access to primary archival materials or shouted down in public, it is really their story to tell, not mine. That said, every year I get several emails from scholars, usually young ones who are starting out, who have received such treatment. I never have anything to offer them but sympathy. There is a carefully designed and executed re-mythologization of Jung taking place that makes him an ahistorical, perennialist mystic and Wise Man who seems to have escaped history, particularly the German cultural context of his era. What a Houdini!
The Jung estate, of course, has an enormous emotional and financial interest in such a re-mythologization, but so do scholars and translators and Jungian analysts associated with these projects. In other words, there is a small army of folks sucking at the nipple of the pro-Jung Industry. Such situations are not new, as literary scholars can tell you about the proprietary concerns of the descendants of famous figures such as James Joyce, etc. But the new Jung scholarship cannot be verified by other scholars due to the denial of access to primary documents (such as happened to Bair, a respectable scholar who had previously won a National Book Award in the USA). Except for those editors and translators who are being paid by the Jung Industry to put out its propaganda, no one is allowed to access the unpublished primary sources. And it is indeed a new form of propaganda. There is a particular “spin” in the lovely – but intellectually vapid – coffee-table books produced by these new propagandists.
Truly critical scholars (“critical” in an intellectually questioning sense, not in a debunking sense) will never be able to verify many critical citations from Jung’s unpublished work nor examine the bulk of the evidence to determine if, as seems likely, a selective citation of sources from the archives is being made. As noted scholars such as cultural historian Wouter Hanegraaff and historian of psychiatry Angela Graf-Nold have pointed out in print, there are serious problems with not only some translations from German to English in the new Jungian corpus but a lack of critical thinking and honest intellectual engagement in the scholarly apparatus that accompanies them. When a monopoly exists there is no free market for the competition of ideas. Except for interesting work by the Germanist Paul Bishop of the University of Glasgow, Petteri Pietikainen of Oulu, Finland and Carrie Dohe of Marburg, we are back to where we were circa 1990: Jung is a mediumistic New Age prophet who actually received direct revelations concerning the spiritual/psychological salvation of humankind (as he himself believed and, as I argued, acted upon to create a cult of redemption and rebirth), or – a new wrinkle – he is reframed as a “literary genius” like William Blake or Goethe.
For young scholars today, Jung scholarship is a dead-end. The advice I give in my response emails to these perplexed young scholars is: Let the cobras reign over their shit-piles and just move on. Given the denial of open access to primary archival materials, Jung scholarship is a career dead-end. Although Jung was fond of quoting the alchemical saying that “beneath the highest dung-heap lies the greatest treasure,” Jung was wrong. You know what? Sometimes under a pile of shit you just find more shit.
When I first read your books, I thought they were entertaining and original, but I thought it was telling that you didn’t reply to your critics (in particular, one critic dedicated a whole book to criticizing you and you never said a line in your defense). However, speaking of original documents, I learned last year that though you no longer take an active part in the Jung Wars, you deposited a cache of some 20 documents concerning the early days of those controversies at the Cummings Center for the History of Psychology in Akron, Ohio. After reading those documents, I am no longer so sure that you were treated entirely fairly. In these documents, one of your most prominent critics even seems to imply that he agrees with your thesis that Jung’s therapeutic movement was really a cult.
Interested scholars can consult those original documents in the archives. Scholars can draw their own conclusions. Whether I have been treated “fairly” or not is a judgment for others to make. I frame all this material more in terms of what those documents reveal about the characters of three ambitious young men two decades ago (myself being one of them), nothing more. But, as you say, the materials verify that other Jung scholars at the time (before the September 1994 publication of The Jung Cult) who later became prominent were also viewing Jung as the founder of a cult. The recently deceased John Kerr told me in person that he and Sonu Shamdasani believed it was a “psychotic cult,” but I disagreed with the diagnosis at the time. Alas, for Kerr’s part, he makes no such statement in the archival documents I deposited so this particular claim of mine can only be regarded by serious scholars as “hearsay” (but as you say, while Kerr doesn’t voice support for the “cult” thesis in those documents, another well-known critic of mine does). So there is indeed a backstory to the controversy my book created when it appeared.
And my focus on Jung’s “deification experience” is also supported in one of the deposited letters to me as having been acknowledged as a central truth about Jung. I was more right than I realized, I was told in a letter. And the publication of The Red Book vindicates me. Jung had more than one deification experience, and no amount of chattering about how much I mistakenly take it “too literally” and refuse to view it “symbolically” or “psychologically” or in a “literary or metaphorical” fashion can diminish what was, to Jung, terrifyingly concrete, embodied and destabilizing experiences which, in a radically empirical way, he regarded as authentic and true. Jung “became divine” more than once.
Finally, a striking thing about your works on Jung is that most Jung scholars try their hand at some type of explication or operationalization of Jung’s typology. I can tell from your works that you’re familiar with the basics of Jung’s typology, of course, but even so, I’ve followed you closely enough to notice that, compared to the field as a whole, you were always comparatively uninterested in Jung’s typology, relying instead on more individualized means by which to characterize individuals. I wonder if you could share a few remarks on how you view the matter of Jung’s typology in general?
The “complex theory” that Jung hammered out with Eugen Bleuler and other associates in the Burghölzli in Zurich in the first decade of the 20th century and certain aspects of his psychological types theory (especially the extraversion-introversion and thinking-feeling dimensions) are some of his most helpful constructs and have had the most indirect scientific support from other areas of research. That said, as others (including Hermann Rorschach) have noted, Jung’s more elaborate theory is a bit wobbly (and I agree). That’s my opinion and I know many others who differ who have more expertise than I do. But as heuristics to be used in direct clinical work they have been regarded by many as valuable. They offer perspectives that can help us reflect on our experiences and behavior, but should not be enshrined as literally true or as having uncontroversial scientific support.
One interesting thing to me is that, reading your books, I would have thought you were an Extroverted Intuitive type with Introverted Feeling. But from your own reflections (and with the aid of Jungian analysts), you’re pretty certain that it’s the other way around, that is, that you’re an Introverted Feeling type with Extroverted Intuition.
Introverted Feeling type (yep – just ask my critics who deplore my intellectual work), Intuition second and, uh, I forget the rest of what my old Jungian pals used to tell me years ago. And I never took the MBTI. A great deal of work in behavioral genetics supports the extraversion-introversion trait, by the way.
Dr. Noll, thank you for taking the time to be with us. It’s been a pleasure to consider your interesting perspectives.
Thank you. You are doing interesting work on your website, as both Salman Rushdie and Steven Pinker are on record as saying. I have no idea how I found myself in such esteemed company. I feel like Peter Sellers in the movie Being There. However, with respect to Jung scholarship, no one else has ever offered a public forum for an open discussion of all aspects of the debate. When you cross over to the Pleroma, Dr. Jung will be hosting a banquet in your honor. Even now he is boiling the boar and readying the wine and together you will celebrate his Mysteries. You are a true disciple of Jung’s, in the Nietzschean sense.
Richard Noll’s books on Jung, The Jung Cult: Origins of a Charismatic Movement and The Aryan Christ: The Secret Life of Carl Jung, as well as his more recent work on American Madness: The Rise and Fall of Dementia Praecox are available through Amazon. Noll’s work on shamanism is available through academic communities such as Academia.edu and ResearchGate. The page proofs of the suppressed volume Mysteria: Jung and the Ancient Mysteries are available through the Open Journal of Jungian Typology.
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