I have been interested in Erich Neumann’s work since I was first introduced to Origin and History of Consciousness, just out of college. I was a language and arts major with a minor in psychology. Nothing prepared me to read this opus except my own imagination. Of course, without the maturity and experience to fully understand what he was saying, I found it intriguing, but difficult. I was drawn to books that made little sense to me at the time, but for some reason I suspected that the knowledge they imparted would eventually become clear—like a completed painting. Early on in college I ran across a four-volume set of books on Kabbalah at a used bookstore and was gripped reading the whole series. It was like a puzzle with such a different way of perceiving the world -- more like my childhood world of imagination where anything could be real, reality was relative. These books allowed me to step outside my limited worldview and begin to imagine once again. Reading Neumann remains such an experience; it opens up many new worlds of thought and feeling each time I re-read one of his books.
Now as a so-called seasoned Jungian analyst, I am still amazed at the brilliance of his writing. He was Jung’s most brilliant friend and collaborator and challenged Jung’s thinking in many areas. Isn’t that what we want and need—to be challenged, to explore new ideas and perceptions of reality, to keep learning about this amazing world we live in and all the unique and interesting creatures that inhabit it with us, including other humans? How do we keep our sense of imagination and curiosity alive?
While Neumann describes in detail-- with more clarity and detail than Jung-- the stages of human psychological development from birth to death, recently in my reading I was particularly struck by his descriptions of what can go wrong in the process. He has a concept called mass man. Of course, being a “man of his generation,” he uses the word “man” to refer to “human.” Today, such a referral stops one in his or her or their or its tracks. Language needs to catch up. But to segue a bit here, Neumann is the early Jungian who was most conscious of the multiplicity that exists as male and female, as masculine and feminine blended and mixed in complex and unique ways in each of us, in our inner and outer realms.
OK, back to mass man. I have been thinking about the current political situation and how our country has become so polarized and angry. Reading history makes clear that this is not new for the U.S. -- or anywhere else in the world, for that matter -- but it feels more extreme and unresolvable now, perhaps because of the additional worry about climate change and the war in Ukraine at the same time. Neumann lived through the catastrophe of WWII and spent his time during the war in Palestine trying to understand what happened to the German psyche. His description in his essay explains how the development of the ego and self can fail and throw a person back into a collective state where ideologies and a powerful, charismatic leader become the ego and superego for the individuals. This can become a mass movement of “hysterical neurosis,” as Neumann called it. Now it would have a different name. Jung also described this same phenomenon in his essay, “After the Catastrophe.” It is interesting that they both came to the same psychological conclusion while having halted their communication with each other during the war.
Understanding the healthy progress of human psychological development helps us to recognize how children should develop, how important it is for adults to continue to develop to maintain a solid ego-Self axis, and how it can be lost along the way for so many reasons. What we are witnessing now is a huge failure in our mental health system. Of course, it puts an emphasis on drugs, not counseling. Without the difficult work individuals do to recognize and integrate their shadow material, we as a collective are vulnerable to huge negative shifts in the collective unconscious, resulting from all the splitting and projection.
What a depressing way to end this blog. But better to understand than not, to challenge ourselves to give a few drops of precious, creative moisture-- the water of life-- to support the positive, constructive side of our collective.
I will be speaking at the Jung Society of Washington on October 21 & 22 on Erich Neumann and his work and why he is still relevant. As you have seen, I believe he is. I look forward to conversations and discussions about all of what I presented in this blog and much more.
Dr. Nancy Furlotti has written numerous articles and co-edited several books, including The Dream and Its Amplification with the late Erel Shalit. She lectures internationally on Jungian topics, such as dreams, mythology, trauma, the feminine, and the environment. A long-standing interest of hers is Mesoamerican mythology, specifically the Quiché Maya creation myth, the Popol Vuh. Her book on this subject is forthcoming. Her company, Recollections, LLC, edits and publishes the writings of first-generation Jungians, most recently Erich Neumann’s two-volume manuscript, The Roots of Jewish Consciousness.