Learning from Jung's Madness

We might not know anymore whether we are sane.

From Carl Jung's Red Book

Twice on a train, to then from Schaffhausen, Carl Jung suffered waking hallucinations; his vision overtaken by macabre imagery of thousands dying in catastrophic floods. The first terrifying fantasy was accompanied by a voice that prophesied it would become real and Jung interpreted that on a subjective level, believing his personal world would soon collapse. For the next ten months, between October 1912 and July 1913, Jung continued to be plagued by similarly dark visions of death, war, destruction, corpses and seas of blood. Alarmed by his deteriorating mental health, Jung privately feared he was descending into madness and diagnosed his situation as dire. "I thought to myself," he later recalled, "'If this means anything, it means that I am hopelessly off.'"

And then, a festering social-wound erupted, an Archduke was assassinated and a great war declared. Swiftly the world slid into chaos, sixty million Europeans were mobilized and an ocean of blood flowed from countless charnel houses. When Jung heard the declaration of war, he was unexpectedly relieved for he saw immediately that the apocalyptic imagery which had haunted his mind was not a sign of personal insanity but instead a symptom of a collective, cultural madness. He understood that his prophetic visions were evidence of a collective unconscious, a shared cultural psyche that can become diseased.

The tale of Jung’s personal crisis is significant for activists, designers and visionaries today because it pierces the false barrier between subjective and objective reality, between personal and societal insanity, and between the pollution of our mental ecology and catastrophes in our physical reality. His brief madness bridges the Cartesian abyss separating the mental health of individuals from the cultural and environmental health of nations and calls us to rethink contemporary forms of political engagement.

In an obscure essay, Karl Marx once identified a correlation between societal wealth and individual madness. His estimate was that one in seven hundred residents of Great Britain was classified as a "lunatic". The trend has continued with post-industrialization; rates of mental disorders are rising annually. The World Health Organization maintains that one in four residents of the States has a mental disorder (not necessarily lunacy), the highest rate globally. In the Netherlands one out of seven are similarly afflicted. And soon, the average person may be mentally ill. In 2005, researchers estimated that this is already destined to be the case in the States as half of Americans will likely manifest a mental illness in their lifetime.

No one can say with apodictic certainty what is behind this seemingly contagious mental plague. Is it the polluted air we breath, the agrobusiness crops we eat, the noise of our streets or hectic multitasking lives we lead? Might it be the thousands of advertising messages that pound our psyches each day, the digitally manipulated imagery that pollutes our minds with consumer-hype, fascist-cool and agro-sexuality? Or is it nothing but proof of the continuing medicalization of psychology, a scheme of the pharmaceutical industry to find illnesses where there are none, to sell placebo pills to a gullible public turned hysterical? And yet, it seems too easy to dismiss it all as a conspiracy, for behind our anxious protestations that everything is fine there remains the sinking realization that, if insanity has become the norm, we might not know anymore whether we are sane. Alas, the distinction between real and reverie is collapsing.

In the time between the wars, eight years before Nazis invaded Poland, Jung wrote an urgent open letter to the American public. Warning that the world was sinking toward "another catastrophe from which we may never recover," Jung cautioned that the Americans’ conscious refusal to reject the destructive consumer fantasy that happiness lay in "trying to live exactly like one's successful neighbor" was forcing their unconscious to rebel with dangerous eschatological yearnings "to see our great railroad terminals deserted, the streets deserted, [and] a great peace descend upon us." Unless we heed the "symbolic warnings of our bodies," Jung wrote forebodingly, "we may gas our lives out."

Today, the plague of consumer fantasies has spread globally and, once again, we are haunted by prophetic dreams of collapse. It is not enough to say that we must, subjectively, imagine another way or dream another world. These words won’t take us far if we can’t stem the flow of images that saturate us, the marketing messages that commercialize us, the faux-news that distract us. These infotoxins are driving us insane and, leaping from our psyches, they defile the world as well. Here begins the future of activism, a spiritual insurgency against the polluters of our mental ecology – corporations, advertisers and consumerists alike. Mental environmentalism means knowing that, to halt ecological/psychological catastrophe, we must first disrupt this waking dream.

Micah White