Jung’s lecture on Aurélia by Nerval, published with the title On psychological and visionary art, was not simple to read, but it did provide a way to uncover a hidden part of Jung.
French version of this article
After reading this fascinating and challenging book I came to the conclusion that it was first and foremost about Jung, and that the essential was to be found in the 1945 lecture.
When we stick to Jung’s best-known works, those under the control of what he himself calls the persona, we observe a reluctance, that can be more or less strong, towards certain subjects.
In particular, he doesn’t want to appear as a philosopher, nor an artist and even less a poet.
As far as philosophy is concerned, this puts a smile on our face because he has all the required qualities : original thought, and practice of thesis, antithesis and synthesis.
As for the artist, one look at his illustrations from the Red Book is enough to be convinced of his talent.
Then remains the subject that interests us : does Jung (when reading Aurélia) have the necessary skill and poetic sensitivity to be a poet ? I would answer yes without hesitation. Even if he seems to be very modest about this particular talent, a person who is capable of writing Seven sermons to the dead must be a poet.
When he read Gérard de Nerval he must have been fascinated, as he was by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. I would add that, in his lecture, he often takes a backseat to the text from which he reads long passages in French. Here is what he announces from the start :
« I can only imply things, because the material is of extraordinary magnitude, and mainly I would like to let the material speak for itself first, while keeping my own interpretations in the background. » (p. 51)
What does Gérard de Nerval say in Aurélia ?
We are right in the thick of Romanticism with the theme of the inaccessible, haunting woman, lost and found and then lost again. Enough to exasperate Jung who certainly wanted to be more pragmatic than romantic. If this was all there was to Aurélia, he would have never been interested in it. Why then did this story appeal to him to the point of devoting a whole lecture to it ?
Aurélia is the axis around which revolve all the neurotic obsessions of Nerval. By recounting his dreams and fantasies, he describes his illness and his subsequent fall into psychosis which ultimately lead him to commit suicide.
Jung can’t help being touched by these themes that concern him personally. First of all the dream and the visions he has studied all his life. Then, the description of a psychological fragility that he himself felt, his double, the porosity of the boundary between the conscious and the unconscious, and the limits between madness and health in the Nietzschean sense. And on a practical level his experience as a psychiatrist which confronted him with mental illness.
In this 1945 lecture we find therefore a reading of Aurélia by a person who was deeply affected by this text.
Dream is a second life
Jung says, at the very start of his lecture :
« The text Aurélia opens with the following sentence : « Dream is a second life ». And from here, the author immediately goes on to speak of what nowadays we call the unconscious. » (p. 52)
The problem is that, for Nerval, dreams and visions are no longer just messages from the unconscious but instead flow over into real life. He feels it and fights, as Jung would have said, against this flow of incandescent lava which provokes in him a feeling of fascination/repulsion.
When Nerval was on the very edge of the abyss, Jung thinks that he could have been saved by what he calls a restoration process by dreams. Here is what he writes, probably thinking of times when he himself had suffered threats of being flooded by the unconscious and of what he had been able to observe in his patients.
« The deeper we dig beneath the mental illness, 〈the more〉 we get into those layers where restoration is constantly at work. Life never goes under. It is never lost. In the dreams, one finds quite normal processes taking place. Among the voices, there are normal voices. The normal truth is spoken.
So also in Gérard de Nerval, even during the time of his severe illness, a process of restoration is at work. » (p. 81)
But did Nerval want to be cured ?
Nerval did not want to heal
Nerval was aware of what he called the storm of thoughts. He writes the following in a letter quoted by Craig E. Stephenson in his introduction to Jung’s lecture :
« There is in my head a storm of thoughts by which I am ceaselessly dazzled and enervated, years of dreams, projects, and anguish that long to be compressed into a phrase, into a single word. » (p. 16)
He was aware of being what is called different and even, at times, of being very ill. He even agreed to be treated but, when we read the passage quoted by Jung in his lecture, we understand that he did not want to be released from his illness. He was afraid of losing his creativity.
« I shall attempt to transcribe the impressions of a lengthy illness that took place entirely within the mysteries of my mind – although I do not know why I use the term illness here, for so far as I am concerned, I never felt more fit.
At times I believed my strength and energy had redoubled ; I seemed to know everything, understand everything ; my imagination afforded me infinite delights. Having recovered what men call reason, must I lament the lost of such joys ?… » (p. 52)
Here is a commonality with Jung regarding the positive side of the disease. In a letter from 1945, he addresses Doctor Christine Mann in the following way :
« Ultimately this illness has been an extremely valuable experience for me, it has given me the extremely rare opportunity to peek behind the veil. »
C.G. Jung, Correspondence, Volume 2, p. 92
Nerval also shared this need to take refuge in his illness in order to escape ordinary life with Nietzsche. In the article The positive side of the disease in Jung and Nietzsche (in French). I have written more about this subject.
It is troubling to see that Jung gives more importance to the disease when he resumes his lecture on Aurélia in 1945, three years after his original reading. This makes sense as he recounts in his Visions chapter in Memories, Dreams, Reflections his serious illness in 1944 during which he immersed himself in a world of visions and hallucinations and from which he only reluctantly emerged.
The other and his double
When Jung writes in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, page 44 : “Somewhere deep in the background I always knew I was two persons.”, he shows how sensitive he is to the terrible feeling of the splitting of the soul experienced by Nerval “my soul was split, so to speak, distinctly divided between vision and reality.”
It was someone else who was released at the police station : someone who took his place. Even his friends were mistaken.
This impression of an Other who takes his place persists throughout Nerval’s story. Jung quotes it :
« I lunged towards him, threatening him, but he turned towards me serenely. O horror ! O rage ! it was my very face, it was my very body, enlarged and idealized. » (p. 75)
There is an Other and he no longer knows which of the two is him. What disturbs him the most is that there is talk of a « Mystical Marriage » between him and Aurélia :
« I was immediately gripped by an insane fit of rage. I imagined the bridegroom they were all awaiting was my double who was due to marry Aurélia. » (p. 76)
When the birds speak
To illustrate the text of his lecture, we might have expected Jung to use Alfred Kubin’s artwork, which was displayed in the German translation, where Jung probably discovered Aurelia. Jung alluded several times to this artist which seemed so fascinated by the fantastic and so « illuminated« . But Jung only uses alchemical images.
It must be said that Nerval’s text contains a rich alchemical symbolism which greatly interests Jung.
Let us cite, for example, the fact that Nerval hears a bird speak and that the alchemists said they spoke in « la langue des oiseaux » (the language of the birds, a cryptic language full of symbolism based in homophony) to explain certain obscurities, assonances and puns. This did not escape Jung who offers interpretations, linked to alchemy, of the dreams and visions discussed in Aurélia throughout his lecture.
One can also wonder if, unconsciously, the idea of the Sacred Marriage or Mysterium Coniunctionis pursued by the alchemists, did not impose itself on Nerval.
Nerval failed at life
Jung shows how much he is affected by how strongly he reproaches Nerval.
I think that when he reads Aurélia something in him shudders as he thinks of what could have happened to him if he had not been more solid psychologically and if he had not clung to values such as family and work.
He criticizes him for his “aestheticism” and for having read too much literature when his life was at stake. He missed life and withdrew from reality :
« The poet has somehow withdrawn from the reality in which he might have been able to develop. Something has come upon him in the form of his Aurelia that he is wholly unable to associate with an « ordinary person of our century ». » (p. 56)
Worse, he lost all possibility of contact and help from the Self :
« Without such actions the Self cannot unfold, since the Self appears only in what we do. If we give it nothing to do, or nothing more to do, then the Self remains invisible, imprisoned inside itself and robbed of its impetus. » (p.55)
Anima and shadow
Nerval certainly had serious problems with his anima, but he could not face her, as Jung did so well, by accepting to confront his shadow instead of simply being subjected to it. In the discussion following the lecture, Jung says that one has no chance of resisting the negative anima if one does not first accept the shadow :
« Otherwise the shadow runs away with the anima, and the two form an unholy conspiracy against the one. » (p. 82)
Nerval was very conscious of the presence of his shadow, but it terrified him. He believed that it was only hostile to him and he used a lot of energy and aestheticism to reject it. So the shadow took over and drove him to psychosis and death. Neither dreams, visions, nor poetic creation had been able to save him.
Jung made the relationship with his shadow the reason for the sordid suicide of Nerval, who hung himself from a sewer grating. He ends both lectures with the following words :
« This was the end of a personality who had never understood how to prize open the narrow circle of the personal « I » and admission to the shadow, that ambiguous herald of yet another order of things. » (p. 78)
I could have given a psychiatric interpretation of Nerval’s text : the story of madness told by a romantic poet ready to commit suicide. It can also be seen as the treatment of mental illness and the reactions of the patient. All this is discussed thoroughly in Craig E. Stephenson’s long and very interesting introduction to Jung’s lectures.
Or I could have established a relationship between Aurélia of Nerval and The Red Book of Jung. Here too Stephenson does it very well. For him both are “literary vectors written for a psychological purpose”. About the Red Book he writes :
« It is particularly moving to consider Jung playing all four roles : doctor, writer, man and fictional protagonist. One could argue that herein resides one source of Jung’s notion of images of the Self as emerging from the complexity of the personality — something irreducible and greater than the sum of its many parts. » (p. 39)
Jung’s 1945 lecture not only interested me from a literary and philosophical point of view, it also touched me deeply. I had the impression of communicating with that part of Jung for whom certain walls were transparent, the part that was enraged to see a man of genius so deaf to the lessons of the unconscious. “Professor” Jung knew how to take a backseat to the torments and psychic agony of a poet with whom he empathized.
Ariane Callot is a doctor of philosophy. She defended a thesis oriented on Jung in France in 2000. She is the co-founder of the association Espace Francophone Jungien and has published numerous articles on this platform.