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The Myth of the Last Day: C.G. Jung’s Apocalyptic Visions By Steven Walker with ellipses editorial staffGo Back to Table of Contents
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In the crucial years following his painful break with Freud, and while elaborating his own basic model for “analytical psychology,” C.G. Jung, the Swiss psychologist, underwent a confrontation with the unconscious that nearly led him into a state of psychotic breakdown. At the opening of this period, in the autumn of 1913, Jung dreamt of a catastrophic flood covering all the land between the North Sea and the Swiss Alps. “I saw,” he wrote years later, “the mighty yellow waves, the floating rubble of civilization, and the drowned bodies of uncounted thousands. Then the whole sea turned to blood.” The vision repeated itself, with greater horror, two weeks later until, on December 12, 1913, the spectacle of dissolution and dismemberment was accompanied by an apparition of the death of the German hero, Siegfried.

Siegfried, a blond young man, was seen floating face down on the blood sea. This image was absorbed by that of a rising sun. Six days later, Jung dreamt of Siegfried driving a chariot constructed entirely of human bones. Jung, and a strange brown-skinned companion, shot the charioteer dead. Jung was extremely unsettled by this dream, which he felt he must decode or commit suicide. He concluded that Siegfried represented his youthful aggressive self, from which he was parting company (Jung was in his late thirties at the time), as well as the primal uncivilized power drive of the German nation, which was a threat, he felt, to itself as well as the rest of Europe. The brown-skinned companion was Jung’s shadow, his unconscious, forming a partnership with his conscious persona. This joining together of the two sides of the psyche was a sign of self-acceptance and developing maturity--a step which, sadly, it seemed that civilization at the time was unwilling to take.

This was not to be the end of Jung’s midlife Apocalyptic visions, however. The next year he had a recurring dream of a devastating midsummer freeze that ravaged Lorraine, the area of France that Germany had taken from France in 1871. This vision clearly emanated ill omens in the dawning conflicts which were, at the time, formulating a World War. The freeze caused the death of all vegetation and the evacuation of the entire human population. This dream repeated itself twice more, concluding on an incongruous note: one of the ice-covered trees turned green, its leaves transformed by the freeze into grapes, which Jung handed out to a great crowd. This last image suggested a quasi-messianic role for Jung reminiscent of Christ’s feeding of the five thousand in the miracle of the loaves and fishes--and once again symbolized, in charity and grace, Jung’s own psychic development. Once again, civilization in Europe was not to follow suit.

By the time World War I had broken out in earnest, in August of 1914, Jung was convinced that his own Apocalyptic visions coincided with the European collective nightmare that had become the First World War. Yet in 1913 and the first few months of 1914, it did not take any great prophet to predict the outbreak of hostility. Worse omens than Jung’s dreams were heralded in daily headlines. What is significant, however, is that Jung himself--who was to become the father of the concept that the unconscious mind contained universal archetypes common to all humanity--experienced archetypal Apocalyptic visions that resounded, he was convinced, with both cultural

and historical significance. This suggested that civilizations, like individuals, must undergo psychic development if they were to progress and mature.

Like Jung at midlife, the collective “mind” of the twentieth century seemed to have been obsessed with Apocalypse. There is little doubt that the culmination of this obsession in the Holocaust was merely a preamble for a scenario in which Hitler would have destroyed the planet if he had had the means. Yet this was not the obsession of tyrannical sociopaths alone. After the Second World War, the major powers of the world joined together to wire the planet with a globally destructive nuclear network. The remnants of that network still haunt contemporary global civilization, and with the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the threat becomes even more palpable as emerging nations equate destructive capabilities with political and social power and autonomy. Thus, it may be time to confront this unconscious “death wish” collectively if civilization--like an individual in the midst of a midlife-crisis--is to understand and avert its own demise.

The first step in this analysis, however, is to recognize that the twentieth century was not unique in its preoccupation with Apocalypse. In Europe alone, the church had twice prematurely declared the time of the Apocalypse--once during the great plagues and once during the Mongol invasions. The Mongols were cast as Gog and Magog, the horsemen of Satan let loose at the end of the world in the Apocalyptic Revelations of the Bible. Genghis Khan had often reinforced this myth by explaining to his victims that he was the “Scourge of God” visiting penance on his victims for their sins. The Mongols’ disconcerting habit of building columns constructed of human skulls, and of annihilating entire population centers, did much to reinforce their Apocalyptic image in a fearful medieval Europe, as well as within an Islamic expansive empire already divided between Sunni and Shiite factions. Yet Christianity and Islam, at the time at each other’s throats in the Crusades, actually allied in Palestine for awhile to arrest the Mongol advance in Syria. Just as Jung had dreamt of an alliance with a brown-skinned companion, so Christianity and Islam had allied to arrest the advance of Apocalyptic Mongols who were driving a chariot constructed of human bones.

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