Jung for Africa

Jung for Africa
by Paul Ashton

At a meeting held in July 2011, four Southern African analysts met and discussed the issue of Jung’s relevance in Africa. The actual brief was that “Analysts from the five continents (were) being invited to write about Jung’s legacy to the contemporary world, focusing mainly on Jung's cultural meaning to their countries,” but between the beer and the pizza we had modified that brief. We met at a restaurant called Brueghel’s Pizza where each pizza was named after some artist, e.g. Picasso, Gauguin, or Rodin, and was presented with an artistic flourish. We started to view the pizzas as a metaphor for Jung in Africa and perhaps even more as images of the way “Out-of-Africans” can project what they will on this Dark Continent which has always been considered unknown and thus a wonderful screen on which to project one’s fantasies. Jung himself gave free rein to his fantasies when he visited Africa in 1925, and at the 17th IAAP congress held in Cape Town in 2007 it was apparent that both positive and negative projections were foisted on this the host country.

At different times at this meeting each of us was heard to intone “Jungian Psychology has no relevance for Africa.” What an astonishing statement from committed Jungian Analysts! How can one understand it? One of the difficulties that we faced in our discussion was our history of apartheid which has made us hypersensitive to issues of race and gender and the dangers of generalization, and we were quickly immersed in a discussion of what it could mean to talk about “Africa” or more specifically “Southern Africa.” To whom or what would we be referring? The question arises whether the distance from Africa gives outside observers a “sublimated” view that allows them to see more clearly and whether our being “in solution” mean that we lose the power of differentiation. Or the opposite, does the distant observer lack clear differentiation (a smoothing out achieved by distance) allowing them to see what they wish to see and not what “is”, whereas those immersed in the bath, in solution, can see (and feel) the lumps and bumps? To talk about differences is to invite accusations of racism, to not talk about them is to be blind to certain realities.

In a very general way it has been said that South Africa is both a first and a third world country. Again in a general way, those worlds are inhabited by people of different colour. This is less marked than it was before Nelson Mandela’s release in 1990 but is still apparent. Children born in 1990 or thereafter have been nicknamed “the born-frees” or “the born free kids” (“the born free kids” is also the name of one of the notorious Gangs on the Cape Flats) and my impression is that these young people are much less contaminated by racial issues than their parents were. Thank heaven! But there are huge differences between different individuals in our country and these do need to be taken into account when issues of Jung’s significance are being discussed. We are different each from each, as different as the pizzas at Brueghel’s are; beautiful and delicious as they are, they are different, and not all palatable to every sampler.

Ken Wilber has important ideas about levels of consciousness. He warns that the different levels of consciousness that individuals work from are more significant than issues of race, gender, or economic status. A huge percentage of South Africans are embedded in a system of belief, either culturally determined or through a religion that has been embraced more consciously. This places them in what Wilber would call levels two, three or four which he named the Magical, Mythic, and Mythic-Rational stages. A much smaller percentage of individuals would be in stage five namely the stage of Rational Scientific Materialism. In this stage we are able to think about thinking and start to deconstruct our world-view with the consequence that our myths may lose their sense of meaning. Level six is the last of the personal levels of consciousness, it is humanistic and existential and tends toward integration rather than the splitting that obtains in stage five. In these latter stages (five and six) we reach what Viktor Frankl termed Man’s Search for Meaning and what Jung articulated as Modern Man in Search of a Soul. The search for meaning in the myth offered by Jung is inevitably preceded by a dawning consciousness of the subjective nature of our experience of reality and a loss of our certainty of the world. The last three of Wilber’s stages he called “transpersonal,” and they are stages of mystical development, achieved usually through meditation of some sort and resulting in a coniunctio between man and God or the ego and the Self. Few of us aspire to that level of consciousness which implies a loss of individual identity, a resting within “God.”

Even Jung, courageous as he was, was frightened of completely abandoning himself to the Unconscious, the Unknown, or God. I think that is why he found Africa so frightening despite its allure. Africa, the Dark Continent, carried for him the terror of being seduced into the Great Unknown. This is beautifully portrayed in a song by Peter Gabriel entitled variously “Jung in Africa” and “Rhythm of the Heat,” a version and the lyrics are obtainable on www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=756 . It uses images from Jung’s description of his journey to Africa and ends with the words “The rhythm is around me/ The rhythm has control/ The rhythm is inside me/ The rhythm has my soul.” The last line is sung in a scream turning into a wail and then drums take over, pulling one inexorably into the frenzied dark. Jung frequently warned about the danger of being overwhelmed by the chaos of the unconscious, he had a healthy respect for its dark chaotic power.

“The Dark Continent”, as Africa has been called, can be seen as THE continent of Exile. The indigenous peoples of many countries in Africa were for decades exiled in their own land, innumerable individuals fleeing for their lives because of strife in their own countries have become exiles in neighbouring countries, and many of the so-called “White Africans,” for generations separated from a mythical “home” “overseas” now find themselves feeling exiled from, while in, the land of their birth. For all these exiles, displaced in some way from their sense of home, comfort is elusive … can it be supplied by Jungian Psychology? The answer to that is not clear. While for some the issues are initially about having basic services provided, clean water on tap, enough food, shelter, safety from abusers, etc. matters which are distant from Jungian psychology as such, for others the issues are about meaning. The sort of questions that may then arise are, for example, “How can this person have done this to me?” “What did I do to deserve this?” “What is the meaning of my life in Africa now?” Questions that are ultimately unanswerable.

There have been earnest attempts by Jungian and other practitioners to understand tribal practices and beliefs, and to interpret stories and folk-tales. This may have a value with regard to exploring aspects of the collective unconscious but it stems from a capacity (or lack) that is to do with our being in Wilber’s stage of Rational Scientific Materialism, i.e. his level five. If our client is from a culture that believes she should demonstrate reverence of her ancestors she is unlikely to benefit from a Jungian understanding of that process. If he has moved away from that culture and is trying to find another way of understanding, it is again unlikely that he will respond to an interpretation (however correct and well meaning) that uses the analyst’s knowledge of what should happen in a traditional setting. It would require a further development of consciousness before our putative analysand could take on board the idea that their unconscious might be relieved to embrace the ancestors through some ritual, whereas consciously such a ritual would be anathema to them. So perhaps what is needed is a therapy that is consciousness raising (ego developing)rather than a therapy that attempts to make one more aware of the unconscious. As Jungians we are not very good at that although Jung himself intimated that most of our work should be about strengthening the ego, in part so that it might withstand the rigours of a confrontation with the unconscious but also because it is the tool with which we connect with the unconscious. Perhaps the most useful therapeutic attitude is that of not-knowing but listening with curiosity. Then analysands, as they explore more deeply, may make the discoveries themselves.

I had the experience of working with a Kenyan man, “Pat” I’ll call him, who had been brought up in a village where his father was the school-teacher. The family had been very poor despite what sounded like the father’s good and responsible job. My client later did an MA in an English university and took up a post in a religious institution as he had the idea of “being of service.” One day I was trying to find out more about his family and he indicated that he knew almost nothing about his father’s side of the family as he could not ask his father (unacceptable culturally) and his father had volunteered nothing. I swallowed and probably raised my eyebrows. A few months later “Pat” went home on a visit. On his return to Cape Town he stated that he had decided to confront his father (unacceptable culturally) and it had worked out well. He had learnt a good deal more about his origins, his father had seemed relieved to be able to talk, and he had broken a taboo and survived. A few months later he resigned from his job, to his colleagues’ surprise, and accepted a much more highly paid job doing what was his passion, working with the poor, facilitating their development. If I had tried to be clever, paraded my cultural knowledge, or quashed my own intuition that his cultural complex was limiting his life, this may never have happened.

It appears to me, and my pizza affiliates indicated that it appears to them too, that sometimes there is a glorification of what Africa has to offer. As Jungians we know about “the opposites” and “the shadow” but it sometimes seems as though there is a (one-sided) idealisation of what Jung embarrassingly called “the primitive”. As examples I would mention the fact that at the IAAP congress in Cape Town some analysts went off into the townships to consult a sangoma without getting the sort of references that one would normally seek if one was going to see a therapist in a new town, or any specialist for that matter, be it a panel-beater, electrician or gynaecologist. Are all sangomas good i.e. competent as well as authentic and honest? Overheard at the Florence congress: “How dare he criticize Mandela at a Jungian congress?” Why not? Does Mandela not have a shadow? And does he need the protection of the IAAP? An idealisation and infantilisation close together.

There is a word “metropole” that had an archaic meaning of “mother city” when it referred to a city that gave rise to a colony. One of my colleagues raised the idea that we could think of Jungian psychology as being a metropole that has colonized, or attempted to colonize the unconscious. Perhaps the natives are getting restless. Winnicott says somewhere that the greatest value of an interpretation is that it lets patients know that the therapist does not understand them. Colonizers think they know what is best for those they colonize, but knowing forecloses on the truth and often forgets that it only knows a part and never the whole. So perhaps we, as Jungians, should be content with the idea that Africa is “the dark continent”, we can have our fantasies about it but not colonize it with our ideas.