by Tim Hannon
In any review of ethics and psychotherapy in the twentieth century, Carl Jung’s contravention of sexual norms stands out as a fascinating, if perhaps little understood, phenomenon. His well-publicized affairs with ex-clients, Sabina Spielrein and Antonia Wolff, were tolerated and even secretly admired by his friends and followers. While some of this behaviour may not appeal to late twentieth- century political correctness, such behaviour seems then to have been almost the norm. One need only look to Perls and Ferenczi, amongst others, to observe the scant knowledge or respect of sexual boundaries that existed at the time.
What is particularly interesting in Jung’s case, however, is the rationale possibly used to justify this polygamous lifestyle. In 1907, Jung’s conservative opinion that sexual repression was a very important and civilizing factor was seriously challenged by his prolonged analysis of the bohemian and Nietzchean physician, Otto Gross, who seems to have won Jung over to his belief in the sexual short-circuit.
Gross was a chief protagonist in the German counter-culture so prevalent at the start of the century and he saw the matriarchal culture that preceded patriarchy as the new modern ideal. For him, culture could be revitalized through sexual liberation. As an avant-garde Freudian analyst, Gross envisaged the truly healthy state for the neurotic as sexual immorality.
Richard Noll in his book, The Aryan Christ, remarks that according to this view , “polygamy was considered a strong ancestral impulse that ruled even modern human beings. Civilization, despite its wonderful qualities, tended to injure humans by creating social conventions that required them to repress their true savage nature.”
While Jung refrained from the more dissolute of Gross’s dionysian exploits, his letters to Freud show that in “Gross I have discovered many aspects of my true nature, so that he often seemed like my true brother, except for the dementia praecox.”
As a result of his encounter with Gross, Jung’s obsession with an ex-client from the Burgholzi, Sabina Spielrein, deepened. In one of her letters, she writes:
“I sat there in a deep depression. Now he arrives beaming with pleasure and tells me with strong emotion about Gross, about the great insight he has just received. He no longer wants to suppress his feelings for me. He admitted that I was his first , his dearest woman friend, etc. (his wife of course excepted) and that he wanted to tell me everything about himself.”
Their relationship lasted for four years and was superseded by a life-long affair with the highly-talented Toni Wolff, who assumed the role of ‘inspiratrice’ and mistress for Jung. She became a regular guest for Sunday lunch in the Jung household, Emma Jung seems to have considered divorce, but only in the latter years did she limit Wolff’s access, due to Jung’s declining health.
Jung seems to have recommended this therapeutic channel to some of his patients. An American, Medill McCormack, wrote: “Jung warned me against being too good and asked particularly if I felt free. He rather recommended a little flirting and told me to bear in mind that it might be advisable for me to have mistresses – that I was a very dangerous and savage man, that I must not forget my heredity and my infantile influences and lose my soul – if women would save it.”
It is difficult to assess the extent to which this polygamous philosophy influenced Jung’s client work. It did however provide a convenient rationale for preserving a troubled marriage, and avoiding some of the main ambiguities in Jung’s life.
References are from: Noll, Richard: The Aryan Christ (1997) Macmillan, London.