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blog - Charles Stanford

The Wizard of Küsnacht, Part II: The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Carl Jung’s experiences with the unconscious in 1913-1914 can be, and have been, called by many names, which could include “magic.” But despite their strangeness and power, Jung chose to engage them from the standpoint of his profession as a psychologist. He did not to present them as prophetic revelations for the foundation of a new religion, nor did he declare himself a magician (which is just as well, since he avoided the sad fate of his contemporary Aleister Crowley). Still, his experiences in “the Depths” did include an earnest pursuit of magical knowledge and power, which he recorded in a fascinating chapter of The Red Book entitled “The Magician.”

In Lament of the Dead: Psychology after Jung’s Red Book, Sonu Shamdasani and James Hillman discuss Jung’s response to his visionary experiences.

A reader of Memories, Dreams, Reflections will be familiar with Philemon, the old man with kingfisher wings who became Jung's teacher. The Red Book gives another story of Philemon: in his fantasies, Carl Jung finds Philemon as a retired magician, living in a cottage with his wife Baucis, tottering around his garden tending his flowers. The hopeful apprentice tries to pry some useful words out of the old man, who does not easily oblige.

Jung (identified as “I” in the book): “You're not going to draw me out. I'm simply waiting for whatever you are going to say.”
Philemon: “And if I say nothing?”
I: “Well, then I'll withdraw somewhat embarrassed and think that ΦΙΛΗΜΩΝ is at the very least a shrewd fox, who definitely would have something to teach me.”
P: “With this, my boy, you have learned something about magic.”

But he doesn't recognize that he's learned anything, and continues to question the old man. The episode is reminiscent of stories of Zen masters and their koans: seemingly impossible questions or sayings that wean the student away from relying solely on the analytical intellect. For a scientific mind such as Carl Jung's in middle age, breaking away from intellectual analysis is a difficult task, even distasteful and humiliating. He continues to prod Philemon for clarification, but he gets no closer to a satisfactory understanding. Finally the old magician tells him plainly: “Magic happens to be precisely everything that eludes comprehension.”

I: “But then how the devil is one to teach and learn magic?”
P: “Magic is neither to be taught nor learned. It's foolish that you want to learn magic.”
I: “But then magic is nothing but deception.”
P: “Watch out – you have started reasoning again.”

After carrying on the conversation for a little while longer, Jung leaves Philemon's garden in a huff. As he walks away he notices the local people watching him. They whisper among themselves, thinking that since he talked so long with the magician in the garden, he must have learned some magic. He wants to tell them to be quiet, but “because I have remained silent, they are even more convinced that I have received the black art from ΦΙΛΗΜΩΝ.”

There is a great mystique that surrounds a creative or eccentric persona, or even a reputation of special knowledge or ability. The English words “glamor” and “grimoire” both share a common kinship with “grammar.” Historically, simply the possession of restricted or rare knowledge – like Latin grammar or mathematics – was enough to give a reputation for magical ability. Alan Moore's identification of magic with art and creative work draws on a reflection on this, and Mary Stewart's retelling of the Merlin story presents a compelling scenario of this phenomenon in action.

In Mary Stewart’s novels, Merlin gains his reputation as a wizard based as much on his knowledge and skill as his prophetic gifts.

Jung's grounding in the culture of his day with its dedication to scientific enterprise is apparent in his account of his apprenticeship, and this offers a great deal of explanation as to why he didn't declare himself a magician in his social or professional life. Even so, he did follow Philemon to a similar role: an old man in a stone building by a lake, quietly going about a simple life, surrounded by stone carvings and paintings with mysterious figures, shelves full of strange books, receiving visitors from around the world who hoped that he could teach them arcane knowledge, the grammar of the soul.

Most of us who read Jung will never be certified as psychologists or psychiatrists. But we’re blessed to live in this day and age with access to the work of so many visionaries who have shown us what riches lie undiscovered in all of our souls. We don’t have to accept lies and deceptions, but we can still approach life as full of enchantment, and the concepts of magic can give us very effective metaphors to free ourselves from the manipulations of the spell-casters that surround us.


~Charles Stanford
Archivist, author, musician
Staff Writer – Jung Society of Utah
Etsy shop: Only Real Quills


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