Any fan of Carl Jung would be fascinated to hear his take on the current movements of transgenderism, gender fluid, genderqueer, non-binary, etc. But does he give one?
Surely the godfather of psychological archetypes has something on the subject in his massive collected works. The answer is a disappointing “no,” and for obvious reasons: (a) during Jung’s lifetime these terms were not in use, and (b) the movement with its large numbers did not exist either, and thus drew no attention.
However, it seems that his archetype of the hermaphrodite covers many of the fundamental aspects of the movement, in particular the non-binary, gender fluid, genderqueer elements, and indirectly transgenderism as well. Jung discusses this archetype in many of his works, but there is one in particular that deserves extended study: The Psychology of the Transference.
Jung’s thoughts are notoriously difficult to understand and are mostly inaccessible to quick, Google-like-search methods of study, and this text is no exception. That said, I’ll do my best to summarize his thoughts on the hermaphroditic archetype and how it relates to the movement.
In the epilogue Jung writes:
“We live today in a time of confusion and disintegration. Everything is in the melting pot. As is usual in such circumstances, unconscious contents thrust forward to the very borders of consciousness for the purpose of compensating the crisis in which it finds itself. It is therefore well worth our while to examine all such borderline phenomena with the greatest care, however obscure they seem, with a view to discovering the seeds of new and potential orders.”
These are his closing thoughts after an extended study of the hermaphroditic archetype as it appeared in an alchemist text from the Middle Ages called the Rosarium Philosophorum—the primary focus of the book. Today we are again witnessing what appears to be a “borderline phenomena” and would be wise to examine it as containing “the seeds of new and potential orders.”
Surprising for some, Jung considered the development of man’s will as a fundamental shift of consciousness, which ultimately defines what he meant by our growing “confusion” and “disintegration.” According to Jung, this shift was the result of society’s moving away from religious faith to reliance on one’s own will, or reason. As the Enlightenment pressed on and mankind looked to itself—to unaided reason—for the answers to life, ethics, morals, etc., it looked less and less to God’s will and more and more to man’s will.
That sounds like something to cheer if you’re a thoroughgoing secularist, but psychologically speaking it should inspire concerned pause. Nietzsche—himself a dedicated atheist and self-proclaimed antichrist—feared the possible collapse of universal moral laws and the nihilism that awaited Europe with the ousting of Christianity.
Jung worked on this text during the early 1940’s and was already talking of a Europe that had “succumbed to neo-paganism and anti-Christianity.” Following Nietzsche, he feared that this titanic shift from a Christian society to a secular one would mean the collapse of existing moral and ethical norms and be replaced by the Nietzschean will to power. Jung was concerned that this violent and sudden shift of consciousness would invite untested ways for people to psychologically deal with what he described as their unconscious warring forces.
“The further the conscious situation moves away from a certain point of equilibrium,” Jung writes, “the more forceful and more dangerous becomes the unconscious contents that are struggling to restore balance. This ultimately leads to a dissociation.”
According to Jung, the psyche requires a harmonizing power to establish equilibrium among its various warring unconscious forces. For several millennium this psychic power was found in religious faith. But now, with the collapse of religious faith, what is the psyche to do; how would it deal with its deep inner divide?
To answer this question Jung investigates the hermaphroditic archetype which (like all archetypes) found it’s way time and again into various societies throughout the ages. Historically, this archetype was the answer to humanity’s deep-seated death anxiety, an anxiety which underwrites much of our unconscious agitation. The hermaphrodite represents the perfect united person—the “Anthropos” (i.e. the original or primordial man)—the union of male and female in a single being.
An extended quote from his study of alchemy might help elucidate Jung’s thought here:
“Alchemy describes… the same psychological phenomenology which can be observed in the analysis of unconscious processes. The individual’s specious unity that emphatically says ‘I want, I think’ breaks down under the impact of the unconscious. So long as the patient can think that somebody else (his father or mother) is responsible for his difficulties, he can save some semblance of unity. But once he realizes that he himself has a shadow, that his enemy is in his own heart, then the conflict begins and one becomes two. Since the ‘other’ will eventually prove to be yet another duality, a compound of opposites, the ego soon becomes a shuttlecock tossed between a multitude of ‘velleities,’ with the result that there is an ‘obfuscation of the light,’i.e., consciousness is depotentiated and the patient is at a loss to know where his personality begins or ends.”
Jung explains that the hermaphroditic archetype, found in alchemy as the union of the king and queen, attempts to quell the conflict between these inner dualities through, “the royal marriage” which “brings the work to its final consummation and binds the opposites by love, for ‘love is stronger than death.’”
No one would accuse this current generation of having a solid handle on personal identity. Every indication is that we are confused and needing something solid to hold onto, but nothing satisfies since everything solid has been deconstructed and abolished. Now, when people run up against their own divided self with no tradition, no religion, no universal truths from which to orient their soul, where do they turn? What can act as the unifying factor of the psyche which Jung believed so essential?
Sexuality, of course.
Jung notes that just as the modern person tends to instinctively use sex as a way of actualizing the unity of the warring forces within, the alchemists, due to their lack of psychological understanding, were overpowered by the sexual instinct and “elevated it to a sort of religious dogma.”
“The sexualism of the hermaphrodite symbol completely overpowered consciousness and gave rise to an attitude of mind which is just as unsavory as the old hybrid symbolism.”
The natural sexualism of the symbol, which the alchemists could not overcome, kept them from asking the most important questions: “how is the profound cleavage in man and the world to be understood, how are we to respond to it and, if possible, abolish it?”
Instead, similar to our own situation, they became stuck in sexualism as a pseudo-cure, which simply does not have the power to unite the psyche. Attempting to actualize the Anthropos–the united person–by way of overcoming biological sex (however one may try to do so) might feel like a solution, since sexuality is extremely convincing to perception and consciousness, but it does not abolish the deeper divide.
If Jung were alive today witnessing the explosive growth of the non-binary, gender fluid movements my guess is that he would immediately recognize it as a resurgence of the hermaphroditic archetype set loose on a post-Christian society as a means of psychic compensation. The unconscious attempt at inner unification is evident in much of the movement’s way of being in the world.
Our age has a heightened emphasis on self, on a postmodern philosophical ethos, and on a post-Christian spiritual experience. It is arguable that this present generation is, to date, the pinnacle of the so-called postmodern movement which begun several centuries ago. To speak as Oswald Spengler, the “Faustian spirit” is in cultural overdrive with no clear end-goal in mind, no clear telos, blasting onward fueled by an undefined need to progress for progress’ own sake.
I don’t think Jung would be a champion of the trans/non-binary movement for the simple reason that he would see it as an attempt to bypass the intense work which awaits those who dare to wrestle with their shadow. That’s not to say that he would not recognize genuine feelings of dislocation between mind and body (the sense of being ‘born in the wrong body,’ as some express it), but in most cases he would understand these as signs that psychic unity—or individuation—was needed. Such unity, for Jung, required an arduous struggle, potentially a lifelong struggle, to attain.
I think he would notice that the main upsurge in those who identify as trans, gender fluid, non-binary, etc., tend to be younger, tend to be people who are traversing a period of life (adolescence through mid-20’s) which is fraught with chaos and confusion over identity in general; a time when one is most likely to be uncomfortable in his or her own skin; a time when one is most likely pit between two poles: the need to challenge family and societal norms alongside the need to conform to something. (See here for an excellent article on the subject written by a Jungian analyst.) He would undoubtedly attempt to find a therapeutic solution to the identity problem, which would secure his place on the long list of culturally cancelled celebrities.