“Meaninglessness inhibits fullness of life and is therefore equivalent to illness. Meaning makes a great many things endurable — perhaps everything. No science will ever replace myth, and a myth cannot be made out of any science.”Carl Jung
Jung’s memoir Memories, Dreams, Reflections is one of the most brilliant, insane, deep, therapeutic, and mystifying things my mind has ever encountered. I am told that this rambling, extraordinary monologue was delivered near his death to a beloved friend, who helped translate the English version. It condenses nearly eighty years of study, work, and extraordinary life experience into one of the most bizarre and powerful documents I have ever read.
I think Carl Jung was one of humanity’s great geniuses. I also think he was mad (and quite gleefully willing to admit it). Which goes together — because reality is quite mad, and standard-issue human-shaped thinking simply isn’t built for that sort of rough terrain. It helps the primates eat and fuck long enough to propagate the genes; it isn’t designed for things like philosophy.
Consistently, the great geniuses in various fields seem to follow this pattern (more or less), because they are blessed and cursed to live face to face with the paradoxes of existence that the rest of us are fortunate to be able to shrug off. As Jung alludes throughout his exquisite monologue, this confers benefits while inflicting an ineffable loneliness on these people who in their very essence are forced to SEE (in all caps). I very much think this explains the frequent incidence of severe depression and even suicide among the severely gifted.
It was simply humbling to spend time (in small doses) with someone whose intellect and spirit felt so incredibly vast. It made me feel my own weakness and frequent dumbness. And that’s a very good and healthy thing (and indeed perhaps the only state in which we become smarter).
The combination of fierce intelligence with deep spirituality (with frank discussion of the scientific limitations in discussing it) is inspiring and frankly gives me hope that, as Jung and Feynman both eerily alluded in very different ways, we live in a universe of fierce, wild, mysterious beauty, where there are still enormous unsolved enigmas and secrets worth pursuing (even if they are fundamentally incapable of being truly grasped by human consciousness.) A fully dissected universe would lose its appeal, as Feynman argued in one of his last interviews.
I felt like I was peering under the hood, like I was glimpsing a hidden ReadMe.txt in the Simulation file system, like it was a forbidden thing that I had best limit to small doses. After all, the movie characters will start acting very oddly if you hand them the script (as the poor saps at Westworld learned).
It was ineffable, goddammit, ineffable and incomprehensible like all the best wonders I have seen in this strange incarnation in a bizarre world. But I was made better by trying to grasp it; maybe by wrestling with the thousand pound weight, even if we can’t tip it, we still become stronger.
I think life is like that.
Header Image Credit: Shutterstock, used under editorial license, created by Sarawut Itsaranuwut.