So, you've heard of Sigmund Freud, right? Who hasn't? He's that cigar-wielding silver fox with the fetching goatee. Sometimes, people seem to think that psychoanalysis begins and ends with him. Wrong.
Back in 19th-20th century Vienna, Freud was only one man in a whole group of scientific buddies. These other dudes also smoked cigars, tried to guess what each other was thinking, and got into a lot of fights over how best to examine people's secret desires. Carl Jung was one such dude—before he made a dramatic philosophical break from our boy Freud.
As a psychoanalyst, Jung wanted to probe adult humans' imagination and creativity, and then use these elements of the human psyche to help people interact in the real world. Freud, on the other hand, wanted to root around inside people's heads in an endless search for that one, pseudo-sexual childhood memory of suckling at mom's teat that just might explain every neurosis ever. You might say that Jung was the romantic bard to Freud's dirty frat bro. And let us tell you, psychoanalysis was quite a different ballgame before Jung came around.
Back in the early 1900s, artistic types like the surrealists were inspired by Freud to spill a lot of paint on his ideas of the unconscious—all of those weird, amorphous, incomplete memories and feelings you've got bouncing around inside of you that you can never quite parse. The surrealists painted their dreams, which are one outlet for the unconscious, and talked a lot about sex, genitals, and the more unpleasant bodily functions we experience as infants. Basically, they were like little Freudites with paintbrushes.
See, Freud thought that the libido was absolutely central to the human experience. He was especially interested in our early experiences of our bodies, and of our parents' bodies (yeah, yeah, we know: gross). But Jung wanted to get away from the physical trappings of the human mind. And he wanted to grant some psychological weight to that whole huge chunk of our lives that we spend out of diapers. So, he set about exploring the universal themes that emerge in human stories—from the stories we tell our friends about our lives, to Greek and Roman mythology.
Mythology, novels, poetry, and folklore all really floated Jung's boat. Why? Well, Jung came up with this groundbreaking notion called the collective unconscious. Before Jung burst onto the scene, people had only really considered the personal unconscious: that collection of muddy experiences each of us has housed within us. You know, the messy, dark, uncertain desires that make us individuals. But Jung was interested in the similarities that emerge across our very varied individual experiences. Because whenever we make art, or even talk about the inanities of our daily lives, we often tell a lot of the same narratives… with a lot of the same heroes and villains in them. Which is pretty amazing when you think about it.
So the collective unconscious was born. Jung believed that simply because we are human, we inherit certain ideas of what life is like—of what our human stories are made of. Unlike Freud, he also believed that the unconscious was more than a laundry list of negatives: a repository for shame, hellfire, and repressed want. He thought there was some good stuff in there too. Like our imaginations. And the shared characters (both heroes and villains) that exist in human stories all over the world. These characters are what Jung called archetypes.
Now, you have to understand that these archetypes are supposed to be generalized enough to have been inherited from our ancestors, so they're not as specific to our times (or anyone else's) as they are the timeless kinda people you see cropping up in books ever since the first printing press. So, think less Superman and more the regular dude (Clark Kent) who is also the hero (Superman). (You can find a description of some of Jung's most common archetypes here.)
We bet you've already figured out how lit critics use Jung's work to analyze literature. Yep, you've got it: Jungian criticism assumes that all stories are based on mythic motifs from man's past. For example, when reading a text, a Jungian critic might ask:
Does the protagonist in this text represent a kind of mythological hero? Does she embark on a journey, in a physical or spiritual sense? Does she meet common archetypes—like The Lover—along the way? What does she learn as a result of her journey?
You get the picture. If you're bored tonight and want to do some Jungian criticism of your own, we suggest you keep Shmoop's mythology guide handy. We also think this lit theory page from Purdue, with its section on Jung, is pretty darn nifty.
Importantly, Jung had some of his own crazy to work through. He lost his marbles for a couple of years, even though he wasn't doing psychotropic drugs, unlike a lot of his contemporaries. During his "off" years, he experienced some wild stuff (in his head); he called these experiences his "confrontation with the unconscious."
But Jung's Self vs. Self sparring match wasn't all bad. It inspired his discovery of the collective unconscious. By probing his own early memories of being kicked around as a kid and stuff, he arrived at the idea of hereditary human stories and larger-than-life archetypes. Just within his own personal drama, Jung found the archetypes of: an inner female, a dark-skinned scary dude, some mothers (of course), a hero, a wise old fart, and a bunch of colors and funky shapes and animals that talk.
See, neurosis—or what we can also call your cray-cray—can be good for you. You read that right. You've got to go a little crazy to open the door to the collective unconscious, where these common archetypes can help you figure out what's broken. And once you do that, you can learn how to play the hero in your own story more often. Because when you embrace all of your many archetypes, you can use your imagination to weave your life narrative in pretty much any way you wish, Willy Wonka style.
In fact, Jung might be just as likely to suggest that you get yourself to therapy as tell you to start playing D&D or finger-painting your dreams.