Robert Johnson, Jungian Analyst and Author passed away on September 12 at age 97. I was privileged to know him and to learn from him as a mentor and a friend. To honor his life and work, I am posting an interview I conducted with him in 1995, originally published in The Power of Polarities.
Robert A. Johnson was a renowned Jungian analyst, author, and lecturer. His books have sold more than 3 million copies. He was born in Portland, Oregon in 1921 and studied at the University of Oregon and Stanford University.
When he was 24, he studied with Krishnamurti, and when he was 26, he went to Zürich in Switzerland to study at the C.G. Jung Institute. There he met Carl and Emma Jung and went into analysis with Jolande Jacobi.
In 1974, he lectured at St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego where he worked with John A. Sanford, an Episcopal priest who had his lectures transcribed and published as He: Understanding Masculine Psychology. The book soon became a bestseller and was followed by She, We, Inner Work, Ecstasy, Transformation, Femininity Lost and Regained, Owning Your Own Shadow, The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden, Balancing Heaven and Earth, Contentment, Living Your Unlived Life and Inner Gold.
In 2002 he received an honorary doctorate from Pacifica Graduate Institute in California. He currently lives in a nursing home in San Diego, California.
The interview was conducted on March 29, 1995, at the home of Robert in Encinitas, California. It was originally intended to be published in a Dutch magazine but for various reasons that did not work out and it found its debut in the The Power of Polarities.
Can you tell us about your life?
I was born in 1921 in Portland Oregon from a Swedish father and a Canadian mother. It was a very bad marriage. My early days were very difficult. Finally, I was “parked” with my grandmother, and she raised me. That has had a curious effect on me. I have a grandmother complex, where most people have a mother complex.
In my late teens and all through my twenties life was just hellish, it was a nightmare. I only barely survived. Part of the reason was that I was so wounded by my childhood. And I forgot to tell you. I was very badly injured in an automobile accident when I was 11, and I lost a leg. That terminated my childhood and made adolescence a very difficult time.
I buried myself in music. I lived in music from age 16 until age 30 and prepared a musical career. Finally, my life became so painful and so near impossible that a friend of mine simply ordered me to go see a Jungian analyst. And I did. This was Fritz Künkel in San Francisco. He saved my life. He taught me a language which was coherent and which opened up the inner world to me. And this was a world that was possible for me because it was coherent.
By incredibly good fortune I met Carl Jung. I call it a series of slender threads. If I would ever write an autobiography - which I do not intend to - I would call it Slender Threads because all of the important things that have happened to me have hung together by these slenderest of threads. I happened to be somewhere, and I happened to have a conversation with somebody. And by a number of these slender threads, I ended up in Carl Jung’s study in Zürich and had found not only a cure but also a profession.
You met Carl Jung in person. Could you say something about your first encounter with him?
It was a dramatic thing. Talk about slender threads; it was one of the slenderest. I hardly got there. It took all the combined forces of heaven to set that meeting. I could never have managed it out of my own intelligence.
I was in Zürich, which was another slender thread, preceded by another slender thread. And I was doing analysis with Jolande Jacobi, who was one of Jung’s close followers. She was probably the most unsuitable analyst for me where her temperament was concerned. She had extraverted thinking where I have introverted feeling. She conducted her analytical hours pacing the floor. She was a bundle of energy and very domineering.
One day I had a huge, big dream. In retrospect, I think I can see why it frightened her. She evaded it. She said, “That’s an old man’s dream. You shouldn’t dream dreams like that. We are not going to talk about it.” This wasn’t satisfactory to me. I had had the dream whether I should or not. And it’s true, I was 26 years, and it was too heavy a weight to put on a 26-year-old. So, I walked out on her, for which she never forgave me.
I went to Mrs. Jung and asked for an hour with her. Mrs. Jung was highly introverted, a very quiet, graceful, and courteous person. So, I told her the dream. She did not know what to do with it. But she honored it and listened to it. She told the dream to Dr. Jung that night, and he told her he wanted to talk to me.
In about 3 hours he told me who I was, what I should do, what I should not do, what to trust, what not to trust. It was an extraordinary experience. He told me to stay with myself, not to marry, not to join anything. He encouraged me a great deal. He said, “The collective unconscious will support you.” Which it has. I’ve worried myself sick, but it has always come through. These slender threads have never failed me. But I didn’t know that. I didn’t have faith in that.
How did he know what was right for you?
He only knew the dream. And yet he knew so much about me. He had a rare ability which he was famous for. People would come in and start asking him something. Then suddenly, he would cut them off, in the middle of a sentence - he was a rude man too - and would start talking about something else. Just off he would go. And invariably - if they would listen - it was what they ought to hear, not what they wanted to hear. He had a kind of clairvoyance. It must have been extremely painful for him to endure. He knew too much. That was his burden. It must have been torture.
I am interested now and preoccupied with the Moses complex. You know the story of Moses in the Old Testament? He led the people to the promised land but did not enter the promised land himself. He stayed behind while Joshua led the people into the promised land. It is more complicated than that, but I am watching so many great people, great leaders, who lead miserable personal lives. I call this the Moses complex. They lead people to the promised land but are not allowed into it themselves. Jung was the first one I encountered who suffered from this.
But I am not doing that. I am doing better for some reason. Partly because I ceased doing practically everything in the outer world so that I store all my energy for the inner world. I count myself a happy person.
But doesn’t the inner world demand you to do things in the outer world?
Well, sometimes people call me to do interviews, as you did. And I do one conference a month. And I have done my books. That is enough.
So, you became an analyst because Jung told you to, is that correct?
Yes. And the strange thing is that all of this is not an adequate reason for the Jungian society to call me a Jungian analyst, they don’t recognize me because I did not go through their school, through their program. And yet I was analyzed by six different analysts each teaching me about a different facet of myself.
I had a wonderful time in 1954. I took four months and went to London to study with Dr. Toni Sussman, who was a student of Jung’s and authorized by Jung to train analysts. I had four months with her, an hour every day. I had a superb training with her. She was a wonderful person. She was then just about my present age which is awesome for me to think of because I was in my early 30’s. She was 4’11” tall; her father was a Hasidic Spanish Jew, her mother a Swedish gentile and she was an ardent, almost belligerent Roman Catholic. We got on tremendously well. A wonderful teaching, training, master/student relationship. Some of my best training happened there.
So, all this time you were training to be an analyst, but outside of an official program of one of the institutes? And that is why you are not recognized?
Jung told me to get out of the institute in Zürich. He said, “This is not the way to train analysts.” The old way of master and student is the correct way. The institute in Zürich has just split into two warring factions. The Jungian movement is doing exactly what Christianity did, except faster. Very painful.
Loneliness has been the worst suffering of my life. Early in my life, I wanted to belong somewhere. I wanted to be a junior member of some community somewhere. They wouldn’t let me. But that was correct. I know it to be correct.
Why? What would that have taken away from you?
I would have been a collective creature then. I would have been a tribal member, so to speak, which is what I wanted for so long. Any youth hungers for that. It wouldn’t have been correct. Jung knew that and when he gave me his instructions he told me “Don’t you ever join anything.” Of course, I went out and joined anything I could get my hands on because I was so lonely, but none of them ever worked.
Loneliness is a big problem for a lot of people. What could you say to people suffering from loneliness?
Sometimes one must have courage enough and intelligence enough to rise out of one’s loneliness and do something about it. Go and marry, go ahead and have your family. Establish your profession, get a circle of friends, buy a house. Settle yourself. Or, for somebody else, as Jung advised me, “Look, forget about all of that. You are going to sit in your solitude.” It depends on who you are.
Most people do not look at loneliness as a good thing. What good is there in loneliness?
It is awful. It is the worst kind of torture. When Dante was describing the ten layers of hell, the bottom one, the worst one is frozen. This is the place of loneliness. It is frozen. It is immobile, dead, nothing moves. That is the worst torture of all. Some of the other layers are full of flames, and that’s better.
Loneliness is a pathology and a destructive experience. Aloneness, on the other hand, is close to enlightenment. Very gradually my loneliness transforms into aloneness.
I read a statement of one of the medieval mystics to that effect. He wrote, “the only cure for loneliness is aloneness.” I knew I was hearing the right medicine. At first, someone may hear this and think, “That’s true,” but he cannot do it. That’s a chore for a lifetime. There is a candid Buddhist saying: “All suffering is a too close proximity of God which one cannot stand.” This applies to loneliness also.
For Carl Jung individuation was a central concept. What is individuation and why is it so important?
Individuation is the meaning of life. It is what one is born on the face of the earth to do. In the western world, there is a word which touches this: vocation, or that which one is called to do. I like the poetic image of being called. Socrates thought he had a daemon, not a demon but a daemon, sitting on his left shoulder, who advised him, or reprimanded him. That was in a way the calling of Socrates.
One is tall or short, blue eyed or brown eyed, introverted or extraverted; all of one's being at birth is the equipment for accomplishing what one is on the face of the earth to do. One is a doctor, or a poet, or a healer, or an artist. One is destined to have children or destined to be solitary. All of these things are inborn. There is a Hindu term for this called dharma. One arrives on the earth with one's dharma, that which one is ordained to do or ordained to be.
And Jung's name for this is individuation. He would be the very first to say that he is only talking about a very old concept. In fact, he said he prepared nothing new in his life. He was talking about things that had been the heritage of humankind since the earliest times. He was only presenting it afresh. And it is important; there is nothing more important. If individuation is that which one is set on the face of the earth to accomplish, then to find one's dharma or vocation or individuation is the one criteria of success on the face of the earth.
Can countries or cultures or nations individuate? What is their role in the individuation process?
Yes, you caught me in my extreme introversion. I talk about these things in their smallest unit, the individual. Of course, nations and cultures have this too, and they too have to find their dharma. This all implies that there is an intelligence or - I shy away from the word god, but there is no real alternative for it - that is running all of these things. Italians were made to be Italians, the Swedes to be Swedes and you are you. That is the miracle of this afternoon, you are you.
When I met Jung, he told me to be true to myself, and true to my type. And that is what I wish for you. If you go against your typological makeup, you go against your grain, and you will get splinters. Go with it, and your life will have ease, flow, and purpose.
In your books, you use old stories or myths like the myth of Parsifal and the myth of Tristan and Isolde. Why do you use myths? What is a myth?
Myths are the language of the unconscious in a collective form. And dreams are the language of the unconscious in a personal form. It is how the unconscious communicates with us, and it uses symbolic language, not literal language. So mythology is the dream of a culture. And if one can understand the dream of a culture one can understand the workings of the nature of god in that culture. Myths and dreams both are the speech of god.
The myths you use are hundreds of years old. Why is it that myths still have meaning after hundreds or thousands of years?
The genetic structure of the human body of 2000 years ago would be highly relevant right now. It doesn't change. The form of it changes. Some of the old myths are particularly direct, simple, and easily assimilable for that reason. There are modern myths too. The difficulty with a contemporary myth is that we are so close to it that it is hard to get a perspective on it.
The mythology of the 12th century is particularly interesting to me because so many of the things we are enjoying and struggling with now were being formulated at a mythological level then. If we can understand the two or three great myths that erupted in western Europe in the 12th century, we can get a very good diagram of who we are now, of what we're struggling with, and the tools we have and the dangers that we face. Every man struggles with the myth of Tristan and Isolde.
But the fact that we struggle with it means that we have not finished it, that it is an issue we are still trying to deal with?
That’s right. Tristan and Isolde is about male/female relationships. Parsifal is about the young masculine hero. Tristan and Isolde is the one unfinished myth in Western mythology. And that makes me very pessimistic. Even in the myth Tristan and Isolde, I found no answer to their situation or dilemma except death. It is the hardest of all myths to assimilate now. Parsifal, his journeys, his struggles and his knighthood, that all came out well. Parsifal found his grail castle. But Tristan and Isolde is still unfinished business.
Does that mean we are doing well on the level of the conquering hero, but not well in the area of relationships?
Yes. These are prototypes. These are diagrams of our psyche. And you can see in society that we build much better concords and airbuses than we build marriages. This is unfinished business in the western psyche.
Is this myth unfolding in a positive or negative way?
It is largely going negative. More than 50% of the American marriages end up in a divorce. Marriage as an institution is not workable at present. And I don’t know any alternative. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I am optimistic that this is an evolutionary stage that we have to go through and painfully we will come out with something better. And Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday I am not very optimistic.
What do you think Western man can do to take this myth further?
The myth itself is highly instructive and gives at least the first step of one’s enlightenment, but the western world absolutely refuses to look at this information. The first step is to differentiate between loving somebody and being in love with somebody. Fortunately, we have that distinction in our language.
The western world believes that marriage should be based on falling in love. And yet, that is an extremely poor basis for marriage. Falling in love is a religious experience. One has seen the goddess or the god in one’s companion. And one cannot marry a god or goddess. Nobody can. But the faculty of love, the faculty of appreciating somebody and bending one’s life to accord to that person is a human faculty. Marriage can be based on that. But “falling in love” which Hollywood keeps perpetuating is not a good basis and yet we persist in that idea.
Apparently, we all dream, although we are not always aware of it. Most people remember a dream sometimes. When people remember a dream, what should they do with it?
I believe that everybody dreams all the time, 24 hours a day. It is as if there is a cinema screen in the back of your mind on which a drama takes place all the time. The dream goes on all the time, day and night. But one catches the dream more easily at night because one is quiet enough. But it is possible to catch your dream in the daytime. That is what we call the art of active imagination. If you - so to speak - pull down the blinds in your consciousness and darken things a little bit, and be quiet enough, you will see the dream going on. You can also take part in the dream which is a very powerful thing to do. My religious life lives itself out almost entirely in that art. It is my idea of a religious experience: to take part in a dream.
You ask me what to do when you have a dream. For the most part, not always, dreams are subjective. They are a portrayal what goes on inside of you as if the master playwright wanted to give you some information exclusively about you. And so this master playwright made a play and staged it to portray to you what is going on in the multiple personalities that make up you. The good guy, the bad guy, the heroine, the dragons, the miracles and on and on. They are first of all the portrayal of the drama that is going on exclusively inside of yourself.
But everybody wants to jump outside with their dreams. It is tendency most people have. If, say, tonight you dream of me, the most intelligent way to go about the dream, and the first thing to try is to inquire about the Robert Johnson inside of you. Don’t try to put it on me. It is a high discipline to take responsibility for your own dream.
Now sometimes dreams are objective. You must know, though, that I do not think the inside and the outside are different. In fact, I think we are in error to divide inside and outside, but we do. I do not think inside and outside are different, but our consciousness is based on that assumption. So it is best to start inside with your dream.
You say inside and outside are not different?
I have good reason to think that they are not different.
But what do you mean when you say they are not different? The outside you can touch, it is tangible. The inside I cannot touch.
Tonight, I will touch you in your dream. I have an analogy which does not mean much to a lot of people, though it thrills me. Suppose someone was beating a gong sitting out there. And my eyes would register the motion. I would say he raises his hand and the mallet touches the drumhead, and it bounces off. That is what my eyes say. Now my ears say something quite different. I hear this sound. If these two events were separate, I would be utterly naive about the experience, and I would say: "You sense this, but I sense that." And it would not dawn on me that I am witnessing the same event through different faculties.
To carry that analogy on, I think for me to watch you this afternoon with my conscious faculties and perhaps to dream about you tonight are two ways to report the same event. They are not different. But they seem different and disconnected. But that is a mistake.
Short of enlightenment one does not feel that way, one does not function that way, one does not experience the inside and the outside as the same. So therefore, with a dream, it is best to start with taking it inwardly.
What are the practical steps you must go through in dream work?
Well, for this you have to read my book “Inner Work.” There are four stages. First, you identify the elements of the dream and write down your associations with them. What does each element mean to you personally? Perhaps you dream of a friend, what is that friend like?
Next, find the dynamics of these elements in your daily life. What concrete attitudes, events, moods, emotions, etc. are these elements symbols of? If you dream of an angry person, where are you angry? The third step is the interpretation, the message of the dream. It is important to remember that every detail has a message and matters. Needless to say, this is a lot of work, hence the title “Inner Work.”
Could you say something about your first series of books He, She and We. You did not write them until later in your life. Why?
The book "He" probably is one of the strangest books in publishing history that I know of. I did four lectures for a priest friend of mine in St. Paul Church in San Diego (John A. Sanford, JvdS). And unbeknownst to me he recorded the four lectures and got the church secretary to transcribe them, tidy them up, send them to a little publisher. They accepted and then he told me what he had done. So, I never wrote the book.
All my books come from lectures. I have the kind of mentality - characteristic of introverted feeling people - that unless I have another pair of eyes to look at, my intelligence doesn’t function. I can’t think. So it is when I am in relatedness that I can think. You are drawing the best out of me today because you are a human being and we have a good report, so my intelligence rises. But I wasn’t ready to write these books earlier. I am very much dominated by the archetype of the puer aeternus, I am the kind of person that develops slowly.
What do you know about Holland?
I am a great lover of Vermeer. I have a copy of The Music Lesson. It pictures the very ideal of serenity and beauty and dignity. I think the most important thing that happened to me in the last ten years or so and elicited in my book Owning Your Own Shadow is a concept that as humans we have two duties or faculties.
One is the religious faculty which is to pull everything together, to pull together the dark and the light. And there is the cultural faculty which is to take things apart and keep the good. And Vermeer makes such a beautiful cultural statement. Because everything is in order, things are so beautiful, so clean, so precise. The light is clear. It is the very epitome of order. And I love that.
The torture of mankind, and it grows worse as man gains greater capacity of differentiation, is that the laws pertaining to these two faculties are diametrically opposed to each other. This is the suffering of mankind. Jung said that this is the crucifixion we all must suffer from.
Almost any pair of opposites which you might bring up is included in this. It is simply the crucifixion of any sensible man that he has to be in service of both of these faculties.
Mostly one serves the cultural faculty early in life. You are busy with your marriage and your education and your profession, gaining enough money, finding your place. These are all cultural values. You are struggling for the good. The latter half of one’s life is a struggle to put these all back together again. To find some coherent meaning for these things.
The best way to get through one’s crucifixion is to take it straight. If you evade it, then you can get into symptoms of depressions and anxieties.
How are you doing in this respect?
The early part of my life did not go very well because I had such a profound religious experience early in my life. It nearly knocked the cultural capacity out of me. Nobody could convince me that the cultural was important. It was as if I had been blinded by a vision of something else. But the second half of my life has been better than I ever could have imagined or hoped it could be.
My meetings with Robert changed my life. He advised and inspired me to make Jungian typology my life's work. He was very knowledgeable in the subject himself and taught me the most important concepts.
We corresponded for a number of years. His letters always had a four leaf clover attached to the bottom, as if to wish me luck and remind me of the fourfold structure of the psyche.
Later I learned that he suffered from dementia praecox and lived more or less shut off from the outer world.
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I recently published a podcast with this interview (read out loud by me). You can listen to it below.
Encinitas, CA, March 29, 1995, Robert Johnson and John van der Steur.