Originally published in Mental Contagion
Coniunctionis is Latin meaning unification or joining together. This term is taken from Carl Gustav Jung's last theoretical work, Mysterium Coniunctionis (1955-1956). Jung's later work focused on alchemy as a metaphorical representation of the process of the transformation of substances. Alchemy has generally been considered to be a pre-scientific attempt to manipulate substances, such as transforming lead into gold. From the perspective of modern science, alchemy is considered to be of only historical interest as a primitive and magical (that is irrational, unscientific) precursor of contemporary chemistry. Contrary to this view, Jung found in alchemy a strain of thought which sought not only to understand the transformation of substances, such as lead into gold, but also to transform the more subtle substances (or energies) such as the psyche. Thus, for Jung, alchemy was a pre-psychological system and theory of the process of psychic change and growth, which he termed, "individuation." Prior to examining this question of why this column will be titled Coniunctionis, a highly condensed survey of alchemical and Jungian theory will be required.
The "coniunctio" is the union of opposites in the alchemical work, combining high and low, good and evil, matter and spirit, and base and precious in such a way that the polarized conflict of opposites was united in a third point of synthesis. This synthesis neither negates nor reduces the opposites, but incorporates both in a third term. The alchemists believed that this synthesis resulted in the "lapis philosophorum," or philosopher's stone which transcended and combined those tensions inherent in physical existence. The stone had both tremendous healing powers as well as powers of destruction. Jung discerned that some alchemists realized that the true goal of the work, or "opus," was not simply the creation of gold, but rather the spiritual and moral transformation of the self.
Jung considered this process of transformation, or "individuation" as consisting of a gradual and continuous (that is, it never reaches completion) interchange between the unconscious and consciousness. Another term he used was the "self," which is the goal that individuation approaches asymptotically. The "self" consists of the conscious, experiencing ego, the personal unconscious (historical memories of an individual nature), as well as the "collective unconscious" (which is comprised of those universal elements and conflicts of humanity). The collective unconscious communicates with the personal unconscious and the conscious ego indirectly through dreams, fantasies, and charged interpersonal relationships. This communication is mediated by what he called "archetypes," which are images or ideas which constellate various possibilities of experience and relationship. These archetypes tend to have both "positive" and "negative" elements as the unconscious is, in a very real sense, beyond human conceptions of good and evil.
So, let us return to our question, "why Coniunctionis?" I have recently returned to a study of Jung in an attempt to understand certain questions and difficulties in the process of life. Two primary threads have led me back to Jung, both of which involve change and transformation. The first is an ongoing examination of punk and post-punk rock in which expressions of anger, violence, and despair (which are often considered "negative" or "destructive") can lead to a transformation in which one goes deeper and deeper into an emotional state and then somehow ends up on the other side, or perhaps beyond it, or perhaps it is seen in some larger context. A related question to this is "can a performer go to these extremes and the audience somehow go along vicariously?" And, further, "can the audience experience a transformation even if the performer succumbs to the dangers involved in the exploration of extreme states?" I will return to these questions in later editions of this column.
The second thread that has led me back to Jung is that of personal transformation of the individual, particularly when that transformation leads one through a period of darkness and despair. Periods of depression, dissatisfaction, physical or mental illness were viewed by Jung as often announcing a process of change and were, perhaps even necessary for the process of individuation. Here again, Jung found an alchemical parallel with the process of psychological transformation. The alchemists had a stage of the work called the "nigredo," or stage of darkness or death, which had to be passed through in order for further transformation to occur. This is similar to the concept that change requires a disruption of a past state of equilibrium and that old patterns of thinking must be discarded (the birth of the new requires the death of the old).
Common to both of the above threads is the issue of the "negative," illness, despair, rage, pessimism, nihilism, and how these states can be transformed, not simply into the opposite "positive" perspective of optimism, happiness, and good health, but rather into something else, a third perspective. Jung's theory has a place for such negatives, not simply as pathologies to move beyond, but as integral parts of growth and transformation (that is, life).
In choosing the name Coniunctionis for this column, I am reminding myself not to fall into my usual dichotomous strategy for solving problems. The topic matter will be cultural, artistic, and psychological issues, with a particular attention to the interplay between darkness and light. While I have focused a great deal on Jungian theory thus far, I hope this will not be a "Jungian" column. I would also like to include other thinkers and writers, such as Nietzsche. I will start each column with a question and then attempt to allow the various answers to dialogue and interrelate in a synthetic manner. I will let Hölderlin have the last words, "Where danger is, there is salvation also."