Celtic Junction Arts Review

The Sage and Great Soul: Carl Jung and the Irish Writer Æ (George Russell)

By Mary McCormick and Patrick O’Donnell

Authors’ note: this is the second article in a series on Jung and the Irish Writer.  Access the first article on Jung and James Joyce here.

“More than anyone else… Æ’s life had a single objective, and that objective was not supremacy in a single craft but as complete a perfecting of the self as was possible in the circumstances which destiny had decreed,” stated Monk Gibbon in his selection of writings by Æ from his weekly journal, The Irish Statesman, which he collected in the anthology The Living Torch (1938).  The mystic, poet, artist, and economist Æ was, along with W.B. Yeats, the crucial catalyst and center of the Irish literary and cultural Renaissance that is usually dated from 1890-1940 by scholars such as Richard Fallis.

Self Portrait by George Russell, 1923. Courtesy of Lissadell House

Æ personified the Jungian concept of the Self – the wiser and more mature potentiality for spiritual realization within the human personality.  Jung observed that there is an organizing inner center from which our psychic growth is regulated and which is the inventor, organizer, and source of dream images.  He called this center the “Self,” and described it as the totality of the whole psyche, in order to distinguish it from the “ego,” which constitutes only a small part of the psyche.

Æ discovered his own process of cultivating the depths of his self through an early period of twelve years of study of mystical and spiritual writing (1885 to 1897) before he married his Theosophist colleague, Violet North.  He exemplifies Jung’s concepts, but he arrived at his own insights, wholly independent of Jung.

Æ was the Sage, or wise elder; W.B. Yeats was the Mage, or shaman. Æ embodied the discovery of the Self; he achieved Individuation, Jung’s concept that the Self creates a slow, imperceptible process of psychic growth, like a tree, in which a wider and more mature personality emerges.

Irish author Katharine Tynan (1859-1931)

Numerous authors testified to the nobility and greatness of Æ, making him the Irish author who embodied and exemplified the Self.  It is doubtful if anyone ever heard Æ say an arrogant or unfair thing.  As early as 1909, Clifford Bax wrote of Æ, “…the writing of Æ…causes me to think of him as one of those rare spirits who bring to men the realization of their own divinity, who make the spiritual life seem adventurous, attractive, and vivid…”  Katharine Tynan said, “I have known in my time some few undoubted geniuses…In none of these have I found the beauty of genius as I find it in George Russell.  His flame has always burnt upward clearly.”

Æ remained unspoiled by praise of this kind.  He said to his author admirers, “Why have you found no fault with me?  If you wish to create human beings you must discover their faults.”  This accusation so terrified the writer George Moore that he began to search for faults, but had to be content with Æ’s inability to distinguish between turbot and halibut, and his indifference to money.

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky

He was an Irish “mahatma” – a great soul like Gandhi, whom he almost met.  He practiced meditation, concentration, and focus of the will to decondition his ego and dark side (what Jung called the Shadow) through his study of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita.  However, the greatest influence on him was the Ukraine-born occultist and trickster guru, Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891) whom he met in London.  He studied her books closely and assiduously, particularly her magnum opus The Secret Doctrine (1888), which argued for reincarnation and spiritual evolution.

This deconditioning of the ego took a practical turn when Æ lived a life of service through his involvement with the Irish Cooperative Society of Sir Horace Plunkett which allowed him to travel across the entire country, encouraging farmers and small towns to set up agricultural cooperative societies, the aim of which was to give rural communities more economic power by pooling resources and removing middlemen.

Philosophical Tree by Carl Jung, 1920-21

In 1954, Jung wrote an extended study of the tree as image: “The Philosophical Tree,” (Collected Works Vol 13).  He noted there that: “If a mandala may be described as a symbol of the self  seen in cross-section, then the tree would represent a profile view of it: the self depicted as a process of growth..”

Before the age of six, Jung had been introduced to comparative religions.  His mother read to him from an illustrated book, and he never tired of studying the pictures of exotic Hindu gods.  Stifled by the oppressive atmosphere of his father’s parsonage, he had several disturbing and symbolic dreams while quite young.  Feeling alienated from his surroundings, he carved a little mannikin, made a nest for it in his pencil case, and hid it in the attic.

Carl Jung as a boy

In his youth, he saw himself as two selves, No.1 and No.2.  No. 1 was his imperfect schoolboy self, his human ego.  No. 2 was a grander self, his activated and perceptible unconscious, perceived through dreams and Nature.  As he entered university, he had a fateful dream in which he was walking through a stormy night, trying to keep a lantern from going out, while being followed by a gigantic and terrifying black figure.  He realized that the lantern was his ego-consciousness and symbol of his No. 1 self.  The black figure was the shadow, and his No. 2 self.  He realized that he had to stay in the real world and not identify with his No. 2 self, which could lead to delusion and thinking of himself as a mystic or prophet.  It was a crucial turning point, decisive for his entire life. 

Æ read Jung in the 1920s (probably 1923).  He wrote, “Continually I am excited by the theories of Jung and almost as often I feel myself dubious.”  He wondered whether Jung was too pessimistic about the enduring presence of the Shadow in the human psyche, and thought that some people had the strength to purify their nature.

The Ghost of a Flea by William Blake, painted from the memory of one of his visions

Caught up in his youth by the re-discovery of Gaelic myths, and by his study of Eastern religions, Æ, like Jung, loved to discover similarities between the sacred writ of different nations, believing that this similarity strengthened their validity instead of weakening it.  He thought that there should be some psychological study of the visionary images of William Blake.

Colonialism was a context for both men.  Æ found in Theosophy a spiritual wealth to overcome the disparaging categories of colonialism and its insistence that the colonized are inferior, primitive savages.  He rejected such a view, offering instead what Nicholas Allen terms a “doctrine of empowerment.”  Theosophy offered a theory of egalitarianism.  Jung’s own Swiss background was free of colonialism.  Son of a Lutheran minister, Jung was more inclined to be egalitarian.  Both men abhorred tribalism and violence.  In his editorials, Æ gently reproves his fellow countrymen for the strife and killings during the Civil War of the 1920’s.  Jung believed that the continual wars in Europe would not end until men became conscious of, and integrated the feminine archetype into the world of masculine Logos.

The Shadow of God by Carl Jung

On Sunday evenings in Dublin, Æ was at home to host a salon of fellow writers, artists, and thinkers, looking to encourage others’ creativity.  Similarly, Jung championed the idea of the Active Imagination to add creative work to his clients’ psychotherapeutic process.

Both Jung and Æ focused on transformation through creativity and artistic endeavor.  The first part of Jung’s work focused on understanding the structure of the psyche; the second part, his study of alchemy, focused on the transformation of the psyche.  Æ’s study of Theosophy was parallel to Jung’s deep dive into the structure of the psyche.  His later work as a cooperative worker, editor, and friend to poets and writers was to transform the collective psyche of Ireland by elevating its culture and confidence with its own mythological and cultural heritage.  Æ championed Ireland’s poets as the “soul of the nation.”

Writing in the newspaper he edited in the years after Ireland gained its independence, Æ stated, “It will be found that the basis of nationality eludes us unless there is agreement that the bond is psychic, that a nation is nothing but a collective imagination held with intensity, an identity of culture or consciousness among millions, which makes them act as a single entity in relation to other human groups.”

Samuel Beckett ca1920

In October 1935, Samuel Beckett attended one of Jung’s London lectures, accompanied by his psychiatrist, Wilfred Bion, and wrote to his friend Thomas McGreevy the next day that Jung seemed to him to be a kind of  “super Æ”  Beckett had been unsuccessful in trying to get some of his poems published by Æ’s newspaper, The Irish Statesman. Æ had passed away in Bournemouth earlier that year, in July 1935.

By Irish Statesman, Fair use, Link

What emerges from The Living Torch, the selections of Æ’s writings in The Irish Statesman, is a reflective intellect, full of common sense and wisdom, committed to the existence of an unseen world of the spirit, and remarkably perceptive in its artistic and literary criticism.  What also appears is a heart full of concern for his new nation, which he believed could rise to the heights of Civilization.

The remarkable parallels between the lives and deep thinking of these two contemporaries may be yet more evidence of the existence of a collective unconscious, another of Jung’s original concepts.  It is striking that every age gives rise to similar insights and theories.  Both Æ and Jung were brilliant, humble and compassionate toward their fellow humans, as they worked on the development of their Selves and making those Selves useful to everyone.