Carl Jung’s Tower and the Unity Behind Duality

Love and war and the sex lives of swans

The Bollingen Tower. Davide Mauro, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

I passed the tower every day

On my way to college, the lurching bus would wind its way out of the city along narrow lanes lined by thick hedges. The tower rose above the fields, a striking building in the midst of otherwise forgettable scenery.

I hated everything back then. I carried hatred around my heart like a stone, snarling at everything I saw. But I liked the tower. It was somebody’s house, and I used to imagine what it would be like to live in such a magnificent structure. To be able to look at the world from a distance, raised above the petty concerns and drudgery of a suburban existence. Distance makes everything beautiful. Even the crawling traffic and the steady rain.

But impressive houses weren’t for the likes of me. I knew that then. I trudged through a world that seemed set against me, knowing that the rewards our culture throws out sometimes to keep us toiling away in our allotted place were destined to be forever withheld.

I was against a world that was against me. Everyone was my enemy. I didn’t know then what I know perfectly well now:

That trees can’t grow straight without gravity to tell them what straight is. That without friction, nothing moves. That underneath the appearance of duality that keeps the world turning, there is a secret unity.

The tower on the way to college. Roblawson at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

A meeting of minds

The philosopher Alan Watts was a devotee and friend of the great psychiatrist CG Jung.

Watts went to visit Jung at his summer house on Lake Zurich, and they watched the swans performing their mating rituals. Famously, swans are monogamous. They mate for life if they can. But they don’t immediately seem to realize that’s what they’re doing. At first, when one swan approaches another, they start to fight. And then in the middle of that, they begin to make love.

For Watts, this was an expression of the unity that underlies duality. We agree to fight. We need to.

Back in the days of the Cold War when Watts was writing, the US and the USSR were the two mighty opposites that shaped the world. And the conflict between them kept the economies of both countries turning over. They needed one another. Like two punch-drunk boxes leaning on each other in the clinch. Without each, the other couldn’t exist in the form it was in.

And then, the Soviet Union collapsed. The West was forced to look for new enemies to keep the factories churning and the money piling up.

It found them everywhere. Communist China. Radical Islam. And slowly but surely, the enemy within. The fifth column. Now, we fear our neighbors when we used to fear strangers. Now we plot against ourselves and fight for scraps. To he that has more will be given, and we all rush to align ourselves with the crowd for fear of being left behind.

Whatever we have, we want so much more.

I’ve never been to Lake Zurich. And one lake resembles another only as far as one person does another. As alike as you are to me. Here, at my favorite Canadian lake, there are more geese than swans, and more eagles than both.

Already flowers are pushing their way through the soil. Already caught springing forward, leaping for the strengthening sun. And it’s mating season. In winter, giant birds sit in the top of the tallest trees. They breathe slow and move slower, conserving energy as they pluck dying salmon from the streams.

But now it’s spring, and it’s time for love.

Jung built himself a tower

Following a break from his mentor Sigmund Freud, Jung underwent a period of near-psychosis that sent him into isolation for years. Shortly after emerging from this crisis, he lost his mother. In his grief, he reverted to an activity that had made him happy as a child: playing with stones. Once as a young boy, Jung sat on a particular rock in his parents garden and wondered whether he was the boy sitting on the stone, or the stone holding up the boy.

But big boys need big toys. And so in 1923, Jung began construction of what became known as the Bollingen Tower. For the rest of his life, he would retreat to his tower, sometimes for months at the time, to live in the grand silence of nature and the physical expression of his intellectual career.

“I am an orphan, alone; nevertheless I am found everywhere. I am one, but opposed to myself. I am youth and old man at one and the same time. I have known neither father nor mother, because I have had to be fetched out of the deep like a fish, or fell like a white stone from heaven. In woods and mountains I roam, but I am hidden in the innermost soul of man. I am mortal for everyone, yet I am not touched by the cycle of aeons.” — inscription on stone at Bollingen Tower

Eagles start by fighting

Soaring and plunging in black streaks across the sinking sky, their talons outstretched toward each other. Love that looks like war. Love that begins as war, before the whirling birds understand what it is they’re really feeling.

That without the other, you wouldn’t exist. There would be no lake without a sky to be reflected in it. Without the water’s edge, the rocks don’t know where they are. Without the rocks, the water doesn’t know what it is.

All is fair in love and war, they say. But we both know that isn’t true. Even war has its rules. Even love. Even this Canadian lake, my favorite one, twice as big as the one in Switzerland, knows where it has to end.

But of course, the lake doesn’t really end. It just changes into something else. It becomes the sea. It becomes the rain. It becomes the trees it falls on and the rivers that wind through them, the fish that swim through its crystalline depths. The unity that underlies duality.

There are other towers

The one I used to see from the rain-jeweled windows of the bus that took me to and from school every day has receded into memory. It’s still there, but I haven’t seen it in twenty years. I’ll probably never see it again.

I had no way of knowing back then that the world would give me so much. That it was never my enemy. That I was part of it, not some creature separate and alone, but one more atom in the grand waltz of the universe.

I couldn’t see then what I’ve since learned from Watts and Jung and dozens of others. That no tower is tall enough to separate you from the universe. That there is no clear line between you and the universe. That you melt together with infinity with every breath you take.

Towers can be fortresses, or they can be prisons. They help you see a long way, but obscure what’s up close. Jung had his lake, and I have mine. But I don’t need a tower of my own. I’d rather stay close to the ground.

© Ryan Frawley 2021.

All proceeds from this article will be donated to Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontiers.

Novelist. Essayist. Former entomologist. Now a full-time writer exploring travel, art, philosophy, psychology, and science. www.ryanfrawley.com

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