In every story I tell comes a point where I can see no further. I hate that point. It is why they call storytellers blind. It is a taunt.
— Anne Carson, “Short Talk on Homo Sapiens”
Carl Jung’s paper on synchronicity functions as a kind of astrological experiment; an attempt to bridge his now seemingly disparate interests in Einsteinian physics and parapsychology; an attempt to give some scientific grounding to “so-called occult phenomena.” He himself believed he had had a vision that foretold the advent of the First World War — a vision of “a terrible flood that covered all the northern and low-lying lands between the North Sea and the Alps.” For years, even decades, Jung was reticent to put his theory into words, but he eventually did so, publishing it in 1952. He was not unaware, however, that such a book would “make uncommon demands on the open-mindedness and goodwill of the reader.” But in his work as a psychoanalyst, as well as in his own life, Jung felt he had experienced too many instances of an “acausal connecting principle” to let it go wholly uninvestigated.
What struck Jung was the scientific formulation of Einstein’s theory of relativity, which made it understood that the natural laws of physics are only “statistical truths, which means they are completely valid only when we are dealing with macrophysical quantities.” At the level of the microphysical, however — what we might now call the quantum level of physics — or even at scales so large that they are still difficult for us to quantify — “prediction becomes uncertain, if not impossible.”
This has implications for our understanding of cause and effect, where certitude is ungrounded, rendered statistical and relative. Non-causal relations are nonetheless hard for us to imagine, slipping into mystical and paranormal territory, but “that does not mean that such events do not exist”, Jung argues. “Their existence — or at least their possibility — follows logically from the promise of statistical truth.”
Here Jung enters “the world of chance, where a chance event seems causally unconnected from the coinciding fact.” Thinking rationally, empirically, we can argue that such an event “is only called ‘chance’ or ‘coincidence’ because its causality has not yet been discovered yet.” But this is hardly a conclusion to rest upon — instead, it only further illuminates the limits of what we currently know or can prove.
It is this sense of illumination we might call, as Jung does, “a case of meaningful coincidence, i.e., an acausal connection.” The coincidences themselves might be explained away by a fluke of probability, but what fascinates Jung is the way that such a “run of events” might make “a considerable impression on me”, allowing them to possess “a certain numinous quality.”
Jung’s analysis quickly descends into an overview of various parapsychological and psychical research experiments — experiments with which we will all be ambiently familiar from popular culture: subjects guessing symbols on a series of cards unseen, for instance. He notes how many experiments of this kind produced results that “were distinctly above probability”, meaning that guesses were accurate more frequently than an prediction based on statistical probability would suggest. Though nothing concrete is proven by such experiments, to Jung’s mind at least, their indeterminate findings make these occult phenomena worthy of further investigation. Such meaningful coincidences, he says, are interesting because they “cannot be a question of cause and effect, but of a falling together in time, a kind of simultaneity.”
What remains interesting in Jung’s analysis, no matter how far it might slide into a study of paranormal activity, is his belief that, following Einstein, the space and time of the psyche, of the unconscious, are no less “elastic” and relative than space and time as they are perceived in our phenomenal world. He continues:
In themselves, space and time consist of nothing. They are hypostatized concepts born of the discriminating activity of the conscious mind, and they form the indispensable co-ordinates for describing the behaviour of bodies in motion. They are, therefore, essentially psychic in origin, which is probably the reason that impelled Kant to regard them as a priori categories. But if space and time are only apparently properties of bodies in motion and are created by the intellectual needs of the observer, then their relativization by psychic conditions is no longer a matter for astonishment but is brought within the bounds of possibility. This possibility presents itself when the psyche observes, not external bodies, but itself.
In my own experiences, the Jungian idea of synchronicity hardly seems wholly pseudoscientific. I first came across it whilst reading Nancy Newton Verrier’s The Primal Wound, her self-help book (of sorts) for helping the reader understand the adopted child. In reflecting on Jung’s concept, I remembered, for instance, how my biological mother and I both shared an escapist fantasy of packing up our bags and moving out to the American Midwest to become storm-chasers. As a teenager, her favourite pastime was ice skating and she played for a local women’s ice hockey team; before puberty trapped me in an ungainly and ungraceful rugby player’s physique, my favourite hobby was figure skating and going to roller discos. We found the synchronicity of these fantasies and passions between us both unsettling and amusing in their seemingly impossible specificity.
These coincidences felt like an uneasy ground upon which to build a new mythology. But how to tell these stories to others without losing faith or without provoking ridicule? How to tell these stories without slipping into fantasy and spirituality? How to rationalise an experience that feels, at its core, so irrational and mystical? At the same time, how to accept that these synchronicities are nothing more than coincidences? Or mundane experiences given undue weight by later reflection? To read into these stories in passing is no more rational than reading the stars, but the meaning gathered nonetheless is deeply affecting.
Still, I find ways to explain these coincidences away, as if to protect myself from falling too deeply into this mystical connection. In Hull, for instance, ice skating is hardly an uncommon pastime, with the city boasting the only Olympic-sized ice rink in the region. The city also has a long history of success in ice hockey, with the Humberside Seahawks becoming national champions in 1988 — an incredible achievement considering this was the very same year the team was founded. This success greatly popularised the sport locally, in a city better known for its rugby teams, during my mother’s adolescence and during mine. At the same time, my fascination with tornadoes no doubt comes from a childhood spent watching the 1996 film Twister over and over again — a film that was pop-culturally significant for many. But there is also something symbolic in this fascination, coming from a sense of awe at the destruction and confusion brought to communities under certain atmospheric conditions. I feel like I can identify with tornadoes, keen to study a thing of mystery and beauty that can nonetheless leave so much devastation in its wake. I remain certain that any psychoanalyst would have a field day pondering the shared significance of these dreams of ours.
But perhaps all of this can all be explained away by our cultural proximity, or simply growing up in similar social conditions? (There is only fifteen years between us, after all; barely a generation.) I would likely not think much of these coincidences were they shared with a total stranger, but they mean something to me nonetheless. They help populate a fiction, a mythology of life, and there is a great deal of joy to be experienced in telling some of these stories anyway, even if their veracity or significance is overplayed. They constitute a further mythologisation of a life lived in uncertainty and discontinuity. Sometimes such unavowable experiences can only be expressed through mysticism and poetry.
Though it is hard not to hold Jung’s thought before oneself with a healthy scepticism, the traumatised mind knows all too well how meaningful coincidence can dismantle its own functioning. Jung’s theory of synchronicity, no matter how forcefully he may attempt to back it up with science, is surely mad. But madness is the perfect domain in which to make use of it, where connections between events are made unconsciously all the time, and where “numinous effects”, as Jung says, often “express themselves as affects.” Indeed, what is trauma, as a kind of psychic wounding, if not a free-floating and acausal affect, wherein past events are echoed inexplicably in present ones, not necessarily connected through space and time as it normally appears to us, but through the warped space-time of the damaged unconscious. A post-traumatic experience, in this respect, may not even refer to an event that is consciously remembered but simply emits itself from a tear in the fabric of the unconscious mind. Indeed, trauma is a wormhole, a shortcut between events that collapses thought under its density.
I try to think this through my recent unwellness, through which excessive feelings were brought forth by events that had no immediate impact on my life; or the subsequent detachment and dissociation, through which the mind, in an apparent attempt to protect itself from itself, denies the emergence of any affect whatsoever, allowing only a numbness that separates the unconscious from the lived experiences of a more conscious mind, transforming life into the shadow of a bad dream.
What is left to affirm, through such difficulty, is our own will. The will to overcome, perhaps, but also the will to chance; the will to face life in all of its possibility, for good or ill.
In On Nietzsche, Bataille explains how the mad philosopher “was horrified by the idea of subordinating his thought to a cause.” The sense (and tense) given here is one of present and future — a nod to the idea later quasi-actualized by Nietzsche’s sister, attaching his philosophy to Nazism like cart to a horse. But we also find in Nietzsche an expressed affirmation of indeterminism, reaching far into the past as well.
“Did my ‘a priori‘ want this of me?” Nietzsche exclaims in the preface to On the Genealogy of Morality. His thought often considers how it is we have come to think and reason thus. He later asks, however, time and again, how we might still come to think otherwise, through our own sheer force of will.
But the will is a complex thing. It is not so easily contained by how we might otherwise imagine it: a linear direction of thought, thrust ahead of us like a sword; the sovereignty of thought and action combined into some unitary entity. On the contrary, at the level of what we might call the microphysical, will is multiplicitous, schizophrenic, polyvocal, making connections wherever it pleases.
Deleuze makes reference to this explicitly in his book Nietzsche and Philosophy. He writes that the “being of force” — any force — “is plural.” It is never a case of a singular force acting upon some indifferent object. (Jung’s interest in the relation between contemporary physics and the unconscious mind returns here.) “Every force is thus essentially related to another force.” It is Newton’s first law of motion: there is no inertial observer within the interplay of forces. As Deleuze continues, there is always a “hierarchy, that is to say the relation of a dominant to a dominated force, of an obeyed to an obeying will.” He adds: “The sense of something is its relation to the force which takes possession of it, the value of something is the hierarchy of forces which are expressed in it as a complex phenomenon.”
“Sense” might be understood here as the “truth” of something, or rather another kind of “essence”, which is not so much intrinsic to force but how a force is relatively understood. For something to “make sense” to us, then, we must first recognise certain familiar signs that are perceptible to us within it. Signs, it must be said, can be objective or subjective. We must all learn the signs that mark our roads if we are to drive, for instance, attuning ourselves to a common sense, but we can — and, indeed, do, whether we like it or not — also develop ways of being that are wholly our own, formed by the chance repetition of other signs that accost us.
When Jung writes of meaningful coincidences, he writes of signs that he alone (perhaps) has attached a certain significance to. He writes of repeatedly coming across fish, for example, in actuality and symbolically, as he undertakes a study of the symbolism of fish throughout history. We can explain this away by saying that he is simply more sensitive to the appearance of the fish sign in his studiousness, but he is also only studying fish because their symbology seems oddly ubiquitous to him, in various cultures and their histories. He finds himself not in a relation of cause and effect, but a symbolic feedback loop, where experience gives rise to metaphor and metaphor, in turn, comes to shape experience. It is not, then, so simply a case of cause and effect but, as Jung himself writes, of things “falling together in time.”
It is perhaps in this same sense that we can understand Deleuze’s comment, when writing on Marcel Proust, that signs “are the object of a temporal apprenticeship, not of an abstract knowledge.” Signs are themselves multiplicitous, resistant to a compartmentalisation into a general system of knowledge. He writes:
From one moment to the next, [signs] evolve, crystallize, or give way to other signs. Thus the apprentice’s task is to understand why someone is ‘received’ in a certain world, why someone ceases to be so, what signs do the worlds obey, which signs are legislators, and which high priests.
Jung seems to understand this intuitively, but still he attempts to fold the non-sense of synchronicity into a general theory of the collective unconscious. But the unconscious, whether collectively or individually understood, surely always remains multiplicitous. Jung’s sense of the “collective” becomes paradoxically unitary, as he places “meaningful coincidences” — “to be distinguished from meaningless chance groupings” — on top of what he calls “an archetypical foundation.” In his assessment of an “acausal connecting principle”, he nonetheless subordinates his thought, and that of his patients, to a set of primitive and unconscious causes — acausal causes that are acausal if only because they have been lost to time.
In his attempt to account for time lost, Jung defers to a natural — we might even say genealogical — set of relations lost to the conscious mind. But as Deleuze writes, “when we posit the unity, the identity, of the will we must necessarily repudiate the will itself.” The will’s multiplicity is lost. The acausal is restricted to causes forgotten, in the past, rather than a future unknown towards which any will must surely strive, even in its roundabout way. Perhaps this is inevitable, even a logical conclusion to draw — one arrived at despite all of Jung’s interest in the seemingly illogical and paranormal — but it also seems to undo Jung’s own interest in the relativity and unknowability of unconscious time.
Here, the usefulness of Deleuze and Guattari’s more geological sense of the unconscious in A Thousand Plateaus becomes far more explicitly useful. “We are never signifier or signified. We are stratified.”
With the stratification of the unconscious in mind, we can turn back to Deleuze’s study of Proust, which begins with the question: “What constitutes the unity of In Search of Lost Time?”
We know, at least, what does not. It is not recollection, memory, even involuntary memory… the Search is not simply an effort of recall, an exploration of memory… Lost Time is not simply time past; it is also time wasted, time lost track of. Consequently, memory intervenes as a means of Search, of investigation, but not the most profound means; and time past intervenes as a structure of time, but not the most profound structure.
There is no unity, then, between the Search and the time that is lost. Rather, there is only a multitude of orientations facing off against each other; a multitude of dimensions interlaced. It is in this way, as Deleuze writes at the start of Logic of Sense, that the central characteristic of the “simultaneity of becoming” — we might even say its synchronicity — “is to elude the present.” In this way, “becoming does not tolerate the separation or the distinction of before and after, or of past and future.” This is nowhere more apparent than in Proust, whose Lost Time may be behind him, but whose Search is nonetheless an activity oriented towards the future. To search for lost time is a paradox, an ouroboros, in plain sight, encapsulating the synchronous dimensions of becoming.
It is in this sense that “memory intervenes only as the means of an apprenticeship that transcends recollection both by its goals and by its principles.” It is less a process of recollection than it is an active and always unfolding reflection, of two dimensions of becoming — the first: “that of limited and measured things, of fixed qualities, permanent or temporary which always presuppose pauses and rests, the fixing of present, and the assignation of subjects”; the second: “a pure becoming without measure, a veritable becoming-mad, which never rests” — seeing themselves in the other. This tandem movement is complex, paradoxical, unconscious, but it is nonetheless legible, with the right training.
This is to say, as Deleuze does of Nietzsche,
that genealogy does not appear on the first night and that we risk serious misunderstanding if we look for a child’s father at the birth. The difference in the origin does not appear at the origin — except perhaps to a particularly practised eye, the eye which sees from afar, the eye of the far-sighted, the eye of the genealogist.
The eye, that is to say, of the semiotic apprentice of time; the eye that conducts the Search for Lost Time.
When it comes to chance events – I think that coincidences happen all the time. I don’t believe that they are directed, per se – but more that I can choose to lift up a particular throw of the die as a synchronity, in a mode of amor fati.
Also, Jungian theories of synchronity is nowhere based on Einstein – relativity isn’t statistical in a real sense. He was, however, working with the physicist Pauli, whose dreams he was interested in, and who mainly worked in quantum physics.
“Late in his life, Jung traced his idea of synchronicity to the influence of Albert Einstein, who held a professorship in Zurish in 1909-10 and again in 1912-13. Jung wrote, ‘Professor Einstein was my guest on several occasions at dinner…. These were very early days when Einstein was developing his first theory of relativity, [and] it was he who first started me off thinking about a possible relativity of time as well as space, and their psychic conditionality. More than thirty years later, this stimulus led to my relation with the physicist Professor W. Pauli and to my thesis on psychic synchronicity.'”