Individuation and Religious Experience: A Jungian Approach to O'Connor's "Revelation"

By Rowley, Rebecca K. | The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Individuation and Religious Experience: A Jungian Approach to O'Connor's "Revelation"


Rowley, Rebecca K., The Southern Literary Journal


Much has been written about Flannery O'Connor and what motivated her creative process. Because scholars have access to the holdings of O'Connor's extensive library, it is possible to trace some of the intellectual influences upon her fiction. One of the thinkers whom O'Connor acknowledges in her book notations and letters is the psychiatrist C. G. Jung. On December 18, 1959, she wrote that the only way in which the psychology of Carl Jung could be used was "in helping the person face his own psychic realities" (Habit 362-63). Although O'Connor also asserts that Jung is potentially dangerous to organized religion (presumably because Jung advocated personal religion or spirituality rather than the traditional dogma of the Catholic church), she still acknowledges the importance of Jung's studies on the religious significance of dreams and explorations of the degenerate state of modern consciousness. O'Connor hesitates to claim much affinity with Jung, but an inspection of some of her short stories reveals that Jung may have influenced O'Connor more than she acknowledged. The Habit of Being and Flannery O'Connor's Library: Resources of Being, a collection of the marginalia in the books from O'Connor's library, reveal that she read Jung's Modern Man in Search of a Soul, The Undiscovered Self, and books on Jungian thought by Victor White and Josef Goldbrunner. Many concepts from these works are evident in much of O'Connor's work, but one of her short stories in particular, "Revelation," contains strong elements of Jungian theory. My intention in this paper is not to impose a reductivist psychological reading upon "Revelation" but rather, using a hermeneutical approach similar to Jung's interpretive method of amplification, to clarify the events in "Revelation" through recourse to some of Jung's major tenets.

In this enterprise, the long acknowledged difficulty of interpreting O'Connor's theology in "Revelation" complicates the arduous project of synthesizing Jung's diverse and often cryptic comments on religion. Because Jung's view of religion is inherently psychological, his position may appear incompatible with Christianity, especially with a staunch Catholicism such as O'Connor's. But if Jung's ideas are accepted in the same spirit in which they are purported, as empirical claims about the psychology of religious experience, his position that the claims of metaphysics are "beyond the reach of human perception" (Psychology and Western Religion 143) and that "epistemological criticism proves the impossibility of knowing God but the psyche comes forward with the assertion of the experience of God" (Works 8.328) becomes less troublesome for religion. Yet, as Antonio Moreno in Jung, Gods, and Modern Man points out, we must recognize that Jung's dismissal of metaphysics as a realm for scientific inquiry is in itself a philosophical position. Nevertheless, Jung does not propose a traditional religious or metaphysical stance. Jung explains religious experience as a psychic fact, the numinous experience of the archetype, or the manifestation of one's assimilation of the unconscious into consciousness. In "Revelation" Jung's theory of religious experience manifests itself in Mrs. Turpin's initiation to the individuation process.

Jung's interpretive strategy provides a useful literary model for clarifying the connection between religious experience and individuation. In an early essay entitled "The Theory of Psychoanalysis," Jung explains the methodological foundation for his process of interpreting dreams. As opposed to Freud's essentially semiotic approach, Jung espoused a hermeneutical theory of dream interpretation. In order to grasp the full significance of a dream, Jung advocates a consideration not only of the immediate, personal associations connected with an image but also study of the historical and mythological associations the image evokes. Jung claims that dreams arise not only from the personal unconscious but also from a deeper, transpersonal layer, which he termed the collective unconscious. …

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