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A Jungian Approach to the Mystery

John Boe, Ph.D.


At night, before going to bed, Carl Jung liked to read mystery stories. The great psychologist explained this habit rather simply: The stories were absorbing enough to keep him from thinking too deeply and losing sleep, yet not so fascinating that he was unable to turn them aside after a few pages. And like so many of us, he loved to read about other people's problems. He was especially fond of Georges Simenon's mysteries ("C.G. Jung's Library," by M.L. von Franz in Spring 1970).

By considering Simenon we can gain a deeper understanding of Jung and the mystery. Simenon's first detective novel was Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett. It is here that he first defined his central character, Inspector Maigret. Maigret triumphs not through intellect or courage, but through a psychological understanding of the criminal, built out of sympathetic feeling and, above all, intuition. Simenon emphasizes the "kind of intimacy" that always grows up between detective and criminal, who for weeks and months concentrate almost entirely upon each other. Maigret finally solves this mystery (which involves a schizophrenic twin) by studying old photographs and finding out childhood secrets. He solves the case by looking for the human factor that shows through the criminal. In this case Maigret reminds us of a psychoanalyst searching for the childhood secrets of a schizophrenic. And when Maigret finds the key to the mystery, he doesn't bring the criminal before the law but allows him the dignity of suicide.

In Maigret's First Case, Maigret reveals his own childhood secret: he used to imagine a sort of combination doctor and priest who, "because he was able to live the lives of every sort of man, to put himself inside everybody's mind," is able to be a sort of "repairer of destinies." Then, later in life, Maigret is forced to abandon his medical studies and finds himself, almost by accident, becoming a policeman.

Jung (like a detective or novelist) was himself a sort of combination doctor and priest, working with others' destinies, using his capacity to put himself inside another's mind more than his superior intelligence. Thus, between patient and doctor as between detective and criminal, there can occur a "participation mystique," an unconscious bond. This involves what Jung calls relativization of the ego: If the ego can abandon its claim to absolute power, the psyche can open up to the unconscious within and the unconscious without (in the form of other people's psyches). In Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets, Maigret can address the assembled suspects and not need to finish his sentences. They know what he means even when he doesn't speak: "It was as if they could hear what he was thinking." Insofar as Maigret and Jung rely upon their unconscious, upon their intuition, they act without specific theory or technique. Jung denied being a Jungian, and Maigret is almost embarrassed when younger policemen want to observe his "methods."

Like a detached analyst, Inspector Maigret doesn't judge, he only unveils. Once the detective has unmasked the guilty party, he has decidedly little interest in punishing him; this is also the case in many of the books of Dorothy L. Sayers (Freud's favorite mystery writer). While sometimes the guilty party is not formally punished, it often seems that the murderer brings punishment upon himself. In one case Maigret allows the statute of limitations to run out on a group of men since it is plain that they have already been punished for their parts in a murder (and, just as important, they have children).

Jung was also acquainted with the psychological fact that murder can exert its own punishment. In his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he recounts an early psychiatric experience. A woman came to him for a consultation, to share an unbearable secret. She had killed her friend in order to marry the friend's husband. She got her man, but shortly thereafter he died and all of life soon turned sour for her. She was condemned to a lonely life; even dogs and horses seemed to sense her guilt. As Jung commented, the murderer had already sentenced herself, for one who commits such a crime destroys her own soul.

It is easy to understand why Jung was attracted to the psychological detective stories of Simenon, to the introverted, intuitive Inspector Maigret. But we should also consider the archetypal impulses behind the detective story, and a good place to begin is Greek mythology. Perhaps the most famous detective story involves the infant Hermes' theft of Apollo's cattle. At first, Apollo is mystified; Hermes has diguised the tracks so that it looks as if a giant led something into the pasture. Apollo first asks an eyewitness, an old man who seems to remember seeing a small child. He then uses his godly intuition: when an eagle flies by, he divines that the thief is a son of Zeus (since eagles are the birds associated with Zeus). According to some versions, he uses operatives to find where Hermes is hidden.

Apollo looks for clues, interviews eyewitnesses, uses his intuition and employs operatives. He is the archetypal detective. While Apollo as God of Divination and Prophecy does have a special relation to intuition, he is also the God of Law, with a special interest in murder. It was Apollo's province to exact blood for blood; it was his rule that a murderer must be purified (through punishment). Thus, instead of personal revenge (the central event of so many tragedies), the state (representing Apollo) avenges. And thus the detective, the impersonal avenger, is Apollo's agent.

If Apollo represents the detective, it is his traditional opposite, Dionysus, who represents the murderer. While Apollo inspires wisdom and was equated by Jung (in Psychological Types) with introverted intuition, Dionysus inspires madness and was equated (by Jung) with extroverted sensation. To Dionysus belong the ecstasies and excesses of drunkenness and passion. And as Inspector Maigret asserts in Maigret Stonewalled, at the bottom of the criminal mind one always finds "some devouring passion." Dionysus in his madness committed many murders. This behavior is perhaps explained by a childhood trauma: as a child Dionysus was murdered. (This is perhaps true of mortal murderers as well; they are metaphorically murdered in childhood.) The Titans tore the infant Dionysus to pieces, but Zeus (or Rhea) helped him to be reborn. According to Orphic myth, the Titans ate most of Dionysus before Zeus destroyed them with a thunderbolt. From their ashes rose humanity. Thus, in a central Dionysian mystery, the initiate tore a bull (a symbol of Dionysus) to pieces with his bare hands and ate of his flesh, reenacting (in this murder mystery) the murder and incorporation of the divinity. Dionysus is therefore the god who is murdered and the god who murders; he is the god of murderers and victims alike. We can thus understand how Dionysus was sometimes equated with Hades, Lord of the Dead.

But if the detective often uses Apollonian reason or intuition, he is also deeply involved in a Dionysian mystery. His full attention is focused upon murder and murderer. And while Inspector Maigret does withdraw into introverted spells of intuition, he usually accompanies them with the Dionysian aids of beer and wine. (Remember how many other detectives abuse alcohol and drugs.) The central event of the mystery plot is usually a mysterious (and often passionate) murder, but the plot itself is usually reasonable, fair and intricate. And the representative of that great and reasonable thing-the law-is often possessed by a spirit of the dead, the living image of the murdered. Thus Maigret often catches the criminal by getting to know the victim. In Inspector Maigret and the Dead Girl, he befuddles the murderer by telling him he would have swallowed his story if he hadn't known the dead girl. His totally pragmatic and reasonable subordinate believes the false story because "no training course teaches policemen how to put themselves in the place of a girl brought up in Nice by a half-crazy mother."

Insofar as the detective identifies with the evil murderer and his dead victim, he identifies Apollo with Dionysus. (That Apollo and Dionysus were one and the same god was a paradox of the later Orphic mysteries.) In Jungian terms we could talk about the ego assimilating the shadow side. Assimilation of the shadow results in a darkening and deepening of the whole personality; a proximity with evil can lead, paradoxically, to a moral improvement. The detective is conscious of the evil he partakes in; he doesn't gloat in his moral superiority. Carl Jung, like Inspector Maigret (and Philip Marlowe and countless other detectives) saw in the whole person both good and evil, passion and reason, Dionysus and Apollo.

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