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On Passing Judgment on Richard Noll

By Ryan Smith

Richard Noll is a historian of psychiatry who wrote two controversial volumes on C.G. Jung in the 1990s: The Jung Cult (1994) and The Aryan Christ (1997). A third volume, Mysteria, was also set for publication by Princeton University Press (1994/1995), but suppressed at the behest of the Jung family.

Broadly speaking, Noll’s views are that Jung was quite Volkish (i.e. pan-Germanic nationalist) prior to the Second World War, but then mended his views to become the wise old sage or guru in the years following the war. Likewise, Noll argues that both the pre-war and post-war Jung had structured his movement in such a way as to be reminiscent of a cult.

Naturally, Jungians are not enamored with this interpretation, just as they are generally loath to speak of Jung’s pre-war ambiguity towards the Nazis, the probable appropriation of ideas and concepts from others without due attribution, his erotic licentiousness and personal callousness and exploitativeness. (To be clear, I am not saying that Jung was all bad, but rather that he contained both good and bad, and that Jungians usually react sorely to any mention of the bad. This soreness would in itself seem to confirm at least parts of Noll’s thesis.)

As can be imagined, the publication of Noll’s books provoked quite a pushback from the Jungian community, especially from the Jung historian Sonu Shamdasani who is in the employ of the Jung family heirs. In his Cult Fictions (1998), Shamdasani levels a host of criticisms and allegations at Noll’s research. Shamdasani’s book is just one example; the backlash from the Jungians was immense.

Unfortunately, Noll never replied to his critics and his silence has allowed the pro-Jungians to convince themselves that Noll’s entire endeavor can thus be discarded wholesale. This is a tad too convenient for the Jungians. No doubt, Noll’s work does suffer from exaggerations, distortions, and sensationalism. But basic elements of the cult thesis are still in need of further examination by scholars with less of an axe to grind (for or against Jung).

Furthermore, it is possible that the rabbit hole may go deeper. As said, Noll never replied to his critics. But he deposited the cache of 20-some documents concerning the discord surrounding his books at the Cummings Center for the History of Psychology in Akron, Ohio. In this batch of documents, one early letter from Shamdasani at least appears to voice support for parts of the cult thesis, i.e. that Jung was building a cult (and there appears to be at least one other instance in the archive of Shamdasani seemingly saying the opposite in private of what he says in print). Reading the documents posited at the Cummings Center, I realized that the matter of Noll’s sensationalism and subsequent retreat from his critics may not be as clear-cut as it has often been made out to be. I would therefore advise anyone interested in the work of either Noll or Shamdasani to consult these documents before passing judgment on the matter.

REFERENCES

  • Hanegraaff: Esotericism and the Academy Cambridge University Press 2014
  • Noll: The Jung Cult Princeton University Press 1994
  • Noll: The Aryan Christ Random House 1997
  • Shamdasani: Cult Fictions Routledge 2003
  • Shamdasani: Jung Stripped Bare Karnac Books 2004

Published in Ryan Smith