When I started to study physics, mathematics and astronomy, I was only seventeen years old and a great admirer of Albert Einstein, the man who created relativity theory. But after three months of study I got interested in Jungian psychology. What in particular impressed me was the vision of the “world clock” published by Carl Gustav Jung in Psychology and Alchemy. Through that vision I learnt that physics alone would never lead me to the secret of the cosmos. I understood that dreams and visions constitute a more personal way of getting into contact with the mysterious centre where the Self and the cosmos meet.
For more than a year I felt torn between physics and depth psychology. Why should I put energy into a study that could not satisfy the deeper needs of my soul? But I saw no alternative. In the end I grew angry with God. Why did He let me suffer? I fell on my knees and told Him that He would not succeed in breaking me into two. Then I felt a lot better. I even cherished the hope that depth psychology would no longer bother me.
The next day I entered an antiquarian bookshop and found the book Zahl und Zeit (Number and Time) by Marie-Louise von Franz. According to the subtitle the book was an attempt to bring depth psychology and physics closer together. I was stupefied. I had not expected that God would react so quickly. But I knew now that I was saved. Somewhere in Switzerland there lived a depth psychologist who believed that depth psychology and physics could be unified. I adopted her as my second mother, read her book Zahl und Zeit several times and continued my study in physics.
In May 1984 I took my doctor’s degree in theoretical physics at the University of Amsterdam. I left this academic speciality in order to concentrate on the relationship of modern physics and depth psychology. Around this time I had found another hero: the famous theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli. Einstein had considered him as his spiritual son who would solve the remaining problems in physics. But I knew that Pauli had been the neurotic scientist whose dreams Jung had published in Psychology and Alchemy. Hence, I expected that he had lived a religious life following the demands of the unconscious. But there was no biography of Pauli available to control this supposition.
At the beginning of 1988 the Free University in Amsterdam asked me to start an investigation into the relationship of modern physics and religion. I decided to start this project by doing some research in the private life of Pauli. In this connection Dr. Carl Alfred Meier advised me to contact Marie-Louise von Franz! That was really surprising. I had not expected to meet her personally. I knew she had Parkinson’s disease and I did not want to bother her too much with my effort to unify depth psychology and physics. But because of Pauli I decided to visit her. My father made a small painting for her, because he knew how much she meant to me.
The encounter on July 1, 1988 lasted one hour. In the first half of the interview von Franz destroyed my image of Pauli as a serious, spiritual seeker. According to her he had always avoided an encounter with the numinous. When things got hot, he just ran away. First I could not believe this. But von Franz insisted. Pauli had never realised the symmetries in his own vision of the world clock. He had never led a life that could have bridged the gap between modern physics, depth psychology and religion.
Within thirty minutes the goddess and the hero of my life had shrunk into ordinary human beings. Von Franz was full of rancour, which I did not understand at that time, and Pauli fell from his pedestal by having been a coward in religious affairs. During the rest of the encounter I asked von Franz about her present interests and finally I gave her the painting of my father, a still life showing stones and a beautiful thistle. From a stubborn woman von Franz suddenly turned into a child that received an unexpected present. She began to radiate happiness and said: ‘This is a mandala in forms of nature.’
It took me quite a long time to digest this first encounter with von Franz. She had advised me to study the letters Pauli had sent her between 1948 and 1956. These letters were to be found in the archives of the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich. When I started to study these letters, I discovered that the unconscious had sent Pauli many dreams about a possible unification of physics and depth psychology. Pauli had even found the meeting point between quantum physics and depth psychology. It was a mathematical symbol that constituted the heart of quantum physics and at the same time meant to Pauli his relationship with the spirit of the unconscious. During an active imagination a Chinese lady, clearly a personification of the anima, had taken this symbol as a ring from her finger and let it float in the air. The lady called it the ring i. In mathematics i denotes the imaginary unit or square root of minus one.
Thanks to this Chinese lady I had found the symbol that could heal the split in my own soul! But why had von Franz not published the ring i in her book Zahl und Zeit? In February 1990 I had a dream about a meeting which focused on the relationship of physics and depth psychology. In the dream I told a man that von Franz had no understanding of mathematics. A stranger said: ‘It is curious that quantum physics can be connected with introspection.’
A week later I attended in Germany a seminar about quantum physics and depth psychology. At that occasion I met the Swiss Jungian analyst, Eva Wertenschlag-Birkhäuser, who showed an interest in the later dreams of Pauli. I sent her those dreams and we began interpreting them. Since Marie-Louise von Franz had been a friend of the parents of Eva, she could easily arrange for me a second encounter with the woman who meant so much to me.
We decided to visit von Franz together and we took with us some dreams of Pauli we did not understand. It was on a Wednesday in February and I didn’t feel well because of some problems that had arisen in my struggle with the unconscious. But von Franz was in good spirits. She first commented upon a couple of dreams from my student days. Next I read aloud the dreams of Pauli. She had no problem in analysing them. But then I showed her a dream in which the imaginary unit played a decisive role. The dream, published now in an appendix to the Pauli/Jung letters, proceeds in seven steps. During the last three steps four eggs transform into mathematical formulae from which the ring i arises as symbol of the One.
Von Franz stared at the seven steps. She first said: ‘This is the axiom of Maria Prophetissa.’ Then she continued: ‘But that is impossible.’ To our surprise von Franz did not understand the dream. She could not follow that an alchemical axiom could be expressed in symbols of modern mathematics. She said: ‘The ring i cannot be a symbol of the unconscious. You can calculate with the imaginary unit and with the unconscious you cannot.’ I have never understood this argument, since the whole of mathematics rests on an archetypal foundation. Even though you can calculate with the ring i, it still remains a symbol of the Self.
Later I understood that Pauli had hurt von Franz very much. He had never taken her remarks seriously. In an interview meant for the Dutch television she said: ‘I sometimes made scenes, when I thought Pauli was really on the wrong track. Then he just made joking remarks that I looked prettier the more I was angry. He didn’t take my remarks seriously. I banged on the table and said: “I mean it seriously. It is a dangerous point.” But he just scoffed it. He had a patriarchal outlook on women. Women were pleasant things to play with, but not something to take seriously. That really was one of the difficulties.’
Finally we showed von Franz the vision by Pauli in which he had to perform a square dance with various personifications of the unconscious, among them the Chinese lady. Von Franz had published part of this vision in Zahl und Zeit. So we knew that it meant something to her. Immediately she started telling us that the union of opposites can never be a static thing: ‘Sometimes you are in harmony with the anima, at other times you’re not. Hence life is a dance where you meet the inner partner and then part again.’
The strange thing was that I had heard these words before. Many years earlier I had practised Israeli folk dancing. I still remembered a particular dance that helped me to get married. The explanation the teacher had given with respect to this dance were in complete agreement with what von Franz was telling me. I had always had difficulties in my relationship with the anima. But now at least I began to understand why.
Three years later, when I was writing my book Wolfgang Pauli und der Geist der Materie (Wolfgang Pauli and the Spirit of Matter), I sent von Franz my own interpretation of the square dance of Pauli. I had analysed this dance mathematically with the help of a book on chemistry and crystal permutation groups. In reply I received a letter in which von Franz only remarked that the whole thing had cost me a lot of effort. I was quite angry because of this remark. So I decided to find a better explanation of the dance, a more psychological one.
This time I incorporated what I had learnt from von Franz herself, namely that you have to sacrifice the ego in order to contact the Self. I wrote a wholly new chapter in which I only looked at the psychological meaning of Pauli’s mathematical dreams. I did precisely what Pauli had failed to do, to connect dreams with his personal situation and to try to understand them from this subjective perspective. Finally I had understood the game and the next letter by von Franz was a flattering one.
By adopting Marie-Louise von Franz as my second mother I became one of her spiritual sons. But sons have to leave their mother. A week before she died I had a dream in which I left the mountain-cottage where students were studying the work of von Franz. Outside I was not alone. Von Franz herself was watching me. That stimulated me to walk into nature and to admire the many flowers which opened because a refreshing rain had bathed their buds. When I walked further out of sight of von Franz, I saw that big animals were approaching me. They were startled by human interventions in nature. I could not hide myself. There were only some birches in the neighbourhood. Therefore I decided to confront the animals. I gripped the trunk of a big elephant in order to make friends with him. At that moment an intense feeling streamed through me. I had made contact with the natural world more directly than ever before.
Herbert van Erkelens (ed.), ‘Wolfgang Pauli, the Feminine and the Perils of the Modern World. An interview with Marie-Louise von Franz by Hein Stufkens and Philip Engelen, IKON-television, Küsnacht, November 1990,’ Harvest. Journal for Jungian Studies, Vol. 48, No. 2, 2002.
Herbert van Erkelens, ‘Wolfgang Pauli and the Chinese Anima Figure’, Eranos. The Magic of the Tortoise, Yearbook 1999, Vol. 68, The Eranos Foundation, Ascona, 1999.
Herbert van Erkelens, Wolfgang Pauli und der Geist der Materie, edited by Thomas Arzt, in collaboration with Eva Wertenschlag-Birkhäuser, Charles P. Enz and Bernward Thiel, Verlag Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg, 2002.