Introduction to ‘the Piano Lesson’

Harvest. Journal for Jungian Studies, Vol. 48 No. 2, 2002.

Theoretical physicist and Nobel prize winner Wolfgang Pauli (1900-1958) was the young neurotic scientist of which Carl Gustav Jung published a series of dreams in Psychology and Alchemy. Between 1931 and 1934 he was in analysis with Erna Rosenbaum and Jung himself. Pauli ended the analysis in October 1934 after he met Franca Bertram and married her. She was his second wife. At that time Pauli felt a need to get away from dream interpretation and dream analysis. He knew that his feeling function was not well developed, but he hoped that life would resolve the remaining problems in his relationship with the unconscious. To his embarrassment, however, the unconscious started to send him dreams with mathematical and physical symbols. In an essay of June 1948 he called this dream-symbolism ‘background physics.’ (Meier, 2001, 179) A detailed study of Pauli’s thoughts on “background physics” is the subject of a recent thesis (Meijgaard, 1998).

During World War II, Pauli stayed with his wife in Princeton where he worked in the Institute of Advanced Studies. There he began to take an interest in the life of Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), a physicist and astronomer who thought he had proved the Pythagorean music of the spheres by scientific means. In December 1945 Pauli received from Oslo the message that he had been awarded the Nobel prize for his explication, twenty-one years earlier, of the periodic table of elements. To celebrate this high point in his career, a dinner was organized at the Institute of Advanced Studies. At this occasion Albert Einstein unexpectedly rose and made a speech. He praised Pauli and called him ‘his spiritual son’ who would solve the problems in physics that he himself had found too difficult. (Enz, 2002, 394) But Pauli was no longer satisfied with his work as a physicist. Since the dropping of the two atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945, he felt guilty of mass murder, although he had not been a member of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. The feeling of guilt came from deep inside, from the anima, mostly personified in his dreams by a dark, exotic woman. She rebelled against ‘the criminal atmosphere’ in physics in America. (Erkelens, 1999, 24) Therefore Pauli returned in March 1946 to his chair of theoretical physics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich.

From then on two male figures began to appear in his dreams. One had blond hair and a light skin, the other was dark. The blond figure knew much about the archetypal background of mathematics and physics. The dark figure wanted to be admitted to the ETH. In November 1948, after a conversation with Jung about synchronicity, Pauli dreamt that the blond man and the dark one merged. Out of their fusion a new dream-partner arose. Pauli called him “the light-dark stranger” or “the stranger.” This archetypal figure, closely resembling the alchemical spirit of matter Mercurius, urged Pauli many times to accept a new chair at the university. (Erkelens, 1991, 43). This chair stood for a holistic view of nature in which not only the outer, material side, but also the inner, symbolic side were considered. But Pauli did not know how he could reconcile these two aspects of nature into one coherent worldview. In a letter to the physicist Markus Fierz, dated 19 January 1953, he admitted that he felt torn between two attitudes related to the 17th century controversy between Johannes Kepler and the alchemist and physician Robert Fludd. Kepler had successfully applied the new quantitative method to the motions of the planets around the sun, while Fludd still defended a view of the cosmos in which the earth formed the center of the planetary system and the planets moved along heaven by inner impulses. Pauli had analyzed this controversy in his study of the archetypal ideas underlying the work of Kepler. The original German version of this study appeared in Naturerklärung und Psyche (1952) together with Jung’s essay on synchronicity. In his letter to Fierz he made clear why the whole controversy interested him so much:

‘I am not only Kepler but also Fludd… My search is for a process of conjunction (unification of opposites), but I have only partially succeeded in this. Nevertheless first an exotic woman (slit-eyed Chinese) appeared in my dreams, and later also a strange, light-dark man who seemed to know something about the unification of opposites which I sought.’ (Laurikainen, 1988, 89)

In order to bring the positions of Kepler and Fludd more closely together Pauli began to write long letters to Jung. In a letter, dated 27 February 1953, he remarked about the dream motif of the new chair: ‘I am still constantly surprised at this insistence of the unconscious on the new professorship with its lectures in auditoriums and on my appointment, and I wonder what such a professor might say who does not just “hold the tail but grasps it in his hand” (namely, theoretical physics) but who also “grasps the head mentally” and not “just in dreams.”‘ (Meier, 2001, 90)

Here Pauli referred to a remark Kepler had made in his attack on Fludd: ‘I reflect on the visible movements determinably by the senses themselves, you may consider the inner impulses and endeavour to distinguish them according to grades. I hold the tail but I hold it in my hand; you may grasp the head mentally, though only, I fear, in your dreams.’ (Pauli, 1994, 253) Pauli wondered how this split between a quantitative and a qualitative view of nature could be bridged. As he argued in his letter to Jung, he hoped that quantum physics with its union of the wave and particle aspects of atomic matter could point the way to the wider conjunction of head and tail:

‘I cannot anticipate the new coniunctio, the new hieros gamos called for by this situation, but I will nevertheless try to explain more clearly what I meant with the final part of the Kepler essay: the firm grip on the “tail” – that is physics – provides me with unhoped for aids, which can be utilized with more important undertakings as well, to “grasp the head mentally.” It actually seems to me that in the complementarity of physics, with its resolution of the wave-particle opposites, there is a sort of role model or example of that other, more comprehensive coniunctio. For the smaller coniunctio in the context of physics, completely unintentionally on the part of its discoverers, has certain characteristics that can also probably be used to resolve the other pairs of opposites.’ (Meier, 2001, 91)

This hope was based on the fact that he was dreaming in ‘background physics.’ If terms and concepts from physics appeared in his dreams, they must also have an objective qualitative meaning. Thus Pauli reasoned. But Jung doubted this. In his letter, dated 4 May 1953, he noted: ‘Just as your dreams contain symbolic physics, mine contain symbolic mythology, i.e. Jungian individual mythology. What this means, on closer observation, is archetypal theology or metaphysics. But this only becomes clear when I make the effort to find out what the archetypal symbols are referring to. In this case, what I do is to translate the dream figure into the language of consciousness, thus reducing the dream meaning to my subjective situation.’ (Meier, 2001, 113-114) According to Jung the products of the unconscious should be studied critically, not just from the point of view of their objective associations but also the subjective ones. That would possibly show a way out from the conflict between Kepler and Fludd: ‘With the perception of the archetypal prerequisites in Kepler’s astronomy and the comparison with Fludd’s philosophy, you have taken two steps, and now you seem to be at the third one – namely, the question of what Pauli says about it.’ (Meier, 2001, 114) This standpoint of Jung annoyed Pauli. He had tried to distil from his dreams a new natural philosophy in which physical processes would be described in such a way that their formulation would equally apply to psychological and parapsychological processes. But Jung insisted that he should find out what the physical symbols in his dreams meant subjectively.

For some months Pauli had the feeling that nobody understood him. But after a nightmare he came in August to the conclusion that he himself had failed to understand the intentions of the unconscious. He turned to Marie-Louise von Franz for advice. From January 1951 on he experienced a transference with her. As a consequence he had to give more attention to his feeling side. But he did not like to do this at all. Nevertheless the letters Pauli wrote to Von Franz are more personal than the ones he wrote to Jung. One can conclude from them that von Franz advised Pauli to enter into a direct dialogue with the unconscious using the technique of active imagination. In October 1953 the physicist followed her advice and started a dialogue with the Chinese lady of his dreams. At last he allowed her and the light-dark stranger to speak for themselves.

Within two weeks Pauli finished a piece of active imagination (twenty-one pages in manuscript) which he called Die Klavierstunde (The Piano Lesson). (Erkelens/Wiegel, 1998, 106) In it the two worlds of quantum physics and depth psychology are bridged by the language of music. The play of archetypes unifying matter and spirit is likened to the piano playing of the Chinese lady. Synchronicity is seen as manifesting itself in the music of creation. Jung might have called it symphonicity. But he did not do so. As has been remarked before, Jung’s essay on meaningful chance appeared in one volume with Pauli’s study of the music of the spheres. The inner connection between the two essays now becomes clear: for Pauli synchronicity is the music of the spheres.

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The Piano Lesson ends with a mandala symbol that also constitutes the heart of quantum physics. The smaller coniunctio of wave and particle indeed turned out to have a wider meaning. Since a mandala can be seen as the mathematical symbol that represents the ouroboros, the tail-eater, one may conclude that this symbol formed the answer to the question of the new professorship. Pauli had finally found the symbol in which the difference between head and tail had disappeared. From the center of this symbol the light-dark stranger spoke. In The Piano Lesson Pauli called him ‘the master’ and promised to reconcile him with the world of physics. But he did not keep the promise. He never lectured in public on the deeper issues embodied in The Piano Lesson. According to von Franz Pauli was afraid to risk his reputation in physics. He never accepted the new chair which the masterfigure had offered him in his dreams. Only in his lecture in Mainz of March 1955 about science and western thought did he speak about ‘inner images, fantasies or ideas, compensatory to the external situation, which indicate the possibility of a mutual approach of poles in the pairs of opposites.’ (Pauli, 1994, 147)

After this lecture Pauli began to lose his orientation in life. He ended the relationship with Marie-Louise von Franz, but continued indirect contacts with Jung through letters and short notes transferred by Jung’s secretary Aniela Jaffé. She acted as a messenger between the two men. But already at the beginning of 1956 Pauli gave up hope that he could communicate his experience of the bridge between scientific understanding and religious feeling to others. He concluded a letter to Fierz with the words: ‘When one descends sufficiently deep into the nether world, then – at the stream of life (Styx) itself – the pair of opposites must fade. That is something I already wanted to say in my lecture in Mainz. But the word coniunctio is not mentioned there (though I referred to alchemy).’ (Laurikainen, 1988, 135) In December 1958 the Styx turned out to be for Pauli what it really is: the river of death. After suffering a painful attack while delivering a lecture to his students of physics, Pauli had to take a taxi home. A day later he was lying in the Red Cross Hospital of Zürich. There, on the 15th of December, he died of cancer.

Herbert van Erkelens © 2002


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Erkelens, Herbert van, and Wiegel, Frederik W., ‘The Piano Lesson. An Active Fantasy by Wolfgang Pauli’, Psychological Perspectives, Issue 38, Winter ’98-’99, the C.G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles.

Erkelens, Herbert van, ‘Wolfgang Pauli and the Chinese Anima Figure’, Eranos Yearbooks, Vol. 68, The Eranos Foundation, Ascona, 1999.

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Pauli, Wolfgang, Writings on Physics and Philosophy, edited by Charles P. Enz and Karl von Meyenn, Springer-Verlag, Berlin/Heidelberg, 1994.


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