Longing for Paradise

I recently picked up a psychology book that I’ve had my eye on for awhile now. It’s written by a Jungian psychoanalyst named Mario Jacoby. The book is, Longing for Paradise: Psychological Perspectives on an Archetype. Jacoby’s theme centers on the importance of the paradise archetype in psychological life and development, not to mention in the work of psychotherapy.

This is a bit of a different take on “paradise” for psychological thinking, and it provides a good jumping off point for some reflections.

The usual schtick in psychology on this matter smacks of “nothing but” reductionism. Reductionism happens when you take a complex phenomenon and break it down into its component parts, and say that the complex whole is nothing but the sum of its parts. Here are some reductive variations that you might come across on the present topic: The longing for paradise is nothing but a regressive wish to dissolve into infantile, oceanic feelings of oneness, free from the conflicts that real life involves. Or, the longing for paradise expresses a developmental failure to mourn the loss of unity with mother, and to accept separateness. Or, the longing for paradise afflicts those who didn’t get an adequate holding environment in infancy, and so they forever long to redress that early lack. Or, the longing for paradise shows a rejection of limitation, and should be analyzed away as an inflated identification with the realm of the archetypal, and specifically with the archetypal Mother.

These are all possible ways to understand thing A (the longing for paradise) in terms of thing B (some form of developmental / psychological problem). Thing B is supposed to explain how and why thing A comes about.

Jacoby, in what I’ve read so far, knows how to think about paradise in developmental and psychopathological terms. He points to the early holding environment, in which mother and caregivers must respond adequately to the hunger, anxiety, distress, and need for touch and loving attention in the infant. If a good-enough experience at this stage doesn’t happen, he offers, significant disruption of emotional and relational health later on is likely. An inordinate fixation on paradise and a pursuit of paradisiacal experiences might well grow out of an early trauma to the holding environment, in which some degree of paradise is actually appropriate for the sake of the utterly dependent infant.

Naturally, psychology wants to explain the longing for paradise in terms of the early environment and early relationships. Where else but with mother do we ever get some measure of paradisiacal experience? Infancy even entails a certain timelessness. The rhythm of relationship to mother is the ordering principle of the moment-to-moment experience of being that psychology imagines the infant to live. Grown up time does not exist for the baby.

Modern attachment theory and infant observation seem to support such thinking. Clinical experience also seems to support the notion that early traumas to primal relationships create suffering in clients, and that the therapeutic relationship, when it works well, can bring some measure of healing to the early wound. The image of paradise is one image among others that can come up in this area of experience, in or out of the therapy room.


I think we need to think symbolically about this. A psychological theory is a kind of symbol that happens to be highly differentiated. But it’s a symbol nonetheless. I am using the word symbol in the sense given by the depth psychologist C.G. Jung. A symbol, in Jung‘s psychology, is a living reality. It’s an image that forms in order to communicate something that words can’t express adequately in a rational way. A symbol expresses an unknowable reality that otherwise we could scarcely approach at all.

I’m proposing that the psychologist or psychoanalyst is using the image of a good enough mother-infant relationship as a symbol. It’s a symbol that psychology uses to communicate to itself something unknowable–in this case, the elusive image of paradise, imagined as a state of being that is touched in infancy.

It’s important to take note that when a psychologist looks at the realm of infancy and begins to make theories about the infant’s inner experience, there is naturally a significant degree of projection involved. What the therapist experiences in working with clients at this early level of emotional experience, as it gets expressed in psychotherapy, ends up as part of the theory about the infant’s inner life. Even the therapist’s own longing for paradise gets into the mix, and possibly imagined as a lost state of being that the infant must have experienced, or is supposed to experience when things go well.

And why not? It’s very legitimate to create theory out of clinical and even deeply personal experience, in addition to data such as the observation of infants and mothers, so long as we are aware of what we’re doing.

Stay with me a moment longer if you‘ve come this far. I know this is getting long, and perhaps muddled.

What I’m coming around to is the fact that no matter the brilliant insights of psychology into the developmental substrate of the paradise archetype… the image of paradise remains the image of paradise, and psychology will never divest that image of its power by explaining it theoretically. Sure, the archetype can cause problems in living and relating. But in itself it’s not something to be fixed, cured, treated, analyzed. The longing for paradise speaks to an experience common to all human beings, whether or not the primal relationship with mother got disrupted. That’s what’s meant by calling it an archetype: it’s typical of human existing to touch this particular place.

What remains to examine is how this archetype expresses itself in psychological life and in psychotherapy. I’ve got a ways to go in Jacoby’s book, and so maybe I’ll save the rest for another post.