The Mandala Experience: Visions of the Center in Schizophrenic and Fictional Accounts of Disintegration

by Leslie Trueman

September 8, 2002


Schizophrenia is commonly viewed as a paradigm of disintegration, but C.G. Jung and J. Weir Perry were among those who noticed that schizophrenics often have visions of the mandala, a symbol of the center. These visions, or "mandala experiences" are in Jung's words, "an attempt at self-healing" through "the construction of a central point to which everything is related." Two schizophrenic experiences of mandalas are given to illustrate. One experience is Jung's who arguably had a breakdown of schizophrenic proportions. The other can be found in the life of John Nash, a schizophrenic made famous by the recent film biography, "A Beautiful Mind." The presence of such hitherto undetected moments of constructiveness during psychic distintegration prompts a reevaluation of writers such as Kafka, who are commonly viewed as poets of disintegration. His "Description of a Struggle" is a search for, and temporary attainment of the healing center amidst such psychic disintegration.


Schizophrenia is commonly viewed as a paradigm of disintegration and breakdown.  It may surprise some to discover that schizophrenic experience often includes visions of the center, and that these visions can provide a sense of well-being to the disoriented sufferer of psychic breakdown.[1]  Concerning the meaning of the center, Derrida once listed all the names which it has been called in the history of metaphysics; "It could be shown that all the names related to … the center have always designated an invariable presence—eidos, archē, telos, energeia, ousia (essence, existence, substance, subject) alētheia, transcendentality, consciousness, God, man, and so forth" (Derrida 279-80).  In the visions of schizophrenics, the center is most often experienced as an ultimate source of supernatural power; the power to heal and the power to protect.  The center is thus not associated with a specific religion or even a personal god.  C.G. Jung observed that the encounter with the center is often accompanied by the production of a certain kind of visual art by the individual known as a mandala or centralized pattern;

As a rule a mandala occurs in conditions of psychic dissociation or disorientation, for instance […] in schizophrenics whose view of the world has become confused, owing to the invasion of incomprehensible contents from the unconscious.  In such cases it is easy to see how the severe pattern imposed by a circular image of this kind compensates the disorder and confusion of the psychic state—namely, through the construction of a central point to which everything is related, or by a concentric arrangement of the disordered multiplicity and of contradictory and irreconcilable elements.  This is evidently an attempt at self-healing on the part of Nature, which does not spring from conscious reflection but from an instinctive impulse (my emphasis, Jung, Mandala Symbolism 3-4).

He also hinted that a mandala may be "acted out" by movement in a circular pattern around a center, the center being the mandala.   His conclusions about schizophrenics were confirmed by J. Weir Perry, who studied schizophrenics for forty years and wrote many books about it, including The Self in Psychotic Process.  He observed the symbol of the center as well as many other symbols in the visions and drawings of schizophrenics.

The appearance of the center as a powerful locus of healing, which I call the "mandala experience," can be seen in the life of John Nash, who suffered from schizophrenia and has recently become famous for the depiction of his life in the movie entitled A Beautiful Mind.  The tendency to experience the center as a constructive force in the midst of psychic distress and disintegration raises questions about whether one can also find such hitherto undetected moments of constructiveness in fictional accounts of disintegration which have been compared to schizophrenic breakdown.  One such account is Kafka's Description of a Struggle, a work in which a symbol of the center appears in the midst of such a psychic disintegration.   However, first I will give an account of the "mandala experience" as discovered by Jung during what has been called his "schizophrenic" breakdown.

Jung's Mandala Experience

            It was through Jung's own difficulties that he discovered the role of the center in psychic disintegration.  It began in 1912, when Jung was at midlife, and in his autobiography he calls it his "confrontation with the unconscious" (Jung Memories 165-191).  After it was over he had broken with Freud never to look back, and was well on his way to his own unique approach to psychology.   

            Jung's confrontation with the unconscious was very serious, and is increasingly being seen by modern interpreters as one which bordered on schizophrenia. "Newer interpretations by nearly all investigators have proceeded on the assumption that Jung's very sanity, and not just an interesting experiment in insight and introspection, was at stake" (Smith 67).  Moreover, as early as the 1960's, D.W. Winnicott, a psychoanalyst, went as far as saying that Jung was already a childhood schizophrenic.  "Jung, in describing himself, gives us a picture of child schizophrenia, and at the same time his personality displays a strength of a kind which enabled him to heal himself.  At cost he recovered" (Winnicott 450).[2] 

            Unfortunately Winnicott doesn't cover Jung's "confrontation with the unconscious" which occurred when he was an adult.  I will not discuss the confrontation in its entirety, I only wish to point out that it had the features of a schizophrenic breakdown particularly at the beginning, and the beginning was the most troubled.  In addition, it was during that time when Jung discovered the effects of the symbol of the center.

            The schizophrenic features of his breakdown are threefold; first he had a couple of hallucinations, secondly the content of his hallucinations and subsequent dreams contain the symbols of death and renewal featuring imagery of the center prominently.[3]  Finally, at the beginning of the breakdown there were no intervening archetypal figures,[4] Jung was confronted directly with the unconscious.  This is typical of schizophrenia according to Couteau.

            Concerning the hallucinations, Jung describes himself as being "seized by an overpowering vision" which last about one hour, in other words a psychosis, a feature of schizophrenia.[5]  The vision contains the symbols of disintegration in the form of apocalypse and death.  In it, the natural order is being disturbed in a kind of reversal of opposites, order becomes disorder, dry land becomes flooded:

         I saw a monstrous flood covering all the northern and low-lying lands between the North Sea and the Alps.  When it came to Switzerland I saw that the mountains grew higher and higher to protect our country.  I realized that a frightful catastrophe was in progress.  I saw the mighty yellow waves, the floating rubble of civilization, and the drowned bodies of uncounted thousands.  Then the whole sea turned to blood (169).


The same vision recurred two weeks later.  At this point even Jung concluded that he was "menaced by a psychosis" (170).  He did not realize that he is already having one.

Unlike many schizophrenics, the symbols continue in dreams, not during a psychosis.  Soon after the "sea of blood" vision, he has a dream of rebirth and the center:

         There stood a leaf bearing tree, but without fruit (my tree of life, I thought), whose leaves had been transformed by the effects of the frost into sweet grapes full of healing juices.  I plucked the grapes and gave them to a large, waiting crowd (170).


Throughout mythology tree of life has been an image of the symbol of the center, often imbued with supernatural qualities.  For example, Dumuzi, the son-lover of the Inanna was himself called the "Lord of the Tree of Life."  In Ancient Egypt, the sun-god was born from the highest branches of the tree of Isis (Baring and Cashford 598).  Again from Egypt, Osiris was reborn from a tree.  In the image of a tree, the center takes on the qualities of power, growth and springtime renewal.  Here, in Jung's dream, it bears the fruit to feed the crowd.  The dream also contains the symbol of apotheosis, as Jung feeds the crowd in a manner which brings Christ to mind when he fed the multitudes.

            At this point the similarity between Jung's visions and schizophrenia starts to waver for two reasons.  The first one I have already mentioned.  It concerns the fact that Jung's subsequent productions of the unconscious are in the form of dreams and fantasies, and have none of the terrifying, involuntary quality of psychosis so common in schizophrenia.  Secondly, according to Couteau, the schizophrenic confrontation with the unconscious lacks the mediation of the anima;[6]

         I began to comprehend in a new way the notion of severe illness as a magnifying glass of the soul, from which sometimes the only benefit seems to be insights gained about psyche by the analyst observing "from the outside," for many of my patients, estranged from the mediating function of the anima, were instead confronted directly with the chaotic abyss of the collective unconscious.  Yet even for these patients, the presence of a therapist, especially one who could serve as a surrogate anima—a therapist routed in soul-making—provided a vital link to their souls (Couteau 198).


Every production of the unconscious which Jung experienced after the initial hallucinations would have such a mediating figure in it including the anima herself in the form of Salome.  There are also Siegfried, Ka, whom Jung called the "spirit of nature," a "brown-skinned savage," as well as Elija, the "wise old prophet," and Philemon, the "winged sprit," to name a few (174-180).  Schizophrenic imagery is largely unpopulated by such figures.

            Jung also had a dream of the center which he admits, kept him going.  In this dream he was in Liverpool, a "dirty, sooty city:"

         It was night, and winter, and dark, and raining […] I had the feeling that there we were coming from the harbour, and that the real city was actually up above, on the cliffs.  We climbed up there.  It reminded me of Basel, where the market is down below and then you go up through the Totengässchen ("Alley of the Dead"), which leads to a plateau above and so the Ptersplatz and the Peterskirche.  When we reached the plateau, we found a broad square dimly illuminated by street lights, into which many streets converged.  The various quarters of the city were arranged radially around the square.  In the center was a round pool, and in the middle of it a small island, while everything round about was obscured by rain, fog, smoke, and dimly lit darkness, the little island blazed with sunlight.  On it stood a single tree, a magnolia, in a shower of reddish blossoms.  It was as though the tree stood in the sunlight and was at the same time the source of light.  My companions commented on the abominable weather, and obviously did not see the tree.   They spoke of another Swiss who was living in Liverpool, and expressed surprise that he should have settled here.  I was carried away by the beauty of the flowering tree and the sunlit island, and thought "I know very well why he has settled here."  Then I awoke (189).


The ascent upwards, the crossing of the threshold to a center which is in the image of a tree is something which will occur again and again in the experience of schizophrenics as I have discussed elsewhere.  For now, it suffices to give Jung's own comments on the dream:

         This dream represented my situation at the time.  I can still see the grayish-yellow raincoats, glistening with the wetness of the rain.  Everything was extremely unpleasant, black and opaque—just as I felt then.  But I had had a vision of unearthly beauty, and that was why I was able to live at all.  Liverpool is the "pool of life."  The "liver," according to an old view, is the seat of life—that which "makes to live" (my emphasis 190).


He represented this dream in a mandala[7] (see figure 1).  One can see the blackness of the surround, with a flower which looks like a magnolia in the center.  The image grows increasingly brighter, with the brightest spot at the center.

Figure 1 - Jung's mandala with a stylized version of magnolia tree in the center (Jung Archetypes, Fig. 1)

I will call Jung's "vision of unearthly beauty" the mandala experience.  This is to be distinguished from an experience of the dark side of the center, for as I will explain below when examining Kafka's work, the center terrifies as well as uplifts.  The mandala experience plays a familiar role in the imagery of the center in schizophrenia, to an even greater extent than the dark side of the center. 

            Jung remarked of the visions he had during his time of disintegration and subsequent reintegration; "Today I can say that I have never lost touch with my initial experiences.  All my works, all my creative activity, has come from those initial fantasies and dreams which began in 1912, almost fifty years ago.  Everything I accomplished in later life was already contained in them, although at first only in the form of emotions and images (Jung Memories, 184).  These dreams included his "vision of unearthly beauty," which sustained him.  It was thus a vision of the center, or in Campbell's words, the "universal source" (Campbell, The Hero, 81).

            The point is, that out of Jung's own suffering, which has been argued to be a disintegration of schizophrenic proportions, came the vision of the transcendent, the mandala experience from which he would draw inner strength from for years to come.


Mandala By Numbers : The Life of John Nash

            John Nash is a brilliant mathematician who was schizophrenic for twenty-five years (Nasar 381).  He developed the first signs of madness in 1959 at age thirty and didn't show signs of coming out of it until the 90's.  Prior to his madness, he had a brilliant career, developing and publishing ideas which would lead to the Nobel Prize which he was awarded in 1994.   His story is so interesting it as recently been made into a film biography entitled A Beautiful Mind. 

            The mandala experience in Nash's life was somewhat different from Jung's because it occurred over a long period of time whereas Jung's encounter with a mandala occurred in a single dream.  In Dream Analysis, Jung discusses such mandalas, which occur over a period of time and involve an activity.  He cites the ritual activities of the Pueblo Indians as an example,

         The Pueblo Indians have rites in which they follow the sun's course for five hours, beginning with the rising sun and ending with the contemplation of the North at midday.  by doing this, they are purified and become true children of their sun-father.  This … is a mandala in time, symbolizing the fact that if you live it … you purify yourself and return to the original condition (Jung Dream Analysis 304).


The sun is an old symbol for the transcendent.[8]  Nash constructed such a mandala through time for himself.  As I will explain, he performed an activity involving the center in the same place everyday for many years.  In this way, he was purified in the sense that he regained his sanity.  One can become purified in a sacred place.

            In analyzing a series of dreams by a certain individual, Jung mentions this sacred quality of the center.  He calls the sacred place the "temenos," "A piece of land, often a grove, set apart and dedicated to a god" (349, n6).  He also discusses the temenos as refuge; "the dreamer reaches the shelter of the temenos as a protection against the splintering of personality" (378).  For Nash, during his madness the temenos was ultimately Fine Hall, the mathematics building where he had once experienced so much success as a graduate student.

            Fine Hall took on the qualities of a center long before he returned to it in his madness in the 70's.  As a graduate student at Princeton in 1948, ten years before he became overtly schizophrenic, Fine Hall was a center for Nash in the sense that it had significance which went beyond the ordinary as the following incident shows.  Even Nasar (his biographer) realizes that Fine Hall had such qualities for Nash.  According to Nasar, Fine Hall "had the feel of an empty church," "a beautiful sanctuary" (66).  It even had inscriptions on the wall, reminiscent of the lines from psalms or other bible passages inscribed on the walls of a church.  However in Fine Hall the inscriptions concerned mathematics.  "Kai Lai especially liked to read the whimsical inscription over the fireplace, Einstein's expression of faith in science, "Der Herr Gott is raffiniert aber Boschaft ist er nicht," which he took to mean that "the Lord is subtle but not malicious" (66).  Kai Lai Chung was a mathematics professor at Princeton where Nash was a graduate student, and one day he discovered the young Nash, lying on a table in this room:

         The light in the west common room filtered through thick stained-glass windows …  A few feet away, on the massive table that dominated the room, floating among a sea of papers, sprawled a beautiful dark-haired young man. He lay on his back staring up at the ceiling as if he were outside on a lawn …  perfectly relaxed, motionless, obviously lost in thought, arms folded behind his head.  He was whistling softly (66).


This is an image of the young Nash inside his temenos, in a state of complete peace.  The image of the archetype of the center is in this case a building which has taken on sacred qualities.  Nasar also mentions the presence of the light filtering through the stained glass windows.  The center-as-sun gives off healing light.  This has been felt to be the case in many cultures.  For example, the Ancient Egyptians believed in the sun's healing power. "The Ancient Egyptians at the beginning of the new year solemnly crowned their statues and sometimes exposed them to the rays of the rising sun to receive a renewal of life from the embraces of solar light" (Hocart 43).

            Years later, during the 1970's, when he had reached the depths of his madness, Nash would become known by the students as The Phantom of Fine Hall.  At this time he would go to Fine Hall almost every day.  Students often ran into him:

         An impersonal, new granite-clad tower, built with defense dollars at the height of the Vietnam war, had replaced the old Fine Hall … within a few days or weeks, the embryo scientist or mathematician would discover "a very peculiar, thin, silent man walking the halls, night and day," "with sunken eyes and a sad immobile face."  On rare occasions, they might catch a glimpse of the wraith-usually clad in khaki pants, plaid shirt, and bright red high-top keds-printing painstakingly on one of the numerous blackboards that line the subterranean corridors linking Jadwin and New Fine (332).


In a rare reversal of society's values toward madness, Princeton allowed him to be a continued presence in Fine Hall over an extended period of time after he ceased to be able to teach or do any research.  It seems that one rare occasions (and in rarefied settings), genius exceeds even madness in its importance, that is why the powers that be at Princeton continued to allow him to remain in Fine Hall and use the computing facilities.  It was this, and perhaps the fact that Nash, in his absence from sanity was experiencing a growing fame.  Even in the 1980's his name came up as a candidate for the Nobel Prize (360).

             At the center, one cannot perform a profane activity, it must be a ritual connected with the transcendent.  This explains why Nash chose to do numerology while in the temenos of Fine Hall.[9]  Being a mathematician, it provided him with a way to continue his work with numbers, but in a way which was suitably connected with the transcendent.  Numerology involves, among other things, divination by numbers, especially birth dates, or the sum of the letters in one's name ("Numerology," def.).  It is described as "a system of occultism built around numbers."   The occult is connected to the supernatural and is characterized by the practice of "certain mystic arts" such as alchemy, astrology, numerology ("Occult," def.).  Nash's activities seems to confirm these definitions.  As Vasquez recalls, "He believed there were magic numbers, dangerous numbers" (320).  Another example of Nash's numerology is given by William Browder;

         Nash was the greatest numerologist the world has every seen.  He would do these incredible manipulations with numbers.  One day he called me and started with the date of Khrushchev's birth and worked right through to the Dow Jones average.  He kept manipulating and putting in new numbers.  What he came out with at the end was my Social Security number (335).


This episode shows that Nash was putting a great deal of effort into activities with numbers, and must have thought they were of pivotal importance.  Through numerology, he was able to relate such diverse things as Khruschev's birthday, the Dow Jones average and his colleague's social security number.  It thus suggests the center in the sense that it brings all these different things together to form a unity.  Unfortunately, we don't know much about the exact nature of Nash's interest in numerology.  People whom he conversed with knew he was talking about things which concerned numerology, but they dismissed its importance.  For example, Armand Borel recalls: "I got unending phone calls from Nash. … It was all nonsense.  Numerology.  Dates. World affairs" (286).

            Eventually Nash recovered.  He did not suspect that the symbol of the center played any part in this.  In fact he believe he had cured himself through an effort of will;

"Gradually I began to intellectually reject some of the delusionally influenced line of thinking which had been characteristic of my orientation" (353).  He added, "Actually it can be analogous to the role of willpower in effectively dieting; if one makes an effort to "rationalize" one's thinking then one can simply recognize and reject the irrational hypotheses of delusional thinking" (354).

            Nash's ritual of returning to Fine Hall for so many years illustrates that a mandala can be a place involving a ritual extended over a very long period.  This is a different kind of mandala from the ones which are drawn (as Jung's was), or visited once during a powerful psychotic experience, as the one described in Kafka's story.  It also shows that there can be ritual entirely without myth, as Nash returned to Fine Hall in this manner for thirty years or more, never believing it had anything to do with religion.


The Center in Kafka's Description of a Struggle

            That an individual can encounter mandalas during a psychic disintegration can be used to gain insight into works of literature which portray such disintegration.  One such work is Kafka's Description of a Struggle, a short work written by a young Kafka in 1904 or 1905 while he was still at law school (Hibberd 24).  In this work, Kafka seems to be describing an emotional breakdown of schizophrenic proportions in the sense that among other things, the universal symbol of the center appears, which Perry claimed was characteristic of the visions of schizophrenics.  Looking for what amounts to a schizophrenic disintegration in Kafka's work raises questions about whether it is necessary to be a schizophrenic to be able to write about it.  Although this claim has been made,[10] it is not necessary from a Jungian standpoint.  As Jung said,  "In insanity we do not discover anything new and unknown, we are looking at the foundation of our own  being, the matrix of those vital problems in which we are all engaged" (Jung CW3,178).  Or, in his very definition, Jung defines insanity as "an unusual reaction to emotional problems which are in no wise foreign to ourselves" (Jung CW3 165).  At the most, one might say that schizophrenics are more preoccupied with particular human problems,  and Kafka has this preoccupation in common with schizophrenics.  However, that does not make him schizophrenic.

                        The story, from the beginning is about a trip up a mountain.  A mountain has often been regarded as a sacred place.  It concerns two characters who are never named; the narrator and his acquaintance.  It starts out at a party, where the narrator, out of nowhere, gives his irritated consent to the acquaintance that he will climb the Laurenziberg (13).  We have no idea what the origin of this irritation is, whether the acquaintance has discussed this with him before, or this is just some sort of a pose, for the benefit of the other guests at the party, who are eavesdropping on their conversation.  Eventually, the narrator and his acquaintance start their ascent up the mountain, and it is not long before the narrator abandons the acquaintance.  The mountain is an old symbol for the center of the world in many cultures.  For example, Meru, a mythical mountain in Indian religion is one such center, others are Haraberezaiti in Iran, Gerizim in Palestine and the mythical "Mount of the Lands" in Mesopotamia (Eliade, The Sacred 38).

            As the narrator walks on, he encounters the center, or should I say he becomes one with it and takes on its qualities;

         But since, as a pedestrian, I dreaded the effort of climbing the mountainous road, I let it become gradually flatter […] The stones vanished at my will and the wind disappeared (Kafka 37).


The narrator is experiencing apotheosis, or becoming one with the center and assuming its power.  This is the most familiar face of schizophrenia: the schizophrenic who thinks he is Jesus Christ, or is in some other way imbued with divine power.  Next, he causes a mountain to rise out of the terrain:

         Opposite and at some distance from my road […] I caused to rise an enormously high mountain whose plateau, overgrown with brushwood, bordered on the sky …  This sight … made me so happy that I … forgot to let the moon come up.  It lay already behind the mountain, no doubt angry at the delay (38).


This is one of the only two moments in the story when the narrator is happy, and it happens when he experiences identification with the center and is imbued with its power.

            Later, he spends the night in a tree.

         Now I could have thrown myself down on the moss to sleep, but since I feared to sleep on the ground I crept ... up a tree which was already reeling without wind.  I lay down on a branch and, leaning my head against the trunk, went hastily to sleep (40).


For Jung, the tree was a resplendent center with a message of hope as I related above, for Kafka the tree is the protective center, shielding him with its power from any danger which he may encounter on the ground during the night.  Throughout mythology, the tree has often been a center, in the sense of being imbued with supernatural qualities.  All over the world, the tree was closely associated or equated with the god.  For example, Dumuzi, the son-lover of Inanna was himself called the "Lord of the Tree of life."  In Ancient Egypt, the sun-god was born from the highest branches of the tree of Isis (Baring and Cashford 598).  Again, from Egypt, Osiris was reborn from a tree.  Queen Maya leaned against a tree as she gave birth to the Buddha (Baring and Cashford 598). 

            Returning to the story, the overall action thus moves from civilized space into natural space, the realm of the collective unconscious which is the realm of the center, here encountered in the mountain and the tree.  During his apotheosis, when he caused the mountain to rise, he experiences a moment of happiness at the sight of the center.  This is the effect of mandala, happiness because of the presence of the absolute, a feeling that everything is alright in this otherwise nightmare world.

            However, the next morning, the tree no longer provide protection, since upon waking and trying to get down, he falls out of the tree.  "I tried to climb down quickly, but since the branch trembled as much as my hand I fell rigid from the top (41).  Later he observes, "Unripe fruit thudded senselessly from the trees onto the ground (43).  Perhaps the narrator himself feels like such an unripe fruit (unreife Früchte).  He has been separated from the powerful center before his time, and feels raw exposed, unready for life.  It is "senseless" (irrsinnig)[11] that he should drop to the ground in this unready state.

            He will never experience the complete feeling of happiness he felt during his apotheosis again.  The next day, when nighttime threats are no longer present, he lies on the ground from which he seeks solace: I felt so weak and unhappy that I buried my face in the ground (41-42).  This image of the ground-as-protector can be seen the religions of the Great Mother,[12] in which nature was divine, as opposed to the Judaeo-Christian heritage where the center is called "supernatural" because it is not to be found in nature. 

            Consciousness bothers him, as he lies there, trying to join with the center by thrusting his face into the ground.  He is plagued by battles of the will.  On the one hand he observes: "I tried to persuade myself that I ought to be pleased to be already in this natural position" (42).  In other words, he is trying to convince himself by sheer willpower to be natural!   Obviously, being natural is not accomplished through willpower, it is the antithesis of willpower to be natural.  Willing is often associated with consciousness.  According to Jung, when one says "where there is a will there is a way, one overvalues the conscious standpoint" (Jung Psyche and Symbol, 310).  Being natural or doing the natural thing means allowing instinct to be expressed.   If consciousness is opposed to instinct in this way, the narrator is here trying to take over the realm of instinct with his consciousness by willing himself to be natural.  His consciousness is not working in cooperation with his instinct and in such a situation "consciousness . . . gets so far out of touch with the primal images that a breakdown follows" (Jung Psyche and Symbol 310).  The "breakdown" is simply the images breaking into waking consciousness without the consent of the ego.  Description of a Struggle is the story of just such a breakdown, but a struggle implies a battle of wills.  Where is the other will in the struggle being described?  One might speak equally of the "will" of the unconscious in the sense that the images are coming, unsummoned from the ego.  A similar situation occurs when one has a nightmare.  A nightmare is simply the unconscious trying to get one's attention.  Psychosis is one step further, the unconscious is not waiting for sleep but breaking into waking consciousness in order to be heard. 

            At another point, the sight of the river, the meadows and the hills actually pleases him, but again, his happiness is not total as it was when caused the mountains to rise:

         Pleased by this sight, I lay down and, stopping my ears against the dread sound of sobs, I thought: Here I could be content.   For here it is secluded and beautiful.  It won't take much courage to live here.  One will have to struggle here as anywhere else, but at least one won't have to do it with graceful movements.  That won't be necessary (42-43).


One can see that the effects of the center are very uneven for the narrator/Kafka.  It is only during the moment of true apotheosis that he can derive a feeling of comfort from the center.  The tree provides him nighttime protection but cannot heal him, he unceremoniously drops from it, like an unripe fruit.  Finally, as he lay down, once again he comes close to contentment, but the sound of sobs in the background and the idea that even here there will be a certain amount of struggle detracts from it.

            The narrator gets up from the ground where he was lying and sees a man being carried on a litter by four naked men.  "From the thicket on the opposite bank four naked men strode vehemently forth, carrying on their shoulders a wooden litter.  On this litter sat, Oriental fashion, a monstrously fat man" (46).  A god is always a personification of the center, because of its connection with the transcendent.  Kafka himself acknowledges that this figure is a god, later he notes,  "The fat man ... was carried down the river like a yellow wooden idol" (50).  During the Sed Festival, a festival of renewal of land and king in Egypt, the Pharaoh who was believed to be divine was also carried on a "boxlike litter" (Frankfort Kingship 87).  The presence of the four men associated with a god make this a vision of the center in its perfectly balanced aspect.

            That this vision of god-as-center provides the effects of a mandala for the narrator is expressed by the fact that the narrator loves the fat man (Der Dicke).  The narrator expresses this directly, when he says wahrhaftig ich liebte ihn (36). (I truly loved him; 50).   Love is a unifying force which the narrator has not felt up to this point.  He is quite distressed when he sees the fat man is in trouble.  "I paid no heed to danger, was concerned only with helping the fat man should his servants no longer be able to carry him" (49).  The fat man is doomed, though and is soon carried on the litter by the four men into the river where they all drown. Der Dicke konnte nicht … mußte sich drehen und in dem lauten, raschen Wasserfall verschwinden (59). ( The fat man ...  was forced to turn and disappear in the loud roar of the waterfall; 85-86).    

            The banks of a river often symbolize consciousness, thus to move into the water and drown would symbolize the dissolution of consciousness.[13]  Eyes are also a symbol of consciousness and the fat man has difficulty keeping them open, they hurt.  In this case, the narrator's desperation at the fat man's drowning, his sacrifice of his own safety to safe the fat man show that his death represents the dissolution of a mandala, that cohesive force which holds life together in the narrator's world, leaving him feeling fragmented.

            The fat man can be compared to the king, who undergoes ritual death.  Perry found great similarities between the archetypes which are touched on in schizophrenic psychosis and the archetypes which occurred in the New Year festivals of ancient cultures, particularly Egypt, Mesopotamia, Canaan and Israel:

         This ceremony was a ritual drama, beginning with [1] the king's confession of guilt on behalf of the people and [2] placed in a setting representing the … world center [3] there was an overcoming of the king by the power of death and darkness (Perry Madness 33).


The New Year festival is a seasonal festival of renewal closely associated with nature, in which the king in turn represents the vegetation which dies at the end of its cycle, but eventually emerges triumphant and renewed.  The fat man's passivity seems to indicate that he accepts his fate totally as part of life, just as the king in the ancient culture would.  However, the fat man does not emerge renewed.

            That he is at the end of the cycle is also shown partly by the fact that he is hairless (25).  Hair is a sign of strength, as it is in the story of Samson, who loses his strength when his hair is cut off.  In other words, hairlessness is a sign of depotentiation.  This seems to be the case with the fat man.  He is so weak, he barely occupies space, as illustrated by the fact  that as he lies on the litter, "A tiny mosquito with stretched wings flew straight through his belly without losing its speed" (51).

              As representative of the dying vegetation, the fat man knows his fate, that he will be reabsorbed into the earth.  He is thus experiencing the negative side of the mother archetype.  This seems to be in evidence when he talks of the mountain, a mother symbol,

der eine so launische Vorliebe für den Brei unserer Gehirne hat (33-34).  (which has such a capricious fondness for the pulp of our brains; 46).  He finds nature oppressive.   Jetzt aber—ich bitte euch--Berg, Blume, Gras, Buschwerk und Fluß, gebt mir ein wenig Raum, damit ich atmen kann (34).  (But now--I implore you--mountain, flowers, grass, bush, and river, give me some room so that I may breathe; 47).

            However against such natural processes which form the inexorable cycle of nature he cannot resist.  This might explain his total passivity and acceptance of his own death.  He tells the narrator it is inevitable.  "Dear sir on the shore, don't try to rescue me.  This is the water's and the wind's revenge; now I am lost" (51).  His attendants too, accept their fate, they silently carry the litter into the water.  Das Wasser, schlug zuerst an Kinn, stieg dann zum Mund … Da schlug eine niedrige Welle auf die Köpfe der Vordern nieder und die vier Männer ertranken schweigend (36) (The water lapped against their chins, then rose to their mouths  ... a low wave swept over the heads of those in front and the four men drowned in silence; 49). 



            One might argue that the center is not a mandala experience for Kafka as it was for both Jung and Nash.  After all, in Description of a Struggle, the narrator is only happy when he is identical with the center and has the power of a god, causing mountains to rise, and making nature itself angry when he forgets to let the moon come up.  From that point on, he is unable to achieve the comforting feeling of a mandala to the same degree in his subsequent encounters with the other symbols of the center, namely the tree, the god, and the mountain.  The tree actually changes, at first it is a symbol of the center in its positive aspect protecting him from nighttime dangers, but later it appears to him in its negative aspects, rejecting him prematurely, as he falls from it.  The experience of center-as-fat-man is again the negative aspect of the archetype, nature as terrible mother, reclaiming the fat man back to the river.

            His encounter with the center in the form of apotheosis or being one with the center is thus not followed by renewal as it was for Jung or Nash.  Archetypal images of death are at the forefront throughout, including the fact that it is winter, the time when vegetation is dead, his own fear that his acquaintance is going to kill him (which occurred earlier in the book), and the death of the fat man.  Instead of renewal is his fall from the tree like an unripe fruit.  However, Jung's point about the center was not that its presence necessarily implies a successful restoration of psychic balance, but simply that this symbol comes to the forefront in dreams, visions and artwork in those experiencing states of disintegration. 

            After this early work Kafka's writing takes a significant turn away from the direct encounter with the center while still being preoccupied with it.  In The Castle for example, the predominant theme is that of being blocked from the center.  The main character is a land surveyor who arrives in the town to work for the castle.  Tremendous frustration ensues when he cannot gain access to the castle to do his job.  For the remainder of the novel, the land surveyor remains stuck in the village around the castle, trying to get to it.  He finds that he cannot approach it directly but must go through bureaucratic channels, through mounds of paperwork and secretaries. This provides endless opportunity for the intentional kind of thinking.  Here, the castle is the center.  The bureaucracy which blocks the main character from the center is political in nature as all bureaucracy is.  The bureaucracy also serves as the magical defense around the center.  The ditches around ancient cities formed such defenses.  These ditches or labyrinths were more than just difficult physical blockades to get through, the archaics believed they were magical defenses protecting the center from evil spirits (Eliade, Images 39).  Instead of a labyrinth as a magical defense there is the endless paperwork, messengers and secretaries which block him from direct access to the count, who is his employer in the castle.  So from the types of encounter with the center we have described, it is the encounter with the center which is conditioned by intentional thinking which comes to dominate in Kafka's later work.  Kafka needs to express the endless wranglings of intentional thought associated with consciousness.  At the same time, he is gripped by unconscious symbols, perhaps because the wranglings of consciousness don't let the symbols unfold so he can experience them, and in doing so, obtain renewal.  A consciousness dominated by intentional thinking does not diminish the power or concerns of the unconscious.  In fact, in The Castle the center is reinvigorated with power, because it becomes the object of all the main character's strivings.  It is a kind of deadlock, with the symbol from the unconscious imbued with power, yet the object of conscious strivings.  Perhaps this is the struggle which Description of a Struggle is referring to.

            While Kafka's encounter with the center appears to be largely unfulfilling, it is thus intricately concerned with the symbol of the center.  Specifically, in his work, Kafka seems to be seeking a mandala experience in the sense of achieving fulfillment and inspiration at a powerful center, as Jung did.  However he achieves it only briefly in Description of a Struggle, and becomes farther and farther removed from it in The Castle.

            One might conclude from this that Kafka's work illustrates that the old symbols no longer work, in the sense that concentration on them no longer has the power to restore psychic balance, but they nevertheless are still fascinating—fascinating enough to be a prevalent theme in his work.  However, the study of psychology, in this case the study of schizophrenia shows that the old symbols can still work—they can produce the "mandala experience" which heals—but in order to see this in Kafka, we must look beyond his writings into his life.  There is perhaps a way in which Kafka did experience the comforting effects of the mandala, and this comes from a comparison with Nash.  For Nash, the effects of a mandala were achieved through an activity; the ritualistic return to the sanctuary of Fine Hall to continue his work with numbers.  Daryl Sharp's book on Kafka describes how he  performed such an activity with similar effects.  Defining the temenos as a container, that is "a place … which is essentially private and immune to disturbing influences from the outside," he observes that the act of writing itself was such a container for Kafka:

         it is possible that Kafka's literary work possessed for him a primarily therapeutic function; it was the medium through which he exteriorized his dilemmas and thus to a certain extent obtained some perspective on them (Sharp 45).


Sharp believes this is why Kafka wanted his writing to be destroyed after his death, since if it were destroyed his temenos would be protected, even after his death (Sharp 45-6).  Sharp does mention that a temenos is a kind of mandala or center.  Kafka thus achieved the effects of a mandala through the act of writing itself, while the content of what he wrote concerns the still fascinating, but largely unattainable center which does not provide a refuge from disintegration.    


Works Cited

Baring, Anne, and Jules Cashford. The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image.  London: Arkana, 1991.

Campbell, Joseph.  The Hero With a Thousand Faces.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949.

Couteau, Robert.  "Jungian Social Neglect."  Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture. (1988):197-201.

Derrida, Jacques.  Writing and Difference.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Eliade, Mircea.  Images and Symbols. Trans. Philip Mairet.  New York: Sheed and Ward, 1969.

Jung, C.G. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung.  Vol. 3. The Psychogenesis of Mental Disease. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960.

---.  Mandala Symbolism.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

---.  Dream Analysis: Notes on the Seminar Given in 1928-1930.  Ed. William McGuire.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.

---.  Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston, New York, Vintage Books, 1961.

---.  Psyche and Symbol: A Selection from the Writings of C.G. Jung.  Ed. Violet S. de Laszlo.  New York : Doubleday Anchor Books, 1958.

---.  Symbols of Transformation.  Trans. R.F.C. Hull.  Princeton: Princeton University Press,1956.

Hibberd, John. Kafka In Context.  London: Studio Vista, 1975.

Hocart, A.M.  Kingship. London: Oxford University Press, 1927.

Kafka, Franz.  The Castle.  Trans. J.A. Underwood.  London: Penguin Books, 1997.

---.  Description of a Struggle.  New York: Schocken Books, 1958.

---.  Beschreibung Eines Kampes. Prague: Verlag Heinr. Mercy Sohn, 1936.

Nasar, Sylvia.  A Beautiful Mind: a biography of John Forbes Nash Jr., winner of the Nobel Prize in economics.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

"Numerology" Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary.  2nd ed. 1973.

"Occult" Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary.  2nd ed. 1973.

Perry, J. Weir.  The Far Side of Madness. Dallas: Spring Publications, 1974.

---. The Self in Psychotic Process. Dallas: Spring Publications, Inc., 1953.

---.  Trials of the Visionary Mind.  New York: State University of New York Press, 1999.

Sass, Louis, A.  Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature, and Thought.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Sharp, Daryl.  The Secret Raven: Conflict and Transformation in the Life of Franz Kafka.  Toronto: Inner City Books, 1980.

Smith, Robert C.  The Wounded Jung. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996.

Walker, Steven.  Jung and the Jungians on Myth: An Introduction.  New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1995.

Winnicott, D.W. "Review of Memories, Dreams, Reflections"  International Journal of Psychoanalysis 45 (1964): 450-55.


[1] A vision is "in the last resort nothing less than a dream which has broken through into the waking state" (Jung, Psyche and Symbol 173).  A person who is having a vision would probably be labelled psychotic.

[2] For example, he believes that "By the age of 4 Jung's psychotic illness was established" (Winnicott 451).  It had various precipitating factors such as "the estrangement of his parents," and his mother's depression which caused him to suffer an "ego-disintegration" (Winnicott 451).  This disintegration is exemplified in the creation of two selves, which Jung calls No. 1 and No. 2.  Winnicott doesn't wish to deride Jung by these remarks.  "I must ask the reader at this stage to understand that I am not running down Jung by labeling him a 'recovered case of infantile psychosis'" (Winnicott 450).

[3] See J. Weir Perry's works including The Far Side of Madness and Trials of the Visionary Mind for a more complete discussion of the ten symbols, all of which commonly occur in the visions of schizophrenics.

[4] For the Jungians, the collective unconscious is a repository of archetypes or inherited containers for ideas.  Notice that an archetype is not an inherited idea but "a functional disposition to produce the same, or very similar ideas" (Jung, Symbols 102).  As a result the archetype itself cannot be known directly, but storytellers, writers, and prophets elaborate the archetype, giving it content.  They thereby produce the archetypal image which is a cultural elaboration of the archetype.  Myth is the elaboration of archetypal images in a narrative (Walker 18-19).  The collective unconscious is the part of the unconscious which contains universal content, in contradistinction to the Freudian unconscious which only contains personal, repressed contents.

[5] Although some authors claim that psychosis is not a necessary condition of schizophrenia, the presence of psychosis or visions (as Jung would call them) is most commonly regarded as one of the defining characteristics of schizophrenia (Sass 270).

[6] Couteau worked in a psychiatric adult home in New York.  Concerning the patients, he remarks; "All of them were heavily medicated, the vast majority for schizophrenia" (Couteau 197).  The anima is the archetype of the feminine, the inner woman in man (Walker 45).  In a similar fashion, women have an animus or inner man.

[7] Scholar's N.B.  This mandala, drawn by Jung, is described in Mandala Symbolism only as a "spontaneous product from the analysis of a male patient, not as one of Jung's own productions (Jung Mandala Symbolism.80).

[8] See below.

[9] Of course Nash did all these things unconsciously.  For the Jungians, the impulse to do such things would come from the collective unconscious.

[10] According to Louis Sass, Kafka displayed many characteristics of a schizoid individual, "the character type most commonly found in persons who will eventually develop schizophrenic forms of insanity" (Sass 76).  See Madness and Modernism, pages 82-85).

[11] German words are taken from the German version of the book (see bibliography).

[12] Baring and Cashford argue that the cult of the Mother Goddess can be traced back as far as the Paleolithic Age and died a slow death, made decisive in the Iron Age Babylonia when Tiamat was defeated by Marduk (Baring and Cashford 660-661).  However traces of this ancient cult are still observable even as late as Christianity.

[13]For example, in Visions, Jung describes a vision in which human beings are swimming in a river and some manage to crawl onto the banks.  He interprets this as "life envisaged as a river in which human beings are swimming or carried along, and all perfectly unconscious--they are submerged in the water, which means in the unconscious." (337).  The ones who subsequently crawl onto the banks are made conscious.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Leslie Trueman "The Mandala Experience: Visions of the Center in Schizophrenic and Fictional Accounts of Disintegration". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available March 3, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: May 22, 2002, Published: September 8, 2002. Copyright © 2002 Leslie Trueman