Saracen’s Wound: “Islamic” Wound of the Western Psyche

Sylvester Wojtkowski
New York, New York, USA
New York Association for Analytical Psychology

It was culture itself that inflicted this wound upon modern humanity.
(Friedrich Schiller, as quoted by C.G. Jung in CW 6, §105)

In post-September 11, 2001, the Western psyche has been shocked into an awareness of the Islamic world with a strength not known since the wars with the Ottoman Empire in the seventeenth century. In spite of thirteen centuries of common history, there has been very little attempt at symbolic understanding of the impact of this Near Eastern “Other” on the Western psyche. Even the 1991 high-tech NATO-Iraq war over Kuwait changed very little in this matter. Only in the aftermath of 9/11, with ongoing wars on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, does Western culture show sustained interest in Islamic issues.

In the last three years, as a New Yorker profoundly affected by 9/11, I found myself drawn to an exploration of Islamic culture and Occident-Orient relations. A search for the symbolic roots of the Christian-Islamic conflict led me to an exploration of Jung’s ideas about cultural wounds and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival in which a Moorish knight injures the Grail King Anfortas.

Jung’s View of the Cultural Wound

It is not surprising that Jung in his genius had some insights about both cultural wounds and Islam. He thought about collective, personal, and individual cultural wounds. I will present here only a short sketch of Jung’s view.

1. Collective Wound

Jung’s idea of the cultural wound is a complex notion that he developed in 1921 in Psychological Types, in the context of his discussion of Friedrich Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man, in a Series of Letters. (Friedrich Schiller, trans. Reginalde Snell. New Haven and London, 1795/1954). Jung says:

The breakdown of the harmonious cooperation of psychic forces in instinctive life is like an ever open and never healing wound, a veritable Amfortas’ wound, because the differentiation of one function among several inevitably leads to the hypertrophy of the one and the neglect and atrophy of the others. It was culture itself that inflicted this wound upon modern humanity. (CW 6, §105)

Jung considers culture a relatively closed dynamic organic system constantly interacting both with individuals within and outside of it and with other cultures. In the process of these exchanges, both cultures and individuals are transformed. Jung follows Schiller’s analysis of the impact of Christianity on the Athenian individual culture that led to the establishment of the collective culture and a corresponding wound. Jung believed that this transformation of culture took place by the process of internalization:

Psychologically it meant that the external form of society in classical civilization was transferred into the subject, so that a condition was produced within the individual which in the ancient world had been external, namely a dominating, privileged function which was developed and differentiated at the expense of an inferior majority. (CW 6, §108)

As a result, the Athenian individual culture gradually became a collective culture in which each individual could enjoy more freedom and human rights. However, as the Greek culture depended on the slave labor for its sustenance, the new collective culture relied on an inferior function within individuals. As Jung puts it:

Just as the enslavement of the masses was the open wound of the ancient world, so the enslavement of the inferior functions is an ever-bleeding wound in the psyche of modern man. (emphasis added, CW 6, §108)

The dynamic mechanism underlying this internalization of culture was the Christian repression of instinctual and sexual energies. The consequence of this repression was the creation of a cultural shadow within the Christian psyche and hierarchy of psychological functions. Gradual development of Christian Western culture from its inception to modernity increased the gap between “what man is and what he represents.” Individuals in the society identify with the well-developed collective function, while the inferior functions linger in the primitive state of “barbarity.” (CW 6, §111) The cultural wound thus created has features of instinctual, polytheistic antiquity that is experienced as an emptiness or a restless void.

2. Personal Wound

The personal aspect of the cultural wound of Christianity was experienced by Jung in relation to his father. (MDR, p. 215) In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung says:

My memory of my father is of a sufferer stricken with an Amfortas wound, a “fisher king” whose wound would not heal-that Christian suffering for which the alchemists sought the panacea. I as a “dumb” Parsifal was the witness of this sickness during the years of my boyhood, and, like Parsifal, speech failed me … He had literally lived right up to his death the suffering prefigured and promised by Christ, without ever becoming aware that this was a consequence of the imitatio Christi.

In this context, Jung’s work on Christianity can be seen in the light of Parsifal myth as an attempt to redeem his own father.

3. Individual Wound

Jung witnessed a conflict of cultures in the life of his friend Richard Wilhelm, the translator of the I-Ching. According to Jung, Wilhelm had a gift of “being able to listen without bias to the revelation of foreign mentality and to accomplish that miracle of empathy which enabled him to make the intellectual treasures of China accessible to Europe.” Jung saw Wilhelm’s subsequent illness and death as a result of a clash of cultures when Wilhelm’s formerly suppressed Christian part of his psyche began to reassimilate his Chinese part upon his return to Germany. (MDR, Appendix IV, pp. 373-7)

In summary, these ideas provide confirmation that Jung had an articulate theoretical notion of the cultural wound and a personal experience of it. Thus conceived, the cultural wound is an inevitable result of the rise of Christianity and the interaction of individual psyches affected by different cultures. Let’s now turn to the Arthurian tradition to explore the Anfortas wound.

Insights from Wolfram of Eschenbach’s Parzival

In Eschenbach’s version of Arthurian legend, Anfortas is wounded by a Saracen knight. Written just after the Third Crusade by a minnesinger- knight, Parzival contains one of the Western literary tradition’s first imaginings of the Arab world. One of the protagonists, Parzival’s father Gahmuret, is a noble knight who serves with great distinction both the Christian kings and the Caliph of Baghdad. He fathers two sons: Feirefiz in the East and the younger Parzival in the West.

King Anfortas, the guardian of the holy Grail abandons the grail castle in search of amor, or courtly love. Riding on behalf of his beloved queen Orguluse (Arrogance), Anfortas is wounded in his testicles in a joust with an Islamic knight. He is wounded by a poisonous lance with a word “grail” inscribed on its blade. The “heathen” is motivated by “pride that his valor is going to win him the grail.” This joust was constellated by Anfortas’s illicit passion: his quest for love outside Christian bounds and Islamic knight’s quest for the grail’s power: a conflict between Eros and Kratos, or love and power.

Can we gain any insights by reflecting on the nature of this bodily injury that would inform our understanding of the cultural wound? The inscription reveals that the Muslim knight is aiming at the grail. The injury is in the sexual area, as if to expose the sexual need that has already motivated Anfortas’s search for love and thus to reveal the psychic wound already present. However, that event implicates the other in the wound and in its healing. If the thrust of a lance is taken as a symbol of projection, the projection creates a chronic wound that cannot be cured without the participation of the other, a representative of the Islamic culture.

Contrary to all the attention that many interpreters of the grail myth devoted to the fool’s question, “Uncle, what is it that troubles you?” [in Wolfram’s rendering] as a sole healing agent, the story itself depicts other events that bring about the healing of Anfortas’s wound. The actual healing is brought about by Parzival (who by that time is neither ignorant nor a fool but a wise, anguished knight, painfully aware of his failure and fully cognizant of what is expected of him) and his Muslim brother Feirefiz entering the grail castle together. Their father Gahmuret is a bridge between the two cultures. His oriental son is born of a black queen Belacante and is of piebald complexion. Here Eschenbach displays a prescient intuition that the different cultures do not seamlessly blend into each other (creating a psychic mulatto) but instead create a black and white checkered display suggesting that the whole cultural body is made of different attitudes rooted in each culture, a piebald cultural soul. It is the same word that Jung uses to describe the American nation, “it is not wholly white, if you please, but piebald.” (CW 10, §961) Melting pot notwithstanding, this image suggests that the psyches of two different cultures do not fuse but stand out separately, in potential conflict with one another in a single body. Feirefiz comes to the West on a Telemachian search for his father. During a noble joust Parzival and Feirefiz recognize each other as brothers: “If I am to grasp the truth, my father and you and I, we were all one. … You have fought here against yourself; against myself I rode into combat and would have gladly killed my very self.” (Parzival, p. 392) Their joint entrance into the grail castle indicates that the reconnection of the cultural split-off shadows is necessary for a re-entrance into wholeness. As Westerners we can no longer innocently claim our original wholeness. In the era of globalization we need to circumambulate not only our complexes but also “the world” and gather the projected pieces of the Western psyche.

As the brothers enter the grail castle, Feirefiz does not see the grail. Instead he sees the beautiful eyes of Repanse de Shoye the grail bearer and falls in love with her. Eros enters the grail chamber where previously agape ruled. The grail spirit is renewed by the presence of a non-believer with sexual desire that transcends the realm of the grail. Eros projected onto Moors returns together with Parzival’s compassion to heal wounded king, or the ruling principle. Since the grail is invisible to the unbaptized (as a helpful priest explains), the Moorish search for it is the search literally for the invisible, or at least more so than for the Christian knights’ who would be able to identify the grail if they see one. Wolfram provides a profound cultural insight: the essence of the highest value of one culture is invisible to the other. It defies common sense: would not the highest symbol be celebrated for all to see? Doesn’t the Arab world of today see that the Western values are freedom, democracy, security and prosperity for all? Is it not self-evident that the West promotes these values even as Americans bomb Iraqi cities to liberate them from tyranny? However, it seems that Arabs are more in touch with our shadow, whose impact is so devastating and real that it obscures any other value. Notwithstanding the recent media attention to the Muslim worlds, what do we really know of the essence of Islam? Have we not failed to understand the Islamic “other” for centuries? I argue that the Saracen’s wound (“Saracen” means “descendant of Sarah” and is itself a medieval misnomer for an Arab, who according to the Bible is a descendant of Hagar, not Sarah) leading to the Islamic complex of the Western psyche is responsible for this failure.

The defeat of the West by armies of Islam (through Islamic conquests and subsequent crusading wars) is the only wound that the West has received from a more developed culture. (Islamic culture was built by its own dynamic spirit influenced by the ancient Greco- Roman culture and in the early medieval times was vastly more sophisticated.) This humiliation exposed the Western wound inflicted by Christian oppression of instinctual polytheistic energies. It resulted in the projection of the European shadow on the Islamic “other.” In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s times, on the cusp of the thirteenth entury, this projection had features of pagan antiquity. His infidels or heathens worship Roman gods and cultivate pagan customs although they embrace common knightly conduct. They are more open to the European “others” and seem to understand better their customs and are tolerant of Western prejudices (Parzival’s son is disgusted at Feirfitz’s strange complexion).

In the remaining part of this paper, I will paint in broad strokes the Islamic wound, or complex as it is manifested in the Western, and particularly American perception of the current conflict. I will use a simplified version particular political narrative expressed by a conservative side of the American political spectrum not to privilege it or overlook the debate or divisions of views on the subject but to symbolically refract it through the prism of the Islamic wound discussed above. Although my political views are on the liberal side of the political divide, I will not distance myself from this narrative but will embrace it as mine, to avoid splitting and take it as a Western view that is as well present in my psyche.

Currently, it seems self-evident that Islam still lives in the barbarian, cruel, primitive, misogynistic medieval world – our medieval world – the very one that we sophisticated, democratic, pro-feminist Westerners already outgrew centuries ago. So the face of the Islamic enemy, the Islamists, fanatics of Jihad, terrorists is envisioned in the popular Western imagination in a manner akin to the bloodthirsty crusaders destroying Jerusalem, slaughtering everybody: men, women and children, Arabs, Jews and Christians in vengeful religious zeal. We are appalled by what appears to be an utter lack of basic human compassion and feel vastly morally superior (public statements of tolerance notwithstanding). The complexity and diversity of actual Islamic world(s) easily escape our attention and memory. This is not to say that contemporary Muslim societies lack brutality. But like any social-cultural situation, the reasons are complicated, and religious beliefs may be only one factor that affects the violence. Even if it could be argued that violence in Muslim societies is more vicious than in the West, and even as the kind of violence may resemble some that Westerners want to believe that has already been abandoned, the term commonly used is medieval. Somehow, in the context of the violence committed by Muslims or in Islamic countries, we forget that by our own admission there has been no worse violence in the world than Western atrocities in the twentieth century’s two world wars and Shoah. We can bomb from that Apollonic height of 30,000 feet without need to react to the blood on the ground which would disturb our much more refined sensibilities.

However, when we see the Islamic violence as medieval, we see it in terms of our “Islamic complex” that blinds us both to the reality of their cruelty and justifies ours. Historically, we in the West tend to see the “other” as less civilized than ourselves when our perception of the “other’s” violence is reminiscent of the kind of violence that we want to believe we have already outgrown; and if we still have to resort to violence – it is only to protect ourselves from the “evil other;” so we are justified to suspend some of our civilized principles to eliminate the threat. On the other side, this perception of the “other” as a less developed version of ourselves satisfies our own primitive need for understanding of the “other” in our own terms. This perception facilitates and justifies our objectification and dehumanization of the “other” and leads to applying our social, economic, and political ideas to improve and modernize the “other” so they would join the common global (i.e., our Western) world. Blinded by our Islamic complex, our attitude towards Arabs is full of self-righteousness, superiority and arrogance. (We know better what is good for them, like our democracy, or separation of church and state ([not even mosque and state].)


Although Jung, who was considered by some Muslims to be an alim, or man of the book (MDR, p. 265), and who would prefer to be a Muslim rather than a Greek Orthodox (Letters, 20 June 1933), had admitted that he was unable to reconcile “the irreconcilable nature of Christianity and Islam” (“Dream Analysis, “ p. 336), he did reflect on the topic while discussing his patient’s dream. Jung says:

That peculiar light engendered by the cross and crescent is a new enlightenment, a sort of revelation. If the truth of the crescent could be united with the truth of the cross, it would produce that enlightenment, the combined truth of Islam and Christianity. If it were possible to extract the essential truth of each and blend them, then out of the clash would come an enormous illumination which would amount to a new conviction. (“Dream Analysis,” p. 418)

Can we say that the recent events bring an opportunity for this reconciliation or is it going to be one more traumatic reenactment of the crusader’s wound? As if mocking this question the first ship that arrived to Basra after the “liberation of Iraq” was the British tanker “Sir Galahad,” on a quest for the holy grail now concretized as oil.

So what can we do as Jungians to contribute to the healing of this wound? In the words of Roberto Gambini, who writes about the relations between the European and Indian “other” in Brazil, we need to psychologize history: “Psychologizing history [consists of] use [of] imagination and empathy as a resource to deconstruct all and any scene or vision erected by the conqueror’s historiographic officialdom.” (Gambini, Indian Mirror, 165) So we need to undertake psychologizing history, or, as I would call it, symbolizing or ensouling history. The Western soul has been the most active in insatiable, compelling territorial expansion that by now has either eliminated or at least seriously affected all other living souls on the planet. And running out of actual space, it has invented a virtual space to recapitulate its conquest in another dimension. To underline the urgency of symbolic reflection on the relationship between Western and Islamic cultures, let me end with this prophetic quote of Jung’s from his 1950 essay on Nostradamus: “The evil events to come are ascribed to the crescent moon, but one never reflects that the opponent of Christianity dwells in the European unconscious. History repeats itself.” (CW 9ii, p. 95n)