A conversation with Robert Hopcke

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing)

Robert Hopcke is the author of the best-selling There Are No Accidents (Riverhead Books), a book about synchronicity, the phenomenon of "coincidences too coincidental to be coincidental."

Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist, coined the term "synchronicity" and explored it in his later work in an effort to find an underlying reality principle that is not causal. In the classic example from his own work, he was listening to a client's dream about a scarab. Suddenly there was a light tap on the window. When he went to look, he saw a brilliantly colored beetle, a scarab just outside the window. Obviously, the client's dream could not cause the beetle to appear but the uncanny coincidence made him wonder about the meaning of such events, which are common in most people's lives.

Hopcke, who lives in the Bay Area, has also authored several scholarly books on Jung, including one based on his Master's thesis. It, Jung, Jungians and Homosexuality, established him as a renegade among Jungians because of his critical examination of the Jung community's covert (and sometimes overt) homophobia. Hopcke and I talked over a broad range of topics related to Jung's psychology recently:

How did you come to write a pop book after making your reputation as a scholar on Jung?

A couple of things happened. I had written half a dozen articles on synchronicity over the years and, while I was looking for a literary agent to market some fiction for me, she asked why I wasn't writing a book on synchronicity. So, it seemed like a good idea. I actually had no idea it would end up being so commercially successful, although there have been at least six books written about the subject recently.

It must be a change from having such a limited audience with your other books.

Well, yes, but it's not that I got burned out or something. Publishing is at a very strange juncture right now.The change in distribution of books, the emergence of super stores, has made publishing more commercial than ever and even the small presses are no longer printing books out of the sense of intellectual obligation they used to have. Even academic presses, like Princeton, now look to the popular market…So my book about Jungians and homosexuality is now out of print. When I taught a course recently at a college, I couldn't use my own text - and there's nothing else on the subject.

Let's stick with the synchronicity book for now. Why do you think it hit such a chord with people?

Oh, I think it's about people's need for meaning. Maybe it has to do with the fact that all of us have had these experiences and we've been told repeatedly that they are insignificant and don't mean anything, when we know they do.

Well that raises a point. What is the meaning of a synchronicity? What does it say about the world?

The important thing that a lot of people miss is that the meaning is not in the event itself. In a synchronicity there is a meaningful "coincidence" between your inner, felt experience, and what happens in the outer world. You think about someone, say, and there's a phone call from them. That doesn't mean that your thoughts caused the call to occur. It doesn't mean that your thoughts have direct influence over the material world….

Right and, frankly, when I read the stories of synchronicity in your book, I often have difficulty finding their significance as anything other than impressive coincidences, even though I know similar experiences in my own life have had a powerful effect on me.

That's because, as I said, a synchronicity doesn't necessarily tell you to do anything. It is a message. It is the inner experience of it that is important.

You mean that it creates a kind of awe, that it lets us know that life is bigger than the visible, bigger than cause and effect, that there's a mystery to our experience that's far beyond explanation?

Yes, that's it exactly. I have done a lot of radio shows around this and most people still find the whole concept amazing. The idea that the psyche of the individual person may be connecting at a deeper level to something outside itself is shocking to a lot of people. It means that we are connected at the level Jung called the objective psyche - a shared psyche - not just with one another but with the world generally. These experiences don't just happen with other people, but with the whole world of nature.

What are we supposed to do with that recognition? Is it any different from grace?

I'm not sure. Grace is a theological concept and I'm not positing a divine cause of these experiences. Jung was, of course, very supportive of religious beliefs. We forget that he was writing in 1951, at the height of the death-of-god movement, so he was interested in helping people make meaning out of their lives without necessarily becoming religious. I do think certain things are implied by the reality of synchronicity.

Part 2

You said last week that you believe synchronicity says something important about our lives in a general way.

For me, the main thing is that synchronicities suggest that our lives are truly stories - that they have a plot which is not always seen by us but is revealed, as in a work of fiction, by sudden unexpected twists that reveal the story.

I agree. It is amazing to me how one can look back and life makes sense, when it made practically no sense as events were unfolding. I assume this is why some people consult oracles like the Tarot and the I Ching.

Yes, they operate on the principle of synchronicity and allow us a glimpse into this story… and this doesn't require a religious point of view, by the way. Jung's genius partly was to place the god image in the individual's psyche, so that absolute truth becomes a fiction too.

It's too bad we have to mystify everything that speaks of the invisible….I wonder if you've noticed how addicted people seem to get to the Tarot and the I Ching.

Well, not that often, really. I see maybe one out of 20 people go off the deep end. A lot of times people who make a cult of it are those who don't understand the principle at all. They want to believe in magic and all kinds of invisible forces. They think they are controlling experience with the cards - that their thoughts precede what happens, but in reality the action of the other in the environment may as often precede our thought of it. The whole point is that it's not causal. The I Ching reveals our story and gives us some advice about how to co-author it.

I'm curious to know if you use this material in your psychotherapy practice.

Oh, I'd say 99 percent of the people who come in for therapy are very resistant to any kind of idea of synchronicity, at least in the beginning. But I approach their lives as stories and, over time, I think people get a real sense of freedom from that, that they do have a choice about how to live and author their story. I had a client who was very resistant to the idea of synchronicity in my office but who was given a deck of Tarot cards in a very mysterious way. It ended up opening her eyes to her life in a very different way.

Surely the very stuckness that brings people to therapy, their inability to consider other options, would make a concept like synchronicity a little scary. It does imply that our lives may have a plot and meaning quite different from the one we want to be living.

Yes indeed. And of course when that's the case you often have a series of powerful synchronicities hitting you in the face to indicate that you're living outside your own story.

As you mentioned last week, you wrote a very pivotal book, Jung, Jungians and Homosexuality, a critique of the Jungian community in this respect, that has now gone out of print and can't find a new publisher. Do you think things are changing at all in the analytical community?

Yes, I do. In San Francisco in particular there are now gay men in analytical training and in five or 10 years it might be easy to find comfortably gay analysts. For the present, though, it's not. Most analysts working now are still of the generation that pathologized same-sex preference or find it necessary to be quiet about it or genteel in their support. In researching my book, I found that much of the thought about homosexuality in the Jung community is still directed by papers are all stored in Jung Institute libraries. They haven't been published, because they understand it wouldn't be politically correct, but most of them are homophobic. I think the entire community's orientation toward this is shifting, but way too slowly for a person like me.

Is that why you never enrolled in analytical training at an institute?

Partly. I'm an extrovert and my style doesn't fit the typical analytical institute. I would be nothing but a troublemaker to them. My first commitment is to the gay and lesbian community. I want to help make the average gay person feel better about themselves and find a more sophisticate way of viewing life. I'm not interested in fighting the Jung community. Jungians can take care of themselves and seem to be doing so slowly. I'm very happy to be a Jungian on the outside. Anyway, Jung's Collected Works are available for anyone to read and, insofar as homosexuality is concerned, he said very little - despite what some older Jungians claim.

What's your next book?

Believe it or not, it's about gay men and their girl friends. I'm also planning something on opera and the archetypes. I think I've needed a break from all the scholarly writing I've done in the past.


Copyright 1999 by Creative Loafing

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