So. Jung. I’ve always had kind of a love/unease relationship with Jung. In my twenties, I took a class (or two?) at the C G Jung Institute in Chicago, based on what was then (and is now, with a bit of skepticism thrown in) a Jung/Campbell appreciation. I enjoyed the class, but as I learned more, I experienced a growing sense of frustration, which looking back I now recognize as my being torn between the urge to find something that I could buy into, one hundred percent, and a growing understanding that for me, there’s no such thing.
I’m through the first section of Man and His Symbols, (titled Approaching the Unconscious), and I’m experiencing the same mixture of attraction and disagreement that I felt, then – an experience that perhaps only an atheist with a strong interest in the mystical can truly understand. Let’s toss out some quotes, to see where Jung plants his flag:
“What we call a symbol is a term, a name, or even a picture that may be familiar in daily life, yet that possesses specific connotations in addition to its conventional and obvious meaning.”
Fair enough. Even the objects around us have symbolic meanings, to varying degrees (wedding rings, anyone? Cherished toys? Old love letters? Rosebud?).
“As the mind explores the symbol, it is led to ideas that lie beyond the grasp of reason.”
“We constantly use symbolic terms to represent concepts that we cannot define or fully comprehend.”
Here’s where the first cracks appear, for me. In the text, he follows up with man’s inability to define the “divine.” He’s right that there are many things that we don’t comprehend, and yes – we name them without truly knowing them, but this doesn’t mean that those concepts exist – only that we struggle with their categorization. Calling something “divine” as opposed to “unknown” puts it in a special category – one that permits faith (in the divine), rather than research (into the unknown), but it doesn’t resolve the mystery, it only changes how we interact with it.
“Man, as we realize if we reflect for a moment, never perceives anything fully or comprehends anything completely.” … “Thus every experience contains an indefinite number of unknown factors.”
Very much so. Not only do we perceive things incompletely, we are acutely uncomfortable with that failing, to the extent that as well as interpreting things in terms of symbols and archetypes, we classify and simplify them based our own perceptions and biases, so we can move forward with a sense of control and understanding.
“Man also produces symbols unconsciously and spontaneously, in the form of dreams.”
I struggle not with the idea, but with a statement that seems to me incomplete. Does he mean all dreams are rife with symbolic content, or merely some?
“This predicament is a symptom of a general unconsciousness that is the undeniable common inheritance of all mankind.”
If I’m interpreting him correctly, he’s saying that there’s an unconscious that we all share. I think we share a lot – to the extent that deep down, all human beings are very, very similar, but where I see us as individuals with a stew of history and shared tendencies (perceptual and otherwise), I think Jung sees more of a direct, concrete inheritance that approaches a shared mind. Though he allows for individuality, symbol to symbol, interpretation to interpretation, it always raises a red flag for me when a writer – any writer – starts using words like “undeniable,” which bolster an argument without actually adding anything to it.
“Very often dreams have a definite, evidently purposeful structure, indicating an underlying idea or intention – though, as a rule, the latter is not immediately comprehensible.”
One of the ways that I differ from Jung is that I lack his willingness to attribute meaning and pattern to what we don’t understand: we may not comprehend the dream, says Jung, but it has meaning. I believe that throughout our lives we are confronted with a never-ending stream of information and experiences – some that we ultimately take meaning from, some that we don’t.
“But it is a fact, that, in addition to memories from a long-distant conscious past, completely new thoughts and creative ideas can also present themselves from the unconscious – thoughts and ideas that have never been conscious before. They grow up from the dark depths of the mind like a lotus and form a most important part of the subliminal psyche.”
Artists understand this: that sudden burst of creativity, the “new” idea that when examined turns out to be a fusion of past and present, part of a creative tapestry that is woven again and again: artistic truth.
Jung believes that our conscious impressions “assume an element” of unconscious meaning, even when we aren’t aware of the meaning under the surface, that impacts the conventional meanings that make up our day-to-day lives in ways that we don’t understand. This I get – I believe that our whole lives are a sort of symbolic, magical dream that we live and create as we go. It’s a testament to our sameness – our intrinsic understanding of each other – that we can communicate, at all.
I believe that symbolic content and archetypes are churning away under the surface of our conscious minds, and that how we interpret the world is influenced, accordingly, but Jung lends an intentionality to the unconscious that I don’t buy into: a layer of what I would call mysticism that I disagree with and distrust. Yes, understanding and resolving conscious wishes and unconscious desires prevents a gap between them, and allows us to live more authentic lives, but I don’t see dreams as critical to this task, and I find the borderline sentience that he seems to attribute to the archetypes to be without merit. Is he being more metaphoric than I’m giving him credit, for? Is it that he’s not being precise enough, and I’m misinterpreting him?
Jung sees a split between “primitive man” (ugh!) who is “much more governed by his instincts than his ‘rational’ modern descendants, who have learned to ‘control’ themselves.” I don’t like his use of language (I believe in human culture, and don’t think mine is more or less “primitive” than any other, though I might find some practices more or less objectionable) and I think he grossly exaggerates the impact of so-called “civilization” on the day-to-day lives of human beings. When I look around me at the world – the whole world – I don’t know if I’d call much of it civilized: what I see is the same, human behavior playing out in different societies, with different levels of technology.
Jung sees dreams as impacting our moods, based on how much we “comprehend” them, and goes on to say:
“It often seems that even inanimate objects co-operate with the unconscious in the arrangement of symbolic patterns. There are numerous well-authenticated stories of clocks stopping at the moment of their owner’s death. Other common examples are those of the mirror that breaks, or a picture that falls when a death occurs; or minor but unexplained breakages in a house where someone is passing through an emotional crisis. Even if skeptics refuse to credit such reports, stories of this kind are always cropping up, and this alone should serve as ample proof of their psychological importance.”
Jung claims that dreams aren’t predictive, but seems to retain a romantic attachment to the idea. To me, these anecdotes prove only that human beings are magical thinkers, who imagine connections as a way of asserting their own centrality in an indifferent universe. Jung’s failure to clarify his mystical beliefs – and speak to how they influence his opinions – is infuriating.
“When it is a matter of obsessive dreaming of or highly emotional dreams” … “we have to take into consideration the fact (first observed and commented on by Freud) that elements often occur in a dream that are not individual and that cannot be derived from the dreamer’s personal experience.”
I think Jung discounts the breadth of personal experience: the tens of thousands of tiny moments, the phrases, the ideas that fill our minds, and from which patterns form. I agree that an archetype is a “tendency to form such representations of a motif,” but archetypes in my opinion form as the brain struggles to understand, and in doing so draws on inherent patterns, cultural and (to an unclear extent) biological. That shared wiring – person to person, civilization to civilization – creates recurring patterns – these motifs are part of who we are, part of the human experience. Describing a child’s dreams, Jung says:
“It was as if future events were casting their shadow back by arousing in the child certain thought forms that, though normally dormant, describe or accompany the approach of a fatal issue.”
Jung goes on to explain that the child soon died. What else am I to take away from this, other than that Jung sees dreams as messages that speak not just to unconscious desires and generated symbols, but that tap into a shared, mystical place of deeper understanding and foreknowledge? I believe he draws this conclusion partially because of dreams that seem out of the child’s experience, but as I said, I think he underestimates the depth and complexity of that experience – even a child’s. I believe there are patterns, but I don’t believe that a shared human consciousness of archetypes is working under the surface, with an “anticipatory or prognostic aspect.” The unconscious is not “already informed” of things that the consciousness is not: it merely processes in a more symbolic, less easily comprehensible way.
Human beings want to either agree or disagree, to see right, or wrong. The ideas of Jung’s that I’m attracted to – that I agree with – are very important to me, but some of my disagreements make it hard not to question the whole. The challenge is to pick and choose.
More Jung, later (I’ve got a few more things to say about the first section, but I’ll intersperse them with other topics to keep things interesting). So what do you think? Do you believe in the unconscious, and what does it mean, to you? Do you believe our dreams mean things all the time, some of the time, or are they just pictures we see when we close our eyes for too long? Are you a fan of Jung? Am I misinterpreting him (admittedly, I’m responding to a section, not deep study)?