Man and his Symbols


Carl Jung was a student of Freud; but this, I think, is definitely a case of the student surpassing the master. Freud ‘discovered’ the unconscious mind; yet he feared it and essentially sees it as a ‘subterranean’ center of repressed emotions and ideas. Jung believed that this ‘unconscious mind’ was an active and powerful friend and ally to the conscious part of our minds. Thus with Jung, our unconsciousness becomes a place to explore and seek ourselves. Where Freud sees a flooded crypt, Jung sees a deep ocean and seeks it in a Jacques Cousteau style.

Published in the early ’60s, this book is a collaborative synthesis of Jung’s ideas meant for the general public. This was stressed, not just in the introduction, but in literally every chapter and by every single author, who made frequent comments to the effect of “we have much more technical jargon – that you wouldn’t understand – in our ‘real’ writings”. You see, the Jungians have a bit of an inferiority complex; this is a book, after all, about dream interpretation. It’s also a way of seeing the world that comes from the Platonic traditions of philosophy that have their engine in central Europe (Germany). This means that in a world of ‘hard’ sciences where positivism has sway, Jung’s ideas are, at best, to be taken with a grain of salt.

Jung is more than simply a guide to what your dreams mean. His basic conception implies that to be happy, healthy, and live a fulfilled life, one must work with the unconscious mind; it’s essentially your own Freudian therapist. Interestingly, Jung stresses the study of ancient cultures, myths, and symbols as aids to studying dreams; the idea is that most of ancient mythology and most of our own personal ideas come essentially from the unconscious mind. This is my favourite part of Jung; your dreams are one with mythology. The mythology of the ancients is made to make luminous sense. It’s fascinating to see common threads to our thinking across the globe. For example, the idea of a cosmic or original man – ‘Adam’- in our case, is mirrored by similar figures in most other cultures.

Jung is also a huge figure in ’60s academia; his work seems to blend anthropology with human psychology, and sociology. His influence on our culture is very broad, though we might not ever really notice. I’m thinking of Joseph Campbell’s books and their influence on George Lukas; simply for example.

As to the actual book, it was interesting but I felt unconvinced. Jung propounds too much of a system. I do think that dreams are trying to tell you something; I do think that dreams are, on some level “meaningful”, but Jung insists that they bear a consistent and deeply meaningful message, with the ultimate goal for your conscious and your unconscious to be perfectly in tune with one anther.

Even though numerous dreams were recounted and analysed in the book; it left me ever so slightly cold. Nothing “rang true” for me; I felt that the dream symbolism might only be relevant to a certain culture and a certain time and place in history. For example, a familiar dream figure is that of the ‘animus’: a male’s inner feminine element. Another is the ‘shadow’; this is the side of yourself that you dislike or do your best to ignore. In dream after dream, these elements appear in the book. But for me, in searching my own dreams, I can’t identify a single one.

Another example is that certain numbers or shapes are imputed with deep psychological meaning. A circle or mandala seems to imply the cosmic whole of humanity; a square or anything about the number 4 also deep ‘atomic’ center of your psyche. Again, my own dreams seem sadly empty of this penetrating symbolism. I could not help but wonder if part of the Jungian therapy is essentially coaching the unconscious to display this sort of symbolism.

Here’s another take: this is about the time that people start seeing and being “abducted” by flying saucers. Here’s the Jungian interpretation: because it’s a saucer, that’s a circle, and because it’s a circle, it’s a mandala-esque reference to personal and cosmic wholeness. Therefore, a dream about being abducted by aliens is interpreted as your unconscious attempting to get you to be more in tune with your society; it’s scary, but it mist be done. This is a rough interpretation, but it’s close enough for you to understand my hesitations.

The book has a great message about personal wholeness in our day and age, which I think hold true regardless of the actual accuracy of Jungian thought. It’s a great book for anyone interested in dreams or symbolism or mythology.




4 thoughts on “Man and his Symbols

  1. O.K. May be I can agree to that.
    ” I could not help but wonder if part of the Jungian therapy is essentially coaching the unconscious to display this sort of symbolism.”
    That is an astute observation. I think that is true. Humans can deceive themselves in many ways, especially when they are are looking for beliefs to make themselves happy.

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