Man and His Symbols: Approaching the Unconscious

Man and His Symbols: Approaching the Unconscious

The following article is based on Carl Gustav Jung’s final contribution to the world of psychology, Man and His Symbols. While the novel is the collaborative work of several authors, I will be focusing on Jung’s paper, part one of the novel: Approaching the Unconscious.

A Jungian Method of Dream Interpretation  

Symbols evoke those ideas and conceptions beyond the range of human understanding, often employed to represent that which we can neither explain nor fully comprehend. For example, the cross, or the wheel, are universal symbols that recall the concept of divinity, for which man cannot provide an exact definition. Thus, symbols represent that which is not fully accessible to conscious knowledge, for they lie beyond the edge of certainty.

What is miraculous, Jung tells us, is that man “produces these symbols unconsciously and spontaneously, in the form of dreams.” (p. 4) Which are also the most universally accessible source for their investigation. That is the investigation of man’s symbolising faculty.

Jung chronicles the events that led to his recognition of the importance of dreams as well as the development of his own method of dream interpretation. This process began with Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer’s recognition of the symbolic significance of abnormal behaviour, believing that which troubled the unconscious found expression in physical symptomology. For instance, a man who is unable to breathe the atmosphere at home may experience an attack of asthma, or, if he compulsively vomits, could be having trouble digesting some unpleasant fact.

While abnormal or neurotic behaviour provides valuable insight into that which troubles the unconscious, Jung believed these unconscious disturbances found better expression by way of greater symbolic variety in dreams than they did physical symptoms.

To work with dream material, Freud developed a technique called free association. This technique used the dream as a starting point from which to explore the unconscious problem of the client, often leading to the discovery of his or her complexes, those repressed emotional themes causing psychological disturbances and symptoms of neurosis. While this technique was a cornerstone in the development of psychoanalysis, Jung soon realised that it was not necessary to use the dream image as the point of departure from which to discover a client’s complexes, for these could just as easily be reached by other means. He also felt that free association, in which the client broke away from the dream and moved, through a web of ideas, toward a complex, failed to consider the particular significance and function of the dream itself. As such, he developed a method of interpretation that centred the dream picture in hopes of illuminating its unique meaning. He believed this return always to the dream image of particular importance, for it was the nature of consciousness to attempt to evade the often-unpleasant insights of the unconscious.

“The two fundamental points in dealing with dreams are these: First, the dream should be treated as a fact, about which one must make no previous assumption except that it somehow makes sense; and second, the dream is a specific expression of the unconscious.” (p. 18)

The Function of Dreams

Dreams tend to point out those aspects of our life that are not suitable to our individuation, whether this be the course of our actions or distortions in our conscious attitude toward life. Through their interpretation, the messages of the unconscious are delivered to consciousness, such that the often-impoverished, rational consciousness is once again enriched by the forgotten language of the instincts. This works to lessen the dissociation between consciousness and the unconscious, which is the cause of psychological disturbance.

“The general function of dreams is to try to restore our psychological balance by producing dream material that re-establishes, in a subtle way, the total psychic equilibrium. This is what I call the complementary (or compensatory) role of dreams in our psychic make-up.” (p. 34)

While assuming the compensatory function of dreams provides a useful approach for their interpretation, there are several additional functions dreams may serve. For example, they may attempt to shed light on the shadow side of our personality, or in fact those positive qualities that we have repressed or disregarded. The unconscious is also highly perceptive and able to observe our movement toward dangers that consciously we fail to recognise, such that some dreams may anticipate future events and even attempt to warn the dreamer of imminent danger. This should not give the false impression of the unconscious as a benevolent force, however, for just as often dreams do not caution the dreamer. In some instances, they may even lead the dreamer to perdition. The ambiguous nature of dreams is due to their production in the subliminal space. The dream is a psychic phenomenon and psychic growth operates under the same principles as organic growth, such that the psyche produces symbols in much the same way that the flower blooms. The unconscious, and by extension dreams, “are a natural phenomenon and, like Nature herself, are at least neutral. It contains all aspects of human nature – light and dark, beautiful and ugly, good and evil, profound and silly.” (p. 94)

Working with the Individual

“The individual is the only reality.” (p. 45)

Dream analysis is first and foremost an exchange between two individuals. The analyst should be careful not to assume that his therapeutic formula is an absolute truth that places him in a position of intellectual superiority over his client. Furthermore, he should be cognisant of differences in personality between himself and his client, for example, whether the client is an introvert and he himself an extrovert, for this will invariably influence the dynamic between the two. The analyst should be able to recognise the relativity of his standpoint and prevent his personal prejudices influencing the interpretation of his client’s dream.

Dream interpretation is greatly dependent on the individual, so much so that it is almost impossible to classify dreams and their symbols, for the symbolic content produced by the unconscious cannot be separated from the individual whose dream is being interpreted. Jung is clear that “there is no therapeutic technique or doctrine that is of general application” (p. 54) for every individual is unique. Such that it is best to allow the dreamer to guide the therapeutic process. Even in instances where the message of the dream is clear to the analyst, he’d do well to consider whether his client is psychologically stable enough to hear it, for the analyst should always have in the forefront of his mind the protection and preservation of his client’s dignity and freedom. There are times when building rapport with the client will take precedence over the pursuit of his symptoms, for it might be necessary for him to build a trusting relationship before he is able to confront the truth of his psychology.

“It all depends on learning the language of the individual patient and following the gropings of his unconscious toward the light. Some cases demand one method and some another.” (p. 55)

Archetypal Symbology

“There are many symbols . . . that are not individual but collective in their nature and origin.” (p. 41)

One may find in the case of highly emotive dreams the presence of archetypal content. Here, personal associations do not suffice for the psyches production of “what Freud called “archaic remnants” – mental forms whose presence cannot be explained by anything in the individual’s own life and which seem to be aboriginal, innate, and inhered shapes of the human mind.” (p. 57) Jung termed these archaic remnants ‘archetypes’, which are collective thought patterns and images that arise spontaneously from the unconscious “in any time or in any part of the world – even where transmission by direct descent or “cross fertilization” through migration must be ruled out.” (p. 58) Our mind is a product of history, built upon the psyche of archaic man, such that the contents produced in the mind of the native storyteller, born of his dreams and fantasies, that were a vital force in the creation of myths, religions and philosophies, reproduce themselves within our own. That is not to say that archetypes are definite mythological images and motifs, but rather representations that can vary greatly without losing their basic pattern.

“[Many] artists, philosophers, and even scientists owe some of their best ideas to inspirations that appear suddenly from the unconscious. The ability to reach a rich vein of such material and to translate it effectively into philosophy, literature, music, or scientific discovery is one of the hallmarks of what is commonly called genius.” (p. 25)

Interpretation demands intelligence, imagination and intuition. To understand symbols requires an understanding of “the wholeness of the symbol-producing individual” (pp. 81-82) as well as self-awareness on the part of the interpreter. Moreover, due to the production of archetypal content, it is essential that the analyst, if he wishes to identify important analogies within the dreams of his client, possess a “comparative anatomy of the psyche.” (p. 57) That is, a working knowledge of mythology in the broadest sense.

One may identify an archetypal dream when there is nothing in the waking life of the individual to explain its cause. For example, dreams that possess an anticipatory or prognostic function are archetypal in nature.

“I can confirm by a modern dream the element of prognosis (or precognition) that can be found in an old dream quoted by Artemidorus of Daldis, in the second century A.D: A man dreamed that he saw his father die in the flames of a house on fire. Not long afterward, he himself died in a phlegmone (fire, or high fever), which I presume with pneumonia.” (p. 67)

Such is the dynamic nature of archetypes, whose specific energy provides them with the initiative necessary to produce, in their own symbolic and often poetic style, a meaningful interpretation of a given situation. They possess their own thought formations and impulses toward action separate from those of the dreamer, such that they are able to intervene in his or her life.

It is important to note that it is only through the bridge of emotion that archetypes gain life, until then they are mere words or images. It is only when the individual discovers their relationship to the archetype, and the emotion it elicits within them, that it gains meaning and become a lived experience for the individual. Therefore, the individual is still the key to the interpretation of archetypal dream content, for these symbols will only make sense once examined within the context of his or her life situation. “Symbols are natural attempts to reconcile and reunite opposites within the psyche.” (p. 90) The feeling tone that accompanies an archetype is essential for this psychological synthesis, and as such, it is necessary that the process of dream interpretation is not reduced to a purely intellectual process but allows space for this emotional value.

Symbols and Society   

Symbols can be either “natural” or “cultural”. Natural symbols are derived from the unconscious and can often “be traced back to their archaic roots – i.e., to ideas and images that we meet in the most ancient records and primitive societies.” (p. 83) Whereas cultural symbols, used to express ‘eternal truths’, are well established within contemporary society for they have undergone an often-long process of conscious transformation. Such symbols can evoke a deep emotional response for “they still retain much of their original numinosity.” (p. 83) Jung warns of the eradication and rejection of such symbols, whose disappearance into the unconscious redirects their potent energy and only serves to intensify the destructive shadow.

Jung believed that modern man’s fixation on rationalism has caused him to lose sight of his spiritual traditions, ruining his capacity to respond in a meaningful way to numinous symbols and ideas. This loss of contact with his spiritual values has put him at the mercy of the psychic “underworld”, causing worldwide dissociation and moral decay.

“As scientific understanding has grown, so our world has become dehumanized. Man feels himself isolated in the cosmos, because he is no longer involved in nature and has lost his emotional “unconscious identity” with natural phenomena. These have slowly lost their symbolic implications. Thunder is no longer the voice of an angry god, nor is lightning his avenging missile, no river contains a spirit, no tree is the life principle of man, no snake the embodiment of wisdom, no mountain cave the home of a great demon. No voices now speak to man from stones, plants, and animals, nor does he speak to them believing they can hear. His contact with nature has gone, and with it has gone the profound emotional energy that this symbolic connection supplied.” (p. 85)

It is the symbols of our dreams that compensate for this enormous loss. The interpretation of dreams enables us to reconnect in a meaningful way with symbols that enrich our lives and set us on the path to psychological wholeness. Jung believed that to heal society, it was necessary for man to first look inward and recognise that his psyche (the human soul) is his greatest instrument.

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Comments (2)

  • Jack Hart Reply

    I enjoyed this very much

    November 25, 2023 at 11:28 pm
  • Tom Kapustik Reply

    Great article! Links the original feelings of mankind to the present and how we have become disconnected with nature.

    November 26, 2023 at 5:51 pm

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