[Carl Jung on “The Significance of Dreams.”]
Through his language, man tries to designate things in such a way that his words will convey the meaning of what he intends to communicate.
But sometimes he uses terms or images that are not strictly descriptive and can be understood only under certain conditions.
Take, for instance, the many abbreviations like UN, UNESCO, NATO, etc., which infest our newspapers, or trademarks or the names of patent medicines.
Although one cannot see what they mean, they yet have a definite meaning if you know it. Such designations are not symbols, they are signs.
What we call a symbol is a term, a name, or an image which in itself may be familiar to us, but its connotations, use, and application are specific or peculiar and hint at a hidden, vague, or unknown meaning.
Take as an example the image of the double adze that occurs frequently on Cretan monuments.
We know the object, but we do not know its specific meaning.
Again, a Hindu who had been on a visit to England told his friends at home that the English worshipped animals, because he had found eagles, lions, and oxen in their old churches and cathedrals, and he was not aware that these animals were the symbols of the evangelists.
There are even many Christians who do not know that they are derived from the vision of Ezekiel, which in turn offers a parallel to the Egyptian Horus and his four sons.
Other examples are the wheel and the cross, which are universally known objects, yet under certain conditions they are symbolic and mean something that is still a matter for controversial speculation.
A term or image is symbolic when it means more than it denotes or expresses.
It has a wider “unconscious” aspect—an aspect that can never be precisely denned or fully explained.
This peculiarity is due to the fact that, in exploring the symbol, the mind is finally led towards ideas of a transcendent nature, where our reason must capitulate.
The wheel, for instance, may lead our thoughts to the idea of a “divine” sun, but at this point reason has to admit its inadequacy, for we are unable to define or to establish the existence of a “divine” being.
We are merely human, and our intellectual resources are correspondingly limited.
We may call something “divine,” but this is simply a name, a fagon de parler, based perhaps on a creed, yet never amounting to a proof.
Because there are innumerable things beyond the range of human understanding, we constantly use symbolic expressions and images when referring to them (ecclesiastical language in particular is full of symbols).
But this conscious use of symbolism is only one aspect of a psychological fact of great importance: we also produce symbols unconsciously and spontaneously in our dreams.
Each act of apperception, or cognition, accomplishes its task only partially; it is never complete.
First of all, sense-perception, fundamental to all experience, is restricted by the limited number and quality of our senses, which can however be compensated to a certain extent by the use of instruments, but not sufficiently to eliminate entirely a fringe of uncertainty.
Moreover apperception translates the observed fact into a seemingly incommensurable medium—into a psychic event, the nature of which is unknowable.
Unknowable, because cognition cannot cognize itself—the psyche cannot know its own psychic substance.
There is thus an indefinite number of unknown factors in every experience, in addition to which the object of cognition is always unknown in certain respects since we cannot know the ultimate nature of matter itself.
Every conscious act or event thus has an unconscious aspect, just as every sense-perception has a subliminal aspect: for instance, sound below or above audibility, or light below or above visibility.
The unconscious part of a psychic event reaches consciousness only indirectly, if at all.
The event reveals the existence of its unconscious aspect inasmuch as it is characterized either by emotionality or by a vital importance that has” not been realized consciously.
The unconscious part is a sort of afterthought, which may become conscious in the course of time by means of intuition or by deeper reflection.
But the event can also manifest its unconscious aspect—and this is usually the case —in a dream. The dream shows this aspect in the form of a symbolic image and not as a rational thought.
It was the understanding of dreams that first enabled us to investigate the unconscious aspect of conscious psychic events anto discover its nature.
It has taken the human mind a long time to arrive at a more or less rational and scientific understanding of the functional meaning of dreams.
Freud was the first who tried to elucidate the unconscious background of consciousness in an empirical way.
He worked on the general assumption that dream-contents are related to conscious representations through the law of association, i.e., by causal dependence, and are not merely chance occurrences.
This assumption is by no means arbitrary but is based on the empirical fact, observed long ago by neurologists and especially by Pierre Janet, that neurotic symptoms are connected with some conscious experience.
They even appear to be split-off areas of the conscious mind which, at another time and under different conditions, can be conscious, just as an hysterical anesthesia can be there one moment and gone the next, only to reappear again after a while.
Breuer and Freud recognized more than half a century ago that neurotic symptoms are meaningful and make sense inasmuch as they express a certain thought.
In other words, they function in the same manner as dreams: they symbolize.
A patient, for instance, confronted with an intolerable situation, develops a spasm whenever he tries to swallow:
“He can’t swallow it.”
Under similar conditions another patient develops asthma: “He can’t breathe the atmosphere at home.”
A third suffers from a peculiar paralysis of the legs: “He can’t go on any more.”
A fourth vomits everything he eats: “He can’t stomach it.” And so on.
They could all just as well have had dreams of a similar kind.
Dreams, of course, display a greater variety and are often full of picturesque and luxuriant fantasy, but they boil down eventually to the same basic thought if one follows Freud’s original method of “free association.”
This method consists in letting the patient go on talking about his dream-images.
That is precisely what the non-psychological doctor omits to do.
Being always pressed for time, he loathes letting his patient babble on about his fantasies seemingly without end.
Yet, if he only knew, his patient is just about to give himself away and to reveal the unconscious background of his ailment.
Anyone who talks long enough will inevitably betray himself by what he says and what he purposely refrains from saying.
He may try very hard to lead the doctor and himself away from the real facts, but after a while it is quite easy to see which point he is trying to steer away from.
Through apparently rambling and irrational talk, he unconsciously circumscribes a certain area to which he continually returns in ever-renewed attempts to hide it.
In his circumlocutions he even makes use of a good deal of symbolism, apparently serving his purpose of hiding and avoiding yet pointing all the time to the core of his predicament.
Thus, if the doctor is patient enough, he will hear a wealth of symbolic talk, seemingly calculated to hide something, a secret, from conscious realization.
A doctor sees so many things from the seamy side of life that he is seldom far from the truth when he interprets the hints which his patient is emitting as signs of an uneasy conscience.
What he eventually discovers, unfortunately, confirms his expectations.
Thus far nobody can say anything against Freud’s theory of repression and wish-fulfilment as apparent causes of dream symbolism.
If one considers the following experience, however, one becomes skeptical.
A friend and colleague of mine, travelling for long hours on a train journey through Russia, passed the time by trying to decipher the Cyrillic script of the railway notices in his compartment.
He fell into a sort of reverie about what the letters might mean and—following the principle of “free association”—what they reminded him of, and soon he found himself in the midst of all sorts of reminiscences.
Among them, to his great displeasure, he did not fail to discover those old and disagreeable companions of sleepless nights, his “complexes”—repressed and carefully avoided topics which the doctor would joyously point to as the most likely causes of a neurosis or the most convincing meaning of a dream.
There was no dream, however, merely “free associations” to incomprehensible letters, which means that from any point of the compass you can reach the centre directly.
Through free association you arrive at the critical secret thoughts, no matter where you start from, be it symptoms, dreams, fantasies, Cyrillic letters or examples of modern art.
At all events, this fact proves nothing with regard to dreams and their real meaning.
It only shows the existence of associable material floating about.
Very often dreams have a very definite, as if purposeful, structure, indicating the underlying thought or intention though, as a rule, the latter is not immediately comprehensible.
This experience was an eye-opener to me, and, without dismissing the idea of “association” altogether, I thought one should pay more attention to the dream itself, i.e., to its actual form and statement.
For instance, a patient of mine dreamed of a drunken, disheveled, vulgar woman called his “wife” (though in reality his wife was totally different).
The dream statement, therefore, is shocking and utterly unlike reality, yet that is what the dream says.
Naturally such a statement is not acceptable and is immediately dismissed as dream nonsense.
If you let the patient associate freely to the dream, he will most likely try to get away as far as possible from such a shocking thought in order to end up with one of his staple complexes, but you will have learnt nothing about the meaning of this particular dream.
What is the unconscious trying to convey by such an obviously untrue statement?
If somebody with little experience and knowledge of dreams should think that dreams are just chaotic occurrences without meaning, he is at liberty to do so.
But if one assumes that they are normal events, which as a matter of fact they are, one is bound to consider that they are either causal—i.e., that there is a rational cause for their existence—or in some way purposive, or both; in other words, that they make sense.
Clearly, the dream is seeking to express the idea of a degenerate female who is closely connected with the dreamer.
This idea is projected upon his wife, where the statement becomes untrue.
What does it refer to, then?
Subtler minds in the Middle Ages already knew that every man “carries Eve, his wife, hidden in his body.”
It is this feminine element in every man (based on the minority of female genes in his biological make-up) which I have called the anima.
“She” consists essentially in a certain inferior kind of relatedness to the surroundings and particularly to women, which is kept carefully concealed from others as well as from oneself.
A man’s visible personality may seem quite normal, while his anima side is sometimes in a deplorable state.
This was the case with our dreamer: his female side was not nice.
Applied to his anima, the dream-statement hits the nail on the head when it says: you are behaving like a degenerate female.
It hits him hard as indeed it should. One should not, however, understand such a dream as evidence for the moral nature of the unconscious.
It is merely an attempt to balance the lopsidedness of the conscious mind, which had believed the fiction that one was a perfect gentleman throughout.
Such experiences taught me to mistrust free association.
I no longer followed associations that led far afield and away from the manifest dream-statement.
I concentrated rather on the actual dream-text as the thing which was intended by the unconscious, and I began to circumambulate the dream itself, never letting it out of my sight, or as one turns an unknown object round and round in one’s hands to absorb every detail of it.
But why should one consider dreams, those flimsy, elusive, unreliable, vague, and uncertain phantasms, at all?
Are they worthy of our attention?
Our rationalism would certainly not recommend them, and the history of dream interpretation before Freud was a sore point anyway; most discouraging in fact, most “unscientific” to say the least of it.
Yet dreams are the commonest and universally accessible source for the investigation of man’s symbolizing faculty, apart from the contents of psychoses, neuroses, myths, and the products of the various arts.
All these, however, are more complicated and more difficult to understand, because, when it comes to the question of their individual nature, one cannot venture to interpret such unconscious products without the aid of the originator.
Dreams are indeed the chief source of all our knowledge about symbolism.
One cannot invent symbols; wherever they occur, they have not been devised by conscious intention and willful selection, because, if such a procedure had been used, they would have been nothing but signs and abbreviations of conscious thoughts.
Symbols occur to us spontaneously, as one can see in our dreams, which are not invented but which happen to us.
They are not immediately understandable, they need careful analysis by means of association, but, as I have said, not of “free association,” which we know always leads back eventually to the emotional thoughts or complexes that are unconsciously captivating our mind.
To get there, we have no need of dreams. But in the early days of medical psychology the general assumption was that dreams were analyzed for the purpose of discovering complexes.
For this purpose, however, it is sufficient to conduct an association test, which supplies all the necessary hints as I have shown long ago.
And not even this test is necessary, because one can obtain the same result by letting people talk long enough.
There can be no doubt that dreams often arise from an emotional disturbance in which the habitual complexes are involved.
The habitual complexes are the tender spots of the psyche, which react most quickly to a problematical external situation.
But I began to suspect that dreams might have another, more interesting function.
The fact that they eventually lead back to the complexes is not the specific merit of dreams.
If we want to learn what a dream means and what specific function it fulfils, we must disregard its inevitable outcome, the complex.
We must put a check on limitless “free” association, a restriction provided by the dream itself.
By free association, we move away from the individual dream-image and lose sight of it.
We must, on the contrary, keep close to the dream and its individual form.
The dream is its own limitation. It is itself the criterion of what belongs to it and of what leads away from it.
All material that does not lie within the scope of the dream, or that oversteps the boundaries set by its individual form, leads astray and produces nothing but the complexes, and we do not know whether they belong to the dream or not since they can be produced in so many other ways.
There is, for instance, an almost infinite variety of images by which the sexual act can be “symbolized,” or rather allegorized.
But the dream obviously intends its own specific expression in spite of the fact that the resultant associations will lead to the idea of sexual intercourse.
This is no news and is easy to see, but the real task is to understand why the dream has chosen its own individual expression.
Only the material that is clearly and visibly indicated as belonging to the dream by the dream-images themselves should be used for interpretation.
While free association moves away from the theme of the dream in something like a zigzag line, the new method, as I have always said, is more like a circumambulation, the centre of which is the dream-image.
One concentrates on the specific topics, on the dream itself, and disregards the frequent attempts of the dreamer to break away from it.
This ever-present “neurotic” dissociative tendency has many aspects, but at bottom it seems to consist in a basic resistance of the conscious mind to anything unconscious and unknown.
As we know, this often fierce resistance is typical of the psychology of primitive societies, which are as a rule conservative and show pronounced misoneistic tendencies.
Anything new and unknown causes distinct and even superstitious fear. The primitive manifests all the reactions of a wild animal to untoward events.
Our highly differentiated civilization is not at all free from such primitive behaviour.
A new idea that is not exactly in line with general expectations meets with the severest obstacles of a psychological kind.
It is given no credit, but is feared, combatted, and abhorred in every way.
Many pioneers can tell a story of misery, all due to the primitive misoneism of their contemporaries.
When it comes to psychology, one of the youngest of the sciences, you can see misoneism at work, and in dealing with your own dreams you can easily observe your reactions when you have to admit a disagreeable thought.
It is chiefly and above all fear of the unexpected and unknown that makes people eager to use free association as a means of escape.
I do not know how many times in my professional work I have had to repeat the words: “Now let’s get back to your dream. What does the dream say?”
If one wants to understand a dream it must be taken seriously, and one must also assume that it means what it manifestly says, since there is no valid reason to suppose that it is anything other than it is.
Yet the apparent futility of dreams is so overwhelming that not only the dreamer but the interpreter as well may easily succumb to the prejudice of the “nothing but” explanation.
Whenever a dream gets difficult and obstinate, the temptation to dismiss it altogether is not far away.
When I was doing fieldwork with a primitive tribe in East Africa, I discovered to my amazement that they denied having dreams at all.
But by patient indirect talk I soon found that they had dreams all right, like everybody else, but were convinced that their dreams meant nothing.
“Dreams of ordinary men mean nothing,” they said. The only dreams that mattered were those of the chief and the medicine-man, which concerned the welfare of the tribe.
Such dreams were highly appreciated.
The only drawback was that the chief as well as the medicine-man denied having any more dreams “since the British were in the country.”
The District Commissioner had taken over the function of the “big dream.”
This incident shows that even in a primitive society opinions about dreams are ambivalent, just as in our society, where most people see nothing in dreams while a minority thinks very highly of them.
The Church, for instance, has long known of somnia a Deo rnissa (dreams sent by God), and in our own time we have watched the growth of a scientific discipline which aims at exploring the vast field of unconscious processes.
Yet the average man thinks little or nothing about dreams, and even a thoroughly educated person shares the common ignorance and underrates everything remotely connected with the “unconscious.”
The very existence of an unconscious psyche is denied by a great number of scientists and philosophers, who often use the naive argument that if there were an unconscious psyche there would be two subjects in the individual instead of one.
But that is precisely the case, in spite of the supposed unity of the personality.
It is, indeed, the great trouble of our time that so many people exist whose right hand does not know what their left is doing.
It is by no means the neurotic alone who finds himself in this predicament.
It is not a recent development, nor can it be blamed on Christian morality; it is, on the contrary, the symptom of a general unconsciousness that is the heritage of all mankind.
The development of consciousness is a slow and laborious process that took untold ages to reach the civilized state (which we date somewhat arbitrarily from the invention of writing, about 4000 B.C.).
Although the development since that date seems to be considerable, it is still far from complete.
Indefinitely large areas of the mind still remain in darkness.
What we call “psyche” is by no means identical with consciousness and its contents.
Those who deny the existence of the unconscious do not realize that they are actually assuming our knowledge of the psyche to be complete, with nothing left for further discoveries.
It is exactly as if they declared our present knowledge of nature to be the summit of all possible knowledge.
Our psyche is part of nature, and its enigma is just as limitless.
We cannot define “nature” or “psyche,” but can only state what, at present, we understand them to be.
No man in his senses, therefore, could make such a statement as “there is no unconscious,” i.e., no psychic contents of which he and others are unconscious—not to mention the mountain of convincing evidence that medical science has accumulated.
It is not, of course, scientific responsibility or honesty that causes such resistance, but age-old misoneism, fear of the new and unknown.
This peculiar resistance to the unknown part of the psyche has its historical reasons.
Consciousness is a very recent acquisition and as such is still in an “experimental state”—frail, menaced by specific dangers, and easily injured.
As a matter of fact one of the most common mental derangements among primitives consists in the “loss of a soul,” which, as the term indicates, means a noticeable dissociation of consciousness.
On the primitive level the psyche or soul is by no means a unit, as is widely supposed.
Many primitives assume that, as well as his own, a man has a “bush-soul,” incarnate in a wild animal or a tree, with which he is connected by a kind of psychic identity.
This is what Levy-Bruhl called participation mystique.
In the case of an animal it is a sort of brother, so much so that a man whose brother is a crocodile is supposed to be safe while swimming across a crocodile-infested river.
In the case of a tree, the tree is supposed to have authority over the individual like a parent.
Injury to the bush-soul means an equal injury to the man.
Others assume that a man has a number of souls, which shows clearly that the primitive often feels that he consists of several units.
This indicates that his psyche is far from being safely synthesized; on the contrary, it threatens to fall asunder only too easily under the onslaught of unchecked emotions.
What we observe in the seemingly remote sphere of the primitive mind has by no means vanished in our advanced civilization.
Only too often, as I have said, the right hand does not know what the left is doing, and in a state of violent affect one frequently forgets who one is, so that people can ask: “What the devil has got into you?”
We are possessed and altered by our moods, we can suddenly be unreasonable, or important facts unaccountably vanish from our memory.
We talk about being able to “control ourselves,” but self-control is a rare and remarkable virtue.
If you ask your friends or relatives they may be able to tell you things about yourself of which you have no knowledge.
One almost always forgets or omits to apply to oneself the criticism that one hands out so freely to others, fascinated by the mote in one’s brother’s eye.
All these well-known facts show beyond a doubt that, on the heights of our civilization, human consciousness has not yet attained a reasonable degree of continuity.
It is still dissociable and vulnerable, in a way fortunately so, since the dissociability of the psyche is also an advantage in that it enables us to concentrate on one point by dismissing everything else that might claim attention.
It makes a great difference, however, whether your consciousness purposely splits off and suppresses a part of the psyche temporarily, or whether the same thing happens to you, so that the psyche splits spontaneously without your consent and knowledge, or perhaps even against your will.
The first is a civilized achievement, the second a primitive and archaic condition or a pathological event and the cause of a neurosis.
It is the ”loss of a soul,” the symptom of a still existing mental primitivity.
It is a long way indeed from primitivity to a reliable cohesion of consciousness.
Even in our days the unity of consciousness is a doubtful affair, since only a little affect is needed to disrupt its continuity.
On the other hand the perfect control of emotion, however desirable from one point of view, would be a questionable accomplishment, for it would deprive social intercourse of all variety, color, warmth, and charm. ~Carl Jung, The Symbolic Self, Pages 185-195.