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On the Real and the Surreal


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The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche (Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 8)

I know nothing of a “super-reality.” Reality contains everything I can know, for everything that acts upon me is real and actual.

If it does not act upon me, then I notice nothing and can, therefore, know nothing about it.

Hence I can make statements only about real things, but not about things that are unreal, or surreal, or sub-real.

Unless, of course, it should occur to someone to limit the concept of reality in such a way that the attribute “real” applied only to a particular segment of the world’s reality.

This restriction to the so-called material or concrete reality of objects perceived by the senses is a product of a particular way of thinking-the thinking that underlies “sound common sense” and our ordinary use of language.

It operates on the celebrated principle “Nihil.est in intellectu quod non antea fuerit in sensu,” regardless of the fact that there are very many things in the mind which did not derive from the data of the senses.

According to this view, everything is “real” which comes, or seems to come, directly or indirectly from the world revealed by the senses.

This limited picture of the world is a reflection of the onesidedness of Western man, which is often very unjustly laid at the door of the Greek intellect.

Restriction to material reality carves an exceedingly large chunk out of reality as a whole, but it nevertheless remains a fragment only, and all round it is a dark penumbra which one would have to call unreal or surreal.

This narrow perspective is alien to the Eastern view of the world, which therefore has no need of any philosophical conception of super-reality.

Our arbitrarily delimited reality is continually menaced by the “super-sensual,” the “supernatural,” the “superhuman,” and a whole lot more besides.

Eastern reality includes all this as a matter of course.

For us the zone of disturbance already begins with the concept of the “psychic.” In our reality the psychic cannot be anything except an effect at third hand, produced originally by physical causes; a “secretion of the brain,” or something equally savory.

At the same time, this appendage of the material world is credited with the power to pull itself up by its own bootstraps, so to speak; and not only to fathom the secrets of the physical world, but also, in the form of “mind,” to know itself.

All this, without its being granted anything more than an indirect reality.

Is a thought “real”? Probably-to this way of thinking-only in so far as it refers to something that can be perceived by the senses.

If it does not, it is considered “unreal,” “fanciful,” “fantastic,”etc., and is thus declared nonexistent.

This happens all the time in practice, despite the fact that it is a philosophical monstrosity.

The thought was and is, even though it refers to no tangible reality; it even has an effect, otherwise no one would have noticed it.

But because the little word “is”-to our way of thinking-refers to something material. the “unreal” thought must be content to exist in a nebulous super-reality, which in practice means the same thing as unreality.

And yet the thought may have left undeniable traces of its reality behind it; we may, perhaps, have speculated with it, and thereby made a painful hole in our bank balance.

Our practical conception of reality would therefore seem to be in need of revision.

So true is this that even popular literature is beginning to include all sorts of “super”-concepts in its mental horizon.

I have every sympathy with this, for there is something really not quite right about the way we look at the world.

Far too little in theory, and almost never in practice, do we remember that consciousness has no direct relation to any material objects.

We perceive nothing but images, transmitted to us indirectly by a complicated nervous apparatus.

Between the nerve-endings of the sense-organs and the image that appears in consciousness, there is interpolated an unconscious process which transforms the physical fact of light, for example, into the psychic image “light.”

But for this complicated and unconscious process of transformation consciousness could not perceive anything material.

The consequence of this is, that what appears to us as immediate reality consists of carefully processed images, and that, furthermore, we live immediately only in a world of images.

In order to determine, even approximately, the real nature of material things we need the elaborate apparatus and complicated procedures of chemistry and physics.

These disciplines are really tools which help the human intellect to cast a glance behind the deceptive veil of images into a non-psychic world.

Far, therefore, from being a material world, this is a psychic world, which allows us to make only indirect and hypothetical inferences about the real nature of matter.

The psychic alone has immediate reality, and this includes all forms of the psychic, even “unreal” ideas and thoughts which refer to nothing “external.”

We may call them “imagination” or “delusion,” but that does not detract in any way from their effectiveness.

Indeed, there is no “real” thought that cannot, at times, be thrust aside by an “unreal” one, thus proving that the latter is stronger and more effective than the former.

Greater than all physical dangers are the tremendous effects of delusional ideas, which are yet denied all reality by our world-blinded consciousness.

Our much vaunted reason and our boundlessly overestimated will are sometimes utterly powerless in the face of “unreal” thoughts.

The world-powers that rule over all mankind, for good or ill, are unconscious psychic factors, and it is they that bring consciousness into being and hence create the sine qua non for the existence of any world at all.

We are steeped in a world that was created by our own psyche.

From this we can judge the magnitude of the error which our Western consciousness commits when it allows the psyche only a reality derived from physical causes.

The East is wiser, for it finds the essence of all things grounded in the psyche.

Between the unknown essences of spirit and matter stands the reality of the psychic-psychic reality, the only reality we can experience immediately. ~Carl Jung, The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche.