Symbolic Life

Violet de Laszlo has risked shocking the American reader by including some of my most difficult essays in her selection from my writings.

In sympathy with the reader I acknowledge how tempting if not unavoidable it is to fall into the trap of appearances as the eye wanders over the pages in a vain attempt to get at the gist of the matter in the shortest possible time.

I know of so many who, opening one of my books and, stumbling upon a number of Latin quotations, shut it with a bang, because Latin suggests history and therefore death and unreality.

I am afraid my works demand some patience and some thinking.

I know: it is very hard on the reader who expects to be fed by informative headlines.

It is not the conscientious scientist’s way to bluff the public with impressive resumes and bold assertions.

He tries to explain, to produce the necessary evidence, and thus to create a basis for understanding.

In my case, moreover, understanding is not concerned with generally known facts, but rather with those that are little known or even new.

It was therefore incumbent upon me to make these facts known.

In so far as such unexpected novelties demand equally unexpected means of explanation I found myself confronted with the task of explaining the very nature of my evidential material.

The facts are experiences gained from a careful and painstaking analysis of certain psychic processes observed in the course of psychic treatment.

As these facts could not be satisfactorily explained by themselves, it was necessary to look round for possible comparisons.

When, for instance, one comes across a patient who produces symbolic mandalas in his dreams or his waking imagination and proceeds to explain these circular images in terms of certain sexual or other fantasies, this explanation carries no conviction, seeing that another patient develops wholly different motivations.

Nor is it permissible to assume that a sexual fantasy is a more likely motivation than, for instance, a power drive, since we know from experience that the individual’s disposition will of necessity lead him to give preference to the one or the other.

Both patients, on the other hand, may have one fact in common—a state of mental and moral confusion.

We would surely do better to follow up this clue and try to discover whether the circular images are connected with such a state of mind.

Our third case producing mandalas is perhaps a schizophrenic in such a disturbed state that he cannot even be asked for his accompanying fantasies.

This patient is obviously completely dissolved in a chaotic condition.

Our fourth case is a little boy of seven who has decorated the corner of the room where his bed stands with numerous mandalas without which he cannot go to sleep.

He only feels safe when they are around him.

His fantasy tells him that they protect him against nameless fears assailing him in the night.

What is his confusion?

His parents are contemplating divorce.

And what shall we say of a hard-boiled scientific rationalist who produced mandalas in his dreams and in his waking fantasies?

He had to consult an alienist, as he was about to lose his reason because he had suddenly become assailed by the most amazing dreams and visions.

What was his confusion?

The clash between two equally real, worlds, one external, the other internal: a fact he could no longer deny.

There is no need to prolong this series since, leaving aside all theoretical prejudices, the underlying reason for producing a mandala seems to be a certain definable mental state.

But have we any evidence which might explain why such a state should produce a mandala? Or is this mere chance?

Consequently we must ask whether our experiences are the only ones on record and, if not, where we can find comparable occurrences.

There is no difficulty in finding them; plenty of parallels exist in the Far East and the Far West, or right here in Europe, several hundred years ago.

The books of reference can be found in our university libraries, but for the last two hundred years nobody has read them, and they are—oh horror .’—written in Latin and some even in Greek.

But are they dead? Are those books not the distant echo of life once lived, of minds and hearts quick with passions, hopes, and visions, as keen as our own?

Does it matter so much whether the pages before us tell the story of a patient still alive, or dead for fifty years?

Does it really matter whether their confessions, their anguish, their strivings speak the English of today or Latin or Greek?

No matter how much we are of today, there has been a yesterday, which was just as real, just as human and warm, as the moment we call Now, which—alas—in a few hours will be a yesterday as dead as the first of January anno Domini 1300.

A good half of the reasons why things now are what they are lies buried in yesterday.

Science in its attempt to establish causal connections has to refer to the past.

We teach comparative anatomy, why not comparative psychology?

The psyche is not only of today, it reaches right back to prehistoric ages. Has man really changed in ten thousand years?

Have stags changed their antlers in this short lapse of time?

Of course the hairy man of the Ice Ages has become unrecognizable when you try to discover him among the persons you meet on Fifth Avenue.

But you will be amazed when you have talked with them for a hundred hours about their intimate life.

You will then read the mouldy parchments as if they were the latest thrillers.

You will find the secrets of the modern consulting room curiously expressed in abbreviated mediaeval Latin or in an intricate Byzantine hand.

What the doctor can hear, when he listens attentively, of fantasies, dreams, and intimate experiences is not mentioned in the Encyclopaedia Britannica or in textbooks and scientific journals.

These secrets are jealously guarded, anxiously concealed, and greatly feared and esteemed.

They are very private possessions, never divulged and talked about, because they are feared as ridiculous and revered as revelations.

They are numinous, a doubtful treasure, perhaps comical, perhaps miraculous, at all events a painfully vulnerable spot, yet presiding over all the crossroads of one’s individual life.

They are officially and by general consent just as unknown and despised as the old parchments with their indecipherable and unaesthetic hieroglyphics, evidence of old obscurantisms and foolishness.

We are ignorant of their contents, and we are equally ignorant of what is going on in the deeper layers of our unconscious, because “those who know do not talk, those who talk do not know.”

As inner experiences of this kind increase, the social nexus between human beings decreases.

The individual becomes isolated for no apparent reason.

Finally this becomes unbearable and he has to confide in someone.

Much will then depend on whether he is properly understood or not.

It would be fatal if he were to be misinterpreted. Fortunately, such people are instinctively careful and as a rule do not talk more than necessary.

When one hears a confession of this kind, and the patient wants to understand himself better, some comparative knowledge will be most helpful.

When the hard-boiled rationalist mentioned above came to consult me for the first time, he was in such a state of panic that not only he but I myself felt the wind blowing over from the lunatic asylum!

As he was telling me of his experiences in detail he mentioned a particularly impressive dream.

I got up and fetched an ancient volume from my bookshelf and showed it to him, saying: “You see the date? Just about four hundred years old. Now watch!”

I opened the book at the place where there was a curious woodcut, representing his dream almost literally.

“You see,” I said, “your dream is no secret.

You are not the victim of a pathological insult and not separated from mankind by an inexplicable psychosis.

You are merely ignorant of certain experiences well within the bounds of human knowledge and understanding.”

It was worth seeing the relief which came over him.

He had seen with his own eyes the documentary evidence of his sanity.

This illustrates why historical comparison is not a mere learned hobby but very practical and useful.

It opens the door to life and humanity again, which had seemed inexorably closed.

It is of no ultimate advantage to deny or reason away or ridicule such seemingly abnormal or out-of-the-way experiences.

They should not get lost, because they contain an intrinsic individual value, the loss of which entails definite damage to one’s personality.

One should be aware of the high esteem which in past centuries was felt for such experiences, because it explains the extraordinary importance that we ignorant moderns are forced to attribute to them in spite of ourselves.

Understanding an illness does not cure it, but it is a definite help because you can cope with a comprehensible difficulty far more easily than with an incomprehensible darkness.

Even if in the end a rational explanation cannot be reached, you know at least that you are not the only one confronted by a “merely imaginary” wall, but one of the many who have vainly tried to climb it.

You still share the common human lot and are not cut off from humanity by a subjective defect.

Thus you have not suffered the irreparable loss of a personal value and are not forced to continue your way on the crutches of a dry and lifeless rationalism.

On the contrary, you find new courage to accept and integrate the irrationality of your own life and of life in general.

Instincts are the most conservative determinants of any kind of life.

The mind is not born a tabula rasa.

Like the body, it has its predetermined individual aptitudes: namely, patterns of behaviour.

They become manifest in the ever-recurring patterns of psychic functioning.

As the weaver-bird will infallibly build its nest in the accustomed form, so man despite his freedom and superficial changeability will function psychologically according to his original patterns—up to a certain point; that is, until for some reason he collides with his still living and ever-present instinctual roots.

The instincts will then protest and engender peculiar thoughts and emotions, which will be all the more alien and incomprehensible the more man’s consciousness has deviated from its original conformity to these instincts.

As nowadays mankind is threatened with selfdestruction through radioactivity, we are experiencing a fundamental reassertion of our instincts in various forms.

I have called the psychological manifestations of instinct “archetypes.”

The archetypes are by no means useless archaic survivals or relics.

They are living entities which cause the preformation of numinous ideas or dominant representations.

Insufficient understanding, however, accepts these prefigurations in their archaic form, because they have a numinous fascination for the underdeveloped mind.

Thus Communism is an archaic, highly insidious pattern of life which characterizes primitive social groups.

It implies lawless chieftainship as a vitally necessary compensation, a fact which can be overlooked only by means of a rationalistic bias, the prerogative of a barbarous mind.

It is important to remember that my concept of the archetypes has been frequently misunderstood as denoting inherited ideas or as a kind of philosophical speculation.

In reality they belong to the realm of instinctual activity and in that sense they represent inherited patterns of psychic behaviour.

As such they are invested with certain dynamic qualities which, psychologically speaking, are characterized as “autonomy” and “numinosity.”

I do not know of any more reliable way back to the instinctual basis than through an understanding of these psychological patterns, which enable us to recognize the nature of an instinctive attitude.

The instinct to survive is aroused as a reaction against the tendency to mass suicide represented by the H-bomb and the underlying political schism of the world.

The latter is clearly man-made and due to rationalistic distortions.

Conversely, if understood by a mature mind, the archetypal preformations can yield numinous ideas ahead of our actual intellectual level.

That is just what our time is in need of.

This, it seems to me, is an additional incentive to pay attention to the unconscious processes which in many persons today anticipate future developments.

I must warn the reader: this book will not be an easy pastime.

Once in a while he will meet with thoughts which demand the effort of concentration and careful reflection—a condition unfortunately rare in modern times.

On the other hand, the situation today seems to be serious enough to cause at least uneasy dreams if nothing else.  ~Carl Jung, CW 18, Pages 537-542