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Carl Jung: The Language of Dreams

Carl Jung Depth Psychology Facebook Group


Symbolic Life

All contents of consciousness have been or can become subliminal, thus forming part of the psychic sphere which we call the unconscious.

All urges, impulses, intentions, affects, all perceptions and intuitions, all rational and irrational thoughts, conclusions, inductions, deductions, premises, etc., as well as all categories of feeling, have their subliminal equivalents, which may be subject to partial, temporary, or chronic unconsciousness.

One uses a word or a concept, for instance, that in another connection has an entirely different meaning of which one is momentarily unconscious, and this can lead to a ridiculous or even disastrous misunderstanding.

Even a most carefully defined philosophical or mathematical concept, which we are sure does not contain more than we have put into it, is nevertheless more than we assume.

It is at the least a psychic event, the nature of which is actually unknowable.

The very numbers you use in counting are more than you take them for.

They are at the same time mythological entities (for the Pythagoreans they were even divine), but you are certainly unaware of this when you use numbers for a practical purpose.

We are also unconscious of the fact that general terms like ”state,” “money,” “health,” “society” etc. usually mean more than they are supposed to signify.

They are general only because we assume them to be so, but in practical reality they have all sorts of nuances of meaning.

I am not thinking of the deliberate twisting of such concepts in their Communist usage, but of the fact that even when they are understood in their proper sense they nevertheless vary slightly from person to person.

The reason for this variation is that a general notion is received into an individual context and is therefore understood and used in an individual way.

As long as concepts are identical with mere words, the variation is almost imperceptible and of no practical importance.

But when an exact definition or a careful explanation is needed, one can occasionally discover the most amazing variations, not only in the purely intellectual understanding of the term, but particularly in its emotional tone and its application.

As a rule these variations are subliminal and therefore never realized.

One may dismiss such differences as redundant or over-nice distinctions, but the fact that they exist shows that even the most banal contents of consciousness have a penumbra of uncertainty around them, which justifies us in thinking that each of them carries a definite subliminal charge.

Although this aspect plays little role in everyday life, one must bear it in mind when analyzing dreams.

I recall a dream of my own that baffled me for a while.

In this dream, a certain Mr. X was desperately trying to get behind me and jump on my back.

I knew nothing of this gentleman except that he had succeeded in twisting something I had said into a rather grotesque travesty of my meaning.

This kind of thing had frequently happened to me in my professional life, and I had never bothered to realize whether it made me angry or not.

But as it is of practical importance to maintain conscious control of one’s emotions, the dream pointedly brought up the incident again in the apparent “disguise” of a colloquialism.

This saying, common enough in ordinary speech, is “Du kannst mir auf den Buckel steigen” (you can climb on my back), which means “I don’t give a damn what you say.”

One could say that this dream-image was symbolic, for it did not state the situation directly but in a roundabout way, through a concretized colloquial metaphor which I did not understand at first sight.

Since I have no reason to believe that the unconscious has any intention of concealing things, I must be careful not to project such a device on its activity.

It is characteristic of dreams to prefer pictorial and picturesque language to colourless and merely rational statements.

This is certainly not an intentional concealment; it simply emphasizes our inability to understand the emotionally charged picture-language of dreams.

As daily adaptation to the reality of things demands accurate statements, we have learnt to discard the trimming of fantasy, and have thus lost a quality that is still characteristic of the primitive mind.

Primitive thinking sees its object surrounded by a fringe of associations which have become more or less unconscious in civilized man.

Thus animals, plants, and inanimate objects can acquire properties that are most unexpected to the white man.

A nocturnal animal seen by day is, for the primitive, quite obviously a medicine-man who has temporarily changed  is shape; or else it is a doctor-animal or an animal-ancestor, or somebody’s bush-soul.

A tree can be part of a man’s life, it has a soul and a voice, and the man shares its fate, and so on.

Certain South American Indians assure you that they are red araras (parrots), although they are quite aware that they have no feathers and don’t look like birds.

In the primitive’s world, things do not have the same sharp boundaries they do in ours.

What we call psychic identity or participation mystique has been stripped off our world of things.

It is exactly this halo, or “fringe of consciousness,” as William James calls it, which gives a colourful and fantastic aspect to the primitive’s world.

We have lost it to such a degree that we do not recognize it when we meet it again, and are baffled by its incomprehensibility.

With us such things are kept below the threshold; and when they occasionally reappear, we are convinced that something is wrong.

I have more than once been consulted by highly educated and otherwise intelligent people because they had peculiar dreams, involuntary fantasies, or even visions, which shocked or frightened them.

They assumed that nobody in a sound mental condition could suffer from such phenomena, and that a person who had a vision was certainly pathological.

A theologian I knew once avowed his belief that Ezekiel’s visions were morbid symptoms, and that when Moses and other prophets heard “voices” they were suffering from hallucinations.

Naturally he got into a panic when some spontaneous events of this kind happened to him.

We are so used to the rational surface of our world that we cannot imagine anything untoward happening within the confines of common sense.

If our mind once in a while does something thoroughly unexpected, we are terrified and immediately think of a pathological disturbance, whereas primitive man would think of fetishes, spirits, or gods but would never doubt his sanity.

Modern man is very much in the situation of the old doctor who was himself a psychotic patient.

When I asked him how he was, he replied that he had had a wonderful night disinfecting the whole heaven with chloride of mercury but had found no trace of God.

What we find instead of God is a neurosis or something worse, and the fear of God has changed into a phobia or anxiety neurosis.

The emotion remains the same, only its object has changed its name and nature for the worse.

I remember a professor of philosophy and psychology who consulted me about his cancer phobia.

He suffered from a compulsive conviction that he had a malignant tumour, although nothing of the sort was ever found in dozens of X-ray pictures.

“Oh, I know there is nothing,” he would say, “but there still might be something.”

Such a confession is certainly far more humiliating to a strong intellect than the belief of a primitive that he is plagued by a ghost.

Malevolent spirits are at least a perfectly admissible hypothesis in a primitive society, but it is a shattering experience for a civilized person to have to admit that he is the victim of nothing more than a foolish prank of the imagination.

The primitive phenomenon of obsession has not vanished, it is the same as ever.

It is only interpreted in a different and more obnoxious way.

Many dreams present images and associations that are analogous to primitive ideas, myths, and rites.

These dream-images were called “archaic remnants” by Freud.

The term suggests that they are psychic elements left over from times long ago and still adhering to our modern mind.

This point of view forms part of the prevailing depreciation of the unconscious as a mere appendix of consciousness or, to put it more drastically, a dustbin which collects all the refuse of the conscious mind—all things discarded, disused, worthless, forgotten, and repressed.

This opinion had to be abandoned in more recent times, since further investigation has shown that such images and associations belong to the regular structure of the unconscious and can be observed more or less everywhere, in the dreams of highly educated as well as illiterate people, of the intelligent as well as the stupid.

They are in no sense dead or meaningless “remnants”; on the contrary, they still continue to function and are therefore of vital value just because of their “historical” nature.

They are a sort of language that acts as a bridge between the way in which we consciously express our thoughts and a more primitive, more colourful and pictorial form of expression—a language that appeals directly to feeling and emotion.

Such a language is needed to translate certain truths from their ”cultural” form (where they are utterly ineffectual) into a form that hits the nail on the head.

For instance, there is a lady well known for her stupid prejudices and stubborn arguments.

The doctor tries in vain to instill some insight.

He says: “My dear lady, your views are indeed very interesting and original.

But you see, there are many people who unfortunately lack your assumptions and have need of your forbearance. Couldn’t you . . .” etc.

He could just as well talk to a stone.

But the dream follows a different method.

She dreams: there is a great social affair to which she is invited.

She is received by her hostess (a very bright woman) at the door with the words: “Oh, how nice that you have come, all your friends are already here and are expecting you.”

She leads her to a door, opens it, and the lady steps into—a cowshed.

This is a more concrete and drastic language, simple enough to be understood even by a blockhead.

Although the lady would not admit the point of the dream, it nevertheless went home, and after a time she was forced to accept it because she could not help seeing the self-inflicted joke.

The message of the unconscious is of greater importance than most people realize.

As consciousness is exposed to all sorts of external attractions and distractions, it is easily led astray and seduced into following ways that are unsuited to its individuality.

The general function of dreams is to balance such disturbances in the mental equilibrium by producing contents of a complementary or compensatory kind.

Dreams of high vertiginous places, balloons, aeroplanes, flying and falling, often accompany states of consciousness characterized by fictitious assumptions, overestimation of oneself, unrealistic opinions, and grandiose opinions.

If the warning of the dream is not heeded, real accidents take its place.

One stumbles downstairs; runs into a car, etc.

I remember the case of a man who was inextricably involved in a number of shady affairs.

He developed an almost morbid passion for dangerous mountain-climbing as a sort of compensation: he was trying to “get above himself.”

In one dream he saw himself stepping off the summit of a high mountain into the air.

When he told me his dream, I instantly saw the risk he was running, and I tried my best to emphasize the warning and convince him of the need to restrain himself.

I even told him that the dream meant his death in a mountain accident.

It was in vain.

Six months later he “stepped off into the air.”

A mountain guide watched him and a young friend letting themselves down on a rope in a difficult place.

The friend had found a temporary foothold on a ledge, and the dreamer was following him down.

Suddenly he let go of the rope “as if he were jumping into the air,” as the guide reported afterwards.

He fell on his friend, and both went down and were killed.

Another typical case was that of a lady who was living above herself in a fantasy of distinction and austerity.

But she had shocking dreams, reminding her of all sorts of unsavoury things.

When I put my finger on them, she indignantly refused to acknowledge them.

The dreams then became menacing, full of references to the long lonely walks she took in the woods near the town, where she indulged in soulful musings.

I saw the danger and warned her insistently, but she would not listen.

A week later a sexual pervert attacked her murderously, and only in the nick of time was she rescued by some people who had heard her screams.

Obviously she had a secret longing for some such adventure and preferred to pay the price of two broken ribs and the fracture of a laryngeal cartilage, just as the mountain climber at least had the satisfaction of finding a definite way out of his predicament.


Dreams prepare, announce, or warn about certain situations, often long before they actually happen.


This is not necessarily a miracle or a precognition.


Most crises or dangerous situations have a long incubation, only the conscious mind is not aware of


Dreams can betray the secret.


They often do, but just as often, it seems, they do not.


Therefore our assumption of a benevolent hand restraining us in time is doubtful.


Or, to put it more positively, it seems that a benevolent agency is at work sometimes but at other times not.


The mysterious finger may even point the way to perdition.


One cannot afford to be naïve in dealing with dreams.


They originate in a spirit that is not quite human, but is rather the breath of nature—of the beautiful

and generous as well as the cruel goddess.


If we want to characterize this spirit, we would do better to turn to the ancient mythologies and the fables of the primeval forest.


Civilization is a most expensive process and its acquisitions have been paid for by enormous losses, the extent of which we have largely forgotten or have never appreciated.


Through our efforts to understand dreams we become acquainted with what William James has aptly called the “fringe of consciousness.”


What appear to be redundant and unwelcome accessories are, if studied more closely, the almost invisible roots of conscious contents, i.e., their subliminal aspects.


They form the psychic material that must be considered as the intermediary between unconscious and conscious contents, or the bridge that spans the gap between consciousness and the ultimately physiological foundations of the psyche.


The practical importance of such a bridge can hardly be overrated.


It is the indispensable link between the rational world of consciousness and the world of instinct.


The more our consciousness is influenced by prejudices, fantasies, infantile wishes, and the lure of external objects, the more the already existing gap will widen out into a neurotic dissociation and lead to an artificial life far removed from healthy instincts, nature, and truth.


Dreams try to re-establish the equilibrium by restoring the images and emotions that express

the state of the unconscious.


One can hardly ever restore the original condition by rational talk, which is far too flat and colourless.


But, as my examples have shown, the language of dreams provides just those images which appeal to the deeper strata of the psyche.


One could even say that the interpretation of dreams enriches consciousness to such an extent that it relearns the forgotten language of the instincts.


In so far as instincts are physiological urges, they are perceived by the senses and at the same time manifest themselves as fantasies.


But in so far as they are not perceived sensually, they reveal their presence only in images.


The vast majority of instinctive phenomena consists, however, of images, many of which are of a symbolic nature whose meaning is not immediately recognizable.


One finds them chiefly in that twilight realm between dim consciousness and the unconscious background of the dream.


Sometimes a dream is of such vital importance that its message reaches consciousness no matter how uncomfortable or shocking it may be.


From the standpoint of mental equilibrium and physiological health in general, it is much better for the conscious and the unconscious to be connected and to move on parallel lines than for them to be dissociated.


In this respect the production of symbols can be considered a most valuable function.


One will naturally ask what is the point of this function if its symbols should pass unnoticed or prove to be incomprehensible?


But lack of conscious understanding does not mean that the dream has no effect at all.


Even civilized man can occasionally observe that a dream which he cannot remember can slightly

alter his mood for better or worse.


Dreams can be “understood” to a certain extent in a subliminal way, and that is mostly how they work.


Only when a dream is very impressive, or repeats itself often, do interpretation and conscious understanding become desirable.


But in pathological cases an interpretation is imperative and should be undertaken if there are no counterindications, such as the existence of a latent psychosis, which is, as it were, only waiting for a suitable releasing agent to burst forth in full force.


Unintelligent and incompetent application of dream analysis and interpretation is indeed not advisable, and particularly not when there is a dissociation between a very onesided consciousness and a correspondingly irrational or “crazy” unconscious.


Owing to the infinite variety of conscious contents and their deviation from the ideal middle line, the unconscious compensation is equally varied, so that one would be hard put to it to say whether dreams and their symbols are classifiable or not.


Though there are dreams and occasional symbols—better called motifs in this case—which are typical and occur often, most dreams are individual and atypical.


Typical motifs are falling, flying, being chased by dangerous animals or men, being insufficiently

or absurdly clothed in public places, being in a hurry or lost in a milling crowd, fighting with useless weapons or being utterly defenceless, running and getting nowhere, and so on.


A typical infantile motif is the dream of growing infinitely small or infinitely big, or of being transformed from the one into the other.


A noteworthy phenomenon is the recurrent dream.


There are cases of dreams repeating themselves from the days of childhood to the advanced years of adult life.


Such dreams usually compensate a defect in one’s conscious attitude, or they date from a traumatic moment that has left behind some specific prejudice, or they anticipate a future event of some importance.


I myself dreamt of a motif that was repeated many times over a period of years.


It was that I discovered a part of a wing of my


house which I did not know existed.


Sometimes it was the place where my parents lived—who had died long ago—where my father,

to my great surprise, had a laboratory in which he studied the comparative anatomy of fishes, and where my mother ran a hostelry for ghostly visitors.


Usually the wing or independent guest-house was an historical building several hundred years old,

long forgotten, yet my ancestral property.


It contained interesting old furniture, and towards the end of this series of recurrent dreams I discovered an old library whose books were unknown to me.


Finally, in the last dream, I opened one of the old volumes and found in it a profusion of the most marvellous symbolic pictures. When I awoke, my heart was pounding with excitement.


Some time before this dream I had placed an order with an antiquarian bookseller abroad for one of the Latin alchemical classics, because I had come across a quotation that I thought might be connected with early Byzantine alchemy, and I wished to verify it.


Several weeks after my dream a parcel arrived containing a parchment volume of the sixteenth century with many most fascinating symbolic pictures.


They instantly reminded me of my dream library.


As the rediscovery of alchemy forms an important part of my life as a pioneer of psychology, the motif of the unknown annex of my house can easily be understood as an anticipation of a new field of interest and research.


At all events, from that moment thirty years ago the recurrent dream came to an end.


Symbols, like dreams, are natural products, but they do not occur only in dreams.


They can appear in any number of psychic manifestations: there are symbolic thoughts and feelings,

symbolic acts and situations, and it often looks as if not only the unconscious but even inanimate objects were concurring in the arrangement of symbolic patterns.


There are numerous well-authenticated stories of a clock that stopped at the moment of its owner’s death, like Frederick the Great’s pendulum clock at Sans Souci; of a mirror that broke, or a boiling coffee-pot that exploded, just before or during a crisis; and so on.


Even if the sceptic refuses to credit such reports, stories of this kind are ever renewed and are told again and again, which is ample proof of their psychological importance, even though ignorant people deny their factual existence.


The most important symbols, however, are not individual but collective in their nature and origin.


They are found principally in the religions.


The believer assumes that they are of divine origin—that they are revealed.


The sceptic thinks they are invented. Both are wrong.


It is true that, on the one hand, such symbols have for centuries been the objects of careful and quite conscious elaboration and differentiation, as in the case of dogmas.


But, on the other hand, they are representations collectives dating from dim and remote ages, and these are “revelations”  only in the sense that they are images originating in dreams and creative fantasies.


The latter are involuntary, spontaneous manifestations and by no means arbitrary and intentional inventions.


There was never a genius who sat down with his pen or brush and said: “Now I am going to invent a symbol.”


No one can take a more or less rational thought, reached as a logical conclusion or deliberately chosen, and then disguise it as a “symbolic” phantasmagoria.


No matter how fantastic the trappings may look, it would still be a sign hinting at a conscious  thought, and not a symbol.


A sign is always less than the thing it points to, and a symbol is always more than we can understand at first sight.


Therefore we never stop at the sign but go on to the goal it indicates; but we remain with the symbol because it promises more than it reveals.


If the contents of dreams agree with a sex theory, then we know their essence already, but if they are symbolic we at least know that we do not understand them yet.


A symbol does not disguise, it reveals in time.


It is obvious that dream interpretation will yield one result when you consider the dream to be symbolic, and an entirely different one when you assume that the essential thought is merely disguised but already known in principle.


In the latter case, dream interpretation makes no sense whatever, for you find only what you know already.


Therefore I always advise my pupils: “Learn as much as you can about symbolism and forget it all when you are analysing a dream.”


This advice is so important in practice that I myself have made it a rule to admit that I never understand a dream well enough to interpret it correctly.


I do this in order to check the flow of my own associations and reactions, which might otherwise prevail over my patient’s uncertainties and hesitations.


As it is of the highest therapeutic importance for the analyst to get the message of the dream as accurately as possible, it is essential for him to explore the context of the dream-images with the utmost thoroughness.


I had a dream while I was working with Freud that illustrates this very clearly.


I dreamt that I was in “my house,” apparently on the first floor, in a cosy, pleasant drawing-room furnished in the style of the eighteenth century.


I was rather astonished because I realized I had never seen this room before, and began to wonder

what the ground floor was like.


I went downstairs and found it rather dark, with panelled walls and heavy furniture dating from the sixteenth century or even earlier.


I was greatly surprised and my curiosity increased, because it was all a very unexpected discovery.


In order to become better acquainted with the whole structure of the house, I thought I would go down to the cellar.


I found a door, with a flight of stone steps that led down to a large vaulted room.


The floor consisted of large slabs of stone, and the walls struck me as very ancient.


I examined the mortar and found it was mixed with splinters of brick.


Obviously it was an old Roman wall. I began to grow excited.


In a corner, I saw an iron ring in one of the stone slabs.


I lifted it up and saw yet another narrow flight of steps leading down to a sort of cave which was obviously a prehistoric tomb.


It contained two skulls, some bones, and broken shards of pottery.


Then I woke up.


If Freud, when analysing this dream, had followed my method of exploring the context, he would have heard a far-reaching story.


But I am afraid he would have dismissed it as a mere attempt to escape from a problem that was really his own.


The dream is in fact a short summary of my life—the life of my mind.


I grew up in a house two hundred years old, our furniture consisted mostly of pieces about a hundred years old, and mentally my greatest adventure had been the study of Kant and Schopenhauer.


The great news of the day was the work of Charles Darwin.


Shortly before this I had been living in a still medieval world with my parents, where the world and man were still presided over by divine omnipotence and providence.


This world had become antiquated and obsolete.


My Christian faith had been relativized by my encounter with Eastern religions and Greek philosophy.


It is for this reason that the ground floor was so still, dark, and obviously uninhabited.


My then historical interests had developed from my original preoccupation with comparative anatomy and paleontology when I worked as an assistant at the Anatomical Institute.


I was fascinated by the bones of fossil man, particularly by the much discussed Neanderthalensis and the still more controversial skull of Dubois’ Pithecanthropus.


As a matter of fact, these were my real associations to the dream.


But I did not dare mention the subject of skulls, skeletons, or corpses to Freud, because I had learned that this theme was not popular with him.


He cherished the peculiar idea that I anticipated his early death.


He drew this conclusion from the fact that I was interested in the mummified corpses in the so-called Bleikeller in Bremen, which we had visited together in 1909 on our trip to America.


Thus I was reluctant to come out with my thoughts, since through recent experience I was deeply impressed by the almost unbridgeable gap between Freud’s mental outlook and background  and my own.


I was afraid of losing his friendship if I should open up to him about my inner world, which, I surmised, would look very queer to him.


Feeling quite uncertain about my own psychology, I almost automatically told him a lie about

my “free associations” in order to escape the impossible task of  enlightening him about my very personal and utterly different mental constitution.


I soon realized that Freud was seeking for some incompatible wish of mine.


And so I suggested tentatively that the skulls might refer to certain members of my family whose death, for some reason, I might desire.


This proposal met with his approval, but I was not satisfied with such a “phoney” solution.


While I was trying to find a suitable answer to Freud’s questions, I was suddenly confounded by an intuition about the role which the subjective factor plays in psychological understanding.


My intuition was so overwhelming that my only thought was how to get out of this impossible snarl, and I took the easy way out by a lie.


This was neither elegant nor morally defensible, but otherwise I should have risked a fatal


My intuition consisted in a sudden and most unexpected insight into the fact that my dream meant myself, my life and my world, my whole reality as against a theoretical structure erected by another, alien mind for reasons and purposes of its own.


It was not Freud’s dream, it was mine; and suddenly I understood in a flash what my dream meant.


I must apologize for this rather lengthy narration of the jam I got into through telling Freud my dream.


But it is a good example of the difficulties in which one gets involved in the course of a real dream analysis.


So much depends on the personal differences between the analyst and the analysand.


Dream analysis on this level is less a technique than a dialectical process between two personalities.


If it is handled as a technique, the peculiarity of the subject as an individual is excluded and the therapeutic problem is reduced to the simple question: who will dominate whom?


I had given up hypnotic treatment for this very reason, because I did not want to impose my will on others.


I wanted the healing processes to grow out of the patient’s own personality, and not out of suggestions of mine that would have only a passing effect.


I wanted to protect and preserve my patient’s dignity and freedom so that he could live his life by his own volition.


I could not share Freud’s almost exclusive interest in sex.


Assuredly sex plays no small role among human motives, but in many cases it is secondary to hunger, the power drive, ambition, fanaticism, envy, revenge, or the devouring passion of the creative impulse and the religious spirit.


For the first time it dawned on me that before we construct general theories about man and his psyche we should learn a great deal more about the real human being, rather than an abstract idea of Homo sapiens. ~Carl Jung CW 18, Pages 203-215