Marie-Louise von Franz, On Dreams and Death: A Jungian Interpretation Review by Peter Shea
Reading this book one floats on mystic seas of dreams, death, alchemy, symbolism, myths, the unconscious, ancient religious beliefs and rituals.
The islands of reality are the clients who, near to death, give an account of their dreams to analysts.
Those not familiar with the later, occult years of Jungian psychology might easily drown in the book’s esoteric detail.
This is a pity, for von Franz, who assisted Jung in gathering together ancient and mediaeval texts during the years of his fascination with alchemical symbolism, makes a serious, if peripheral, contribution to his analytical psychology.
She does nothing to help the uninitiated who are interested to look in on her thesis from the outside; no glossary, no introductory explanation of his concepts.
Nevertheless, it promises to grip the attention of those with a substantial interest in either dream interpretation or another attempt to peep beyond the curtain of death.
Her thesis is that the dynamic for shaping dreams comes from the archetypal structures of our collective unconscious.
These instinctual forces, which cannot be manipulated, offer through our dreams insights into our psychic and physical states.
In particular, from middle age onwards, but especially as death approaches dreams prepare us for the hereafter, pointing to imbalances in our attitudes which need to be corrected if our individuation is to continue smoothly to and beyond death’s door.
For dreams point to a promising continuation of psychic life beyond the death of the earthly body.
The unconscious believes in a life after death, and there is an attractive alternative to the despair of ageing persons facing nothingness.
Why should one accept that Von Franz’s dream interpretations from people who die shortly afterwards are more valid than those that might be offered by psychologists of differing persuasions?
Her strength is rooted in the extraordinary breadth and depth of her knowledge of alchemical and ethnological, religio-historical material.
Whenever people have been faced with the mystical, their unconscious has urged them to produce in texts, pictures and rituals the ideas which are the keys to Jungian dream interpretation.
Stones, through the ages, have been accorded significance.
Dream of a stone, then, and there is a weight of occult evidence to indicate that one’s share of the collective unconscious has been at work.
The dozen chapters focus on differing kinds of symbolism and the stages of the passage through death to the threshold of the other side.
Each is illustrated by dreams of those soon to die.
The first is devoted to the mystery of the corpse.
The difficulty in believing in an after-life is easier if one accepts with the ancient Egyptians the psychic reality of the ‘living corpse’ engaged already in resurrection.
The destruction of vegetation often appears as an image of human death and at the same time as a symbol of resurrection. A tree in the dreams of a dying man is an image of continuing life.
A wedding motif may point to an impending death, but promises an ecstatic union of the soul with the cosmic hereafter.
The image of enduring a dark, narrow birth passage on the way to life after life also belongs among the archetypal motifs which anticipate the course of death.
When dreamers have not prepared themselves for death, unpleasant intruders may invade their dreams, but if one is ready, a person of beauty may welcome one forward: and so on.
The journey through the book finishes with a consideration of the possibilities of the coarse body material being transmuted, which after all was the ultimate aim of the alchemists, into a new ‘subtle body’.
Von Franz is gentle in her beliefs and never dogmatic.
She accepts with Jung that psychic truths can neither be explained nor proved nor contested in any physical way. Her truths cannot be scientifically established.
If there are those who are wedded entirely to the concrete and who will use positivist
approaches to knock down her ideas as so many skittles, there will surely come others who, seeking comfort in the presence of the great mysteries, will set them up again. ~Shea (1988). Ageing and Society, 8, pp 353-354 doi:10.1017/S0144686X00007066
Department of Extra-Mural Studies, PETER SHEA
University of London