Man and His Symbols is Carl Jung’s final work, and was intended for a lay readership, rather than psychology students. It is co-written with four of Jung’s associates, each writer taking on one of five separate sections. The overall theme is dream analysis.
Since I’m someone who writes extensively about the human mind, I figured it was high time I read Jung, if I aim to be taken seriously. Having finished this book, I find myself fairly dissatisfied overall. A great deal of the text is concerned with dream analysis, and so much of what was conveyed seemed unwarranted and almsot fanciful. People, objects and situations were cropping up in a patient’s dreams and the interpreter was immediately jumping to firm conclusions about what the presence of this or that meant. Often, I simply couldn’t see how such conclusions could be solidly justified.
The Jungian model of consciousness views the unconscious mind as a helper, giving us coded messages in our dreams – messages laced with symbols, some of which may be deceiphered by reference to the “collective unconscious.” This is not a paranormal idea, but is more the theory of symbols and their meanings being inherited genetically from ages past and stored somewhere in the brain. So, if we dream about a particular symbol, such as a scarab beetle, for instance, the purpose behind the presence of this object in our dream may not be consciously recognised, but our unconscious knows it from our species’ past experience. These kind of symbols Jung calls “archetypes.”
While there may be some truth to the theory of the collective unconscious, I find it hard to buy into the notion that our unconscious is like a second self that wishes to aid us. I have certainly had dreams that are meaningful, but only because they reflect the particular pre-occupations of my mind at the time. For instance, I once dreamed that I was cooking a dog alive in the oven. During this exercise, I heard my mother coming up the path and into the house, about to catch me in the act. The dream was obviously reflective of a guilty conscience and worries about my actions being found out. The real-life actions behind the dream were far more trivial than cooking a live dog, but the theme of the dream was clearly on target. I don’t think this was my unconscious giving me a warning, like a helpful big brother. It was just a jumbled up mental reflection of what was occupying my mind as I went to sleep. I have had countless dreams of a completely inconsequential nature, where I can see clear allusions to my waking thoughts, albeit messed up.
So I’m afraid I don’t accept the Jungian theory about dreams. Nevertheless, this book had nuggets of useful insight here and there, particularly on the importance of integrating the animal self with the higher consciousness.