The Essential Jung by Carl G. Jung (edited by Anthony Storr)

jungcg-essentialjungCarl Jung, who is known for an approach to psychology known as psychoanalysis, was a very prolific writer. It would be nearly impossible for the interested reader to collect every volume he wrote, so Anthony Storr has put together this 400-page compendium of excerpts in an attempt to give the reader a comprehensive overview of Jung’s concepts. Some of these are: the idea of the unconscious, archetypes, and dream analysis.

I won’t kid you; I found this a difficult book, so difficult that my reading time spanned several years. Many of Jung’s ideas seem wildly abstract and speculative. However, there is definitely something interesting here, at least in part.

Jung coined the term “unconscious,” recognising that our minds contain information that we are not always aware of. This is undoubtedly true from experience. He also uses the term “collective unconscious.” This is sometimes misunderstood as a unified consciousness (in a mystical, metaphysical sense), but what Jung really meant was that our minds contain inherited information from the past – such as our natural fear of fierce animals. The common childhood fear of monsters may have its roots in our hunter-gatherer ancestors’ very real conflicts with wild beasts. This fear is collective in the sense that we all inherited it. Jung intended nothing spiritual or paranormal by the term “collective unconscious.”

Related to the collective unconscious is the idea of “archetypes” – recurring images in dreams that can be spotted across a multiplicity of cultures, hinting again at the notion of a collective inheritance. Jung named certain archetypes as anima, animus and the shadow. I found a lot of this material confusing, because I can find very little correspondence in my own experience. I do like the idea of the shadow, as a way of identifying the unsavoury aspects of our personality that we try to repress because they’re socially unacceptable. I can relate to that. But it’s important to realise that the shadow is not a thing, not an entity – just an idea, a way of representing an aspect of human experience in language. In man’s more primal prehistory, he probably wouldn’t have had a shadow, because he would have been more at one with his natural instincts, without the pressure of civilisation’s often unnatural ideals on his head.

Jung puts a lot of stock on dream interpretation – in therapy, using dreams as signposts to the root of a personality problem. From personal experience, I would say this can sometimes be the case, but more often than not my dreams are full of playful nonsense. How does a therapist avoid placing massive significance in an aspect of a dream that might be completely random?

Jung is essentially a mythologist of the psyche, in the way that ancient man was a mythologist about the material world – inventing a pantheon of gods and goddesses behind the forces of nature. Some of the words invented by Jung (such as unconscious, introvert, extravert) are still in common use today, which is a testament to his insight. Although this is a useful book, for me personally it was one that I had to laboriously dig through to find the nuggets of gold.

Man and His Symbols by Carl G. Jung

jungcg-manandhissymbolsMan 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.