Carl Jung: Dreams and visions

BY James Madden

“People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own souls.”

Carl Jung

Jung has been described as the most profound psychologist ever to have lived. A student of Sigmund Freud (an earlier psychoanalyst who first popularised the idea of the subconscious mind), influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche (one of the most influential philosophers of the nineteenth century), his work forms the basis of the popular understanding of the unconscious mind to this day. Enraptured by his own theories of the collective unconscious and the shadow of man, he spent five years diving into his own subconscious, recording his visions and hallucinations in a now legendary manuscript entitled ‘the Red Book’, the originals of which are on display at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York.

Born in 1875 in Switzerland, Jung worked under Eugen Bleuler at the famed Burghölzli Psychiatric Hospital, during which time he began a lengthy and fruitful correspondence with Freud; the two men are purported to have spoken unceasingly for thirteen hours at their first meeting. Their professional relationship ended when Jung published Psychology of the Unconscious, making his own theories of depth psychology markedly different from Freud’s, particularly in their opinions on the analysis and interpretation of dreams, and their collaboration ended in 1913. Shortly afterwards, exacerbated by the political turmoil in Europe and outbreak of the first World War, Jung began his ‘creative illness’, producing some of his darkest, most profound, and productive works.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Dr Andrew Howe, a junior psychiatrist at the South London and Maudsley NHS trust, who is undertaking a Masters in Jungian and Post-Jungian Studies at the University of Essex. Our conversation ranged from his personal interest in psychiatry, and Jung in particular, to Jung’s theory of the persona and individuation, and the modern clinical relevancy of his work.

“[Jung] gets exposed to psychoanalysis,” Howe explains, “So at the time what he’s seeing whilst he’s working in the Burghölzli is he’s seeing patients who are psychotic, seeing their delusions, and thinking ‘was there a meaning behind this? What is going on here?… he comes to the whole psychoanalysis world from a psychiatry perspective, whereas Freud came at it from a neurology angle.’

“I think Jung’s popularity stems actually from [the fact that] he was willing to investigate at things no-one else would talk about,” Howe says, pointing out that this distinction creates a dichotomy between Jung and Freud’s work; the former has a distinctly more philosophical/humanitarian flavour than the rigorous scientific method of the latter. “He would confront and talk about the occult, about spiritualism; the kinds of things ‘scientists’ weren’t talking about.”

Jung’s studies of world religions mean his theories are more grounded in the humanities, creating a direct link between theory and pragmatic treatment that is therefore more approachable: one doesn’t need an understanding of psychiatry to understand Jung. “He had his own ideas about archetypes, the collective unconscious,” Howe recounts. Jung was “quite into cultures across the world, looking at similarities in myths for example, so he’s attracted to Freud by this ‘unconscious’ connection.” But Jung and Freud’s relationship diverged. “[Jung] was going on about spiritual things, like religion, wanting that to be an important part of his theories, archetypes, and also dream interpretation – they disagreed big-time on dream interpretation.”

“Myth is more individual and expresses life more precisely than does science.”

Carl Jung (1973) “Memories, dreams, reflections”.

For example, a prominent idea in Jungian psychology is that dreams reveal more than they conceal, as opposed to Freud’s notion that dreams are by nature conciliatory and cryptic.

In terms of dreams, Howe explains that “if you look at the entirety of history, even things like dream-catchers, Joseph’s Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jacob’s ladder, they clearly matter to humans, whatever the scientific reason.” “Jung is more like ‘your unconscious is communicating something to you, but you might not be aware of it.’ The meaning might be personal to you, so no one can understand your dream but you, because everything in a dream is symbolic … meaning that something has more than the face value, but is interpreted differently for everybody, based on personal memories and on culture.” This insight of Jung’s blends an element of subjectivity into the interpretation of dreams, which isn’t found in Freud. This again contributes to his approachability; people are more readily interested in things they can directly use, and Jung certainly shows this over Freud.

Dr Howe gives me a fascinating example of his own experience: “I had dream once where I lost my passport, I was being looked for by these policemen, I was desperately searching for my passport, but then at the end of my dream I found it, and I was no longer being chased.” Of course, such stressful dreams often trigger some amount of introspection, and Howe concluded that perhaps the dream could be linked to the identity crisis associated with switching jobs. “It’s that kind of communication, that taking of it and looking at [the dream’s symbols] that’s important.”

This communication between the conscious and unconscious pervades so much of Jung’s work. It’s expressed in everything from universal phenomena like art and religion to the individual level in the form of the dream, and psychopathology, where the communication becomes disjointed. This could be what explains Jung’s popularity, which is the ability for his theories to explain, within scientific reason, all matter of human behaviour; universal concepts of God, themes and figures present in mythology, the tendency for humans to represent their daily behaviour abstractly as art, things which are inherently subjective and personal to the individual, being the products of an individual’s grappling with as yet inarticulate ideas about the world and themselves.

As Dr Howe pointed out, the nature of the human mind means none of these things can be directly proved, but they are still useful. When we talked about his own experience of patients with psychosis:, Howe explained that the most valuable is “what can Jung teach us. People with psychosis, it’s about paying attention to them [their delusions], and maybe discussing them when people are better, what it might be about, and what that might mean for them, because I think there’s going to be meaning in there. I believe that; there’s a reason that delusion has happened to you personally.”

Maybe this is what we should take from Jung, and the legacy of the revolution in depth psychology, which formed part of what Dr Howe called the ‘scientific late Romantic’ movement; the willingness to assume a deeper meaning behind phenomena we take for granted. Jung postulated, firstly, that the delusions of ‘hysterics’ have greater clinical relevance than random generations of the insane mind, and then using this to successfully treat patients. Arguably, this kind of theory captures of the scientific method, particularly in psychiatry– the ability of people to suspend current beliefs and test a theory that they cannot prove, and emerge with a little more information about the human psyche than they did before.

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