Man and his Symbols

by Carl Jung, M.L von Franz, Joseph L. Henderson, Jolande Jacobi and Aniela Jaffe

I picked up this book impulsively, without much context about the field of psychology. I found it to be a fascinating read. It delved into topics I didn’t know much about, and it changed how I viewed my own consciousness. The book mainly discusses the role the unconscious plays in our lives and decisions. The unconscious manifests itself in the form of symbols. Culture, religion, and art are filled with symbolic icons representing our inherent beliefs. Our dreams are vivid symbolic scenes created by our unconscious to communicate with our conscious minds. If we learn to interpret our dreams correctly, we can live fuller and more meaningful lives.

Consciousness is a relatively recent development. Living beings are usually prone to following their unconscious impulses, and it was after humans developed self-awareness that we became conscious. In modern man, our rational means of thinking has increasingly alienated the unconscious part of our mind. However, when we look at our history and creations, we can see the undeniable role played by the unconscious in it. Ancient myths and religious stories usually follow similar archetypes across cultures. Many of these archetypes are also demonstrated in our dreams, and they can be a guiding light for us. Our unconscious is intimately connected to the world, so we occasionally know things before they happen. Sometimes our unconscious urges prepare us for such events, and we find ourselves with happy coincidences. This occurrence is known as synchronicity. There are ancient myths of people listening to an unknown voice guiding them towards better places. One example in the book is about the Cree in North America listening to the ‘Great man within’ to find animals to hunt. 

The unconscious can manifest itself in multiple ways within our dreams. It can manifest part of itself in the form of the shadow; it can manifest itself as an anima (for men) or animus (for women) or as a collective when we interact with multiple people within our dreams. The process by which a person can integrate his unconscious into himself is known as individuation. Individuation is an important endeavour since it helps us unlock our potential and give more meaning to our lives. This requires individuals to interpret their dreams correctly and follow the inherent message. The book has one section dedicated to the process of individuation undertaken by a person with the psychologist. The section details this person’s dreams as well as the interpretation he arrived upon with help from the author. Dreams can often bring inherent truths and repressed emotions to the surface.  

Art is also filled with symbolism. Symbols can be found in ancient art with crude carvings on stone, as well as exquisite art of the medieval or Renaissance ages and also in modern abstract art. Since ancient times, people have been fascinated with stone as a representation of something divine or something that contains a soul. Hence people have often drawn images on stone or carved them into sculptures.

Art until the Modern period contained widely accepted symbols in meaningful positions. It had brilliant depictions of great people and nature. Modern art has become much more abstract, so it is of broad interest to psychologists since they look for patterns in its seemingly random form. Abstract art is often a depiction of the raw form of the unconscious. This can also be dangerous since it can result in the artist getting dissociated from reality or becoming overly pessimistic about the real world. Abstract art, in certain ways, is quite similar to modern science. One of the pathbreaking discoveries in modern science is the dual nature of matter. Light can be interpreted as a wave as well as a particle. Similarly, at quantum levels, measurements cannot be done accurately. An observer is not a neutral observer, and the act of observation can interfere with the experiment’s conditions. Hence there is no objective fact which is especially true at the quantum level. This is very similar to how our unconscious functions, which can be observed in art and symbols. The objective truth demonstrated by symbols is not quantifiable. It can be different in different circumstances or different people. This is why we find that ancient scientific concepts have an element of truth to them despite being intuitive concepts without scientific rationale. The book makes the case that the unconscious should influence our means of approaching the world. We should give weight to our intuitive biases during scientific endeavours, and many scientists have been led to their discoveries by intuition.

This book delved into a completely different domain from what I was reading. It was written during Carl Jung’s last years and was written primarily for the public without academic knowledge of psychology. It is a fascinating book that I would recommend to anyone interested in knowing more about psychology and the unconscious.   

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