(Sidharth Vardhan’s review of
‘Man and his symbols’
a book by Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961)
Book first published in 1964
Review first written on March 29, 2019
(5 / 5))
The ‘Man and his symbols’ is the first and only work in which the world-famous Swiss psychologist explains to the layperson his enormously influential theory of symbolism as revealed in dreams.
Hands down, it is one of the best books I have read and I wish I had read it earlier. This book is a perfect gateway into Jung’s ideas written expressly for the layman (like yours truly) to understand them.
I think even if you don’t know the details, you know that his ideas provided a new dimension to psychology, taking it beyond nightmares and childhood traumas. Freud took away the extraordinary – the possessing demons as well as fantasies etc from psychology, Jung provides us with a hope that not all our time spent with those things is wasted.
There are though two more ways of gaining from the book for a curious mind. For one, you gain an additional perspective, another angle of looking at things – at art, literature, philosophy, political and social conflicts, even natural sciences.
Again, it seems to show the very limitations of rationalism which seems to be the basis of all our social sciences – economics (with its capitalist logic), politics and diplomacy (the ‘carry a stick and talk politely’ approach), culture (consumerism).
“There is, however, a strong empirical reason why we should cultivate thoughts that can never be proved. It is that they are known to be useful. Man positively needs general ideas and convictions that will give meaning to his life and enable him to find a place for himself in the universe. He can stand the most incredible hardships when he is convinced that they make sense; he is crushed when, on top of all his misfortunes, he has to admit that he is taking part in a “tale told by an idiot.”Carl Jung
One of the ideas that I already knew about and that was a key attraction for me was his ideas about how people are different – the four functions (sensing, intuition, feeling, thinking and feeling) by which we perceive (sensing and intuition) and order information (thinking and feeling) as well as their introversion and extroversion (which later led to invention of MBPT tests).
“When I use the word “feeling” in contrast to “thinking,” I refer to a judgment of value—for instance, agreeable or disagreeable, good or bad, and so on. Feeling according to this definition is not an emotion (which, as the word conveys, is involuntary). Feeling as I mean it is (like thinking) a rational (i.e., ordering) function, whereas intuition is an irrational (i.e., perceiving) function. In so far as intuition is a “hunch,” it is not the product of a voluntary act; it is rather an involuntary event, which depends upon different external or internal circumstances instead of an act of judgment. Intuition is more like a sense-perception, which is also an irrational event in so far as it depends essentially upon objective stimuli, which owe their existence to physical and not to mental causes.”Carl Jung
“Sensation (i.e., sense perception) tells you that something exists; thinking tells you what it is; feeling tells you whether it is agreeable or not, and intuition tells you whence it comes and where it is going.”Carl Jung
But even these four won’t in themselves give the whole measure of humans (and thus the limitation of MBPT tests):
“The reader should understand that these four criteria of types of human behavior are just four viewpoints among many others, like will power, temperament, imagination, memory, and so on. There is nothing dogmatic about them, but their basic nature recommends them as suitable criteria for classification. I find them particularly helpful when I am called upon to explain parents to children and husbands to wives, and vice versa. They are also useful in understanding one’s own prejudices.”Carl Jung
It was Jung’s way of showing how each individual needs a separate treatment and how one psychologist cannot cure them all.
The individual is the only reality. The further we move away from the individual toward abstract ideas about Homo sapiens, the more likely we are to fall into error.Carl Jung
Jung’s system thus seems to question all kind of institutions – nations, schools, marriages, etc, Obviously, I was gonna praise him.
A sane and normal society is one in which people habitually disagree because the general agreement is relatively rare outside the sphere of instinctive human qualities.Carl Jung
The golden argument in Jung’s theory is that not all our memories or mind is created out of lived experiences. In the book, he seems a bit defensive as this idea got him a lot of criticism. I think he defends it well. He talks of instincts that were a result of evolution (and thus for a large part shared with animals as well):
“Although the specific shape in which they express themselves is more or less personal, their general pattern is collective. They are found everywhere and at all times, just as animal instincts vary a good deal in the different species and yet serve the same general purposes. We do not assume that each new-born animal creates its own instincts as an individual acquisition, and we must not suppose that human individuals invent their specific human ways with every new birth. Like the instincts, the collective thought patterns of the human mind are innate and inherited. They function, when the occasion arises, in more or less the same way in all of us. Emotional manifestations, to which such thought patterns belong, are recognizably the same all over the earth. We can identify them even in animals, and the animals themselves understand one another in this respect, even though they may belong to different species. And what about insects, with their complicated symbiotic functions? Most of them do not even know their parents and have nobody to teach them. Why should one assume, then, that man is the only living being deprived of specific instincts, or that his psyche is devoid of all traces of its evolution?”Carl Jung
When I read this passage (quite early in the book) I knew it would be a 5-star book. I could speculate that these instincts are coded inside our genes. And that it is of these instincts that a baby’s brain is made of even when he has no lived experiences to make memories of.
This kind of answers a lot of things I used to wonder about – how does a baby know to suck at the mother’s breast to gets its milk? how does it know to cry when it is distressed or need something? How does it know how to move its arms and legs or how to make the sound? how does it know not to be scared of all the sounds it hears? it also seems to answer why different civilizations developed in isolation seem to all have belief in some kind of gods. In this regard, Hawkins argues in ‘The God Complex’ that human beings, much like other animals, are evolved to wonder in terms of ‘WHO did it’ rather than ‘WHAT did it?’
The best example of the collective unconscious that comes to my mind is a short science-fiction story ‘Cutie-Pie’ in which a baby boy exchanges ideas from his collective unconscious (example hunter’s instincts) with alien’s ideas.
Jung argues that all our instinctive behavior is explained thus:
“The medical psychologist is constantly confronted with otherwise intelligent patients who behave in a peculiar and unpredictable way and who have no inkling of what they say or do. They are suddenly caught by unreasonable moods for which they themselves cannot account. Superficially, such reactions and impulses seem to be of an intimately personal nature, and so we dismiss them as idiosyncratic behavior. In fact, they are based upon a preformed and ever-ready instinctive system that is characteristic of the man. Thought forms, universally understandable gestures, and many attitudes follow a pattern that was established long before man developed a reflective consciousness.”Carl Jung
He then goes on to speculate that power of reflection (with which we like to identify ourselves – the rational goody two shoe beings) must be in fact result from traumatic memories of such instinctive actions.:
“Goethe’s Faust aptly says: “I’m Anfang war die Tat [In the beginning was the deed].” “Deeds” were never invented, they were done; thoughts, on the other hand, are a relatively late discovery of man. First he was moved to deeds by unconscious factors; it was only a long time afterward that he began to reflect upon the causes that had moved him; and it took him a very long time indeed to arrive at the preposterous idea that he must have moved himself—his mind being unable to identify any other motivating force than his own.”Carl Jung
These ‘archetypes’ are suppressed (because of how strong and intimidating they can be) during early childhood (and so you can remember much from your early Childhood. So much for the first chapter.
The second chapters reflect on how these archetypes keep popping up in our myths, legends, stories, etc. The ‘hero’ for example is an archetype that shows the development of self.
Jung argues that collective conscious also have different forms of symbols. Here is one of the pills that were hardest to digest for me. While it seems to me that we are evolving to find a sort of love in figures we consider perfect – circles, squares, etc, I don’t think much of the symbols discussed in the book as ways with which unconscious presents itself in dreams. I don’t think them important especially in regard to interpreting our dreams. Particularly the animal symbols – I don’t think I ever had a dream with any kind of animal in it. I think dreams are best explained by ‘how they made you feel’. However, I am an ignorant person and don’t know much about psychology.
Jung will have you believe that our dreams have messages for us and, if they are aptly interpreted, they will help us gain self-fulfillment.
Another awesome idea of Jung’s which I really loved is his description of ‘self’. Jung says that our consciousness is only a part of total ‘self’ of which unconscious is also a part and ego is a very small part. Conscious is just a lately developed thing and its extreme fondness for love keeps us from connecting to the unconscious part of self and thus we live fulfilling lives.
Jung says (and I feel like agreeing) that Self is often irrational, inconsistent and is made of very opposite qualities, of which some are always suppressed, creating the existential (sometimes neurotic) crisis. Thus suppressed qualities, or the suppressed information will show as a shadow (our dream double that has our suppressed qualities) in our dreams.
Thus Jekyll might be Dr. Hyde’s shadow (Jung’s example). However, the shadow is not always a bad thing:
“the shadow is not necessarily always an opponent. In fact, he is exactly like any human being with whom one has to get along, sometimes by giving in, sometimes by resisting, sometimes by giving love—whatever the situation requires. The shadow becomes hostile only when he is ignored or misunderstood.”Carl Jung
Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf seems to struggle of his protagonist in coming to terms with his suppressed self (my example). People are also capable of projecting their shadow on others – thus seeing their defects in others, the way Romans saw barbarians everywhere and Americans see terrorists everywhere. ‘The eye of the beholder’ and all.
Again, all men have feminine qualities (and vice versa) which are suppressed and these qualities show up in our dreams as a person of other sex (anima or animus). :
“A particularly good example of how the anima is experienced as an inner figure in a man’s psyche is found in the medicine men and prophets (shamans) among the Eskimo and other arctic tribes. Some of these even wear women’s clothes or have breasts depicted on their garments, in order to manifest their inner feminine side—the side that enables them to connect with the “Ghostland” (i.e., what we call the unconscious).”Carl Jung
This might explain why some patriarchal societies have goddesses. Like with shadow, you have to learn to live with this other side. I am sure a Jungian would love the Shiv-shakti pictures which show the union of these qualities in an individual. According to Jung the presence of this anima or animus helps us find the right partners for ourselves. Galatea was Pygmalion’s anima.
When the Ego feels its values challenged, faces fiction in life. :
“The actual processes of individuation—the conscious coming-to-terms with one’s own inner center (psychic nucleus) or Self—generally begins with a wounding of the personality and the suffering that accompanies it. This initial shock amounts to a sort of “call,” although it is not often recognized as such. On the contrary, the ego feels hampered in its will or its desire and usually projects the obstruction onto something external. That is, the ego accuses God or the economic situation or the boss or the marriage partner of being responsible for whatever is obstructing it.”Carl Jung
Both anima/animus, as well as Shadow, show up in dreams as well as our instinctive actions. You might stretch the argument to the animal aspects in us:
“But in man, the “animal being” (which lives in him as his instinctual psyche) may become dangerous if it is not recognized and integrated into life. Man is the only creature with the power to control instinct by his own will, but he is also able to suppress, distort, and wound it—and an animal, to speak metaphorically, is never so wild and dangerous as when it is wounded. Suppressed instincts can gain control of a man; they can even destroy him.”Carl Jung
“Dancing, which was originally nothing more than a completion of the animal disguise by appropriate movements and gestures, was probably supplementary to the initiation or other rites.”Carl Jung
Jung claims that though rationalism is a good thing, we are leaning too much on it and that is breaking us away from the unconscious (he repeatedly gives examples of tribes which are still better connected to their unconscious with whom they communicate without ever wondering why they are doing it) and this ‘breaking away’ will have to be rolled back to solve much of modern’s man problems.
Jung claims that collective unconscious, archetypes, symbols, etc will show up in all sort of studies – social (political, economics, history, art, literature, mythology, religion studies etc) as well as natural (physics, chemistry, biology etc) exactly because everything is studied only through human experience and Jung’s theory tries to describe the ‘human’, the ‘observer’ in there.
The art is (among other things) bringing out from unconscious ideas and thought patterns that we shape into stories (some of which will become myths). Our ability to connect to our unconscious side via art might be why arts (singing, painting, etc) seem so fulfilling.
“the artist has at all times been the instrument and spokesman of the spirit of his age. His work can be only partly understood in terms of his personal psychology. Consciously or unconsciously, the artist gives form to the nature and values of his time, which in their turn form him.”Carl Jung
and that is what some reviews probably mean when they say that books like Ulysses, Tin Drum or Midnight Children catch the spirit of their time.
While I can readily agree with Jung’s general ideas, details sometime won’t appeal to me (specifically when he talks about symbols, superstitions, and dream interpretation) probably because I am still bugged by rationalism. All in all, it is an awesome book.
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Copyright – Sidharth Vardhan