THE LANGUAGE OF THE UNCONSCIOUS
The world and thought are only the spumes;
of menacing cosmic images;
blood pulsates with their flight;
thoughts are lit by their fires;
and these images are — myths.
— Andrei Bely
All that passes is raised to the dignity of expression;
all that happens is raised to the dignity of meaning.
Everything is either symbol or parable.
— Paul Claudel
Most of us who believe ourselves to be thinking individuals like to assume that we know a good deal about ourselves. We very probably do, from the standpoint that we can list our virtues and vices, catalogue our "good" and "bad" points, and assess our likes, dislikes and goals. But even a self-conception of this limited scope is too great for many people, who appear to wander through life devoid of any sense of identity other than a name which they did not choose, a body over whose creation they exercised no control, and a place in life which is usually the result of material necessity, social conditioning, and apparent chance.
Yet even if we take an individual who has the perspicacity to "know" himself in behavioral terms, a very curious phenomenon occurs. Ask him to describe himself, and, if he is honest with you and with himself — a rare enough premise to start with — he may give you a very comprehensive picture of his personality. But ask his wife to describe him, and one might think she was speaking of another individual. Character traits appear of which the man himself appears totally ignorant, goals are attributed to him which are the least important of his values, and qualities are often conferred upon him which are diametrically opposed to those which he believes constitute his own identity. One begins to wonder, who is deluding whom. Ask his children what they think, and you will get a totally different picture; his fellow workers will contribute still further information, and his casual friends will portray yet another man. We can all attempt this simple investigation, and through it see that the most observant of us, the most introspective, sees only what we choose to see through the lens of our own psyche; and as our conceptions of reality, both about ourselves and about others, are always seen through tinted lenses, it is inevitable that we will know far less about ourselves than we suspect.
"We must admit that what is closest to us is the very thing we know least about, although it seems to be what we know best of all."
(Modern Man in Search of a Soul, C. G. Jung, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1961.)
Whatever anyone may have to say about Freud's theories on the unconscious, we cannot avoid the fact that humans contain far more within their psyche than is accessible to the limitations of their conscious awareness. Whether we are really motivated by biological needs, as Freud suggested, or by the will to power, as Adler suggested, or by the urge toward wholeness, as Jung suggested, one thing is clear: we are usually not aware of our deepest motivations, and, given this degree of blindness, are hardly in a position to be aware of anybody else's.
The concepts of conscious and unconscious are difficult terms to explain because they are living energies which unlike the organs of the physical body, do not lend themselves to categorization. Nevertheless the psyche of man contains a vast field of hidden material which is usually communicable only through channels which are ordinarily rejected or overlooked. Most people do not understand their dreams, and frequently either make no effort to remember them or consider them meaningless; fantasies are considered to be childish unless they are erotic, in which case they are considered to be sinful; emotional eruptions are felt to be embarrassing, and are cloaked with excuses ranging from ill health to business difficulties.
In terms of the subject of relating, perhaps the most important mechanism we possess that enables us to see into the psyche is that of projection. We often use the term in connection with the cinema, and its meaning in this context can help us to understand it in a psychological sense as well. When we see an image projected upon a screen, we look at the image and respond to it, rather than examining the film or transparency within the projector which is the real source of the image; nor do we look at the light within the projector which makes it possible for us to see the image in the first place. When a person projects some unconscious quality existent within themselves onto another person they react to the projection as though it belonged to the other; it does not occur to them to look within their own psyche for the source of it. They will treat the projection as though it existed outside them, and its impact on them will usually trigger a high emotional charge because it is, in reality, their own unconscious self that they are facing.
This very simple mechanism is at work whenever we have any highly colored or irrational emotional reaction, positive or negative, to another person. It is a lifetime's work to introject, to recognize and bring back into ourselves, these unconscious qualities, so that we can begin to perceive the dim outlines of the other's identity. And we certainly do not come closer, but only move further away, when we make or break relationships according to responses based on our own projections.
"Psychic projection is one of the commonest facts of psychology. . . We merely give it another name, and as a rule deny that we are guilty of it. Everything that is unconscious in ourselves we discover in our neighbor, and we treat them accordingly. "
(Modern Man in Search of a Soul, C. G. Jung, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1961.)
Why should we attribute to others that which belongs to us? It is understandable if we consider "bad" qualities. If I do not like a particular trait in myself, if in fact it is so painful for me to acknowledge that it remains unconscious, this unrecognized piece of me will torment me in its impetus towards expression by appearing to confront me from the outside. It is more difficult to understand why we should disown positive qualifies. To do so, we must learn something about the structure and laws of the psyche — always bearing in mind that anything psychology has to say about the psyche is really the psyche talking about itself, which renders "complete objectivity" impossible. We can then return to our subject of projection. The ego is the center of the field of everyday, rational consciousness; very simply, it is what I know — or think I know — to be myself.
"Consciousness consists primarily of what we know, and what we know we know."
(The Boundaries of the Soul, June Singer, Anchor Books, N.Y., 1973)
For most of us, the ego is all we know of ourselves, and as we stand at this point and survey the world, the world appears to us colored by the particular viewpoint of the ego. Anybody who sees something different we assume to be stubbornly narrow-minded, deliberately lying, or possibly abnormal or insane.
The ego appears to develop along particular lines from birth. If we were wholly the product of our heredity, conditioning and environment, children born into the same circumstances would be exactly the same psychologically — which of course they are not.
"The individual disposition is already a factor in childhood; it is innate, and not acquired in the course of life." (Modern Man in Search of a Soul)
Astrology also suggests that the individual's temperament is inherent at birth, and an understanding of astrology may be of help in perceiving the nature of this seed that develops into the adult ego. It can not only tell us about the self we know, but also about the one we do not know. The symbolism of the birth chart also reflects the natural human tendency to experience and evaluate life through the ego, for the horoscope is a mandala with the earth, rather than the sun at it's center. It shows in other words, how life appears and is likely to be experienced by the individual consciousness rather than what life truly is.
As we grow into adulthood, there are many qualities in our natures which are not incorporated into the developing ego, although they belong to us nonetheless. These things must be allowed to live, but they may be unacceptable to parents, may contradict religious doctrines, may violate social standards, or lastly and most importantly, may simply conflict with what the ego values most. Some of these rejected qualities may be "negative" in the sense that they are destructive; some may be "positive" and may be of far more value, individually and socially, than what the ego has made of itself. An individual may, in fact, value mediocrity — without realizing that they are doing so — and may stifle the emerging seeds of individual uniqueness and creativity within themselves; or their self-image may be an overly modest one, and the more outstanding qualities are then relegated to the unconscious. All of these things will be projected onto a suitable object.
The object of a projection is not limited to individuals. It may be an organization, a nation, an ideology or a racial type which becomes the focus for one's projection of the unrecognized dark side. A person who is violently and irrationally opposed to capitalism may be projecting as strongly as a person who is equally violent and irrational in their reaction to communism. The hallmark of projection is not the viewpoint, but the intensity and high charge of the reaction. One can stand in the middle of an argument between two people and listen with astonishment as each accuses the other of what they are both doing. When one is not a participant it is laughable and at the same time tragic, as most marriage counselors can attest. But when one is involved, in the spell of one's own projection mechanism, with the unconscious aroused, one is absolutely convinced of one's rightness. To accept the painful and omnipresent possibility of being mistaken is distasteful, because it means surrendering long-cherished illusions about ourselves.
To live life without these illusions requires courage and a moral sense which has no resemblance to the common societal conception of black-and-white morality. It is no wonder that we project, for only by doing so can we continue to blame others for our pain instead of recognizing that the psyche contains both dark and light and that our reality is the one we ourselves have created. Yet in projection and its subsequent discovery lies an enormously important vehicle by which we can come to know what is hidden in ourselves, and what we do not see in others.
It is usual to focus projection on a screen which bears some slight resemblance to the projected image, although it is common enough for the resemblance to be misinterpreted as identity. A person must be a good "hook" on which to hang the thing, if we are to get away with it; and we desire, moreover, some selectivity in our relationships. (Here also, as we shall see, astrology provides an important key to what we are likely to project, and what kind of individual we are likely to honor or insult with the bestowal of our projections.) But in spite of the resemblance between the screen and the image, they are never the same, and the projection is almost always a gross exaggeration of some quality which, left alone, might be harmoniously integrated in the nature of the other person or of oneself.
There are certain unpleasant aspects of projection that enter into relationships. If a person is perpetually the target for someone else's unconscious qualities, and if they lack the self-knowledge to discern what is happening, they will, in time, begin to resemble the projection. We all know of seemingly inexplicable situations in which, for example, a woman apparently has the misfortune to attract one painful match after another. Each of her lovers may beat her, even if he has had no history of such behavior before; and we shake our heads sadly and say something about woman's lamentable plight, never recognizing the unconscious collusion her situation has entailed. Through out projections, we have a knack of drawing from other people qualities which, left alone, might have remained seeds which would never have sprouted; and there is not one of us who can say that their own psyche does not contain the same possibilities for both good and evil. None of us is in a position to judge seeds. But with the careful watering and sunlight of our projections, we evoke these responses from each other in a manner which sometimes seems like demonic possession.
The man who believes women to be devouring, manipulative and destructive, because there is some unconscious part of him which contains these qualities, may mask all this under a conscious attitude of attraction for the opposite sex; yet he may be horrified to discover that every woman with whom he becomes involved turns out in the end to attempt to devour, manipulate and destroy him. He may believe that he has perceived a general truth about womanhood, yet it is possible that he has himself evoked these qualities in women who might otherwise never have displayed them. In another relationship the same woman might behave completely differently; and since the collective opinion of the male sex is not unanimous in misogyny, we may safely adopt certain suspicions about our poor devoured gentleman.
But who is to blame here? Can we say that one is responsible for the unconscious? Is it not more realistic and more charitable to admit that we cannot control that of which we are ignorant? Even the courts will concede that a crime committed in a state of insanity merits psychiatric treatment rather than punishment. What, then, about our unconscious projections of hostility, anger, stupidity, destructiveness, possessiveness, jealousy, meanness, pettiness, brutality and the myriad other aspects of our own shadowy sides which we perpetually think we see in the people whom we feel have disappointed us?
Although we are not responsible for the unconscious — after all, the ego is only a latter-day outgrowth of the matrix of the unconscious — we are responsible for trying to learn a little about it, as much as is possible given the limitations of consciousness. Perhaps this is a challenge which is part of our Zeitgeist. After so many thousands of years of history we are no longer children, and must accept the responsibilities of psychological adulthood. One of these responsibilities is to bring home our projections.
We do not know very much about the unconscious, and this is obvious since it is, after all, unconscious. We know that this limitless sea, out of which our small lighthouse of awareness springs, appears to work in accordance with different energy patterns and different laws; it has a different mode of communication and a different language, and must be explored with a respect for these differences. If an Englishman travels in Germany, he cannot expect to be understood if he stubbornly persists in speaking only English; and the same applies to the relation between the ego and the unconscious. The ego unfortunately often has the same attitude as the Englishman, and is astonished that it should be expected to make this sort of compromise. But if we seek to explore ourselves and fulfill our real potential, we must first learn the language of the unconscious. And it is unquestionably alien, so alien that we laugh nervously or shy in fright from its face in dreams, fantasies, emotional eruptions, and all those areas of life where, a magical or strange quality permeates our perceptions and blurs the edges of what we thought was a sharp and clear-cut reality.
"We only believe that we are masters in our own house because we like to flatter ourselves. Actually, however, we are dependent to a startling degree upon the proper functioning of the unconscious psyche, and must trust that it does not fail us." (Modern Man in Search of a Soul)
One of the most important postulates that Jung established about the unconscious is that it is compensatory to consciousness.
"The psyche is a self-regulating system that maintains itself in equilibrium as the body does. Every process that goes too far immediately and inevitably calls forth a compensatory activity." (Modern Man in Search of a Soul)
Everything, in other words, which is not contained or expressed within the ego's life is contained within the unconscious, in a nascent and inchoate form. One of the characteristics of our conscious ego is that it specializes and differentiates; the unconscious, on the other hand, is a fluid, shifting, undifferentiated sea which flows around, under and above the clear shell of the ego, eroding certain parts and depositing fresh ones, in the same way that the sea itself flows around a rocky promontory. The psyche as a whole contains all possibilities; the ego can only work with one possibility at a time, as its function is to order, structure and make manifest a particular fragment of the limitless experiences of life. It is no wonder that in myth and fairy tales, this world of the unconscious is so often symbolized by the sea, and the hero's journey into the depths is the ego's journey to the depths of the psyche. The unconscious is an underwater world, full of strange and magical creatures; and for human lungs used to breathing air, total immersion is of course a psychological death. This death we call insanity.
In the light of all of this, one can begin to understand why the person who has grown into a lopsided shape, whose ego has developed along a narrow path and denied all other possible expressions, is also the person who is most likely to be plagued with intense projections on others and who seems most beset by the apparent shortcomings of their fellow human beings.
The primary mode of expression of the unconscious is the symbol. We are surrounded by symbols all our lives, from our own inner life, from the lives of others, and from the world around us, but we are often oblivious to their meaning and their power. A symbol is not the same thing as a sign; it is not simply something which stands for something else. The various signs which we see on the road, for example, have specific meanings: no right turn, or no parking, or construction work ahead. But a symbol suggests or infers an aspect of life which is inexhaustible in interpretation and ultimately eludes all the intellect's efforts to fix or contain it. One cannot ever fully plumb the depths of its manifold meanings, nor can one catalogue these meanings in intellectual terms because they frequently contain antitheses which the conscious ego cannot perceive simultaneously. Moreover, a symbol's meanings are linked not by logic, but by association, and associations can radiate out in a multitude of contradictory directions.
We cannot be conscious of all associations at the same time; nor can we establish a perimeter for the ripples of association in the same way that we can for the clearly defined path of logic. A symbol is like a stone dropped into the pool of the psyche. We are in the middle of the pool, so to speak, and cannot have eyes at the backs of our heads.
A symbol evokes a response from us at an unconscious level, because it brings together associations which are not logically connected, and fuses them into a meaningful whole. A simple example would be the flag of a particular country. To a patriot, that flag is a symbol of everything their country means to them; when they are confronted with it, all the emotional and religious values it embodies, the sense of freedom or lack thereof, their home, their roots, their heritage, the possibilities of the future, and a myriad other associations which they could never fully explain burst upon them in one instant with a high emotional charge. One can see in this simple and inadequate example some of the power of the symbol. A flag can evoke hatred, violence, passion, love, sacrifice, self-destruction or heroism, and can plunge an individual — or a nation of individuals into an emotional reaction over which there is no conscious control. The symbol of the swastika, used with cold intelligence and full knowledge of its power, helped throw the world into chaos only forty years ago; and even now, when one sees it scrawled on a subway wall or the side of a building, it has the capacity to evoke powerful emotional reactions and a host of powerful associations. In much the same way, conventional religious symbols can have immense power. The silver crucifix about the neck of the devout Christian, or the Star of David about the neck of the Jew, has a meaning which can never be communicated in words yet which affords a glimpse of what to many is the highest and holiest of mysteries, embodied in a simple geometric form.
The flag, the swastika, the Star of David and the crucifix are symbols which we can readily identify as symbols. But there are symbols around us which we do not identify so easily, because they are expressions of the underlying energy patterns which shape life itself. These basic lines of energy Jung called the archetypes, and although an archetype has no form, it communicates itself to us through many symbols of a nature so vast that the conscious ego backs off in awe. Nature itself, like mankind, functions in accordance with archetypal patterns, while at the same time embodying them. In the cycle of the seasons, for example — with new life emerging in the spring, maturity and fruitfulness of summer, gradual disintegration and harvest of autumn, barrenness and secret underground germination of winter — we may see the cycle of our own lives, from birth to maturity, decay, death and rebirth. The cycle of the sun in the heavens, rising in the east, culminating at the mid-heaven, setting in the west, and vanishing during the night only to rise again, seemed to the ancients to be the face of God because they saw reflected in the solar journey the entirety of life. Unlike our forefathers, we no longer worship the sun, but we still respond unconsciously to the symbol. The growth of a plant, from seed to leaf to flower and again to seed, again symbolizes this life process — as does the waning and waxing of the moon, the cycles of the planets and constellations. Here we can begin to see why astrology was, to the ancients, an eye opening into the workings of the universe — because every experience of which a human being is capable, if seen symbolically, may be found to correspond to one of these natural cycles in the heavens. The language of literature abounds with similar correspondences, as does that of myth and fairy tale; and we even use them in our daily speech, when we speak of the ebb and flow, the waxing and waning of life, of desire, and of love.
These things need to be meditated on and felt, rather than analyzed, for the natural symbols of life tell us about our wholeness and our connection with each other and with the flow of life itself; but they cannot be discerned if we see only with the intellect. One could stretch it all even further and suggest that we human beings are ourselves symbols: for all the universe is energy, and there are certain basic underlying energy patterns, formless yet with definite qualities, which embody themselves as man.
Freud spent a great deal of time trying to demonstrate that everything in dreams is a symbol of either the male or the female sexual organs. What did not occur to him was the possibility that he had things the wrong way around, and that male and female organs are themselves symbols for the mysterious archetypal energies which the Chinese call yin and yang. As Jung was once reputed to have said, even the penis is a phallic symbol. Those qualities which we associate with masculinity — directness, will, one-pointedness, clarity, openness, force — are mirrored in every man's body, and those qualities which we associate with femininity — subtlety, hiddeness, delicacy, gentleness and softness — are also mirrored in the body of every woman. As a result of Jung's life work, we have reason to believe that the archetype, the basic energy Itself, exists before there is a form through which it can manifest. Or, as the Bible expresses it, in the beginning was the Word.
When we look at each other's faces, we see there the symbols of inherent character traits. We express this instinctually in our talk of weak chins and determined jaws, scholarly foreheads and predatory noses, penetrating eyes and artistic hands. We are putting into words our unconscious perception that the body itself may be a symbol of the individual, and we see in physical form a crystallized, concretized distillation of the other standing before us. This is a most important principle to contemplate, because it tells us something about what sexual attraction and repulsion really are.
A very different world opens to us if we assume that manifest reality itself is a symbol. On this basis all religious doctrines are established; and all esoteric thought, the secret wisdom tradition of centuries, stems from this miracle of symbol which the Emerald Tablet crystallized in the phrase, "As above, so below." Jung hints in the same direction in his work; but as a scientist, he was obliged to base his ideas on empirical observation rather than intuitive vision — or at least, to back up his vision with verifiable facts.
"The psyche arises from a spiritual principle which is as inaccessible to out understanding as matter." (Modern Man in Search of a Soul)
The same archetypal patterns underlie both.
We can begin now to glimpse what the unconscious really means. Freud thought it was a dustbin into which the private accumulation of each man's rejected debris was poured; he believed that its contents were composed almost exclusively of repressed desires which were unacceptable to the conscious ego and to the society in which a person lives. There is undoubtedly an accumulation of filth in the unconscious of each man — probably in direct compensatory proportion to the "cleanliness" of the conscious ego. At the same time, there is also an accumulation of treasure. Moreover, filth is also relative; it is not very appetizing on the kitchen table, but every gardener knows that without their compost heap they would have a very poor garden. The unconscious opens out below and above us as a repository of immense creative energy, a matrix from which all things spring; and it does not stop at the individual level, but merges into a great collective sea beyond human bounds which extends to the unknown. It is possible that what modern psychology calls the unconscious was once known to the ancients as the gods, or God; and it is no wonder, when we ponder these things, that science and religion, having thrown stones at each other for so many centuries, are beginning to discover that they are traveling in the same direction, toward the same mystery — however different their vehicles.
From this excursion into the world where psychology and religion meet, let us go back to the practical problems of relationships. We can now see that most of what goes on in a relationship is unconscious, because most of what a person is remains unconscious. The mystery of why a man is attracted to a certain type of woman, why he begins his relationship in a particular way, why it takes the course it does and why he encounters the particular problems he must cope with, is less a mystery when we realize that much of what we call attraction and repulsion is really attraction or repulsion pertaining to unconscious qualities within the man himself. It is a rare man who can say there is no element of projection in his relationships, for there is probably a good deal in the unconscious which can never become conscious and which we will eternally project. It may be that we even project God. Who then is the beloved, and where is she to be found? Within or without? 0r both?