Book Review: Man and His Symbols (Author: Carl G. Jung, et al.)

English: Hand-colored photograph of Carl Jung

English: Hand-colored photograph of Carl Jung in USA, published in 1910. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have been fascinated for some time for Carl G. Jung. I am not sure where I was first introduced to him – but he has been a person who has repeatedly “popped up” unexpected and unsought in various diverse areas of my studies. When I saw a copy of the book Man and His Symbols at a thrift store I decided to purchase it. The book consists of chapters on Jungian (analytical) psychology not only by C.G. Jung but also by some of his followers – M.-L. von Franz, Joseph L. Henderson, Jolande Jacobi, and Aniela Jaffe.

The volume was at turns fascinating and ridiculous, intriguing and uncharacteristically verbose and dry. Understandable and foreign. I have just finished the volume – all nearly 400 pages – and I am unsure what to say or think about it. There are some ideas which clearly make sense to me, but overall I find the volume hard to believe – the interpretations of signs and dreams seeming too subjective and random. Yet at the same time I hesitate to write the book off, how is it that Jung who seems in many ways so strange and mystical has so deeply affected contemporary thought? Am I simply missing the depth?

I’ve attempted to purchase a biography of Jung twice off of Amazon and both times was sent the wrong book…I feel it may be necessary for me to try yet again, as I have not yet drawn full conclusions on Jung’s thoughts.

I would note that whatever the work may be it has numerous “jumping off” points for further research at it discusses frequently ancient mythology, literature spanning the ages, science, and the arts – mentioning repeatedly names which ring faint bells within my head, those individuals and concepts which I have said, “Someday, I will read more about x.”

What do you think of C.G. Jung? His writings? His followers? Analytical psychology? What works would you recommend reading by him? Was he crazy? A genius? Psychologist or occultist?

[I’ve decided to add below a brief explanation of Jung’s psychology after reading Man and His Symbols below. I welcome comments or corrections on my perception.]

Jung was originally a follower of Freud, but eventually branched off with his own innovations in psychology. Particularly, he did not see almost everything going back to sexual impulses as Freud did. Rather, he suggested that our minds consisted of the conscious and the unconscious – and that the unconscious, while in many sense primal was also in many senses healthier than the conscious modern mind.

Jung did not advocate a return to the primal, but rather the intertwining and interfunctioning of the conscious and the unconscious. Either by themselves was dangerous and would not allow man to function correctly and holistically – but in appropriate balance together they resulted in a whole person.

Jung believed that our dreams where our unconscious’ way of communicating to us important truths that we needed to know. Thus, the analytical psychology which resulted looked for meaning within dreams. This opposed the then common understanding that dreams were simply the random reactions of the brain – without meaning.

For me, it seems logical that dreams may carry meaning with them. As someone who works in IT and sometimes performing application development I have experienced numerous instances in which I will face an “unfixable” problem which after a night’s sleep suddenly has new solutions in my mind. It seems to me that something productive is occurring within my mind during sleep – and I don’t see any reason to believe that similar productivity might occur via the actual dream content themselves.

I know that when I can remember my dreams (not very frequently) they oftentimes relate to real crises within my life. For example, I frequently experience dreams in which I am placed against an implacable (real or imagined) foe. No matter how many times and how many ways in which I oppose the foe (e.g. violence, logic, escape, etc.) the foe always reappears. This connects significantly with multiple situations in my life in which my health (e.g. OCD) or relationships seem to be permanently and unalterably broken. No matter the methods I use to rectify the issues, they remain broken…even if I seem to “overcome” the issue temporarily.

That said, I have several problems with Jung’s psychology. First, I find his use of archetypes unconvincing. I do not doubt that Jung may have actually helped those who came to him overcome their issues in many cases…but I ponder whether his interpretation of their dreams which helped these individuals process and grow was not based upon his own intuitions about their personality and needs which he then imposed upon the dreams. Jung notes that for each individual the content of the dreams has different meaning – that one cannot expect the archetypes to carry the same meaning in different individuals dreams. If this is the case, then how is Jung determining the meaning of the dreams? It seems, imho, that he is interpreting the dreams based on an analysis of the individual…thus the dreams “mean” the solution Jung believes to the problem the individual is struggling with.

Further, I find Jung and his followers use of archetypes and various literary sources loose and disconcerting. It reminds me in many ways of the allegorical interpretation of Scripture. As a Christian there were several times within Man and His Symbols that I knew that Jung or his followers weren’t playing fair with Christianity – that is, they were undermining the actual meaning for their own meaning…

It seems to me that the archetypes exist to the extent and depth they do across cultures and religions b/c Jung forced them to exist as such. The connections between some of the archetypes were far too tenuous.

To summarize: I think it is reasonable that our dreams are productive and informative in some sense, but I think Jung’s psychology over-emphasizes the importance of the dream and warps the meaning of things by undermining the explicit truths for perceived underlying truths.

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