Dreams, Cultures, Identities

I recently came across a fascinating blog Word and Silence and this post Jung’s Great Dream generated some reflection. The context is this, Jung‘s record of a dream:

“This was the dream. I was in a house I did not know, which had two stories. It was ‘my house.’ I found myself in the upper story, where there was a kind of salon furnished with fine old pieces in rococo style. On the walls hung a number of precious old paintings. I wondered that this should be my house, and thought, ‘Not bad.’ But then it occurred to me that I did not know what the lower floor looked like. Descending the stairs, I reached the ground floor. There everything was much older, and I realized that this part of the house must date from about the fifteenth or sixteenth century. The furnishings were medieval; the floors were of red brick. Everywhere it was rather dark. I went from one room to another, thinking, ‘Now I really must explore the whole house.’ I came upon a heavy door, and opened it. Beyond it, I discovered a stone stairway that led down into the cellar. Descending again, I found myself in a beautifully vaulted room which looked exceedingly ancient. Examining the walls, I discovered layers of brick among the ordinary stone blocks, and chips of brick in the mortar. As soon as I saw this I knew that the walls dated from Roman times. My interest by now was intense. I looked more closely at the floor. It was of stone slabs, and in one of these I discovered a ring. When I pulled it, the stone slab lifted, and again I saw a stairway of narrow stone steps leading down into the depths. These, too, I descended, and entered a low cave cut into the rock. Thick dust lay on the floor, and in the dust were scattered bones and broken pottery, like remains of a primitive culture. I discovered two human skulls, obviously very old and half disintegrated. Then I awoke.” (Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 158-9)



Requiem for a dream…

The above narrative built around a dream is interesting and in at least two ways.


First, as the dream illustrates both the layers of the mind and the sedimentary layers of cultural development (created pari passu the psychological subjectivity), we get an inkling of the mind that Jung was portraying: one in which the progressive layers of complexity laid down culturally, historically are simultaneously present in the contemporary mind (at varying levels of self-conscious awareness) and there represent the various strata of consciousness and awareness laid down sequentially over time. The implication is of course that the most notionally “primitive” layers of strata are no longer directly accessible to conscious reasoning.

A curiosity which emerges is that of the current historical moment which so clearly demonstrates an acceleration of cultural change: are there still layers of psychological subjectivity being layered into human consciouness ? If the rate of change is speeding up, is there enough time for any specific cultural and technological moment to be laid down as a distinctive sedimentary entity worthy of identification within the taxonomy of conscious awareness ? Or, is the progressive sedimentation one that purely pushes down the stack (to use a digital memory metaphor) and drives earlier states further and further away from conscious awareness ? Perhaps conceiving of these progressive developmental layers of cultural and psychological complexity as being akin to phase transitions may be instructive.


The second observation is far less technical. That the dream was in some regards rewritten or at least partially invented demonstrates the creativity with which an idea may at times require retrospective embellishment for heuristic purposes. This is also perhaps an indication of the fundamental unreliability of memory and not least when recounting the nebulous realm of dreams. Memory embellished for specific purposes may be the root of moral allegory.


The notion of a shared repository for archetypes of personality and mythic narrative is not necessarily as mystical or magical as may have often been ascribed – it just aligns more closely with a certain class of populist spiritualism and wishful-thinking. The shared repository (a.k.a. Collective Unconscious) of images, narratives, myths and archetypes is always already the cultural world of communication and interdependent meaning-making that a person participates in every day.

The layers of historical complexity which resonate and pass through culture and communication (much as do compression waves through transmission mediums) are overlaid upon daily experience. The stratified histories which embody the cultural history and depth of accumulated collective experience are stored in the network of living inter-communication. This resolves down to individual minds at the final analysis because the culture – all of its communications, nuances, narratives and archetypes – only really exists in the meaning makers: participation is choice-making and narrative reinforcement.


The narratives, in all their historical depth and cross-reference, are stored holographically – that is, in some sense distributed (physically, materially) across the whole system of interconnected minds through interpenetrating resonances and waves in (or of) communication. (Holographic plates store images non-locally, distributed across the entire plate such that any specific part of the plate can be broken off and still produce the complete image – just fuzzy and indistinct). In any specific place it exists as a whole, just less defined, less clear but still present in total.

Dreams are narratives in which the clear logical and temporal boundaries required to function in the world dissolve, where the images which are all the time already present in the mind and there intermingle and reconcatenate into new and potentially novel configurations and metamorphoses. Myths and archetypes are consciously (i.e. culturally) shared – or at least accessible or available for articulation and communication – recombinations of those images from dreams which find themselves bubbling their way up into material reality through shared narratives. Those dreams themselves are really just miniature microcosms, free-form communications systems comparable in activity and expression to the culture from which they emerge.


Known Unknowns

I am not at all averse to the concept of the Collective Unconscious, at least insofar as it is not purely mystical and ineffable to analysis of explanation (how many references to the concept are purely and shamelessly magical thinking and aspirational wish-fulfilment ?). Yes, the unconscious is by definition ineffable but if it is to be of any heuristic use to us at all we surely can not place it at an infinitely distant metaphysical unintelligibility set totally apart from all communication and discourse.

The notion that we each contain this Collective Unconscious within ourselves (as a participatory expression) is compelling: a collective resource and record of cultural experience and memory. This is no more mysterious than that we should each in our cellular and anatomical development from single cell through to human baby mirror a specific path of a shared evolutionary (phylogenetic) history.

The problem with Collective Unconscious as an idea or concept seems to be determining a mechanism by which it is stored and or communicated – that is, how does it manage to exist at all ? I think, turning this question inside out to some extent – that it is precisely in the storage and communication that it exists. The storage, memory, individual and collective record of experience and its consensus system of communications and shared (individual) mental participation through culture and attributed or interpreted semantics precisely is the collective unconscious. No need to invoke mystical aspirations to quantum non-locality and synchronicity, although physics remains fundamentally incomplete and so you never really can know for sure…

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