Memories, Dreams, Reflections by Carl Jung

Most autobiographies cover the main events of a life with the reader often left with only glimpses of the inner life of the author. Carl Jung’s (¬†autobiographical¬† Memories, Dreams, Reflections (first English translation 1963), focuses on the great psychologist’s spiritual and intellectual awakenings. The descriptions of his visions, dreams and fantasies, which he considered his ‘greatest wealth’, fill the book; he did this not for indulgence’s sake, but because he considered them the prism through which he could perceive the collective psyche of humankind.

Memories, Dreams, Reflections is controversial because it was still in manuscript form when Jung died, and required further editing to become the final version we read today. But it found the popular audience Jung had always hoped for, and inspired many to become psychoanalysts. Like a Christmas cake, it will be too rich and dense for some; for others it may inspire a life-long interest in Jungian psychology, which aims to reveal the science of the mind and personality as being driven by unconscious and even spiritual forces. Other volumes carry his thoughts on mythological and psychological concepts such as the ‘God-image’, but Memories, Dreams, Reflections, according to its editor Aniela Jaffe, is Jung’s ‘religious testament’ to the world, the only occasion in which he really talks about his personal experience of God.

Both sides of Jung’s family had been pastors and theologians, and his father was a rather doctrinaire minister. Into this environment Jung naturally grew up dwelling on religious issues, but the God he imagined was not personal or enlightening, but simply represented the power of the universe in all its light, darkness, chance and infiniteness. Through dreams he felt led to the conclusion that God actually wanted us to think ‘bad thoughts’, thoughts that went against established wisdom, so that we could make our way independently back to God. He felt that the truly spiritual person was a free thinker who demanded experience¬† of God rather that plain obedience. Everyone has religious ideas in them, Jung believed, feelings about the infinite or intimations of greater meaning. Asked, in a television interview, whether he believed in God, Jung said: ‘I don’t believe – I know’. He had observed that those who shut them out often developed neuroses, yet such people would not have been ‘divided against themselves’, if they lived in an earlier time, in which their lives were closely tied to myth, ritual and nature. Modern people are too objective, he wrote, their spiritual horizons too narrow; many lives were lived almost entirely on the plane of the conscious, rational mind. Were they to close the gap between their ego and unconscious minds, Jung believed, they would return to full mental health.

If psychoses resulted from some corruption in a person’s psyche, so the life of a sane person would be shaped by internal myths and complexes. The goal of what Jung termed ‘individuation’ was the uniting of inner opposites, or recognizing the many contradictions within yourself. This self-knowledge would allow a sense of unity of purpose about your life and your personality to emerge. Jung recounts that, as a boy, he realized that there were two basic aspects to a person’s being, which he termed personality No. 1 (what we usually think of as the self) and personality No.2 (the ‘other’). His own No. 1 was the boy who did his homework and got into fights, but he also sensed a No. 2 which rested upon a ‘timeless, imperishable stone’ of wisdom. Jung went out of his way to listen to this part of himself because he felt it to be his most valuable, and though most people never even want to recognize the ‘other’ within themselves, his lifetime’s work in exploring the various sides and dimensions of the self means that today we are not afraid of talking about this No. 2 personality (variously called ‘the shadow’, the ‘higher self’, the ‘true self’). We appreciate that its integration is necessary for a sense of wholeness. Without doing so, we tend to project onto other people or things what we do not recognize in ourselves, with often harmful consequences.

At their first meeting in Vienna in 1907, Freud and Jung talked straight for thirteen hours. In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung describes Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams as ‘epoch-making’, and states that ‘By evaluating dreams as the most important source of information concerning the unconscious processes, he [Freud] gave back to mankind a tool that had seemed irretrievably lost. ‘The famous split came about because Jung could not accept Freud’s belief that most human behaviour and any instance of the spiritual in art or in a person was the result of ‘repressed sexuality’. ‘When I parted from Freud’, Jung wrote, ‘I knew that I was plunging into the unknown. Beyond Freud, after all, I knew nothing; but I had taken the step into the darkness.’ In this darkness Jung would develop many of his now famous ideas. Though he coined the psychological terms ‘complex’, ‘introvert’ and ‘extravert’, Jung went out on more of a limb with his idea of the ‘collective unconscious’, a larger human mind of which every individual was a part, manifested in the images, symbols, dreams, and myths that seemed to emerge in all cultures, and with the concept of ‘archetypes’: ways of being or acting that people unthinkingly adopt but which are also patterns in this broader collective psyche.

Another of Jung’s famous ideas, ‘synchronicity’, or the occurrence of seemingly meaningful coincidences that go beyond the realms of normal probability, suggested a universe in which the boundaries which humans normally perceive between mind and matter may in some circumstances be eroded. Synchronicity is now a key concept in the New Age movement¬†but was also given credence by Jung’s friend, the Nobel physicist Wolfgang Pauli. Jung was also interested in numerology, particularly the significance in art and mythology of the number four, and became a scholar of alchemy, Gnosticism and the Bible. He understood the real meaning of alchemy not as turning ordinary metals into gold, but the transformation of the psyche, an awakening.

In 1913, Jung had had a powerful vision of all the land between the North Sea and the Alps flooded. The water on closer inspection was blood, in which floated the drowned bodies of millions. At first he thought it indicated that a revolution would take place, then it dawned on him that the Great War was about to break out in Europe. Jung’s personal powers of precognition led to his delving into parapsychology, and the credence he gave, as a scientist, to non-physical causality, was met with derision by Freud. Only time will tell whether Jung or Freud were right on these non-traditional areas of science, but it is reasonable to say that Jung’s star has risen in the last few decades while much of Freud’s thought has been debunked.

Jung admitted that his ‘mythologising’ gave life a glamour that, once experienced, was difficult to do without. But then, he asked, why should¬† we do without it? To the intellect, matters to do with dreams and the unconscious may seem like a waste of time, but if they enrich our emotional lives and heal a divided mind, surely they are valuable. If we have a purely rational, artless existence, never taking account of our dreams or fantasies, we become one-dimensional. In seeking perfect explanations, we never dwell on ‘the incomprehensible things’, as Jung described the mysteries of time and space; yet that which is mysterious also gives meaning to life. The spiritual life may be about reaching higher, but Memories, Dreams, Reflections also suggests that it requires digging deeper into the stories, symbols and traditions that make up our heritage. Perhaps our ancestors knew things that we, with all our technology, have forgotten.

If you are tired of the shallowness of consumer culture, this book may be exactly what you need. Jung’s account of travels in Africa, America, India and Italy are fascinating, as is the chapter on the tower-house he built at Bollingen on the shores of Lake Zurich to get away from it all. The descriptions of dreams and visions that appear throughout the work will not hold everyone’s attention, but for many they will spark a new interest in the unconscious mind as a provider of guidance and wisdom.

First listen to the very helpful BBC Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’ episode (45 minutes)¬†on Jung, available at the link¬†¬†¬†With Brett Kahr, Senior Clinical Research Fellow in Psychotherapy and Mental Health at the Centre for Child Mental Health in London and a practising Freudian; Ronald Hayman, writer and biographer of Jung; Andrew Samuels, Professor of Analytical Psychology at the University of Essex and a Jungian analyst in clinical practice.

430 pages in Vintage paperback edition

ISBN  978-0679723950

Carl Jung

Scroll to Top