Why is the ‘Unconscious’ Unconscious by Maurice Nicoll

Written after studying with Jung and prior to meeting Ouspensky and Gurdjieff. Printed in 1918, in The British Journal of Psychology, Volume 9, Number 2.

A discussion dealing with the nature of the unconscious is inevitably difficult. If we wish to understand the significance of the teaching of Jung upon the nature of the unconscious, it is first necessary to gain some idea of the original teaching of Freud. The original teaching of Freud was that the unconscious part of the human psyche contained only what had once belonged to the conscious personal life. It became unconscious because it was repressed. It was repressed because it was painful, or grossly antagonistic to conventional standards. Thus, the unconscious, from Freud’s original standpoint, comes into existence during the life of the individual as a result of repression. It is therefore a secondary product. From this point of view the ‘unconscious’ is unconscious because of repression, a process peculiar to humanity. It begins at an early period in every human life. At birth there is no unconscious, and at puberty there is an unconscious, and this unconscious is only a repressed part of the person’s conscious experience.

This repressed portion, according to Freud, is largely the so-called infantile sexuality. We can say that this kind of unconscious is like a cage opening off the main living-room of consciousness into which we put the things that have become dangerous. The main task of life is to keep the door of the cage shut. If the door is not shut properly, we become neurotic or insane. I do not know exactly what the Freudian school believe at the present moment, over and above this original view. I do not think it is possible to find very clear formulations in the modern Freudian writings.

Jung, the leader of the Zurich school, takes another view of the unconscious. His teaching has led to a split with Freud, mainly over the question of sexuality. To Jung the primitive life force, or libido, is not sexuality, but an energy one of whose manifestations is sexuality.

Jung does not regard the unconscious only as something acquired during personal existence through repression. It is also an inheritance— a racial background of the mind. This, for Jung, constitutes the collective unconscious, and its contents are inexhaustible; that is, no amount of analysis can exhaust them. Jung brings the matter of the inexhaustibility of the unconscious as an argument against the Freudian view. If the unconscious is merely a certain repressed part of the psychic life of the individual, then it should theoretically be possible to exhaust its contents or do away with it by analysis—that is, by making it conscious. Experience seems to show that this is far from possible, and that the unconscious continues to weave its dreams and phantasies ceaselessly. What Freud calls the unconscious, Jung calls the personal unconscious, and this is but an excerpt of the collective unconscious, containing repressed and forgotten material that has an intimate and personal significance. The contents of the collective unconscious are impersonal and are made up of what Jung calls the primordial thought feelings. These primordial thought feelings are shared in common by mankind and form the primitive pattern of all thought, which we, according to our mental powers, work up into more or less elaborate systems. Therefore, the roots of thought and feeling reach down beyond personal history, beyond the personal unconscious, into racial strata where lie the primordial thought feelings.

In order to understand what is meant by primordial thought feelings I might suggest that we compare them to certain primordial re-actions, such as pleasure and pain. Some qualities seem to be inherent in the human soul, and we cannot fundamentally attribute them to education.

The appreciation of beauty and ugliness depends, I think, on a primordial duality in us. Naturally, education will develop these primordial thought feelings in one direction or another. Perhaps all the primordial things have a dual aspect or ambivalency. Certain gestures and expressions must surely be primordial—laughter and rage. Our basic emotions are surely primordial. And then there is the war—were the deeps of the human soul only what Freud has taught, whence comes all this devoted sacrifice?

We have also to consider that we seem to understand more than we have actually experienced, and far more than we can express, but I do not propose to discuss this very difficult thesis. I will only mention that if our capacity for understanding did not transcend our personal conscious experience, the outlook for art, drama and literature would be sterile. Shakespeare could not have existed; or, to put it another way, he would be largely meaningless. All great art lifts us far beyond our conscious selves, but when the spell is over, we lose the vision and wonder at the deeps within us.

Jung quotes the fantasy of a schizo-phrenic patient of Maeder’s— a locksmith—who said that the world was his picture-book. The fantasy, or primitive idea, of this uneducated patient is the same primordial thought feeling as underlies the whole system of Schopenhauer’s philosophy which conceives the world as Will. The difference between the locksmith and Schopenhauer is one of elaboration and detail. The primordial thought feeling is the same and exists in us all.

There is one very important thing which the original Freudian view of the unconscious does not fully explain. It is the language of the dream. There is sound evidence to show that the infant experiences dreams before it can speak, and I think most people will agree that animals dream. Dreaming therefore precedes the function of language.

Dreaming is pictorial language. It is primitive language—a primitive way of thinking. Jung saw in the dream symbol a primitive and primary representation. Freud thought the dream symbol was not a real representation, but something secondary* the outcome of repression. It was a method of disguise, a process of camouflage, whereby the unpleasant repressed contents of the unconscious could gain admittance into consciousness, by avoiding the endopsychic censor. But in the preface to the third English edition of The Interpretation of Dreams Freud says that he has learned to attach a greater value to the significance of symbolism in dreams, “or rather, in the unconscious thinking.” From this and from other recent writings it would appear that Freud recognises in some degree that there is a language of dreams inherent in the unconscious, a primitive way of thinking which we inherit from our ancestors. Many years ago, Jung came to the view that the dream is an archaic process of thought. It is a way of looking at things that belongs to the dim past. Now if the dream is thought at a deep level, in order that we should understand it, it must be developed up to the level of waking thought, and not only reduced down to a more primitive level of sexuality. Take the cartoon as an example—an ordinary Punch cartoon.

It is a way of speaking, and its language is pictorial like that of the dream. We can reduce it to a sexual basis if we like, but are we then to say, “this cartoon is nothing but certain basic sexual components?”

I do not think that we usually apply that method to the understanding of a cartoon, but on the contrary, we develop the cartoon up to the level of contemporary thought. We interpret its condensed symbolisms by adding to them—by what Jung calls the ‘hermeneutical’ method.

Associated with the names of Jung, Meyer, Hoch and MacCurdy, is the modern view of the two great groups of functional insanity— mania-depression and dementia praecox—which teaches that they are manifestations of a retreat or regression to a more primitive stage of human adaptation. They are constructive efforts at adaptation to reality—but instead of being progressive adaptations, they are regressive.

Jung’s teaching on the meaning of the neuroses is in the same enlightening vein.

We have therefore to consider the unconscious from an evolutionary point of view; and to the question, why is the ‘unconscious’ unconscious?, we may answer that it is unconscious because it is not yet fully adapted to reality. The unconscious contains nascent thought—thought that has not yet been fashioned into the form that is useful to consciousness.

The unconscious contains the raw material of the conscious life. It contains the germinal stuff, the bulbs and roots, which exist below the surface because, as such, they are unadapted and meaningless to us.

Their blossoms are what we value. It is only when a man is insane that they come into conscious expression directly, and then we see how unadapted are his nascent fantasies. It must be pointed out here that, if this theory is valid, we must expect to find in the unconscious, through its product the dream, traces of all human qualities—the heroic and upward striving as well as the bestial—the forces of progression as well as the forces of regression. Jung has insisted strongly upon this, and Maeder uses a striking phrase in this connexion when he says that in the dreams of neurotics—those who have regressed partially from the reality-function—we can find the “drowned voices of progression.” Freud, as I understand him, sees only the regressive voices in the dream, the sirens of infantile sexuality.

The primordial thought feelings contain—in Jung’s words—“ not only every beautiful and great thought and feeling of humanity, but also every deed of shame and devilry of which human beings have ever been capable” ; therefore the sources of conflict must lie in the un­ conscious itself, and not only in the restraints of an acquired morality imposed on the growing life, as Freud once thought.

The biological aim behind evolution seems to have been to thrust consciousness up to the gateways of incoming experience in order to free it from the past, from the already experienced. A study of the human nervous system, in the light of the recent work of Head, Sherrington, Rivers, Riddoch and others in the domain of neurology, leads one to this conclusion. The very existence of the reflex is dramatic evidence enough. The machinery of reflexes, of automatic acts, of habits, frees consciousness to deal specifically with incoming experience. 1 suppose we believe in the evolution of the body; the next step is to believe in the evolution of consciousness. If we do believe in the evolution of the mind, we should not find it strange that in underlying consciousness there should exist more and more primitive layers of thought and feeling which are lit up during sleep. For in sleep we leave the focussed levels of waking consciousness and regress to levels where we look at our problems in a way which once belonged to the waking life of dim ancestors. But we call it a dream.

Jung suggests that the contents of the collective unconscious consist of archaic human functions from which spring the myths. But besides these archaic human functions there is also the residue of functions belonging to the animal ancestry of mankind, an ancestry which covers a vastly greater period than that of human existence. These archaic residues may become pathologically active when the life current, or the libido, streams backwards, away from reality. This streaming backwards from a hard task in reality is called regression.

A patient of mine who later developed dementia praecox frequently dreamt that he was becalmed in a small ship upon a smooth and empty sea. He was dangling his hand in the water when suddenly some monster of the deep, which he thought was a large yellow crab, seized it and began to pull him down.

From the Jung standpoint this dream represents the inner situation of the patient. It shows in primitive pictorial language the inner currents and tensions in the patient’s psyche. It is a question whether the dreamer can pull up the monster, or whether the monster will pull down the dreamer. The monster in the deep is a symbol for that amount of libido which has regressed into the collective unconscious. It appears in the form of a large crab because it is a quantity of energy which has only a collective value, and no individual value, in that it is at a primitive invertebrate level, as it were, and not yet adapted to human function.

Unless this energy can be freed and pulled up into the ship on the surface—that is, made available for conscious application—there will be tremendous danger. The ultimate fate of the patient was that he became dragged down beyond recall into the inexhaustible primordial fantasies of the collective unconscious.

To sum up, the ‘unconscious’ is unconscious because life is a process of progressive evolution, and the content of the healthy conscious mind requires to be closely adapted to reality if the individual is to be successful. Therefore, the progressive transmutations of psychic energy are carried out at levels beneath consciousness, just as the progressive transmutations of the embryo are carried out in the womb of the mother, and it is only the comparatively adapted form that is born into waking life. Thus, from this point of view we must regard the unconscious as the inexhaustible source of our psychic life, and not only as a cage containing strange and odious beasts.

1 Contribution to a Symposium at a Joint Session of the British Psychological Society, the Aristotelian Society and the Mind Association, July 6, 1918.