Ajc #18: The Creation of Symbolic Meaning on the Path to Individuation Seminar Transcript

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AJC #18:  The Creation of Symbolic Meaning on the Path to Individuation

Seminar Transcript

Murray Stein: We are going to do a kind of quick crash course introduction to Jungian symbols and the symbolic life, and then Warren will deliver his reflections and then we will have some time for discussion. We’ll take a break and then have some further conversation and presentations after the break.

So, what I would like to do is to answer a couple of questions from strictly pretty much Jung’s perspective. I’m not going to go very far out from Jung himself and what he wrote because I would like to make sure that everybody has a clear understanding of what Jung meant by a symbol, what a symbol is. I am going to try to answer some questions: What is a symbol? Where do symbols come from? Where do they originate? Where do we find symbols? What is the purpose of symbols? What is their goal, psychologically speaking, and what is symbolic meaning? So, that’s quite a bit to try to cover in a half an hour. I will do my best.

If you took the opportunity to read the assignments for this course that were sent out in advance, by Jung, I suggested reading the “The Transcendent Function,” “The Tavistock Lectures,” “The Symbolic Life,” and the definition of symbol in “Collected Works, Volume 6.” You’ll see that Jung repeats himself over and over again on what a symbol is not and what it is, particularly around the distinction of the difference between what he calls a sign and symbol.

When you deal with symbols, Jung would say you’re dealing with nuclear material. You’re dealing with very powerful psychological material; it’s nothing to play around with. It can unleash enormous energies and because a symbol connects us to the depths of the unconscious, and I’ll show you in a moment a diagram that he presented to his audience at the Tavistock Lectures 1935 in London that illustrates or gives a visual impression of what he had in mind when he talks about symbols and where they come from, but the difference between a symbol and a sign, which is a critical difference, is that signs belong entirely to the conscious mind whereas symbols do not. The sign is an object or a drawing or a picture that stands for something that you otherwise already know. It’s simply a substitution of one thing for another. For instance, a stop sign tells you to stop. Everybody knows what it means. There’s no mystery about it. There’s nothing unknown about it. It’s very simple. It’s a simple equation; one thing stands for another, tells you what you do. Or you see an arrow pointing in a certain direction or you see a sign on the bathroom door that tells you it’s for men, it’s for women, and so on, those are signs and they belong entirely to culture, to consciousness, to what we already know. Whereas Jung wants to say that a symbol brings us something we don’t already know, that it contains information that we have a hard time getting our hands around. It takes us a long time to try to understand what a symbol might be directing us towards, and so Jung had a method for trying to understand and interpret symbols, which we will talk quite a bit about in the course of this seminar, but it’s meaning is not readily apparent and so if you come across a symbol, you’ll usually be puzzled. You’ll say, “What does that mean, what are you trying to say, what is the dream saying?” You don’t know what it says and that’s important. That means you’re dealing with a symbol and not a sign. So that’s the first thing to keep in mind, the difference between a symbol and a sign.

Now, there are many kinds of signs, too. Metaphors are a kind of sign in that one thing stands for another. “My love is a red, red rose.” You don’t literally think that your love, your beloved is a rose, unless you’re in love with roses, I guess, but it’s a metaphor that says something about the beloved, but there isn’t a great deal of mystery in that. It’s an interesting comparison. Roses are beautiful, your love must be beautiful, you’re very fond of it, she smells good, so and so forth. Metaphors also stretch the mind and it’s very difficult to think without metaphors, in fact. Metaphors are essential to our thinking and they extend our thinking in ways that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to, but a symbol is not a metaphor in the sense that insofar as a metaphor belongs entirely to consciousness and is created by consciousness.

A symbol is also not a substitute for another object. There was a very important and much discussed and often referred to paper written at an early congress, 1962, the IAP congress, I think it was the second one in the history of the IAP. There were a number of papers on symbols. One of them was given by a then-Jungian analyst who later became a psychoanalyst (you’ll see why in a moment), named Murray Jackson and it’s a very interesting paper. I reviewed it before this seminar, read it again, and he has a particular view of symbols as a kind of substitute, but not such an obvious substitute. He says that a symbol stands in for something else, but one doesn’t know that it’s standing in for that other thing. In that sense, it’s a bit mysterious. He says that a symbol is an object that is invested with what he calls projective identification. In other words, we transfer from one object the meaning and the significance of that object number one into object number two so that object number two stands in for and represents, and means the same thing and we relate to in very similar way, number two what number one would be, and so transference for instance, if you think of transference as a kind of symbolic relationship in that sense, projective identification, the analyst might stand in or substitute for your mother or your father, and you really could mistake them for {{technical difficulties}}.

Steve Buser: It just dropped.

Murray Stein: …example…can you hear me?

Steve Buser: We can now. The video froze. Yeah, we’re good again. Go ahead and restart.

Murray Stein: Okay.

Steve Buser: Sorry about that.

Murray Stein: …not only a cigar, okay? And he gave the example of a patient of his who had difficulty in his sexual life. I’m hearing an echo from this side, a little irritating. We’re getting an echo, Steve.

Steve Buser: Central control, can you reduce the echo?

Central Control: Yep, I’m working on it.

Steve Buser: Okay, thanks.

Murray Stein: So, back to the example. The man had difficulty with his sexual functioning because he was ashamed of his penis. He didn’t want anybody to see his penis and so he could masturbate and so on but he couldn’t have normal sexual relations with his wife, at least when the lights were on for fear that his penis would be seen. And in the course of the analysis Murray Jackson had the habit of occasionally smoking a cigar in the sessions. It’s a very interesting story that he recounts in his paper. And the patient noticed this and he said, “You know, I like to smoke cigars too, but I’m afraid to smoke them in public. I don’t want anybody to see me smoking a cigar.” And immediately Murray Jackson’s mind translates that, “Oh, well the cigar is a substitute for the penis.” He’s afraid of having his penis seen by anybody and he doesn’t want anybody to see him smoking a cigar. Clearly these two objects, one stands for the other one, and he has invested the cigar with, he has projected into it, the meaning of the penis and so in the course of things, Murray Jackson would smoke his cigar in the sessions and slowly, slowly, the patient also gained the courage to bring cigars to the session and eventually could comfortably smoke cigars in sessions with Murray Jackson and eventually also in public and, lo and behold, his sexual functioning improved as well. He was able to have sexual intercourse. He wasn’t worried about his wife seeing his penis anymore and so this dissolved, this projective identification dissolved, in fact the neurosis dissolved and the case came out very nicely.

So there you see the cigar really is, stands in, it’s a substitute for the penis invested with projective identification and Murray Jackson makes the point that most symbols, in fact I think he says all symbols because he at that moment was studying Klein and was very influenced by Kleinians, all symbols have a somatic or physical base to them. At the core of the symbol, there is a body part. It’s either a breast or a penis or some other part of the body. And in the response to this talk, the Jungian analyst who was responding took strong exception by saying that that’s not at all what Jung means by symbols. They are not substitutes for something else, they are original and numinous products of the unconscious. They bring something we don’t know yet. They aren’t standing for something we know and we just don’t know that we know, they stand for something new. In fact, they free us from our obsessions and our neuroses. And so, she took a view of symbols, it was Esther Harding who was the respondent to Murray Jackson, she said, “He really doesn’t understand what symbols mean from a Jungian perspective” and there was a very big difference in their approach. So, for Murray Jackson, symbols referred to body parts, could be reduced to body parts, to something physical, and for Esther Harding, they referred to something you could say of the spirit, something spiritual, something intangible, something beyond us that we don’t know of already.

And so I think this is a very instructive conversation between those two people to make the point that when Jung speaks about a symbol, he has in mind something that you can’t really define. Even if you uncover some of it’s meanings, there is always more, there is always something still elusive, something still unconscious, something that it carries that cannot be pinned down exactly, and so for Jung, symbols bring something into consciousness from the unconscious and from the depths of the unconscious, often the archetypal unconscious, that we hadn’t been aware of, that hadn’t been available to conscious before that, and so the appearance of symbols have very much to do with expanding, extending consciousness as they arise in our dreams and our imagination or wherever we happen to confront them.

The symbol for Jung is a bridge in that it connects the conscious mind and the unconscious, and Jung felt that there was a great problem in modern consciousness, in modernity, that resulted from the gradual separation of the conscious mind from the unconscious mind, from the archaic or the primitive or the old brain, however you want to think about it, the instinctual mind. That as humans developed in culture over the centuries and as their cultures gradually moved more toward sign cultures and away from symbolic cultures, away from mythological cultures into scientific cultures, different way of understanding the world, we human beings paid a huge price by losing contact with the deep layers of the unconscious mind. And for our mental health, it’s important to be in touch with our instinct. But modern man, as Jung looked a modern man, sorry for the gender, modern human, modern human being, the person who lives in modernity and is more or less convinced that modernity has the truth, it’s a kind of flat culture, a kind of flat world in which signs are very prevalent, but the sense of the symbolic is very absent. And the danger is that people are cutoff from their instinctual knowledge from a kind of knowledge that Jung felt primitives have. Jung was very interested in the primitive mind and studying the primitive mind because he felt that so-called primitive people don’t have this problem. They aren’t cutoff from their instincts the way we are and so they aren’t neurotic. Neurosis comes out of this gap that develops between the conscious mind and the unconscious; consciousness becoming more and more one-sided, more and more rational, “rational,” and out of contact with the deeper layers of the unconscious with one’s instinctual background, and that symbols have the capacity to bridge this, that symbols can link the archaic mind to the highly rational conscious mind.

When Jung gave a talk in 1939, very difficult year in European history as I’m sure all of you know, just at the brink of the beginning of the Second World War, he was in London again and this time he was addressing a group called the Guild of Pastoral Psychology. There were a lot of clergy people in that audience. And he gave an address or answered questions, gave a little spontaneous talk, little, I mean it was off the cuff, and in answer to questions that they raised and he got going on the subject of what he called the “symbolic life.” And by the “symbolic life” he means a life lived in relationship to mostly cultural symbols, but then he would get into what are some possibilities for some individual symbols as well, individual symbolic life, but he says in traditional life, in a mythological age, let’s say before the Reformation in Europe in the middle ages for instance, people lived within a symbolic universe and they lived with symbols. And what the symbols did for them was connect them to their own psyches, contained their psyches, contained there archetypal images and gave them a feeling to being connected to something beyond themselves, beyond their own individual lives. They didn’t just live an individual personal life, they lived, or had the potential to live, a life of transcendent meaning in relation to God, to the saints, to the devils, to all those invisible beings that inhabited their imaginable world, their mythological world, angels and so on and so forth. And that this, from a psychological point of view, he says, is a much healthier way to live than the way we live today in modern times and so he lamented the fact that people no longer have myths to live in and live by.

He said when a priest goes to the altar, he, if he really believes in the symbolic meaning of the Mass, he is a part of the sacrifice, he becomes the sacrifice, he has identified with Christ and the Host and the wine actually become the body and blood of Christ that he shares with his congregation, he takes for himself. And this living in relation to these symbols has an effect on his life. It gives him meaning, it gives him a sense of transcendence, it gives him something much larger than his own individual, and rather insignificant usually, life. It puts him into contact with much larger meanings and beings. We don’t have that today, he said, but he said human beings need it, and if they don’t have it around them in their culture, they tend to get very desperate and they will find it somewhere and so the contents, the archetypal contents that were formerly projected into these mythological beings, theological universes and so on, are now projected elsewhere into ideologies, into nationalities, nationalism. People have a desperate need to have some larger meaning than their own banal life. He says we live, life is so banal, if you live it on a strictly personal level, you need something greater and he said, “You know, when people realize that a war is imminent, they get very excited because at least now something is happening,” he said, “something meaningful is going to happen, something greater than myself.” And so when he looked around the world in 1939 and he saw these figures who were all pumped up with mythological projections, der Führer in Germany, you know, striding around like a colossus, a titan and threatening the whole world with his madness and everybody bowing down and worshipping, he saw this as a huge danger that religion had been transferred over into politics. But he also realized that people have a need for this kind of archetypal meaning, they need to belong to something greater than themselves. And symbols give that to them. That’s what symbols can do for them.

And so somebody had asked him why, if you think symbols are so great and the symbolic life, why don’t you join the Catholic Church, you’re a Protestant, you live in Zurich; Protestants don’t have any symbols much. And Jung lamented that he lives here in Zurich, Zwingli had ripped all the altars and statues and beautiful images out of the churches; they were very plain. All you did when you went to church was sit there and listen to the minister preach at you for an hour. There was no music for a long time. They didn’t celebrate Christmas, nothing. It was very, very dull and very gray, and I think Jung would have been very happy to live in the thirteenth century in Shartse and be a monk. He would have been much more content than living in Zurich with this absence, dreadful absence of symbolism around him. So they said, “Well, why didn’t you become a Catholic?” And he said, “I know too much. I understand it.” And once you understand what a symbol is talking about, once it’s emptied of it’s meaning, once it’s emptied of it’s mystery and you understand it, you know all the theological concepts, you know how they work, you know that this means this and that means that, he says the symbol dies and you have a dead symbol, and that’s what’s happened to western religions, that’s what happened to Protestantism. It killed the spirit of religion and now it’s an ethical society, a moral society, decent godless folk who get together once in a while and preach at each other, and that there is no power in it. It doesn’t do anything for your psyche anymore. It gives you some moral lessons, but it can’t elevate you. But on the other hand, he wrote a paper on symbolism of the Mass, he wrote a paper on the doctrine of the Trinity, spelled it all out. He said, “I understand that stuff. I can’t go back to it. Once you understand the symbolic meaning of a previous era, it doesn’t work for you anymore. It’s not a living symbol.” So he said we have to discover new symbols. Well, how do we do that? Where do symbols come from? Where do they originate?

He offers a drawing in the Tavistock lectures. Chris, could I have this picture? Chris? Chris, do you hear me? Okay. I’d like to show my pictures now.

Chris: …oh but this picture, I cannot send it now.

Murray Stein: Oh, you can’t send it as long as there’s that one?

Chris: ___________change the __________

Murray Stein: Okay. So, where do symbols come from, where do they originate? I’ll show you this picture in a moment.

Symbols cannot be created by the conscious mind, okay? You can’t make them up. They’re not arbitrary. You can’t sit down and say, “Now I’m going to make a symbol for myself.” You have to find it somewhere. They, individuals can’t create symbols and cultures can’t create symbols. They have to arise; they have to come out of this center down here.

Now here’s a picture he drew for his audience at the Tavistock and he says you go from an ectosystem that is facing outward. Here he has the four functions: sensation, thinking, feeling, and intuition. You can see intuition is closest to the ectopsychic systems inside here and, on the inside, the first, in the first circle you have memory, that’s something that you have access to more or less if you’ve got a good memory, then you have selective, you have affects, finally you have what he calls invasions down here, invasions. So those are ideas or images that just press into your mind. And at the very core, as you go all the way down into the center, there it gets darker and darker, at the core you have the nuclear material. That’s the collective unconscious. And he says when material comes out of that core, it confronts you, usually on the outside. Usually you don’t … you can get it on the inside, it can come to you in the form of a dream or a spontaneous vision, but often he says it comes from the outside. That is, it gets projected out onto an object and then your sensation or your thinking, your feeling picks it up coming at you from the outside. So this is the phenomenon of projection.

Where do symbols come from? They come from the core. Where do you find them? Well, you can find them inside yourself or outside yourself. And what he had in mind there was that where people were finding their symbols in the 1930s was largely outside, I mean on a collective level. They were not… maybe his patients were finding them on the inside in their dreams and their active imaginations and so on, the invasions were coming from within, but often they were coming at them from outside, so you had these powerful collective movements going on in Europe, generating a lot of mythological material and enthusiasm and so on. He wrote a paper in 1936 called “At The Wotan,” “The Wotan Paper” in which he talks about what was going on in Germany as a reappearance of ancient mythological projections on the leader, der Führer , so on and so forth, in a very primitive regressed fashion. So the material, that nuclear material from the inside comes at you in the form of a projection. And if you can see through that projection, if you can get some distance from it…and here we come back to Murray Jackson’s point… it’s a projective identification alright, of a mythological figure onto to something in the environment, but you don’t really know what it is. What is this that’s being projected onto the savior figures out there? Well, it’s a savior archetype you could say, but what is that? What’s it saving you from? So you start reflecting on that and you start questioning it, and pretty soon you can get a grip and you can start seeing the object a little more clearly because it isn’t as covered up by the projection. So the symbols can be found inside or outside.

And here’s a picture I got off the internet. One of the students at ISAP, Christine Miller by name, maybe she’s listening to this program, I don’t know, wrote a symbol paper at ISAP on this picture. This is an image taken by the Hubble telescope out in outer space. It’s actually a composite of images taken by NASA’s Hubble space telescope and it’s been dubbed the “Eye of God.” If you look at it, it looks like an eye. It’s actually the Helix Nebula far out in…it’s a galaxy of stars and they think there’s a black hole at the center of it and we have a scientific explanation of this, but as people looked at this image and projected into it, they started seeing an eye looking back at them and so there was a lot of discussion on the internet, “Is this actually the eye of God looking at us, looking back at us?” And this isn’t a very good picture, but if you go online, just type in “the eye of God Hubble,” you’ll get this picture and it really is quite striking. And if you look at it with that in mind, this is an eye looking at us from outer space, looking back at us, you could start making some mythology about it. You might be able to project some archetypal material into that, and so you get another consciousness looking back at you. Jung would say, “You know, you’re projecting the self into that.” When you project the self onto something, it becomes a god figure and so it’s very powerful and it can create religious movements and all kinds of excitement and enthusiasm or it can become a personal symbol for people.

Now, here’s another picture that I found at the train station in Zurich the other day. You see the bull and the bear. Another student at ISAP wrote a symbol paper and then a thesis on the stock market and, as you know, the bull and the bear symbolize two movements in the stock market; the bull is an upward pressure on prices going up enthusiastically and the bear is a pressure coming down, selling is strong and the stockmarket is falling. And he wrote a very interesting thesis taking these images, not as signs, okay? What I just described were these images as signs. The bulls tells you one thing, the bear tells you the other thing. But he said the stockmarket, in fact, and he’s very knowledgeable about this having lived a whole life in the financial world, the stockmarket actually is very irrational. It isn’t a rational phenomenon and anybody who goes into it deeply realizes that the movements in the stockmarket aren’t based on rational calculations, they’re based on emotion, and if you can read the animal level of the market, he says, you might do better in your investments. So these two animals actually have to do with the irrational, instinctual basis of the movement in the financial markets. So he’s taking them as symbols. Now, there is animal movement, they’re instinctual movements. I sometimes think of stockmarkets moving irrationally as birds suddenly flying in a certain direction. You don’t know why they’re doing that, why they changed course all of a sudden. Nobody knows. People come up with all kinds of rational explanations afterwards, but nobody’s very convinced by that. So, you find irrational symbols all around you in the world about. That’s the point I’m trying to make here. They aren’t just inner phenomenon, they’re also

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