Jung, Calvin and Hobbes and the Unconscious


There’s a lovely cartoon of Calvin and Hobbes which illustrates (for me at any rate) how the unconscious can work. Calvin and Hobbes are in their snow fort, which Calvin declares is invulnerable to attack. Inevitably what ends up happening is that Hobbes catches Calvin unawares with a snowball attack from inside the fort. It’s a lovely example of dramatic irony and I liked it so much that I pasted the cartoon onto the cover of one of my journals when I was a young student.

To me, this seemed a good metaphor for the unconscious. Against all our reason and plotting and designs, our unconscious can catch us unawares with a surprise slushball.

Re-reading Carl Jung’s autobiography (Memories, Dreams, Reflections) I’ve found a much more organic metaphor for the unconscious. In the Prologue, he more or less summarises one of the guiding ideas of his life.

Life has always seemed to me like a plant that lives on its rhizome. Its true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome. The part that appears above ground lasts only a single summer. Then it withers away – an ephemeral apparition. When we think of the unending growth and decay of life and civilisations, we cannot escape the impression of absolute nullity. Yet I have never lost a sense of something that lives and endures underneath the eternal flux. What we see is the blossom, which passes. The rhizome remains. (p.18)

I like the idea that an inner core of unconscious material is ultimately what can give our life meaning and drive. Maybe it will present itself sometimes as a slushball in the face, or maybe it will be an inner urging to continue our inner growth and development. However it manifests itself, that inner voice needs to be listened to (and wrestled with), perhaps more than the many outer voices around us all the time.

The image of the unconscious as a life-giving inner core is a lot more reassuring than Hobbes’s slushball. While the latter would maybe encourage a more defensive stance – so that we’re not caught unawares – Jung’s image suggests personal development is a gradual unfolding of inner material. With the snowball, there’s always the risk that the unconscious will ruin something (a relationship maybe) or get me into trouble. I’ll be interested to see how Jung develops his idea in the remainder of the book.

Incidentally, it’s worth checking out the Calvin and Hobbes snow gallery here.


9 Responses to Jung, Calvin and Hobbes and the Unconscious

  1. What a great post – this really made me smile. C&H are always bizarrely insightful in this case especially so. Its so true – the unconscious can really sneak up on us just when we think we’ve got it all under control!


  2. Litlove says:

    Great post and fantastic cartoon. Oh it’s so true that the voices on the inside are the ones that get you every time. And I love the way that tiger grins before throwing the snowball. That just tickles me.

  3. seachanges says:

    Another thoughtful post – I quite agree that it’s always your inside voice, the one that tells you off, that gets at you worse than anything else. At the same time it’s actually quite comforting to think that there is something more that grows and helps us grow. I’ve just left a message for your site on my blog and this confirms what I said about it!

  4. Natalian says:

    I would like to re-read Jung in a more relaxed capacity as opposed to me trying to cram it for an exam! I like the idea of – “Jung’s image suggests personal development is a gradual unfolding of inner material.”

  5. Emily Barton says:

    Funny, I’ve read that cartoon in the past as one in which we need to remember that sometimes our family members are the ones who hurt us the most, while we’re busy protecting ourselves from the outside enemy. (Bet Waterston didn’t know he was being interpreted on so many levels.) I really like this take on it as the unconscious “inside voice,” which, really, is like a family member, isn’t it?

  6. Pete says:

    BTC – Thanks, and you’re so right about C&H’s bizarre insights. I loved the cartoon (in the snow gallery) where the dad looks at all the mangled snowmen in the yard and realises that maybe they need to take Calvin off for a psychological assessment.

    Litlove – Yes, that’s the part that gets me too. That grin from Hobbes is brilliant. And I think the playfulness of it is what I like the most. Play-fighting seems OK to me, since there’s still empathy for the other person. Hobbes is maybe saying: Sorry for doing this to you but it’s just too good to resist (and you need to be brought down a peg or two)!

    Seachanges – Thanks for the message. Have been a bit remiss about blog-reading lately but will catch up today.

    Natalian – Oh I agree. Learning Jung for an exam would not be fun. But his autobiography is a pretty easy read. Jung was a strange guy – but a likeable one and with amazing access to his inner world.

    Emily – I think you’re spot on – it’s our family members who hurt us the most (and love us as well). And then this becomes internalised (and the early relating is stored in our unconscious).

  7. doctordi says:

    That’s just the perfect representation of one’s subconscious ‘enemy’ within, isn’t it?! A maniacal grin, a lot of love, but an irresistible need to make mischief… So, so familiar…A great post, Pete.

  8. Liam says:

    Reall liked this posting. I am just struggling with a tug of war in my mind between mysticism and reason. I am attracted to some of Jung’s ideas but my reason tells me they are irrational.

  9. […] of my favourite posts (and two of the most popular) are “Jung, Calvin and Hobbes and the Unconscious” and “Wedding readings”. I like the wedding one because it reminds me of a less stressed time […]

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