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.