Up to the present time, the psychoanalytic investigator has turned his interest chiefly to the analysis of individual psychological problems. It seems to me, however, that in the present state of affairs there is a more or less imperative demand for the psychoanalyst to broaden the analysis of individual problems via a comparative study of historical material relating to them, just as Freud has already done in a masterly manner in his book on Leonardo da Vinci. For, just as the psychoanalytic conceptions promote understanding of the historic psychological creations, so reservedly historical materials can shed new light upon individual psychological problems. These and similar considerations have caused me to turn my attention somewhat more to the historical, in the hope that, out of this, new insight into the foundations of individual psychology might be won.
It is a well-known fact that one of the principles of analytic psychology is that dream images are to be understood symbolically; that is to say, that they are not to be taken literally just as they are presented in sleep, but that behind them a hidden meaning has to be surmised. It is this ancient idea of dream symbolism which has challenged not only criticism but, in addition to that, the strongest opposition. That dreams may be full of import, and therefore, something to be interpreted is certainly neither a strange nor an extraordinary idea. This has been familiar to humankind for thousands of years, and therefore, seems much like a banal truth.
When an idea is so old and is so generally believed, it is probably true in some way, and, indeed, as is mostly the case, is not literally true, but is true psychologically. But why are dreams symbolic? Every “why” in psychology is divided into two separate questions: first, for what purpose are dreams symbolic? We will answer this question only to abandon it at once. Dreams are symbolic in order that they can not be understood; in order that the wish, which is the source of the dream, may remain unknown. The question why this is so and not otherwise leads us out into the far-reaching experiences and trains of thought of Freudian psychology.
Here the second question interests us, viz., How is it that dreams are symbolic? That is to say, from where does this capacity for symbolic representation come, of which we, in our conscious daily life, can discover apparently no traces?
Let us examine this more closely. Can we really discover nothing symbolic in our every-day thought? Let us follow our trains of thought; let us take an example. We think of the Second World War. We think about a series of bloody battles, loss, victory, so on and so forth. How have we been thinking? We start with an idea, or super-idea, as it is also called, and without thinking of it, but each time merely guided by a feeling of direction, we think about individual reminiscences of the war. In this, we can find nothing symbolic, and our whole conscious thinking proceeds according to this type.
If we observe our thinking very narrowly, and follow an intensive train of thought, as, for example, the solution of a difficult problem, then suddenly we notice that we are thinking in words, that in wholly intensive thinking we begin to speak to ourselves, or that we occasionally write down the problem, or make a drawing of it so as to be absolutely clear. It must certainly have happened to anyone who has lived for some time in a foreign country, that after a certain period he has begun to think in the language of the country. A very intensive train of thought leads the individual to symbolic representation of a problem. The words or drawing are symbols for the problem. They are representative of something else, and thus, at least in this regard, resemble the latent content of a dream. This where the journey begins in answering the second of the two questions.
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