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Specter of the Brocken

Dreamed c.1893, (age c.18) by Carl Jung

Man in fog; his light casts a huge shadow behind him. Dream by Jung, sketch by Wayan. Click to enlarge.
It was night in some unknown place, and I was making slow and painful headway against a mighty wind. Dense fog was flying along everywhere. I had my hands cupped around a tiny light which threatened to go out at any moment. Everything depended on my keeping this little light alive. Suddenly I had the feeling that something was coming up behind me. I looked back, and saw a gigantic black figure following me. But at the same moment I was conscious, in spite of my terror, that I must keep my little light going through night and wind, regardless of all dangers.

When I awoke I realized at once that the figure was a "specter of the Brocken," my own shadow on the swirling mists, brought into being by the little light I was carrying. I knew, too, that this little light was my consciousness, the only light I have. My own understanding is the sole treasure I possess, and the greatest. Though infinitely small and fragile in comparison with the powers of darkness, it is still a light, my only light.

This dream was a great illumination for me. Now I knew that No. 1 [his rational, worldly, practical, present side--something like his later notion of the ego] was the bearer of the light, and that No. 2 [his unworldly, spooky, Romantic, historical side] followed him like a shadow. My task was to shield the light and not look back...

SOURCE: Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections (Vintage, 1989), pp.87-88.


Jung spends the next two pages expanding his idea that the dream means "your rational conscious is your great asset--be practical, face the world, don't look back into the shadow." And yet, his whole career from that point on was a relentless exploration of that dark fog of the unconscious--waving, it's true, his rational flashlight.

With a century's hindsight, I see quite a different message. This dream neatly depicts what Jung later called the Shadow, a figure embodying all your traits that your conscious/ego dreads and denies. "THAT'S not me!" It's one of Jung's most useful ideas--that threatening dream figures or even eruptive, sabotaging waking behaviors may be Shadows, parts of us we've disowned, demanding their share of time, life, air to breathe.

Shadows aren't archetypes--they're individual, not universal. What YOU reject about YOURself. So this specter is cast and shaped by your conscious self-image, your ego--it's whatever your ego isn't. Shaped by ego, but not ego; nor is it a personification of the whole unconscious as Jung implies here, but just a shadowed subset of the unconscious. The rest, the dream depicts as fog all around, fog that isn't part of the Shadow--gray not black, nonrational not irrational, mysterious not scary, flowing not repressed. In short, the fog's a portrait of the Jungian unconscious, quite unlike the Freudian subconscious--years before Freud published.

The dream illustrates Jung's model of the Shadow perfectly--if you just ignore Jung's interpretation! Thumbnail sketch of Jung's dream of a light casting a huge shadow.

The dream's distinction between attention-grabbing Shadow and background Fog hints at the idea of a collective unconscious beyond a personal one--even here at the dawn of Jung's career.

I couldn't draw a better diagram of his later theory! And yet Jung never credits the dream for generating the concept of the Shadow, giving it a perfect visual image, showing its source, detailing its relationship with self, ego, and broader unconscious. It's unmistakably a scientific model of an aspect of dreams, proposed by his dreams. The irrational turned rational, the Spectre in a lab coat!

This isn't news. Remember his famous dream of the self as a house with successively darker and more primitive floors and basements, down to a pit with Ice Age skulls; no one, including Jung himself, denied that that dream was, and was intended as, a useful scientific model--an alternative to Freud's. (Jung couldn't deny that one; he needed it to break from Freud. And it's so obvious after the fact--it even echoes our four-floor brain structure, with frontal lobes over cerebrum over cerebellum over reptile brain. Even the skulls in the sub-basement are arguably a prompt from the dream that it's about the structure of our 'heads', not a warning to clean the basement or a hidden wish to bump off Freud, even if Freud justifiably suspected it was, because who wouldn't want to, that overbearing... oops! Sorry. )

This Specter dream is earlier, spookier, more emotional, flickering with Romantic torchlight and Gothic shadow... but don't the lightshow fool you. It's a scientific model too, and a damn useful one.

Credit where credit is due! Jung's so-called unconscious thinks up complex, useful models--twice--at least twice! Decades pass, and his ego popularizes them, conveniently denying where they came from...

Tell me again, Dr. Jung--in that fog, who's leading who?

--Chris Wayan

Thumbnail sketch of Jung's dream of a light casting a huge shadow.

THE DREAM: rain & fog - light - night - ghosts - perseverance - more dreams by Jung - psychology - the Brocken
COMMENT: dream interpretation - Jungian Shadows - dream symbols - dreams about dreaming - blindness & denial - Jung's house-dream

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