Memories, Dreams, Reflections Analysis

Carl Jung

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In 1955, the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung celebrated his eightieth birthday and published what he said would be his last book. The following year, his American publisher asked for an authorized biography or, better yet, an autobiography. After some discussion and much resistance on Jung’s part, it was decided that Aniela Jaffe, his student and secretary of many years, would spend one afternoon a week talking with him, would record his memories, and would edit them in the form of an autobiography, with Jung as the narrator. The weekly conversations began in the spring of 1957 and continued for another two years. By 1958, however, Jung decided that he had not spoken adequately of his earliest years and wrote his own account of his childhood and student years. In 1959, when Jung and Jaffe had completed a first draft of the autobiography, he added a chapter, “Late Thoughts,” and an account of his visit to East Africa. He thus gave to her a variety of material from which to work: his own writing, which makes up 40 percent of the completed book; transcripts of lectures to medical students, which form the basis of another 25 percent; and answers to her questions. He edited her writing, and she edited his. Nevertheless, he thought of Memories, Dreams, Reflections as her project and asked that it be left out of his collected works.

In the introduction, Jaffe explains her difficulty in getting Jung to talk about his life. As a physician, he felt honor bound to keep the confidences of all who had sought his help. As a public figure who had met many famous people, he chose to remember only those whose destinies seemed somehow tied to his. As an old man who had nearly died already and had recently lost his wife, he was preparing for death, detaching himself from the outward details of his life and reflecting on the inward meaning, most of all on the dreams and visions that had shaped his career from within. His inner life had always been so intense that it threatened to eclipse the outer. He had kept the innermost details secret from almost everyone. Now that he wrote about them, however, it was only natural that they would dominate the book. As Jung explains in the first sentences of his prologue, he had previously written in the language of science but he could not use it to describe himself because he could not observe himself scientifically. Therefore, he used the language of myth. What he wrote could not be judged...

(The entire section is 998 words.)


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

For many years, Carl Jung resisted the idea of writing an autobiography. However, in 1957, when he was eighty-two years old, he agreed to furnish material for such a work to his assistant, Aniela Jaffé. Jung soon became involved in the task himself, and most of the material in the book comes directly from his own hand. It is not an autobiography in the usual sense, because it does not present a chronological account of the outer events of his life. Biographical details emerge only peripherally and are secondary to Jung’s main purpose, which is to set forth insights into his inner mental processes and intellectual development. What results is a series of snapshots that shed light on how Jungian psychology, one of the most important achievements of the twentieth century, came into being.

Memories of Early Years

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

After a prologue in which Jung explains that the only significant events in his life were those in which the unconscious elements within him, the eternal dimension of human life, erupted into the transitory world of the conscious personality, Jung devotes his first three chapters to memories of his childhood, his schooldays, and his years at the university.

Jung’s visionary capacity was apparent even when he was a young child. He recounts the earliest dream he could remember, which occurred when he was between three and four years old. In the dream, he saw a hole in the ground and then descended a stone stairway, passed through a doorway, and came to a golden throne. Standing on the throne was what he first thought was a huge tree trunk. Then he realized that it resembled human flesh. He was terrified, and when he heard the voice of his mother saying that the thing was the “man-eater,” he became even more alarmed.

This dream haunted Jung for years; only decades later did he realize that what he had seen was a ritual phallus. He interpreted this as a vision of a subterranean god who was a counterpart of the Jesus that his parents so often mentioned. As a child, he had therefore been initiated into the realm of darkness, the underground world that was mysteriously linked with the world above. His intellectual development had begun.

Another milestone came when Jung was nine. For reasons unknown to him at the time, he carved a two-inch mannequin, complete with top hat and boots, out of a school ruler. He placed the mannequin in his pencil case...

(The entire section is 647 words.)

Spiritualism and Psychiatry

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Studying medicine at the University of Basel, Switzerland, Jung became interested in psychic or spiritualistic phenomena—events for which there appeared to be no rational explanation. When he expanded his studies to psychiatry, he knew that he had found his vocation: a discipline in which his interest in objective and subjective nature might be combined. In 1900, Jung accepted a position in a mental health clinic in Zurich. Five years later, he became lecturer in psychiatry at the University of Zurich and senior physician at the psychiatry clinic.

Jung’s reflections on his thirteen years in Zurich form the substance of chapter 4. His main interest lay not in making diagnoses and compiling lists of symptoms but in the psychology of his patients, what actually was taking place in their minds. He came to understand that each patient was an individual with a unique story that could, if understood by the therapist, be used as an aid in healing. It was his interest in this area that drew Jung to the work of Sigmund Freud, and his relations with Freud form the subject of chapter 5. Although Jung found that Freud’s techniques of dream analysis and interpretation were useful, he disagreed with Freud on one vital issue: Jung did not regard all neuroses as caused by sexual repression or sexual trauma. Eventually this led to his break with Freud. He believed Freud was obsessed with the sexual theory and had elevated it to the status of a dogma. In addition, Freud did not accept the reality of the psychic phenomena that had long interested Jung, nor did he accept the notion of an impersonal substratum of the psyche that Jung, stimulated by a series of powerful dreams, was beginning to formulate.

Break with Freud

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

In chapter 6, “Confrontation with the Unconscious,” Jung describes a period of great turbulence that followed his break with Freud. During this time he was driven to experiment with the images that welled up in his mind from the unconscious, in dream and vision. As the incessant stream of images came to him over a period of years, he felt extreme tension, as if he were contemplating an alien, incomprehensible world. Inner and outer worlds seemed irreconcilable to him, and he encountered for the first time the voice he gradually recognized as belonging to his anima, the feminine element within his psyche. He abandoned his academic career and gave himself over wholly to what he called the service of the psyche, because he felt that it was of vital importance not merely to him personally but to humanity as a whole.


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

In 1918, Jung entered a more peaceful phase of his psychic studies, when he discovered the form of the mandala, drew many mandalas himself, and interpreted them as an expression of the self, of the psyche’s thrust toward wholeness. In reflection, he states that those six intense years, from 1912 to 1918, were the most important of his creative life; all his later work flowed out from the material he accumulated during that period.

In the following chapter, Jung presents a brief summary of the genesis of many of his works and explains why he was drawn to the study of gnosticism and alchemy. He regarded the latter, with its strange symbolism, as a historical counterpart of his own development of the psychology of the unconscious.

Lessons from World Cultures

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

After a chapter in which Jung describes how he built his own house in Bollingen, near Zurich, to correspond to the archetypal principles that operated in his own psyche, he goes on to discuss his travels in non-European cultures: in North Africa; among the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico; in Kenya, Uganda, and India; and trips to Ravenna and Rome. What emerges from these accounts is Jung’s awareness of what European people have lost and what they have inflicted, or are poised to inflict, on non-European cultures. The Europeans think that they have overcome or left behind the emotional, instinctive life that they observe in the Arab or the African, but they have paid a high price for doing so. Europeans have will and rationality, but they no longer possess the intense vitality of life that is a characteristic of nonwhite cultures. Jung found that he identified with these foreign cultures more than he had anticipated, largely because they expressed elements of life that had been blocked from European consciousness.

In late chapters, Jung discusses the intense visions that accompanied his recuperation from a heart attack in 1944 and his reflections on the possibility of life after death. On the latter issue, he offers no definitive view but suggests that, as long as we confine ourselves to the rational intellect, we will remain ignorant of how far life might extend. He points out that the unconscious, through dreams, can send hints of things that otherwise we would not know and that the psyche is not bound by space and time. On the evidence of his own dreams, he suggests the probability that something of the psyche continues after physical death, but whether it is conscious of itself remains an unanswered question.

The Importance of Myth

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

In the final chapter, Jung offers his views about the world situation. He was writing at the height of the Cold War, in which the world was divided into two power blocs, one materialistic and atheistic, the other professing a religion, Christianity, that no longer had any vitality. Jung urges that the Christian myth be allowed to continue to grow and adapt to changes in consciousness if it is once more to become a living faith. In particular, Christianity must go beyond the dualism that has always lain just beneath its monotheistic façade and find a way to represent God as a synthesis of opposite forces. Because this is the way the human psyche is structured, it must also be reflected in the macrocosmic myth by which humanity lives. Then the doctrine of the Incarnation could be understood as the human confrontation with the opposites, and the synthesis of them in the wholeness of the self could be understood as the personality experienced in its full depth and range, conscious and unconscious. Such a development in Christianity would once more fit humankind into the universe and restore to life the meaning it has lost.

Assessment and Impact

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Jung himself was ambivalent about Memories, Dreams, Reflections. He requested that it not be included in his collected works because he did not regard it as a scientific work, finding it impossible to consider his own life as a scientific problem; he could only tell a story that reflected his own truth. Jung was also apprehensive regarding the reception of his memoir because he had been shaken by the harsh criticism to which another of his late works, Antwortauf Hiob (1952; Answer to Job, 1954), had been subjected. He therefore asked that the book not be published in his lifetime, a condition he believed would also give him the detachment and calm he needed to reflect on his life.

Despite Jung’s misgivings, Memories, Dreams, Reflections has proved lastingly popular. From the outset, reviewers were generous in their praise. “To be able to share Jungian emotions is surely an almost necessary capacity of the free mind,” wrote Philip Toynbee in The Observer, a sentiment echoed by many. Subsequently, along with Man and His Symbols (1964), another work intended for the general reader that was supervised by Jung and published posthumously, Memories has become the means by which many readers encounter Jung’s thought for the first time. It endures as a compelling record of the inner life of one of the most profound minds of the twentieth century.


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Sources for Further Study

Charet, F. X. “Understanding Jung: Recent Biographies and Scholarship.” Journal of Analytical Psychology 45, no. 2 (2000): 195-216. Discusses how Jung’s spiritual inclinations contributed to his ill-fated relationship with Freud and ultimate rejection by the Freudian establishment.

Elms, Alan. Uncovering Lives: The Uneasy Alliance of Biography and Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Argues persuasively that Memories, Dreams, Reflections is ambiguous, just as Jung in his own life was unable to reconcile opposing tendencies.


(The entire section is 577 words.)