Review and Reflection: Man and His Symbols

Recently I finished reading Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols (affiliate link), and it’s been one of the most enjoyable books I’ve ever read, albeit a difficult one.

I’m going to start off with a review of it, then move into my more personal thoughts to better organize them.

Review

I read Man and His Symbols on Kindle, and it was well-formatted and organized. All the illustrations appeared clear and there were no perceptible typographical issues.

Looking at a book like Man and His Symbols it is hard to give a definitive review because of its nature. It is an overview of a lifetime of work, compiled not only by Jung himself but also by Joseph L. Henderson, M.-L. von Franz, Aniela Jaffé, and Jolande Jacobi.

The foreword by John Freeman is also of interest, and helps quite a deal in preparing the reader for what they should know about Jung.

Man and His Symbols is the first book by or about Jung that I have ever read, so I approach it as a novice who had some knowledge of Jung’s analytical psychology, but not strictly speaking all but the briefest of understandings. My knowledge was influenced more heavily by people like Joseph Campbell and Carol Pearson who have built on Jung’s ideas but approached them in a much different direction.

So with that said, many of the concepts were at least familiar to me, though my understanding of them was far different from what Jung’s intent was, colored as I was by casual discussions and partial understandings.

Actually reading Jung’s work first-hand in a manner intended for novices like myself changed my understanding of his philosophy and understanding of the psyche dramatically.

Each of the writers featured in the book has their own approach and intent, but the core concepts remain the same. In this way, I think that Man and His Symbols may actually be an ideal introduction to the work of Jung; Aniela Jaffé’s interpretations of symbolism in art particularly helped me break down some of the concepts.

Through drawing on the various authors, Man and His Symbols becomes a conversation as much as it is a statement, and it is much better for it.

I have launched into Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul in audiobook format, and the comparison of the two perhaps best presents an opportunity to describe Man and His Symbols in a way that makes sense.

Man and His Symbols is a survey of Jung’s ideas. It’s deep nonetheless, but the traversal into this depth is assisted by the various inflections that the different contributors to the volume add. It benefits from having a vast array of inputs, including connections to mythology and legend as well as anecdotes and examples of psychoanalysis in practice. This give an opportunity to fully express the notions it contains, but not necessarily to explore them fully. It is a starting point for further reading, either of Jung or those who were inspired by him.

There were things in Man and His Symbols which I understood the concept of, but not all the nuance of. Jung’s explanation of the collective unconsciousness, for instance, didn’t really click for me: I understood what its role was, but not what its essence was.

Modern Man in Search of a Soul is a different sort; it is a very detailed study of one particular topic, and while it too draws from mythology, anecdotes, and psychoanalysis in practice it is much more deep: if it were the first work of Jungian analytical psychology that I had read I would be greatly distressed by trying to understand it, but as a follow-up to Man and His Symbols it is quite interesting.

So, in short, my review of Man and His Symbols is best summed up in the following: If you want to know more about Jung and you are willing to spring further into reading, Man and His Symbols is invaluable. If you want a survey of Jung followed by interpretations by his followers, Man and His Symbols is incredible. If you are already familiar with Jung and understand his work, but you want to dive into the deepest depths of Jung’s works, Man and His Symbols contains interesting overviews. It is not that it is shallow, but it is merely scratching the surface of the depth and complexity of Jung’s total work.

Reflection

Man and His Symbols is an interesting book, to say the least. As far as reading books for the purpose of self improvement, it’s definitely in the top five or so books that I’ve read, and I know for a fact that Jung influenced Jordan Peterson, whose 12 Rules for Life I not only enjoyed but also benefited personally from; Jung’s work is also referenced in Peterson’s Maps of Meaning, which I have been reading on-and-off for a longer amount of time than I care to admit to (admittedly, it is a rather voluminous tome).

While finishing up reading Man and His Symbols I also listened to Johnathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, though I did not write reflections on it and I don’t currently plan to. However, there is an interesting intersection here.

One of Jung’s teachings is the collective subconscious, and while Haidt’s work seems at first to dissuade from such an assertion (after all, he finds that moral judgments are generally culturally instilled), he has also found moral foundations that seem to underlie these moral decisions.

In essence, what people value, and how they perceive the outcomes of actions, influence their tastes. The moral foundations seem to be themselves tied to some sort of universal human mode (assuming, of course, that they are not hogwash) of thought. This seems to line up well with the notion of Jung’s collective subconscious, and help to explain theories of the mind and how it interacts with archetypes.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have put off writing this reflection for almost a week, and in that time I have also listened to a good portion of Modern Man in Search of a Soul, which means that my reflections are therefore colored by both Haidt’s work and further readings of Jung.

Since reading Man and His Symbols, I have become very conscious of my dreams. I do not mean that I am hyperaware of them, though I think I may remember them better than I used to because I have placed an increased importance on them, but rather that I spend more time reflecting upon them.

The results of such a self-assessment can be both encouraging and discouraging. On one hand, I have been able to reduce my stress and give myself a more positive outlook on life (though the portion of my life that I have entered into is the happiest of my life, and God willing it will remain so), but on the other I ask more questions, more deeply.

In this sense, reading Man and His Symbols has created for me a small conundrum, namely that of self-analysis, which carries dangers in and of itself (Shakespeare is not errant when he writes that the eye sees not its own reflection), but it has also practically helped me to sort out some of my anxieties. As someone familiar with Pearson’s work, the concepts of the shadow and the archetype are not novel to me, but Jung’s explanation is derived from his fascination with the mind, rather than the more practical slant that Pearson takes.

A year ago, I would have disdained Jung as being quasi-mystical. I don’t deny that there is an element of the mystic in him, but my perspective on that aspect of his life has changed. Jung is clearly in awe of that great unknowable, ineffable, uniquely human element of the mind-psyche-soul that blends conscious and unconscious.

Reading Jung, one is struck by how much less we have learned than we think we have. Haidt writes about people who have suffered injuries to the parts of the brain that are associated with emotion, and how they are paralyzed by analysis and make worse decisions than their uninjured counterparts.

Jung presents the unconscious in a way that one cannot help but draw parallels to the role that emotion plays. The subconscious is powerful and we cannot understand it (at least at present, but probably we will never understand it). As someone who is religious, this doesn’t particularly bother me, since my own personal belief is that the subconscious is potentially a connection to God and things beyond ourselves, and this seems to mesh with Jung’s notion of a collective unconscious

The anima and animus concept were known to me at a very basic level before I read Man and His Symbols, but I didn’t really understand them until after reading (or, at least, understand them as well as I now do). I think that it’s an interesting thing to consider, especially when looking at characters and how they’re portrayed/developed in fiction.

Part of what I really enjoyed about the book and is probably more personal than broadly applicable is the way that it really helps draw connections between symbols. I spent a lot of time studying literature before I ever really learned to identify symbolism, and that’s something I’ve been trying to compensate for now that I’m aware of what I was missing out on.

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