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The Last Wilderness

Private Myths: Dreams and Dreaming

by Anthony Stevens
Harvard University Press, 385 pp., $15.95 (paper)

In 1982 the British psychiatrist Anthony Stevens published Archetype, a book in which he attempted to reconcile two psychological theories that were then, and still are, usually considered incompatible: Jung’s concept of archetypes (which holds that there exist certain psychic images, such as that of the mother, that are innate and universal) and John Bowlby’s ethologically based attachment theory (which holds that such images are imprinted in the early stages of development, as when Konrad Lorenz imprinted his image on motherless ducklings).1

Stevens’s argument was essentially that archetypes are innate behavior patterns which are transmitted from generation to generation, much like genes, and whose emergence is activated by the “innate releasing mechanisms” discovered by the ethologists. He found such releasing mechanisms in the particular combination of events in the outside world, such as being presented with a breast, that elicit an instinctive behavior, such as suckling. In Stevens’s view, an infant doesn’t become attached to its mother because she feeds and cares for it, but because at birth it already has an archetypal concept or image of a mother that it is looking for, and that, if lucky, it will find in its actual mother, provided she can find an archetypal image of an infant in her actual baby.

The puzzling thing about Stevens’s thesis was not that there was anything inherently improbable about the idea that human beings are endowed with innate behavior patterns. What was odd was that he should have claimed that Jung, who has a reputation for mysticism and a certain lack of scientific rigor, had prefigured the basic concepts of ethology and of Bowlby’s theory of attachment. And it is my impression that Stevens’s thesis has not really caught on, even among other Jungians, who do not make up a united camp. Like the Freudians, they are divided into various schools, of which the two most important are the London or “developmental” school, which is concerned to find common ground between Jung and post-Freudian object-relations theorists such as D.W. Winnicott and Melanie Klein, and the classic Zürich school, which is interested in archetypes, myths, and dreams. Stevens himself says he works in the “classical Jungian tradition,” and he seems closer to the Zürich Jungians.

In his most recent book, Private Myths: Dreams and Dreaming, Stevens goes a step further and argues that Jung’s theory of archetypes anticipates Gerald Edelman’s neural Darwinism2 and provides an explanation of the facts about dreaming that have accumulated since, in 1953, E. Aserinsky and N. Kleitman discovered that dreaming only occurs during one particular phase or type of sleep, in which the sleeping person has rapid eye movement (REM).3 He also argues that Jung’s division of the mind into a conscious, a personal unconscious, and a “collective unconscious” correlates with, and indeed prefigures, the idea of the neurophysiologist Paul MacLean that the human brain is “three brains in one”—a neomammalian brain located in the cortex, a paleomammalian brain located in the midbrain, and a reptilian brain located in the cortex. 4

Although Stevens goes much too far in endowing Jung with such prescience, he has made a convincing case for the thesis that Jung, in his argument about archetypes and the collective unconscious, was, at least, trying to say something important about the evolution of mind. As Jung put it, “with his customary lack of biological precision,” to quote Stevens: “The collective unconscious is an image of the world that has taken aeons to form. In this image certain features, the archetypes or dominants, have crystallized out in the course of time.”

Yet it is not at all clear why Stevens should think it important to prove that contemporary scientific hypotheses about dreaming, biology, and neural structure are “Jungian theory in modern biological dress.” He does not seem to feel any need to discard or reformulate any of those aspects of Jungian thought which sound somewhat dubious or dated. For example, he accepts unconditionally Jung’s theories about synchronicity (the belief that coincidences betray hidden connections between experiences that seem disconnected) and alchemy (in whose arcana Jung discerned a “phenomenology of the soul”). And he accepts without question Jung’s view that archetypes not only exist but are experienced uniformly in different cultures. Only once in this 385-page book does he say that he thinks Jung was wrong about anything. Apparently Jung believed that consciousness (or rather “ego consciousness”) was a fairly recent advance in the evolution of man, whereas Stevens thinks it was “millions of years in the making.” It was only with the emergence of civilization, in his view, that the individual became aware of his separateness from the group, and this brought about a division between his ego and the more holistic, soulful aspects of the psyche which Jungians term the “Self” (with a capital “s”).

While Stevens makes bold claims that Jung anticipated many modern developments in biology, his primary concern in Private Myths is with dreams.5 The book’s title, indeed, is an allusion to Joseph Campbell’s aphorism “A myth is a public dream, a dream is a private myth,” although Stevens does not in fact seem to agree entirely with this position. As he puts it, “While it is true that our dreams can present us with the great archetypal themes of human life, this is by no means invariably the case”—which suggests that he thinks that only some dreams achieve mythical status.

Stevens is convinced that analysts should take seriously the ideas about the functions of dreams that are emerging from sleep laboratories, and he is equally convinced that the experimentalists should take heed of Jung. He himself proposes (or endorses, I am not quite sure which) a theory of dreams which to his mind is both Jungian and supported by experimental findings. He suggests that dreaming evolved when oviparous animals ceased to lay eggs and became viviparous; its function was to increase the efficiency of the mammalian brain without increasing its size, thereby allowing advances in innate intelligence and cerebral complexity to occur without producing infants with brains, and thus heads, too large to pass through the maternal pelvis.

Stevens is here leaning heavily on the neuroscientist John Winson’s theory that REM sleep and dreams are aspects of a “memory processing device,” which Winson identifies with the unconscious.6 “Dreams,” according to Winson, “may reflect a memory-processing mechanism inherited from lower species, in which information important for survival is reprocessed during REM sleep. This information may constitute the core of the unconscious.” (Unfortunately for Stevens, the unconscious Winson is referring to is the Freudian unconscious; Winson does not, Stevens writes, “give much credit to Jung, who seems to have got it wholly right.”) Stevens’s idea is that two-way traffic occurs in our own dreams; they allow for recent experiences to be processed into our long-term memory, and at the same time allow primitive archetypal images and urges to creep out of the unconscious into consciousness.

This hypothesis depends on a number of assumptions that are not universally agreed upon by dream researchers. It takes as established that all viviparous mammals display REM sleep and therefore presumably dream, but that birds and egg-laying mammals do not display REM sleep and therefore presumably don’t dream. But according to Piretz Lavie’s recent The Enchanted World of Sleep,7 birds do display REM sleep and therefore perhaps dream. The echidna, an egg-laying marsupial that according to Winson and Stevens does not display REM sleep, may in fact do so, according to Lavie. But one mammal, the dolphin, does not display REM sleep at all. If Lavie is right, sleep and dreaming are more likely to be correlated with warm-bloodedness than with viviparousness, and the Stevens-Winson hypothesis collapses.

Stevens also underestimates how speculative and uncertain most of the ideas emanating from sleep laboratories still are, and how little agreement there is about them. Many researchers realize that if the psychology and physiology of dreaming could be united in one grand theory, a great leap forward would be made in man’s understanding of himself. But so far no one has come up with a formulation about how dreams work that is acceptable to both the physiologists and the psychologists.

But for Jung and Stevens it doesn’t really matter precisely when and how REM sleep and dreaming evolved. All that Jung asserted and Stevens is reiterating here is that the collective unconscious came into existence long ago and that it must therefore be associated with primitive parts of the brain. As Stevens puts it:

It begins to look, therefore, as if Jung was right when he guessed that the archetypal systems of the collective unconscious, if they could be given a local habitation and a name, must have their neuronal substrate in phylogenetically old parts of the brain. It is not, of course, possible to designate any precise neurological location for any of the archetypes. The mid-brain structures involved in archetypal functioning must have an extremely complex and widely ramifying neurological basis involving millions of neurons in the brain stem and limbic system (the instinctive or biological pole of the archetype) and both cerebral hemispheres (the psychic or spiritual pole).

In this passage Stevens himself falls into Jung’s “customary lack of biological precision” and does his best to make a virtue of it. All mental activity involves, to some degree, the brain structures he mentions, and so his scientific-sounding intimation that the site of “archetypal functioning” is the midbrain could, technically, be true. The point is that he is attempting to establish merely by association the idea that neurological research has confirmed the existence of something called “archetypal functioning.” It hasn’t.

From his discussion of the biological basis of dreaming, Stevens moves on to the topic that is of deeper concern to him, the relationship between archetype, dream, and myth. At some point in human history, he explains, the archetypes developed into myths which expressed man’s vision of the world and explained the innate behavior patterns he had developed during the course of his evolution. The idea is that myths (a word that is stretched by both Jung and Stevens to include fairy tales, religions, and sometimes, it seems, all narratives) are at the same time sets of ideas that bind groups and societies together and instructions on how individuals should proceed from one stage of their life cycles to the next. For instance, myths of the “miraculous birth and childhood of the hero”

tell how the hero leaves home and is subjected to a number of tests and trials, culminating in the “supreme ordeal” of a fight with a dragon or sea monster. The hero’s triumph is rewarded with the “treasure hard to attain,” i.e., the throne of a kingdom and a beautiful princess as a bride. So it is in actuality: to embark on the adventure of life, a boy has to free himself of his bonds to home, parents, and siblings, survive the ordeal of initiation (which virtually all traditional societies imposed), and win himself a place for himself in the world (the kingdom). To achieve all this and to win a bride, he must overcome the power of the mother complex still operative in his unconscious (the fight with the dragon).

But myths, for Stevens, are not the only way in which the collective unconscious expresses itself. It can also deliver more specific, personalized messages by way of dreams. Stevens holds that imbedded in each individual’s psyche is a structure, the Self (“the organizing genius at the heart of the total personality”), which always knows his motives and actions and sends him messages of instruction, encouragement, or warning whenever it thinks it appropriate. Since myths and dreams both emanate from the same source and have related functions, he feels entitled to assert, following Joseph Campbell, that a myth is a public dream and a dream a private myth. But in fact, as I mentioned earlier, Stevens believes that only some dreams are private myths; they are the ones that Jung called “big” dreams, because they impress the dreamer as being special in some way and are long remembered by him and by his therapist, if he has one.

Much of Stevens’s book is theoretical and will prove heavy going for readers who are not familiar with Jungian theory, evolutionary theory, sleep theory, and neuroanatomy; but those who have an interest in dreams will be more than rewarded by the number and variety of the ones that Stevens reports and interprets. These include dreams of Freud, Jung, and Stevens himself, as well as of their patients; dreams of the organic chemist Friedrich Kekulé, the art critic John Ruskin, the sleep researcher William C. Dement, Alexander the Great, Bishop Joseph Lanyi (who was tutor to the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, assassinated at Sarajevo in 1914), the physicists Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein, Descartes, William Blake, J.B. Priestley, Adolf Hitler, and many others, including such fictional characters as Gilgamesh. In every case, Stevens is concerned to show how archetypal “big” dreams can affect the individual development of the dreamer, give birth to new scientific ideas, or influence the course of history. Archetypes, in Stevens’s view, play a larger part in human affairs than do politics or economics.

One of the examples he cites appears with great frequency in the Jungian literature (it had first been mentioned by Jung himself), and concerns Kekulé’s discovery of the benzene ring in 1865, which made possible such momentous later inventions as plastics, artificial fertilizers, and synthetic fibers, among others. “For years,” Stevens writes,

Kekulé had been grappling with the vital problem of solving the molecular structure of benzene, and his failure to find a solution was driving him to distraction. Then in 1865 he had a waking dream (or hypnagogic experience) in which he saw a chain of carbon and hydrogen atoms turning itself into a circle, like a snake biting its tail. It was a completely spontaneous manifestation of the ancient symbol of the uroboros. He jolted into full wakefulness, he says, “as if struck by lightning.” He realized at once that the benzene molecule must be composed of six carbon atoms bound to one another in a ring. With this realization all the facts of organic chemistry known up to that time fell directly into place, and the foundation of modern structural theory was laid. Reporting his discovery at a scientific conference, Kekulé said: “Let us learn to dream, gentlemen, and then we may perhaps find the truth.”

But of course, we may also arrive at hypotheses that have little to do with the truth. Stevens’s own dreams call for special mention. Some of them were dreamt while he was writing this book and can be seen as part of the process of writing it. The associations evoked by his dreams and his personal asides about them generally are tantalizingly half-revealing. We learn that he regrets his parents’ “liberal” decision to allow him to make up his own mind about religion instead of bringing him up in their own Christian faith, and that he is deeply exercised by the malaise of Western society. He feels more at peace in Asian temples than in European cathedrals, and he is that rarity, an analyst who works in the country and can take his dogs for a walk along the cliffs during breaks.

The West has, he feels, lost its soul: alienation from society and from the Self is rife, and we lack the myths and religious convictions that used to hold us together. This is, of course, an all-too-familiar story. Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul came out in English translation in 1933, almost sixty-five years ago, and more than thirty years ago someone said to me, quite seriously, “You psychiatrists ought to invent the new religion we all need.” But Stevens urges the self-conscious invention of new myths, and it is hard to imagine this healing Western society. Nor is it all certain that there ever was a time when society was held together by its myths and religions. Stevens is nostalgic, indeed sentimental, about both prehistoric hunter-gatherers and medieval man. “To the primordial intellect,” he writes,

humanity held a central position in the cosmic order, lived in a state of intimate participation with nature (what Lévy-Bruhl called participation mystique), held a rhythmic, circular conception of time, inhabited a reality primarily located in the world of the spirit, accepted moral values as absolute, regarded life as eternal, and believed myth and ritual to be indispensable to the health and vitality of the spirit. By contrast, to the modern intellect, humanity holds a peripheral position in the cosmic order, lives in a state of objective separation from nature, holds a progressive, linear conception of time, inhabits a reality primarily located in the world of matter, accepts moral values as relative, regards life as strictly finite, and believes myth and ritual to be irrelevant to the requirements of modern life.

But hunter-gatherers lived lives that were poor and unpleasant, except for some in a few exceptionally congenial places and times; and during the Middle Ages it can be argued that it was mainly the religious and feudal elites, and the skilled artisans, who enjoyed a sense of unity with their church or state. We can doubt whether the innumerable millions who fought and died in the centuries of wars that created modern Europe, or who perished in plagues and famines that were taken to be manifestations of a retributive God, felt they were engaged in a participation mystique. For most people medieval life must also have been brutal and short.

Stevens’s recommended treatment for the malaise of Western man is essentially the same as Jung’s. We should listen to our dreams; each person should tune into his Self. We should, says Stevens,

heed Liam Hudson’s (1985) warning that dreams are our “last wilderness,” to be protected with the same fervour as the rain forests, the ozone layer, and the whale. As the only natural oases of spiritual vitality left to us, dreams are among our most precious possessions and we must stand up to those who would diminish the value that we place on them.

But it is one thing to exhort people to attend to their dreams and get in touch with their true Selves; it is something else to give them the help they need in understanding the messages their unconscious sends them. Stevens seems consistently to underestimate the rigidity of the average, alienated, well-adjusted, but unimaginative Westerner. Although there are people who have a natural gift for understanding their own and other people’s dreams, they are rare, and most people strongly resist the idea that their dreams mean anything. If they become psychiatric patients and then have the good fortune to encounter a therapist with a feel for dreams, then they have a better chance of getting in touch with themselves, with their “Self.” But such encounters are rarer than psychiatrists like to acknowledge.

  1. 1

    Anthony Stevens, Archetype: A Natural History of the Self (Morrow, 1982).

  2. 2

    Gerald M. Edelman, The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness (Basic Books, 1989).

  3. 3

    E. Aserinsky and N. Kleitman, “Regularly Occurring Periods of Eye Motility and Concomitant Phenomena during Sleep,” in Science, September 1953, pp. 273-274.

  4. 4

    P.D. MacLean, A Triune Concept of the Brain and Behavior (University of Toronto Press, 1973).

  5. 5

    Stevens, it should be mentioned, takes up at some length my book The Innocence of Dreams (1979), in which I discussed both Freud’s and Jung’s theories of dreams and surveyed the experimental work on sleep and dreams that had been done since Aserinsky and Kleitman published their seminal paper, “Regularly Occurring Periods of Eye Motility and Concomitant Phenomena During Sleep.” Stevens concludes of the book that “the Freudian who has done most, in my opinion, to liberate the dream from the reductionist and pathological strait-jacket imposed on it by Freud is Charles Rycroft…. As with other innovative Freudians, Rycroft has allowed himself to be influenced by Jung, as evidenced by his acceptance of the view that dreams indicate ‘the existence of some mental entity which is more preoccupied with the individual’s total life span and destiny than is the conscious ego.”’

    The assumption Stevens makes here that any Freudian who becomes skeptical about aspects of Freudian theory must have “allowed himself to be influenced by Jung” strikes me as absurd and parochial; it takes as implicit that there are only two sources of truth and wisdom in the world, and that if someone comes to disagree with one, he must have been allowing himself to be influenced by the other. A similar position is taken by Andrew Samuels, in whose Jung and the Post-Jungians (Routledge, 1985) I am listed as an example of the “Unknowing Jungian.”

  6. 6

    J. Winson, “The Meaning of Dreams,” Scientific American, November 1990, pp. 42-48.

  7. 7

    Piretz Lavie, The Enchanted World of Sleep (Yale University Press, 1996).

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