Why do we dream?
  The expectation fulfilment theory of dreaming
sleep and dreams

Jung’s house dream reinterpreted

By good fortune again, enough information is available to enable the real meaning of Jung's seminal dream to be established. The dream is as follows:

Jung’s house dream

I was in a house I did not know, which had two storeys. It was "my house". I found myself in the upper storey, where there was a kind of salon furnished with fine old pieces in Rococo style. On the walls hung a number of precious old paintings. I wondered that this should be my house and thought "not bad". But then it occurred to me that I did not know what the lower floor looked like. Descending the stairs, I reached the ground floor. There everything was much older. I realised that this part of the house must date from about the fifteenth or sixteenth century. The furnishings were mediaeval, the floors were of red brick. Everywhere it was rather dark. I went from one room to another thinking "now I really must explore the whole house." I came upon a heavy door and opened it. Beyond it, I discovered a stone stairway that led down into a cellar. Descending again, I found myself in a beautifully vaulted room which looked exceedingly ancient. Examining the walls, I discovered layers of brick among the ordinary stone blocks, and chips of brick in the mortar. As soon as I saw this, I knew that the walls dated from Roman times. My interest by now was intense. I looked more closely at the floor. It was of stone slabs and in one of these I discovered a ring. When I pulled it, the stone slab lifted and again I saw a stairway of narrow stone steps leading down to the depths. These, too, I descended and entered a low cave cut into rock. Thick dust lay on the floor and in the dust were scattered bones and broken pottery, like remains of a primitive culture. I discovered two human skulls, obviously very old, and half disintegrated. Then I awoke.

Interestingly, when he had this dream in 1909, Jung was on a voyage to America with Freud. When Jung described it to him, Freud pressed Jung to uncover any wishes in connection with the two skulls, obviously thinking that a death wish was the key to understanding it. Jung reports that, to satisfy Freud, he lied and said that they reminded him of his wife and sister-in-law. Freud appeared relieved on hearing this — relieved, no doubt, that Jung wasn't harbouring a death wish against him.

To Jung, however, the house represented an image of his psyche. At the beginning of the dream he is on the first floor, in the salon, which represents to him normal consciousness. The remaining floors represent different levels of consciousness. The cave represents the most primitive level of all, the consciousness of primitive man, which still lies buried in our unconscious. It was but a short step for Jung to go from this analysis to his idea of a 'collective unconscious' — a common store of vague racial memories and archetypes. Jung thought that these archetypical images could surface in dreams.

Again, we are lucky to know what was preoccupying Jung in the days prior to this dream. In his biography, Jung tells us that, "certain questions had been on my mind". Those questions were, "On what premise is psychology founded? To what category of human thought does it belong? What is the relationship of its almost exclusive personalism to general historical assumptions?"

If Jung was so preoccupied with these questions, he would have introspected a lot about them, an activity that would result (according to the expectation fulfilment theory) in dreams about his imagined explorations of these questions. It will become clear that Jung's dream is actually a metaphorical exploration of the last question, namely psychology’s relationship to historical assumptions. The house, as Jung saw clearly, is a metaphor for the psyche. The dream starts off with Jung being in a house he doesn't know, yet it is his own house. The fact that the house is his own represents the 'almost exclusive personalism' aspect of the question Jung was exploring. That is, the house is his personal property, just as the psyche is also a personal attribute. Yet he doesn’t know the house, just as in real life he doesn't yet know the answer to his question about the psyche.

Each floor of the house corresponds to a different historical period. At the start of the dream Jung finds himself on the first floor, corresponding to the most recent historical period. This is quite a civilised period, as can be seen from the 18th century style of "fine old pieces" of furniture together with "precious old paintings" which suggests that the contribution from the great masterpieces of the past were retained and valued in this period. The fact that the furnishings, as Jung noted, are mainly 18th century and rather old fashioned suggests that Jung saw a time lag between historical influences and their manifestation in the psyche.

As Jung descends through the floors, the age of the building goes back further and further into the past. On the ground floor he finds that this part of the house must date from the 15th and 16th centuries. The furnishings are mediaeval and the floors are made of red brick. The fact that everywhere was rather "dark" reminds us that we are dealing with 'the dark ages', stretching from the mediaeval period back to the end of the Roman empire.

Jung next goes down a stone stairway that leads to the cellar. He notes that the walls date from Roman times, made as they were from "stone blocks" and mortar which had "chips of bricks" in it. The fact that the architecture of the room displays a beautifully vaulted room, suggests that Jung regarded the contribution of this period to the evolution of the psyche as a high-minded one. "The beautifully vaulted room" reminds one, of course, of a church and that we are dealing with the historical period in which Christianity — Roman Catholicism — became dominant. Jung’s father was a Christian minister and Jung was well aware of the influence of the spread of Christianity (Roman Catholicism) in this period. The fact that this floor is unfurnished and no artefacts are seen, unlike on every other floor of the building, also suggests that Jung saw the contribution of this period as a non-materialistic one.

In the final sequence of the dream, Jung discovers in the floor a stone slab with a ring that can be pulled up to reveal "a narrow stone stairway" leading down to a low cave cut into the rock. This part of the building corresponds to prehistoric times. Jung has described the cave as looking rather like a "prehistoric grave" and such graves are, of course, one of our chief sources of knowledge of those times. In the dream, Jung sees two half-disintegrated human skulls and scattered bones in the thick dust of the grave, together with the remains of broken pottery. (Pottery vessels containing supplies for the journey into the next world often accompanied ancient burials.) This last floor of the house is in fact an underground stone cave, so it is the only floor of the house that is not man-made, suggesting that the psyche of primitive man is as nature constructed it — largely uninfluenced by "historical assumptions".

From this modern analysis of the dream, made in the light of the expectation fulfilment theory, it is clearly apparent that Jung’s dream was not an intimation from a wise unconscious of the hitherto undiscovered existence of a 'collective unconscious'. It was simply a metaphorical representation of the question which Jung was introspectively exploring when awake, namely the relationship between personal psychology and history. Jung's idiosyncratic interpretation of the dream arises because he hasn't realised that the dream is a metaphorical representation of the relationship between two variables: history and psychology. By focusing on only one variable, namely the psyche, Jung almost inevitably concluded that the other variable (history) was the answer. In his own words, "my dream was giving me the answer", by showing him the many levels of historical consciousness (i.e. the collective unconscious) still operating beneath the individual’s personal consciousness.

Ironically, in a contribution he made to a book that was published after he died in 1961, he offered a different explanation for the dream, this time focusing on the other variable in the dream — history.[1] He now said he saw the dream as representing a history of his intellectual development, the tomb with the skulls and bones corresponding to his palaeological interests, the ground floor dating from the Middle Ages corresponding to the influence of his parents’ "mediaeval concepts" and the first floor corresponding to more recent intellectual influences. This analysis, however, misses out the basement dating from Roman times.

If Jung had related his first analysis based on the psyche and his second analysis, which focused on historical development, to the question he had been introspectively exploring prior to the dream (namely the relationship between these two variables), then his final analysis might have turned out rather differently. It might have shown, as our analysis has, that his dream was a metaphorical representation of his waking introspections concerning the relationship between personal psychology and history. It doesn’t represent an answer but a preoccupation with the question.

We can now see the reason why patients of Jungian analysts tend to dream dreams that appear to confirm Jungian theory while the patients of Freudian analysts tend to dream dreams that confirm Freudian theory. The subject matter of dreams are emotionally arousing introspections that remain unmanifested in the external world. Patients will introspect about their problems in terms of the theoretical framework in which the therapist sets them. This theoretical framework will be represented metaphorically or symbolically in the patient’s dreams. The analyst then takes this symbolical representation of his own theory as evidence for the correctness of that theory. In just this way Jung, introspecting about the possible relationship between the psyche and history, had a dream in which those waking thoughts were metaphorically represented … and then used the dream images as evidence for the veracity of that same speculation.

This is a bit like someone having a certain theory about human nature and commissioning the making of a film in which people act out those ideas. Subsequently, forgetting the origin of the film, the self-deluded person offers the same film as independent evidence for the correctness of the theory … and most people don’t notice!

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1] Jung, C. (1964) Man and His Symbols. Jung, C. (Ed.) Dell Publishing. 42-44



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