You know that scene in The Graduate where bewildered Ben (Dustin Hoffman) finds himself high up in a chapel behind a glass window, desperately trying to interrupt that dull little Elaine’s wedding before it’s too late? He’s hammering and hammering on the glass but no one seems to hear him. Soon after my own wedding I had a dream similar to that. My window dream was this: I was standing high up in a giant, modernistic airport or railway station, looking down at crowds of people walking fast and mostly, it seemed, in one direction, on the level beneath. Suddenly I saw my husband, walking with them, but I knew he would never be able to hear me through the glass. I watched helplessly as he walked on and disappeared and I was left with a sense of panic and sadness.
So, you are saying – that’s pretty obvious – her Unconscious knew she was making a mistake even as she made it. Unconscious was trying to tell her that she and this man were destined to be isolated from one another, always, walking on two different levels and never able to overcome the communication barrier between them. I refer you to a poem I wrote some years later when Conscious, belatedly, had got the message.
I believe Jung put forward the idea that one’s Unconscious is likely to be oppositely-gendered to one’s conscious self. Certainly, mine is male. Jung’s “Philemon” was enviably classical and elaborate. He seemed as much a psychoanalytical colleague as a Guide to the Underworld and – puzzlingly – was a ‘he’, as was Jung:
Philemon was a pagan and brought with him an Egypto-Hellenic atmosphere with a Gnostic colouration. His figure first occurred to me in the following dream.
There was a blue sky, like the sea, covered not by clouds but by flat brown clods of earth… Suddenly there appeared from the right a winged being sailing across the sky. I saw that it was an old man with the horns of a bull. He held a bunch of four keys, one of which he clutched as if he were about to open a lock. He had the wings of a kingfisher with its characteristic colours…
They held interesting discussions together:
In my fantasies I held conversations with him, and he said things which I had not consciously thought. For I observed clearly that it was he who spoke, not I. He said I treated thoughts as if I generated them myself, but in his view thoughts were like animals in the forest, or people in a room, or birds in the air.
Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections: Confrontation with the Unconscious
I can also ‘see’ – or at any rate dream of – my own Unconscious sometimes. He tends to be wearing a long, black coat like Sherlock Holmes. Sometimes we walk together on a beach under a black sky. Somewhere in the distance is a power station (haven’t yet worked out why). A dark sea laps against a pebbly shore and an alternative ‘me’ seems to be rising up out of the water, like Venus on the half-shell (only plainer). Sometimes he is walking up ahead a way. Sometimes he is in a cottage in the middle of a forest. It is night, as usual. He is putting logs on the fire and peering into the flames. I never see his face. He never looks directly at me and yet I am not afraid of him. I feel I must address him with courtesy and not expect too much; I request, knowing that he may choose not to comply; I question, knowing that there may be only silence. We are like nations, hitherto at war. We need each other, if we are to go forward. At the moment we are engaged in negotiating an exchange of prisoners across a mist-shrouded border.
He uses pictures rather than words, the man in the black overcoat. I struggle – though less so as time goes on – to ‘catch’ his images as they flicker across my consciousness – and to interpret them. For instance – I’d been mulling over that sense of existing ‘on the borders’ between one world and another, as described (with some difficulty) in Strange stars appear in our skies. As I fell asleep I think I had been asking him for help, for more clarity about his side of the border.
I woke up suddenly with an image of stars – weird, huge stars, a bit like stars on top of a Christmas tree. Then it occurred to me that they were the stars from Van Gough’s painting The Starry Night which I had chosen to illustrate Strange stars. It was like he was saying “Beginning…” It was almost like the start of one of the legal dictation tapes I used to have to type up: We’re talking about… As if he was defining the subject.
I pictured Starry Night once more, with a kind of question mark. Beginning? And with something like impatience the weird, huge stars flashed back twice in quick succession – “Yes, beginning!”
To be clear, I am not describing seeing things or hearing voices. (I hope not, anyway: if you hear no more from me on La Tour Abolie it may be that the Men in White Coats have arrived and carted me off in the van with the barred windows.) At no time did I see anything with my physical eyes or hear anything with my physical ears: rather, an image appeared in my mind and a meaning – after a second or two’s delay – swam up and attached itself to the image. The meaning – you seem to get to it by lateral thinking. You need to let your mind slide sideways or dance around it. It seems to me like an alternative, more sophisticated language: more comprehensive; more economical – and you’re hearing it with something other than your brain.
Sometimes I even get micro-flashes of what feel like past – or other – lives. I say other, because I suspect all lives are simultaneous. It’s almost like freeze frame. I know they’re past lives but I don’t know how I know, except that in at least one of them I have an aerial view – I’ll be swooping down a green valley, for example, and there’s a battle going on. Yet I’ve never seen such a battle, or such a valley, and I’ve never been able to fly. As far as I know….
The other thing about Subconscious is he seems to want to ‘send’ in waves. There may be months… years, sometimes… when I forget all about him and then suddenly it’s like someone battering on your mind’s door as he tries really hard to get through, or possibly reconfigure ‘updates’ silently downloaded in advance, so that they start to make sense. It’s almost like when subconscious ‘data’ arrives it’s randomised, or encoded and has to be incorporated into an overall pattern.
We’re like people from different countries, my Unconscious and I. We’re marooned on a desert island together without a dictionary. Of necessity we’re having to start from scratch by pointing at stuff and repeating – palm tree in your language, palm tree in my language, leaf in my language, leaf in your language. Cocoanut, sand, sea…
I frequently ask myself why I keep on with the writing. None of the earlier motives or explanations seem relevant now. I am never going be loved and appreciated and interviewed on intellectual TV programmes about my latest, wonderful, literary achievement. I am never going to write a best-selling novel, or any novel – and I probably never was going to because (as I now know) I don’t possess the ability to sustain that level of focus on a single project for months or years, especially when there’s no guarantee, or even likelihood, of success. As I’ve grown older I’ve sensed the skill-level increasing even as the ability – or even the desire – to grind nobly on with some literary Lost Cause or Herculean Labour, has been decreasing. I now realise I was always a butterfly, a synthesist – a finder of patterns and joiner-together of seemingly disparate things. Writing has remained the Special Interest but simply refuses to narrow itself down any further. That is the category: everything.
No point at all in continuing to write, and yet I do. And I think I do because of him – the man in the black overcoat – the one by the beach, whose face I never get to see. It’s because writing is, at the moment, still the best way for him to get through. I’m still an infant at the direct, picture-sending method of communication, but indirectly, through the writing, much more gets through, and sticks.
I have often agonised – why ever did I choose – or was I given – this writing obsession? It’s never done me any good – so what was I supposed to use it for? And the answer seems to be – it’s not for you to use it, it’s for it to use you.