How archetypal dreams, visions, and art respond to a collective crisis.
One of the last books he ever wrote, C.G. Jung’s Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (1957) shows how psychology can shed new light on social anxieties and cultural conflicts. This slender text offers Jung’s perspective on the controversial phenomenon of “unidentified flying objects” (UFOs). Writing at a time when UFO sightings were a public craze, Jung saw an opportunity for psychology to make a valuable contribution to collective understanding and self-reflection. The resulting book remains an excellent model for the psychological interpretation of culture, with potentially helpful implications for our troubled times today.
Jung examined several kinds of texts with the UFO theme: dreams, art from both old and new sources, waking visions, and science fiction, along with media stories and governmental reports. This itself is interesting, as it shows how Jung treated all these different kinds of texts as arenas in which symbols from the collective unconscious (“archetypes”) can emerge. When treating an individual patient, Jung looked for the emergence of special symbols or archetypes that respond directly to the patient’s waking life problems. With the UFO phenomenon, he expanded this approach to the whole of Western society. Why are so many people dreaming, thinking, and envisioning UFOs at this particular moment? What is happening in society right now that elicits this kind of collective visionary experience?
Here as in many of his later writings, Jung highlighted the psychological strains of living during the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The division of the world into two hostile, nuclear-armed camps, separated by an “Iron Curtain,” suggested that global humanity was in a gravely unhealthy condition. Jung also emphasized here as elsewhere how the modern world can threaten individuality with mass movements, both politically (communism) and economically (consumer capitalism). People everywhere were in danger of being subsumed into mindless, undifferentiated groups where true psychological development was impossible.
The sudden surge of UFO sightings at this specific moment in history made sense, Jung said, as a response to these acute social anxieties. With the conscious mind in such an embattled condition, the collective unconscious provided what Jung called a compensatory or balancing archetypal symbol: the mandala, an image of wholeness and integration. Mandala symbols are best known from Buddhism, Hinduism, and other Asian religions, but in their archetypal essence they appear in all cultures, usually as round figures with a variety of geometric, chromatic, and symbolic complexities. Jung said that UFOs, whatever their reality as visitors from alien planets, have the psychological meaning of mandalas, projected into the sky above us, giving us a vision of transcendent union and wholeness. The integration we have failed to achieve in this world is reflected back to us as a living potential arriving from the greater realm of the cosmos (itself a symbol of the collective unconscious). Because people of our time are struggling in this essential psychological task of becoming an integrated, fully actualized individual (the process of “individuation”), the archetype of wholeness cannot be directly recognized in its traditional forms. Thus, it
“is forced to manifest itself indirectly in the form of spontaneous projections. The projected image then appears as an ostensibly physical fact independent of the individual psyche and its nature. In other words, the rounded wholeness of the mandala becomes a space ship controlled by an intelligent being.”
Thinking of Jung’s book and its methods as applied to our world today, we can ask the following questions: What is the great anxiety of our age? What is the greatest threat to collective health and well-being? What are the compensating dreams and visions pointing us beyond our current problems?
Since Jung’s time, the Cold War has ended, and Westerners have little to fear from global communism. The threat of civilization-ending nuclear war remains, but it no longer worries people the way it did some decades ago. Instead, a multitude of other apocalyptic scenarios haunt people’s waking hours. These include environmental catastrophe, civil war, economic collapse, pharmacological mind-control, robotic takeover, and political tyranny under an evil dictatorship (e.g. by fascists, socialists, racists, theocrats, and/or neoliberals), not to mention a global pandemic. We have reached Boschian extremes in our capacity to conjure vividly variegated scenarios of doom and ruin.
Following the logic of Jung’s method, and given our present context, perhaps we should be on the lookout for dreams, visions, and works of art that provide a creative response from the unconscious depths to these overwhelming apocalyptic horrors
For instance, we might expect the compensatory emergence of archetypal symbols of renewal and rebirth, of growth and revitalization, of a future collective renaissance.
We might expect to see more dreams of empathetic reconnection with others, stimulating greater awareness of multiple perspectives on the world, breaking free from the solipsism of the digitized self to reconnect with other people, with nature, and with one’s own body.
We might expect to see more expressions of the archetype of the trickster, the playful agent of chaos and disorder who disrupts established traditions and yet also inspires new creativity and cultural dynamism.
We might see more forceful and perhaps even threatening appearances of the anima archetype, challenging narrowly androcentric thinking and stubbornly enduring patriarchal biases in all aspects of personal and collective life.
It seems a near-certainty that the apocalyptic anxieties of the present age are already calling forth unconscious responses of archetypal energy and symbolism in all of our lives. The big question is whether our conscious minds can recognize these archetypal expressions when they do occur, and integrate them into a broader, more balanced sense of self—a stronger self that can act more effectively in the world, fueled by the energy of psychological wholeness.
Note: This post first appeared in Psychology Today, 12/7/20.