Marie-Louise von Franz


     In her essay, "What Happens When We Interpret Dreams?" von Franz examines the contents of a man's important dream about the very nature of dream interpretation. She emphasizes that "a good interpretation is an event, not a 'doing', " a self-initiatory event from which a growing relation to the large Self can emerge. In other words, the interpretation and understanding of a dream can become a form of inner rite of passage. The dream teaches the dreamer to relate to her/his own symbols. They are themselves thresholds to be crossed as the dreamer takes a journey of individuation. This remarkable dream is presented, in part, in a film series on dream interpretation with Dr. von Franz by Frazier Boa, Jungian analyst in Toronto.

     Marie-Louise von-Franz, Ph.D., received her doctorate in classical languages from the University of Zurich and worked closely with Dr. C. G. Jung for 31 years. She was one of the founders of the Jung Institute in Zurich and is currently a training analyst there. She has lectured widely in Europe and North America. She is the author of many well-known books and articles, among which are: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Fairy Tales (1970), Patterns of Creativity Mirrored in Creation Myths (1972), The Passion of Perpetua (1979), Projection and Re-Collection in Jungian Psychology (1980), Puer Aeternus (1981), and On Dreams and Death (1986).

     JUNG has developed an attitude toward dreams and also found some technical aids with which to approach their meaning, which are far more differentiated than anything known before him. Dream interpretation has thus become the core of an analytical treatment. We also know from Jung that the unconscious is a living reality, something which can react creatively to our conscious attitudes and proceedings. Therefore one may ask the question, what does the unconscious itself "think" about dream interpretation? In the following paper I will bring a dream which circles around this problem-it tries to interpret a dream about dream interpretation!

     This dream was dreamt by a candidate of Zurich Jung Institute. He was kind enough to allow me to use it here. This candidate had finished his first exams and was beginning to see control cases, He worried whether he understood their dreams and went on to ponder over the whole question of what happens in analysis. Then he had the following dream:

     I am seated in the open square of an ancient city. A young man, wearing only baggy trousers, approaches and sits cross-legged on the ground facing me. His torso is muscular, full of life and vitality. The sun reflects on his blond hair. He tells me dreams which he wishes me to interpret. As he relates each dream, a large boulder falls from the sky striking the dream a tremendous blow. Chunks fly off the dream revealing an inner structure resembling a modern piece of abstract sculpture. With each dream, another boulder falls, fragments fly off, and more and more of the nuts and bolts skeleton is revealed. I examine the bits that have been knocked off the dream and find they are made of bread. I say to the youth that this demonstrates how one must strip away the dream until one comes to the 'nuts and bolts' 'Dream interpretation is the art of knowing what to discard. It is like living! The dream changes. The youth and I now sit opposite each other on the bank of a beautiful river. Between us the dreams have taken on a different shape. They now form a pyramid structure built up of thousands of small squares and triangles. It is like a Braque 'cubist' painting in three dimensions, but it is alive. The colors and tones of the individual squares and triangles constantly change and I explain that it is essential for one to maintain the balance of the whole composition by immediately compensating a color change by a corresponding change on the opposing side. (This color balancing is incredibly complex as the object is three-dimensional and the colors are in constant motion.) Then my eye travels up to the top of the pyramid of dreams, the apex. There is nothing there. It is the sole point of intersection at which the structure could be held together, yet it is empty space. As I look into this space it begins to glow, then radiate a white light.

     Again the dream changes. The pyramid shape remains but, instead of triangles and squares, it is now composed of shit. The apex is still glowing. I have the sudden realization that the invisible point is made visible by the solidity of the shit and vice versa, and the shit is made visible by the invisible apex. I peer deeply into the shit and somehow I grasp that I am looking at the hand of God. In a flash of insight, I understand why the apex is invisible. It is the face of God. Then Miss Von Franz and I are walking beside the river. She is laughing and says jokingly, 'I'm sixty-one, not sixteen, but they both add up to seven!

     Let us look at the dream in our accustomed manner. Its drama takes place first in the open square of an ancient city, later it continues on the bank of a river. First it is more concerned with something man-made, the cultural side, namely the problem of interpretation, i.e., what we do or do not do with dreams. Later it shows a purely natural happening. The young teller of the dream is described as especially healthy, probably in order to show the normality and healthiness of what produces dreams (even in a "neurotic" patient). The dreams which he tells are something real-a sort of substance. The moment of interpretation is represented by a stone falling from heaven; the dreamer does not do the interpretation himself. This probably compensates for what he overvalued in his consciousness: the importance of his good or bad interpreting of dreams. It says that a good interpretation is an event, not a "doing." Things which fall from heaven, mythologically speaking, are thrown down from the gods, signs of the gods for man. Therefore meteorites were always and everywhere considered to be sacred. The Ka'aba of the Moslems also came originally from heaven. Dream interpretation is evidently a being hit by some mysterious active forces in the spiritual area of the unconscious (i.e., heaven). Those parts of the dream which are hit then turn into bread. If we understand a dream in the right way we are vitalized and nourished by its meaning. It is like manna or that "super-substantial" bread for which we ask in the Lord's Prayer. ("Our daily bread" is a wrong translation. The Greek word hyperousion means transcendental, above substance.) The other parts of the dream each turn into a "bolt with a nut" (or mother!), for every real understanding of a dream is simultaneously a coniunctio. The bolt and its mother represent the union of a masculine and feminine and are also something which serves to bind things together. Each time a dream is realized, the conscious and unconscious unite and something in us, which was autonomous before, becomes one with the rest of the personality and thus the structure of the Self slowly emerges.

     The voice then explains that one must know-as in life also-what to discard and what to keep. Probably the "flesh" of the dream (the bolts are, as it says, its skeleton) must be discarded: it is the surface of many images which veil, so to speak, the deeper meaning of the dream. People often say that they had a "silly" or "disagreeable" dream, but when one analyzes it, it always contains a deep and helpful message.

     After the period of seeking for the structural elements, there then comes a more "fluid" way of contacting dreams-contemplating them together with the stream of life. The structure has become a pyramid, which in Egyptian religion is a symbol of the Ba-soul, of the individual immortal kernel of man. Though the Self always already exists (it probably throws the transforming boulder onto the dreams), it is also "built up" by our attending to our dreams and thus becoming conscious of it. The pyramid consists of innumerable triangles and squares constantly changing in shape and color. In a more advanced phase of dream interpretation, all the different nuances of emotion and of feeling tones become relevant and also their constant complementary play of opposites and their paradoxes. The apex, however consists of empty space. It is that emptiness or Nirvana aspect of the Self, its indescribable neti-neti-not this and not that!

     Then comes a strange enantiodromia: the pyramid suddenly consists of solid shit. This reminds one of the old alchemists' saying that the philosophers' stone is found on the dung hill! When one gets older, one often feels more and more how much of our daily life is all shit-the dreary round of duties, the trivialities we have to attend to, the ever-recurring shadow-nonsense we have to look at in ourselves. But the hand of God is in it. It works secretly in all the sad, rejected aspects of oneself and of one's life. English insurance companies still call unforeseeable catastrophes "acts of God." There is nothing which does not reveal the hand of God. The invisible apex, on the contrary, is the face of God which "no man shall see and live." It is hidden from us but it is the ultimate reality. It is also-as the Self-the ultimate secret in the soul of the individual, a secret which also remains unexplained in every dream. Jung even went so far as to say, in a letter, that analytical understanding is destructive, and thus only useful in destroying the neurotic disease of the patient. So "healing is given to us in the incomprehensible and ineffable symbol, for it prevents the devil from swallowing the seed of life ..." We must understand the divinity within us but not in the other, so far as he is able to go by himself and understand himself. Ultimately, there remains a divine mystery.

     The end of the dream returns very much to the surface of things, to the dreamer's analyst. One and six add up to seven, which is the symbolic number of evolution. At sixteen one begins adult life, and at sixty-one the flow of life goes in opposite directions, but both are an evolutionary process. In youth one moves from the one to the six, which symbolizes sex, and the many things; in old age one moves away from the multiplicity back to the One. The dreamer himself is about forty years old; he stands in the middle of life where the flow has already begun to move toward individuation. His few patients were all young; probably his "inner" analyst has to realize this in order to understand the dreams of his patients, and his own attitude, better.

     It seems to me that the unconscious is intensely interested in our interpreting dreams correctly and in our understanding what is happening when we do so. For only then do dreams turn into the "bread of life" and the immortal structure in our soul become visible, except for that ultimate secret which may be revealed to us only in death.


     Reprinted from A Well (Living Waters: A Festschrift for Hilde Kirsch, C.G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles, 1977, with permission from the author and the editor