What Goes on Down Below: The Collective Unconscious

I first started reading Jung in a New York library on East 79th Street back when library stacks were open. My library visits in those long-ago years were surreptitious affairs: a half hour stolen between work and home, or a weekend hour nicked from grocery shopping and kids. I felt like I was sneaking into an alchemist’s laboratory, tantalized by important truths I couldn’t fully understand. Although it eluded me, the concept of the collective—or objective—unconscious was particularly fascinating.

Dr. Seuss, In McElligot’s Pool, brings this concept charmingly closer to both understanding and experience.  A young boy, Marco, fishes in a small—very small—pool. A farmer looks on and says,

Young man…
You’re sort of a fool!
You’ll never catch fish
In McElligot’s Pool!
The pool is too small.
And, you might as well know it,
When people have junk
Here’s the place that they throw it.
You might catch a boot
Or you might catch a can.
You might catch a bottle,
But listen, young man…
If you sat fifty years
With your worms and your wishes,
You’d grow a long beard
Long before you’d catch fishes!

Hmm…answered Marco,
It may be you’re right.
I’ve been here three hours
Without one single bite,
There might be no fish…
But again,
Well, there might!
‘Cause you never can tell
What goes on down below!
This pool might be bigger
Than you or I know!

This MIGHT be a pool, like I’ve read of in books,
Connected to one of those underground brooks!
An underground river that starts here and flows
Right under the pasture! And then…well, who knows?
….This might be a river,
Now mightn’t it be,
Connecting
McElligot’s
Pool
With
The
Sea!

Our nascent depth psychologist, unlike the ego-bound farmer who thinks he knows what’s what, intuits a lot more going on underground. His little pool, like the psyche, is connected to a river, and the river flows to the sea. Furthermore, these waters are full of life, imaged as ever more fantastical fish–a delightful illustration of the collective unconscious as a wellspring of creative life. For Marco, the oceanic unconscious offers huge possibilities indeed:

I’ll catch whales!
Yes, a whole herd of whales!
All spouting their spouts
And all thrashing their tails!

He concludes:

Oh, the sea is so full of a number of fish,
If a fellow is patient, he might get his wish!
And that’s why I think
That I’m not such a fool
When I sit here and fish
In McElligot’s Pool!

Marco was right, though the treasures of the psychic deeps are even more wonder-full than the fish he so exuberantly imagines. Our individual psyches are connected to one another in a mysterious subterranean way, an idea that set Jung apart from other psychologies (along with his closely related theory of archetypes).

Like Marco, we can go fishing, a fitting image for psychotherapy. The process often starts with an exploration of the seemingly unpromising junk-filled pool of the personal unconscious. These are experiences we’ve repressed, suppressed, or simply forgotten–the dismaying feelings and memories represented by the old boots and tin cans of McElligot’s pool, close enough to the surface of consciousness to be readily hooked. But ego’s fishing line of intention also reaches deeper, and can be counted on to catch ideas, images and inspiration, especially through dreams.

Beneath the personal unconscious lies a level of the unconscious connected to group and regional history, represented by the underground brook. It is evidenced in religious and cultural traditions established over generations and absorbed by individuals. The symbolic life of groups is expressed in deeply felt resonance to particular rituals, holidays, or music, a collective level of psyche we experience as part of our identity: Japanese, Jewish, or a jazz fan with New Orleans roots.
Marco’s underground river, like psyche, eventually flows to the sea, symbolic of a deep and mysterious level of the unconscious common to all humankind. Jung said, “Just as the human body shows a common anatomy over and above all racial differences, so, too the human psyche possesses a common substratum transcending all differences in culture and consciousness. I have called this substratum the collective unconscious.” Or as Marco puts it,

You never can tell what goes on down below!
This pool might be bigger than you or I know!

Jung theorized the collective unconscious from his dreams and cross-cultural studies of myth, fairy tales, and symbols. He discovered universal human patterns that appeared, with variations, worldwide. We recognize the king, the crone and the quest, for example, because these motifs live in us with all their pitfalls and promise. They are the common psychic patterns, analogous to DNA, that define what it is to be human.

“The collective unconscious contains the whole spiritual heritage of mankind’s evolution, born anew in the brain structure of every individual.” It connects us to knowing beyond our individual selves, and compensates creatively for the limitations of consciousness. Dr. Seuss lets children and those who read to them know through Marco about the collective unconscious. Its life is abundant, encouraging us to look ahead toward growth and wholeness.

NOTE: I thank Jungian Analyst Lisa Marchiano for the idea of McElligot’s Pool as an image of the collective unconscious, and for her generosity in allowing me to use it.

AUTHOR

Deborah Stewart is a certified Jungian Analyst living in Cape Cod. She is a co-creator of the podcast This Jungian Life and a faculty member of the Philadelphia Jung Institute. She can be reached through her website at http://www.deborahcstewart.com

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