Our unconscious urges and imagination are the driving forces of our overall nature, but when we confront them, they can seem completely strange to us. The unmitigated primal quality behind the social self seems uncivilised and uncultivated. Our higher self must indeed have a profound part to play in channelling our raw nature into the nature we know and experience.
J G Ballard’s book The Unlimited Dream Company gives us potent examples of this. In the story, a delusional protagonist, Blake, crashes a plane into Shepperton. When he awakes from the crash, the story is deliberately ambiguous as to whether he is dreaming or awake, and even whether he is dead or alive. This ambiguity perpetuates to the end of the novel.
What is so interesting about the book is that Blake experiences visions of his dreams becoming reality. His visions function as powerful, often visceral, metaphors of our unconscious mind. Quite often he has visions of a sexual nature, and these are usually paired with rapidly growing flowers, springing from everywhere. His sexual visions are mirrored by the visions of the flowers. This is demonstrated in the following dialogue:
“ ‘Miriam – I’ll give you any flower you want!’… I exclaimed: “I’ll grow orchids from your hands, Roses from your breasts. You can have magnolias in your hair . . . !’
‘And in my heart?’
‘In your womb I’ll set a fly trap!’ “ (p. 98).
Ballard reduces him from a social individual to primal Animalia, as we see in him redirecting from ‘heart’ to ‘womb’. We realise that his sexual nature isn’t of a salacious kind, but of a biological kind. This is why he identifies so well with a Freudian unconscious- he isn’t acting in a licentious manner, but in a way dictated by a base animal instinct. There is a break between his social self and his biological self, and this allows his unconscious self to surface. The unconscious self is nebulous, missing a social axis to transform him into a complex unity of selfhood. We see Blake battle with both poles of being throughout the story.
Blake even materialises a real marmoset. Miriam tells him that it didn’t come from the zoo, as he suspected, but “from inside your head, more likely… (ibid, p. 97). The flowers are a feature of nature. They are wild, they blossom (a metaphor for the birth of life), and they are wild unless helped along by a gardener (Blake). The marmoset, a type of monkey, shows Blake’s animal nature. It is symbolic of archetypal ‘primal man’, with which we share our genetic ancestry.
We see that human nature is unconsciously primal and wild, but that our conscious, social self, tames it into an urbane, sophisticated being. The marmoset and flowers shock Miriam because what she is seeing is animal nature unfiltered by social consciousness. We usually feel that our primal self is refined by social consciousness, but Blake feels that social consciousness subjugates it.
Aldous Huxley famously said that
“Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What cones out of the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness that will help us stay alive… To formulate and express the contents of this reduced awareness, man has invented and endlessly elaborated those symbol-systems and implicit philosophies which we call languages… That which, in the language of religion, is called ‘this world’, is the universe of reduced awareness” (The Doors of Perception, p. 11).
In one sense, Huxley was discussing the fact that our mind needs to limit the vast quantity of empirical phenomena for functional purposes. If everything happening in the unconscious, and everything empirically taken in through the senses was experienced phenomenally, we would suffer from a huge conscious overload. It makes practical sense to limit the contents of our minds. Social consciousness is a way that our minds have been limited through our evolution. This information, phenomena, urges, sense data, which has survived the reducing valve, has been filtered by that which is considered appropriate for a person in the social realms at large. This could only be a good thing. The cultural environment we live in reduces our unconscious to how our culture deems we should think and act.
What we are, as creatures, is a social order reduced to, and experienced by, individuals. The social filter individuates our experiences to our consciousnesses, whilst making it fit the social order in which our individual consciousnesses function. Therefore, “the mind is introducing into a single unified experience a division between ‘me’ and ‘it’ ” (Hodgkinson, B. p. 22). Consciousness happens in order to fit our unconscious minds into a cohesive social order. To put it another way, our primal minds are erratic, nebulous, opportunistic, greedy, and impulsive. Our conscious minds are orderly and civilised. Our conscious minds have various filters, and one dominant filter is that of the social order, the need to live together.
Freud’s writing’s on forgetting show us how much we push our primal selves out of the picture. In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, a friend of Freud forgot a foreign word (aliquis) unconsciously because he was worrying about the fact that his female lover missed her period. Freud said to him that
“you reworked the miracle of St Januarius to make it an ingenious reference…”, to which he replies-
“…I couldn’t come up with that little word because I’m waiting anxiously for news” (p. 15).
Interestingly, the man’s anxiety over this lady’s missed period made him unconsciously forget words with linguistic similarities to his worries. Maybe this is because of the social consequence of a pregnancy out of wedlock.
The EDA Collective wrote an essay ‘Change your life: an analysis of Little Mix’ in which they assert that “Identity… is determined by ‘what you’ve always known’… ‘what you’ve always known’ is that which you are not” (p. 88). If we are to accept that your identity is a matter of becoming what you’ve always known yourself to be, then our identity must be partly understood as our unconscious self becoming a social self. In the context of the song they analyse, it is understood in terms of success. This leads us to the conclusion that a success, for the egoic self, is in our unconscious self becoming a far further refined social self, and one in which the unconscious can be both free to act, whilst pertaining to social mores.
What I present is the point that our higher nature has separated from our primal, sub-egoic nature, and we are in a battle to become something beyond our ancestral genetic identity, instead becoming something we have constructed ourselves. We are the first creatures on the earth to construct a new nature, but also the first to deny their basic nature. We are creatures of advancement, can our social selves conquer the unconscious? And more to the point, should we?
The unconscious mind will persist as long as the conscious mind does. I don’t believe it is a question of conquering the unconscious. The social filter gives us the capacity to revise the urges of the unconscious mind. As we develop and change the way we act, we send messages to our mind; we find our integration and cohesion with society fulfilling. In this way, our primal pre-egoic urges become less satisfying than the revised state of mind which is borne of our higher societal conscious minds. We may find our unconscious minds at odds with our awareness, but maybe this is a good thing. It’s our reflection on the pre-egoic mind which pushes us into the state of becoming. We aren’t creatures of self-denial, we’re creatures of progression.
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Thank you for reading.
Ballard, J G. (1979) The Unlimited Dream Company. Reprint, Harper Perennial: London, 2008
EDA Collective. (2014) ‘ ‘Change your life’: An Analysis of Little Mix’, in Alfie Bown & Daniel Bristow (eds.) Why Are Animals Funny?. Zero Books: Winchester, pp. 88 – 89
Freud, S. (1941) The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Translated by Anthea Bell. Reprint, Penguin Books: London, 2002
Huxley, A. (1954) The Doors of Perception. Reprint, Vintage: London, 2004