In this study, Erich Fromm opens up the world of symbolic language, “the one foreign language that each of us must learn.” Understanding symbols, he posits, helps us reach the hidden layers of our individual personalities, as well as connect with our common human experiences. By grasping the symbolic language of dreams, Fromm explains, we can then also understand the deeper wisdom of myths, art, and literature. This also gives us access to what we, and our society, usually repress. Fromm shares the history of dream interpretations, and demonstrates his analysis of many types of dreams. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Erich Fromm including rare images and never-before-seen documents from the author’s estate.
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About the Author
Erich Fromm (1900–1980) was a bestselling psychoanalyst and social philosopher whose views about alienation, love, and sanity in society—discussed in his books such as Escape from Freedom, The Art of Loving, The Sane Society, and To Have or To Be?—helped shape the landscape of psychology in the mid-twentieth century. Fromm was born in Frankfurt, Germany, to Jewish parents, and studied at the universities of Frankfurt, Heidelberg (where in 1922 he earned his doctorate in sociology), and Munich. In the 1930s he was one of the most influential figures at the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research. In 1934, as the Nazis rose to power, he moved to the United States. He practiced psychoanalysis in both New York and Mexico City before moving to Switzerland in 1974, where he continued his work until his death.
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The Forgotten Language
An Introduction to the Understanding of Dreams, Fairy Tales, and Myths
By Erich Fromm
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 Estate of Erich Fromm
All rights reserved.
If it is true that the ability to be puzzled is the beginning of wisdom, then this truth is a sad commentary on the wisdom of modern man. Whatever the merits of our high degree of literary and universal education, we have lost the gift for being puzzled. Everything is supposed to be known—if not to ourselves then to some specialist whose business it is to know what we do not know. In fact, to be puzzled is embarrassing, a sign of intellectual inferiority. Even children are rarely surprised, or at least they try not to show that they are; and as we grow older we gradually lose the ability to be surprised. To have the right answers seems all-important; to ask the right questions is considered insignificant by comparison.
This attitude is perhaps one reason why one of the most puzzling phenomena in our lives, our dreams, gives so little cause for wonder and for raising questions. We all dream; we do not understand our dreams, yet we act as if nothing strange goes on in our sleep minds, strange at least by comparison with the logical purposeful doings of our minds when we are awake.
When we are awake, we are active, rational beings, eager to make an effort to get what we want and prepared to defend ourselves against attack. We act and we observe; we see things outside, perhaps not as they are, but at least in such a manner that we can use and manipulate them. But we are also rather unimaginative, and rarely—except as children or if we are poets—does our imagination go beyond duplicating the stories and plots that are part of our actual experience. We are effective but somewhat dull. We call the field of our daytime observation "reality" and are proud of our "realism" and our cleverness in manipulating it.
When we are asleep, we awake to another form of existence. We dream. We invent stories which never happened and sometimes for which there is not even any precedent in reality. Sometimes we are the hero, sometimes the villain; sometimes we see the most beautiful scenes and are happy; often we are thrown into extreme terror. But whatever the role we play in the dream we are the author, it is our dream, we have invented the plot.
Most of our dreams have one characteristic in common: they do not follow the laws of logic that govern our waking thought. The categories of space and time are neglected. People who are dead, we see alive; events which we watch in the present, occurred many years ago. We dream of two events as occurring simultaneously when in reality they could not possibly occur at the same time. We pay just as little attention to the laws of space. It is simple for us to move to a distant place in an instant, to be in two places at once, to fuse two persons into one, or to have one person suddenly be changed into another. Indeed, in our dreams we are the creators of a world where time and space, which limit all the activities of our body, have no power.
Another odd thing about our dreams is that we think of events and persons we have not thought of for years, and whom, in the waking state, we would never have remembered. Suddenly they appear in the dream as acquaintances whom we had thought of many times. In our sleeping life, we seem to tap the vast store of experience and memory which in the daytime we do not know exists.
Yet, despite all these strange qualities, our dreams are real to us while we are dreaming; as real as any experience we have in our waking life. There is no "as if" in the dream. The dream is present, real experience, so much so, indeed, that it suggests two questions: What is reality? How do we know that what we dream is unreal and what we experience in our waking life is real? A Chinese poet has expressed this aptly: "I dreamt last night that I was a butterfly and now I don't know whether I am a man who dreamt he was a butterfly, or perhaps a butterfly who dreams now that he is a man." All these exciting, vivid experiences of the night not only disappear when we wake up, but we have the greatest difficulty trying to remember them. Most of them we simply forget, so completely that we do not even remember having lived in this other world. Some we faintly remember at the moment of waking, and the next second they are beyond recall. A few we do remember, and these are the ones we speak of when we say, "I had a dream." It is as if friendly, or unfriendly, spirits had visited us and at the break of day had suddenly disappeared; we hardly remember that they had been there and how intensely we had been occupied with them.
Perhaps more puzzling than all the factors already mentioned is the similarity of the products of our creativeness during sleep with the oldest creations of man—the myths.
Actually, we are not too much puzzled by myths. If they are made respectable as part of our religion, we give them a conventional and superficial acknowledgment as part of a venerable tradition; if they do not carry such traditional authority they are taken for the childish expression of the thoughts of man before he was enlightened by science. At any rate, whether ignored, despised, or respected, myths are felt to belong to a world completely alien to our own thinking. Yet the fact remains that many of our dreams are, in both style and content, similar to myths, and we who find them strange and remote when we are awake have the ability to create these mythlike productions when we are asleep.
In the myth, too, dramatic events happen which are impossible in a world governed by the laws of time and space: the hero leaves his home and country to save the world, or he flees from his mission and lives in the belly of a big fish; he dies and is reborn; the mythical bird is burned and emerges from the ashes more beautiful than before. Of course, different peoples created different myths just as different people dream different dreams. But in spite of all these differences, all myths and all dreams have one thing in common, they are all "written" in the same language, symbolic language.
The myths of the Babylonians, Indians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks are written in the same language as those of the Ashantis or the Trukese. The dreams of someone living today in New York or in Paris are the same as the dreams reported from people living some thousand years ago in Athens or in Jerusalem. The dreams of ancient and modern man are written in the same language as the myths whose authors lived in the dawn of history.
Symbolic language is a language in which inner experiences, feelings and thoughts are expressed as if they were sensory experiences, events in the outer world. It is a language which has a different logic from the conventional one we speak in the daytime, a logic in which not time and space are the ruling categories but intensity and association. It is the one universal language the human race has ever developed, the same for all cultures and throughout history. It is a language with its own grammar and syntax, as it were, a language one must understand if one is to understand the meaning of myths, fairy tales and dreams.
Yet this language has been forgotten by modern man. Not when he is asleep, but when he is awake. Is it important to understand this language also in our waking state?
For the people of the past, living in the great cultures of both East and West, there was no doubt as to the answer to this question. For them myths and dreams were among the most significant expressions of the mind, and failure to understand them would have amounted to illiteracy. It is only in the past few hundred years of Western culture that this attitude has changed. At best, myths were supposed to be naïve fabrications of the pre-scientific mind, created long before man had made his great discoveries about nature and had learned some of the secrets of its mastery.
Dreams fared even worse in the judgment of modern enlightenment. They were considered to be plain senseless, and unworthy of the attention of grown-up men, who were busy with such important matters as building machines and considered themselves "realistic" because they saw nothing but the reality of things they could conquer and manipulate; realists who have a special word for each type of automobile, but only the one word "love" to express the most varied kinds of affective experience. Moreover, if all our dreams were pleasant phantasmagorias in which our hearts' wishes were fulfilled, we might feel friendlier toward them. But many of them leave us in an anxious mood; often they are nightmares from which we awake gratefully acknowledging that we only dreamed. Others, though not nightmares, are disturbing for other reasons. They do not fit the person we are sure we are during daytime. We dream of hating people whom we believe we are fond of, of loving someone whom we thought we had no interest in. We dream of being ambitious, when we are convinced of being modest; we dream of bowing down and submitting, when we are so proud of our independence. But worse than all this the fact that we do not understand our dreams while we, the waking person, are sure we can understand anything if we put our minds to it. Rather than be confronted with such an overwhelming proof of the limitations of our understanding, we accuse the dreams of not making sense.
A profound change in the attitude toward myths and dreams has taken place in the past few decades. This change was greatly stimulated by Freud's work. After starting out with the restricted aim of helping the neurotic patient to understand the reasons for his illness, Freud proceeded to study the dream as a universal human phenomenon, the same in the sick and in the healthy person. He saw that dreams were essentially not different from myths and fairy tales and that to understand the language of the one was to understand the language of the others. And the work of anthropologists focused new attention on myths. They were collected and studied, and some few pioneers in this field, like J. J. Bachofen, succeeded in throwing new light on the prehistory of man.
But the study of myths and dreams is still in its infancy. It suffers from various limitations. One is a certain dogmatism and rigidity that has resulted from the claims of various psychoanalytic schools, each insisting that it has the only true understanding of symbolic language. Thus we lose sight of the many-sidedness of symbolic language and try to force it into the Procrustean bed of one, and only one, kind of meaning.
Another limitation is that interpretation of dreams is still considered legitimate only when employed by the psychiatrist in the treatment of neurotic patients. On the contrary, I believe that symbolic language is the one foreign language that each of us must learn. Its understanding brings us in touch with one of the most significant sources of wisdom, that of the myth, and it brings us in touch with the deeper layers of our own personalities. In fact, it helps us to understand a level of experience that is specifically human because it is that level which is common to all humanity, in content as well as in style. The Talmud says, "Dreams which are not interpreted are like letters which have not been opened." Indeed, both dreams and myths are important communications from ourselves to ourselves. If we do not understand the language in which they are written, we miss a great deal of what we know and tell ourselves in those hours when we are not busy manipulating the outside world.CHAPTER 2
The Nature of Symbolic Language
Let us assume you want to tell someone the difference between the taste of white wine and red wine. This may seem quite simple to you. You know the difference very well; why should it not be easy to explain it to someone else? Yet you find the greatest difficulty putting this taste difference into words. And probably you will end up by saying, "Now look here, I can't explain it to you. Just drink red wine and then white wine, and you will know what the difference is." You have no difficulty in finding words to explain the most complicated machine, and yet words seem to be futile to describe a simple taste experience. Are we not confronted with the same difficulty when we try to explain a feeling experience? Let us take a mood in which you feel lost, deserted, where the world looks gray, a little frightening though not really dangerous. You want to describe this mood to a friend, but again you find yourself groping for words and eventually feel that nothing you have said is an adequate explanation of the many nuances of the mood. The following night you have a dream. You see yourself in the outskirts of a city just before dawn, the streets are empty except for a milk wagon, the houses look poor, the surroundings are unfamiliar, you have no means of accustomed transportation to places familiar to you and where you feel you belong. When you wake up and remember the dream, it occurs to you that the feeling you had in that dream was exactly the feeling of lostness and grayness you tried to describe to your friend the day before. It is just one picture, whose visualization took less than a second. And yet this picture is a more vivid and precise description than you could have given by talking about it at length. The picture you see in the dream is a symbol of something you felt.
What is a symbol? A symbol is often defined as "something that stands for something else." This definition seems rather disappointing. It becomes more interesting, however, if we concern ourselves with those symbols which are sensory expressions of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, standing for a "something else" which is an inner experience, a feeling or thought. A symbol of this kind is something outside ourselves; that which it symbolizes is something inside ourselves. Symbolic language is language in which we express inner experience as if it we're a sensory experience, as if it were something we were doing or something that was done to us in the world of things. Symbolic language is language in which the world outside is a symbol of the world inside, a symbol for our souls and our minds.
If we define a symbol as "something which stands for something else," the crucial question is: What is the specific connection between the symbol and that which it symbolizes?
In answer to this question we can differentiate between three kinds of symbols: the conventional, the accidental and the universal symbol. As will become apparent presently, only the latter two kinds of symbols express inner experiences as if they were sensory experiences, and only they have the elements of symbolic language.
The conventional symbol is the best known of the three, since we employ it in everyday language. If we see the word "table" or hear the sound "table," the letters T-A-B-L-E stand for something else. They stand for the thing table that we see, touch and use. What is the connection between the word "table" and the thing "table"? Is there any inherent relationship between them? Obviously not. The thing table has nothing to do with the sound table, and the only reason the word symbolizes the thing is the convention of calling this particular thing by a particular name. We learn this connection as children by the repeated experience of bearing the word in reference to the thing until a lasting association is formed so that we don't have to think to find the right word.
There are some words, however, where the association is not only conventional. When we say "phooey," for instance, we make with our lips a movement of dispelling the air quickly. It is an expression of disgust in which our mouths participate. By this quick expulsion of air we imitate and thus express our intention to expel something, to get it out of our system. In this case, as in some others, the symbol has an inherent connection with the feeling it symbolizes. But even if we assume that originally many or even all words had their origins in some such inherent connection between symbol and the symbolized, most words no longer have this meaning for us when we learn a language.
Words are not the only illustration for conventional symbols, although they are the most frequent and best known ones. Pictures also can be conventional symbols. A flag, for instance, may stand for a specific country, and yet there is no connection between the specific colors and the country for which they stand. They have been accepted as denoting that particular country, and we translate the visual impression of the flag into the concept of that country, again on conventional grounds. Some pictorial symbols are not entirely conventional; for example, the cross. The cross can be merely a conventional symbol of the Christian church and in that respect no different from a flag. But the specific content of the cross referring to Jesus' death or, beyond that, to the interpenetration of the material and spiritual planes, puts the connection between the symbol and what it symbolizes beyond the level of mere conventional symbols.
Excerpted from The Forgotten Language by Erich Fromm. Copyright © 2013 Estate of Erich Fromm. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
II. The Nature of Symbolic Language,
III. The Nature of Dream,
IV. Freud and Jung,
V. The History of Dream Interpretation,
VI. The Art of Dream Interpretation,
VII. Symbolic Language in Myth, Fairy Tale, Ritual and Novel,
A Biography of Erich Fromm,