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Stephen Gyllenhaal Headshot

An Elephant in the Room?

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A few weeks back, a number of my friends sent me the same article from the New York Times Magazine, "The Holy Grail of the Unconscious", by Sara Corbett. It was about Carl Jung's long-suppressed Red Book, finally to be published. The article explains how Jung's family kept the nearly 100-year-old book under wraps because it was written while Jung was having what could best be described as a nervous breakdown, something the family worried would tarnish or perhaps even ruin his reputation. My friends sent the article to me because they know of my fascination with dreams.

The article is delicious reading if you are interested in the strange world of past and present psychiatry with its bewildering politics and personalities, but what caught my eye most was a dream that the journalist (more or less off-handedly) reported to have had while covering this story.

This dream was about an elephant -- a dead elephant with its head cut off. The head was on a grill at a suburban-style barbecue, and I was holding the spatula. Everybody milled around with cocktails; the head sizzled over the flames. I was angry at my daughter's kindergarten teacher because she was supposed to be grilling the elephant head at the barbecue, but she hadn't bothered to show up. And so the job fell to me. Then I woke up.

What struck me first was the response from the Jungian analysts surrounding her as she wrote this piece:

At the hotel breakfast buffet, I bumped into Stephen Martin and a Californian analyst named Nancy Furlotti, who is the vice president on the board of the Philemon Foundation and was at that moment having tea and muesli.

"How are you?" Martin said.

"Did you dream?" Furlotti asked.

"What do elephants mean to you?" Martin asked after I relayed my dream.

"I like elephants," I said. "I admire elephants."

"There's Ganesha," Furlotti said, more to Martin than to me. "Ganesha is an Indian god of wisdom."

"Elephants are maternal," Martin offered, "very caring."

They spent a few minutes puzzling over the archetypal role of the kindergarten teacher. "How do you feel about her?" "Would you say she is more like a mother figure or more like a witch?"

Giving a dream to a Jungian analyst is a little bit like feeding a complex quadratic equation to someone who really enjoys math. It takes time. The process itself is to be savored. The solution is not always immediately evident. In the following months, I told my dream to several more analysts, and each one circled around similar symbolic concepts about femininity and wisdom. One day I was in the office of Murray Stein, an American analyst who lives in Switzerland and serves as the president of the International School of Analytical Psychology, talking about the Red Book. Stein was telling me about how some Jungian analysts he knew were worried about the publication -- worried specifically that it was a private document and would be apprehended as the work of a crazy person, which then reminded me of my crazy dream. I related it to him, saying that the very thought of eating an elephant's head struck me as grotesque and embarrassing and possibly a sign there was something deeply wrong with my psyche. Stein assured me that eating is a symbol for integration. "Don't worry," he said soothingly. "It's horrifying on a naturalistic level, but symbolically it is good."

So for a few months after the dream she had worried that this it was a "crazy dream, (that) there was something deeply wrong with her psyche." But Dr. Stein seemed to put that to rest with his conclusion that it was "symbolically good," buttoning up the whole episode as something soothing. Which is nice. Except -- these were, yes, pretty "horrifying" images, as Dr. Stein admits. Imagine them as a movie: a dead elephant with its head sizzling on a suburban BBQ while everyone else wanders around the backyard obliviously sipping cocktails. Move over, David Lynch. Not to mention, "that the very thought of eating an elephant's head struck me as grotesque and embarrassing and possibly a sign there was something deeply wrong with my psyche...."

Okay. Let's not overdo this. It's only a dream. Most of the world has long since understood there is little value in putting stock in dreams. Even our journalist who goes to dream experts gets little more than a potpourri of archetypical references, a metaphorical pat on the head and an explanation that eating in one's dream is about integration and therefore "good." On the other hand, this woman had been at least somewhat haunted for a few months about this, even feared that the dream might indicate some craziness, perhaps not so unlike some of Stein's associate fearing the Red Book might prove the same of Jung.

Now, I've made a couple of movies and -- taken as a movie -- I think this dream is pretty cool. First there's the anger, always good in a movie. And it never hurts if the anger is directed at a female authority (a witch or a mother figure?, asks the Jungians), but far more interesting (and dynamic) is the filmmaker's invention of a dead elephant head on a suburban-style BBQ. At this point the Jungians go no further than to point out some rather obscure and soothing references, but what if the filmmaker (so to speak) were simply drawing on the far more obvious theme of "there's an elephant in the room." (Let's not forget our "extras" with their cocktails milling around the backyard seemingly oblivious to the mess on the grill.)

Frankly, I'm not sure our "filmmaker" could have gotten much more obvious with her theme, except if she had put her dead elephant in some room with a bunch of people milling around ignoring the mess, except then the dream would've had to have shown the massive elephant head cooked on a suburban stove or inside an oven, both too small.

Take two.

Make it a backyard with a nice, big suburban-style BBQ.

Too Hollywood? Okay.

Let's try something more scientific and turn the whole thing into an equation. Make the kindergarten teacher X and the elephant Y. Start simply. Substitute kindergarten teacher for the obvious authority figure that teaches and takes care of children and brings out plenty of emotion: Mom. Substitute elephant with "a problem in the room that no one wants to face." The equation then reads: the problem in the room that no one wants to face has had its head cut off and the daughter is being forced to cook it and eat it. She's angry with her mother for not showing up to do this for her.


For the fun of it let's add Dr. Stein's soothing interpretation that this is about integration. The equation would then read: I am angry that (by myself) I am being forced to integrate the problem in the room that no one else wants to face. We might footnote that Dr. Stein believes this is a good thing.

Of course to confirm any of this we would need to approach the journalist. Were there any aspects of her life that her mother might want ignored or forgotten (let's not forget "memory" as an elephant association, as in: "she had the memory of an elephant"), but, of course in this dream the head of that memory has been cut off, is being cooked, et cetera.

But let's skip an intimate discussion with our journalist and simply recall what happened the morning after her dream as she encountered the Jungians with their tea and muesli: clever talk ("more to Martin than to me," she notes) of wisdom, feminine symbols, the Indian God, Ganesha -- but who among them actually took in the cinema of a sizzling decapitated elephant's head on a BBQ? Who allowed themselves to feel the betrayal that had unfolded and the ensuing anger? Who actually experienced the elephant in the room, aside from our dreamer?

Which perhaps brings us to another elephant. For if all these Jungians were so wrapped up in their world of archetypes and symbols, if to them someone telling them a dream is a "bit like feeding a complex quadratic equation to someone who really enjoys math" and not one of them even explored the almost too-obvious reference of an elephant in the room, then what does it say about the entire Jungian enterprise?

Of course, I may be wrong.

On the other hand, like a classic movie or a correct equation, is it possible that this little dream reflects on more than just our journalist's possible issues with her mother? For instance could it possibly be shedding some light on what our journalist was writing about, i.e.: the Red Book and the surrounding fears that the book's publication might prove its writer (Jung) to be (at least a little bit) nuts? That would be quite an elephant in the room, or rather a dead elephant that needs to be cooked and eaten with no help from an authority figure that teaches and takes care of children.

And if Jung were (more or less) nuts, it might explain why these doctors who have taken him so seriously all these years wouldn't be all that capable of teaching and taking care of the less mature (i.e. psychological doctoring), leaving our journalist to deal by herself with the anxiety about her psyche that (perhaps) had been forced to cook and digest the decapitated memories that no one in her life wanted to face.

Too many leaps? Okay. But (once again for the fun of it) let's just go one last round. Jung wrote his book (and had a major break from reality, everyone agrees with this) after working with Freud. He felt Freud was wrong (nowadays who doesn't -- Oedipus Complex, etc?), so it might be said that another elephant in the room is that Freud was wrong, maybe a little nuts too and maybe not all that capable of teaching and taking care of the anxieties of his less mature student, Jung. Not much of an "elephant," though. Every well-bonused-out executive in his high-powered pharmaceutical company would agree. After all, their answer to any anxiety big (or small) is one or more of their products.

But aren't there some potential problems here?

For instance: however nuts Freud was, however uncaring and incapable "a kindergarten teacher who didn't show up," he did come up with one great discovery that is now (pretty much) universally accepted -- that an unconscious exists -- that this unconscious is hidden from us like the lower part of an iceberg in the sea, that it is extremely powerful. Jung postulated that it was the repository of all one's memory. He even discussed something called the collective unconscious.


So the unconscious could certainly be termed big (at least in comparison with the conscious). It has to do with memory. It's hidden. Sound anything like an elephant in the room?

Except the elephant's head has been cut off. One final leap:

Is it possible that this seemingly insignificant dream has even shed light on what has gone wrong with psychology? Okay, a big leap. I agree. But forget about these images as a dream. Take them as poetry or as, yes, a David Lynch short film, something that has been (more or less) consciously crafted to shed light. Now let's revisit Freud and Jung before the break, before the Red Book.

Freud taught Jung about the existence of the unconscious. He showed him the "elephant in the room," so to speak, made him experience it. But is it not possible that Freud then cut off the head of Jung's unconscious by applying the (now laughable) concepts of the Oedipal complex, etc? Wasn't Jung then left to fend for himself, attempting to "integrate" this decapitated head (now handed to him) with the spatula of his own invention, i.e.: symbols and archetypes, which when applied to our journalist's dream left her to fend for herself as well?

In other words, is it not possible to consider that not only has this journalist's mother kept her from seeing those things which no one wanted to face (its decapitation, then integration making the journalist fear that there was something wrong with her psyche), but so too Freud, Jung and that parade of analysts in Zurich and environs -- all of them leaving our dreamer to fend for herself -- to cook, then do her best to integrate the mess that comes when we cut off the head of our unconscious?

But we are now getting as nearly abstract as Freud and company. Let's roll back the "film" for a second viewing.

This dream was about an elephant -- a dead elephant with its head cut off. The head was on a grill at a suburban-style barbecue, and I was holding the spatula. Everybody milled around with cocktails; the head sizzled over the flames. I was angry at my daughter's kindergarten teacher because she was supposed to be grilling the elephant head at the barbecue, but she hadn't bothered to show up. And so the job fell to me. Then I woke up.

I am more than willing to accept the fact that my logic has been more than a little forced here, that I too have made a mess out of the thing and that others, more capable, will uncover deeper truths in this dream. What I find harder to relinquish is that this dream has as brilliant, insightful and perfect an inner structure as a Mozart minuet, a Van Gogh painting, or the concept of E=mc2. A quadratic equation? Sure. But not something simply to be enjoyed and "savored, the solution...not always immediately evident" -- it is a powerful (and quite obvious) tool of insight that must be faced like the nightmares and misery that so many of us wrestle with, something with the potential of, say, the discovery of nuclear power (as long as its head isn't cut off and we are forced to cook it and eat it alone).

And if I am only just one-tenth right, then one might at least want to try to consider the possibility that dreams are indeed the real "elephant in the room," still generally ignored or (almost worst) noted, played with, then beheaded -- some version of Freud and Jung's counterparts who traveled to Africa in that century to bag an exotic animal or two to bring back and hang its head on a library wall, as proof of manhood.

Finally, for what it's worth, I would agree with Dr. Stein, in that this is "a good dream," only not in the sense Stein meant because this dream might well be delivering the difficult medicine of what's wrong with his field today, a field so woefully confused that it has become somewhat aware of the elephant but -- a bit like those blind men feeling the various parts but not seeing the whole picture -- they have chopped off its head, allowing the Pharmaceutical Industry free reign to sweep into our backyards where we have had to fend for ourselves as these profit makers bring us the easy, sleepy (though expensive and with side effects) answer of "cocktails."

And yet, aside from getting through the day, what has a cocktail ever done to solve a single problem? And God knows there are plenty of problems that need solving: the economy, our own misery and fears, global warming and so on. And if, in fact, this little elephant dream has shed some light on the field of psychiatry, Jung and his Red Book (in short the subject that our journalist was writing about -- not to mention her own life), could not other dreams shed light on other problems?

Even this little dream -- doesn't its structure also bring into focus (to some degree) some of the larger issues of our time? For instance where we now stand as a people, facing what has happened to our country? Once massive, powerful, and filled with deep memory and hope, with an almost incomprehensible reserve of resources and manufacturing capability -- haven't we also had the head of our elephant chopped off and handed to us? Aren't we now being forced to cook and eat its dead head? And where are those that did the chopping -- the supposed teachers and leaders who have had enough expertise to scoop up the government bailouts, tax breaks and bonus? Haven't they abandoned us exactly as our dreamer's kindergarten teacher, leaving us to try to figure out how to digest the mess with little more than a spatula?

But this is only a question and that was only a little dream.