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Opening the Unconscious

Updated: Jun 5

For some reason, my students love talking about dreams. When I show a graphic that depicts how the psyche works, they’ll suddenly start raising their hands when I mention dreams. I become Freud to them, and they’ll ask me to explain their weird dreams.

Every great piece of literature explores the inner workings of what the character doesn’t consciously know about their own desires and fears. How do they navigate their inner turmoil, their internal conflict over what they want to do, and what they should do? What does the devil on their shoulder say to do? What does the angel say? What happens when a person can’t find an outlet for their feelings? How do they process their experiences and develop a conscience?

I try to explain the psyche like this: we wake up, we have experiences, we go to sleep, and then those experiences settle into our unconscious mind. When we wake up, we’ve internalized everything we experienced. Our memories, all of them, are always there. We carry our prior experiences with us every time we make a decision. We’re mostly on autopilot until some life changing experience forces us to reconsider our worldview.

Literature helps us figure out what’s behind moments of weakness and doubt. It explores the struggle to clearly and boldly articulate our mixed feelings and thoughts. It sheds a light on the moments we can break out of autopilot, moments that start small, but end with a life altering epiphany. I’ll let the literature speak for itself.

Here’s five of my favorite examples of the exploration of the unconscious in novels I teach:

Jane Austen creates a character, Emma, that acknowledges her own inability to understand her own feelings:

Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken …

Okonkwo, during the “The New Yam Festival” in Things Fall Apart, fails to contain his extreme fear of becoming idle and unsuccessful like his father:

And then the storm burst. Okonkwo, who had been walking about aimlessly in his compound in suppressed anger, suddenly found an outlet.

After Pip expresses his love to Estella, he declares:

In what ecstasy of unhappiness I got these broken words out of myself, I don't know. The rhapsody welled up within me, like blood from an inward wound, and gushed out.

In To the Lighthouse, painting allows Lily to access her unconscious mind:

Then, as if some juice necessary for the lubrication of her faculties were spontaneously squirted, she began precariously dipping among the blues and umbers, moving her brush hither and thither, but it was now heavier and went slower, as if it had fallen in with some rhythm which was dictated to her (she kept looking at the hedge, at the canvas) by what she rhythm was strong enough to bear her along with it on its current. Certainly she was losing consciousness of outer things. And as she lost consciousness of outer things, and her name and her personality and her appearance, and whether Mr. Carmichael was there or not, her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space, while she modelled it with greens and blues.

And let’s not forget one of the greatest passages in all of literature from Jane Eyre, about the inward battle between silent obedience and revolution:

Then my sole relief was to walk along the corridor of the third story, backwards and forwards, safe in the silence and solitude of the spot, and allow my mind’s eye to dwell on whatever bright visions rose before it—and, certainly, they were many and glowing; to let my heart be heaved by the exultant movement, which, while it swelled it in trouble, expanded it with life; and, best of all, to open my inward ear to a tale that was never ended—a tale my imagination created, and narrated continuously; quickened with all of incident, life, fire, feeling, that I desired and had not in my actual existence . . . It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot.

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