In this way it becomes possible to recognize in some degree the relativity of symbolism, and the recognition is important because it has become a preoccupation of some people to attempt to draw a sharp line of division between symbols and realities. And at the same time it is possible to see how interpretation, or the process of focussing in consciousness some of the meaning latent in symbolism, is influenced by personal considerations. No one, for example, supposes that a Jew looks on the symbol of the Cross in the same way as a Christian ; or that in approaching symbolism in general he will ever see eye to eye with the man who is not a Jew.
Differences in mental background must degrade or refine the interpretation. A man who is lacking in some typical human experience will never interpret in quite the same way as a man who is richer by it.
Now we have so far considered mental background in two aspects. In one, it seems responsible for a certain language which we have called the language of unconscious gesture. This is a language of symbolism. In the other, it is responsible for differences in the interpretation of these symbolisms, and symbolisms in general. What bearing has all this upon dreams and the study of the neurotic ?
It bears upon the problem of the neurotic directly, because the neurosis is a creation of the mind, like the dream. It is something which arises spontaneously, without apparent organic causes. A man may suffer from morbid fear ; this is a kind of emotional neurosis. His fear fastens on this or on that, beyond his control. Or he may have a strange dominant impulse to do something grotesque that is quite out of the tenor of his normal life ; this is a kind of ideational neurosis. It is some uncontrolled force in himself fastening on a bad or primitive idea. Or he may have some loss of function, a palsy, or a loss of sensation, or an inability to act or think or feel, that is beyond remedy by conscious control. This is a kind of functional neurosis ; it cripples efficiency. One can say that the neurosis always cripples efficiency, and efficiency is not to be measured in terms of action alone. It must include the power of thought and feeling and instinct. It may mean nothing but a loss of the power of enjoyment. But this is a loss of efficiency as much as a paralysis affecting a leg or arm, or a cramp affecting the hand.
A man cannot sit down and manufacture a neurosis for himself straight away by taking thought.
He cannot produce a functional paralysis by thinking of it. The neurosis shapes itself. It reveals itself as something beyond the region of conscious activity. Its growth is undetected and its appearance, like the dream, may be one of dramatic suddenness. Or it may distract attention gradually, with a certain subtlety, vanishing for considerable periods, and then reappearing with fuller insistence, in the same way as some dreams gradually shape themselves, night after night, in a certain direction. It distracts attention as something coming in upon the conscious field from without, something puzzling and unthought-of. From what region does it come ? It must come out of mental background.
The neurosis, then, can be regarded as a creation of mental background. This does not mean that mental foreground, or consciousness, has nothing to do with its formation. We have seen that mental background can be looked on as being responsible for the minute language of unconscious gesture which may contradict the processes occurring in full consciousness. The operations of mental background are affected by the operations of mental foreground. If, then, the neurosis is a creation of mental background, it does not follow that what is occurring in mental foreground' never has anything to do with its production. Mental foreground, by causing mental background to react in certain ways, might theoretically be wholly responsible for the creation of the neurosis. But the responsibility would not be a direct one.
The matter can be put into simple allegory. If a stern master quite unwittingly starves a servant, and, by reason of his wretched state, the servant commits an act of violence and robbery, how do we look on the master ? As with the neurotic, one feels in his presence a sense of bafflement. Who is responsible ? The act of violenoe, like the neurosis, has a complex origin, and one does not know where to put the blame. It is a triangular problem. The problem of the neurotic is also triangular, and it can be compared to the problem of the master, the servant, and the act of violence. At one angle is the fact of the neurosis—a functional paralysis of the legs, let us say—and this can be likened to the act of violence. There is, at another angle, the statement of the case, the patient's history and explanations as given by himself, and this is the point of view of the uncomprehending master. At the third angle is the statement of the servant, and this will not coincide with the master's account. It will contain much that the master was unconscious of, and incapable of realizing.
What is comparable to the statement of the servant in the problem of the neurotic ? When the physician listens to the account of the patient's illness, he has, like everyone else, two points of view. What the patient says forms one train of evidence. The manner in which it is said forms another. In other words, the language of unconscious gesture gives him certain clues that the conscious estimate of the patient does not give. The patient says, for example, that he is by nature calm, good-tempered, and broad-minded. Certain hasty gestures, facial contractions, movements of the eyes, and phrases contradict this statement. The patient is unconscious of them. Now all this can be compared to the statement of the servant who, owing to his master's ignorance, had been starved and finally driven to an act of violence. It lies outside the conscious—the master's—estimate. It belongs, so far as the patient is concerned, to the unconscious. But it does not belong to the unconscious in a static or negative sense, but in a dynamic and positive sense. It is an independent activity of which the patient is unaware. It is unconscious activity.
The language of unconscious gesture is not the only indication of this activity. The man who takes up a pencil in a fit of abstraction, and finds some time later that he has drawn a curious pattern, which seems meaningless, is influenced by it. It is only a step from this to automatic writing in which the activities of the unconscious are led out in a definite direction, or through a particular cerebral mechanism. The post-hypnotic states afford illustrations of how a suggestion, planted under conditions that are not those of normal consciousness, affects the trend of interest in a manner that is somewhat comparable to the compulsion neurosis and also some of the vagaries of memory. A pers on while under hypnosis is given the suggestion that five minutes after he wakes up he will sneeze. He is roused, and five minutes later—the peculiar accuracy with which the lapse of time is calculated does not belong to conscious estimation—his face is contorted and he sneezes. He may not always sneeze; the initial contortion may only show itself, in which case compulsion is replaced by tendency. Now no one can make himself sneeze without some external and suitable stimulus, and a suggestion to that effect, given under normal circumstances, has no result. The sudden appearance of the impulse to sneeze which arises, so far as the patient is concerned, apparently spontaneously—and, as the physician knows, without organic cause—is comparable to the sudden appearance in consciousness of the imperative idea, or of forgotten events. The movements of memory constantly suggest the influence of activities beyond consciousness, and the control of memory, like the control of the act of sneezing, does not belong wholly to the conscious mind.
But the particular product that demands some theory of unconscious activity for its explanation and the one that concerns us here, is the dream ; for it is by the study of this typical form of unconscious elaboration that certain problems of the neurotic become apparent.
Of what value is the dream when the problem of "the neurotic is under consideration ?
The value of the dream lies in the fact that it is a typical product related to that angle or aspect of the problem of the neurotic which has been compared to the statement of the servant. So far we have seen that the language of unconscious gesture can be regarded as parallel to the servant's case in the problem of the master, servant, and the act of violence. This angle—the angle of unconscious activity—in the neurotic's problem cannot be approached directly. If the comparison is extended, let us suppose the servant were dumb and also illiterate. In that case he could give his evidence by gestures, and if he were something of an artist, he might draw pictures as well to make his case clearer. Now these pictures would correspond to the dreams that are thrown up on the screen of perception during sleep. The fact that these pictures were at first sight meaningless, or only vaguely suggestive, would not necessarily detract anything from their value. A hasty observer might throw them aside after the first glance. But that would arise out of a disinclination to take the trouble to find out if the illiterate artist were not drawing after a special fashion of his own.
Moreover, if some complicated statement had to be shown pictorially, the artist might be driven to employ a complicated method which would require a great deal of patient elucidation. In other words, he might have to draw a complicated cartoon, the interpretation of which might be a matter of great difficulty. The dream, then, may contain valuable material, and like the servant's cartoon, it may have behind it a definite motive.