The dream is no unequivocal phenomenon. There are several possibilities of giving a meaning to a dream. I would like to suggest to you four definitions, which are more or less an extract of the various meanings I have come across that dreams can have.
1. The dream is the unconscious reaction to a conscious situation. A certain conscious situation is followed by a reaction of the unconscious in the form of a dream, whose elements point clearly, whether in a complementary or a compensatory way, to the impression received during the day. It is immediately obvious that this dream would never have come into being without the particular impression of the previous day.
2. The dream depicts a situation that originated in a conflict between consciousness and the unconscious. In this case, there is no conscious situation that would have provoked, more or less without doubt, a particular dream, but here we are dealing with a certain spontaneity of the unconscious. To a certain conscious situation the unconscious adds another one, which is so different from the conscious situation that a conflict between them arises.
3. The dream represents that tendency of the unconscious that aims at a change of the conscious attitude. In this case, the counter-position raised by the unconscious is stronger than the conscious position: the dream represents a gradient from the unconscious to consciousness. These are very significant dreams. Someone with a certain attitude can be completely changed by them.
4. The dream depicts unconscious processes showing no relation to the conscious situation. Dreams of this kind are very strange and often very hard to interpret because of their peculiar character. The dreamer is then exceedingly astonished at why he is dreaming this, because not even a conditional connection can be made out. It is a spontaneous product of the unconscious, which carries the whole activity and weight of the meaning. These are dreams of an overwhelming nature. They are the ones called “great dreams” by the primitives. They are like an oracle, “somnia a deo missa.” They are experienced as illumination.
Dreams of this last kind also appear before the breakout of mental illness or of severe neuroses, in which suddenly a content breaks through by which the dreamer is deeply impressed, even if he does not understand it. I remember such a case from before the [First] World War: I was visited by an old man, a professor of canon law at a Catholic university. He made a dignified impression, like the old Mommsen.
He had business to do with me and, when this had been dealt with, said to me, “I have heard that you are also interested in dreams?” I told him, “This is part of my business.” I sensed that his soul was consumed by a dream, which he then actually recounted. He had had this dream many years before, and it preoccupied him again and again.
He is on a mountain-pass road, winding along a precipice. Below there is a canyon. The road is secured against the canyon by a wall. The wall is made of Parian marble with its antique yellowish tinge, as he notices at once. At this moment he sees a strange figure dancing downward on the wall, a naked woman with the legs of a chamois, a “fauna.” She then jumps down into the precipice and disappears. Then he awakens. This dream preoccupied him immensely. He had already told it to many people.
Another dream is from a thirty-year-old man, who consulted me because of neurasthenia, which had set in quite suddenly; he had been a prince’s tutor and had had a nervous breakdown in this hard duty. I was intrigued by the fact that this neurasthenia—usually already present before in these cases, and then only getting worse over time—should have set in so suddenly. I asked him what happened at the time when he got the vertigo and the pains. At first he said that nothing special had occurred. I asked him about his dreams during that period. Then it surfaced that he had had a strange dream, whereupon the illness broke out. He is going for a walk on a dune and suddenly discovers black shards on the ground. He lifts them; they are prehistoric pieces. He goes home, fetches a spade, begins to dig up the ground, and discovers a whole prehistoric settlement, weapons and tools, stone axes, and so on. He is immensely fascinated and awakens sweating with excitement. The dream recurred, and then the patient broke down. He was a young Swiss.
In psychotherapeutic treatment, certain elements can appear already weeks or months or years earlier, not yet connected at all to consciousness; these are direct products of the unconscious.
As you notice, I differentiate dream processes according to how the reactions of the unconscious stand in relation to the conscious situation. One can detect the most various transitions, from a reaction of the unconscious determined by the elements of consciousness, to a spontaneous manifestation of the unconscious. In the latter case, the unconscious proves to be a creative activity, in which it lets contents ascend into consciousness that have not yet been present there.
One usually assumes that the content of the dream stands in relation to consciousness, assuming that, for instance, conscious psychical contents are associatively linked to unconscious ones. This is what gave rise to the theory that the dream has to be explained solely out of consciousness, and that the unconscious as such is a derivative of consciousness. But this is not so; actually, the exact opposite is the case: the unconscious is older than consciousness. Primitive man lives to a great extent in unconsciousness, and we too, by the way, spend a third of our lives in the unconscious: we dream or doze. The unconscious is what is originally given, from which consciousness rises anew again and again. Consciousness, being conscious, is work that exhausts us. One is able to concentrate only for a relatively short time, therefore, only to fall back into the unconscious state again; one lapses into dreams or unintentional associating. It is, in Faust’s words: “Formation, Transformation, / Eternal minds in eternal recreation.”
Thus there are dreams in whose contents no relation to consciousness can be detected, and whose whole activity is located in the unconscious. Everything—the motive of the dream and its activity—springs from the unconscious and cannot be derived from consciousness. When you want to “force” such a dream and make it into a derivative of consciousness, you simply violate the dreaming of the dream, resulting in complete nonsense.
C.G. Jung, “Psychological Interpretation of Children’s Dreams”, (1938-39), pp. 4-7.