I am not of one mind – and neither are you. Thanks to Dr. Freud, we are all aware that human beings harbor unconscious thoughts, feelings and impulses that are best not aired in polite society. This discovery did not originate with Freud. Plato compared the human soul to a charioteer trying to control a pair of winged horses, one representing reason and the other the soul’s darker impulses. St. Paul lamented, “I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.” Goethe’s Faust sounded a similar note: “Two souls, alas, reside within my breast/And each withdraws from and repels its brother.” The dual nature of humankind was explored in such 19th-century literary works as Dostoevsky’s The Double, Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Freud’s disciple, Carl Jung, maintained that the human psyche has a “shadow self” made up of cast-off attributes of personality that we may not wish to acknowledge in ourselves. “Until you make the unconscious conscious,” Jung declared, “it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
But what exactly is the unconscious? All of us perform a thousand routine tasks every day that we are at best only dimly aware of because our attention is usually directed elsewhere. We brush our teeth, tie our shoes and drive to work without really having to think through what we are doing. I can even type sentences like this one without spelling out every word in my head or figuring out where to find the right keys on my computer keyboard. Virtually all the mental processes that enable me to function occur below the level of conscious awareness – and a good thing too, because otherwise I would tie myself in knots just trying to get through the day. The biologist T. H. Huxley, an early defender of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, went so far as to suggest that even our conscious actions are largely the result of unconscious processes. He declared, “The feeling we call volition is not the cause of the voluntary act, but simply the symbol in consciousness of the stage of the brain which is the immediate cause of the act. Like the steam whistle which signals but doesn’t cause the starting of the locomotive.”
By the late 19th century, most psychologists recognized the importance of unconscious drives in shaping human behavior. Freud’s contribution was to transform the word “unconscious” from an adjective to a noun (das Unbewusste in the original German). The unconscious thereby became a place, a nether region of the mind, although not necessarily something that would show up on a brain scan. Without an anatomical structure we can point to, we are reduced to metaphor: most notably the mind as an iceberg with the unconscious -- its largest portion -- lying below the surface of awareness. Although Freud’s concept has gained broad currency, it is not without its detractors, even among fellow psychoanalysts. “There is no such thing as the unconscious,” insisted Eric Fromm, “there are only experiences of which we are aware, and others of which we are not aware, that is, of which we are unconscious. In other words, the phenomenon should be thought of as an adjective, not as a noun.
Mark Twain -- as acute an observer of human nature as you could ask for -- may have been onto something with his lunar metaphor above. I doubt he had much truck with the unconscious as such, but the dark side of the moon would capture it as well as any iceberg. Twain, of course, assumed people were fully aware of what lay hidden on the dark side they never showed to anyone, without realizing there might also be stuff they were hiding from themselves. In purely astronomical terms, the dark side of the moon is a bit of a misnomer, since the far side of the moon is no darker than the near side. The sun illuminates both sides in turn. But due to a gravitational effect known as tidal locking, the moon rotates on its axis only once during each complete orbit of the earth. As a result, the same side always faces the earth and the far side remains forever unseen by anyone looking up at the night sky.
Think of the man in the moon as the face we present to the world, as well to ourselves. It appears to be complete, but it is two-dimensional. In order to get a fully rounded view, we have to explore the dark side – that is to say, the unseen side. But just because certain elements of our psyche are unseen doesn’t mean they are invisible. As long as they remain unconscious, we tend to project them onto everything in God’s creation. So if you want to know what you can’t abide in yourself, pay close attention to what you find most objectionable in your fellow human beings. "The world is only the mirror of ourselves," Henry Miller once wrote. "If it's something to make one puke, why then puke, me lads, it's your own sick mugs you're looking at!"
C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections
Frank Tallis, Hidden Minds, A History of the Unconscious
Erich Fromm, Beyond the Chains of Illusion: My Encounter with Marx and Freud
Henry Miller, The Cosmological Eye