We must remember that there are not a few patients who imitate the technical or theoretical jargon of the doctor, and do this even in their dreams. This is not to say that the fishes of which the fisherman dreams are fishes and nothing more. There is no language that cannot be misused. As may easily be imagined, the misuse often turns the tables on us; it even seems as if the unconscious had a way of strangling the doctor in the coils of his own theory.

Therefore I leave theory aside as much as possible when analysing dreams–not entirely, of course, for we always need some theory to make things intelligible. It is on the basis of theory, for instance, that I expect dreams to have meaning. I cannot prove in every case that this is so, for there are dreams which the doctor and the patient simply do not understand. But I have to make such an hypothesis in order to find courage to deal with dreams at all. To say that dreams add something important to our conscious knowledge, and that a dream which fails to do so has not been properly interpreted–that, too, is a theory. But I must make this hypothesis as well in order to explain to myself why I analyse dreams in the first place.

All other hypotheses, however, about the function and the structure of dreams are merely rules of thumb and must be subjected to constant modification. In dream-analysis we must never forget, even for a moment, that we move on treacherous ground where nothing is certain but uncertainty. If it were not so paradoxical, one would almost like to call out to the dream interpreter: “Do anything you like, only don’t try to understand!”

When we take up an obscure dream, our first task is not to understand and interpret it, but to establish the context with minute care. By this I do not mean unlimited “free association” starting from any and every image in the dream, but a careful and conscious illumination of the interconnected associations objectively grouped round particular images.

What Freud calls the “dream-facade” is the dream’s obscurity, and this is really only a projection of our own lack of understanding. We say that the dream has a false front only because we fail to see into it. We would do better to say that we are dealing with something like a text that is unintelligible not because it has a facade–a text has no facade–but simply because we cannot read it. We do not have to get behind such a text, but we must first learn to read it.

Free association will bring out all my complexes, but hardly ever the meaning of a dream.  To understand the dream’s meaning I must stick as close as possible to the dream images.

When somebody dreams of a “deal table,” it is nto enough for him to associate it with his writing-desk which does not happen to be made of deal. Supposing that nothing more occurs to the dreamer, this blocking has an objective meaning, for it indicates that a particular darkness reigns in the immediate neighborhood of the dream-image, and that is suspicious. We would expect him to have dozens of associations to a deal table, and the fact that there is apparently nothing is itself significant. In such cases I keep on returning to the image, and I usually say to my patient, “Suppose I had no idea what the words ‘deal table’ mean. Describe this object and give me its history in such a way that I cannot fail to understand what sort of thing it is.”

In this way we manage to establish almost the whole context of the dream-image. When we have done this for all the images in the dream we are ready for the interpretation.

Every interpretation is a hypothesis, an attempt to read an unknown text. An obscure dream, taken in isolation, can hardly ever be interpreted with any certainty. For this reason I attach little importance to the interpretation of single dreams. A relative degree of certainty is reached only in the interpretation of a series of dreams, where the later dreams correct the mistakes we have made in handling those that went before.

The fundamental mistake regarding the nature of the unconscious is probably this: it is commonly supposed that its contents have only one meaning and are marked with an unalterable plus or minus sign. In my humble opinion, this view is too naive.

The psyche is a self-regulating system that maintains its equilibrium just as the body does. Every process that goes too far immediately and ineitably calls forth compensations, and without these there would be neither a normal metabolism nor a normal psyche. In this sense we can take the theory of compensation as a basic law of psychic behavior. Too little on one side results in too much on the other. Similarly, the relation between conscious and unconscious is compensatory.

This is one of the best-proven rules of dream interpretation. When we set out to interpret a dream, it is always helpful to ask: What conscious attitude does it compensate?

Compensation is not as a rule merely an illusory wish fulfillment, but an actual fact that becomes still more axctual the more we repress it. We do not stop feeling thirsty by repressing our thirst. In the same way, the dream-content is to be regarded with due seriousness as an actuality that has to be fitted into the conscious attitude as a codetermining factor. If we fail to do this, we merely persist in that eccentric frame of mind which evoked the unconscious compensation in the first place. It is then difficult to see how we can ever arrive at a sane judgment of ourselves or at a balanced way of living.

. . .

“Mother” is an archetype and refers to the place of origin, to nature, to that which passively creates, hence to substance and matter, to materiality, the womb, the vegetative functions. It also means the unconscious, our natural and instinctive life, the physiological realm, the body in which we dwell or are contained; for the “mother” is also the matrix, the hollow form, the vessel that carries and nourishes, and it thus stands psychologically for the foundations of consciousness.

Being inside or contained in something also suggests darkness, something nocturnal and fearful, hemming one in. These allusions give the idea of the mother in many of its mythological and etymological variants; they also represent an important part of the Yin idea in Chinese philosophy. It is a collective inheritance, alive and recorded in language, inherited along with the structure of the psyche and therefore to be found at all times and among all peoples.

The word “mother,” which sounds so familiar, apparently refers to the best-known, the individual mother–to “my mother.” But the mother-symbol points to a darker background which eludes conceptual formulation and can only be vaguely apprehended by the hidden, nature-bound life of the body. Yet even this is too narrow and excludes too many vital subsidiary meanings.

The underlying, primary psychic reality is so inconceivably complex that it can be grasped only at the farthest reach of intuition, and then but very dimly. That is why it needs symbols.