The House as Mirror of the Psyche

Ina RH at Unsplash

In his autobiography, Memories, Dreams and Reflections, the Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung records a remarkable dream: he has entered a house with many rooms and many levels, each one corresponding to a different layer of human history.  

I was in a house I did not know, which had two storeys. It was “my house.” I found myself in the upper storey, where there was a kind of salon furnished with fine old pieces in Rococo style. On the walls hung a number of precious old paintings. I wondered that this should be my house and thought “not bad.”  But then it occurred to me that I did not know what the lower floor looked like. Descending the stairs, I reached the ground floor. There everything was much older. I realised that this part of the house must date from about the fifteenth or sixteenth century. The furnishings were mediaeval, the floors were of red brick. Everywhere it was rather dark. I went from one room to another thinking “now I really must explore the whole house.” I came upon a heavy door and opened it. Beyond it, I discovered a stone stairway that led down into a cellar. Descending again, I found myself in a beautifully vaulted room which looked exceedingly ancient. Examining the walls, I discovered layers of brick among the ordinary stone blocks, and chips of brick in the mortar. As soon as I saw this, I knew that the walls dated from Roman times. My interest by now was intense. I looked more closely at the floor. It was of stone slabs and in one of these I discovered a ring. When I pulled it, the stone slab lifted and again I saw a stairway of narrow stone steps leading down to the depths. These, too, I descended and entered a low cave cut into rock. Thick dust lay on the floor and in the dust were scattered bones and broken pottery, like remains of a primitive culture. I discovered two human skulls, obviously very old, and half disintegrated. Then I awoke. (MDR, p 58)

For Jung, the home was everything.  It provided both a map of our collective evolution and a description of the individual psyche.   The salon, or upper storey, represents the face one presents to the world.  The lower level represents the ideas we inherit from our ancestors and the culture.  The basement, the vault and the cave, contain more primitive states of being—our  unconscious urges, dreams and desires, the raw emotions of which we have little awareness and even less control. 

 While Freud had a hydraulic image of the psyche, with eros or the phallus as the driving force, Jung’s model was architectural.  He saw rooms and stairwells, leading to different states of consciousness.   

The Outer House: Jung's home near Zurich where he saw patients and entertained his colleagues. By Roland zh - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

It is worth noting that Jung had two houses, each representing a different part of his personality.   The grand one in Kusnacht, shared with his wife, Emma and their children, had handsome furniture, stained glass windows and rich carpets, and reflected his growing stature as a physician and psychiatrist.   In this airy, spacious place, he received his patients and colleagues, in his role as the doctor, the problem-solver and idea-man.   On a lake some 20 miles southwest, was his retreat at Bollingen where he communed with a much older sense of self.   Jung built much of this place by hand, using local stone and tools from the middle ages.  The house was isolated, primitive.  This is where Jung withdrew after his break with Freud, and later, following the death of his wife.   Its most remarkable element is the tower Jung added to the building as he entered old age.  

The Inner House: Jung's retreat on Lake Bollingen. By Andrew Taylor from Devizes, UK - C.G.Jung's Tower House Retreat, BollingenUploaded by Viejo sabio, CC BY-SA 2.0,

“From the beginning,” he wrote, “I felt the Tower was in some way a place of maturation … in which I could become what I was, what I am and will be.”   To the last, it remained a deeply private place, providing Jung with a place to incubate his own memories, dreams, and reflections,  and helping him to attain a deep sense of peace.

A house, like the human psyche, has two components—a  façade and an interior, one corresponding to the public self and the other to the private self.  For Jung, homemaking was the perfect metaphor for the integration of the personality—the way we attempt to bring our outer lives into harmony with our innermost desires.  

At Bollingen for part of every year, surviving without heat, electricity or running water,  Jung relished his household routines.  Here, he said, “I am in the midst of my true life.  I am most deeply myself.”  This is  Jung speaking toward the end of his career, when he no longer has to prove himself.  By now, he has moved from the House of Achievement to the House of Eternity, where he cares more about the fate of the world than his own ambition and accomplishments.  

Jung is writing from the perspective of that second house when he says:

  “We rush impetuously into novelty, driven by a mounting sense of insufficiency, dissatisfaction, and restlessness.  We no longer live on what we have, but on promises…We refuse to recognize that everything better is purchased at the price of something worse.…new methods or gadgets, are of course impressive at first, but in the long run they are dubious and…dearly paid for.  They, by no means, increase the contentment or happiness of people on the whole.  Mostly they are deceptive sweetenings of existence, like speedier communications which unpleasantly accelerate the tempo of life and leave us with less time than ever before.” (MDR, p 236)

Modern life, Jung felt, was a distraction from the house that we were all meant to  build—the house of reflection, on the shores of a secluded lake.

By Philipp Roelli, Dieter Bachmann (photograph) - Own work (photograph), CC BY-SA 3.0,

When Jung oversaw the building of the tower he was drawn to a certain slab, and said, “This is my stone.”  He sat with it and listened for its message before carving these words in Latin.   

 “I am an orphan, alone yet encountered everywhere, single yet opposed to myself, young and old at the same time, neither father nor mother did I know, for I am to be raised from the depth in likeness of the Fish, or I descend from heaven like the White Stone, through groves and mountains do I wander, yet I hide in innermost man, am mortal within every single head, and still am not touched by the changing of the seasons.”

For Jung, this was a tribute to the philosopher’s stone of ancient alchemy.   The fish is a symbol of the spiritual life. “I am mortal within every head” is a line from Horace referring to the divine genius in every individual.

Bollingen was a place to meditate on the way that wisdom comes into this world. 

Recommended Reading

Memories Dreams Reflections by C.G. Jung
House as a Mirror of Self: Exploring the Deeper Meaning of Home by Claire Cooper Marcus

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