On the movements of the collective unconscious

Robert Musil was one of the great masters of imaginative metaphor, and he captured very well the notion that much of what drives our psychology is both collective and unconscious — difficult to be aware of from the point of view of individual consciousness:

The train of time is a train which rolls out its own tracks ahead of itself. The flow of time is a river which carries its own banks along. The traveller moves between firm walls, on firm ground; but ground and walls are imperceptively moved along by the movements of the travellers in a most vivacious manner.


Der Zug der Zeit ist ein Zug, der seine Schienen vor sich her rollt. Der Fluß der Zeit ist ein Fluß, der seine Ufer mitführt. Der Mitreisende bewegt sich zwischen festen Wänden auf festem Boden; aber Boden und Wände werden von den Bewegungen der Reisenden unbemerklich auf das lebhafteste mitbewegt.

Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften I, 445.

To appreciate the aptness of the imagery here: “our” time, variously assimilated to a train or a flow may itself be moving, but its movements are made up from collective action — action that is both characterized as most lebhaft and yet imperceptible to the individuals who make up the collective; the individuals themselves are not under the illusion of taking individual action: those actions are real, but they are not all that happens, for there is a collective movement as well — but that is generally difficult to realize from their points of view. Both the train’s tracks and the river’s banks are aspects of the collective (not given from the outside), and thus in some sense products of the human species, but at the same time curiously out of reach for any individual perception and will.

By Leif Frenzel

Leif Frenzel is a writer and independent researcher. He has a background in philosophy, literature, music, and information technology. His recent interest is Jungian psychology, especially synchronicities and the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious.

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