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Jung, the shadow, and synchronicity

goodshepardI’ve spent a pleasant couple of days reading Carl Jung, looking particularly at his ideas on the shadow and how symbols can act as mediators between the unconscious and conscious. The reading is in preparation for a Radio 4 thing I’m doing tomorrow, part of its History of Ideas series. The theme for the next show is ‘who am I?’, with various people exploring various angles (Locke, Sartre, Descartes, and me on depth psychology).

I’m focusing on Jung’s idea of the shadow, because I think it’s such a great idea, and because it meant a lot to me when recovering from PTSD. Briefly, Jung though that civilisation and adulthood require us to construct masks to win the approval of others – which he called the persona. To create these masks, we repress and hide all the bits of us we think are shameful or primitive, which become a daemonic part of our psyche called the shadow. However, our psyche resists this dissociation, and the shadow ends up haunting us, tripping us up, and demanding our attention and care. We have to let go of our personae and accept our shadow-selves, if we are to move to maturity.

When I had PTSD, I couldn’t handle being so traumatized, because it was a threat to my persona, so I hid it and hid myself whenever I felt down. When I was at my most dissociated, I had a series of nightmares in which I was pursued by a beggar / tramp / escaped madman. Eventually, I managed to ‘come to terms’ with this madman in my dreams, although it took me a lot longer to come to terms with my shadow-self in reality. In fact, it took a near-fatal accident for that reconciliation to take place.

In the months following that accident, I started to research this figure of the beggar / wildman / shadow, and its appearance as an archetype or ‘transcendent symbol’ in western culture. It’s everywhere, and often appears as a symbol of our exiled or cut-off inner or spiritual life, at moments when culture is becoming obsessed with masks and appearances. Jung thought the psyche is self-regulating – if it becomes too artificial, the unconscious sends out archetypes to call it back into harmony. Something similar happens at the societal level – if civilization becomes too artificial and image-obsessed, nature sends out archetypes to possess artists, to call civilization back into a better spiritual harmony.

OasGYZDCRAiApHS9TTFq_360-trampThe great example of this artist-as-spiritual-thermostat is Sophocles. In his last play, he confronts the optimistic, polite, civilized, rational, extrovert Athenian enlightenment with its shadow – with the terrifying exile figure of Oedipus, who has been cast out from his society and who wanders old and blind in the wilderness. Sophocles made his society see that Oedipus, although the shadow of Athenian civilization, has some moral qualities which Athenian liberal civilization increasingly lacked – integrity, authenticity, respect for the Gods. If we lose touch with these deeper spiritual values, he warns us, we will become empty, morally lost, cut off from the deepest springs of our being. We need to see the good in Oedipus, overcome our fear and revulsion, recognize the shadow, welcome the stranger.

I’m not sure how I’m going to get all that into a ten minute radio discussion, but that’s the broad idea.

Anyway, this morning, I dragged myself to church. It really took an effort. I don’t like church much. I struggle with Christianity in general, the dogma, the certainty. I also struggle with the collectivism of church – who are these people? What do I have in common with them? Why can’t I just meditate at home on my own? Well, I dragged myself along.

The vicar, Dave Tomlinson, gave a sermon that was all about the concept of the shadow in Jungian psychology, and how we need to welcome the stranger within us to become whole. Dave spoke of how the shadow might appear as the primitive, shameful or ‘goat-like’ parts of us, but how our inner goat often also brings great creativity, if we can integrate it without being overwhelmed by it – he illustrated this with the beautiful icon shown above, showing the Good Shepherd embracing the goat!. One of the service readings was a poem by Derek Walcott, about this idea of welcoming the stranger within us (you can read it below).

This sort of coincidence happens quite often. Two weeks ago, in my newsletter, I complained that the BBC never does any programmes on religious ecstasy. Two days later, radio 4 broadcast a great programme all about religious ecstasy.

What do these coincidences mean? Three possible answers. Firstly, and perhaps most probably, they’re just coincidences. I often go to sermons and they’re not about what I happen to be researching. Secondly, less probably, everything that is happening is a dream of mine – hence the strange concordance between my inner concerns and outer reality. You’re all figures in my dream, and for all I know it I’m in a coma.

Thirdly – and this is the theory I’m most convinced by – reality is some sort of collective dream, in which the conscious and the unconscious are related in ways we don’t fully understand. Consciousness, as Jung put it, is a small island on an ocean of unconsciousness, and this ocean of unconsciousness is collective – we are connected together, in ways we don’t understand, though we can sometimes notice connections, coincidences, ‘elective affinities’, between people and places, and also between times – to the unconscious there is no such thing as past and future.

We are connected, our dreams are connected, just as Anna Karenina and her lover, Count Vronsky, happen to dream the same dream in Tolstoy’s novel – their fates are connected. And what was the dream? A terrifying beggar.

Here’s the poem by Derek Walcott. It’s called Love after Love:

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.


My top ten tramps in literature and culture

I was watching Rev the other day. It’s a sitcom about a beleaguered inner-city priest, played by Tom Hollander. This series, Rev has been facing all kinds of trials. In the Easter episode, things get really bad. Adam’s reputation is rock-bottom, his church is facing closure, and he finds himself on a hill overlooking London, where he meets God in the form of a tramp, played by Liam Neeson. It’s a lovely moment (sorry for the crap picture quality):

As it happens, I’ve always been interested in the idea / symbol / archetype of the tramp as a messenger from the spirit-world. This interest (or, if you prefer, obsession) started when I was 19 and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I had a series of nightmares about a tramp. In my dreams, the tramp went from being a mortal enemy, to being someone I had to rescue, and someone who in turn could heal me. I’ve never had dreams that have felt so significant before or since.

Jung suggests that the wounded or dissociated parts of our psyche – what he called the Shadow – can appear to us in our dreams in the form of a tramp. They represent the refuse of our psyche – the bits we have refused to acknowledge because they seem shameful, barbaric or uncouth. The Shadow is frightening to us because it’s a threat to our Personae, to the masks of civility we present to others. But if we have the courage to face the Shadow, and to recognize it as a part of us, then it can bring us healing, wholeness, and grace.

This archetype of the Holy Tramp – a marginal figure who somehow redeems individuals or even whole civilizations when they have become caught up in image and status – comes up again and again in myth, religion and culture. Just as the Shadow appears in our dreams when we have become cut off from our deeper self, so it seems to appear to artist-prophets, who then present their society with its Shadow to remind them of the spirit-world they are losing contact with.

Here, in a Buzzfeed sort of way, are my top ten sacred tramps from western literature. This is a fairly idiosyncratic list, and I apologise now for leaving Huckleberry Finn off it!

1) Oedipus

In Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles presented his Athenian audience with a nightmare figure – Oedipus the tramp, thrown out from the city of Thebes for killing his father and marrying his mother (without realizing they were his parents). He has no home, no possessions, no friends, no citizenship. He is a sort of shadow of his former self. He represents the worst-case scenario for his audience – total ostracism.

And yet Sophocles suggests that Oedipus has something his audience has lost. Oedipus has endured the wrath of the Gods out in the wilderness, and as a result he has gained a sort of inner power, or charisma. This charisma brings blessings to whoever has the strength to see through his loathsome exterior to the divine power within. At the end of the play, Oedipus strips off the rags that he wears, and is transformed into a God. It’s a beautiful moment of quasi-Christian redemption, quite rare in ancient tragedy.

2) Eros / Cupid

In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates describes Eros as ‘a daemon’, intermediate between the gods and men, conveying to the gods the prayers of humans, and conveying to humans the ‘commands and rewards of the gods’. Daemons or messengers appear to humans, Socrates says, through prophecy and dreams. And Eros, contrary to popular art, actually looks like a tramp.

Plato writes: ‘he is always poor, and anything but tender and fair, as the many imagine him; and he is hard-featured and squalid, and has no shoes, nor a house to dwell in; on the bare earth exposed he lies under the open heaven, in the streets or at the doors of houses, taking his rest.’

Eros, then, is the soul in exile, battered and bruised, dressed in rags – to all accounts loathsome. But actually, beneath the unpromising exterior, he is an immortal messenger, for those with the wisdom to recognize it. This relates to Socrates – also ugly on the outside but with amazing spiritual treasures on the inside. It also taps into a tradition in Greek religion that Zeus sometimes appears as a tramp or outsider (Zeus Xenos) to test how kind people are to the marginal or outsiders. To those who welcome the tramp in, great blessings are given. To those who drive the tramp out come curses.

The myth of Cupid and Psyche, by the by, which first appears in Apuleius’ Golden Ass, can be read as a Platonic allegory of the divided psyche’s attempt to unite and heal itself. Psyche is betrothed to a loathsome monster who turns out actually  to be a gorgeous demi-god. It inspired the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, also about a daemonic monster transformed by love and sacrifice, and perhaps inspired many other stories of ‘monsters transformed by love / endurance / atonement’ – such as Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.

3) Diogenes the Cynic

diogenesThe tramp-as-divine-messenger archetype was embraced as a way of life by Diogenes the Cynic, who lived in a barrel in the Athenian marketplace to show to Athenians how little one needed to be happy. ‘Men might be happy, but such is their madness, they choose to be miserable’, he declared.

Civilization just makes us anxious and neurotic, terrified of public shame and desperate for public approval. Diogenes has liberated himself from that – he lives according to nature. Anything he does in private (going to the loo, masturbating) he is happy to do in public. He destroys the wall between his private self and public mask, thereby freeing himself from shame and self-division.

4) St Augustine and the beggar of Milan

In Book VI of his Confessions, Augustine is am ambitious young orator in Milan, on his way to a competition, eaten up with nerves about whether he will win or not. On his way, he walks past a beggar: ‘Already drunk, he was joking and laughing.’ This makes Augustine think of the vanity of worldly ambition as a route to happiness. ‘That beggar was [happy] already, while perhaps we would never achieve it…There was no question that he was happy while I was racked with anxiety.’ The encounter with the tramp is the beginning of Augustine looking beyond fame and ambition to try and find a more inwardly-substantial happiness, centred in God.

5) St Francis and the leper

There is a long tradition of ecstatic beggars in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and probably many other religions. One of the most famous was St Francis, the playboy son of a rich silk merchant. One day, Francis was riding along, and he came across a leper. Francis decided this was ‘Jesus incognitio’, and he leapt off his horse and embraced the leper, which must have been a surprise for the leper. Francis then had a vision of Christ, telling him to embrace poverty in order to renew the church. This he did. His father is furious at him for giving away his inheritance, so he hauls Francis in front of the local bishop, who insists he give back his father’s possessions. Unperturbed, Francis strips off his clothes and hands them to the bishop. He carried on preaching poverty and love to humans and animals, and inspired the Franciscan Order, still going today.

6) Rumi and Shams Al-Tabriz

Another famous mendicant order was the Dervishes, a group of vagabonds founded by the mystic poet Rumi in the 13th century. Rumi was a celebrated Islamic scholar, who one day encountered a vagabond in the marketplace called Shams. They embraced and developed an intense spiritual (and possibly sexual) friendship, before Rumi’s followers killed Shams out of jealousy. Rumi fell into a depression, and then suddenly felt spiritually re-connected to Shams. He started to whirl, rotating slowly to attain a state of ecstasy, and began to recite lines and lines of immensely beautiful poetry.

Much of this ecstatic poetry is about encountering the Stranger – a marginal, sometimes frightening figure who calls us back to our immortality. We must, Rumi suggests, let go of the things of this world, of our desire for fame and respectability, in order to recognize the Stranger and remember who we are. Our troubles and even the figures in our nightmares are sometimes messengers sent from the Stranger, from the God within us. Rumi writes:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

7) The Blind Beggar in Wordsworth’s Prelude

Beggars and vagabonds are a big feature of Romantic poetry, where they often represent the dignity, freedom and even divinity of rustic poverty, as opposed to the superficiality and imprisonment of the industrial city. Wordsworth, in particular, seemed to see beggars as holy figures, partly because they touch the hearts of other people with sympathy, and partly because they seem – as for Sophocles, Plato and Rumi – to be messengers from beyond. One instance of this is in Book Seven of the Prelude, when Wordsworth is in London, and is momentarily dazzled by the glamour of London affluence. Then he catches sight of the beggar, and it returns him to himself:

Amid the moving pageant, ‘twas my chance
Abruptly to be smitten with the view
Of a blind Beggar, who, with upright face,
Stood propp’d against a Wall, upon his Chest
Wearing a written paper, to explain
The story of the Man, and who he was.
My mind did at this spectacle turn round
As with the might of waters, and it seem’d
To me that in this Label was a type
Or emblem, of the utmost that we know,
Both of ourselves and of the universe;
And, on the shape of the unmoving man,
His fixed face and sightless eyes,I look’d
As if admonish’d from another world.

I love that phrase: ‘a type / Or emblem, of the utmost that we know / Both of ourselves and of the universe’.

8) Magwitch from Great Expectations

1Dickens also had a deep sympathy for the Outsider, the Stranger, the marginalized and forgotten figures of Victorian society. In Great Expectations, Pip has gone from country bumpkin to London gentleman thanks to a fortune bequeathed to him by a mysterious benefactor. Living surrounded by wealth and status, he has become embarrassed by his bumpkin origins.

Then, one day, he realizes he owes his wealth to an escaped convict called Magwitch, who he helped when he was a boy. Pip is faced with the choice between abandoning Magwitch or standing by him – and losing his reputation as a gentleman. Pip takes pity on the old tramp, and stands by him. He puts authenticity and compassion before the approval of other people.

9) The Little Tramp

During the Great Depression, tramps loomed large in western culture, whether in George Orwell’s Down and Out In Paris and London, or John Steinbeck’s stories of vagrants, bohos and itinerant workers. But the most magical tramp from that era is surely Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp – a ridiculous figure, but also plucky, kind, and with his own dignity. How many millions of people were helped through their troubles in the Depression by learning to laugh at and have compassion for the Little Tramp? What consolation and healing he brought!

10) The Fisher King

Coming in to our own era, the tramp has a particularly magical / alchemical role in the films of Terry Gilliam. Gilliam’s films are filled with broken and divided heroes longing for healing, and the tramp is sometimes a messenger of healing. In The Fisher King, Jeff Bridges’ character is a once-powerful media star who has fallen on hard times. He meets a tramp, played by Robin Williams, who is a bit mad but also quite sweet. The tramp is obsessed with Arthurian myths, and with trying to find the Holy Grail. Eventually, the two find it, sort of, and both find healing and grace. Robin Williams comes back from his exile in the wilderness, while Jeff Bridges, by taking pity on the tramp, finds a more authentic and ethical way to live.

11) Mulholland Drive

And finally, as a free bonus, and just to remind ourselves that the Shadow / Stranger / Outsider / Tramp is often a terrifying and nightmarish archetype, here’s the freaky beggar from David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, a film all about what happens when we get lost in our personae, and the figures from our nightmares start to impinge on our waking reality.

So that’s it for the top ten tramps. I know I’ve missed some out – Jean Renoir’s Boudou Saved From Drowning, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Eddie Murphy from Trading Places, and all the holy tramps who appear in Oscar Wilde’s short stories. Who are your favourite tramps?

The point I want to make is that I think the tramp figure may be some sort of daemonic messenger from the collective unconscious / God, sent to us when we have become lost in the masque of status, to bring us back to wholeness and spiritual equilibrium. The question is, do we have the courage to face it?

PS Since publishing this, people have reminded me of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot – definitely tramps, not so definitely holy. Poor Tom in King Lear is a better candidate – Lear is redeemed, perhaps, by taking pity on the outcast. And apparently God appears as a tramp in Irvine Welsh’ Acid House. Quote: “That c*nt Nietzsche wis wide ay the mark whin he said I wis deid”