This is the second piece in a series on a nightmare tramp figure who appeared in my dreams when I was 20. The first piece is here.
The tramp figure in my dreams goes to the heart of a disagreement between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.
Freud’s model of the unconscious was based around his theory of the Oedipus Complex. Inspired by Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Freud believed that our unconscious was the repository of the taboo childhood impulse to kill our fathers and have sex with our mothers (or vice versa for girls). These repressed murderous impulses were always in our unconscious, Freud believed, and there is no legal way to satisfy them. As a result, civilisation would always be plagued by ‘discontents’. We would always be divided, unhappy, frustrated beings. However, we could escape the worst of our neuroses by having a long course of psychoanalysis, which would lead us to the consolatory recognition that we wanted to kill our fathers and have sex with our mothers (or vice versa for girls). The acceptance of this would go some way to relieving our psychic tension. If we couldn’t afford several years of psychoanalysis, we could at least find some consolation in loving a mother or father substitute (our husbands and wives) and in devoting ourselves to work.
Jung also believed that the cause of much of our unhappiness is psychic repression. However, he believed that Freud’s theory of the Oedipus Complex was too reductive. He put forward an alternative theory, of the Shadow. Every person has an unconscious shadow, made up of all the parts of themselves which they hide from public view. We put a great deal of energy into our public mask, our persona, and ruthlessly bury anything which doesn’t fit that persona. The repression is both conscious and unconscious. The elements we hide away are not necessarily incestuous or murderous. In fact, we might hide away anything which makes us look weak, or ugly, or wounded, or repulsive.
What we hide away depends on our culture, and what it deems shameful and unacceptable. Every civilisation casts a shadow. It requires people to be ‘civilised’, which means controlling and repressing parts of them that are culturally deemed primitive. We must learn to control our bodily functions, the way we appear, the way we smell. We must also control our emotions, not be too angry, or too happy, or too sad. To be accepted into the polis (the city), we must learn to be polite, urbane, civilised.To be civilised is to live in an iron cage of civility, a cage whose bars are the judgements and opinions of other people. Learning to live in this cage takes a great deal of psychic effort, from learning to be potty-trained to learning to do a Power-Point presentation. Civilisation is a continuous performance in front of a merciless audience. And the shadow is all the shameful parts of us that we keep ‘off-stage’. All the shit.
We can repress the aspects of our nature that are deemed uncouth or savage. But we can never entirely cut ourselves loose from them. As Horace said: ‘You can drive nature out with a pitchfork but she will always come back.’ And if we are over-violent in our attempt to cut loose our shadow, if too great a gulf opens up between our persona and shadow (that is, between our inner emotions and the mask we present to the world), then our shadow becomes alienated and demonic, and starts to appear to us as a mortal threat – just like the escaped lunatic with the pistol in my nightmare. And it is a mortal threat, to the polite civilised mask which we have put so much effort into creating. It is a threat to our artificial, civilised self.
I ruthlessly repressed my negative emotions – my panic, my anxiety, my depression – because it didn’t fit with my image of myself as a strong, competent and charming person. But as a result, I became haunted by my shadow.
The fundamental difference between Freud and Jung is that Jung believed we could confront the unconscious side of us and integrate it. We could move from being divided and frustrated beings, to becoming whole. He believed that the shadow was key to this actualisation – and therefore was a figure of great value and healing, if we had the courage to face it. But this takes an act of moral courage, to let go of our artificial persona and accept the humiliating parts of us that we have tried to leave behind in our rush to progress. Only the whole of us can go forward, we can’t leave anyone behind on the platform. We need the shadow to come with us, or there is only so far we can go towards God. So that terrifying shadow in our dreams is actually a messenger from our psyche, trying to heal us and bring us wholeness. This is, obviously, a much more optimistic and mystical vision of the psyche than Freud’s Oedipus Complex.
Jung believed the shadow sometimes appeared in people’s dreams, particularly if they were repressing too much of themselves behind an overly-artificial persona. The shadow could appear as a wild animal – a monkey, for example – or as a tramp or vagabond figure, representing the ‘refuse’ of our psyche (all the shit we have refused to accept). This was how he appeared to me and, as we shall see, this nightmare tramp figure is a recurring archetype in many great works of art.
Confronting the shadow
The stability and flourishing of a civilisation depends, among other things, on its ability to confront its shadow. Every civilisation develops various means or strategies for its citizens to try to release the psychic tension that builds up from repression of their nature. There are good ways and bad ways of doing this.
The simplest way to relieve the tension is to project the shadow onto someone or something else. Humans feel restless, unhappy, divided and out-of-touch with themselves. They say: the gods of nature are angry with us. We have lost touch with them, we have become alienated and incurred their wrath, and noww they threaten our civilisation with destruction. To placate the gods, we must find a scapegoat, and sacrifice them. This could be an animal, or lots of animals, or a human, or lots of humans. The idea of placating the gods of nature with blood sacrifices is very old and very deep in our nature.
The urge to find a scapegoat and kill them also spills out into politics. We project the shadow of our civilisation onto those outside of it, onto foreigners within our borders (immigrants) or outside of it. We start to think our psychic tension is all their fault, they are the evil ones. We project our shame and self-loathing onto them. We are the shining children of righteousness, they are the savages, the animals, the beasts. We must cast out the beasts, kill them. Only by murdering the outsiders will we free ourselves from the stranger within us. The joy of bloodlust gives us a brief release from the iron cage of civility.
A slightly less violent way to relieve our inner tension is to identify with the shadow. We realize that it’s our civilisation and its uptight and artificial values that are causing our inner divisions, so we decide to drop out. We romanticise the primitives on the borders of our civilisation, and decide they are far more authentic and real than the painted dolls of the big city. We wear ethnic clothing, grow our hair, play the bongos, and generally let it all hang out. We may seek temporary probation from the iron cage of civility through festivals and bacchanalian revels, in which we are briefly allowed to let it all hang out. Or we become ascetics, frowning at the decadence of our civilisation and fingering our prayer-beads. We may even decide that it is necessary to destroy the civilisation that caused our inner divisions: only by tearing down the walls of our civilisation will be free ourselves from the walls within us.
A higher way to relieve the psychic tension is to somehow recognise and take pity on your own shadow through the symbolic realm of myths, rituals and stories. The truly great artist or prophet enables us to have sympathy for the parts of us our civilisation has taught us to fear, by showing us that our civilisation is wrong, that there is nothing necessarily shameful in being weak, or old, or poor, or sick, or unhappy. Great art, or religion, thus re-connects us to experiences or emotions that we have repressed out of a false value system. They re-connect us to our shadow, make us whole again, and bring us a sense of harmony and grace. This takes an act of moral courage on our part – to give up our personae, our false and artificial selves addicted to public approval, and to recognise and accept the damaged and ugly parts of ourselves. Truly great art can help us to do this on the symbolic or unconscious realm. Great artists act as the dreamers for our civilisation, showing us our shadow and teaching us to take pity on it. We’ll examine how great artists have presented their audience with the nightmare figure of the wild man, and taught them have sympathy for him.
Finally, we can work to relieve this inner tension at the conscious, rational level, by choosing not to worry too much what other people think of us, but instead to try and accept ourselves ‘warts and all’. This also takes a lot of moral courage – it means moving from a false self structured entirely towards winning public approval, to a more authentic self structured towards doing the right thing for the sake of your soul or psyche. This, in essence, is what Socrates, Plato, the Cynics and the Stoics taught. They developed a rational way to accept and integrate the shadow, by helping people care less about their personae and more about their soul. As we shall see, their rational philosophy developed out of the mythical and symbolic realm, turning symbolic myths into rational ideas. Later, their ideas and techniques were developed by Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which is also a conscious, rational way to become a more grounded and internally-anchored person.
Both Jungian therapy and CBT, then, are far more optimistic than Freudian psychoanalysis. Both believe that civilized humans are not fated to be divided, frustrated and unhappy creatures, as Freud believed. They both believe that we can learn to renounce our false personae, and gradually become more integrated, responsible and actualised human beings. However, Jung thought this was more likely to happen on the symbolic and unconscious level, while Socrates and CBT suggest this can happen on the conscious, rational and verbal level.
Friedrich Nietzsche, by the by, argued that Socrates and his followers had drastically harmed humanity through over-rationalisation. Nietzsche argued in the Birth of Tragedy that Socrates’ rational philosophy had ended up cutting us off from the mythical realm, so that we no longer had any proper cultural release for our primitive Dionysiac urges. This is not entirely fair, but there is something to it. We are not quite the perfectly rational beings which Socrates suggested we are. We need myths, stories, symbols, music, as well as rational philosophy. Christianity provides – or used to provide – a system that combined both the mythical-symbolic and the rational-philosophical. In that sense, it was a sublime support for our civilisation, offering something both for the head and the heart. As it declines, the risk is that we seize foolishly on new myths, new stories, which don’t serve us nearly as well, and which do not help us to confront and to integrate the shadow of our civilisation.
In the third part of this series, we’ll go back to ancient Greece, and the Oedipus myths, to examine whether Freud or Jung were right.