Danish children's television producer John Kenn Mortensen draws monsters on Post-it notes in his spare time under the alias Don Kenn. Obviously influenced by Edward Gorey, Mortensen's monsters are not Victorian or Edwardian, rather they are situated in the unconscious of the Millennial world, around suicide, child abuse, bullies, nightmares, a vengeful natural environment, ghosts of the past, and dreamlike beasts. Mortensen has a talent for capturing moments of extreme vulnerability and isolation in mundane circumstances, whether that involves nosy neighbours or a hike up a mountain. He also depicts situations in the everyday world where dangerous energy has accumulated. Some of Mortensen's Post-its remind me of Final Destination films, in which scares depend on hair-trigger coincidences, a vase left by a windowsill, a kettle boiling over near a sparking plug, the conversion of potential energy into kinetic energy.
To shed light on the messages behind Mortensen's doodles, consider the great Viennese psychoanalysts from the turn of the last century. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) argued that most horrors stemmed from repressed sexuality. Alfred Adler (1870-1937) claimed they came from the will to power as an individual violently molded his or her personality. Adler's ideas inspired a typology to classify personalities as 'getters and learners'; 'avoiders' who are overtly successful but never take risks; 'leaders or dominants'; and the 'socially useful.'
Finally, Carl Jung (1875-1961), founder of the school of analytical psychology, believed that monsters emerged from conflicting opposites in our natures, some of which were confined to individual perception, some of which were universally shared. Jung defined these opposites as the conscious and unconscious, and hypothesized that in western culture, consciousness (associated with Freud's Ego) was dominated by thinking and sensory sensation. The remaining two impulses - emotional feelings and intuition - were repressed and driven underground into the western unconscious. In this way, a stark line was drawn in the west between body and heart. Even now, decades after Jung's death, those who bring elements of the psyche into the material world are deemed in the west to be artistic (at best) or insane (at worst). This was not the case, according to Jung, in eastern cultures. He ignored the "modernized east," but his work on traditional eastern religions and texts led him to conclude that the eastern cultures widely accept "psychic reality."
The unconscious - a pool of symbols shared by all cultures - became a paradox in the west. It could be harnessed and applied to creative endeavours and innovation. Or it could be repressed and unleashed to deal with threats. The Jungian western unconscious turned upon itself during the two World Wars; aimed outward, it could prove a hidden reserve of violent ruthlessness to ensure the survival of western societies. Either way, Jungian theory indicated that westerners remain obsessed with exploiting the constructive and destructive power of polarities. They define themselves in terms of inclusion and exclusion, in terms of an inner world and an outer world, ever mindful of the walls between.
Jung's theory about western survival began with his observations of individuals in whom feeling and intuition were relegated to a secondary unconscious personalities. A hidden shadow personality could become autonomous, especially when the individual was stressed. Joseph Campbell, Jungian scholar and editor of The Portable Jung, writes:
"During states of semi-somnambulism or preoccupation, such autonomous elements may assume control, producing 'automatisms' ... hallucinatory visions, sensations, or voices (which may be interpreted as spirits), automatic movements, writings, etc. If the composition of such an autonomous complex becomes ... reinforced ... a second, 'unconscious' personality can be built up, which can then, under releasing conditions, take over. ... [Jung then] put forward a[nother] ... idea ... of such a psychological disturbance as ... [being] transitional under crisis, protective yet pointing forward, giving the individual, who would otherwise inevitably succumb to threatening circumstance, 'the means to victory.'"So, in this schema, under stress, one's secondary unconscious self will start driving the car (i.e. the personality) in self-defense. Things get hairy before they get better, but Jung promised a way out for those who harnessed their innermost fears and demons. This point is recognized in western horror films, where the person who emerges from the psychic battle is known as 'the girl who survives.' There is a cautionary note here: victory is not guaranteed if one persists in being blind and making only 'safe' rational decisions. The more safely Dr. Jekyll plays it, the more likely, ironically, that he will end up out of control as Mr. Hyde.
Image Source: Carl Jung Depth Psychology.
In Jungian analysis, the rites of passage and stages of an individual's life reflect a psychological hero's journey. Marriage is also an epic psychological progress. The critical test of both journeys (a development of the self, and a development between the self and another) is the arrival of the unconscious self in the conscious world. You may love your spouse's conscious self just fine. But the unconscious self who shows up later? Not so much. In moments of crisis, the unconscious self will come forward to defend an individual by drawing on the untapped or suppressed resources of the psyche. This can be unnerving, as the individual will find him- or herself behaving in a way he or she would never normally do. Jung gave a name to the transitional shift between anyone's Jekyll and Hyde, or between the conscious and unconscious selves: enantiodromia. Enantiodromia meant that one's dominant personality had unwittingly unleashed its opposite, a fearsome guardian of blanked-out memories, anxieties, rage, lust, and instinct. By trying to control everything and confine acceptable psychological experiences to rational thought and physical sensations, Dr. Jekyll makes Mr. Hyde, a creature of primal emotions and intuition. This secondary personality often appears in western horror stories as a paranormal twin, double or Doppelgänger.
Jung wanted to understand how the beleaguered individual might strike a balance between rational and irrational impulses. Jung claimed that paranoid schizophrenics were completely lost in the collective unconscious and could not anchor themselves in the conscious world. Acknowledging the unconscious while not losing a grip of reality was tricky because ultra-sane rationalizations could end in delusion. Schizophrenics sought balance, but they rationalized unconscious phenomena, believing they had anchored themselves when they were in fact unmoored. A sane individual would gamble and face pitfalls, unleash and confront his hidden side, and would learn when and where to draw a line, accepting outside limits while not completely repressing inner demons.
This challenge is recognized today in popular culture. If you have not seen Blair Witch (see here), spoilers follow.
An example of false rationalization of the unconscious comes in the twist ending of The Blair Witch Project (1999), in which the girl who survives is not Heather Donahue but rather the Blair Witch. In a moment of enantiodromia, one could say that the main character Heather is, or becomes, or is consumed by, the Blair Witch. Only her film, the found footage The Blair Witch Project, survives to tell her story. This cautionary tale warns: your shadow self can consume you if you cannot find a balance between primal urges on the one hand and, on the other hand, conscious rationality and physical reality.
In Blair Witch, the characters would survive if only Heather would stop making her movie, and stop trying to rationalize and control a situation which is completely beyond her; if only she would admit defeat and pack up her cameras, she and her friends could leave the woods immediately. One of the first sentences out of her mouth is, "Some essential reading, How to Stay Alive in the Woods, because you never know what's going to happen." The townsfolk in the opening scenes warn that the danger in the hills is real: "I don't go up there. I believe enough not to go up there." Both male characters tell Heather she needs to stop filming and she refuses to listen. This is the perverse advice from the character Mike when he throws away Heather's map. He endangers them, but he also destroys the illusion that Heather is in control. Heather's rage when he does this shows what is beneath her rational surface; the monster inside her compels her to take them further into danger while promising to lead them to safety. Blair Witch gave audiences an outcome more terrifying than the Halloween franchise. In the latter films, Jamie Lee Curtis's character, Laurie Strode, is intimately connected to the monster Michael Myers, but she triumphs over him, escapes, and survives.
For Jung, patients in western asylums manifested underlying unconscious personalities in self-defense to ensure their survival. Based on readings of Plato, he wanted to know how their individual struggles connected to the general psychological human condition, and even the general survival of the human collective psyche. He believed that mental patients, in their madness, were gaining access to the huge, untapped psychic pool of the collective unconscious.
Jung could have left it there, in the realm of measured and theoretical scholarship. Instead, he embarked on a frightening personal effort to pin down the precise moments of enantiodromia and subsequent points of access from the individual unconscious to the collective unconscious. This research eventually made him the darling of occult circles because he applied systemic analyses to the most disorderly aspects of human existence. He also transcended subjectivity and situated the wild parts of our nature in an objective awareness external to the individual mind. This was a way out of the self-enclosed solipsism and infinite relativism which haunted other thinkers of the 20th century. Jung's Aristotelian critics disliked his Platonic jump to the level of universal objective forms; but Jung's concepts went beyond the simple western argument between Aristotelian matter and Platonic ideals. Jung had laid the groundwork for today's New Age syntheses of western psychology and eastern spiritualism.
Many New Age ideas emerged just before and during the First World War. Due to Swiss neutrality, Zurich saw many great figures come and go through this period. Jung was joined in Zurich by James Joyce, Albert Einstein, Vladimir Lenin, Hugo Ball, Richard Huelsenbeck, Hans Arp and Tristan Tzara, as the war oddly inspired a flowering of intellectual and spiritual activities. Similar to poet W. B. Yeats's arcane response to the same conflict, Jung believed that the cataclysm of World War I enabled him to enter the collective unconscious. Jung's exploration of the psyche's portals into the collective unconscious began with 1913 premonitions of war, which he catalogued in a private tome called The Red Book. His drawings from this investigation were so frightening that his family (ironically) suppressed the material until it was finally published in 2009. This shows that Jung's work was nearly a century ahead of his time. Debates continue on whether he rationalized the unconscious and got lost in it, à la Heather Donahue, or whether he retained his balance as a scientist. Perhaps he did both. His illuminated drawings of his excursions into the collective unconscious are sold in a separate Red Book edition of illustrated plates. You can see Jung's illustrations here, here, here, here and here.
Ghost stories and horror films confirm that there are better ways of exploring the submerged parts of our nature. Jung hypothesized that world literature told the same stories over and over, reciting the archetypal elements of universal objective symbolism required for the human species to survive in all times and places. Some scientists have expanded this idea to argue that every species has a collective mindset which ensures its survival. The human mindset specifically needs archetypes such as the Warrior, the Goddess, the Wise Old Man and the Wounded Healer. There are dozens of such symbols and archetypal stories, evident in sources as diverse as the tarot deck or yoga poses ('sun salutation,' 'the cobra,' 'the wheel,' 'the dolphin,' 'the downward facing dog,' 'humble warrior,' etc.). All artists describe or challenge these archetypes to support and protect their respective societies. No matter who we are, no matter what culture we inhabit (eastern or western), we collectively read the same mythical survival manual again and again. The symbols are highlighted in astrological succession: each season of the year permits ritualistic story-telling around different archetypes. During the harvest and up to Hallowe'en, we indulge in stories about survival in which the shadow self comes forth to threaten us; it then retreats into the background once a hero or heroine has figured out how to tame it, transforming it into a figure of protection.
- For reference, see: J. Campbell, The Portable Jung (NY: Viking Penguin, 1971), xii-xiii, xxv, xxvi, 486-487.
- Don Kenn's blog is here, his site here, a fan page here; a video shows him at work here.
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