The Joker and the Shadow

All art intuitively apprehends coming changes in the collective unconsciousness.- Carl Jung

Follow the artists.

You can always tell what neighborhoods are up-and-coming by asking the locals one simple question…

Where are the artists?

Real estate developers even have a name for it… “the SoHo effect.”

It harkens back to 1970s SoHo, when the neighborhood was a trash-littered post-manufacturing bohemian hideaway.

Yet, what was once a (weird and vibrant) artist enclave now boasts some of the most expensive real estate in the world.

Wherever the artists go, culture is sure to follow.

The reason? It’s simple. The artists are the ones who give themselves permission to include what is overlooked and excluded…

To make manifest what is felt or intuited but not yet expressed…

And who have the ability to use the inherent chaos and disturbances of life creatively.

They have the ability to see outside of the limitations set by cultural norms, and venture into the unknown. They possess a freedom we all crave, yet push aside for reasons of reasonableness.

The artist, as Jung put it, “apprehends the coming changes in the collective unconscious.”

In evolutionary theory, there’s growing support for the idea that change happens on the fringes… or “at the margins.”

When two landscapes meet, and one set of living patterns meets another set, it creates friction, a dynamic tension, and exerts a pressure for new things to emerge.

In societies, the artist is the alchemical vessel, holding that tension between the seemingly opposite, and producing out of the conflict a synergistic “third thing” that previously was not made manifest.

This applies to ideas, paradigms, and even a culture’s ethics.

And though our popular culture is endlessly fascinated by the madness of the artist, it all too often creates a distinction between “us” and “them.” Our nature, and the nature of the artist’s creation.

It is the rational observer who looks at the madness from behind a pane of glass, as if protected from its irrational bursts of energy.

With this in mind, there does seem to be today an artist-led rise in popular consciousness of Jungian concepts…

Whether it’s seen in the release of Korean pop-star’s album bearing the name Map of the Soul: Persona (inspired by book of the same name by Jungian Murray Stein)…

Or the release of the Netflix short film Anima, directed and starring Radiohead’s lead singer Thom Yorke…

The trend is becoming more explicit, less ambiguous, and unmistakable.

What does this mean? What are the implications? Will it lead to an integration of crucial Jungian concepts into everyday life?

Or, perhaps…

Does this slow rise in popularity contain within it a danger of diluting Jung’s message?

That’s what we’ll explore today and in the coming issues.

Today, we begin our journey with the hit movie Joker…

And explore how the villain we love to hate has just exposed hundreds of millions of people to one of Jung’s core concepts…


To be sure…

Jung has emerged, directly and indirectly, in popular culture in the past.

Ted Hughes’ 1970’s collection Crow shows his interest in Jungian theory.

Jungian ideas make up a large part of the intellectual foundations of the Earthsea stories, a fantasy series written by Ursula K. Le Guin
The concept of the collective unconscious is one of the cornerstones in the Dune novel series. (Of which a new Dune movie is slated for 2020.)

Jung even appears as a ghost in the novel Between the Bridge and the River by Craig Ferguson. (Jung shows up as a hallucination to one of the main characters.)

But nothing in recent times has truly hit Jung’s concept of the shadow on the head quite like the monstrously popular (and controversial) DC Comics movie Joker.

Order Into Chaos

“I used to think my life was a tragedy,” said Arthur Fleck just before he strangles his mother. “But now, I realize it’s a comedy.”

If we are to look at Arthur through the Jungian lens…

Here we see him ritualistically separating himself from his mother, killing his childish self, and transforming into the Dark Magician — the Joker.

For Jung, separation from mother and separation from childhood are the same thing.

Every child is physically dependent on his or her mother, yet even after this physical dependence has long gone, there still lingers a psychological dependence.

A decisive break with this dependence is crucial in order for the boy to become a man and take responsibility for his own life, which was the explicit reason for the pubertal rites of passage of our ancestors.

So goes the well-known African proverb: If you don’t initiate the boys into the tribe, they’ll come back and burn down the village just to feel the warmth.”

Prior to killing his mother, Fleck is wholly dependent upon his mother’s opinion. He’s such a happy boy, he’s told. He’s here to spread joy. That is his purpose. He is identified with the “good, nice boy” persona.

In his most honest moments, however, he acknowledges he hasn’t been “happy one moment of my entire life.”

This chasm between who he is supposed to be and how he truly feels has created a dissociation — he identifies so strongly with his persona that, when he wants to grieve, he can only laugh.

Thus, we can see where the Shadow side — the Joker — begins to overwhelm and posses him…

Where Joker is amoral, detached, and strangely charismatic…

Fleck is a people-pleaser, a wimp, a timid little boy trapped in a man’s body who just needs a hug from his dad.

Where Joker is cold and emotionless…

Fleck is overwhelmed by his emotions, tormented by his uncontrollable laughter, and unable to muster up a genuine smile.

Where Joker embraces and even loves his dark thoughts and fantasies…

Fleck runs away from them at full speed, unable to stuff them down deep enough. (Yet, repression never works and repressed contents always find a way to “slip” out.)

Where Joker airs his grievances freely…

Fleck is a doormat for his boss, strangers, and co-workers.

Joker knows people think he’s bad and he doesn’t care.

Fleck believes he is good and pure and innocent and was “put here to spread joy and laughter.”

Fleck is afraid to cause disruption, dissatisfaction, and disorder.

Joker revels in chaos and destruction.

Fleck wants the world to love him and wants to get better, and believes being nice (and hiding how he truly feels) is how he does it.

Joker sees that the “nice” and “polite” world that Fleck wants to be loved by is dishonest and a bonfire of the vanities.

In the Joker movie, we are drawn to feel, at parts, sympathy for the increasingly deranged mass-murderer. This is an unspoken taboo in our age.

What disturbs us most about the Joker is not that he’s evil. The horror flick IT, based on the Stephen King novel, was released two weeks before Joker without any ballyhoo or fanfare. IT, a film about an evil clown who kills kids, is plenty violent. But it’s not the violence, or his maniacal killing of children, that truly disturbs us.

IT might scare us, but he doesn’t disturb our sensibilities… because, of course, he is clearly not us. Joker is different. While the clown in IT is clearly evil and otherworldly, the Joker is clearly human. What unsettles us is what Joker seems to be “getting at”: our own potential for significant evil.

We hide our fascination with madness and evil in safe containers which offer a clear distinction between “me” and “it.” We are horrified by the fact that serial killers receive letters from admirers (often professing their love) who believe such figures are “misunderstood.”

But perhaps, rather than allowing ourselves to be repulsed by this, we should see what it tells us about ourselves as human beings.

Perhaps the madness erupting seemingly spontaneously in our time has something to confess — a confession not about the madmen, as most of them eventually do confess to their crimes. But, rather, a confession about ourselves as individuals, our nature, and of the human condition.

The Madman Within

Foucault once wrote that the problem with the modern age is that the individual “no longer communicates with the madman.” In the Renaissance (15th and 16th centuries), madness was viewed as a form of transcendent knowledge.

The madman taught the individual about the beast within, the madman revealed the madness in one’s own heart. Even before that, madmen were revered as shamans, seers, and prophets — those who could see outside of the cultural thought bubbles.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, however, what’s known as the classical age, that all changed. Institutions were formed to silence the madman, push him out of polite and civilized society. Thus began the culture of “look good at all costs,” for there was a clear social danger in being labelled mad.

Where the Renaissance saw madness as a form of transcendence, the classical age saw it “through a condemnation of idleness” and rejected it. Rationality had no room for its nemesis, the unreasonable. And all signs of it had to be confined to its own quarters or destroyed completely.

Today, we still carry that disastrous perception, where madness is a disease without any insight from which we can glean. It is not only now a shame for the mad to be mad, but also, even more so, a shame for those unlucky enough to be disgraced by his presence.

Thus, we also shut ourselves off from our own chaos, our own irrational selves, that storehouse of intuition, feelings, instincts, and impulses. If certain evolutionary theorists are right, and evolution happens on the fringes, in so doing we shut ourselves off from our own evolution as well.

We think we have left madness behind, but madness has not left us. We still hold a strange fascination of the mad, but only so long as it is sterilized with a distinct line between “I” and “IT”. We reluctantly, unconsciously, follow madness wherever it goes, swooping in and eventually chasing it off.

Indeed, we follow the artists, but do not enter into a dialogue. To us, they live in a different world, a world we wish to only see from a distance. A world we want to enter into, but, as soon as we do, we feel compelled to sterilize it, create distinctions, and “make it safe.”

And yet, the Geneva physician Mathey states: “Do not glory in your state, if you are wise and civilized men; an instant suffices to disturb and annihilate that supposed wisdom of which you are so proud; an unexpected event, a sharp sudden emotion of the soul will abruptly change the most reasonable and intelligent man into a raving idiot”

Or, as the Joker put it elsewhere: “Madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.”

Jung often stressed the importance of acknowledging our dark shadow sides. Everyone needs to be granted permission to be honest about their true feelings outside of conventional social norms. We all carry on our backs the black bag of the shadow. Says Ashley L. Whitaker in a recent essay:

“The Shadow is the part inside us all that thinks it would be amazing to don a clown mask and pull off a heist. It’s the part of us that loves getting away with setting off fireworks in a quiet suburban neighborhood at inopportune times late at night or pulling the fire alarm in a residential building while the tenants are sound asleep. It’s the part of us that asks for a complimentary cup for water in a fast food restaurant, but then sneaks off to the Coca-Cola dispenser and walks off with a free soda.”

But when the Shadow is neglected, pushed away, its urges can quickly become compulsions. The millionaire actress who compulsively steals jewelry… the man “who has it all” who destroys his health and mind with drugs… the beautiful celebrities, adored by all, who carry scars on their skin of self-harm.

As mentioned, what unsettles us is that the Joker speaks to our own potential for chaos, destruction, and evil.

Once again, the artist has injected chaos into the mass consciousness in the form of a conflict. It has brought the fringes into the mainstream, in a blockbuster on the silver screen. Are we ready, though, to hold that conflict within ourselves, and stop casting it off onto the “other”? Are we prepared to hear that our own madness just wants to be heard, recognized, and honored? And that if it isn’t, it will erupt into pure, unfiltered, and traumatically unproductive chaos? (So goes the saying, “A god ignored is a demon born.”)

As Jung said repeatedly, shadow work — or a confrontation with our darker tones — isn’t merely an intellectual curiosity…

It’s an absolute moral duty.

Ultimately, the Joker is a sort of trickster figure. He wants the world to see the truth. Or, at least, see what he sees. Feel what he feels. Suffer as he has suffered. And in his quest to do so, he strips himself of our “limiting” sense of morality. But within his madness carries perhaps a kernel of our own salvation. “The Joker may be beyond repair,” says Whitaker, “but he can save us to the extent that he prompts us to acknowledge our own shadow.”

Until we do so, until we create a dialogue with the madman, the one outside and the one within, until we recognize the wisdom to be gleaned, he will continue to “break bad,” cause chaos, and make it impossible not to pay attention.

The mad Trickster, after all, will be anything but ignored.

And, perhaps the most daunting part is, next time, he might be you.

To Kiss The Devil On His Crusty Lips

We all hang in a delicate balance between generative action and total destruction.

Mark Twain once asked:

“But who prays for Satan? Who in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most…?”

It’s not by imagining figures of light, said Jung, do we awaken.

It’s by confronting our own deepest angst, repulsions, and capacity to inflict great suffering in the world…

It’s by getting to know the monster within with unsettling intimacy…

It’s by, indeed, kissing the devil on his crusty lips…

And then, perhaps, we can help.

Then, perhaps, we can look deep into the eyes of those on the brink, and say, simply, without trying to fix anything…

“I see you.”

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