Thursday, April 03, 2008
Me and My Shadow
“The devil inside, the devil inside, every single one of us the devil inside.” The band INXS was onto something there. The devil inside is a concept explored extensively by my mentor, psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Dr. Jung termed this phenomenon “the shadow,” and defined it as those anti-social, morally negative traits we all possess and bury deep in our unconscious.
I doubt that too many people would argue with this analysis, whether you call it “original sin” or take a more humanistic view. Each of us has a sort of light half and a dark half, angel and devil, but we prefer to see ourselves as the light half. The dark half we deny, suppress, and try to ignore.
Jung saw this dichotomy reflected in mankind’s art and legend and superstition. He wrote, “How else could it have occurred to man to divide the cosmos…into a bright day-world and a dark night-world peopled with fabulous monsters, unless he had the prototype of such a division in himself?” Whether you think of centuries-old scary fairy tales or Stephen King thrillers and Eli Roth horror flicks of today, we see our own shadows in fable and fiction even if we ignore them in ourselves.
Jung would call that a good thing. Ignoring the dark side is the worst you can do, while understanding your shadow can lead to enlightenment, balance, and wholeness. “To confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light...Anyone who perceives his shadow and his light simultaneously sees himself from two sides and thus gets in the middle,” advised Jung, on the subject of finding healthy psychological wholeness.
So what’s this shadow business got to do with sex? I believe Jung would back me up when I say, sometimes it is the erotic lure of the darkness that invites us to come to terms with our shadow. When a wholesome, cheerful, kindly young woman finds fascination with, say, vampires, she is forced to recognize her own suppressed amoral bloodlust. It beats the heck out of denying your shadow any means of expression and ending up acting out its yearnings in real life.
I have been reflecting this week on my own shadow, which (not surprisingly for those of you who keep up here on my waxing and waning obsessions) has recently taken the form of one renowned fantasy author named Neil. As my reading of American Gods progresses ever closer to the end of the novel, I find myself amazed by two things: (1) Mr. Gaiman’s devotion to making his fiction as bleak, grimy, horrifying, disgusting, and even painful as possible, and (2) my unmitigated joy in reading it.
You readers who have been kind enough to partake of my own fiction know that I write in a very different style than this, even when I’m penning a scene that is unhappy. Case in point, there is a passage in American Gods where a character undergoes a sort of drawn out, dying torture that parallels a similar scene in one of my works. (First of all, Neil’s version put mine to shame—I have never felt so literarily inferior!) His character’s suffering was gritty and ghastly and perfectly like your worst nightmare. Mine, while reasonably moving and engaging enough, was clean and purely psychological, and doubtless left the reader shedding a tear or two but not praying to never have a dream that vaguely resembled the passage.
I’ve said it before: I couldn’t write in Neil’s style if I wanted to. But the interesting thing is, his writing is very much a shadow of my own. It’s harsh, unblinking, uncensored, whereas I create worlds that are pretty and poetic. I write scenes that are transcendent fantasies of delight, he writes of maggots, grimy dishes, roadkill, and dirty snow (hey, it’s April in Wisconsin, there’s nothing so hideous to us as dirty snow right now!).
Okay, it may be this book in particular—I’m sure Stardust will be different—but my point is this: The part of me that operates in day-to-day life, my outward face, is Diana Laurence. The part I don’t want to deal with, deep down inside, is a lot like Neil Gaiman. To be a whole person, to integrate both sides, I need a good dose of American Gods. You might even say I lust after a good dose of American Gods.
I’m sure I won’t go postal having nourished my soul with this book. It’s just what Dr. Jung ordered.