Self and Shadow

‘But cloud instead and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, for the book of knowledge fair,
Presented with a universal blank
Of nature’s works to me expunged and razed
And wisdom at one entrance quite shut out.’
John Milton, Paradise Lost (III.45-50)

And wisdom at one entrance quite shut out. This is the wisdom I wish I possessed, but which has been innately, irrevocably removed from my epistemic grasp. It is unlearnable, unfathomable — beyond even the most complex of intuitions. I have tried reconstructing the knowledge from sense impressions — from analogous experience — but all that my vain efforts have yielded is a scarecrow that wards off who else but myself. The more I enforce upon the psyche this patchwork knowledge, the more I withdraw and reel, part in uncanny unfamiliarity, part in broken resignation. The absence of this wisdom, a gaping void — the something that is supposed to be there, but is not — forces me to be acutely aware of a necessary darkness, my own. Therefore in negotiating presence (Self) and present absence (Shadow), I have unknowingly established for myself a catastrophic internal dialectic of opposing forces that refuses to be reconciled in synthesis or resolved in deleterious victory; and this psychic tug-of-war is such a tremendous burden to bear. Like two gladiators in ferocious combat, they slice at the air with their swords and break their shields against the heavy bludgeoning of maces, and all around them many aftermaths unfold. Sometimes the blade scars an innocent bystander here, or blinds a passerby there. Sometimes the hammer crushes a shrub, or shatters the bark of an unwitting tree.

The Aftermath did not emerge in the wake of that colossal upheaval three years ago — it has always been unfurling in chaotic fractals, spiraling and branching like infesting brambles and briars that creep into the cavity of every available space. But these strangulating tendrils — they flourish and fester the most in shaded nooks, twisting themselves into burgeoning monstrosities that remain eclipsed. Tell me, how do you illuminate the entire soul or psyche (whichever you prefer)? You cannot. At any one moment, our consciousness is akin to a sweeping radius of light. I cannot be conscious of everything at once. So as far out as we manage to throw the rays of our pathfinder’s lantern, there will always remain obliques of darkness that creep at every angle of receding light. But take heart — as much ours as this light is, these shadows too, they belong to us.

And who likes walking in their own darkness? By darkness I certainly do not mean the phenomenal absence of light, nor do I mean the generic typification of evil. I refer squarely and only to everything you are ashamed of — everything you absolutely fear, everything you absolutely hate. So visceral, so immediate. The blackness swimming in your blood – we just don’t see it, and we ought not to. Or perhaps we do, in the indigo of those fleshy veins, carrying lifeblood starved of oxygen, rife with absence, choked with shadow. We carry absence in our blood, in ourselves. We are our own shadow.

This is not a cynic’s reflection — I never meant for this to be a piece of dark expository. Like the imaginary Other, the Shadow is a construct that is as much a premise as it is an outgrowth of the Self. To take a psychoanalytic detour, Self and Other are inseparable; by ‘other’ I don’t mean an-other body. I mean the self-contained Other within the Self. Look into the mirror, who do you see? Your Self? Wait, then who is the one doing the seeing? The Other?

So, it is easy to experience our innate fragmentation/delusion of Selfhood, even after the Lacanian drama of the mirror stage (when the ‘I’ is formed). Even at the level of perception, there will always be a disjunction between the visual image of the Self and the raw experience of Self-hood — the physiological operations, the aggregation of which we also call ‘I’. This is the Self-Image relation, which is essentially a psychoanalytic model mapping the visceral Self onto the spectral Other (image). Similarly in analytical psychology, the Self and the Shadow operate with the same deconstructionist dynamics — though distinct, one is contained within the other.

However, the (Jungian) Shadow in question, and hence the psychic Self-Shadow dialectic, is neither visual nor bodily. It is epistemological and psychological. The Shadow I speak of here is not imaginary alterity — the visual image of the Self (i.e. the Other). It is the psychological reflection of the Self, the hidden knowledge that remains in the unconscious, and thus away from the gaze of conscious experience and knowing — one polarity of an entirely disparate metaphysical dualism. The Shadow is entrenched within the psyche of the Self — it is the Self — but often unknown; or if unintentionally uncovered, then it is hastily replaced, with ten times the earthen cover heaped upon its burial ground. The Shadow is everything we are not, and the prospect of it being an integral part of our self-construction is simply unthinkable; we reject the notion immediately, even though in some dark recess between the spaces of consciousness and the unconscious, we may recognize it as a representation of our own flaws.

But Jung mentions that a balanced psyche is one that is constantly made aware of the Shadow, even though mastery over that shaded beast is weak and underdeveloped. One should never neglect to sustain psychic contact between the conscious Self and the inverse Shadow; after all, it has always been said that knowledge of the enemy is essential in battle, even if the enemy is yourself. Absolute polarity between Self and Shadow is a perilous state of affairs, because at any moment, the Shadow may emerge, perhaps in others, and so remote and abject is the Shadow, that the recognition of it as inextricably part of the Self may culminate in profound trauma. The Self, being utterly disarmed and deprived of any knowledge of the Shadow, may turn and flee in total terror; or if he is bound in shackles and made to face his sheer alterity, he may well abandon himself to his own inverse, and the Self may be lost forever.

I have always been struggling to commune with whatever constitutes my Shadow, but it hasn’t been easy, nor have I expected it to be. But there remains the Shadow of alterity — my inherent otherness. And so much of myself resides in that polarized, darkened space, that I might spend my entire life trying to let my desperate light reach those lightless corners.

‘Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.’
Carl G. Jung, Psychology and Religion (1938)


Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.

— Carl G. Jung

While ploughing through Structuralism last night in preparation for my Modern Critical Theory examination (in two days’ time), I found myself scouring for a reason behind my seemingly inexplicable fascination with psychoanalysis ever since its inception into my mind’s theoretical repository three years ago.

I’ve realised that I give psychoanalytic theory less credit than it deserves, for the role that it has played in structuring my life experiences, and in the interpretation of this text we call Memory; for understanding my Self, and other(s); for affording meaning where there had been an acute anxiety of a universal void. It by no means fills the traumatic space, but it acknowledges its presence (repressed absence) and reveals our very human attempts to mediate the primordial trauma of the unsymbolizable.

Above all, it has taught me to forgive myself—my own shadow—and in forgiving myself, to try to forgive others for their previously inexplicable instances of darkness.