Pirate Week: The Shadow and Jack Sparrow

Fairy tales are fine, but my psyche is ready to delve into the shadow for a little while, and this was the case even before it dawned on me that Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides opens this week, or even before I remembered that the Lego Pirates of the Caribbean video game was about to drop. Like I said, fairy tales are fine, but my psyche – probably to prepare itself for the movie – decided a couple weeks ago that it was ready to move into the shadow. I just haven’t gotten there yet because I was waiting for the official start of Dissertation Summer. Anyway, enough about me

Jung describes the shadow as the “’negative’ side of the personality, the sum of all those unpleasant qualities we like to hide, together with the insufficiently developed functions and the contents of the personal unconscious” (CW 7, par. 103n). It is the easiest of the unconscious archetypes (which include anima and animus) for us to encounter, and is frequently among the first archetypes encountered during therapy. He further says:

The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. this act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge, and it therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance. Indeed, self-knowledge as a psychotherapeutic measure frequently requires much painstaking work extending over a long period. (CW 9ii, par. 14).

So what then do we make of the cultural shadow? It’s not exactly as though we can place our entire country down on the therapist’s couch, hand them a sand tray and a dream journal, and bring up the shadow. That’s what myths are for, and what better place to look for American myths than in cinema. Throughout Hollywood’s history, there have been countless shadow figures expressed in films, usually calling our attention to some dark aspect: of our individual psyche’s, of our culture’s psyche, of our culture’s history.

Hands down, Jack Sparrow is by far one of the most endearing shadow characters of the past decade. He is cunning and intelligent, but you wouldn’t get that from his completely mad exterior. His name evokes an archetypal everyman (Jack) who is springy, flighty, not-down-to-earth (Sparrow). His most common tool is a magical compass which shows the holder whatever they most desire. For Jack, this usually entails his ship (a pirate’s floating home – his reunion with the Black Pearl recalls Odysseus’ reunion with Penelope) or treasure (a pirate’s MO – bringing a mystical unconscious element to the surface is the shadow’s job). The only time when it did not lead him was when he was unsure himself of what he was looking for. This loss of direction can occur when the shadow is at the helm (so to speak), because it means that the unconscious has taken over, and it’s not exactly interested in telling us where we’re going.

However, The success of this pirate coincides with a trend of loving the shadow. Pirates, vampires, zombies, and Skellingtons are all shadow figures. They represent deeply embedded nightmarish figures. They do things that we would normally abhor (pillage/plunder, drink blood, eat brains, kidnap Sandy Claws), but they learn in the process something about them that endears them to us. They learn from their ways, but not necessarily to change them; rather, to use them as building blocks to become a more sustainable hero. These heroes help us, as a culture, navigate in and out of the collective/cultural unconscious, and they help us therapeutically by providing us with some necessary catharsis. (By the way, this trend isn’t anything new. As far as my own growth and development is concerned, Edward Sissorhands and Jack Skellington were both introduced to us in the early 1990s, along with the revival of the Addams Family. In a few years either direction from these films, we have the Batman film franchise and our first encounter with a cinematic Lestat.)

The trend of Johnny Depp’s successful characters and their ties to the shadow is not lost on me. Not many actors can navigate the shadow realm while also succeeding in bringing depth to their characters: Edward Sissorhands, Raoul Duke (Hunter S. Thompson), Ichabod Crane, Dean Corso, John Dillinger, Willy Wonka, the Mad Hatter, and of course Jack Sparrow, to name a few (not to mention some delightfully romantic characters, and many more that I haven’t seen yet).

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