This Problem of Poverty

I’ve seen a few things across my Facebook recently, ranging from “Welfare is a handout!” to property owners putting spikes outside their front doors (presumably to prevent people from sleeping there–seems like a dangerous liability issue to me). Such comments concern me because they don’t reflect what poverty is. Now, I’m not going to pretend to be a holier-than-thou expert on poverty. Rather, I’d just like to throw my perspective into this very complicated subject. Because I can. So there.

“Poverty” is defined by the OED as “the state of being extremely poor.” “Poor” is then defined as “lacking sufficient money to live at a standard considered comfortable or normal in a society.” Already, I have a problem with this understanding of poverty. There is an episode of the Twilight Zone that can illustrate this. The episode is 1961’s “Rip Van Winkle Caper” (season 2). A group of men steal a ton of gold and hide in a secret cave, cryogenically freezing themselves until their crime blows over. The plan was to wake up, and be free and wealthy. Not all of the men wake up–their machines were damaged–and the remaining men end up fighting amongst themselves for how they were going to divide the gold. In the end, one man is left, and goes in search of civilization. Since this show is filmed in California, the search for civilization inevitably involves a trek through the American desert. Along the way, he trades a bar of his gold for a sip of water. Eventually, he spends his last brick of gold, but dies from dehydration all the same. The man who watched him die, gets back into his car with his wife, and tells her: “Can you imagine that? He offered this to me as if it was really worth something.” (Rod Serling was a genius.) In another example, Sir Thomas Moore (1516) envisions a Utopia where gold isn’t a currency, but instead marks the slaves apart from the rest of the citizens.

My point is that what defines “money” is subjective to a society. What we use to define money this year will eventually change (perhaps not during my lifetime, but that depends on whether one is listening to the ecologists or not). More importantly, as long as one lives in a system of Civilization, understood from an anthropological viewpoint as a means of managing a large number of people in a fashion that necessarily requires a hierarchy, there will be poverty. In any society where there is a class system (manifest or latent), there will be poverty. Someone has to be excluded from the privileged class, and, historically, it’s the largest percentage of the population within the society. This is not the result of “lower classes breeding too much” or any such nonsense. Nor is this the result of “poorer people have sex more because they’re less educated.” Also baloney. People in privileged states like to tell themselves such stories to justify themselves. So now, I turn to Jung.

In Aion (or CW 9.2 for us hip Jung folks), Jung defines the shadow as:

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. (par 14).

Jung speaks specifically to the individual, but his theories reflect well into the larger society as well. People in poverty, the Poor, or anyone who does not meet the status quo of the privileged, become the social shadow. Think about this: in a Capitalist Democracy (or Republic–whatever the USA is these days), in a society that defines privilege and success on how much money one has, then those that fail to meet those measures are pushed aside.

Let me back up a minute. The “shadow” as Jung uses it is that part of the psyche that is buried in the unconscious. If one imagines the actual shadow (and get a good, long sunset shadow for this image), our bodies represent our conscious selves, while that shadow on the ground represents our unconscious life, formed by our dreams, our experiences, but also by our identity formation that “keeps” certain characteristics in our personality and buries others. The shadow has a tendency to not be ignored. In the individual, the shadow appears that moment when you say or do something uncharacteristic. Or it may weigh you down, leaving you unfulfilled and unsatisfied in life. We all have a shadow. We can deny it, but it will play its part on us if we don’t do something about it:

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. (CW 11, “Psychology and Religion,” par. 131)

I struggle with Jung’s definition of the “collective shadow.” Much of his writing comes at a time in history when the “collective mind” was something to be avoided in the West, thanks to a fear of Communism and the European events of World War II. So he writes about how the “collective shadow” manifests as war (but I can’t find that quote). In my reading of Jung, it seems that the collective shadow manifests among the people, especially when the enemy cannot be easily identified (just what does a “Terrorist” or a “Communist” look like?). When we start projecting our shadows onto our own people, then we can hear many of the debates that are all over the news these days, and we start hearing buzz words like “entitlement.”

Again the OED: Entitlement is “the fact of having a right to something.” An entitlement isn’t a guarantee. It isn’t even a privilege. It’s simply the “right to something.” So I have a “right” to education, a “right” to welfare, a “right” to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And the reason I have these “rights” is because “rights” are “morally good, justifiable, or acceptable.” (again, “morally good” is also definable by the civilization. This kind of subjectivity is why poverty is such a murky issue!)

Confronting the collective shadow of poverty means facing and accepting that a particular dark underbelly of the culture is entitled–has the right to–the same privileges and opportunities of the higher players in the hierarchy. American individualism permits this–by our bootstraps and cunning, we can rise from rags to riches, and we should be rewarded for our hard work. Once power is achieved, no one wants to let it go easily, and the idea that someone could rise from rags to riches threatens that security.

Whenever contents of the collective unconscious become activated, they have a disturbing effect on the conscious mind, and contusion ensued. If the activation is due to the collapse of the individual’s hopes and expectations, there is a danger that the collective unconscious may take the place of reality. This state would be pathological. If, on the other hand, the activation is the result of psychological processes in the unconscious of the people, the individual may feel threatened or at any rate disoriented, but the resultant state is not pathological, at least so far as the individual is concerned. Nevertheless, the mental state of the people as a whole might well be compared to psychosis. (CW 8, “The Psychological Foundation for the Belief in Spirits,” par. 595)

Right now, the USA is in the first state–that pathological state. Our collective shadow is staring us in the face because of a failure of the American Dream to withstand the power of Economics. With the housing crisis seven years ago and the ridiculous amount of student loan debt that is crushing a large piece of the population, those who had to turn to welfare to help them through a phase of poverty changed face from the usual expectations. It was easier as a society to believe that poverty = “minority,” to write off the state of poverty as a problem of the “black people” and the “brown people.” But in the last several years we’ve seen increased numbers of highly educated “[black, white, brown, red, yellow] people” living in a state of poverty, or hard-working “[black, white, brown, red, yellow] people” in a state of homelessness because of a bad loan or a hurricane. Or older people who find themselves unemployed for longer than the requisite 8-month window because they’re too old, or their skills are outdated, or they are asking for too much. The face of poverty is no longer as clearcut as it used to be.

Is there a solution? Not an easy one, because the first and foremost thing we have to do is rewrite our Myth of Poverty. Anytime such an overturn of ideas needs to happen, it takes at least a generation. A few well-meaning adults (read: “Elders”) have to teach the new generation to see the world in this way, who then come to accept it as the norm. And while this can work, the inter-generational conversations are still speaking different stories, making the tension between New Ways of Thinking and Tradition that much more difficult. I’d like to say we could eradicate poverty, but that would also involve taking away the tax cuts of the wealthy. I’d love to say we can all live in harmony, but that would involve restructuring civilization as a whole. One last Jung quote:

Filling the conscious mind with ideal conceptions is a characteristic of Western theosophy, but not the confrontation with the shadow and the world of darkness. One does not become enlightened by imaging figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. (CW 13, “The Philosophical Tree,” par. 335)

Poverty isn’t a partisan issue. It exists. How we handle it speaks volumes to how we handle the shadow. When one speaks of “compassion,” it’s meant to motivate us toward Jung’s idea of enlightenment. We can’t all give money to the guy sitting on the corner with his dog. But we can acknowledge how we address poverty in our communities. Pretending it isn’t there isn’t an option. Fighting government bills that increase access to resources shouldn’t be an option either (the hit to the economy of not providing public assistance is far worse than what we do provide). Yes, there are trolls out there who abuse the system, preferring to live in a state of poverty than try to get out of it, but the larger majority of people in poverty would really like to get out of it. Because poverty is a state of mind. It weighs on us like an anvil around the neck, the world on our back, while trying to push a bolder up a mountain all at the same time. Oh, while walking on hot coals.

And yes, I’m speaking to American poverty. Much attention is given to African poverty by major celebrities, who want to address poverty but don’t want to face the problems in their own backyards. The USA is still a country of privilege, but that doesn’t mean we’re distributing our resources wisely. If we want to maintain the illusion that the USA is the world’s anchor, we need to sort out these social issues, among others that run the very real risk of breaking down the Matrix.

[Since all of my books are in boxes, I’d like to thank for Jung’s quotes.]

NOTE: One thing I’m not addressing in this post is the perspective of poverty by those who live in it. If poverty is the cultural shadow, as I’m claiming here, then those who live in the state of poverty are the shadow elements. Because I have spent the last year living–struggling–in poverty, I won’t be able to delve into this perspective until I’m in a safe place to heal from the psychic wounds this past year has given me. I invite anyone who is willing and able to share their perspective–of being the shadow, vilified simply for being poor. And with permission, I’d love to share it here.


The Dark Knight of the Soul

The Dark Knight Rises PosterThe weekend was a Batman buzz, torn between celebrating the release of The Dark Knight Rises and mourning the events of the Aurora, CO movie theater shooting. Throughout the discussion included comments about the killer’s mental health and questions about whether it’s time for the country to revisit gun control. One Facebook friend made the following post:

Waking this morning to a sick feeling when I see what happened in another theater in Colorado. While we were mesmerized, watching a film about the heroic strength of the human spirit and how it cannot be dominated by brutality, someone else took the opposite message and chose the comic-book villains as their inspiration. I hate to say it, but someone took their cue from this series a little too completely. – Katie G.

And here’s a link to a wonderful op-ed written by Roger Ebert: We’ve Seen this Movie Before.

This trilogy revisits the Batman mythos in a fascinating way, and the title of this third film makes a clear statement about its overall message. But there is something about the Batman mythos that invited the events of Colorado (not to suggest that I condone the events).

But first, my relationship to Batman. I have never read a Bat-comic, but I did watch the old Adam West reruns growing up. Beyond that, Batman was just another superhero until I stumbled upon the Lego: Batman videogame a few years ago. The ability to play a story as either a hero or a villain drew me in with Joker and Harley Quinn becoming my favorite characters to play. This is the only Lego videogame I’ve played through not once, not twice, but four times. My fascination for the game encouraged me to watch Batman Begins and later The Dark Knight, and my love of Batman was cemented. Last year, I celebrated my birthday with a Batman themed cake and a marathon of the Tim Burton Batmans. I’m waiting patiently for my chance to play Lego: Batman 2. And I keep looking for a Batman omnibus at my local used bookstore hoping for an easy foray into the comics.


Of all the super heroes, Batman is a shadow hero (and this is the main reason why I prefer DC to Marvel). He is deep, tormented, and is motivated by an unhealthy desire for revenge. As such, the villains that he combats are either shallow and stupid or are as equally deep, tormented, and mad as Batman (Joker, Scarecrow, Riddler, or the new Bane, for instance). This latter category of villain leads me to my point. Joker et al sees Batman as a nemesis and toy with him whenever possible. By doing this, they test the limits of his desire for revenge and his inherent goodness to save people. See for instance the climax of The Dark Knight, when Joker gave Batman an impossible choice. And Batman took the bait.

(As an aside, we watched the blu-ray over the weekend and this was our first time watching the film since the theater. The final scene with Joker was vastly different than we remembered it. Our cousin confirmed our suspicions. So I have to ask: was the film reedited for home release and why?)

Last week, the people of Aurora bore witness to someone acting out the Batman villain, but it seems as though the villain attacked a crowded movie theater to see if the Masked Crusader would come to the rescue. It’s no accident that the villain chose a Batman film, rather than say The Avengers or Spider-Man or Brave. The Batman mythos invites madness and it invites us to play into our place of personal wounding.

We have a chronic problem in this country of denying the shadow, and the more we deny it, the more it is going to affect more people. We are living in an era full of disease (dis-ease), medication/self-medication, and explosive tempers. For most of us, whatever ails us doesn’t affect a larger radius of people. We may not even realize that we are ailing at all until we lash out at our loved ones and ruin a relationship over something seemingly petty. Others take their ailment to a larger level, such as the young man who attacked Aurora. He didn’t need to affect the lives and families of so many people, or even the trust of an entire country’s movie-going public. But, yet, somehow he did, which is why the events transpired.

Identifying with the villains seems to be a recent phenomenon, but a necessary practice since we try as a society to ignore the shadow. I was first struck by the idea of Vampire: the Masquerade and reports in the 90s of kids actually sucking the blood out of people resulting in some deaths). Then there was the whole Columbine thing. And then at Harry Potter conferences, the number of people who dress up as Snape or a Malfoy or Voldemort. By playing the villain, we can confront our innermost negative energies. They’re there, even if we’d like to believe they’re not. Once upon a time, kids just played Cowboys and Indians, but today, we need a little more than that to satisfy our shadow. Our shadow is burdened with the shadow of America, which we have been carrying on our shoulders since the end of WWII. Events like Columbine or Aurora, when one person snaps and takes the game into the real world, reflect this.

The rules have changed, and this is what Batman reminds us at the end of The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight Rises sees Batman trying to restore the rules in a way that adapts them to a new Gotham. Not enough attention is being given to this same practice in the real world, but if enough media outlets (Hollywood, YA literature) keep challenging the status quo, perhaps we can excite some real change. As Batman shows us, it’s not enough to occupy. One has to take up the cause. Meanwhile, as Batman further shows us in The Dark Knight Rises, it’s okay to struggle with your own stuff, as long as you remember the cause.

The Rise of Dark Fairy Tales

It is probably no surprise to the passive reader of this blog (all two of you) that I am a fairy tale enthusiast. It’s a topic I keep returning to time and time again, and it’s a topic that provides hours of academic muddling for this mythologist. That’s what scholars such as the Jungians find so fascinating about fairy tales. In their simplicity, they speak archetypally, deeply, meaningfully… They can become whatever story the reader or listener wants them to be.

And it’s probably no surprise to the passive reader of this blog (all two of you) that I am also a Disney fan, and that Disney’s versions of fairy tales are hands-down my favorites. Why, you might ask? This is a complicated answer, and one that I don’t have lying around, but part of the answer lies in the fact that Disney’s retelling of these stories captures that magic that attracts readers to them in the first place while also translating the stories to a new medium. There’s something that Disney “gets” in its storytelling that makes these stories speak to the culture. Sure, perhaps 200 years from now, Disney’s fairy tales will be shelved along with Grimm’s as future readers try to find the next new gripping version of a tale that’s already been told 1000 times.

Finally, it’s probably no surprise to the passive reader of this blog (all two of you) that I am also a lover of the Disney parks, notably Disneyland since that’s the only one I’ve visited with any capacity to build memories. The parks do for the experience what the films do for the fairy tales. They capture the magic that attracted us to them in the first place. I’ve been to Universal Studios, Six Flags, and my childhood theme park, Eliches (or however it was spelled). But Disney keeps me coming back time and again because of the experience. I trust the rides to not kill me (even with those few scary stories of accidents); I trust the park to be clean and safe; and I trust that, even if I’m tired, sore, and cranky, that the day in the park will still make me very happy.

I am a product of the Disney mythos.

So here’s my point. My love for all three of the above things are combined in the book series Kingdom Keepers by Ridley Pearson, also known for his adult thrillers and his work on Peter and the Starcatchers. The Kingdom Keepers are a group of teenagers hired by Disney to be the models for DHIs, or Digital Host Interactive, digital tour guides through the parks at Walt Disney World. What these kids don’t know is that they have also been recruited to help the Imagineers fight against the Overtakers, who are Disney villans who come alive when the park closes at night. Villains such as Maleficent, Pirates, and Crash Test Dummies. The other Disney characters come alive as well, but they are powerless by themselves to stop the Overtakers from fulfilling their goal of overtaking the park. So the teens at night, when the fall asleep, become the DHIs, and spend their nights in constant battle against the Overtakers, receiving missions from the Imagineers, and trying very hard not to be caught in Sleeping Beauty Syndrome, which occurs when the DHI is prevented from crossing back over at the end of the night and the human teen is locked in a mysterious coma-like sleep.

These books capture the essences of the park and Disney magic and are thrilling for anyone who is either a fan who knows the parks intimately, enjoys a good sci-fi thriller, or even dreams of going to the park one day.

The most recent installment of the series, Shell Game, begins the process of moving the DHIs and the Overtakers to California from Florida by way of the new cruise ship. Having never been on a cruise, let alone a Disney cruise, I was a little skeptical about reading this book. But, of course, I enjoyed it thoroughly (having read half of it on the airplane to and from my dissertation defense). And, of course, in typical Disney fashion, find myself really wanting to take a Disney cruise now to share in the experience.

But that’s still not my point. In one particularly potent scene, the leader of the DHIs, Finn, confronts Maleficent, who is believed to be the leader of the Overtaker operation (though no one is certain about that). Finn and the other DHIs are in an auditorium doing a presentation for the cruise guests when they are besieged by pirates (of the Caribbean). Maleficent appears on the monitors and makes a rather bold statement:

 “Behold the New Order,” Maleficent said in her eerily calm and grating voice. “The dawning of a new age. [. . .] Enough of all this prince-and-princess spun-sugar nonsense. It’s time for the Grimm in the fairy tales to express itself. The woods are dark, my dears. The beasts within them will eat you for supper, not sing you a song. Wake up and smell the roses.” (484)

Remember up above when I said that Disney “gets it?” There is something happening in fairy tales right now, a sort of paradigm shift. In 2010 Disney claimed they were no longer going to make fairy tale animated features. At the same time several, albeit bad, fairy tale features were released by other studios. In 2011, Disney gave us Once Upon a Time. It’s as though the songs of the princesses in the forests have lost their magic for us. And it’s no wonder, given all of the darkness surrounding us as a culture. We are hungry for the magic; we are hungry for the good hero to defeat the dark evil bad person. But we are also hungry for the darkness to become a part of us, because it already is.

There is a shroud of darkness on American culture today, and it is spreading into other parts of the world. Perhaps this is because of the prevalence of our cultural exchanges, or perhaps this is a darkness that has been trying to take over (the Overtakers) for decades (think Great Depression, atomic bomb, and Cold War), but the American optimism has always kept it at bay. That optimism has taken a vacation, it seems. Even Disney, who always gave us a message of hope and happiness in our darkest hour is putting forth messages that this is the time of monsters (KK) or that the fairy tales have forgotten who they are (OUAT).

Meanwhile, fairy tales are being retold with a vigor that we haven’t seen in a while. New Grimm texts were found. Movies retell the stories. Vampires, werewolves, and zombies are everywhere and literally eating us (though occasionally, they may sing us a song to lure us in their charms).

It’s difficult to describe the change that is happening while being in the middle of it happening. Hindsight is always 20/20, but At-the-moment-sight is typically blind. We’re still looking to the past, expecting it to have all of the answers. Oh but wait, you’ll notice we’re looking at the 1950s for those answers. Just because television and the movies painting the decade as Pleasantville, the decade was anything but. Darkness perpetuating darkness.

We haven’t learned anything from our previous encounters with Darkness in the past, which is why it is still bothering us. Call it the shadow or whatever, but until we start communing with this Darkness and learning something from it, we’ll be on this endless cycle for a while yet.

Lessons we’re learning from today’s myths: 1. Believe in magic. 2. Remembering or finding your true identity or self is the first step toward dealing with the darkness. 3. Listen to your elders–you don’t know how much longer they’ll be around to advise you. 4. Don’t listen to your elders if you know they’re advising you poorly. 5. Saving good from evil has no room for EGO.

That said, I’m looking forward to the last two KK books. If the DHIs are successful in bringing down the Overtakers, perhaps we could stand to learn a thing or two from them?

Duryodhana: The Antithesis of Morality, A Character Study

"What is in the Mahabharata can be found elsewhere,

but what is not in the Mahabharata cannot be found anywhere."

– Anonymous

The Mahabharata is said to be one of the primary myths governing India, maintaining popularity since its initial writing. The exchanges between the West, especially the British Empire, and India have brought The Mahabharata to a new audience. William Buck translated the epic into a condensed version that simplified the characters, plot, and concepts for this new audience, while also maintaining many of the mythic qualities inherent to the story. One such quality is found within each primary character representing a different aspect of the psyche. Because of the depth of The Mahabharata, their interactions paint a mythic road map, helping a person understand themselves through its images. One such character is Duryodhana, the Kuru prince, who represents the shadow at its most corrupt and morally reprehensible. An understanding of Duryodhana’s character will lead a person, Eastern or Western, to a necessary understanding of the dark side of the psyche. This understanding will bring a person closer to owning the shadow and achieving self-actualization, leading to enlightenment.

From the perspective of the Western reader, Duryodhana is a compelling character because his actions and behavior are counter to anything we find favorable. Within the framework of Western literature, exploring the hidden depths of psyche’s closet is much more interesting and necessary than analyzing the conscious world; thus, the prevalence of hero journeys and antiheroes in the stories. Due to the major differences between Western and Eastern cultures, one should ask why this tale is so compelling? One reason I would attribute to this phenomenon is the interest on the part of the West for the exotic nature of the East. When the British Empire controlled India, there was a vast wealth of exchange between the two societies, including goods, people and myths. The Mahabharata appeals to Western sensibilities because the myth focuses on the feud between cousins, raised as brothers. Western myths and fairy tales often focus on the single hero or ruler, and the story is of his or her quest. The Mahabharata offers five heroes, but they function mostly as a single unit fighting for their family honor against Duryodhana. In the context of chivalry, the match is unfairly numbered, but the five brothers are their strongest when they act as one unit and weakest when separated. Duryodhana is the worthy villain of a Western interpretation because he represents an antithesis to morality, as demonstrated below, showing that many moral tenants are universal and transcendent of culture and historical era.

Psyche’s Road Map: The Characters of The Mahabharata

Myths lay a framework for understanding not only the universe, but the psyche as well. Often, one can turn to myths, which lend themselves nicely to multiple interpretations, and find guidance. This is what Joseph Campbell describes as the psychological function of mythology: to help an individual understand his or her own role in the larger schema of society (Campbell 5). Within this understanding lies the secondary need of understanding one’s self. In the mythic story structure, all elements of the psyche are represented as the various characters. The hero, or protagonist, represents the conscious, complete with all of the moral and behavioral attributes the reader or participant either consciously possess or strive to possess. The antagonist, or villain, represents the primary manifestation of the shadow, the element of the personal unconscious that houses rejected attributes. The lover is the anima/animus, and is often the catalyst that either pushes the hero on a journey or provides companionship during the journey.

In The Mahabharata, the protagonists are the Pandavas. Each of the five brothers represents a particular heroic strength. For example, Yudhisthira demonstrates leadership and dharma, Bhima characterizes strength and fearlessness, Arjuna is the face of patience and compassion, Sahadeva is wisdom and Nakula is beauty. That the brothers are strongest when banded together is due in part to the fact that they are each dominated by a particular, though admirable, characteristic. Together, they reinforce each other, forming an almost undefeatable group. Yet they are weak when working individually. For example, Yudhisthira lost the kingdom and almost his wife too easily to the dice game with Duryodhana, allowing the stakes to rise higher and higher until he and his brothers had nothing left.

The Pandavas’ uncle, Dhritarashtra, is born blind because his mother closed her eyes when approached by Vyasa for his conception. For this reason he cannot be the king, despite being the first-born. He represents the unconscious. In a similar vein, his younger brother, Pandu, the pale-skinned king, represents consciousness. As the family patriarchs, they set the theme for their offspring. Being blind, Dhritarashtra has access to senses most conscious beings take for granted and is therefore likely to act and raise his children accordingly. For example, upon the birth of Duryodhana, Dhritarashtra begins to consider his son for king. Because he cannot see the effects of dharma on the family, his uncharacteristically emotional desire to have his son on the throne plants the seeds for the future disputes. His blindness also manifests itself in his responses to Duryodhana’s subtle manipulation to siphon the Pandavas out of the kingdom. Pandu, on the other hand, is noble and his light skin exemplifies the light in the darkness his sons are meant to bring. His death brought about the coming of darkness.

Duryodhana represents the shadow, which is appropriate for the son of the unconscious. He possesses all of the negative characteristics the Pandavas suppress, and he is also the poster character for the Kurus, because he is Dhritarashtra’s first son. As the shadow, Duryodhana’s behaviors are morally reprehensible. He is blinded by jealousy and greed for the Pandavas’ wealth and good fortune. He is easily prejudiced against them and holds deep grudges. He cheats, lies, and has no concern for any of the suffering his actions may cause (Sutton 307). His character is the antithesis to all heroic traits. In spite of all his ill deeds, Duryodhana experiences a heroic end and receives a place in heaven, the realm of self-actualization, typically reserved for conscious heroes. Similar to Jung’s model of the shadow, Duryodhana’s actions do harm against, not only the Pandavas, but against anyone caught in their feud as well. The goal of the Pandavas, as the sons of consciousness and light, is to "own the shadow" and to find the means of controlling it before it does irreparable harm to the kingdom.

Bhima represents the brute force of the brothers, and it is necessary for him to defeat Duryodhana to restore the Pandava honor. The two cousins were the same age and trained together under Drona’s tutelage. In order for the Pandavas to succeed, Bhima has to counter this aspect of the Pandava shadow, Duryodhana’s might and force, to bring the war to an end, a task symbolic of honoring the shadow. In his book, Owning Your Own Shadow, Robert Johnson presents an example of how a little violent action prior to a presentation, such as throwing a wet towel on the ground, releases built-up energy, and enabling him to give the presentation without fear, nerves, or other trepidations (46-47). This violent release allows the shadow a moment to surface and to be acknowledged before it is thrown back into the personal unconscious. In myths and literature, this is represented by a skirmish or a battle between the hero and either a minor or major shadow character. When it is a major character, such as Duryodhana, it enables the hero, consciousness, or heroes, the Pandavas, to finally pursue the boon or achieve the intended task, such as restoration of the kingdom. Because The Mahabharata is the myth of usher in the age of the shadow, the shadow has the last laugh and what seemed like a conscious victory was really a subterfuge: For all their efforts, Duryodhana still manages to receive a seat in heaven.

Briefly, Draupadi is the primary anima of Buck’s treatment of The Mahabharata. She is equally married to all Pandavas and plays the role of first wife, despite the subsequent wives some of the individual Pandavas gain. According to Jung, while the shadow represents the personal unconscious, the anima transcends this realm, helping pull a person into the collective unconscious (Jung 10). Duryodhana greatly insults Draupadi during the dice match, representing the shadow insulting the anima. Continuing the model of the psyche, the insult is the unconscious attempt to not yield completely to the pull of anima into the collective unconscious. It also communicates to the conscious an attempt to keep certain things unconscious. This insult of Draupadi acts as reinforcement of Duryodhana’s behavior while also fueling the Pandava hatred towards him.

The Birth and Death of Duryodhana

Gandhari had difficulties with pregnancy. She was promised by Vyasa to bear 100 sons and one daughter. Because of these difficulties, Vyasa arranged to have the unborn babies removed from Gandhari and buried in jars in the garden. When the time came, they were harvested as fully-grown children, the first one being Duryodhana, harvested on the same day at Bhima. The children of Dhritarashtra were born twice. Often, being born again gives the impression that one is closer to god-like. In Western religious traditions, children and adults are baptized, "born again," to forgive them their sins and enable them access to heaven when they die. In Eastern religions, reincarnation allows a person a second chance at enlightenment by being born again in another lifetime as another life form, animal or human. Duryodhana’s second birth occurs before he is truly born, corrupting him before he has a chance at life. Also, Duryodhana, prior to the incubation period in the jar, is one piece of a "hard ball of flesh," one among many (Buck 33). Because he was born first, Duryodhana was encouraged to become his own individual. This in contrast to the immaculate births of the Pandavas, each fathered by a different god at Kunti’s bequest.

In the last Great Vision of Yudhisthira, he is given the opportunity to visit heaven and is surprised to find Duryodhana there. Although Duryodhana may have lived an immoral life, he had a noble death, dying in battle specifically in one-to-one combat (Buck 367). Yudhisthira passes on a place in heaven, because it was a personal hell to him to share paradise with one so vile. This is Duryodhana’s last success: the shadow conquering the element of the self that is the key to self-actualization. Had the Pandavas been successful they would have defeated Duryodhana in a manner that gained them paradise, maintaining balance.

The Kali Yuga

The Mahabharata serves as the myth to usher in the Kali Yuga, a time that is the "worst of anything" (Zimmer 15). This is the time of social and political chaos, and the time when the world is at its most unbalanced, imaged, according to Zimmer, by a cow trying to stand on a single leg. Also, the Kali Yuga is the time of Kali, the goddess of death and transformation, who represents both creative and destructive principles. During the time of the shadow, Kali employs her destructive function and "takes back and swallows again the creatures brought forth" (Zimmer 211).

When the Pandavas battle Duryodhana, they hope to avoid the chaos and destruction established by the Kurus, beginning with their mutual great-grandmother, Queen Satyavati, who upset the balance of the fates when she asked her first-born son, Vyasa, to conceive heirs with her widowed daughters-in-law. Her primary concern was to keep her lineage on the throne, rather than obey the natural order. Succession was given to Pandu, the second-born of these sons, because Dhritarashtra, the first-born and rightful heir, was born blind and unfit to rule. Before the birth of Duryodhana, the shadow, dharma remained in a delicate balance. When Duryodhana was born, Dhritarashtra began to consider whether or not his son should be the rightful heir, questions that made their way to Duryodhana.

To right the perceived wrong, and to shift the dharma fully out of balance, Duryodhana challenges and cheats Yudhisthira out of his portion of Hastinapur, reversing Dhritarashtra’s gift of a portion of the kingdom to the Pandavas. Through his skills, Duryodhana "managed to undo the Partition of the ancestral kingdom but his actions had reopened the decades-old controversy about whether the legitimate successor to the throne was the oldest prince of the joint family … or the son of the oldest son of the previous king…" (Suri 53). The Mahabharata tells only of how the balance is upset amongst the royal family. In Buck’s rendering, we are given glimpses to how this imbalance affects others outside the family: other kingdoms fearing a battle with Duryodhana, woods people fearing the Pandavas as if they were Duryodhana’s forces, and the terrorization of the demonic forces. We do not see the oncoming shadow forces beyond the realm of the Kurus and Pandavas.

The Kali Yuga is thus also the time of dharma upset, a time when family fights amongst itself. The Pandavas feared this, but could not prevent it, suggesting that the imbalance was inevitable. This is further proven by Yudhishthira’s Great Vision, in which he saw Duryodhana in Paradise being rewarded for his heroic death and the Pandavas in an equivalent to Hell.

Duryodhana in Modern Times

In keeping with the impression that The Mahabharata contains lessons that resonate through mythology, I would like to briefly consider a couple modern shadow figures that resemble, to a degree, Duryodhana. The reason for this is to contextualize The Mahabharata, to bring its messages to a modern reader’s understanding, especially that of Western readers who are not immersed in the epic from a young age and may never experience its texts. This is to suggest that the shadow archetype, regardless of mythology, is dangerous and to ignore it can do damage both to the individual psyche and to the greater social function.

Modern politics is rife with Duryodhanas: leaders who have fought or manipulated election results so they could hold a seat of power. Once in that seat they refuse to let it go, removing or silencing opposition either legally, illegally, or by force. Because modern political seats, or “thrones,” are not passed among blood relatives in democratic societies, it is more difficult to honor and enforce any sense of dharma. Opposition leaders must rely instead on precedent and old documents to enforce their stances. Modern history has seen opponents constantly fight, like the Pandavas confronting Duryodhana, but we have also seen the opponents disappear from public spotlight, as though they were banished like the Pandavas. It is difficult to say which is more prevalent, the fighters or the silent opposition.

Leaders act without seeming to consider the results of their actions and any benefits toward the greater good. The Mahabharata does not give a full account of the kingdom because Duryodhana never fully becomes king. Instead, he manipulates his blind father into consenting with his actions in pursuit of his plans for when he does gain the throne. This includes removing the Pandavas, who are loved and respected, and battling neighboring kingdoms to expand what he intends on one day inheriting. According to Carl Jung, such recognition of a shadow figure’s actions and consequences thereof is “quite within the bounds of possibility for a man to recognize the relative evil of his nature, but it is a rare and shattering experience for him to gaze into the face of absolute evil" (Jung 10). This suggests that the shadow figures governing the modern world, the modern Duryodhanas, are bound by their very psychological make-up to behave the way they do. Confronting their true natures, to see themselves, is counter-intuitive to the pursuit of power.

The nature of evil has been studied in countless volumes from all disciplines. It is not my intention to undertake such a heavy task with this paper. I simply want to suggest, following the model for the psyche outlined above and the considerations I have presented of the Kali Yuga, that Duryodhana’s actions extend beyond literary, but represent an inherent collective human need to tend the shadow. I do not presume to imply that all cognizant beings across the world need to honor their own shadows, but, rather, state that to constantly and collectively ignore the shadow will eventually cause it seep into the collective psyche and manifest in the conscious world. I can almost picture this as being Kali’s Last Laugh prior to the launch of the next cycle.

Works cited

  • Buck, William, trans. Mahabharata. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1973.
  • Campbell, Joseph. Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor. Ed. Eugene Kennedy. Novato: New World, 2001.
  • Johnson, Robert A. Owning Your Own Shadow. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991.
  • Jung, Carl G. “The Shadow.” Trans. R.F.C. Hull. Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self. Ed. Sir Herbert Read, et al. 2nd ed. New York: Bollingen, 1959. 8-10.
  • Suri, Chander Kanta. The Life and Times of Duryodhan. Characters from the Mahabharat 11. Delhi: Books for All, 1992.
  • Sutton, Nicholas. Religious Doctrines in the Mahabharata. Delhi: Notical Banarsidass, 2000.
  • Zimmer, Heinrich. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Ed. Joseph Campbell. Washington, D.C.: Bollingen, 1946.

Works consulted

  • Gitomer, David L. “Raksasa Bhima: Wolfbelly Among Ogres and Brahmans in the Sanskrit Mahabharata and the Veniramhara.” Essays on the Mahabharata. Ed. Arvind Sharma. Leiden: Brill, 1991. 296-304.

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).

Using the Mask to Confront the Shadow: A Look at MirrorMask

MirrorMask, a story by Neil Gaiman and film directed in 2005 by Dave McKean, is a graphic fairytale of how a young girl, Helena, is forced to cope with her mother’s illness, which she does by retreating into her world of fantasy. One night, she wanders through a door and is stuck in a world where everyone believes she is the daughter of the Black Queen and responsible for the White Queen’s illness. When given the opportunity to glimpse into her own world through windows, she sees this Princess, named Anti-Helena in the credits, destroying her world. These glimpses help Helena realize many things about herself. In order to return home,Helena must face her shadow by finding the MirrorMask and facing the Princess with it. This raises the question of why one would wear a mask, specifically a mirrored mask, to confront the shadow. This film demonstrates that the mirrored mask, literally and figuratively, acts as a portal between the conscious and unconscious and as a tool for owning the shadow.

The shadow refers to aspects of oneself that are hidden in the unconscious during the course of persona development. On occasion, these aspects can boil to the surface and cause a temporary uncharacteristic outburst, or can cause long term personality shifts. According to Carl Jung, 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 conscous of it involves recognizing dark aspects of the personality as pruent and real” (Jung 8). The contrast between Helena and the Princess illustrates this stark contrast: for every aspect of Helena that is light, it is dark within the Princess. Helena hones her creativity through art, whereas the Princess is destructive. The film highlights the relationship between the conscious and the shadow by emphasizing the striking ressemblance between Helena and the Princess: “Yes, you look like her, but you’re not her are you?” asks the White Queen’s Minister. Helena’s moral challenge is one we all face in our lives, that of owning the shadow and being conscious of how it affects decisions and relations between people. Before Helena enters her shadow world, she argues with her mother, who falls ill with an uncertain outcome. She blames herself for her mother’s illness, having allowed her shadow to temporarily control the situation.


The processes of “owning the shadow” and not allowing it to get out of control involves recognizing and honoring it. The confrontation between the conscious and the shadow is not a battle between hero and boon guardian, though it can manifest as such, but rather more of a truce. The conscious agrees to honor the shadow, and the shadow promises to behave itself. In the coming-of-age story, the hero does not fully defeat the shadow figure, but does come to an understanding.


Helena’s journey through her shadow world, which she created in her drawings and hung on her bedroom wall, forces her to confront the world she not only created in her drawings, but also within her unconscious. This world consists of neighboring Light & Dark kingdoms. The mythology within this world talks of a young girl who sat down one day and began drawing. When she ran out of room, she flipped the paper over and continued on the other side, thus creating the two kingdoms. Helena’s mission is to restore peace between the two kingdoms by finding the charm that will awaken the White Queen (her manifest desire to cure her mother). The Kingdom of Light knows that Princess Anti-Helena came for a visit and then the queen fell ill (her unconscious self-blame for her mother’s illness). The Kingdom of Dark accusses the Light of kidnapping. The Charm, as Helena discovers, is the MirrorMask, and by finding the mask she an awaken the queen, restore the delicate balance between the two worlds, and go home.

In stories and in mythic ritual, masks are often used to alter the appearance of an individual, either for a disguise or in imitation of a specific figure. In either case, this represents a supression of the individual ego in favor of an adopted persona. Masks help shield one’s identity, temporarily pushing traits below the surface. Whether the mask is temporary, permanent, or permanent but constantly changing, it provides a metaphor for the process of individuation as one pursues one’s own hero’s journey.

Masks play a large role in Helena’s life. Her father runs a circus, and both she and her mother perform alongside clowns, acrobats, and other performers. Helena’s teenage crisis extends from her desire to have a “real life,” meaning one in which she is valued for herself not valued as a circus performer, a stable life with friends with real faces. When she enters her shadow world, she finds that she is the odd one for not wearing a mask. Her friend, Valentine, criticizes her for not having a proper face, and the White Queen’s guards comment upon her changeable expression as they carry her to the palace. Valantine asks, “How do you know if you’re happy or sad without a mask?” Although masks are commonly used to hide one’s feelings, they become the means to understanding expression within Helena’s shadow world. This characterizes not only the opposite nature of the shadow world, but also the importance of masks in Helena’s psyche. Her life is marked by masks, always having to put on an alternate face for circus goers.


Because masks act as the keys to true expression between this world, a mirrored mask melds the expressions of both the mask’s wearer and of the outside person facing the mask, bringing them into each other. The MirrorMask also acts as a portal between the shadow and the conscious worlds. Its reflective properties force the shadow and the ego to look upon each other, forcing them to unite, before crossing between boundaries. When the ego wears the MirrorMask, the shadow is kept within the shadow world, but the opposite is true when the shadow wears the mask, allowing it to enter the conscious realm. Allowing the shadow to gain control, as Anti-Helena did, can lead to dischord in the consciousness and imbalance in the unconsciousness. Such dissonance distracts the hero, ourselves, from the archetypal journey, and one will have to spend time cleaning up the mess, in addition to atoning for mistakes.

A film like MirrorMask serves as a reminder that one’s worst enemy is often within oneself, and that Self must be confronted at some point during life’s journey. This does not mean that Helena has conquored all of her dragons and has become unified with the Self, but she at least now possesses an awareness. This insight gives one the ability to navigate the remaining mysteries of the unconscious. The journey is never complete, especially not after one task, but every success adds experience and wisdom to interpreting one’s life.

Works cited:

Jung, Carl Gustav. “The Shadow.” Trans. R.F.C. Hull. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Vol. 9, part 2. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1959.

MirrorMask. Dir. Dave McKean. Perf. Stephanie Leonidas, Jason Barry, Rob Brydon. Jim Henson Productions, 2005.