The Shadow Self


A dim premonition tells us that we cannot be whole without this negative side, that we have a body which, like all bodies, casts a shadow, and that if we deny this body we cease to be three-dimensional and become flat and without substance. Yet this body is a beast with a beast’s soul, an organism that gives unquestioning obedience to instinct. To unite oneself with this shadow is to say yes to instinct, to that formidable dynamism lurking in the background. From this the ascetic morality of Christianity wishes to free us, but at the risk of disorganizing man’s animal nature at the deepest level. [Jung, On the psychology of the unconscious]

Lately I’ve run into a cluster of references to Jung’s idea of the ‘shadow’ self. This is the set of unconscious urges which are formed in reaction to the overt, conscious personality. Just as the shape of an object determines the shape of its shadow, so our shadow self is the dark opposite of whatever values we hold in everyday life.

To me, the concept has an intuitive resonance. I’m not convinced it is true, but it is a useful tool for introspection.

I took a dive into Jung’s writing to find more about this, and ended up pleasantly lost. I can see why Jung, even more than Freud, appealed to a generation of artists and writers. He offers a world where stories matter. Literature, art, religion, culture – they are all routes to the same essence, and understanding one will cast light on the rest

Progression Fantasy

I’ve been reading through Will Wight’s Cradle series, which is my first exposure to “Progression Fantasy

Progression Fantasy is something like a book-length training montage. The main appeal is to watch the hero increasing in power or competence over the course of a book or a series.

In Cradle this power comes through training in the ‘sacred arts’, a combat-oriented idea of magic. Everybody wants to level up through a series of named ranks, from Copper to Iron to Jade, and beyond. Your rank determines, among other things, your chances of winning in hand-to-hand magical combat.

It all feels like Dungeons and Dragons, or a computer game. This isn’t just in the named levels, but in the shape the world takes on in order to accommodate them. So the hero starts in a low-powered village before venturing out to encounter increasingly more advanced enemies. It is considered dishonourable to fight somebody of a lower level, because otherwise every hero would be splatted immediately. A sister genre, LitRPG, leans even harder on these game-related aspects.

The end result is something which satisfies one very particular itch, but does that extraordinarily well. If you don’t want to play games yourself, but still want to vicariously experience the joy of leveling up, go for Cradle.

The Destructive Character

I found a collection of Walter Benjamin essays on the street. Bracing stuff, this!

I turned straight to an essay in praise of destructive personalities, and….yep, I already want to run riot with a sledgehammer

Der destruktive Charakter ist jung und heiter. Denn Zerstören verjüngt, weil es die Spuren unseres eigenen Alters aus dem Weg räumt; es heitert auf, weil jedes Wegschaffen dem Zerstörenden eine vollkommene Reduktion, ja Radizierung seines eignen Zustands bedeutet. Zu solchem apollinischen Zerstörerbilde führt erst recht die Einsicht, wie ungeheuer sich die Welt vereinfacht, wenn sie auf ihre Zerstörungswürdigkeit geprüft wird. Dies ist das große Band, das alles Bestehende einträchtig umschlingt. Das ist ein Anblick, der dem destruktiven Charakter ein Schauspiel tiefster Harmonie verschafft. The destructive character is young and lively. Destruction rejuvenates, because it removes the remains of our age. It enlivens, because to the destroyer every removal means a reduction, a dissection of his own situation. This Apollonian picture of the destroyer arises in fact from a vision of how radically the world is simplified, when it is measured by its potential for destruction. That is the great bond, uniting all that exists. Such a perspective is what turns the destructive character into a spectacle of deepest harmony.
Der destruktive Charakter sieht nichts Dauerndes. Aber eben darum sieht er überall Wege. Wo andere auf Mauern oder Gebirge stoßen, auch da sieht er einen Weg. Weil er aber überall einen Weg sieht, hat er auch überall aus dem Weg zu räumen. Nicht immer mit roher Gewalt, bisweilen mit veredelter. Weil er überall Wege sieht, steht er selber immer am Kreuzweg. Kein Augenblick kann wissen, was der nächste bringt. Das Bestehende legt er in Trümmer, nicht um der Trümmer, sondern um des Weges willen, der sich durch sie hindurchzieht.
Der destruktive Charakter lebt nicht aus dem Gefühl, daß das Leben lebenswert sei, sondern daß der Selbstmord die Mühe nicht lohnt.
The destructive character sees nothing permanent. But for this very reason he sees paths everywhere. Even where others hit walls or mountains, he finds a way. But because he sees a way everywhere, he has to clear things from it everywhere. Not always by brute force; sometimes by the most refined. Because he sees ways everywhere, he always stands at a crossroads. No moment can know what the next will bring. What exists he reduces to rubble – not for the sake of rubble, but for that of the way leading through it.
The destructive character lives not from the feeling that life is not worth living, but that suicide is not worth the effort

Here is the original; here is a translation

Sober me accepts that there might be the odd problem with a life built on trashing everything you encounter. But my furious rebel self is starting to get fire behind the eyes, and craving the aesthetics of rubble. Everything looks the same after you’vde burnt it to the ground, right?

Review: The Flying Classroom

Erich Kästner is a National Treasure in Germany, and this might be his most treasured book. Telling Germans I am reading it, I have found, often results in glossy-eyed nostalgia.

I can partially understand this. It must be a very comforting book to read at the right age. Not only does everything turn out right in the end, but two of the adults are presented as boddhisattva-like images of perfection. One is the benevolent boarding-school headmaster, the other a drop-out living in an old railway carriage.

Reading it as an adult is less satisfying, for some of the same reasons. Many of the characters feel two-dimensional, and spend a lot of time repeating their gimmicks. One wants to be a boxer and is permanently hungry, for example, and another is easily scared. But I can’t complain, since this is obviously something which works better for the target audience.

I was also taken aback by some of the violence between children. Clearly, childhood has become less physically aggressive in the 95 years since the book was first published. A fight to KO, a child being tortured in a basement: I’m glad to say that these are well beyond my own experience.

I definitely enjoyed reading this. Had I read it at age 10, I would doubtless me many times more enthusiastic.

The Little Ice Age

According to some climatologists, the cold spell known as the Little Ice Age, from roughly 1500 to 1850, may well have been due to the reduction of CO2—a greenhouse gas—brought about by the die-off of North America’s indigenous fire farmers. [James C Scott, Against the Grain]

This theory is probably too neat to be true, but that doesn’t stop it being fun. Scott is largely drawing on (and perhaps slightly exaggerating) the work of William Ruddiman

He is interested in how humans before and outside of sedentary, grain-based ‘civilization’ shaped their landscape with fire. By burning vegetation, you can herd animals into a spot where they are easy to kill. The plants which grow back first after fire might also be more human-friendly: less huge trees, more bushes with fruits or berries.

So before Columbus, humans in the Americas were burning the landscape every year. Then Europeans came, brought smallpox, and killed off a the majority of them. So the forests stopped being burned, leading to the reforestation forest of an area the size of Venezuela. This decreased CO2 in the atmosphere, which cooled the temperature, causing the Little Ice AGe.

Review: The Right Stuff

Even Tom Wolfe can’t make me care about the Mercury Program Astronauts.

At age 14, when I first encountered Tom Wolfe, his work was an adrenaline shot. I got hold of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, his portrait of the group of psychonaut drop-outs clustered around Ken Kesey. For the next decade I fantasized about going to San Francisco and joining a nomadic band of freaks.

If this longing was mostly caused by the subject matter, some of the responsibility of Tom Wolfe. His prose is always an overexcited, colloquial splurge of words, like a Good Ol’ Boy on speed. His fellow New Journalist Hunter S Thompson is the obvious comparison. Hunter, though, was in real life at least half as bonkers as his gonzo persona. Tom Wolfe was the straightest of the straight, but with sufficient journalistic chops to get inside the heads of the most varied people.

So even though I don’t care much about astronauts, I imagined Tom Wolfe might be able to show me their character.

The problem is, Wolfe seems not to care that much about astronauts either.

Perhaps a third of the book is dedicated to military test pilots, from whose ranks the first astronauts were chosen. This is by far the best part of the book. Wolfe describes a culture on – or sometimes over – the boundary between bravery and self-destruction, where fatal crashes are an unremarkable event. And yet he makes it comprehensible. The pilots are a band of young men who consider themselves a natural elite. Alongside bravery they share reflexes, calm under pressure, and an almost supernatural knack for getting out of tough scrapes. This combination, the ‘Right Stuff’ of the title is the defining feature of the pilots’ self-image, and is how they keep score among themselves.

The astronauts emerge from this world, but into one where there skills are all but valueless. The Mercury rockets allowed almost no manual piloting; the first flights were made by chimpanzees. In almost all their actions, the astronauts are subject to orders from engineers on the ground. So even while they are feted by society, test pilots sneer that they no longer have ‘The Right Stuff’

The problem is that, as the astronauts have nothing to do, the narrative naturally loses its drive. We hear about their car racing, their womanizing, their experiences of celebrity, their internal squabbles – but none of it seems to matter.

The suicidal passion of the test pilots might seem ridiculous from the outside, but it felt serious and honorable and life-defining. The astronauts’ mission was historic, but only minimally reliant on the men in the capsules. And so, in the end, I found it hard to work up excitement about these astronauts.

The Artist as Exemplary Sufferer

One of my very niche interests is following the fine line between heroism and masochism. So much glory is just a thin veneer over gleeful suffering.

Susan Sontag, in The Artist as Exemplary Sufferer, explores the interaction of love, art, suffering and Christianity:

The cult of love in the West is an aspect of the cult of suffering—suffering as the supreme token of seriousness (the paradigm of the Cross). We do not find among the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and the Orientals the same value placed on love because we do not find there the same positive value placed on suffering. Suffering was not the hallmark of seriousness; rather, seriousness was measured by one’s ability to evade or transcend the penalty of suffering, by one’s ability to achieve tranquillity and equilibrium. In contrast, the sensibility we have inherited identifies spirituality and seriousness with turbulence, suffering, passion. For two thousand years, among Christians and Jews, it has been spiritually fashionable to be in pain. Thus it is not love which we overvalue, but suffering—more precisely, the spiritual merits and benefits of suffering.
The modern contribution to this Christian sensibility has been to discover the making of works of art and the venture of sexual love as the two most exquisite sources of suffering.

I’m less convinced than Sontag that this cult of suffering is purely Western, or purely Christian. Strands of Hinduism, for example, put a value on suffering which can outdo even Catholic hagiography. It’s a basic tendency which seeps out, in one form or another, from just about any cultural environment.

Weimar Culture, by Peter Gay

This book is a short, opinionated cultural history of Weimar Germany.

“Short and opinionated” is basically the only way I can deal with reading cultural or intellectual history. When a writer attempts to be balanced and encyclopaedic, they erode any sense of excitement from the people or works being described.

Take the Warburg Institute. Wikipedia will tell you that it is a cultural history research institute, founded in Hamburg and then moving to London in 1933. Peter Gay gives some idea why you might care:

There was in [Warburg], Panofsky has written, “an enormous tension between the rational and the irrational” which induced in him “not a romantic split, but a fascinating combination of brilliant wit and dark melancholy, the keenest rational criticism and most empathetic readiness to help.”14 It was Warburg’s special achievement to recognize—I am tempted to say, re-experience—the full range of the classical heritage, which was, for him, more than serene temples and Latin poems; it was dark as it was light, and its legacy was superstitious beliefs and magical practices quite as much as sculpture and poetry. Warburg’s models—Burckhardt, Nietzsche, and Usener—set his problem and suggested its solution: the study of the survival of the classical heritage demanded a broad view of cultural history, an appreciation of the Dionysian aspects of life, and close attention to man’s religious experience.

I find Gay’s prose style captivating. As the author of a book on Style in History, he obviously also values the craft of writing.

The Night Sky

Last night I ventured out to a lake to watch the Perseid meteor shower.

I had the predictable city-boi revelation that yes, there really are stars in the sky. But – I grew up in the countryside, so I have some vague memory that there are Things Up There.

What I had not expected were the satellites. I’m sure that back in the 90s, when little-me was lying on their back in nighttime fields, spotting a satellite was at least mildly exciting. Now, it seems there is no moment without them.

So I looked it up. The number of satellites has indeed quintupled since I was a kid, and has doubled in just the past 6 years. It’s bewildering that the night sky has changed so much while I wasn’t paying attention.

Practice and Procrastination

Practice and Procrastination is not a piece of Jane Austin fanfic, but a miniature revelation about one of the reasons why I put things off.

A very typical cause of procrastination is an unacknowledged confusion about what to do next. There is a gap between the overall plan (which is understood), and the immediate next step (which is not).

Thinking about practice makes me aware of another gap. Namely, the gap between my brain knowing what to do next, and having sufficient practice that the knowledge how has percolated down into the body. So every action must labouriously be directed from consciousness, with correspondingly greater temptation to give up.

For example, for months I have been putting off doing some home renovation work. I could write down, step by step, what is needed. But I have only minimal experience of actually doing any of it. So, when I finally get going, I will need to think through each element of the work.

What happens if I think in terms of practice? Maybe I would drill holes into bricks until the process became automatic. Or paint walls, or rewire plugs, or any similar task. This might not justify itself for a single DIY task, but would if I had any intention of doing this more frequently.