"The way to yourself is the longest way and the hardest way. Everybody would pay anything, his whole fortune, to avoid going to himself. Most people hate themselves, and for nothing in the world would they go where they are, where their native town is, because it is just hell."
- C.G. Jung. The Vision Seminars, vol 1, p. 30.
Tragedy, both ancient and modern, points to this idea. One has only to look at Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex or Shakespeare’s King Lear or Macbeth or in modern times to Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman or Tennessee Williams’ Blanche from Streetcar Named Desire. This blog post is just a short introduction to these ideas.
Oedipus who has unknowingly lived out the oracle’s prophecy has killed his father and married his mother and thus has become the King of Thebes. Under his leadership, the city eventually becomes plagued with disasters. Oedipus is determined to find out why, yet he will not look into what is beyond the ego. He refuses help from the unconscious, in the form of Tireseias. Gradually, however, he finds out that the troubles in Thebes are the result of his own unnatural acts. This knowledge comes upon him with great devastation and in his collapse, he blinds himself. This is the hell of self-knowledge, fortunately, Oedipus Rex is not the end of the story for in Oedipus at Colonus, after thirty years of wandering, Oedipus has become a holy man with great wisdom.
King Lear and Macbeth both come to self knowledge by way of a dark and difficult journey. King Lear has a shallow belief in his generosity and the meaning of love, so he divides his kingdom between the two daughters who flatter his narcissism and exiles his daughter who loves him. After the two flattering daughters deny him of his authority, Lear undergoes the torment of a ferocious storm, symbolizing the difficult journey to the shadow and self knowledge. Before his death, Lear recognizes the meaning of love and is reunited with his true daughter. Macbeth, who is a great warrior with a capacity for imagination, comes to know the murderous monster inside himself as he murders and murders, first for kingship, and then to cement his kingship and avoid his guilt. Macbeth becomes more and more nihilistic, finally averring that “Life is a walking shadow, signifying nothing.” Self knowledge led Macbeth to despair for he found the inner monster.
Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman keeps himself alive with the illusion that he is a good man and that he is well-liked. As the play progresses, Willy learns that his days of being beloved are over and when his son discovers his infidelity, his persona is destroyed, and his shadow cannot be ignored. His one-sided knowledge of himself can no longer survive, and Willy is unable to bear the pain of this knowledge. The play ends with his suicide.
Like Willy Loman, Blanche Dubois survives on fantasy. She presents herself as an upper class damsel who has fallen upon hard times and so she moves in with her sister, Stella, and her working-class husband, Stanley. Blanch and Stanley are almost immediately antagonists. In the meantime, Blanche falls in love with one of Stanley’s more refined comrades, Mitch. By the by, Stanley discovers the truth about Blanche’s past-viz., that she squandered the family estate, that she had lived in a hotel known for housing prostitutes and that she had been fired from her teaching job for having sex with a high school student. He tells all this to Mitch, who breaks off with Blanche and as an added insult, Stanley rapes her. As a result of the broken fantasy, Blanche collapses into mental confusion and as she is taken away to the mental institution, she says the famous line, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” She has regressed, in her illness, to the fantasy that had kept her alive. Self knowledge could not be borne.
For most of us, the gradual understanding and assimilation of shadow behaviors and affects mitigates the effect and although the knowledge will be painful, it will not be catastrophic. This is also true for the work on difficult complexes.
So good news for analysis.
Julie Bondanza, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and a diplomate Jungian analyst who trained at the C.G. Jung Institute of New York, where she was Director of Training, a job she also held with the Philadelphia Association of Jungian Analysts. She has taught extensively in New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington, as well as for various Jung societies across the country. Presently she serves the board of the C.G. Jung Foundation of New York and continues to serve as its program chair, a post she has held for many years. Dr. Bondanza practices in Takoma Park and lives in Washington, D.C.