Saturday, October 01, 2016

Head Full of Ghosts (Paul Tremblay)

I start too many blog posts with the phrase "it's been a long time," but the fact remains that I haven't blogged in a long time. In another month I will be officially finished with my doctorate, so perhaps I can get back to some more posting, and more book reviews in between academic papers, the novel I'm trying to publish, my day job, and my part-time job teaching 70 students and grading their papers. It will be a question of time management and energy.

I did manage to take some time to read Paul Tremblay's recent novel "Head Full of Ghosts." I haven't read Tremblay's previous novels, but this one came with two very separate and enthusiastic recommendations from a couple of Facebook friends; I know one of them from high school and met the other during John Foxx's tour in 2011. The synopsis of the book promised a psychological thriller written from different points of view, and I find this immediately intriguing. I love well-crafted psychological horror.

"Head Full of Ghosts" promised something involved and complex that left you uncertain about the reality of events, and it did not disappoint in any way. The story is told from the perspective of Meredith Barrett, know as "Merry." The story is about her family--her parents, John and Sarah, and her sister Marjorie. When Marjorie starts to exhibit strange psychological symptoms, she is first taken to a psychiatrist, but then her unemployed father, who has "found religion," asks a Catholic priest called Father Weatherly for advice, and we are then led to believe that Marjorie is possessed by a demon. The family is in desperate financial straits, and when they end up being approached about doing a reality TV show about Marjorie's "possession," they agree to do it. John wants us to believe that his motivation is to make Marjorie better; Sarah admits that she mainly agreed to it because of the money involved, though she wants to believe it will help. She does not believe her daughter is possessed. There is a twist ending that I won't reveal here--you only get hints throughout the novel that Merry is somehow the only one who has survived the reality TV ordeal.

I am teaching Mythology again this semester, and one of the points I stressed in my opening lectures was the importance of narrative, and the ways in which we run on a script, never aware of our own stories. Our only contact with the rich world of the collective unconscious is through dreams, fantasies, and crises--including psychological breakdowns or psychoses. The stories we are drawn to tell us something about our unconscious state. In the first part of Tremblay's novel, Marjorie tells stories to Merry. Marjorie writes and draws in Merry's Richard Scarry book, with its town of animals, even though Merry is too old for Richard Scarry at the age of eight. Merry likes the stories, because they always have happy endings. But then Marjorie begins to tell darker stories, and if you read a lot of Jung, you realize immediately that she is slipping into a kind of schizoid state. The first story is about a flood of molasses that leaves everyone in the town "stuck"; the second is about vines that grow up through the basement and take over the house. Primal consciousness is devouring the personality, and leaving Marjorie "stuck." Merry runs into Marjorie in the basement early in the filming process of the show. Marjorie confides in her that she is not demon-possessed, that she's just playing along. But then she says (and I'm paraphrasing) "I'm not possessed by a demon. I'm possessed by ideas." These are the voices she hears in her head. And I thought, BINGO. Beautifully written, and dead-on accurate. This is not a demon, this is being taken over by "elementary ideas"--the archetypes. There is something Dionysian about her dream of vines.

As the novel progresses, the reader is left uncertain about whether or not Marjorie really IS possessed, though the decided tone of Merry's narrative makes you skeptical of the whole operation. There is definitely a sexist element to the whole thing, as Marjorie "could not possibly" know certain things as a fourteen-year-old girl, things that she certainly could know if she applied herself. When they give their litany of evidence, Sarah tells them that of course Marjorie knows those things--she's smart, and she reads. There is a hat-tip to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story "The Yellow Wallpaper," which is explicitly mentioned in some places. The attempts of the men in the story to reign in Marjorie's intellect and strength just leads to more disaster.

By the end of the novel, the reader is questioning the sanity of all the characters--the parents, certainly, but also Merry. When I finished the book, I had some clues early on that she also might not be "quite right," and that the trauma she suffered with her family made an existing problem worse. I'll refrain from saying any more about the outcome; I encourage you to read the book yourself.

The style of the book reminds me of Danielewski's "House of Leaves", though not as chaotic. The narrative is told through interview with Merry, Merry's first person recollections, and Merry's horror movie blog which she writes under a pseudonym. The pieces of the narrative are fed slowly to the reader, as you jump from one perspective of the situation to another, and it's very well-crafted.

Friday, March 04, 2016

American Authoritarianism and the Shadow

Note: I generally try to avoid getting too political in posts. But I'm really bothered by what I see in the current politics of our country, and the professor in me wants to use this as a moment of reflection--and perhaps instruction.

I teach Classical Mythology from a Jungian perspective. Archetype theory isn’t fashionable with all branches of scholarship, but I have always found it the most useful way of organizing and understanding the symbolic language of myth. In my lectures on the underworld and on the trials of the hero, I always talk about the pseudo-archetype of the Shadow. The Shadow does not represent human evil; it represents those aspects of ourselves that are weaker or less understood. This can include “evil” inclinations; whatever you consciously present to the world, the opposite always has its potential in your psyche, in “shadow”. The key to dealing with the Shadow is confrontation—you have to take a good look at yourself and what you’re afraid of, ashamed of, horrified by, etc. Most of us don’t like to do this; it can be a real ego-downer, and the goal of Shadow work is not to make you depressed or afraid. It’s to make you aware that most of what you’re afraid of exists inside yourself. But again, it is not automatic human nature to do this; most of the time we see the Shadow through projection—it is as though we are in a hall of mirrors. What we see in others that we intensely like or dislike represents usually unconscious qualities in ourselves. It’s good to pay attention to those things, because they tell you a lot about you. We should also not diminish the influence of the Shadow; it can be much scarier than it sounds. The more you acknowledge it as part of you, the less influence it has over you. The more you believe the “devil” is not in you (especially if you think you’re “saved”), the more control the “devil” has over you.

When I discuss the Shadow with my students, I get varied reactions. I have no idea whether most of them “get” it or not. Jungian psychology is difficult for the 18-22 year-old set, unless they’ve had a number of life crises already. Jung himself admits that his psychology is really meant for those “at the middle of life”, which he roughly estimates as age 35. But that doesn’t mean his ideas aren’t relevant to other groups. When I give examples of collective Shadow projection in history, I usually get blank stares; students are removed from the emotional impact of historical catastrophes like the Holocaust. One might “get it” on a superficial level, or translate it to the idea “look at yourself before you blame others”. But now we have a real life example, and we need to pay attention. This is not a drill.

The current Presidential election campaigns have been nothing short of a circus, and most candidates have been acting like clowns. Ultimately, though, this is about the public and not specifically the candidates. There is collective astonishment that this campaign-turned-reality-show is tolerated by intelligent people. This is instructive as to the “Shadow” state of our society. I will point to Trump particularly because he has a segment of voters that demonstrate political extremes. Several articles have come out recently, with this one being the most comprehensive, on the ability to predict Donald Trump’s wins by the authoritarianism of his supporters. This, more than any other factor, has been correlated with his success. But what does it mean to be “authoritarian”? There is a discomfort with change, and a need to control the environment to maintain the status quo by any means necessary. It’s important to note (as the article above does) that supporting Trump doesn’t automatically make someone authoritarian. But one can have an authoritarian response to fear of change. You can look at the appeal of vigilante or “crazy cop” justice movies (Diehard, Lethal Weapon, Deathwish, etc.) or watch heroes killing off zombies with chainsaws to see the emotional response of “blowing away the bad guys”. But as it’s been pointed out, this a really a kind of anti-heroism—the hero goes out to battle, and nothing redeeming has been brought back. You just have a lot of dead (or deader) people. This is Virgil’s subtext in the last books of the Aeneid; unlike the Iliad, you see young boys, barely considered adults, going out to fight and being killed in a senseless bloodbath. War is not glorified in the Aeneid; Virgil writes this at the beginning of the Roman Empire, when Augustus represented a re-established Pax Romana (Roman Peace) after years of brutal civil war.

But even outside the context of war, the authoritarian tendency is one for gaining forceful control over an external event, and the central motivation is fear. Everyone has authoritarian traits, just as everyone has narcissistic traits. If you ask my co-workers, I can be very authoritarian when I feel my department is given the short end of the stick by those outside. When it comes to my own life, I can be very controlling. However, this doesn’t extend to others—everyone should be able to live the life they want, whether they agree with me or not. A couple of other examples—my father has a lot of traits that might be construted as authoritarian; he’s always been staunchly conservative Repbulican, and big on “blowing away the bad guys”. However, my father doesn’t like Trump at all, and when it comes down to it, he adapts to societal change fairly well—he is indifferent to things like gay marriage, for instance. By contrast my mother is someone who fears change, and yet that again applies only to herself and her family; when it comes to the outside world, she is quite liberal, even if she has a hard time accepting certain societal changes. So, while there may be “classic authoritarians”, the amount of authoritarianism displayed is directly related to one’s fear response to a threat. Completely non-authoritarian personalities can act in authoritarian ways. Like all other “Shadow” traits, this doesn’t make someone “evil” or even hateful.

So, how does all this relate? What we are afraid of is, by Jungian definition, ‘“in Shadow”. There is no “one right way” to deal with the Shadow; it depends on your own environment, culture, challenges, strengths, and weaknesses. Nonetheless, if we are going to live in a society that is able to flow with change and give real equality to all its citizens, we have to look at it—you can’t blame others, and there are no simplistic solutions. There are individual Shadows, and a country can have a collective Shadow. As Jung noted, “the brighter the light, the darker the shadow”, so one needs to be suspicious of efforts to “protect” the citizenry from the “evils” of a particular group or country. Those who have taken my classes know how I feel about the so-called “battle between good and evil”. There will always be conflict, always people with radically differing views. We live in a society that, while not perfectly pleasing everyone, allows everyone to have their views without punishment or censorship, at least by the law. There will always be a dynamic where one ideology may gain mainstream preference over another. This has for thousands of years been known as “the wheel of life”. The best place for you to be is in the center, not disoriented by the ups and downs. This is more difficult for us that it seems.

You can recognize the Shadow when you see scapegoating. If change makes you uncomfortable, if you feel a great threat from the outside, the natural thing to do is to put up a wall and blame an outside person, group, or ideology. But your fear of whatever it is—ISIS, gay marriage, atheists, the government—ultimately it’s not about any of those things. It’s about you. And that is what it means to confront the Shadow. What you are really afraid of is a loss of control and liberty to be and do what you want—and this is certainly credible. But it’s also a denial of how the world really is—there is always going to be suffering, conflict, and clashes. Most of the horrors we envision never happen. The question becomes—how to do we choose to deal with it? And does our choice help the problem, or only make it worse? And most importantly—how do we negotiate problems that are unsolvable? We may not be as lucky as Oresetes, who had Apollo and Athena rooting for him against the Furies when he was stuck in an impossible situation. Sometimes you have to negotiate things on a day to day basis.

In addition, we live in an era of too much information, and most of it questionable or useless. We often just want everything to go away, but we can’t help being bombarded by images unless we stay away from the Internet and all media. It is not surprising that we live in a society where younger people don’t want to be bothered with social and political questions, or with furthering their education; they have been bombarded since childhood, and just want to escape from it. But it is a part of growing up; you can’t stay in childhood forever, you have to develop resiliency. Most importantly, you have to not be afraid of the world, and when you do feel fear, don’t become immobilized. It’s your life to live, and you should not let the collective Shadow frighten you into betraying yourself. Regardless of who you support in this election, or what your personal response is to external crises, remember—most of what you are afraid of is within yourself, and most of it is what “could happen” rather than what “is”. Reflect on that, and treat others with the decency you’d want for yourself from them. Aggressiveness and bullying are not signs of leadership; they are signs of fear, weakness, and an inability to face realities. We all long for simple solutions, but take a deep breath and realize that not everything is simple, and if you can master your own fears, the others will fall from significance. Remember also that the great thing about America is your freedom to be who you are and what you want, and this necessarily means living with difference. There is no need to silence or disenfranchise those who are different from you; we’re all humans after all.

Lastly—go back and brush up on your world history. Our country is in panic mode in response to crises, some real, many imagined or invented by the media. There is much to be learned from what has happened in other places in the past. Expose yourself to viewpoints different from your own. Education is not a liability; it is power. And real discourse is important, not shouting down the opposition—if we can’t find common ground, we will be destroyed faster than a Florida community in a sinkhole. Demand this from your politicians, and don't be sucked in by cheap pandering.

You might say, "What do I have to do with it? Focusing on myself doesn't change anything else." Actually, yes it does. Societies are made up of individuals like yourself; if we don't change individually, nothing changes collectively.