Blind Rage and Absolute Corruption: Reflections on Macbeth

image of blood red hands and title Macbeth

“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Attributed to the nineteenth century historian Lord Acton, this insight was particularly aimed at monarchical systems where the ruler was believed to be there by divine authority and therefore could do no wrong. Like some of the more despotic Roman emperors, Shakespeare’s Scottish Thane Macbeth seems to have become drunk on his own self-image and the power of kingly status. Once in the grip of it, the thirst for more power drove him to ever more bloody and heartless slaughter. And like many corrupt regimes, once the public realised they were under the rule of a tyrant it was too late to depose him. Fear was the order of the day.

Shakespeare was a genius. His understanding of human psychology is timeless, yet forever being re-discovered and Macbeth, the play, is particularly incisive. As the tale intimates, the loss of their young son triggered the slide of Lord and Lady Macbeth into a state of emotional numbness wherein the seeds of a desperate quest for validation and position could take root and fester; almost a state of grief gone awry.

We know that grief can manifest in many forms and that anger is one of them. Yet while anger is a common human emotion built to protect us, no-one would condone a power-crazed killing spree. It is, in my view, the pathological nature of Macbeth’s anger that scares us so much and that creates the dark mood of the play, with all the superstition and ritual that have surrounded it. image of face with black side versus white side Blind rage coupled with the knowledge that he has damned himself seem to drive Macbeth into a state of complete disregard for the humanity around him, perhaps even denial of their suffering. Jung would no doubt say he was in the grip of a sinister, destructive shadow archetype.

But the puzzle remains as to why and how Macbeth’s reign of terror escalated to such a degree. We hear for instance his initial thoughts of ambition and regicide, then his second thoughts pulling back from the awfulness of it – yet the influence of the witches’ predictions and Lady Macbeth’s goading are the focus of some debate. Was he channelled into his dreadful path, to carry out a self-fulfilling prophecy sparked off by the witches’ proclamations, or was the naked ambition there from before? Was he manipulated by Lady Macbeth to re-ignite his notion to murder the king, or did she just fan the flames that were already there?

Here’s an extract from my daughter Dearbhlá’s GCSE coursework of a few years ago, regarding

The Witches and Macbeth

‘The witches seem to predict that Macbeth will do something awful and the world will be thrown into chaos but when we meet Macbeth we see quite quickly that his thoughts have already been dwelling on his own political rank. They tell him he will be king and after they leave he states,

“Stay, you imperfect speakers! Tell me more!”

Murderous ambition is already present in his mind so the witches cannot be seen to have caused it, though they help to bring it to the surface. Even Macbeth himself starts to talk like the witches in another aside:

“This supernatural soliciting;

Cannot be ill, cannot be good.”….

….“My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,

Shakes so my single state of man

That function is smothered in surmise,

And nothing is but what it is not.”

Macbeth is “rapt” according to Banquo, and mesmerised by what the witches have said but this could be because it has opened up ideas and plans already in his head. So again the witches are part of the backdrop but not the entire cause of all the chaos and horror in the play. If the witches do have a bigger plan to destroy Scotland, Macbeth is a willing pawn in their game. Even more sinister is his wife Lady Macbeth who as we will also see later encourages and even browbeats him into actually murdering King Duncan.

While the witches have created the atmosphere and kick-started the core themes of the play, it is the main characters of Macbeth and his wife who think the ambitious thoughts and do the evil deeds….

There is a sense that the witches’ predictions are coming true. It could just be that this was bound to happen and they are commentators, dramatising the events with an enchanted presence. But Macbeth may not have actually committed the murders without the witches’ confirmation that he would become king. They do, therefore, influence the development of the chaotic, terrifying plot, alongside Macbeth and his wife.’  [Dearbhlá McDonnell 2012]

As many literature students will attest, the theme of the play is terror; fear of what the next moment will bring. The witches and Lady Macbeth serve to intensify the emotion of the play and act as vehicles for the darkness erupting from the main character, Macbeth. So, on to the reason for my choice of subject today – I went to see the film yesterday evening with my daughter Caitríona at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast.

We both felt it was brilliant, if horrifying. There are many difficult scenes of violence and carnage which do, however, create the frightening historical, social and personal context perfectly. Every aspect of the film, from cast to colour palette, does justice to The Bard’s most risky and perhaps most perceptive work. Humans are strong but also weak; have the potential for good and for evil; create and destroy. Given a conglomeration of random events and developmental circumstances, anyone’s life can turn into a perfect storm of chaos. This is the lesson we must take from Macbeth.

Without checks and balances, human nature is corruptible.

“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

 

Citations for images:

http://www.blurb.com/b/589370-macbeth

http://www.wisdompills.com/2014/09/04/collective-unconscious-archetypes-comprise/

Archetypes and Elixirs: A Jungian Perspective on Life as We Know It.

Image of flaming red liquid in a cocktail glass

Returning with the Elixir of Knowledge and Wisdom

One of the key themes in Jungian psychology is that of individuation, which is an expansive process involving realisation and manifestation of the archetypes within. Archetypal aspects refer to many different facets of the self’s potential, such as the Shadow, the Animus or Anima, the Wise Elder or the Trickster / Magician. Many of these inner selves are unconscious or undeveloped and only emerge when we are able to unearth their existence through various channels such as encounters, dreams and active imagination.

All cultures have notions of human personality and self, made up of multiple aspects, many of which are oppositional or paradoxical and often these various traits are personified into panthea of gods and goddesses or other equally varied groups of characters. Take, for instance, the ways in which each of the Graeco-Roman deities encapsulates a set of particular human strengths and weaknesses. For instance Athena is wise and just but also warlike and ruthless in certain circumstances. Apollo likewise brings illness but also healing in the form of the arts and muses.

 

Individuation – Incorporating the Archetypes

At the start of every human life there is a diffusion of experience, expression and personality. That complex cloud of embodied sensations in the world gradually becomes organised into patterns of thought, feeling and memory and infused into a sense of the individual self. While all these phenomena are shaped and informed by the physical and social environments around us, variously named and operationalised through culture, certain broad categories of experience and expression can be identified across humanity and according to Jungian thought, these constitute the archetypes. Archetypes are universal potentials for broad human drives, yet as potentials for patterning, they are manifest in ways unique to individuals and cultures, rather like the ways in which each snowflake is structured through certain rules of construction, yet no two snowflakes are the same.

Jung stressed that this individuation was not a materialistic ‘individualism’ but a spiritual quest, a journey, and one which required a certain amount of courage and determination to overcome fear and resistance within the self. It also involves the withdrawal of projections, in other words the taking of responsibility for our own lives and recognising the fact that our own growth is in our own hands. To incorporate the archetypes successively through the sequence of Shadow first, then Anima/Animus and beyond, entails as well a kind of accumulated knowledge or insight – the elixir of life, the wisdom of the ages. And that wisdom and insight is most beneficially directed at ourselves, as The Oracle reminded Neo in the very archetypal movie ‘The Matrix’.

We have helpers along the way, though, such as family, friends, inspirational leaders and authors, as well as examples to follow in the guise of totems, god-like and saintly figures and characters from myth and legend. We also have negative influences, sometimes within the established society and canons of accepted ideas and practices around us, sometimes within our circle of relationships, and sometimes within ourselves as internalised negative attitudes and inner critical voices.

The Hero’s Journey

Archetypes and Elixirs form the raw material of the hero’s journey, our journey. Our internal responses to events, characters and relationships in the world around us shape the person we become. Whether that is contracted, frozen and bitter or expanded, empathic and wise, is largely up to us.  The Archetypes are always there, waiting for us to awaken them, the Elixirs are ever-present and calling to be consumed. Taking the plunge can be the most difficult first move but also the most exhilarating. Starting with some dream delving is one way in, creative journaling another. Both of these techniques helped to jump-start my own journey, informed and motivated by reading the works of Dr Carl Jung and inspirational blogs such as Jean Raffa’s here on wordpress. Individuation is an act of self-creation and the creative potential is inherent in all humans. Any creative activity can get your individuating juices flowing, indeed creativity has been identified as a significant booster of mental health promotion and recovery.

 

Thanks for dropping by,

Enjoy the Journey 🙂

 

Flaming Elixir Image source Guest of a Guest website, New York  http://guestofaguest.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/red-snapper-210×300.jpg

Buried by the Shadow: Lessons from Baudelaire

Having just read a piece of historical fiction called Black Venus by James MacManus, I have been left at once saddened, uplifted, more informed about the French poet Charles Baudelaire and perhaps also a little wiser on the work of shadow energies in our lives. In the midst of public horror and ridicule, this gifted but tormented artist had the courage to face and describe the human shadow through its many manifestations in his personal life (much like James Joyce would do a century later). It is this window of identification and therefore the sense that we are not alone in our experiences that is, I believe, one of the massive attributes of literature, indeed all forms of expression. These ideas are also tied in with my current interests in creativity and mental health recovery and promotion, as well as with previous musings on the role of the shadow within a Jungian approach to personal maturation.

That literature and Jungian ideas overlap is inevitable. Jung emphasised the symbolic nature of human thought and imagination, as did Baudelaire and Manet. A muse was often a source of both inspiration and projection for the artist, a dynamic that may well be present in all our lives – who hasn’t ever had a hero or a guru or some other personified source of inspiration and motivation?

 

But to truly move onwards in  the hero’s journey of our life course, it is essential to incorporate and balance all the archetypal energies, of which the dark shadow is only one. The self-acceptance required remains elusive and unthinkable still for many of us and therefore while we might take the necessary step of acknowledging the shadow’s terrifying existence in ourselves, we must also avoid disowning and projecting it, or conversely, allowing it to swallow and destroy us. I fear that Baudelaire may have been devoured by his own shadow, a force he projected into his muses and possibly detected in himself but was unable to fully accept with compassion and therefore was ultimately unable to constructively channel it.

Like many before and since, Baudelaire went relatively unappreciated in his own time but is now recognised for his visionary genius and his initiation (with the painter Manet) of a whole new world of symbolism, modernist literature and the impressionist artistic oeuvre. T. S. Eliot, who wrote the groundbreaking modernist work The Wastelandcited Baudelaire as having paved the way for him and as the inspiration behind his poetry.

While the nihilism of these writers might be something of a blind alley if taken alone, and for many an all-too-shocking description of human nature, they did at least move towards a more authentic insight into that nature, if ultimately a too-pessimistic and destructive one. From  more recent work on the shadow as being both dark and light, we can embrace the shadow as having something to teach us, as gifting us with the potential for liberation and motivation, while living alongside the inherent potential danger.

It is unclear whether or not Baudelaire reached a level of self acceptance and accommodation. Certainly by all accounts he struggled and suffered but also experienced episodes of joy and happiness  in his life. I suspect we are all dancing a similar dance and can only hope that through literature, compassion, empathy and all the many forms of self-expression we can find, we can each give and take encouragement with our fellow journey-makers. Whether or not we manage to face, own and constructively channel our own shadow aspect is possibly the chief deciding factor of our mental health and well-being, perhaps even one of the  core tasks of our lives.

The novel Black Venus  by James MacManus is and excellent read by the way (follow the link at the start of this post).

My book is available now in the UK, USA and on Palgrave and Amazon sites:

Creativity and Social Support in Mental Health: Service Users’ Perspectives (Palgrave 2014)

 

images: Top: Charles Baudelaire by Emile Deroy

and Second image is T.S.Eliot photo by Lady Ottoline Morrell

 

 

Breaking Real: Reflections on complexity and paradox in ‘Breaking Bad’

Promotional image in a threatening stance of the two main characters Walt and Jessie in the television drama 'Breaking Bad'.

The image above is referenced from a post by Leonard De Lorenzo on the Notre Dame University blog, an indication of the extent of interest and depth of debate going on about this deeply engaging drama, even as far reaching as theological circles.

We received the box set of ‘Breaking Bad’ Series 1-4 as a Christmas gift and it has turned out to be the biggest time bandit of my life this decade. I am no stranger to excuses to procrastinate the evening away but our nightly sessions with ‘Breaking Bad’ have turned into something of an addiction! And none of the kids even bother now to book the television after 7.30 pm as they know Mum and Dad will be glued to the screen. So I keep asking myself, WHY???? Why has this drama gripped my imagination to the extent that I am throwing all my time management habits and new year resolutions out the window? There are several possible answers to that question.

Lorenzo’s analysis of the draw and relevance of the show cites Pride as a major theme, leading to increasingly elaborate schemes of lies, deception and self-pity. He goes on to point to the other two main foci as Responsibility and Social Connectedness – no one is an island and Walt’s dilemma is continually re-enacted in his conflicted concerns about his own standing vis-á-vis the needs of his family. While these points are certainly valid, I feel there is more to the alchemy of the show and of course I will suggest that a Depth Psychology perspective can open this up.

Depth of Character

Firstly I think it is the depth and complexity of the characters. They pull on every emotion and frailty as well as strengths and attributes. Unlike the sometimes superficial, uni-dimensional figures in some of the material presented to us through the media, who are either a good character or a bad one, we can identify with the chaos and muddle of many of the players in Breaking Bad. Fear for the welfare of our children  and a desire to do the best for them may sometimes conflict with meeting our own perhaps long unmet needs and secret desires. It is this kind of existential crisis that sparks off the whole rollercoaster ride of Walter White’s descent into a world of deceit and scullduggery, not to mention extreme danger. For me this points to a potential understanding of many of the social issues that are, in the mainstream mentality, seen to be located in the ‘disordered individual’ or ‘criminal mind’. Not making excuses for evil-doing such as aggressive drug pedalling, and drug addiction is certainly a social ill, but perhaps if we understood the root causes to be more social and cultural than individual, we might be more effective at primary and secondary prevention?

No-one knows the moment when the tide of life might turn from the ordinary everyday to extraordinary nightmare. From seemingly everyday family life and trivial irritations (such as Walt’s frustrated genius and resulting irritability and like Skylar’s arguably patronising and disempowering style with her husband and son early on – note the scene with the veggie bacon and the conversation where Walt asks her to ‘just for once, get off my ass’)- the drama quickly moves on and each character is thrust into immeasurably scary life events that call forth a whole myriad of unexpected depths: Skylar’s infidelities and shifts in loyalty and occupation; Walter Junior’s struggles with identity, loyalty and the right-wrong continuum; Hank’s macho exterior alongside a deep affection for his family and his own vulnerable psyche and struggles with fear and panic; Jessie’s self-hating loneliness and attempts to curb it through reckless behaviour and substance abuse.

Now all this would be hard to take in large doses if it were not for several other features of the show. As far as humour goes, some of the temper tantrum and irritation scenes with Walt and Jessie are hilarious but I have to lay my vote on the funniest and most well acted character of them all – the colourful lawyer Saul Goodman, whose vocabulary and stock phraseology are unsurpassed. In terms of the background music, again the variety in style and the tongue-in-cheek relevance of many of the chosen songs would justify a thesis of its own. But of all the addictive factors of the drama, I believe it is complexity and paradox as central themes that are, for me, the major hooks.

Complexity of Themes

Where to begin? It’s all there….

– unconscious drives, unfulfilled needs and emotional blindness that lead to the slippery slopes of grasping and denial, as Walter makes one disastrous decision after another, then attempts to justify and distract himself through projection and obsessive rituals (including the chemical process which he seems to worship like a religion). It must be said here that we are only halfway through the third series and thus I am blind as to the final outcome – no spoilers thanks 🙂

-the power of money to enable or corrupt, its role (or lack of one) in human fulfillment and how it can rob us of real meaning-making in our lives, yet we all know we need a certain amount to get by and to raise our children. I love the old adage that goes something like: ‘Money is a good servant but a terrible master’.

-the way in which perception and thinking can gradually become grossly distorted over time. An example is Walt’s wife Skylar, whose first reaction to Walt’s secret drug business is horror and anger, yet she begins to come around to the idea of using the money for Hank’s physical therapy, justified by incorporating a sense of Walt’s initial motivation as being a desire to provide for his family in light of his originally terminal cancer diagnosis.

-the fuzzy boundaries and cultural relativities in concepts of right and wrong, good and bad, and the growing awareness that each individual person harbours potentials for all of these aspects of human behaviour, given any number of possible sets of circumstances conducive to desperation. There is also allusion to certain possible hypocrisies such as violence being justified in one context and not in another. I find myself lurching from sympathy to disgust and back again during the course of the narrative and in relation to all the characters (with the exception of Hank – for some reason I see him as the only really decent person so far, personal opinion and stand to be corrected).

-We are also challenged by these characters and their actions to examine really big issues about modern society and how it repeatedly fails people in terms of nurturing self esteem and opportunities for self actualisation. Social justice and its relationship with social ills such as drug addiction, drug dealing and corruption in high places are deep themes here I think, as is the microcosm of society which is the nuclear family. There are hints that Jessie, for instance, had been labelled and treated as a disappointment at a young age, resulting in a rebellious turn and a lapse into drug abuse, becoming increasingly alienated from his frankly obnoxious parents.

-Essentially I see the story as being all about paradox: humans are complex mixtures of selfishness and altruism, hawks and doves, creativity and destructiveness, all the archetypal forces of the Universe. Jung recognised this as the core of human maturation – making contact with all aspects of ourselves, including the Shadow and the Trickster, reining them in, taming them and channeling their energy into constructive and creative living and relating. The late great Dr M. Scott Peck provided invaluable knowledge and insight on the need to accept paradox and work with it rather than live in denial of our innate humanness, and if we don’t do this we live then in denial and become ‘People of the Lie’. This is essentially where Walt started out on the wrong foot – heading down the path of increasing denial and lies. I’ll be hooked ’til the end, I hope and dread but won’t stop watching.

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