Wandering with One’s Shadow
Each of us possesses a darker side. We try, through the norms of civility, to simply not be possessed by it. But these attempts, mostly successful both as persons and within a society at large, do not prohibit us from being possessed of our own shadow. We wander alongside it, as Nietzsche famously commented upon, yet never wholly within it. If the shadow itself has a penumbra, then it is us who dwell more or less comfortably in its shade. But every now and again we step more fully into the shadows that tarry along by our side. Recognizing this is neither a matter of psychopathology nor a shill for therapy of any kind. Rather, it is simply to understand part of ourselves, an aspect of our own humanity which in every case is already and always my own.
Anger and fear are the usual suspects when we try to identify the reasons why we ‘stray’ into the twilit aegis of such an altered state. These themselves have long been identified with our animal background. But is a mere animal the same thing as a beast? Both terms have collected much metaphoric baggage over the millennia. Such connotations were also routinely extended to certain non-Western versions of ourselves, ‘savages’ either noble or ignoble. But the imperial distanciation of otherness in Western consciousness had also more recently been interpreted as an acknowledgement that what we hold within us, however civilized the veneer, is no different in kind from that of the lowest forms of life. The fin de siècle period of recent European history bears witness to this shock of recognition, from Conrad to Freud and beyond. Along with the unutterable dread of savage thought came the unbearable sense that repression was the only possible response. The great efflorescence of psychopathology during this period is hardly a coincidence.
These days, we take a more pragmatic approach to dealing with our ‘inner demons’. A combination of concise legal boundaries and self-esteem seminars is generally enough to deter the beast within. Indeed, such a thing, if it may be said to exist elsewise from ourselves, is relegated to its own shadows, as if the penumbra of personhood had its own Doppelgänger that lay in wait to shock us out of our complacency. None of this really makes any sense other than within the frisson of dubious fiction. What we can work with is the idea that norms are there for a reason, and people can’t do what they desire to do at all times, in all places, and with all others. That norms concede their territory based on the lowest common denominator, especially those that have to do with legal contexts, can’t really be helped. We also know, that alongside ourselves and our own shadow, stroll the shadows of all the others, intimate and strange both, wandering along with us and, we might imagine, always at the ready to trespass against us. It’s better not to ‘start something’, as the colloquialism has it, for unless you are prepared and skilled enough to dispose of the body afterwards, then the game is not worth the price.
On top of this, there is the internalized template of social norms with which almost all of us must deal. We call it one’s conscience. There’s nothing otherworldly about it. Indeed, it is solely based on the relationships we have, and most of us feel, we must maintain in this world as it presents itself. Since we neither have our personal beginnings within the ambit of the origin of the world, nor do we die with it – even nuclear annihilation might in some far future epoch be overcome by different forms of life on earth – the world is manifestly not our own. This is important. It is one of the key features of maturity and one of the things that all children must learn, the sooner the better for the rest of us, in order to matriculate to adulthood. Of course, such a lesson is hardly one that takes hold overnight. For males, especially in the West, it seems that it can take up to sixty years or so, for females, perhaps forty. Yet in one sense it is not only a key lesson, but the most important thing. Otherwise, we dimly understand that human life would be unlivable and that our private worlds, extant only within our heads, would constantly and often violently collide with those of others. That we prevaricate this at the level of the nation-state is a sad enough commentary on our inability to mature as a species at a more responsible pace, but it is also something of a safety valve that permits individuals to maintain social relationships outside of the shadows that attend to them at every turn. It may seem rather pathetic to say that tribalism – the sense that we as citizens should ‘stick together’ if only in the face of external threat – has a positive social function. But given our knowledge of our own history, we prefer today than yesterday, and are rightly suspicious of anyone or any group that desires to retrogress. Perversions of neo-colonialism as these movements may be, nevertheless they remain perverse.
And perversion is the term we often favour to bestow upon any and all who deviate from socially sanctioned norms and codes, whether the law, the policies of workplace or school, or for some still, the tenets of a religion. Though we go to war over resource competition and social control of transient populations etc., we do attempt to recognize the general depravity of war. It has become, at worst, a necessary evil. (It is sage to note that not all governments think this way, and the West is thus placed at a disadvantage because it has, after Nuremberg, mostly lost the stomach to make war for any cause). Since outright violence can be arrested only by a further violence, we imagine that only with the correct rationalization can we forgive ourselves afterwards and state starkly that ‘we did what had to be done’. We rejected this defense at Nuremberg, but still routinely use it for both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which remain two trenchant and billowing shadows that must walk alongside our sense of both our Western and our technical personas. They walk with us simply due to the fact that we maintain these kinds of weapons today. No society keeps a tool unless they think they will use it.
Which is why, for instance, I don’t own a gun. I can’t truly trust myself not to use it. Anger, fear, or even an aghast propriety might be the motivation. I know my own shadow well enough after walking with it and indeed, sometimes within it, over a half century of human life. It’s as much who I am as the norms that prevent it from seeking too permanent an ascendancy. And each of us might say as much. To understand the interest in personal weapons is to understand something of the shadow-being with whom we box. It is usually a friendly enough bout because it is about aspects of the unique being that is always my own. I am not fighting an ‘urge’, or yet a ‘perversion’. It is not deviant to desire the death of the Other, conceptually, only that of specific others. But there’s the rub, as is said: unless we have come to know another in the slightest fashion, he or she is bounded by the problem of generalized otherness that is in fact the most threatening thing of all.
I recently watched a documentary on Reinhard Tristan Haydrich, billed as Hitler’s successor before Churchill manufactured a successful assassination plot. He was by far the most intelligent of an otherwise sadly dimwitted lot of executives, and Churchill with his usual insight got him murdered before his skills hit the ground running. But not merely his skills; his ideas were far more dangerous. This because they represented what most of us feel in times of crisis to be the ideal way of dealing with conflict: destroy the other before he destroys me. As I watched I found, to my chagrin, a growing empathy for ‘the blond beast’, as his peers nicknamed him. By contrast, the documentary sub-title referred to him as the ‘god of death’.
And we’re right back where we began. The beast within us, the fear of death. Of all history’s recent villains and heroes, and it is also sage to note that this label changes over time according to our contemporary druthers – Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, Malcolm X and Ché Guevara all bear popular culture testament to this – I had to admit to myself that I admired Haydrich the most when I felt the pressing presence of my own shadow. This presence always provokes a moment of utter honesty in oneself. As a thinker, my duty is to the truth of things, whether scientific, historical, or personal. But there are also, beyond all of these, ethical truths, the combined weight of which reminds us that there is no simple truth that would unburden us of the task of being human, which includes that of historical consciousness. No one, even the most versed and insightful thinker, can claim to know the truth of things.
Given this, we must turn, or be turned, towards an other and in turn demand of him or her to aid in the project of coming to know each other as simply another. Another human being on much the same road as ourselves. Another consciousness who also has their shadow not so different in scope than mine, and finally, another upon whom we should be able to rely to defy alongside us the gravity of our mortal coil, not only for the time of personal being, but for the sake of the human future itself.