The Shadow

There’s a small second-hand book store on Broadway between Fir and Granville in Vancouver called Tanglewood Books.  They take in trade paperbacks mostly, and hardcovers.  I was browsing the psychology books almost by accident and found a little book by the poet Robert Bly called The Little Book On The Human Shadow.

I rarely browse psychology or self-help books anymore, although there was a time I read everything from R.D. Laing to Jung to Carl Rogers to Abe Maslow to Roger Penrose.  I even have a degree in psychology, although I gave up on the field since exploring the theories of learning meant understanding the behavior of white rats, at least at the school where I went.

My reading habits at that time also migrated to the counter-culture and New Age end of the spectrum: Krishnamurti, William Irwin Thompson, Rupert Sheldrake and Terence McKenna.  I also read a lot about Buddhism and psychology.  In the end, what I was looking for couldn’t be found in any book, no matter how perceptive or well written.  And what was I looking for?  Still not quite sure, or not quite sure how to say.

But I found myself picking up this thin book in Tanglewood’s and eventually walking out the door with it (after purchasing of course).

Robert Bly is an interesting fellow.  In the mid-70s, I was on staff at a private conference for counter-cultural types in the Hamptons on Long Island where Bly was a participant.  This was one of many conferences held over the years by The Lindisfarne Association, founded by William Irwin Thompson.  Near the end of the conference, after presentations by people like Gregory Bateson, Jonas Salk, John Todd and Bill Thompson, Bly managed to make all the intellectual talk pale by comparison with his shamanistic performance.  This was before his Iron John days of the men’s movement where he helped instigate guys to march into the woods together, beat on drums and chant in order to get in touch with their masculinity.

On this occasion, using masks, music, movement and the chanting of his own poetry, he challenged the conference participants directly and indirectly about their cultural and psychological assumptions and their intellectual frame of reference.  He used his masks, changing his persona like a masterful actor each time to illustrate mythic points, including making real the notion of the shadow.

It started to get a little too spooky for me, especially the mask performances, and I went off to bed.  I remember waking up later in the small hours of the morning.  The music was still going and I thought I could still hear drumming.  I felt disoriented, as if I had woken up in the midst of a tribal ritual intent on changing my normal understanding of the world.  Eventually I went back to sleep and the conference concluded in a normal way the next day, with Mr. Bly off and running somewhere else early in the morning.

I should give you a sense of Bly’s poetry.  There’s a strong presence in it.  In addition to his own poetry he has published translations of poets from other cultures such as the Indian spiritual poet Kabir.  His translations, which he calls versions, have been challenged by some critics because he doesn’t translate from the original language but from other translations.  Nevertheless his versions have received acclaim.

Here is a sample of his own poetry, from a poem called Monet’s Haystacks:

It’s strange that our love of Beauty should lead us to hell.
I caught one glimpse of you, and a moment later
My house and books were all thrown into the fire. . . .

The horses of sorrow are always restless, breaking
Out of fences, trampling the neighbors’ garden.
The best odes are written by the pirates in the moonlight.

But back to the shadow…  What is it? This is originally Carl Jung’s conception: The shadow is all those parts of us we disown, which we keep beyond the threshold of our everyday consciousness.  It is a deep current of mind, where circulates, for instance, the rage which we refuse to acknowledge as well the energy that could express it, where we dispose the dark thoughts of depression, along with the sensitivity that perceives the darkness.

R.D. Laing had some lines about it:

The range of what we think and do
is limited by what we fail to notice.
And because we fail to notice
that we fail to notice
there is little we can do
to change
until we notice
how failing to notice
shapes our thoughts and deeds.

If we were to look for our shadow, it becomes almost comical.  In the bright sun of our attention we wheel about in vain, our shadow extending long behind us.  It is wherever we are unaccustomed to look.

In Bly’s book about the shadow, he calls it the long bag we drag behind us.  He describes the bag’s beginnings in childhood, when there are certain portions of the child’s globe of energy which meet with severe disapproval.  The “good” child has learned to stuff his bag after parental imperatives such as, “Can’t you be still,” and “It’s not nice to try and kill your brother.”  In school, the teachers say, “Good children don’t get angry over such things,” and the bag gets bigger.  In high school, what goes into the bag depends as much on peer pressure as on adult impositions.

Says Bly, “We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourselves to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again.”

And what do we find when we open the bag? “Sadly, the sexuality, the wildness, the impulsiveness, the anger, the freedom he put in have all regressed; they are not only primitive in mood, they are hostile to the person who opens the bag.”

Where is this shadow, how can I know it, as we turn looking everywhere but not finding, but still called to know.  Bly passes on to us a comment from a Jungian analyst he found helpful: Our psyche in daily life tries to give us a hint about the shadow by picking out people to hate in an irrational way.  What we find in them may well be what we’ve put into that big bag.  There are some people we love to hate.  Why?

Bly also says that paying attention to what one likes or hates in literature helps too.  He gives for himself the examples of Pope and Johnson, eighteenth century men whom he calls “haters of feeling, rationalistic sticks, … enemies of spontaneity.”  This led him to see facets of himself he had denied.

Lately I’ve seen some hint of the shadow in myself this way: the arrival in social situations, where, almost idly, yet persistently, I cast about for some stranger to dislike on the basis of superficial characteristics.  I’m sure the perception of these characteristics has more to say about me than about them.

As Jung puts it:

A man who is unconscious of himself acts in a blind, instinctive way and is in addition fooled by all the illusions that arise when he sees everything that he is not conscious of in himself coming to meet him from outside as projections upon his neighbour.

[For a related post on the shadow, there’s this one.]


Explore posts in the same categories: Awareness, Remembering, Writing

10 Comments on “The Shadow”

  1. qazse Says:

    I had only enough time to read through this once. I want to read it again before I comment on the content. However, the process is typical of your work: well-researched, well articulated, and entertaining.

  2. fencer Says:

    Thanks, qazse… interested in your eventual comments.


  3. sputnki Says:

    After reading this I had to web-up Bly. The entry for Robert Bly in my brain was “That Iron John guy”, and vague notions of men dancing in the woods. What interesting stuff, certainly far more to it than I realised.

    What really got me going though was the reference to Jung. My crazy random household library did include “The Basic Writings of C.G. Jung” so I checked the index for shadow. The whole concept of “realisation of shadow” and how this realisation or lack thereof influences how we interact with society and ourselves is fascinating.

    His idea that “ignorance is bliss”, the man who doesn’t see his shadow lives happily ignorant of his responsibility for things happening around him “..because for him the only thing that commits mistakes is that vast anonymity conventionally known as ‘State’ or ‘Society’.” Sounds like the male lead in most sitcoms…

    Another excellent blog fence, I always look forward to the next.


  4. fencer Says:

    Hi Doug,

    From the limited reading I’ve done, including a little of Bly’s poetry, the shadow is central to his work. His confrontation with it is what made him step up to the next level as a poet.

    Then beyond all our personal shadows, there’s the collective shadow and perhaps even national ones… There’s the danger of concretizing the idea too much, but it is a rich insight that Jung had.


  5. sputnki Says:

    It’s interesting how Bly confront’s “the shadow”. Jung seems to consider it a Pandora’s Box, where confrontation can either show you the way to being a complete person or driving you mad as you realise you are powerless to control your inner shadow.

    Anyway, lots of great metaphor. Reminds me vaguely of that Star Trek episode where the transporter splits Kirk into his “good” and “evil” sides, where they have to come together to make him whole. It’s amazing how sci-fi shows and movies reflect undercurrents of thought in the 20th century.


  6. fencer Says:

    To carry the metaphor onwards, as you say, a lot of sci fi could be seen as projections of the collective shadow into the future… I knew those Godzilla and Gargantua movies were significant!


  7. qazse Says:

    I think there is much validity in the psychoanalytic approach to understanding reality. It seems to me the notion of a shadow gives form to aspects of the unconscious. By giving greater form it can potentially become more useful in self analysis. I have not read any Jung for thirty five years and have never read Bly. I will make it a point to check Bly out at some point. (that future point in the dead of February when you think you are going to have excess time and too few books…an illusion).

    The rage and self loathing repressed into this black hole called a shadow is noting but a chemical imbalance. Take Shadoft twice a day to begin feeling more at peace with yourself. Side effects may include uncontrollable rage, depression, suicidal thoughts, large corns, sexual dysfunction, and elevated blood pressure. Ask your doctor if Shadoft is right for you.

    I find it interesting you were a psych major disillusioned by the behaviorist revolution of the 1970’s.. Many a psych department was taken over by these radical empiricists who discounted man’s complexity as a part of a mundane equation. Simpletonistas!

    best regards my good man and a happy 2007.

  8. fencer Says:

    Hi qasze,

    I think you’ve really got something there with Shadoft! (If only a career in advertising for the pharmaceuticals.) That might be a great ingredient for some kind of sci-fi story… may I use it? Side effects may be an induced coma, but at least you won’t have to worry about your shadow.

    When I was studying psychology I was put off by the behaviorists… although there are some valid concepts there (I always thought Skinner’s understanding of supersition probably hit the nail right: random positive reinforcement easily leads to superstitious behavior as one attempts to recreate favorable circumstances). But in the main, it seemed ludicrous to assert that no one had any inner life, only behavior.

    I could have gone on to, say, clinical psychology as a postgraduate, and avoided the rats, but by that time, I recognized my own confusion too easily to imagine dispelling anybody else’s.

    Here’s to a great New Year for all of us!


  9. […] For more on the Lindisfarne Association posted here, see Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, The Art of Tony Stubbing, and The Shadow. […]

  10. […] one of Bly’s presentations many years ago, which had an impact that I recounted in a post on “The Shadow,” one of Bly’s preoccupations.  Hillman and Bly both approached psychology from a Jungian […]

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