Tag Archives: Jung

The Exorcist: A Middle Way Interpretation

Spoiler Alert: This isn’t a synopsis or a review but I will reveal certain, important, plot points.  As such, if you haven’t yet seen it yet – and would like to – you may want to stop reading now. 

Cursed. Obscene. Scary. Nauseating.  Pea Soup.  These are just a selection of words associated with William Friedkin’s 1973 film, The Exorcist (adapted from William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name).  The Exorcist tells the story of the Exorcism of 12-year-old girl, Regan MacNeil, who has been possessed by a malevolent force.  It is set in affluent 1970’s Georgetown USA, where Regan lives with her atheist mother, who also happens to be a famous actress.

Even in the early 1990’s, when I was at school, this film had a reputation as being the most disgusting and frightening film ever made – which of course meant everybody wanted to see it.  This desire was only intensified by the fact that The Exorcist had been banned in the UK since 1984; a few friends and I even attempted to watch a pirated copy of it on VHS, but our excited anticipation was soon extinguished once we realised that the video quality was so bad as to render further viewing impossible.  In 1998 the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) lifted the ban, and The Exorcist was released – with much fanfare – in cinemas across the country.  Many of my peers came back with reports of disappointment and boredom.  ‘It’s not scary at all.  I didn’t jump once’ they’d say, or ‘I don’t know what the fuss is about, nothing even happens for most of the film’.  I was worried.  I’d recently read the book and really enjoyed it, but wasn’t sure how it would be translated into the ‘Scariest Film Ever Made’.  Could this really be the same film that had caused people to faint and vomit while watching it?  I knew loads of people who’d seen it the first-time round and refused to even talk about it, let alone watch it again.  Perhaps it hadn’t aged well?

When I did eventually get to see it that I could understand why my peers were confused about the reputation it had achieved.  I’m not the kind of person that finds Horror films particularly scary anyway, but I had expected The Exorcist to be an exception.  It wasn’t.  In this respect, the length of time that had passed since its original release did seem to have had an impact.  Horror films throughout the 90’s had a tendency to reject the kind of subtle psychological techniques used in the 60’s and 70’s in favour of ‘jump scares’ and ‘gore effects’.  Therefore, that is what any teenager going to see a Horror movie at this time would be expecting.  That’s not what they got with The Exorcist.  There’s hardly any ‘gore’ and it is almost entirely void of ‘jump scares’.  In addition to this, much of imagery was much less shocking in the 90’s than I suspect it would have been to a 70’s audience.  With these considerations in mind I can understand many of my peer’s sense of disappointment – in this respect it had not lived up to the hype.  However, as much I wasn’t scared in the cinema, I loved it.  I found it absorbing in a way that few films had been and was surprised by the skilful way in which it created an atmosphere.  The deep layers of meaning hidden within the imagery and narrative demanded repeated viewing.  It is a deeply unsettling film and I found that it stayed with me (as the book had) long after I’d left the cinema; something that did not happen with contemporary horror films such as ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ (which is instantly forgettable).  While it wasn’t what the hype had lead me to believe it would be, The Exorcist, as a film, had aged very well indeed.

After a period of about 10 years, where I watched it quite a lot, I spent a further 10 years without seeing it at all.  That is, until a few months ago, when I heard Mark Kermode (film critic and Exorcist expert/ super-fanboy) discussing it on the radio.  With some trepidation – I feared that it really might have aged badly by now – I sought out a copy and sat down to watch it again.  I needn’t have worried, it stands up incredibly well & I enjoyed it just as much (if not more) than I had before.  More importantly for this blog however, I also realised that it related, both stylistically and narratively, to the Middle Way.

Watching The Exorcist is a physical experience.  I know that watching any film can be described as a physical experience, we are embodied beings after all, but The Exorcist goes further.  You can feel the cold of Regan’s bedroom.  You can smell her necrotic breath as she lies, unconscious on the bed.  I don’t understand what cinematic tricks are used to create this effect but I suspect that it has as much to do with the sound as it has with visuals.  The ambient sound is hypnotic and the groaning rasp that accompanies Regan’s breathing creates a powerful and absorbing effect.  There are other scenes where the combination of visuals and sound work together to create the experience of embodied physicality, such as when Regan is made to undergo a range of intimidating and painful medical tests.

On the surface, The Exorcist is a fairly standard tale of good versus evil; light overcoming darkness.  During the first scene – where an elderly Jesuit priest, Father Merrin, is seen attending the archaeological excavation of an ancient Assyrian site in northern Iraq – the contrast between quiet contemplation and loud commotion is jarring.  While the scene is set within the suffocating glare of the desert sun, it is also pierced with dark imagery.  It’s within this context that we finally see an increasingly disturbed Merrin wearily, but defiantly, facing a statue of the Assyrian demon Pazuzu.  It is no coincidence that this scene brings vividly to mind the Temptation on the Mount, where Jesus overcame Satan’s attempts to divert him from his holy path to righteousness.  I’m sure that this premonition of the battle to come, is constructed and representative of several Jungian archetypes, but I’m not familiar enough to identify them all.  However, I’m confident that there’s the Hero, the Shadow, God and the Devil; the latter two also being representations of two metaphysical extremes: absolute good and absolute evil.  The key point however is that Father Merrin is not God (or even Jesus) and the statue is not the Devil (or even Pazuzu), they are both the imperfect embodiments each.

Understandably perturbed by her daughters increasingly disturbing behaviour, Regan’s mother seeks the help of neurologists and then physiatrists.  Both fail to identify a cause and both fail to succeed in their interventions.  Eventually, the perplexed psychiatrists suggest that Regan’s exasperated mother enlist the services of a priest, to which she reluctantly agrees.

The priest that she finds is a man called Father Damian Karras.  Karras is unlike Merrin, whose background is not really explored, in that he is clearly a conflicted and complex character.  We see him caring for his elderly mother, when no one else seems willing to, and we also see him, dressed in his Jesuit regalia, turn away from a homeless man who asks for his help.  Karras, then, is not a bad person, but neither is he that good.  The viewer is left to wonder the nature of this priest’s faith.  When we add to this the fact that he is a scientist (psychiatrist) as well as a priest, we start to see the depiction of a complex, multifaceted individual who struggles, in all aspects of his life, through the messy middle in which we all exist.

Karras, who is not qualified to perform the Exorcism ritual, convinces the Church of Regan’s need and Father Merrin is subsequently called upon.  The moment when he arrives at the house and looks up at the room which contains the possessed girl is inspired by The Empire of Light, a series of pictures painted by René Magritte in 1953-4.  As with the opening sequence, we are shown our archetypes juxtaposed in preparation for battle; this striking image was also used as the now famous promotional poster (which I used to have on my bedroom wall).  The clichéd battle between good and evil begins.  Except it doesn’t… not really.  Like the statue of Pazuzu, Regan is not an absolute representation of evil; she has been embodied by evil but is not the embodiment of it – she’s a 12-year-old girl.  Father Merrin is not the embodiment of good, he is just a representative of Christ (and therefore God).  This is made explicitly clear (if it wasn’t already) in an extended scene where the two priests desperately shout, ‘the power of Christ compels you, the power of Christ compels you’ over and over while throwing Holy water on the levitating girl.  A lesser film would have Merrin eventually defeat the demon and save the girl, but this is not what happens.  The elderly Exorcist dies during the gruelling exchange and Karras is left facing the demon alone.  Again, a lesser film would have Karras take up the role of Exorcist and overcome the evil force against all odds.  This is not what happens.  Religion, like science before it has failed and Karras appears to be in a hopeless predicament.  In the heat of the moment he takes the only course of action that he feels is available to him; he grabs Regan and shouts at the demon, ‘take me, take me’.  The demon gladly obliges and, a now possessed, Karras – who already exists somewhere between good and evil – is able to throw himself out of Regan’s window, where upon hitting the ground he falls down a flight of steep stairs, where he dies, presumably taking the demon with him and leaving Regan to make a full recovery.

Science, religion and the explicitly archetypal forces of good have not triumphed over evil and, in this muddled mess, appeals to authority do not always provide the promised solutions.  Instead our Middle Way hero, who’s able to hold onto his beliefs lightly, is left to address challenging conditions as they arise.  The solution he finds, I would like to suggest, seems remarkably like an extreme example of the ‘two donkeys’ analogy that is a favourite of this society.  By integrating competing desires, he is able to overcome conflict, albeit at great cost to himself.


Psychic energy

I’ve been asked from time to time about psychic energy, which is an underlying concept that can be used to help understand repression, and thus helps to explain how absolutizing beliefs can create repression. The principle of ‘conservation of psychic energy’ in Jung, which I mentioned in Migglism, has particularly raised a few doubtful questions, so I thought it was worth a fuller discussion.

Psychic energy can be seen from one point of view as just physical energy in the brain. All our mental activity has to be driven by energy, in the form of glucose. When we start running out of glucose in the brain we tend to feel  what psychologists call ‘ego depletion’ – it becomes harder to do anything effortful, like breaking a habit or understanding a new concept. Energy in the brain obviously comes from food processed by the body, and is part of a wider system of energy. Obviously in those wider terms, energy is not ‘conserved’ within the brain: it could be used up by the brain and turn into heat or motion which go elsewhere, without necessarily being replenished.Brain_power aboutmodafinil-com

What Jung meant by ‘psychic energy’, however, is a particular subset of that wider physical energy. It’s the energy of our desires for particular goals, whether actual or potential. Those desires may take a conscious and immediate form where physical energy seems to be motivating us. Thus, for example, we may feel sexual desire for someone else, which motivates us towards sexual behaviour. However we can also feel that desire without acting on it, being aware that it is socially inappropriate to do so. Or we may not even be aware of the ways that such a desire is influencing us.

Such desires can gradually change their focus (for example, I might sublimate sexual desire into art). Desire, after all, is just energy, and energy can power all sorts of different processes. What we can’t do, however much we may desire it, is to instantaneously block psychic energy. If we do try to block it, it is liable to take a different form and re-emerge, just as when you try to dam the energy of a stream. It may flow somewhere else, or it may eventually flow around the blockage towards its original destination. The key thing I take from Jung’s idea of the ‘conservation of psychic energy’ is just that insight: that energy cannot be removed from the psyche at will – it has to go somewhere. It doesn’t just disappear.

The attempt to block psychic energy could take two possible forms. In repression, we really believe that we can stop the flow of energy for ever just by blocking it, and we don’t even consider the question of where that energy is going to go. In suppression, however, we recognise that the energy is there, even if we don’t want it to flow in a particular direction at the moment. Thus, if we start feeling sexual desire towards someone inappropriate, that doesn’t mean we have to try to eliminate the desire. Rather we can block it temporarily, remain aware of it, and send it somewhere else in the longer term. Absolutisation creates repression here, taking the form of a belief that we assume can simply eliminate a desire: for example, the belief that the sexual desire is just ‘wrong’. So the practice of the Middle Way involves avoiding absolutisation by trying to maintain awareness of our energies when we find it necessary to block them.

When we repress a desire, of course we do stop being aware of it for the moment. In terms of energy, we can see this in terms of a conversion from actual to potential energy. The flow of energy in your brain has already created a synaptic channel, and that channel will still be there even if nothing is flowing down it for now. That channel will be reactivated in certain conditions that bring it back into use, and in those circumstances it will be much easier for the energy to flow down the old channel than to form a new one. The ‘potential’ energy of the repressed desire thus takes the form of greater ease for the flow of future actual energy. To be released it might just need a trickle to break through the dam of repression, but because of all that potential the trickle can become a torrent much more quickly than one would otherwise expect.

But how does physical energy relate to psychic energy? Well, I don’t think they’re ultimately distinct: they’re just different ways of experiencing and labelling the same phenomena. The psychic energy in our mental system depends on the condition of our bodies, so it could hardly be independent of the physical energy system. That’s just another respect in which ‘physical’ and ‘mental’ are not ultimate or metaphysical qualities, just different contexts for experience. The total amount of energy in the psychic system can obviously change depending on the surrounding conditions, but nevertheless, much less energy may be ‘lost’ from the psychic system than we generally expect at times when we feel depleted. Instead it’s just been ‘stored’ in potential form.

So, the ‘conservation of psychic energy’ cannot be an absolute rule, nor can it even be as clear and measurable a tendency as can be documented in the case of physical energy. I don’t think the psyche can be a completely closed system within which energy is eternally conserved. Rather than ‘conservation’ of psychic energy, perhaps it would be more precise to talk about how the psychic energy system can only change incrementally rather than suddenly or absolutely. Nevertheless, we should not underestimate the ways in which energy can take unexpected potential forms in the brain, just as it can in other matter. Before the development of nuclear physics, who would have guessed that potential energy in an atom could be released by splitting it? Similarly, how can an individual guess at the unexpected energy that might be released by engaging with archetypes through love, spirituality, or art, before we experience it? We can find forms of potential energy in ourselves that we previously thought lost or impossible, and perhaps ‘potential energy’ is just a slightly less problematic term for what is often referred to as ‘the unconscious’.

Picture: ‘Brain Power’ CCA2.0 by aboutmodafinil.com

Middle Way Thinkers 4: Jung

Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), the great Swiss psychoanalyst, had a long and rich life and left a huge body of writings behind him. I think he offers a huge contribution to our thinking on the Middle Way. Though his approach has been dismissed by some who regard themselves as hard scientists or analytic philosophers, I would argue that these criticisms are often based on prejudicial misunderstandings of his work and its significance. More than anything, I think his contribution is philosophical, in the sense of offering us new and helpful ways of understanding and assessing our beliefs and the ways we interpret our experience. He also offers a personal narrative of his incredibly rich and inspiring inner life. Questions remain about his effectiveness as a therapist – a point that I don’t feel in any position to assess – but even if he ‘cured’ nobody, his interactions with patients provided a strong basis of experience that supports the philosophical and cultural value of his work.

Jung was the son of a Protestant pastor, and qualified in medicine before specialising in psychiatry. He encountered and was influenced by Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, but rejected some of Freud’s dogmatic assumptions, such as his materialism and his reduction of desire to sexuality. In this respect you could compare Jung’s position to that of other philosophical disciples who have learnt much from but greatly surpassed their masters (such as Plato and Aristotle), primarily by identifying dogmatic assumptions that were holding back their masters and freeing themselves of those assumptions.Carl_Gustav_Jung

Jung saw himself as a man of science, and constantly  strove to meet the standards of objectivity that he felt were necessary to meet what he saw as the exacting standards of science. This is what led him to be so cautious during his lifetime in publishing accounts of his inner experience. This commitment seems to me double-edged: it led him towards a genuine objectivity of approach, but also led him to attempt what was probably impossible, to convince those committed to a naturalistic approach to science that phenomena as remote from publically-verifiable, reproducible proof as the unconscious or the archetypes should be taken seriously in scientific terms. In my view it is science that needs to try to live up to Jung’s high standards of objectivity, not the other way round. Jung was not afraid of the use of ‘private’ experience, or of material from cultural or religious traditions, and thus did not unnecessarily narrow the field of investigation, or impose likely conclusions that are the result of limitations in the methodology, in the way that those who insist on ‘hard’ scientific evidence have to do. His hypotheses about these areas of experience provide us with a valuable basis of understanding that is well supported by Jung’s experience, and by the provisionality that went with his scientific approach.

Jung’s biggest contribution to our understanding of the Middle Way has to be the concept of integration – which Jung more commonly referred to as individuation. Recognising that our experience comprises a variety of energies, symbols and beliefs that may be in conflict, with some repressing others and the repressed elements often unconscious, Jung saw the goal of human life as overcoming these conflicts and bringing these energies together. This insight has huge implications far beyond the medical model of psychotherapy – for example as the basis of moral objectivity – though this is a point that Jung himself only seems to recognise implicitly rather than advertise explicitly.

I prefer the term ‘integration’ to ‘individuation’, because this makes it clear that integration is not only the process of psychological development in an individual, but can also be applied at a social level. Again, I would say that Jung also recognised this point implicitly, but did not discuss it explicitly because of the extent to which exploring these philosophical implications might potentially threaten the scientific credentials he wanted to maintain. I see integration as the Middle Way inside out: rather than just avoiding dogmatic beliefs on either side, integration brings together experiential beliefs and energies that at first were unnecessarily opposed. Each supports the other, because it is only by avoiding metaphysical beliefs (that cannot be integrated) that we can make integration possible.

Jung’s other huge contribution to our understanding of the Middle Way lies in his development of the concept of archetypes. There has been much confusion about what Jung meant to assert about the status of archetypes, much of which has arisen from his use of the term ‘collective unconscious’ where he placed the archetypes. Some people have mistaken the collective unconscious for some kind of Platonic realm of absolutes, but Jung makes it clear that he is only referring to the universality that comes from genetic similarity between human beings, that gives us all similar psychic functions. These psychic functions need to be expressed by symbols, but the form of those symbols will differ between cultures. Thus, for example, the Shadow archetype is the one we encounter in symbols like Satan, Darth Vader, Sauron and Voldemort – an embodiment of evil found in all cultures because it reflects the psychic function of rejecting what we do not identify with. Any creature with aversions will have a Shadow of some kind, however it is expressed.

Archetypes are very important in understanding the Middle Way, because they allow us to distinguish between meaningful symbols that are found universally (because of their psychic function) and metaphysical ‘truths’. So, in the case of God, for example, the God archetype came first, and is meaningful to us because it represents a psychic function, regardless of whether or not we ‘believe’ in God. Belief or disbelief in God seems to me completely irrelevant to the meaning of the archetype. I think this is what Jung probably meant when he said that he did not believe in God, but that he ‘knew’ God, probably in the sense that he directly encountered God in experience.

After the Buddha, perhaps, I can’t think of any thinker whom I think is quite so rich and rewarding as a source of insights into the Middle Way as Jung. I am not really well-read in later Jungians that others recommend, such as James Hillman, so I must reserve judgement on their value. But whether you read more recent Jungians as well or not, I’d highly recommend going directly to the source. His autobiographical book ‘Memories, dreams, reflections’ is a very good place to start, because it gives you a big picture of Jung the man, and of his rich inner life, as well as of his scientific development.


Link to index of posts in the ‘Middle Way Thinkers’ series

The MWS Podcast: Episode 14, Mark Vernon

In this episode, the writer and journalist Mark Vernon talks about agnosticism, its relation to theism and why he feels it’s useful to adopt such an approach. He puts the case for why virtue ethics should play more of a role in how we live our lives. We also discuss influences such as Plato, Socrates, Jung and Iain McGilchrist and how he understands the Middle Way with regards to agnosticism.

MWS Podcast 14: Mark Vernon as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_14_Mark_Vernon

Previous podcasts:

Episode 13: Robert M. Ellis on his life and why he formed the Middle Way Society.
Episode 12: Paul Gilbert on Compassion Focused Therapy
Episode 11: Monica Garvey on Family Mediation
Episode 10: Emilie Åberg on horticultural therapy, agnosticism, the Quakers and awe.
Episode 9: T’ai Chi instructor John Bolwell gives an overview of this popular martial art.
Episode 8: Peter Goble on his career as a nurse and his work as a Buddhist Chaplain.
Episode 7: The author Stephen Batchelor on his work with photography and collage.
Episode 6: Iain McGilchrist, author of the Master and his Emissary.
Episode 5: Julian Adkins on introducing MWP to his meditation group in Edinburgh
Episode 4: Daren Dewitt on Nonviolent communiction.
Episode 3: Vidyamala Burch on her new book “Mindfulness for Health”.
Episode 2: Norma Smith on why she joined the society, art, agnosticism and metaphor.
Episode 1: Robert M. Ellis on critical thinking.