Robert was a self-proclaimed “strange bird”. We met through formal introduction at a work orientation, and when I casually referred to him as Rob during a “get-to-know-you” exercise, he said, “it’s Robert.” There was a reason for the distinction, but I didn’t learn it until we were further along in our friendship. We bonded over the arts–music, literature, film, and the like. Before I’d met him, I’d never read a graphic novel, but he assured me that like many others, I had grossly underestimated the depth and nuance of the form.
During breaks from our doubles, we’d go to the Barnes and Nobles (the closest bookstore to the restaurant where we worked) and browse titles together. Sometimes we’d each choose one and read. Sometimes we’d read aloud to one another if we were both interested in the same book. It was during one of these sojourns that he plucked Arkham Asylum off of the shelf and suggested that I read it.
“I think you’ll love it,” he said. “It’s dark and wonderful, and it really illustrates the complexity of the Batman character.” I’d seen each of the Batman films and thoroughly enjoyed them, but I’d never given enough thought to the “birth”of the character. When Bruce Wayne witnessed his parents’ murder at the hands of a petty thief, his shadow self emerged, and the form his shadow took was the guise of a caped crusader. Everything Bruce Wayne did was a reflection of the fear, sorrow, and helplessness he experienced in that moment; his shadow self defined him, dominated him. In Arkham Asylum, Batman finally stands to face his shadow, and it’s The Joker who acts as the catalyst of this event. He is Batman’s foil, the self that Bruce Wayne may have been had he not been cradled by the comfort of his family’s legacy and fortune. Through absurd musings punctuated by statements of impeccable clarity, the Joker forces Batman to recognize repressed aspects of himself–he too is irrational, violent, vengeful, and driven by darkness. As their repartee escalates, a giant shadow-beast swells in the bowels of the asylum, a metaphorical representation of the emergence of Batman’s shadow. Batman battles this beast and ultimately emerges victorious, but not until he is pushed to the brink of despair, doubt, and hopelessness.
I devoured the comic and was deeply influenced by it. Suddenly, I was able to identify archetypes of shadow in many of the films and texts I held so dear. In The Fellowship of the Ring, for example, Gandalf’s epic battle with the Balrog is his battle with shadow. Both combatants succumbed to their wounds, but Gandalf the Grey transformed into Gandalf the White, a greater sage now that he had rid himself of the power that shadow wielded over him (hence, a victory over the “black” hue that made him “grey”). In The Matrix, I recognized Neo’s character arc as his journey towards shadow consciousness (the agents are the shadow, he battles them, dies, is reborn and therefore sees the shadow for what it is). Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man concerns its protagonist’s realization that he is society’s shadow and he can only be seen by himself in the uber-illuminated basement hovel that he’s retreated to. Dexter overtly refers to his compulsion to kill as his “dark passenger”, and the show’s plot line revolves around the extent to which he effectively controls or channels it. Even more compelling is his self-destructive attraction to those who share his brand of shadow; he often places his own life in danger in order to see himself reflected though interactions with other serial killers. Gregory House’s shadow finds its nexus in his strained relationship with his militaristic father; when he loses muscle matter in his leg, this feeling of paternal rejection is so intensified that he avoids intimacy to avoid further rejection. His “pain” is as much psychological as it is physical.
The list is endless, really. The more connections I made, the more I realized that the exploration of shadow lay at the heart of nearly every work that deeply moved me. It seems that our struggle against ourselves is the common thread that unites us, that gives birth to compassion and love and acceptance and tolerance; the shadow is the great equalizer, so to speak. We all harbor within us a certain darkness, a specific collection of rejected aspects that simply don’t jive with our vision of ourselves. In tarot, shadow is illustrated through the “difficult cards”–The Devil, Death, and the Ten of Swords, to name a few. Through path working and shadow work, I’ve identified my own shadow archetypes–The Hierophant, The Seven of Swords, The Emperor, The Empress, The Five of Pentacles, The Ten of Wands. The keen and learned practitioner will be able to glean a hell of a lot about my shadow based on these cards, which gives rise to the knee-jerk response “have I revealed too much?” I suppose this reaction is precisely the point; we keep our shadow hidden because we are troubled by and ashamed of it. When we see our reflection in a shadow archetype, we begin to identify and empathize with the character that exhibits it. Identifying with a character’s struggle is what “hooks us”, so to speak, and keeps us invested as the plot unfolds.
Our desire to see these characters overcome adversity essentially represents our desire to overcome/assimilate our shadows. We vicariously experience these confrontations and achieve resolution when the foe is defeated, and the ensuing catharsis liberates us from the tyranny of our darker selves, if only for a moment. When the feeling fades, however, we are left with a sense of loss, of dread, and a fraction of hopelessness we find difficult to define. I projected myself into the character of Neo as many times as I watched The Matrix, and each time he lifted off into the sky of his illusory world, I could not travel with him. The crux of this problem was my complacent refusal to search the darker parts of myself, my inability to plunge into the abyss when the opportunity arose. For some reason, I hovered at the precipice, gazed down at the vast expanse and said, “no, thank you.” I was fearful (and for good reason) that if I made the leap, I might never resurface. I am reminded of the wounded healer, the would-be shaman who spends seven years broken and shuffling before she returns from shadowland. I never realized the simple fact that I was already there, that I was hovering in that limbo, and what beckoned me was the final, necessary descent before the surfacing. I was Batman standing at the doorway of Arkham Asylum, unable to walk through, unable to face the Balrog that would bring about my transformation.
“What did you think?” Robert asked at pre-shift the following day. He didn’t have to ask if I had finished it.
“It was amazing,” I replied. I wanted to say much more, but I was still reeling in the realm of catharsis. I knew in my bones what the comic conveyed, but ideas were still too fresh to put into words.
Years later Robert would tell me that he was searching for the roots of his rage. He’d sloughed off enough propriety and conditioning to recognize that a seething anger burned in his soul, and knew that if he didn’t identify it, it would continue to stalk him. I see him as Strength identifying her beast (I see it now, because I was ignorant of tarot then. I see the rage as shadow now, but I was ignorant of shadow then). I didn’t have much rage to speak of (save a few schoolyard grudges that I couldn’t seem to release), but I held a great deal of sorrow. The World was my mirror–I was deeply connected to the suffering of others, but I still refused to face my own suffering, still refused to accept who and what it was that stood behind the door. Oftentimes admiration is the veil of shadow, preventing us from seeing things as they are. We want to believe in the perfection of others so we can perpetuate the illusion of our own perfection; again, a mirror. We must be iconoclasts, we must shatter the porcelain veneer and discover what lurks inside. It’s ugly, unkempt, and incredibly gauche; it shouts obscenities at the dinner table, it eats with its hands, it defecates in public and doesn’t care who sees it. Better to let it roam than hold it inside while it poisons us slowly.
I haven’t spoken to Robert in awhile. I don’t know the roots of his rage; if he discovered them, he never shared them with me. I could easily presume what they are, but it isn’t my place. After years of plumbing the depths of others, of seeking to decode their shadows, I finally took the plunge to uncover my own; I am the deep sea diver of my soul. For others, now, I am the mirror, the mapmaker, the wounded healer returned from the shadowland to say, “I can only show you the door. You’re the one who has to walk through it”. There are moments we reach each other, moments we connect and feel less alone on our journeys, moments we feel understood–these moments are the fuel, the power that compels us to dip our oars into the bracken sea and press our little boats towards the further shore. With enough courage, resolve, strength, and support, we arrive.