Lately, I’ve been trying to figure out Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow and how to integrate the traits in my own shadow into my psyche. I searched the internet for movies influenced by Jung’s ideas. One movie that came up in my search was Watchmen.
My friends have always loved the movie and have recommended it to me several times, but I’m usually not into superhero movies, so I never got around to watching it.
When I learned that it was influenced by Jung’s ideas, and remembered how much my friends loved it, I decided I better give it a shot. After watching it, in addition to many hours spent reading Jung and many hours spent thinking, I still don’t fully understand Jung’s concept of the shadow. I have to wonder if he made it up just to give people an impossible puzzle to solve so that we would always have something to aim for.
“I have observed that a life directed to an aim is in general better, richer, and healthier than an aimless one, and that it is better to go forwards with the stream of time than backwards against it.”
Carl Jung, Structure & Dynamics of the Psyche
I cannot tell you exactly how Watchmen fits in with Jung other than that it is quite mythical and Jung’s ideas were heavily influenced by mythology. But it’s a good movie.
One scene especially struck me. The scene is an interaction between two superheroes who were once together in a committed relationship.
The man is Dr Manhattan, a nuclear scientist and depressed nihilist. He is fascinated by physics and the nature of the material world, but he has no sense of the spiritual dimension. He is only interested in matter, not consciousness or life or relationships. To a nihilist, everything is meaningless. Everything is just matter. Because he knows basically everything about how the material world works, he has no belief in miracles. He knows that whatever happens, it will abide by the laws of nature.
The woman is Silk Spectre. Actually, she’s Silk Spectre II. Her mother was Silk Spectre. I will just call her Silk Spectre.
When the world is on the brink of nuclear war, Dr Manhattan teleports Silk Spectre to Mars.
On Mars, the two superheroes get into an argument. Silk Spectre is begging Dr Manhattan to come back to Earth and stop the humans from destroying themselves.
“Jon, please. You have to stop this. Everyone will die!” Silk Spectre pleas.
“And the universe will not even notice.” Dr Manhattan replies, his voice plagued with ennui. “In my opinion, the existence of life is a highly overrated phenomenon. Just look around you. Mars gets along perfectly well without so much as a microorganism.”
He goes on about the material beauty of Mars and then asks, “how would all of this be greatly improved by an oil pipeline, by a shopping mall?”
“So it’s too much to ask for a miracle?” Silk Spectre asks.
Dr Manhattan replies, “miracles, by their definition, are meaningless. Only what can happen does happen.”
After some more arguing, Silk Spectre tells Dr Manhattan to send her back to Earth where she can die along with her mother and friends and the other humans. Dr Manhattan complains that she refuses to see things from his perspective because she is afraid. She tells him she’s not afraid, so he places his hand on her forehead and shows Silk Spectre her life from his perspective.
When she sees it, she sees an evil man who tries to rape her mother. She also sees that her mother, at a later time, consented to having sex with that same evil man. That is how she was conceived. The evil man is Edward Blake, one of the Watchmen. Her father was an evil man who tried to rape her mother. Her mother was a woman who knowingly loved a rapist.
Upon seeing this, she collapses and says, “my life is just one big joke.” But Dr Manhattan also has a change of heart when he sees Silk Spectre’s history.
“Will you smile if I admit I was wrong?” he asks.
“Miracles. Events with astronomical odds of occurring, like oxygen turning into gold. I’ve longed to witness such an event, and yet I neglect that, in human coupling, millions upon millions of cells compete to create life for generation after generation until finally your mother loves a man - Edward Blake, the Comedian, a man she has every reason to hate. And out of that contradiction, against unfathomable odds, it’s you, only you, that emerged to distill so specific a form from all that chaos. It’s like turning air into gold. A miracle. And so I was wrong. Now dry your eyes and let’s go home.”
Perhaps empathy is the real miracle in all of this - in the encounter between Dr Manhattan and Silk Spectre, and in our own lives.
Human beings have the ability to actually feel another person’s feelings and to understand another person’s thoughts. We don’t have Dr Manhattan’s super powers. We have empathy. We can feel another person’s suffering and shed our own tears. We can feel another person’s success and dance in excitement. We can learn another person’s history and understand why they act the way they do.
Empathy is also a weakness. It is a vector through which many infectious demons, neuroses, and bad ideas can be transmitted. When two people allow themselves to take on one another’s feelings, there is great risk, but if both are committed to truth and integrity and love, there is also great reward. It opens our eyes to the humanness of others.
Empathy can chip away at the prison walls of nihilism like it did for Dr Manhattan. When he sees the impossibly rare history of Silk Spectre, he realizes that just because something is understood doesn’t mean it is not miraculous. Something can be a miracle even though it is physically possible. And something physically impossible, well, maybe that is each one of our lives. Maybe consciousness (which science still can’t quite understand) defies the laws of nature. Maybe life itself is a miracle.
So “dry your eyes for you are life, rarer than a quark and unpredictable beyond the dreams of Heisenberg; the clay in which the forces that shape all things leave their fingerprints most clearly. Dry your eyes.”