Darkness Denied: An Exploration of the Predilection for Light

And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not comprehend it

– The Gospel According to John 1:5 (p. 713).

The light from above made the darkness still darker; but the lumen naturae is the light of the darkness itself, which illuminates its own darkness, and this light the darkness comprehends. Therefore it turns darkness into brightness…

– C.G. Jung, from Alchemical Studies (1967, p. 160).

Darkness as a psychological component of the human being has been all but rejected by the West, pushed to the hinterlands of the psyche. We may flirt with darkness, but at a cursory level, then we favor the light. At first glance, we might think this is a relatively recent phenomenon, but with deeper investigation the reticence to integrate darkness can be traced back to the very foundations of Western civilization, appearing at the beginning of both the Judeo-Christian tradition, and in the cradle of Western philosophy, the golden age of Greece. From this point on, the bifurcation of dark and light has widened through 2,500 years of slanted interpretations of history, selective explorations of literature, and narrow aesthetic visions.

This paper traces out the psychological implications of the reluctance to deeply integrate darkness. First I examine the historical cornerstone set in the golden age of Greece and in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Next I turn to the cost of failing to integrate darkness. This is explored by comparing the consumption of binary motifs in the culture industry; and a concurrent lack of deep engagement with the same motif in literature. A number of ways the denial of darkness has been amplified by a selective editing of anthropology and history is then examined. A final section covers technological advancements. This investigates how technology has exacerbated the rejection of darkness, thus created a “culture of light,” to use R. Dyer’s phrase (1997, p. 106).

The psychological cost of refusing to integrate darkness must be highlighted as it is woven through this paper. To put it very simply: when we deny darkness we deny a portion of our psyche. Robert Bly (1988) visualizes this denial the terms of plane geometry. Bly writes, “The shadow energies seem to be part of the human psyche, a part of our 360-degree nature, and the shadow energies become destructive only when they are ignored” (p. 59).

Bly’s use of the full 360 degree circle echoes an older conception of the complete human being: the microcosm. Jung (1967) discusses the awareness of the complete microcosm as a state of wholeness, then goes on to compare gaining knowledge of the microcosm with the alchemical process, “The moral equivalent of the physical transmutation into gold is self-knowledge, which is a re-remembering of the homo totus” (p.284). If we accept the model, the integration of darkness amounts to a deepening of self-knowledge and a step towards psychological wholeness.

The complete microcosm is the very image invoked by Goethe, through the voice of Mephistopheles, as Faust is pushed towards integration. Goethe writes, “If Man, that microcosmic fool, can see/ Himself a whole so frequently,/ Part of the Part am I. Once All, in primal Night, -/ Part of the Darkness which brought forth the Light” (1930, 54).

A Historical Backdrop

The denial of darkness is rooted in the very foundations of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the book of Genesis, the third sentence declares, “Let there be light”; and, the fourth sentence calls the light good, and banishes the darkness via separation, “And God saw the light that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:3, 1:4, p. 1). The notion of light as “good” coming from God is continued and even amplified in the New Testament, particularly in the Gospel of John. John the Evangelist opens his gospel with the notion of God as light, and continues the binary of light as good and darkness as bad.  Later in the Gospel of John, we see Jesus of Nazareth identified with light and again darkness is rejected: “I am the light of the world. He who follows me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (8:12, p. 721). Indeed, this theme continues to the very end of the New Testament with the final Book of Revelation and the voice of Jesus proclaiming, “I am the Root and Offspring of David, the Bright and Morning Star” (22:16, p. 834). Through his identification with light, Jesus becomes quite literally the alpha and omega of the Bible – the beginning and end. This is echoed in the beginning creation myth of Genesis, and the eschatological vision of Revelation; thus, the symbolic “alpha and omega” becomes the literal beginning and end. This constitutes a concretization of what was most likely intended to be metaphorical.

The rejection of darkness is not however, limited to the theology of Judeo-Christian religion; it is also well rooted in the academy. We can trace a very similar psychological rejection of darkness to the very heart of Western philosophy, Plato’s Republic – specifically, to the heart of the Republic itself, book VII and the Allegory of the Cave. Plato gives us the image of the unenlightened prisoners chained in darkness, looking at shadows on the cave walls. The escaped prisoner is, in contrast, taken, “by force, up the rough ascent, the steep way up…out into the light” (1956, p. 313). When he returns to the cave he is in the state of having, “…his eyes full of darkness coming in suddenly out of the sun” (p. 315). With this allegory Plato has not struck one blow but two; he has rejected darkness, and has also rejected the psychological depth of the underworld. The direction is upward and outward, into ever increasing light.1

Literature and Film

The focus in this section is placed much more on the overall effect of the literary work rather than on the work per se. After all, it would be rather crass to level a claim of depthlessness against Dante. While reading Dante’s Divine Comedy or Milton’s Paradise Lost can offer an integration of psychological depth and metaphorical darkness, simply having the binary such works can create thrust upon us is a different experience indeed.

The overall world view created by these works seeks to redeem and overcome darkness, as opposed to integrating it. Of the two, Milton represents a sharper denial of darkness, and division from light. In the opening description of Hell, Milton writes, “At once, as far as angel’s ken, he views/ The dismal situation waste and wild./ A dungeon horrible, on all sides round,/ As one great furnace, flamed, yet from those flames/ No light, but rather darkness visible/ Served only to discover sights of woe,” (2006, p. 12).

We might contrast Milton and his hulking division of light and dark, to a seldom read classic like The Golden Ass of Apuleius (1951). Herein is found the story of Cupid and Psyche, as well as heavy emphasis on the importance of the underworld descent (psychological depth) and the integration of darkness – as opposed to rejection of darkness and division of darkness and light. It might also bear mention that towards the end of the text, the narrator of The Golden Ass is initiated as a priest of Isis. His initiation, however, is not considered complete until he is also initiated into the cult of Osiris – a dark and underworld god. It should go without saying, Apuleius is now all but unknown; while most people have heard of Milton and are at least familiar, we can guess influenced by, the basic story of the battle in heaven and exile of Lucifer to a darkness visible.

A relatively recent example along similar lines can be found in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Here, we see a similar division of light and dark. The dangerous change is how the division now becomes literalized in the contrast of the white skinned Englishman and the dark skinned African. Where Milton can be said to have contributed to a loss of psychological depth, Conrad creates a division conducive to outright racism. This notion is developed by Chinua Achebe in Hopes and Impediments (1989). Achebe begins his discussion of Conrad with the thought that Europe has set up Africa as a “foil” to Europe, with the end result of making sure that “Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest” (p. 3).

While Achebe explicates the elements of racism in The Heart of Darkness, the concurrent psychological rejection of darkness also calls for attention. In Conrad’s work, there does not seem to be a psychological positioning allowing for possible integration, the “foil” of Achebe is set in stone. Kurtz himself is the best testament to this fact. Kurtz integrates all of Europe, but when he is faced with the “darkness” of Africa – he breaks, goes over, and cannot hold the tension of opposites. He gives up his whiteness, and is consumed by the darkness he, at the moment of death, calls the “horror”. There is ultimately no integration for Kurtz, he remains caught on one side or the other of, what for Kurtz, remains an irresolvable antinomy to the very end. The problem of refusing to integrate psychological darkness, or on the other hand entering it to the exclusion of light, could be called nearly ubiquitous. In A Little Book on the Human Shadow Robert Bly has noted, “The Western man or woman lives in a typical pairing of opposites that destroys the soul” (1988, p. 56).

With the case of Kurtz in The Heart of Darkness, Kurtz likewise remains caught in a soul destroying duality. On the bottom line Conrad paints Africa, darkness, and all that goes with it, in abyssal tones. The deathbed scene of Kurtz solidifies the binary of: light as good standing opposite of dark as bad, Conrad writes, “… [his stare] piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness. He had summed it up – he had judged. ‘The horror!’” (1988, p. 69).

My guess is, that to many people, the phrase “The horror…the horror!” conjures up an image not of Joseph Conrad, but rather of a bloated Marlon Brando from the film Apocalypse Now (1979). Along a similar vein, if I were to repeat the phrase, “the horror!” (one of the most recognizable in literature) to an undergraduate class, most would think I was referencing the cinematic genera of horror – often a favorite topic of undergrads. It is only a short jump from this observation to one of the biggest objections to the heretofore mentioned assertions of this paper:  What do we make of the pervasive popular interest in horror and the macabre? Hollywood has given us a steady stream of psychological darkness in film. Outside of film, writers such as Stephen King and Dean Koontz flood printing presses. Furthermore, what is to be said of canonical (or nearly canonical) works that could be argued to integrate darkness? After all, we have to recognize Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and almost everything written by Edgar Allan Poe.

There seems to be an unquestionably pervasive call from the unconscious to engage darkness; however, this call also seems to lean in the direction of fluff and filler—regardless of how graphically violent the film, comic book, or pulp paperback may be (a point I will soon return to).  The glaring lack in all of these potential entry points of darkness is a lack of psychological depth. The notion of psychological depth will also offer a caveat to the earlier critique of Milton. The widespread lack of psychological depth in mass culture and lack of integration of the dark facets of the psyche is best seen when contrasting the experience of film to that of literature. We must not look at content alone, but also the manner in which that content is being consumed. Literature offers an entry point for psychological depth, while contrariwise, the same motif in popular culture very rarely does.

Few would argue that the experience of reading Milton’s Paradise Lost is vastly different from that of getting the world view of a hulking binary of good versus evil second hand from the contemporary culture industry. The same can be said of all the examples of darkness in literature that are given above. If we wish to distill the difference between viewing a film and fully investigating a printed literary work down to a single word, that word would be “depth.”

In his classic work The Dream and the Underworld, James Hillman states this emphatically (the italics appear in the original), “Our familiar term depth psychology says this quite directly:  to study the soul, we go deep. The logos of the soul, psychology, implies the act of traveling the soul’s labyrinth in which we can never go deep enough” (1979, p. 25).

To illustrate the varying levels of psychological depth we might briefly compare a well-crafted cinematic production, in this case, the 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula, staring Gary Oldman, with a deeply investigative printed edition such as The Annotated Dracula (1975). In the film we are offered the spectacle of Renfield devouring flies, though the depiction is acted well and is convincing, the experience begins and ends with little more psychological depth than an adolescent’s gross out gag. Contrariwise, in The Annotated Dracula, we first encounter a deeper treatment via Stoker’s text directly (where the flight of the fly is connected to that of the butterfly, and furthermore to the butterfly as a symbol of the soul), then when we follow the annotation we read an Oxford dictionary definition of psyche and are next treated to the poetry of Coleridge, “The butterfly the ancient Grecians made/ The soul’s fair emblem, and its only name/ But of the soul, escaped the slavish trade/ Of mortal life! For in this earthly frame/ Ours is the reptile’s lot – much toil, much blame…” (p. 237).

A similar comparison could be made with Dante and the motif of the descent into Hell. If we take the motif alone (whether marginally developed through film or developed even less when taken second hand via culture industry at large), we are left with the binary division of light and dark; however if we go deeper and engage the text (perhaps better yet, an edition containing the classic Gustave Dore etchings), the darkness is not so much left on the surface of the spectacle, but can be worked with, ruminated upon, and hopefully integrated.  After all, the work of integrating darkness takes time. A perfect illustration is Saturn, an underworld god, often depicted with the hourglass – a symbol of death and mortality, but also of the slow work of deepening the psyche.

The example of Dante and the descent into Hell perfectly illustrate two key points. The first of these points is an additional example of the way in which a sense of psychological darkness can be deeply integrated via the text. The second is an example of the widespread fascination with darkness in the culture industry; importantly, this fascination is at the same time, paradoxically, a fascination that keeps darkness at arm’s length – ultimately to the detriment of integration.

Much as was suggested above with the tarrying in Stoker’s Dracula, a slow reading of Dante’s Inferno yields layer after layer of richly imaginative darkness – more so when we include the spectacular illustrations of Dore. The experience of sinking into Dante’s rich underworld strata, word by word, line by line, and ponderous etching by ponderous etching, bears remarkable similarity to Hillman’s call for depth in psychology. Hillman writes, “Depth means death and demons and dirt and darkness and disorder and a lot of other industrial strength d words familiar to therapy… Therapy has to be sublime. Terror has to be included in its beauty” (1992).

A film treatment of a similar motif (descent into Hell), even a well-crafted treatment like the widely popular What Dreams May Come (1998), may be called beautiful, moving, and perhaps even meaningful, but it is not sublime. Deeply read and slowly considered: Dante is sublime.

The second point is perhaps more important than the first. The unconscious possesses an uncanny way of getting what it wants. If part of its nature is denied, a call goes up to the ego for awareness of the neglected facet. When viewing darker films we pay lip-service to the psyche’s inherent call to integrate and develop the richness of a full 360 degree being. Darkness can be checked off of the ego’s to-do list; however, the cost of such cursory treatment is high. Hillman, in The Dream and the Underworld, muses that our “Ego, over black coffee (a ritual of sympathetic magic), chases the shadows of the night and reinforces his dominion” (1979, p. 116).  A similar sympathetic magic is at work in the use of film. When we buy a ticket or purchase a copy of the film, we claim ownership of it, yet this conscious (and quite literal) ownership of the film and consumption of the binary motif does not equate with integration. The ego addresses the unconscious call for integration of darkness but does so in a piecemeal way. The overall effect is not the towering dark and light generated by a deep reading of Dante, Milton, or Goethe, but, is something that might be called “darkness lite” – a lightweight, cursory, and ultimately a shallow engagement with the dark facets of the psyche.

If the two well-crafted films discussed above are lacking in psychological depth when juxtaposed to a close reading of the printed page, the steady stream of slasher movies and pornographically violent pulp fiction films can only be seen as lacking moreso. Watching an orgy of violence and believing that the dark side of the psyche has been integrated is akin to camping in an RV with its accompanying flood of artificial light, and believing that night and nature have been engaged.

History and Anthropology

“Indeed says [Hayden] White, a ‘narrative account is always a figurative account, an allegory’, it being only a modern empirical prejudice ‘in favor of literalism that obscures this fact to many modern analysts of historical narrative’” (Jenkins, 1995, p. 24).

Perhaps what is more destructive than the heretofore mentioned is the slanting of history and anthropology. Again we see a dangerous literalization and concretization of the metaphorical concepts of darkness and light. This “literalism” is nowhere more destructive than in the notions of race that have positioned whiteness at the pinnacle of racial perfection, and have constructed darkness as a degeneration of that ideal. Here we see something very similar to the notion of Africa as a “foil”; yet, the consequences are more severe, as now the arena is not literature but what is billed as objective science.

In Stephen Jay Gould’s Three Centuries’ Perspective on Race and Racism (1981), the development of the term “Caucasian” is explored. Two facets of the discussion are relevant to this paper. First, Gould discusses how J. F. Blumenbach invented the term “Caucasian” in 1795, thus the entirely arbitrary nature of racial classification is exposed (see appendix A). Blumenbach is quoted as calling the peoples of the Caucasus Mountains “…the most beautiful race of men…” (p. 401). It should not be surprising they are also the lightest skinned. Secondly, Gould delves into the implications of Blumenbach’s system. Gould explains how Blumenbach added the Malay race to an older system of racial classification, thus putting Caucasians at the pinnacle of a hierarchical model, and relegating all other races to an aberrant status. We should note, Blumenbach places the African race at the diametric opposite of the Caucasian – the very bottom of the hierarchy. Science has now objectified the “foil” we have seen in Achebe’s review of The Heart of Darkness.


Blumenbach’s hierarchical model of race opened the door to another avenue by which darkness could be rejected, that of contamination and purity.

“Disgusting things are contaminating; any contact, however minor, is repulsive” (2004, p. 159). Thus begins psychologist Paul Bloom’s treatment of disgust. Bloom goes on to describe the innate, hard-wired response we have when faced with situations that could threaten our survival. The top of list of objects triggering disgust are rotting meat, rotting vegetation, feces, urine, and blood. All potentially sources of contamination. The survival value of being repulsed by such things is obvious.

However, things can go easily awry. When our innate sensitivity to be disgusted by contaminating material is linked with a race or group of people, we have just arrived nowhere short of abject racism. One only needs to think of American segregation and those disturbing photos of black and white water fountains; the fear of contamination is almost tangible. To return to Blumenbach, it is easy to see how a system positioning a “pure” Caucasian race at the top of a hierarchical ladder ending with black Africans at the bottom could well lead to fears of contamination.

These fears play out along two lines. First, in a literal way, with concepts like the “one-drop rule” and the legal classification of the 1970 Louisiana law declaring that an individual with as little as 1/32 African blood is a “negro” (Omi and Winant, 1994). Secondly, they play out along purely perceptual lines – the bizarre notion that Rodney King could be seen as the threatening individual on the video tape of the roadside beating, serves as a perfect example (Butler, 1993). Both cases could be reduced to a fundamental fear of being contaminated with darkness.

While the Rodney King jurors can be seen as an extreme of rejecting darkness, the flip side of integration bears mention. K. Anthony Appiah uses “contamination” as an ideal of cosmopolitanism. His New York Times Magazine article is so much as titled The Case for Contamination (January 1, 2006). Indeed, the notion of contamination can be seen as a prerequisite to integration – the benchmark of Jungian psychology and a rallying cry of this paper. Via contamination we open ourselves to the unknown, the repressed, and the alien. We move from a state of separateness to a state of connection, from division to synthesis. Contamination also constitutes the opposite pole to the misguided notions of racial purity and cultural purity. Appiah references the Roman poet Terence, and gives us a line that equally serves as a great maxim of cosmopolitanism and of psychological integration. Appiah writes, quoting Terence, “And it’s in his comedy ‘The Self-Tormentor’ that you’ll find what may be the golden rule of cosmopolitanism – Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto; ‘I am human: nothing human is alien to me.'” (2006, p. 6).

Technology and Power

“But today, in the modernist West, people have sold their souls to technology, expertise, and quantification. It’s unfortunate, because only daring to address the dark night of the soul can we truly heal each other”, the archetypal psychologist Thomas Moore, from Dark Nights of the Soul (2004, p. 274).

The psychological push towards light and rejection of darkness may have begun with the beginning of the book of Genesis; but, it was not until the wide spread use of the electric light bulb that it boomed. In the history of humanity, electric light, in all its forms, may have had more psychological impact than any other factor. Electric light has taken us out of a natural circadian rhythm, has taken away nature and pushed people indoors, has radically altered workplaces, utterly changed leisure, has taken from us the night sky, and perhaps more powerfully than all of these effects, has created a media pipeline via: movies, television, and internet. Electricity has truly spawned a culture of light.                 

R. Dyer (1997) lays out the details of what he calls “a light culture” (p. 106). The transformation of light in the eighteenth century is the central player. Through the new technologies, light became bright, commonplace, and overhead. The long and short of this, is rejection of the dark and darkness (and all the psychological value therein); and, a normalization of white and brightly lit.

This notion comes to a heightened pitch with the “glow” of “idealized white women” (p. 122); and, the connection that is made to the pseudo-Christian notion of the idealized white woman as “angel” (p. 127). Thus, we are brought full circle to this papers opening historical remarks about the psychological rejection of darkness in the Christian worldview. We have been given an image of whiteness, full of light and the angelic. This vision is then contrasted with dark, diseased, and demonic. If we extend this notion, the extreme examples of what I have been calling a “psychological rejection of darkness” are found in the Protestant world North of the Alps, and in the “North’s” extension in England and America. While the loss of psychological “soul” North of the Alps has been deeply discussed by archetypal psychologists such as James Hillman (1975), the most succinct observation of the darkness-rejecting Northern psyche is found in Goethe’s Faust. Goethe writes, in the voice of Homunculus, “Northwestwards, Satan, is thy park and pale,/ But we, this time southeastwards sail” (1930,  p. 302). Here, Homunculus is pushing Faust out of the harsh Protestant duality and coaxing him towards a polytheistic integration – a “contamination” with another culture, to use Appiah’s phrase. In the pagan world of Hellenistic Greece the light/dark division is dissolved via the integration of the entire spectrum of archetypes – darkness and the underworld included.2

Again, with the example of the Protestant North, the loss of psychological depth should be stressed, along with the elements of racism and power. We might well be reminded of Foucault (1982) and the notion of turning human beings into subjects to place them in a subjugated status. It is far beyond the scope of this paper, but the massive economic machine serving to maintain the whiteness of the white society is simply staggering. More than anywhere else the power dynamic Foucault explicates, is playing out in the marketplace and driven by advertising which very often uses images of bright whiteness in its visuals. Advertising itself is powerfully enabled by recent technological advances; pouring through an ever increasing media pipeline. The most glaring recent example is an I-Pad ad (Time Magazine, back cover, April 19, 2010) showing a white mother holding a white child. The pair glows with an unnatural halo of light – presumably caused by their contact with the device. The I-Pad itself ultimately serves to deeper entrench the user in a media society.

The changes in Apple’s advertising over the years are also worth noting. Some time back the logo changed from a bitten apple decorated with the entire spectrum of colors to a luminous glowing apple, or a chrome-plated apple. The older logo stressed creativity and bright color; the new logo puts heavy emphasis on flash, technological wizardry, and we might go as far as to say exclusivity. A similar meditation could be applied to Apple’s use of white wires when marketing the I-Pod. For a time, the white ear-buds and white wires of the I-Pod represented an exclusive ideal that could be possessed by paying a premium price.

To return to the notion of “ideal”: the ideal is not just light and white; as Dyer notes, it is a particular kind of whiteness. Two selections from Dyer’s paper highlight this fact. The first repeats many of the hitherto mentioned observations on the “North”, and light from the North promoting such virtues as, “vigor, cleanliness, piety, and enterprise of whiteness” (1997, p. 118). The second is the notion of technologies in movie lighting catering to blonde-haired, light-skinned actresses.

With such a model of the “ideal”, we have created not just fractured individuals, but fractured individuals who dangerously see themselves as morally superior to anyone who does not shine with equal “whiteness” under the stinging-hot spotlight. The psychological risks of such a state are well documented by Erich Fromm (1955) in The Sane Society, and James Hillman (1975), just to name a few; but the condition was captured spot-on by the character Howard Beale in the movie Network (1976),

This is no longer a nation of independent individuals. It’s a nation of some 200 million transistorized deodorized whiter-than-white steel belted bodies… The whole world is becoming humanoid. Creatures that look human but aren’t. The whole world, not just us. We’re just the most advanced so we’re getting there first. The whole world’s people are becoming programmed, numbered… (spoken).

What is called for in response to a society of “whiter-than-white humanoids” is the same mantra that has been echoing throughout this paper: integration and awareness. To this we can add synthesis. Not this or that, but both. We can retain light without rejecting darkness; as well as integrate darkness without turning away from the culture of light. The necessary view point is not singular, but a multiplicity of viewpoints.

This thought is wonderfully summed up by Goethe in his legendary treatise on light, in paragraph 228 of Theory of Colours (1840), Goethe writes, “…we should not remain in one spot, we should not confine ourselves to the insulated fact…for it is only by combining analogies that we gradually arrive at a whole which speaks for itself, and requires no further explanation” (p. 52).



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