Boardwalk Empire and the Human Experiment: Jung, Chopra and HarrowAnja van Kralingen
Boardwalk Empire and the Human Experiment
I recently watched the first two seasons of Boardwalk Empire. The series is set in and around Atlantic City, during the infamous Prohibition in the nineteen twenties. Tracking the fortunes of Enoch “Nucky” Thompson and his associates based on historical characters from the period and active in various criminal enterprises. It is exceptionally good and the second season in particular plays like a Classical Greek Tragedy.
There is a character in the series, Richard Harrow, who is particularly interesting- at least from a psychological perspective. He is a former American Army marksman who has returned from the First World War having suffered a terrible injury. Half his face has been destroyed and his is obliged to wear a tin mask over it, which matches (rather poorly) the normal half of his face which is uncovered. He is reminiscent of Two-Face in the Batman Comic Book Series.
Richard is deeply scarred emotionally and spiritually by his injury and has seemingly lost all capacity for love and happiness. He has become, partly as a consequence of this, a very effective enforcer in the extended criminal empire of Nucky Thompson.
In one of the episodes Richard, having been truly seen by an artist who paints his portrait, is no longer able to suppress his deep level of despair and loss of hope and decides to commit suicide. As it happens, he is disturbed by the sudden arrival of a dog in the forest where he had gone to commit the act and does not go through with it.
Watching this scene I was reminded of the Deepak Chopra quote as well as Jung’s idea of individuation. Was Richard Harrow an aberration, an extra piece? Was the path of individuation also open to him? And if it was what would it look like? What would be an ideal destiny, an unfolding and the most complete form of self realisation for such a man?
Are there any extra pieces in the Universe?
The first time I read Chopra’s quote I was struck by how blindingly obvious it is. Like the greatest truths it is simple and obvious, and we immediately have the sense that we have always known it. Still it is not without problems.
How for example are we to understand the tremendous problems caused by the over population of the planet if ‘there are no extra pieces’? This strikes me as an interesting metaphysical dilemma. On the one hand the earth’s overpopulation is a critical problem. At the root of the ecological, political and economic crisis is this simple truth – there are too many people alive on the earth. Currently around 7 billion.
Furthermore it stands to reason that this growth curve cannot be sustained indefinitely. At some point, in the not too distant future, the planet will reach a critical threshold beyond which more people can simply not be accommodated. But long before that, the overall quality of life of earth’s inhabitants will diminish in direct proportion to this growth. Space and natural resources, as we know, are in limited supply.
But against this consider Chopra’s statement, ‘no extra pieces in the universe’. I think this is absolutely true, it has to be, how could we conceive of it otherwise? It is an idea which transcends, I believe, the debate between intelligent design and random mutation. If intelligent design, then naturally there are no extra pieces; however consider even if the universe is a governed by random design or mutation how could we infer the existence of ‘extra pieces’? Were we to, naturally that would be a judgment which we as man created and not a universal truth.
That is to say although we, as man, may come to believe there are extra or wasted pieces, we cannot come to believe that the universe shares this belief.
However in order to make this line of thinking genuinely meaningful one has to assume that the universe is also purposive. And I think this is implicit in Chopra’s statement, i.e. not only are there no extra pieces but each piece, as part of a purposive whole, is itself purposive.
Each and every life is an experiment. And in discovering and living our purpose we are putting forward our hypothesis.
This idea comes from Jung.
My brother Michael, a keen Jungian in recent years, was reading about a visit by Jung to the Jungian Institute in New York. At a dinner Jung was reported to have got into a conversation about Christ and the crucifixion. And to have said that when Christ called out- Father why hast thou forsaken me, we can understand this as his questioning the entire purpose of his existence.
But, Jung went on to add, he (Christ) made his hypothesis (i.e. his entire life lived in service of his purpose). What else can any of us do, but just that? Live a life which is an actualisation of our hypothesis.
Richard Harrow and an Unconventional Destiny
So following this line of thinking the following emerges.
- Richard Harrow is meant to exist. We may not know why he is meant to exist in such a bizarre fashion, and he certainly does not seem to know why- but he is.
- The nature of his existence, inasmuch as we accept that he too is capable of individuating, is unusual, beyond the pale of convention. That is to say his is a special destiny in unchartered or at least seldom chartered waters.
It is important to add here though that in order to understand this destiny we (and he) need to transcend ego psychology. If Harrow has a purpose in the greater scheme of things, a cosmic purpose, then the brief he has been given comes from the objective soul of mankind, not from his personal prejudices. At least that is the view of analytical psychology, which is most eloquently articulated by Wolfgang Giegerich.
We can think of Richard Harrow as a metaphor for the ‘monster’ in all of us. In some way or another we all carry an awkward, socially inept or even blatantly anti-social, certainly unconventional, self in our psyches. The question to consider is whether it is better to suppress this highly unconventional aspect of who you are or to celebrate it. One thing seems certain one must decide, none of us can have it both ways.
It seems that Jung’s idea is that we should celebrate it.
“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.”
― C.G. Jung
But consider that this is far from easy. To truly embrace your inner monster is not what you are educated or encouraged to do. And this external super-ego as Freud teaches us is internalised, we carry this voice of conventional morality in our own souls.
Still I think it is an interesting idea. In as much as you or I are different, unconventional, in as much as we don’t meet the gold standard of normality, we have the possibility of a new and valuable hypothesis. In as much as we conform we are generic, vanilla and non-descript; we add little of lasting value to the collective or objective soul life of mankind.
This I think is the lesson we can take away from Richard Harrow and his unusual fate. Whilst it is natural to yearn for “normality” there is something genuinely exciting, new, mysterious and valuable in finding yourself facing an unusual fate. And to some degree we all have this capacity for an unusual fate, because most often being “normal” and fitting in is a form of adaptation, almost of survival, rather than the dictates of the inner monster.
The key here is to make this fate, or brief from the objective soul, conscious; to take it onboard and make it your own. Then applying conscious discernment, to carefully consider how faced with the fate you are how you might best behave. So that the hypothesis of your life is an alchemical combination of what you are given and what you do with what you have been given.
Until we talk again,