I often find themes emerging in my reading, where unrelated books come together into one particular area of inquiry. I love these happy little coincidences that I see as synchronicity in action because they remind me of the profound magic of books and reading, and how truly powerful books are.
My latest bout of unwittingly thematic reading has concerned another Jungian phenomenon, that of the shadow.
The shadow is the unknown dark side of our personality and it exists just beyond our consciousness. It’s where we tend to hoard our more base and less Instagrammable urges – greed, anger, selfishness, sexual longings, power cravings. I like to think of my shadow as the world’s most debauched party taking place just where I can’t get to it, which is probably just as well, because the hangover afterwards would be off the chart.
The shadow is in my view essentially a structure created by fear of the true nature of ourselves. The parts of my nature I fear the most are my imagination, and my emotions. And the reality of my shadow is that I do everything in my power not to come across it, which means severely tempering both of the above.
But the student must have been ready, because along came three books that opened the door to that debauched party in my psyche.
I went to an evening with bestselling author Louise O’Neill to listen to her talk about The Surface Breaks and from the second she came into the room I could feel I was in the presence of somebody unafraid of the shadow.
She’s open about her goals for writing, as she said, she doesn’t care if her characters are likeable, she cares that they are honest. They are. And how. Raw and brutal. I admire her more than I can possibly express for her comfort with discomfort, or rather her willingness to endure discomfort.
And when I read The Surface Breaks, which I did in one sitting like a woman possessed, what stayed with me afterwards was how incredibly uncomfortable it was. The main character is in permanent discomfort at best, excruciating pain at worst.
The book, a feminist re-imagining of The Little Mermaid, is beautiful, and powerful, and thoughtful, and brave, but it’s also really uncomfortable. The antithesis of my happily-ever-afters with their quaint teashops, cosy nights in front of a roaring fire with hot chocolate, and other simple pleasures.
Life, after all, involves both.
O’Neill inspired me to think about my own shadow in my writing, and reminded me that writing is a journey. It’s a lifetime’s work to get to know oneself, especially when we change all the time, and I see all creative endeavour as a product of deep self-knowledge that allows the truest expression.
If we don’t explore the whole – the bad side, the shadow, the darkness – how can we express the real?
After The Surface Breaks I picked up Mind of a Survivor by Megan Hine, which has been on my TBR for ages and of which I was reminded after listening to The Wild Show.
This is nothing like gritty fantasy-based YA. This is nonfiction, part memoir and part guide, a deep look at the mindset of survival and examples of that mindset in practice.
And while some of the incidents Hine describes seem carved from fantasy – a night in the middle of the Nairobi desert warding off a pride of hungry lions armed with nothing but a small campfire, for example – this book is no less real. No less aggressive in its shattering of some pretty little myths we’ve long carried around with us.
Hine reminds us that survival can be as much about self-preservation and caution as it is about heroism and courage. And she also reminds us that the wild is neither nurturing and protective, nor hostile and unforgiving, but utterly indifferent. It does not care if we live or die.
I think that indifference, that truly bleak knowledge that somebody or something just does not care, is worse even than the darkest parts of the shadow. It’s the least human characteristic of all. Even a desire to cause harm, is generally rooted in a universally shared human experience like pain or fear. Simply not caring, is non-human to a terrifying degree.
Much of our relationship with nature relies upon us humanising it, controlling it and cutifying it to better cope with this vast indifference. I thought of this often as I read Owl Sense by Miriam Darlington, one of the most psychologically aware pieces of nature writing I’ve ever had the pleasure to read.
Her study of the native owl species of Europe takes her on a journey of inner and outer knowledge and progress and Owl Sense is as much a personal development book as it is a study of nature and wildlife, in my view.
She talks often about how we both mystify owls, using them to inform legends, and attempt to bring them under our control by turning them into cute must-have fashion accessories. She talks about her discomfort with the growing pile of owl memorabilia she accumulates during her quest, the piles of knick-knacks, bags, cushions and other accessories with cute owl prints and motifs.
Through nature, she draws attention to human nature. How fragile our perceptions can be, how easy it is to ride roughshod over the true nature of a thing in our attempt to reduce it to something within our understanding and ultimately, control.
In her tale of the Exeter eagle owl, she demonstrates how even the most awe-inspiring predator and creature of legend can be reduced to a pathetic joke if it exists out of time, and out of place.
I think we can do similar for the shadow. Not mock it or dismiss it like Darlington’s poor eagle owl, but simply accept it. Acceptance of a thing removes its power over us.
Funny, how we try so hard to humanise nature to remove its power, projecting onto the great outdoors what we’re afraid to apply to the microfacets of our own selves.