The story of the sleeping maiden awakened by true love’s kiss is a potent metaphor of the waking self, which in happier days often sighted itself in the first blush of love (the beloved is but a mirror), but can also be surprised into sight by any significant shock. Of course, we are likely as not to awaken not to the true prince, but instead the murderous ego, who, much like Frozen’s duplicitous Hans, uses the opportunity with Anna to wound the vulnerable self. The two sisters in Disney’s record-breaking animated movie can be taken together represent the whole self, whose most powerful aspect, Elsa, has been split apart and cast outside the auspices of kingdom and Crown, to a shadow realm apart. Though we mustn’t expect to be helped entirely out of our perplexities by Disney, who uses a hacksaw where a chisel is preferred, and whose denouements invariably obfuscate more than illuminate, we can still locate even in this popular child’s movie the germ of a helpful myth.
The happily ever after—and even happy after all—which all princess stories chase after can mislead. One may begin to suspect that the awakening is the whole point, but as delicious as self recognition can be, it is only the beginning. Contrary to all expectations, the self awakens, not to happiness, not to the kingdom, and not to freedom; but to fetters. If one has grace they may find not a throne room but a notch, hitch or ledge from which to dangle from while the abyss yawns beneath. Unfreedom is the condition that greets the self, and this is true from the highest pinnacle of power to the lowest gutter dweller.
These conditions of existence, of profound dislocation and alienation, which shock and awe the imagination at first sight, may shock the self into fainting—perhaps with a princessly sigh—back into sweet sleep. For some it is not time to leave the dream. But for others, going back to sleep doesn’t seem possible. This awakening aspect, despite the overwhelming forces aligned against it, despite its powerlessness and despair, still struggles and and strains to be: to see, to understand, and, finally to act. And yet, this self is astonishingly weak and pitiful, and even the simple daily tasks that the ego performs easily overwhelm and exhaust it. One must become wiser and stronger, but how? First it is necessary to find sympathy and understanding for this beleaguered aspect of oneself, so long kept in the dark.
Ungeheures Ungeziefer (“some sort of monstrous insect”)
The ‘self’ that is first able to constitute itself from the unorganized materials of the psyche is certainly not whole. Nor is it altogether lovely to regard in its larvae state, as it is often found. It seems at once an insect to be stamped out, an abject thing to be concealed and restrained at any cost. Rather than embrace this newly discovered aspect—often encountered quite by accident when the ego in acute crisis plunges into the psyche at some existential provocation—one may be inclined to recoil in utter horror. It may present itself at first as shadow, making itself known through means and methods that dismay the ego. Discoverable only through a process of reduction and deduction, this enemy within, as it often seems, uses even our most primitive instincts and appetites to signal its presence and to disrupt the show of selfhood put on by the ego.
It can be a shock at first become aware of these many things suppressed throughout the course of daily life, all of the unsavory appetites and drives that run like piping underneath the machinery of our being. When we happen upon the boiler room, so to speak, of the psyche, and find it run by a cunning but miserable creature, who, like all beings kept in solitary quarters in a dark place, evades and bedevils, a master saboteur and plotter supreme, who nonetheless shrinks and hides, we are likely to turn and run. A passive operator, always the second mover, this aspect of one’s inner life, which we may think of as suppressed subjectivity, has been forced to function opportunistically, using means less than ideal, and often dismaying the ego in its desperate plays.
But what exactly is this aspect of oneself, the “I” that watches and desires, not as the ego does, with a rationality in sympathy with the conditions of its time and the expectations of its primary group, but with a desire that seems infantile and irrational, but is often uncanny, often pointed, causing us to start in recognition, suspecting the existence, after all, of someone who is “in the know”?
Science has not yet created an instrument to observe consciousness but the human mind long ago supplied itself with such a tool: subjectivity. Freud recognized this and was keen to transform his insight into methodology that could serve science. This required conditioning a more standardized subjectivity that could work as reliable tool, not just to explore but also to colonize consciousness. A vital subjectivity had to be split away, and the ego was formed, in the image of our most cherished ideals, mirrored in the social forms presented to us from our infancy. If the ego ever did serve as a negotiator between the unconscious aspect of the psyche and the superego, the internalized social, it has abandoned this role today and is more of an enforcer than friend. Nor does the ego desire anymore the gaze of inner subjectivity, a craving that can hasten the process of integration and unification, instead it has become entirely social facing (narcissistic), and craves instead the social gaze.
This dislocation is perhaps the most profound way the self has been alienated and stripped of agency in our modern world. We can see it in the loss of conscious witness and voice across our professional and political worlds, but also in our daily lives, where we struggle to connect with others and to understand ourselves.
The ego, to be sure, does not rest securely in the self’s former seat, but suspects always the presence of an “other” whose very existence is a threat. All doppelganger anxiety is rooted in the ego’s formation, as the original self—or a more holistic subjectivity, if you prefer—was split off to create it. And in fact, the ego is in a guilty position in regards to the self, and, finding it natural to hate those it has harmed, as Tacitus put it, the ego collaborates with the Superego to stymie the self, whom it also fears. And this does not just occur within the private theater of the psyche, it is also enacted on the social stage where the ego runs the show. This is why the rising self will find itself oppressed not just by its own ego, but by all ego-driven individuals, who collaborate together to suppress any inconvenient subjectivity.
The ego’s logic (its operation) is thus quite simple to understand: it is attracted, it supplants, it destroys, bowing only to superior force. It was this logic that Freud identified as so integral to the egos formation and named the Oedipus complex, but today Mother and Father are not powerful enough to attract the ego, they do not serve as ego mirrors, and the ego forms in relationship to the social rather than the family. This is how the fandom has really come to replace family, and why we often see such passionate tragedies enacted in this space. It’s actually very personal for people. (This shift, from family to fandom, marks the true ideological fissure between reactionary and progressive politics, still there, beneath all the swampy gases rising up from our current stew political opportunism. True conservatives wish to return the individual to the family, while true progressives think this is not possible and maintain a genuinely new social order is necessary if we are to build a new world. One can disagree very deeply with the practices and aims of the present order and still not wish to return the individual to the barbaric family, which, even in its most fully developed middle-class manifestation, together with its present system of representative government, is still nothing more than a complex and technologically advanced tribe and clan system at its highest evolutionary point. Such a system will never take humanity to the next level.)
Now today the ego typically is not allowed to develop very fully, it compensates by identifying with a stronger ego, and by joining a group. Nor is the stronger ego any freer: This ego must seek the gaze of the social, it must perform for visibility, it is always vanishing and reappearing, and cannot find rest. This is narcissism. The relentlessness and precarity of such an existence is deeply unsatisfactory, but such conditions make for happy marketers, who find easy pickings amongst the perpetually insecure. The industry-wide shift from ‘satisfaction’ to ‘delight’ as an achievable marketing metric makes sense in this light, as satisfaction is restful and contented, as after a leisurely banquet, impossible for a narcissistic ego, while delight is fleeting and brief; kind of like crack cocaine.
While some egos are more delighted than other egos, of course, none are really satisfied. The ego’s insecurity is intermittent and frequent, and if it becomes acute enough, a crisis may commence that can bring about an interesting transformation. This crisis can be precipitated by either happy or unhappy events, the only requirement being a significant shock. It’s often social death that precipitates the crisis. For example, whether one suddenly takes on a new position or job that elevates them to another social strata, or whether one is losing a network of friends and family due to divorce, the ego is thrown into crisis because its identity has changed, and thus its old mode of being has ended. Faced with such a “death” the ego will instinctively balk. The ego is a rigid, process-based interface that copes with change badly, and will never willingly change, and in fact often cannot.
Such a crisis plunges the ego into the psyche. It is easy to predict what can happen if a fragile but rigid ego descends unprepared into the psyche with its divided subjectivity and shadow forms, and if this mental event coincides with unhappy circumstances or some unpleasant confrontation, the results can be quite tragic. Thanks to Freud and co. science possesses the tools to manage and direct such events, which are necessary to maintain the structure of society, such “breaks” in the fabric of society preserve it by releasing the pressure that would otherwise rend the whole cloth. Of course, violence isn’t the only possible outcome, but in an emotionally immature culture steeped in violence from infancy, it is a likely one. In such a case, the self’s first act of willful purpose is often its last.
A stronger ego will fare quite differently. It rediscovers the inner gaze of subjectivity and the source of its own power, but rather than mastering the ego, the ego has masters it. This self, sighting the ungeheures ungeziefer of a distorted subjectivity becomes sympathetic, not to its own plight, but to the shadow forms of the psyche, and instead of overcoming them becomes a collaborator with them, funding itself energetically directly from this hall of horrors. This self is beguiled and coerced to the dark side, and while it is freed from its narcissism, it has become a slave to the ego. This is the sociopath.
Turning to the dark side
“Oft times, to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles to betray’s in deepest consequence.”–Macbeth Act I scene 3.
The psyche exerts a powerful pull on the rising self, and together with the ego beguiles and coerces the self, which is overwhelmed and overawed. First of all, the self is shocked to discovered the Hobbesian world that underlies the dream of civilization, where biological imperatives rule supreme and condemns us, as Werner Herzog so memorably put it, to “the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.”
Secondly, the self becomes privy to the inner life of the mind, its secret workings and hidden springs, and thus is tempted by the power within its reach. The demons and monsters of the psyche use truths to convince, as Banquo warned Macbeth. Because these dark angels have the advantage of fuller knowledge, it is easy to fall under the spell of these truth tellers, who arrange or edit the facts to drive the self down a fatal course. Therefore, the sociopath, despite all he has overcome, is on an essentially a self-annihilating course. When you look closely at his life, you may observe that the seeds of self-destruction are sown into all his deeds. He is a Macbeth, driven by his own will to power to a final destruction. This is how he enacts the dark will of the negating, judging, condemning psyche and balances its logic with his own very intense need (will to power, deriving ironically from the selfsame core) to control and enact his own life. Here is the compromise this masterly individual, whom we think to be so free from social pressures, has made with the social, vis-a-vis its repressed energies. It is as though he has said, “I agree: all humans are wretched and should be annihilated. I will enact this agenda faithfully but I insist on being the author of my own downfall. None may destroy me but me.”
When he is not able to express power in the world, he may turn to subversive means. Something compels him, at times, to take risks. It is the self, still defying the ego even while under its thrall. It is the self that though powerless still rankles inarticulately at the hubris of the ego and finds means to pull the house down over his head. His means are maladaptive but it speaks more to the conditions in which he operates than the his own nature. His need to “feed” energetically likens him to the vampires and monsters so popular with people. The sociopath is often a very capable and intelligent individual who is also fiercely independent. People admire this strong ego expression, and may begin to identify with it if their own ego is too thwarted. Such a mode of being may seem heroic, particularly when one compares it to the conditions of narcissism. Whereas the narcissist only cares about looking good in the moment, the sociopath wants to be effective; while the narcissist cannot really conceive of a common good, the sociopath is able to buy into rational systems that serve his interests. And yet, his fatal flaw and death-orientation will always have the final world in a final conflict with the self.
So, while the sociopath is perhaps further along the road to health (wholeness) than the narcissist, and while relatively adaptive, subjectivity must go further and conquer rather than capitulate to the ego and the shadow realm in order to fully master itself and the world.
And, in fact, the ego is in the midst of its own unique crisis, produced by the collapse of modernism (which birthed it), and the hard limits of science, language and other rational systems, which it feels so keenly and yet denies so strenuously. The world soul is changing, bringing a new orientation, and the Ego, bound to the times, must come along. But while the egoist is eminently rational he is not reasonable. What he needs most he is eager to destroy. He needs the practical, earth-bound self to awaken him to his limits, but such an awakening will destroy what is most precious to the ego, his own idea of himself. It’s the irony of existence itself: to go on we must change and be born anew, but changing means death to the old. This the ego will not countenance; it must be tricked into coming along.
Subjectivity itself is an essential counter to the egos destructive course. Whereas the ego is a specific social-historical construction, subjectivity can be traced back to the dawn of consciousness, and is always found again when consciousness appears. It is impossible to force subjectivity into the kind of economies-of-scale model that produced the ego, by its very nature it is completely uncategorical. Attempts to standardize subjectivity via cultural segmentation are doomed to fail, though it may first cause much misery, because subjectivity is larger, weirder and queerer than science can understand. People who hope to divide the world in two should remember what happened the last time an essential structure was split: a real big explosion.
Writers from antiquity on have spoken of their worlds growing old and the death of civilizations is nothing new, but the unprecedented growth of human populations, coupled today with climate change, food insecurity, and political extremism may be putting all biological life at risk for extinction. In the meanwhile, globalization has spread the appetite for middle-class lifestyles far and wide, the output of industry and technology has hardly kept up, and we are facing a productivity crisis, which makes itself known where it is least able to be articulated. But the response to these conditions is more, more, and more of the same: the ego doesn’t want to change, it won’t change, it can’t change, the ego wants to save his world at any cost.
The self, long turned inward, is a witness to these deeper shift and has a role to play in the new world’s birth. The struggle between the ego and the self enacts the old puzzle of duality, with us since the dawn of consciousness. But beneath the transient Zeitgeist, the deeper Weltanschauung is shifting, a profound turn is upon us, the world is changing. As this turn completes, the ego and self will face each other again. The end of this cycle may bring their integration. Perhaps this is the singularity we’ve all been waiting for.