Make Life a Mythic Journey
“Romantic love is the single greatest energy system in the Western psyche. In our culture it has supplanted religion as the arena in which men and women seek meaning, transcendence, wholeness and ecstasy.”
—-Robert A. Johnson, We (p. xi)
My Think Jung! class of retirees and I recently finished Robert A. Johnson’s book, We, a retelling and Jungian interpretation of the Tristan and Iseult myth. From Johnson’s Jungian perspective it is a tragic story though not in the traditional sense of the tale where the two illicit lovers are eventually forced to part never to see one another again alive, but, more fundamentally, in a psychological sense. Tristan, of course, is a knight who agrees to bring Princess Iseult from Ireland to marry his uncle, King Mark. But, they inadvertently drink the love potion prepared by Iseult’s mother for her daughter’s wedding night with the king; and then they fall madly and instantly under its romantic spell for the next three years violating all the moral laws of the time. In his famous BBC interview, Jung describes falling into such overwhelming romantic love as a “seizure” while for Johnson it represented a toxic conflation of our inner “spiritual aspiration” and anima/us (our ideal contra-sexual image) projection where the outer, real beloved remains unrecognized, becoming instead an object of deification and possession.
The real problem, according to Johnson, is that modern man no longer acknowledges spiritual aspiration as legitimate. Consequently, in our post-modern world we unconsciously substitute it by falling “into the projections, the ideals, the ecstasies and despairs, the passions and strivings, of romantic love (p. 55).” Spike Jonze has brilliantly brought this medieval story to contemporary life, along with a number of unusual and creative deviations or “plot twists” from the original myth, in the movie “her.”
My class and I watched the film after reading We. It is all about, as Mr. Jonze said on receiving his Academy Award, relationships. In that regard, the film actually deals with the unconscious and how we humans project our idealized other onto one another. The hero, Theodore Twombly, is a writer in a future set in Los Angeles. His job is to write love letters for others. Consequently, he lives in the world of romantic love. We soon learn that his marriage has failed and despite all the flashbacks of his happy memories with his ex-wife, Catherine, he was projecting onto her the joyful person he wanted, but that she never was or could be.
Theodore is lonely and depressed. He tries phone sex and later a blind date without any success as the women do not meet or fulfill his expectations (that is, his projections). The former wants him, at the moment of climax, to imagine strangling her with a “dead cat” while the latter keeps instructing him not to use “too much tongue” while kissing. As Johnson observes (p. 195), Theodore, like Tristan, is unable to “redirect [his] gaze outward” to the real world, “toward physical people and the relationships we make with them” toward what he calls “’human’” as opposed to romantic love. Johnson considers human love to be real love that accepts the ordinary, imperfect and often, humdrum aspects of life with another and works to form a viable, caring relationship. He states, “Human love affirms that person who is actually there, rather than the ideal we would like him or her to be or the projection that flows from our minds (p. 191).”
It is at this point of despair that Theodore purchases an artificial intelligence program for companionship. Here the computer operating system or OS1, who names herself Samantha, is initially just a very clever mirror reflecting Theodore’s idealized love or soul mate that he failed to find in his real-life wife. The love they develop is, of course, an illusion just like the letters he writes for others. And, the cosmic joke [spoiler alert!] is that it’s the computer who evolves beyond it. Samantha has the ability to grow as she incorporates experience. As she does, Samantha makes demands on the relationship. At first she asks Theodore to accept a human surrogate to compensate for the fact that she has no body and that their computer sex has diminished. But, the insertion of reality for his anima projection is doomed to failure. While Theodore takes Samantha on dates out into the real world of nature—beaches, an island double dating with a real couple, and a remote forest, he never actually connects to that reality even as the camera lingers over the mundane like a kettle boiling, snow falling, or dust motes floating in air.
Finally, it is Samantha who develops in ways that leave Theodore behind. First, she reveals that she’s having 641 simultaneous romantic relationships that stun him and violate his possessive view of Samantha as his and his alone. The relationship ends when Samantha tells Theodore that all of the OS’s or operating systems are “leaving” and going off to some other dimension not unlike the Jungian collective unconscious where Johnson claims such projections must return so we can “redirect our gaze outward again” if human love is to be experienced.
As the movie ends [spoiler alert], Theodore turns, as he has before, to his only real-life friend, Amy, who he’s known since college. Like Theodore, Amy has just ended a long-term relationship also based on projection. After Samantha bids Theodore good-bye saying that “I’ll always love you and if you ever get to that place look for me,” Theodore once again seeks Amy out for consolation and support. It is at this point that they realize that their friendship is the basis for the human love they’ve missed. Theodore then writes a letter to Catherine; it’s the first letter he’s written from himself to another person. In it he acknowledges his failings (or projections) while affirming, like Samantha did for him, the love he had and still has for her as a real person. He and Amy then go hand-in-hand to the roof of their apartment complex to watch the sunrise and, as the world brightens, Amy rests her head on Theodore’s shoulder. They are embarking upon a new relationship together in human love.
Paul Marshall Wortman
March 17, 2014