The Shining and Transcendence

Tim Fulmer & Rod Munday

Tim Fulmer: When Jack Torrance goes into his psychic maze and confronts the Minotaur he loses the battle. He doesn't have a thread to help him get back out. The Shining would be an allegory of a man who fails his initiation into the transcendent. He begins as a cold, unproductive writer and that's who he is at the end, literally frozen in the maze. He's failed to make the highest grade. The final image of the film, by this interpretation, is optimistic. Jack's always been here and always will be, so in some sense he's not really dead. He'll just have to give the maze another shot in another "life."

Rod Munday: I think the Maze in The Shining is perhaps allegorical to humanity's nascent understanding of its capacity for evil, and of the elaborate diversions we create to repress that knowledge.

Tim Fulmer: Moving into the maze must involve confrontation with evil and good alike. But at the center of the maze, there is the confrontation with everything we are not (the Adversary/Satan). At that point, either the evil is incorporated into the self, and there is a completion of the personality (grasping Ariadne's thread - Satan is actually Lucifer bringing the light of wisdom), or the person is overwhelmed by the evil and is annihilated (Satan is the Devil). I would take this to be the general theme of the Minotaur Myth.

If we go by this, then clearly Jack finds the center but is destroyed - he can't get back out. Midway in the film when Jack is contemplating the maze model, Wendy and Danny wander into the real maze, meet with dead ends but do find the center. And most important of all, they also find their way back out. It's not stretching things too far to see Wendy as Ariadne. She leads Danny back out of the maze, saves him.

Rod Munday: Michel Foucault articulated the evil characteristic of the maze very well in his 1962 essay 'Such a Cruel Knowledge': "To enter the gates of the maze," Foucault said "is to enter a theatre of Dionysian castration, is to undergo a paradoxical initiation not to a lost secret but to all the sufferings of which man has never lost the memory - the oldest cruelties in the world."

Tim Fulmer: Yes, this is well put. Moving through the maze is nothing more than learning (feeding from the Tree of Knowledge, hunting for the Grail), which has its share of dead ends, suffering, cul-de-sacs, etc. At the center of the maze, then, is the Tree of Life (divine wisdom) but only if the initiate asks the right question. Otherwise the suffering reaches a crisis point that slays the participant.

Rod Munday: As Kubrick himself said: "One of the things that horror stories can do is show us the archetypes of the unconscious: we can see the dark side without having to confront it directly." What better structure than a maze to reveal, and at the same time occlude, the horrors of the evil we humans are capable of. When Jack Torrence is trapped in the maze, he ultimately takes on the characteristics of the Minotaur, thus any specificity attached to his murderous actions is removed of context, and his actions occupy instead the universal space of myth..... yes he has always been in the hotel, but moreover he and his deeds also reside in the collective conscious of humankind. Symbolically the maze transcends physical time and space, and the roar of Torrence's rage echoes down its myriad pathways to connect right back to the origins of rage itself.

Tim Fulmer: Absolutely, the maze is an archetype. As for the Minotaur, it's never clear exactly how Theseus deals with the Minotaur. Does he kill it? Become it? What really happens at the center is never clearly explained (at least in the versions of the myth I know). Perhaps it's unimportant compared to what follows. Regardless, if, as you suggest, we look at this like Jungians, then perhaps when Theseus meets the Minotaur he's really incorporating into his personality all of those attributes he's called evil, and in the process completing his Self. The Minotaur would be a symbol of the individuated Self that is "beyond good and evil."

Rod Munday: Foucault called the Minotaur: "the very near and yet also the absolutely alien - the emblem of the unity of human and inhuman." All the imagery of 'the Shining' is suggestive of Labyrinths, the long mountainous roads that lead to the Overlook, the Hotel's kitchen and corridors, and finally the maze itself, as if we are being drawn deeper and deeper into a mystery, and yet at its heart what do we find? A demon? Something unknowable and alien to us? No, we find an insane man stalking his child. Kubrick seems to be saying that the evil beings that inhabit our collective memories, Satan, the Minotaur, etc.. are just fantastic projections of our evil selves.

I guess I think transcendence for Jack Torrence isn't possible, at least not in any redemptive form, because his nature isn't disposed to it. I suppose it could be argued finding his beast within is a kind of transcendence, but that seems almost facetious to me. The strand of hope I find in The Shining is that Danny, through his powers perception and intelligence, manages to escape the fate Jack (and the Hotel) had in store for him.

Tim Fulmer: You may be right about Jack Torrance not being disposed to transcendence. After all, even before he arrives at the Overlook we know he's been an alcoholic and abused his child. Regardless, he suddenly finds himself at the Overlook having to do some kind of interior work in order to get his life back together. It's almost forced on him (grace?). This is a privelege to have the opportunity to stay for awhile at the Overlook where "all the best people" have stayed. Also, Jack Torrance is given sufficient warning in the interview that bad things have happened at the Overlook in the past - but he doesn't back down. He still wants a go at it. He's confident despite his past problems. So at least in this sense he is "disposed" to transcendence. Danny, on the other hand, doesn't really know anything about it. He has to be persuaded to search for transcendence, and this is done via the Halloran character: "Danny, don't you ever go in room 237! You ain't got no business goin' in there, so stay out! You here me - STAY OUT!" This is the last line before the cut to a month later. It's a significant line of course, because anyone who so emphatically tells someone NOT to do something is ultimately encouraging them to do it. And Danny cannot help himself - he investigates room 237.

Danny investigates the room out of curiosity, and he relives his abuse - he roots out this memory and deals with it. He survives his room 237 experience. In contrast, what Jack confronts in room 237 is the lie that his life has always been. What he's taken for beauty, turns out to be - looking in the mirror - decay. This insight destroys him. Danny and Jack differ fundamentally on Room 237. Danny is stronger than his father.

Rod Munday: A Freudian would argue the struggle that takes place in room 237 is between Jack's Eros (life instinct) and Thanatos (death instinct). Eros is epitomised by the sex act, sex promotes life in the literal and metaphorical sense, it gives us vitality, strengthens our sense of being alive and banishes the dread of our own mortality from our thoughts. However, when Jack looks in the mirror and sees the decaying form of the old woman reflected there, the fortress of his Eros is breached and overrun by his Thanatos. According to Freud, aggression can save a person from the innate self-destructive tendency of the death instinct, extroverting it as a desire to kill. Thus, after Jack meets his Thanatos in room 237, his only recourse is murder, in order to still feel alive. Maybe Danny's youth saves him from a similar fate? His Eros and Thanatos are not fully developed, yet his ability to 'shine,' allows him to experience all that his parents suppress, perhaps Danny's ability to vicariously confront the horrors of the hotel plays a part in his salvation?

The Spanish philosopher Unamuno said: "what distinguishes man from other animals is that he guards his dead. And from what does he so futily protect them? The wretched consciousness shrinks from its own annihilation." This flight from death, according to Norman O. Brown, is what creates historical time, by generating an instinct determined fixation to the repressed past, and setting in motion a forward moving dialectic, in other words: history is what man does with death. The Overlook, a hotel built on an Indian burial ground, can be read as a metaphor for what Brown is saying. Civilisation seduces humankind into believing we have transcended our baser selves, so we don't like to be reminded of the Minotaur lurking within. When the blood pours out of the elevator, everything is drowned, everything is tainted, but the truth of the Overlook's violent past is revealed.

Tim Fulmer: Yes, this is a good point. In fact the more layers we pile on, the deeper the crisis will be when we arrive at our collective center of the maze and deal with our Minotaur. Will it be transformation to higher consciousness or apocalypse? It's not that evil must be overcome, but rather ignorance that must be removed. This is the state of beyond both good and evil. Can we achieve this?

Rod Munday: I guess a Buddhist would say to achieve transcendence, we must let go of the desires that bind us to life, and, at the same time, make us fear death . But what are the monuments that humans build to immortalise themselves if not a manifestation of our denial of death? In the case of imperialist architecture (or the Overlook Hotel) they also serve to immortalise our brutality. When psychologists pointed out the true meaning of all those spires and domes we piously constructed to glorify God, I expect everyone felt a little foolish, but something was also lost when we made the unconscious conscious, almost as if we were expelled from the Garden of Eden a second time.

In the Shining, Danny defeats Jack by outwitting him, I think the message may be that there is salvation in intelligence, but if evil is to be transcended, it must first be acknowledged as part of us, something that is woven into the very fabric of our being, and not just some projected other.