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The Mask and the Mirror

Inner Battle


The mirror does not flatter, it faithfully shows whatever looks into it; namely the face we never show to the world because we cover it with the persona, the mask of the actor. But the mirror lies behind the mask and shows the true face. (Carl G. Jung)

In Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious Carl Jung explains the difference between the persona and the shadow. The persona is the sum total of the different masks we wear and hide behind – the outer layers of identity we unconsciously create in order to protect our ego. The shadow, on the other hand, consists of the parts of us we have disowned and do not want to acknowledge or own up to. All the sides of us that we perceive as too painful, too embarrassing, too evil, too unacceptable to our surroundings. But these parts still exist inside of us and often the shadow contains the very worst sides of us as well as the most luminous sides of us. Ultimately, the shadow always holds truths that our ego needs to hear.

The thicker the mask is, the more internecine becomes the battle between the persona and the shadow. The shadow (like all repressed, unconscious sides of us) will always insist on being heard. And the more we deny and suppress it, the more force it will accumulate, and the more primitive it will be when it is eventually expressed. Think of the Glenn Close character in Fatal Attraction: “I will not be ignored, Dan!”

The mirror, on the other hand, does not flatter, says Jung. The shadow is the face in the mirror which we cover with the mask because we do not want the world to see it. But the shadow shows our true face.

In movies we often see this battle between the mask and the mirror, the persona and the shadow, and it is of course a reflection of a battle that is constantly taking place deep inside us all.

We see this battle in the majority of the films of Martin Scorsese. In Casino – to name but one example – Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) spends most of his energy trying to keep the outer facade intact so no one can see the boy from the streets that he used to be. Like in fairy tales, the persona is symbolized by the outer garments, and Ace’s attire is so immaculate that it becomes involuntarily comical. But the more he tries to cover his true face with expensive, elegant designer clothes, the more unruly becomes his friend Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci). Nicky becomes the personification of Ace’s shadow, and the two of them are inextricably connected: “Every time they mention my name in the papers, they mention Nicky too,” Ace says mystified.

The battle between these two men becomes a battle to the death. At the end of the film, Nicky is dead while Ace is still alive. But Ace’s facade has been literally blown off him in the car explosion, and the very last we hear of Nicky is that he was still breathing when they buried him. Try as we may to get rid of our shadow, it is to no avail: we will never, ever get rid of it.

People often complain that Scorsese’s films are violent, but this is no wonder, really, since they reflect an extremely brutal battle inside each and every one of us. I absolutely believe that we should all listen very carefully to what Scorsese is telling us – however much our ego may protest against this. Because we cannot truly own our light if we do not have the courage to go through our darkness to find it. And as I always say: If you don’t run with the wolf, the wolf WILL run with you!

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