Friday, June 12, 2009

....The Circus: A Landscape of the Unconscious....

Anyone who's ever been to a Circus understands its power to captivate and thrill. But its enduring timelessness and mass appeal suggests that there just may be a lot more going on "underneath the big top."

Taken as a subconscious metaphor, the Circus holds many clues to the unconscious. Each Circus act, in fact, taps right into certain archetypal and timeless human dramas. Think about it. When something resonates with you, it's because at some level you recognize it. The fantastic nature of the Circus lulls us to a more vulnerable and child-like mindset - and yields access to our unconscious mind.

Clowns represent our raw emotions, unfettered by rules of convention or maturity. With rare exceptions, clowns are innocents, reacting to the world from the pure id of their being. Whether happy or sad - their feelings are unmistakably revealed by their faces in bold, colorful and exaggerated expressions. Their gestures and actions mirror this innocence, often with hilarious results!

If clowns represent pure emotion in the subconscious landscape, trapeze artists and tightrope walkers represent fears and phobias. There are, according to psychologists, two natural fears - fear of loud noises and fear of heights. In the surreal setting of the Circus, this natural fear of heights comes to represent all of our fears - natural and unnatural. For what is fear of heights if not the fear of death - the most terrifying feeling we can experience?

As we watch these aerialists fly through the air or balance tenuously on a narrow strip of rope, we feel our own fears surface and are torn between the desire to witness "death-defying" stunts or to cover our eyes and turn away. This tension is a ubiquitous human experience - it's the two distinct and divergent parts ourselves that are always at odds. We feel the part that wants to fly battling the other part of us that is afraid of the unknown, of failure, of death.

When we think of fear in the Circus environment, there's another image often comes to mind: that of the brave Wild Animal Trainer. In addition, although his activities undoubtedly strike at our subconscious fears, his role is more important in the context of control and power. As human beings, we have a need for control over our environment. Nowhere is this more evident than in man's desire to master nature - or if you will, in the domestication of the wild. The Wils Animal Trainer epitomizes control, wielding little more than a stick and a whip, he manages to bend some of the world's most ferocious beasts to his will. Who among us hasn't dreamed of that kind of power?

However, perhaps the most controversial element of the Circus is the realm of the freaks. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Circuses and carnival sideshows regularly featured humans with abnormalities and disabilities. During the sideshow heyday, people collected pictures and postcards of famous carnival "freaks" such as celebrity Siamese twins. In today's social and political climate, such overt exploitation is frowned upon, yet the fascination with "freaks" remains. Why?

Although most people realize that Circus freaks fascinate, very few understand their role as comforters. People of low self-esteem can find immediate relief by comparing themselves to the disfigured and disabled. In fact, history is full of examples of depraved indifference and cruelty toward those considered different or less fortunate. The simple and shocking conclusion is that looking down on others makes us feel better about ourselves. A bit on the chunky side? Go look at The Fat Lady - you'll feel better instantly. Annoyed with your brother? At least you're not attached to his head!

I wonder if Carl Jung or Sigmund Freud ever attended a Circus. I wonder what they would make of today's wildly surreal Cirque du Soleil. And I wonder about the future of the Circus. What will it look like a Century from now? And I believe the Circus will exist for generations to come. Because as an outward manifestation of the unconscious mind, it has the power to captivate and the relevance to endure.