Monkeys in the Throne Room – Otherness in Myth and the Psyche

Nick Opyrchal

The experience of being the Other is always linked in some way with territory: With personal boundaries, national lines and sharply defined categories we segregate ourselves and establish difference. Difference between the acceptable, civilised, understandable side of human behaviour and the weird alien world of the ‘outside’… a world which is often viewed (especially from those safely embedded on the ‘inside’) as being one of chaos and disorder.

This inside/outside division which we see so much in society is naturally reflected in our individual psychology – Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari describe the individual ego as being similar to a city state – and propose that this city state is always trying to man the ramparts, shore up the walls and protect itself from the constant threat of incursion. This incursion is the disrupting ‘Otherness’ made up of that which does not fit our categories or boundaries: What is not on our map. An Otherness which they often represented with the image of an army of invading, destabilising nomads. Freud grappled with similar issues in his most sociological piece of writing ‘Civilisation and it’s discontents’, where he talked about the tension in the relationship between the drives of the individual and the demands of culture or the city – how we negotiate between the imposed order and the uncivilised Other which does not fit it.

Although the hero story is an important and fundamental myth, in some cases overemphasising it can privilege our narcissistic need to establish a dominance of, rather than a relationship with, the Other.

Images and myths can help us to understand the relationship between the Other or outsider and the established territory. Although we often hear stories and myths describing the position of the hero, the protector of the city ‘slaying the dragon of chaos’ (to paraphrase a well known and conservative Jungian theorist) to focus only on this type of myth leaves out the other side of the story. Although the hero story is an important and fundamental myth, in some cases overemphasising it can privilege our narcissistic need to establish a dominance of, rather than a relationship with, the Other. To slay the chaos is to civilise the outsider, force the new experience into our prefabricated categories, subject the Other person to our will and law.
There are as an accompaniment to the hero story ‘Other’ myths; myths where the outsider is seen as being as important as those who are inside of the village walls. Myths where the Other is the bringer of chaotic change and creativity. In this article I will try and explore some of these ‘Other’ myths through the lens of psychotherapy.

Myths of the Outsider against Civilisation; the Trickster Cycle

Spiritual traditions have also often reflected the relationship between the territory and the Other; for instance Native American ‘trickster’ stories often show the trickster as being an unpredictable, instinctual outsider: one who not only comes from the border or outside of the village, but also possesses ‘uncouth’ and unrefined appetites or attitudes which violate tribal taboos yet often in some way lead to an accidental regeneration of the world as a result. Sex, food or thirst in these tales lead the trickster to create, trick or invent, and are essentially representations of our raw Desire – untamed by the mores and laws of the territorialized village, which allow the outsider Trickster to help to regenerate the world in ways in which the more cultivated and civilised ‘insiders’ are unable to do. In these stories we discover that desire let loose is an inventive yet disruptive force.

For psychotherapists, the trickster stories contain a lot of imagery with which we can find deep relevance to our profession – the obscene, taboo and comical sides of the stories contain scenes which clue us in as to the psychodynamic meanings contained within the trickster cycle of myths. In one story the trickster has a giant penis which detaches itself and is sent off like a submarine to impregnate the chiefs daughter swimming in a lake, whom he desires. In another he disguises it as a mushroom so that she will sit on it unaware. In another story after his ravenous appetite makes him eat a laxative bulb of garlic, his arse, out of all conscious control shits out a mountain as a result!

the obscene, taboo and comical sides of the stories contain scenes which clue us in as to the psychodynamic meanings contained within the trickster cycle of myths.

When the Trickster cycle of myths talk about this giant autonomous sex organ or unrestrained ravenous mouth, or ever-shitting anus, and how these organs cause tricksters story to develop in funny, unexpected and eventually (after a lot of confusion and bizarre slapstick comedy) beneficial ways there is an obvious link to what is called a ‘part-object’ in psychoanalysis. Whereas some orthodox approaches often talk about bringing these part objects under conscious control (slaying the dragon of chaos again, everything under the traditionally ‘masculine’ control of the ego) the Trickster cycle demonstrates another approach – we can allow the part object to express itself and create something new. This more ‘Dionysian’ approach obviously has a level of risk (trickster sometimes gets himself into trouble in various ways) but the essence of these stories is that there is a creative power inherent in the outsider – not only the outsider of the village, but also the creative power in that which is outside of conscious control, outside of the individual ego and narcissistic desire for wholeness, even when this is something which the civilised might see as obscene or taboo. Think about this on a sociological level – sexual desires which were seen even in the recent past as ‘pathological’ (and have been subject to attempts to eliminate them) such as homosexuality and transgender orientations have contributed to wider questioning of the conservative moral frameworks which underpin society.

The Monkey King

Likewise in the popular Chinese legend of the monkey king (the root for the classic 70’s TV series) the interactions between the instinctive, powerful monkey king and the host of heaven is a great analogy to show the often explosive effect which can occur when we take part in an exclusion of Otherness from the ‘inside of the territory’. How the narcissistic drive towards expelling the Other and maintaining a sense of order can cause a rageful and destructive backlash.

The Monkey King is a story of the rebellion of the Other; when he is first born his light startles the Jade Emperor, the leader of heaven, who after recovering from this dismisses the monkey as irrelevant. However the Monkey King as outsider soon forms an alliance with other demons and builds up a sort of axis of Otherness. Those who have been similarly expelled from the heavenly kingdom. He next starts to mess with established order directly, by effacing his name from a list of those who are supposed to be taken to hell – refusing his ‘given’ fate.

After the monkey king has caused chaos in the world through his rebellion and this refusal to follow the rules and be sent to hell, the heavenly host tries to ‘buy him off’: to subdue him by giving him an official position in the heavenly hierarchy – the stable cleaner. Monkey at first is proud at his inclusion, but when he discovers that this is the lowliest job in the company, monkey kicks off: letting the heavenly horses bolt the stables in the process. Desperate, the heavenly host promote him to the tenderer of the heavenly peach garden but when Monkey again is snubbed by the ‘in crowd’ by not being invited to a heavenly feast, he not only eats the peach of immortality, but he also declares himself the king of heaven. The gods are powerless to stop him and are forced to accept his position. Later he is finally tricked and trapped by the Buddha until the time where he is recruited in helping to escort a Buddhist mission to the West.

We can see how this tale relates to Otherness on a number of different levels. On a personal and intrapsychic level the monkey (much as the trickster in the Native American tales) represents our instinctive desires before they are domesticated by civilisation; what better image for this than our intelligent, powerful yet unrefined creature, close to a human but not quite, one of our closest evolutionary relatives – his play causing havoc in the world? The instinctive drive which he represents does not follow the rules, and the rulers are powerless to subdue or placate him.

the establishment Emperor demonstrates his hubris by trying to make the Other as monkey invisible – to not ‘see’ him

There is an interpersonal analogy to this myth as well – the relationship between the Emperor and the Monkey King is one which we have seen often reflected in colonial or exploitative regimes on a wider, social level, and relationships between the narcissist and the Other on a individual level. Originally, the establishment Emperor demonstrates his hubris by trying to make the Other as monkey invisible – to not ‘see’ him. Ignoring him despite the demonstration of his power early on. As the Monkey gains status amongst the other outsiders, he uses this power to reject the fate which the established order has set out for him. This is the beginning of the rebellion of the marginalised and dismissed Otherness represented by Monkey against the established narcissistic order which would much rather ignore it and pretend that it does not exist. Excluding and ignoring the energies represented by monkey only allows him free reign to build a ‘coalition’ of demons and gain strength to the point where disruption and rebellion is inevitable.

In response to this challenge, essentially the Emperor as established order tries to make Monkey what is often called derisively an ‘Uncle Tom’ – someone who is bought onto the side of the establishment against their own interests through being given a marginal position…  the establishment attempts to buy the silence of the Other through promoting it to a menial position on the margins of civilisation, recognising yet simultaneously degrading him by giving him the lowliest job possible. This obviously has analogies with the position of marginalised groups in our society who are allowed ‘some’ inclusion in our systems of civilisation but always with a proverbial glass ceiling in place to make sure they never breach or enter the inner circle.

It also reflects how we often treat the instinctive parts of ourselves; the Jade Emperor as a representative of our narcissistic drive for perfection and order pushes the monkey king (our unruly instincts) to the side, giving them a position which is lowly and dirty and often out of sight, mooching around in the soiled stables of our psyche. We begrudgingly admit to ourselves that we have these instincts and desires but we think of them as dirty or disgusting in some way, exiling and degrading them as a result. I often see this puritanical narcissism mixing unfortunately with the language around addiction – someone who eats one more slice of cake than their ‘heavenly order’ will allow is suddenly a ‘sugar addict’, someone who with a higher sex drive or has desires different from the cultural norm is labelled a ‘sex addict’, someone who has an extra beer over the recommended weekly units is now an alcoholic.

Not surprisingly, both in the external suppression and degradation of marginalised groups in our societies and in the internal suppression and degradation of our instincts in our psyches, the result is a systemic backlog of destabilising rage and desire which (if it is not addressed) threatens to disrupt our established internal order totally.

the Jade Emperor as a representative of our narcissistic drive for perfection and order pushes the monkey king (our unruly instincts) to the side, giving them a position which is lowly and dirty and often out of sight, mooching around in the soiled stables of our psyche

We see this crisis point in the myth as the Monkey King rebels utterly and declares himself the new ruler of heaven – The rage and energy created by the suppression of the drive (represented by the monkey king) is more powerful than the force of egoic order (represented by the forces of heaven) can contain, it tries ineffectively to fight against it but is unable to win. In individual terms this can lead to what our society often labels a ‘psychotic’ experience, firstly of paranoia (as the heavenly forces of the narcissistic ego desperately fight the arising drives and instincts of the monkey king) followed by a breakdown (as the Monkey King declares himself ruler of heaven and deposes order totally). We see how the anger and the violence of the Monkey King is developed in the myth by being repeatedly ignored, marginalised, humiliated and snubbed as the heavenly order keeps resisting giving him the recognition that he is deserving of. Here the myth gives us a psychological clue, if you try and maintain a sense of harmony at the expense of your desire and instincts be prepared for an eventual systemic breakdown.

The Monkey King story ends with Buddha first trapping, then enlisting him in service of a young monk. This perhaps shows a more ‘civilising’ ending than we find in the trickster cycle – The Other is put into the service of the Buddha rather than the narcissistic order of the Jade Emperor. The Monkey King finds a sense of purpose and is venerated in a position of importance rather than marginalised, there is an appeal to giving the instincts and drives a spiritual direction in the ending of this myth, enlisting them rather than suppressing or buying them off. They can be important guides to a deeper purpose.

Tricksters Within Ourselves

So having explored these myths of Otherness, now ask yourself as a psychological and reflective exercise – what is it that you are exiling? – What are you trying to keep outside of the established boundaries, the territory of your ego? which part of your psyche is always kept on the ‘outside’: Perhaps your anger, perhaps your sadness, your fear, your sexuality..

Also ask – how – it is that your ego dismisses and degrades these exiled parts of your psyche- what do you do to maintain the boundaries of your kingdom and suppress otherness?
Perhaps you use substances to control it, building walls between it and your consciousness with medications, drugs or antidepressants. Perhaps more psychological walls are employed; irony, dissociation, detachment and disgust stop you from allowing yourself to experience this ‘other’ side of life. Maybe you tell yourself something like ‘I dont want to be seen as an angry person’, or you do not want to be ‘over emotional’. Many tactics can be unconsciously employed by the authoritarian ego against the psychological guerrilla warfare of the desire.

Perhaps like the Jade Emperor you try to ‘buy off’ the Other parts of your psyche, giving them a position in your life which is far below what they deserve – perhaps only letting them appear in private, crying, self harming or screaming when no one else is around, or even raging anonymously online. Maybe they appear only in one relationship (the man who only shows anger to his partner for instance) or perhaps you are an ‘angry drunk’ only allowing this side of your character to appear on the margins of your life.

Perhaps like the Monkey King your exiled ‘otherness’ is raging, and at the point of a hostile takeover. In that case the question is how you can honour this, how can you elevate it to a position where it does not need to destroy all established order to be able to manifest itself in your life. If you can find a way of doing this, through therapy, expression, creativity, sex – then you may be able to find desires which can recreate the world like the trickster, or which can promote and guide a sense of spirituality like the monkey king. Whatever you do, find a way to honour the Otherness within yourself, as well as the many ‘Others’ who you encounter in your life.

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