Note: this article is a further elaboration on the theme of unredeemable evil from a previous article, which should be read first.
This article’s purpose is to explore a rare and limit case: the mystery of unrepentant and self-destructive evil.
To do so, we are going to turn towards Lars von Trier’s 2018 The House that Jack Built, a movie that puts the viewer inside the mind of a serial killer.
Exceptionally, and despite the fact that I am going to discuss the entirety of the story, I do not recommend that people watch this movie. Its extreme graphic nature and perverse philosophy are not for the faint of heart.
Moreover, it has to be pointed out that the artistic direction uses a mix of comedic elements and great art to disarm the viewer’s psychological defenses against the violence that is happening on screen. This emotional manipulation is expertly crafted and quite hypnotizing, a form of subliminal influence which is almost invisible to detect. It is up to the reader to decide if they would benefit from being exposed to such an experience.
And for people who are uneasy about depraved violence, I recommend skipping this article as well because I will be posting graphic images and extracts of the movie.
The Aesthetic Hero
Before talking about the movie, it is helpful to introduce the concept of the aesthetic hero.
The idea behind this concept is that beauty is a redemptive force, on par (if not above) truth or ethics. Therefore a character whose soul is guided by a fine aesthetic sensibility could triumph over politics, science, reason, faith, etc. Posited in this manner, aesthetic intuition is its own meaningful compass, not bothered by any of the typical limitations such as law, conventional morality, logical consistency, or any limiting methodology.
There is however a problem with taking this concept too far. In a webinar about A Clockwork Orange, professor Michael Sugrue points out:
“What if our aesthetic hero […] was a moral nightmare who liked ultraviolence? In other words, once the world gets reduced to a question of taste: some people may have a taste for books and other people may have a taste for rape and murder. If it really is a question of taste, well then what’s there to talk about?” (8:50 – 9:30)
Indeed, when Alex, the main character of A Clockwork Orange, strives for freedom and liberty in a totalitarian world, he does it in a manner that is admirable. But this heroic drive comes with a taste for ultraviolence, which puts into question his instinct for rebellion.
In a similar manner, Jack, the lead character of The House that Jack Built, is also a nightmarish aesthetic hero. In distinction to Alex, Jack is an aspiring architect and has the mind, logic, and sharp intellect of a very meticulous engineer. This hellish combination of infernal aesthetic and methodical craft will spiral downwards towards more extreme forms of violence and depravation as if it was a total work of art.
This descent is made of five “incidents”, each accompanied by a philosophical exchange between Jack and a yet unknown character named Verge, whose existence will be revealed later in the movie. In the last 15 minutes, the movie reaches into mythological symbolism while we assist to Jack’s final self-destruction.
The movie starts with Jack driving on a road. He sees a woman whose car broke down in the middle of nowhere and requires assistance. He attempts to help, driving her back and forth between a repair shop and her broken car. During the drive, we assist to a strange dialog where she provokes him in a most insulting manner.
Woman: Oops, that was a mistake.
W: Me getting in this car with you. What was it one’s mother used to say about not getting into cars with strangers?
J: Well… I wouldn’t know what your mother said.
W: You might as well be a serial killer. I’m sorry but you do kind of look like one.
J: You’d like me to drive you back to your car?
W: No, no. I can take care of myself. I’m sorry, were you offended that I called you a serial killer?
J: No. It’s of absolutely no importance to me.
W: Maybe it’s just the van. It’s the kind one might expect to be kidnapped in or used to transport corpses.
Despite the fact that she is in a dependent situation and that Jack is helping her out of goodwill, she continually taunts him with a mix of arrogance and contempt. The next verbal exchanges, as well as her whole demeanor, lead to a buildup of frustration in Jack (and the viewer).
Woman: You know, I take it all back. What I said earlier about you looking like a serial killer. No, no, no, you don’t have the disposition for that sort of thing. You’re way too much of a wimp to murder anyone.
At this moment, Jack loses his composure and kills her by using a car jack.
After this act, we follow a dialog between Jack and Verge, an unknown character who argues from the standpoint of conscience.
Verge: And by the way, what does this ridiculous man have to do with anything?
Jack: It’s Glenn Gould, one of the greatest piano players of our time. He represents art.
Verge: So a jack in the face of an admittedly unbearable lady was great art. Is that what I’m to make of it?
Jack: Dear Mr. Verge, please give me a chance to cast some supplemental light on the story of the jack. The old cathedrals often have sublime artworks hidden away in the darkest corners for only God to see or whatever one feels like calling the great architect behind it all. The same goes for murder. When I say cathedrals it is first and foremost the gothic buildings we admire. The art of engineering is first and foremost about statics, that is so things remain standing in spite of the various forces that impact the buildings. In this way, the pointed arch created a possibility to build much higher and with much more light but most importantly with less use of material. I often say that the material does the work. In other words it has a kind of will of its own and by following it, the result will be the most exquisite.
Verge: So the material was the jack and it jumped into the lady’s face on its own.
Jack: Art is many things.
After this first murder, Jack hides the first of many corpses to come in a large freezer.
In less than 15 minutes, we have already exceeded the plot of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov was in a similar situation: he saw a rational opportunity in the murder of an unbearable but rich old woman that would benefit many people other than himself. Yet after the fateful act, he ends up being tortured by his own conscience and cannot come to terms with what he has done.
In comparison, Jack is immune to the dialog he has with Verge, his conscience. He remains convinced that he is following a transcendent artistic will, in the likeness of Glenn Gould’s manic playing. Where Raskolnikov argues that extraordinary men had the right to violence, Jack argues that artistic geniuses have the right to madness.
It has to be repeated that the movie is masterfully crafted to manipulate the viewer. By designing such an obnoxious female character, Lars von Trier makes us feel the same build-up of frustration as Jack. Thus, when the murder happens on screen, it feels self-evident and emotionally justified. And before the full implication of the murder sinks in, we are being barraged with awe-inspiring footage of Glenn Gould and cathedrals, which puts us in a suggestible, receptive, and vulnerable altered state of consciousness.
Indeed, every aspect of the movie is designed to make the violence acceptable: the plot, characters, and dialogs are always in favor of Jack. At all times, the artistic direction attempts to mitigate the impact of graphic and immoral brutality by overlaying great music and imagery. This careful editing is best described in the likeness of hypnotic suggestion. Whenever I watch this movie, I can feel this covert emotional manipulation trying to bypass my moral compass.
Some people will argue that this is in fact the goal of the movie: to put us into the mind of a serial killer. In response to that point, it has to be acknowledged that, if one was to commit such a gratuitous murder, one would likely experience anguish and guilt in the likes of Raskolnikov. I remember personally vomiting after having stolen something from a shop as a child. Thus I am sharply aware that the backfiring of conscience cannot be dealt with rational arguments.
In fact, if one is immune to conscience or able to push it away with a few convenient and self-serving grandiose remarks, then we are not dealing with a humane being but with a form of sociopathic evil that must be judged accordingly.
Crime And Punishment, illustrated by Dave McKean.
If the first incident was about killing an insufferable woman, the second incident will be about killing innocent strangers.
To do so, Jack tries awkwardly to break into the house of an old woman by passing for a police officer. Once inside, he chokes her to the point of unconsciousness. Feeling temporarily remorseful, he tries to save her for a short while before killing her for good. After the murder, he decides to take a picture of his crime.
Despite Jack’s perfectionist bend, this new crime was executed with a great deal of embarrassing clumsiness. By hanging the corpse to the back of his car, he left a bloody track behind him as he drove back to the freezer.
This should have been a fatal mistake but a timely rain erases his tracks away.
Jack: The great rain! It washed away the long track from my escape. Now, I don’t consider myself a decidedly devoted man of faith. Which, of course, is a totally crazy thing to say considering our present situation but I must admit… I experienced the rain, the fiercest I have ever seen as a kind of a blessing. And the murder as a kind of liberation. I felt I had a higher protector […]
For Jack, this is a religious experience. It further convinces him that he is being guided by a higher purpose.
Jack: When I think about all the things I’ve done in my life without it, in any way, resulting in punishment. […] Sometimes the best way to hide is to not hide at all.
Feeling bolder and bolder, Jack adds two more victims to his collection. This time, he arranges the corpses so that it would look good in pictures.
Shortly after, we assist to a contemplation on the topic of the darkness of light.
Jack: For me though, what was really sensational about the work with the photo, it wasn’t the image but the negative. When I was ten years old, I discovered that through the negative, you could see the real inner demonic quality of the light. The dark light.
Anyone familiar with alchemy will recognize the theme of the black sun, also called sol niger or umbra solis. In distinction to the astronomical sun, the alchemists had a sun that shines black light.
So much did the alchemist sense the duality of his unconscious assumptions that, in the face of all astronomical evidence, he equipped the sun with a shadow: “The sun and its shadow bring the work to perfection.” Michael Maier, from whom this saying is taken, [. . . then cites] the classical saying of Hermes: “Son, extract from the ray its shadow,” thus giving us clearly to understand that the shadow is contained in the sun’s rays and hence could be extracted from them (whatever that might mean). Closely related to this saying is the alchemical idea of a black sun, often mentioned in the literature. This notion is supported by the self-evident fact that without light there is no shadow, so that, in a sense, the shadow too is emitted by the sun. For this physics requires a dark object interposed between the sun and the observer, a condition that does not apply to the alchemical Sol, since occasionally it appears as black itself. It contains both light and darkness. (Carl Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, CW 14, par 117)
As we can see, the alchemical Sol, as a personification of consciousness, is ambivalent. It shines bright light and dark sun rays at the same time. Jung intuits the physics of this phenomenon in the following way.
No psychic content can become conscious unless it possesses a certain energy-charge. If this falls, the content sinks below the threshold and becomes unconscious. The possible contents of consciousness are then sorted out, as the energy-charge separates those capable of becoming conscious from those that are not. This separation gives rise on the one hand to consciousness, whose symbol is the sun, and on the other hand to the shadow, corresponding to the umbra solis. (ibid., par 152)
For Jack to be able to sharply detect “the real inner demonic quality of the light“, it means that the symbol of the black sun is constellated in his unconscious and projected onto any source of bright light. In other words, the negatives of his photographs allow him to perceive and experience the black sun nature of his own consciousness.
Symbolically speaking, light is attributed to consciousness. Therefore, Jack’s murderous consciousness for art’s sake is a form of intense light, albeit a destructive one. This destructive quality of consciousness is thus naturally associated with the nigredo (blackness) and putrefactio (decay) attributed to the black sun.
The problem here is that the dark light is not a personalistic pattern but one of the extreme ends of the ambivalent nature of consciousness. In this case, the presence of the black sun shows that Jack’s ego is unconsciously identified with it. This means that his ego is powered-up by impersonal, archaic, untransformed archetypal energy, a state of inflation whose self-destruction is certain.
In this context and given the events of the movie (Jack has killed four women up to here), the following quote strikes at the heart of the psychology exhibited by Jack.
Despite all attempts at denial and obfuscation there is an unconscious factor, a black sun, which is responsible for the surprisingly common phenomenon of masculine split-mindedness, when the right hand mustn’t know what the left is doing. This split in the masculine psyche and the regular darkening of the moon in woman together explain the remarkable fact that the woman is accused of all the darkness in a man, while he himself basks in the thought that he is a veritable fount of vitality and illumination for all the females in his environment. Actually, he would be better advised to shroud the brilliance of his mind in the profoundest doubt. It is not difficult for this type of mind (which besides other things is a great trickster like Mercurius) to admit a host of sins in the most convincing way, and even to combine it with a spurious feeling of ethical superiority without in the least approximating to a genuine insight. This can never be achieved without the participation of feeling; but the intellect admits feeling only when it is convenient. The novilunium of woman is a source of countless disappointments for man which easily turn to bitterness, though they could equally well be a source of wisdom if they were understood. Naturally this is possible only if he is prepared to acknowledge his black sun, that is, his shadow. (Carl Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, CW 14, par 332)
To which Jack would respond: “I repent nothing”, as he keeps building his house.
In the third incident, the movie plunges into even more atrocity.
Jack brings a mother and her two children to a hunting ground, wanting to demonstrate the basics of hunting game.
Expectedly, this was a set-up and Jack starts hunting down the family.
Jack: But it’s all so much simpler with animals.
Verge: What do you mean?
Jack: The order is important. The hind will typically run in the front with the largest fawn following the smallest last. You’d typically shoot at the deer starting with the rear one based on the fact that the two older animals can survive without the young one whereas, if you shot the mother first and didn’t get the others both fawns would probably not survive. So in this manner, you then shoot the bigger fawn and then the mother last. […]
I have always taken ethical hunting rules very seriously.
After gunning down the two children and the mother in this precise order, Jack lays out the victims as a trophy parade before bringing the corpses back to the freezer.
After the theme of family, Jack’s next incident is concerned with love.
Jack: I had a romance. […] I really had strong feelings for this one much stronger than a psychopath should be able to have.
Jack gets into a relationship with Jacqueline, a woman with a limited intellect but still able to share intimacy with a serial killer. The conversation between them turns quickly into condescending mockery and murderous contempt.
Jacqueline: You know I hate it when you call me Simple. My name is Jacqueline.
Jack: Jacqueline… I bet they got that right out of “The New York Times” crossword puzzle.
Jack: Hey, you’ve got great tits.
Jacqueline: Why do you always have to be so crude?
Jack: I’ve killed 60 people. I’m a serial killer, Simple.
Jacqueline: You’re weird.
Jack: I’m weird? Why, because I’m saying that I’ve killed 61 people?
Jacqueline: You said 60 before.
Jack: If you weren’t as dumb as a fucking doorknob you would be familiar with the term “Updated.”
Finally realizing that she got herself in trouble, Jacqueline tries to get help to no avail.
Jack: You know, maybe I’m mistaken, but as far as I can tell not a single light has gone on in any apartment or stairwell. You know why that is? ‘Cause in this hell of a town, in this hell of a country, in this hell of a world, nobody wants to help! You can scream from now until Christmas Eve and the only answer you’ll get is the deafening silence that you’re hearing right now.
Jack then proceeds to kill her by cutting her breasts with a knife.
After the murder, a few lengthy discussions with Verge takes place on various topics including women, the value of putrefaction, religion, and the making of icons. During the latter, Jack argues that art should be liberated from moral preconceptions. This most perverse exchange brings the usually patient and composed Verge to his limit.
Warning: Graphic footage from World War II
Even though the movie claims otherwise (Jack says he killed many men), it is nonetheless interesting to notice that all the victims up to this point were women, aside from the two kids. From a psychological perspective, Jack is eroding his feminine side, his Eros, his capacity for relatedness. This erosion is shown in the movie by the fact that the women he targets are more and more unconscious and less and less capable of discernment.
Jacqueline, the last woman being killed, requires special attention. Her name (Jacqu-eline) and Jack’s uncontrollable feelings for her indicate that Jacqueline carries Jack’s anima projection. Unfortunately, instead of sharing a restorative intimacy on a non-judgmental basis, Jack’s self-aggrandizing narcissism leads him to kill her in a gruesome manner.
According to Jung, Eros and the will to power are a pair of opposites. Thus the progressive killing of Eros leaves place to an unbridled will to power, a Dionysian frenzy beyond good and evil not unlike Nietzsche’s leap beyond Christianity (see Carl Jung, The Other Point of View: the Will to Power, CW 7).
And given the symbolic nature of killing children, any future potential for psychological maturation is dead as well.
The purpose of the fifth incident is to attempt to kill as many people as possible with a single ammo.
Jack: I guess I owe you gentlemen an explanation. During World War II on the eastern front German soldiers had large programs of executions but were in short supply of ammunition so they experimented with the execution of several individuals with one, just one single bullet. Now as a tribute to that, uh, ingenuity… I’m going to conduct a small experiment of my own. I’m going to use a full metal jacket bullet which has the capacity to pass through each and every one of your heads.
After a long series of events that will not be discussed, Jack sets up his rifle in a dark corner of the freezer.
As Jack prepares his perfect shot, the following happens:
Verge mysteriously appears in the corner of the freezer and reveals that he was with Jack all along. Knowing that time is short, Verge reminds him that he wanted to build a house.
Verge: I can see it’s going to be a bit difficult to get that house built, but perhaps another one. Think, Jack, after all you are an engineer and call yourself an architect. I’ve been told you have an interesting theory about the material which you claim has its own will. Find the material, Jack and let it do the work.
With a mixture of human taxidermy and engineering skills, Jack gathers all the corpses he has accumulated up to here and builds a house using the dead bodies.
Verge comments on the house.
Verge: Your house is a fine little house, Jack. It’s absolutely usable.
Verge steps inside the macabre structure and invites Jack to follow him.
Verge: Are you coming, Jack?
Once inside, Jack discovers a hole in the ground. After a moment of hesitation, he jumps down to join Verge.
The supernatural apparition of Verge indicates that we have left the domain of causal/material consciousness and entered into a symbolic, dreamlike dimension typical of the unconscious.
This allows us to look at Verge more closely and conclude that he is in fact Jack’s shadow. Indeed, all the qualities that are lacking in Jack are found in Verge. Even if Verge is not a religious man, he has all the virtues of one: he is patient, humble, tempered, wise, shows goodwill, and deep, abiding respect for the mystery of Creation. All these stands in contrast to the unrestrained attitude and manipulative interpersonal tactics that Jack has used all throughout the movie. In short, Verge exemplifies the Eros, the relatedness that Jack has erased from his consciousness.
This is one of the rare examples where the attitude of the ego is so dysfunctional that all the hard-sought virtues are found in the shadow.
Once through the hole, we are now in a mythological Underworld.
This descent goes through a series of symbolic landmarks: the journey starts with shallow water, a fall inside a protective bubble, narrow flooded tunnels that require plunging to go through, a watermill (reminiscent of the wheel of time), some ladders going down, and more tunnels with acid vapors.
All along, a buzzing sound reminds them that they are not so far from Hell.
Verge: For thousands of years human beings have tried to localize hell. Among other methods by seeking the sound it generates. One shouldn’t focus on extracting screams and wailing because the cries of pain of so many millions of individuals together becomes what you have just heard. A buzzing sound whose intensity will increase as we get ever closer to the presence of suffering.
Before we get to Hell, Jack and Verge stop at the Elysian Fields.
For the first time in the movie, Jack sheds a tear. The vision of perfect, golden harmony between men and nature, reminiscent of his childhood, stirs him deeply.
Jack: I loved when the men from the village cut the meadows with their scythes. Back then one spoke of the breath of the meadow. Everyone working in rhythm exhaling when they mowed, and inhaling when they pulled the scythes back.
After this beatific vision, Jack and Verge end up in Hell.
Even while facing the deepest pit of Hell, Jack still tries to game the system by attempting to climb around the broken bridge. The movie ends with his final downfall into the abyss.
In his works, Robert L. Moore describes evil as “pathological infantile grandiosity”.
To summarize, there is a great dragon of grandiosity within us, and unconsciousness of that fact creates a very real enemy within. It is a human war and a real Armageddon, not against other humans, but against being swallowed by the great dragon of unconscious grandiosity. Our war is against the pathological infantile grandiosity that seeks to destroy the human species. (Robert L. Moore, Facing the Dragon: Confronting Personal and Spiritual Grandiosity)
It is my contention that Jack’s psychology fits such a description. Jack never shows a sense of limit emotionally, morally, or ethically. This lack of self-doubt and second-guessing makes him a perfect prey to the death drive, to archetypal possession by the black sun.
It is bitter indeed to discover behind one’s lofty ideals narrow, fanatical convictions, all the more cherished for that, and behind one’s heroic pretensions nothing but crude egotism, infantile greed, and complacency. . . . Man is neither so reasonable nor so good that he can cope eo ipso with evil. The darkness can quite well engulf him . . . The great religions are psychotherapeutic systems that give a foothold to all those who cannot stand by themselves, and they are in the overwhelming majority. (Carl Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, CW 14, par 346)
The abandonment of human limits, the insatiable urge, the undiscerning rejection of all traditional restrictions is a seductive but fatal state of inflation. When it becomes unmanageable, grandiosity is a terminally destructive (and self-destructive) force. This needs not be the case.
Our grounded and creaturely human egos are not the enemy. The enemy is that unconscious grandiosity within us that constantly tries to persuade us to forget our limits and forget that we need help, to forget that we need others, or as the Native Americans are able to say, to forget that we are all related and all of one family.
We need to understand the universality of this propensity to unregulated grandiosity. I never met anyone who did not have a struggle with it. I have met a lot of people who didn’t think they did. (Robert L. Moore, Facing the Dragon: Confronting Personal and Spiritual Grandiosity)
If we are to work hard at regulating our inflationary tendencies in ourselves and in our communities, to find strategies to keep the grandiosity at bay, we also have to be like Verge and take note that some people are fatefully destined towards total self-destruction, possessed by a mysterious evil that cannot be negotiated with.
We can now compare The House that Jack Built to Double King as well as the dream told by Marie-Louise von Franz from the previous article, as all three deal with the same problem of an evil that cannot be stopped.
The first common trait is that this form of evil is insatiable, always seeking for more. In Double King, the character needs all the crowns he can get his hands on. In the dream, the dreamer swings always higher and higher. In the movie, the gratuitous and sadistic violence escalates with each incident.
The second common trait is that it is unrepentant, even in a final confrontation. Whether while facing Death, Hell, or being above the atmosphere, the drive remains unchanged. It never doubts or humbles itself enough to slow down, let alone change.
Third is the pattern of self-destruction. All three stories end up with a fall into the void or an abyss. It is as if even gravity gives up on them.
This makes me wonder if this form of evil is not a misdirected drive towards transcendence, a search for a state of fullness that would escape the brokenness of being human.
At the time of writing, this is as far as I am willing to go into the topic of evil knowing full well that I have not exhausted the subject. Exposition to evil must be done cautiously because of its transformative power. While it is true that not all so-called extreme media are impactful, it’s when you find one that gets under your skin that the real trouble begins. If it finds such an entrance, the memory will linger and maybe never fully leave. And to deal with that contamination is no trivial issue.
I cannot help myself but to conclude with a metaphysical consideration. In my view, the cosmic balance between good and evil is tipped in favor of the good, but not by a large amount. This also comes with a sine qua non condition: for good to shine among the darkness of being, one must treat evil with the honor and the respect it deserves. It could even be possible that evil should be given preeminent importance over the good before one dares to step into the mild, delicate wisdom of a good that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
One must have sympathy for the devil, otherwise all pronouncements about the good are worthless and the moral high ground will invariably be pulled underneath your feet.
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