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Jekyll and Hyde: a shaggy dog story?

Firstly, one can draw a parallel with the mythology of the werewolf, which has preceded the Jekyll and Hyde tale for some centuries. Indeed, one might consider Stevenson’s superb story as a post-enlightenment rendering of the werewolf mythology; a Cartesian splitting of the mind and body.

Traditionally, the werewolf motif has been seen as the splitting of the tame and the wild, good and evil, human and bestial, and a host of other dualistic concepts, but we must always remember that these conflicting personalities exist in the one person. It examines the conflict that exists as part of the human condition. Good and evil, human and bestial, these are weighted terms that, immediately, bring negative baggage. We could, instead, term them as intellectual and instinctual, cerebral brain and limbic brain, cerebrum and cerebellum.

There is a splitting of these concepts in post-enlightenment thought and a heavy emphasis placed upon the intellect, the rational and the logical. The instinctual aspect has been subjugated, pushed into the shadows, but it never goes away, for it is an essential part of us.

This has an important message in terms of spiritual development; it is the conflict of these two human aspects that causes much illness and disease. The emphasis placed on one to the detriment of the other is a cause of much imbalance, particularly, in Western society since the Eighteenth century, which has aligned itself to the rational/intellectual, the head. As a result of which, the other aspect of our psyche; the instinctual/intuitive, the body, has been pushed out, seen as less important. It can be seen by the fact that in the Jekyll and Hyde story, the “good” man, the rational man, who resides firmly within social normality changes into the “bad”, the animalistic, the immoral. The concept is never explored the other way round, unless we consider Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which could be read from the point of view that Dr Frankenstein, the rationalist, modern doctor is, fundamentally, immoral and separated from the moral code of his society and it is the monster that is, in fact, imbued with the desire to express an ethical presence and wants nothing more than to be accepted. As Chantal Bourgault du Coudray points out in her book The Curse of the Werewolf, the romantic/metaphysical poets and Gothic literature expressed a need to counter the dominant enlightenment thinking of the time; it was the Hyde to the rationalists’ Jekyll.

Returning to the Jekyll/Hyde concept: The fact is that both aspects need to be assimilated into the personality, a balance is required for the healthy expression of what it is to be human. Too much weight, on either side, is unhealthy. Both can be seen in our modern world and the results are, destructively, obvious. Reliance on science to cure all ills on one side and on the other a pushing of nature into the background as unimportant. This creates discontent, the inabilty to assimilate leading to criminality, war, sexual imbalance, violence and various inner and outer conflict: All caused, partly, by a repression of parts of the human psyche.

In the traditional rendering of both the original Jekyll and Hyde and most of the werewolf mythology when the “beast” is killed, the human dies too, (in deference to our societies celebration of the intellect/headmind we might note in passing that they usually change back to the “good” aspect at the moment of demise). The point being that they are co-reliant, one needs the other to exist, a point often overlooked.

So, very obvious parallels can be drawn between the mythology of the werewolf and the Jekyll & Hyde story, indeed, it can be interpreted as a modern, post-enlightenment version of Lycanthropy concerned, mainly, with the subjective, inner life, and conflict between different aspects of the psyche. The story can be read as the conflict between the primitive and the civilised, the amoral and the moral; modern mans’ repression of the Freudian Id. That inner shadow that if repressed will find a way to escape, manifest and express itself, destructively, be it outwardly in acts of violence or inwardly as illness, both physical and mental.

As with many strands of the horror genre, werewolf mythology developed during the 20th century to reflect the real fears of the day, so in the U.S made films of the 1930’s, we see reflected the anxieties of an isolationist America fearful of becoming further entangled in European conflicts. The films feature the werewolf curse being brought by Europeans, or from the continent of Europe. In a post-second world war, atomic age the emphasis changed. In the 1950’s films, instead of it being a curse or a bite, it is the “mad scientist” that experiments upon or injects someone, thus causing the werewolf transformation. This echoed contemporary concerns of the advance of science as self-professed cure all of the world’s ills: A belief in and insistence upon scientific progress. The werewolf films at this time explored the effects of science out of control. This concept broadened into the idea of science as establishment, big business, the corporate edifice and the increasing distrust and wish to counter the growing power of these at the expense of the individual.

A deeper explanation of these theories can be found in The Curse of the Werewolf: Fantasy, Horror and the Beast Within by Chantal Bourgault du Coudray.

The Jekyll & Hyde story concerns itself more with the inner personal conflict, the dark, individualised secret that exiles Jekyll from civilised society and acceptable behaviour. It is, primarily, an inner moral dilemma, sparked, it most be noted, by a self created potion (an interesting pre-cursor to the development of the werewolf/scientist themes in 1950’s cinema). While the werewolf genre has developed and adapted through the decades since it first gained popularity, the Jekyll and Hyde story has remained, comparatively, static. Not that it needs to change, the original story still resonates with a genuine and valid exploration of the human condition. There have been a few attempts to re-tell or adapt it with varying degrees of success, such films as Dr Jekyll and Mrs Hyde. One could put forward an argument that it introduced feminist ideas or the inner female in  man but, realistically, it gave the film makers the chance to get a few bare breast shots into the mix, a common addition to a number of horror films of the 1960’s-1970’s.  The only major contribution in recent years is the BBC drama Jekyll written by Steven Moffet and starring James Nesbitt and Gina Bellman.
The Jekyll and Hyde story can be interpreted as a cautionary tale about integration or disintegration of the human psyche. Without one the other dies. In this story the protagonists fight each other for supremacy. An internal (and eternal) struggle in all our psyches. As simple as the dilemma “do we follow our head or our heart?” or how we come to terms with the “bad” that exists within us.

A lot of the time (and over a lot of time, historically) we have been conditioned to ignore it, repress it, pretend it does not exist or we go to experts in their field to cure it or absolve us of our sins one way or the other. The real secret to enlightened living is to acknowledge it as part of us, an integral part without which we are dead, either psychologically/emotionally or really dead. This repression of part of what it means to be human causes many of the ills of the world and the illness in the world.

We see things so dualistically, particularly, through western philosophical frameworks, so we settle for one extreme or another and lurch our way through the years and the centuries. On the wheel and we never break free.

Human nature loves to divide: Good and bad, us and them, heart and head, body and mind. We pummel our bodies into shape, hate the way we look, do ourselves untold physical and psychological harm because of our ego’s insistence on separating things. We do the world harm too. The way to survive and to become enlightened is to assimilate not separate, to honour and integrate all aspects of our psyche. To choose integration and not dis-integration.

To conclude, plainly in the material discussed the character traits are drawn to their extremes: physical changes, etc; in each one of us the conflict is more subtle, but the real message on a metaphysical level is our individual and collective need to recognise, honour and incorporate the two aspects of our psychology: The intellectual/rational with the instinctual/intuitive. Head with heart. Too much weight to either side causes disruption and imbalance, disease and ill health both psychological and physical, as both are inter-dependant and need the other to experience a full and balanced life.

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