Saturday, August 10, 2013

Psychology in the Venture Brothers

It has been long established that the central theme of the Venture Brothers (the gem of Adult Swim's programming) is failure. Some may be surprised just how hilarious failure can be, and that is likely because in one way or another, all "success" stories are just failure arcs that haven't met their apex. Today a star, tomorrow turning tricks for $50 at truck stops. This may contain the germ of our fascination with the two sides of this coin, as our jealousy is fueled by seeing the famous torn down
For some of us, it might be our only ticket to a brief moment of "living the dream" before we've got to pay the toll. As I've said before, in the end the mob will only be satisfied to see your bloody sacrifice. But first, for a time, you can be King For A Day. You know the deal: today, virgins and feasts. All the kids can project their angst and suffering on you. Tomorrow, the volcano will have you, and they can grow up and get to work.
It also may come as a surprise that the themes of comedic cartoons may owe anything to Jungian or Freudian symbolism, so let's take a look at two popular episodes, "the Doctor is Sin" and "Assisted Suicide" with that in mind. (Although part of the joy of this show is how many layers of cultural reference can be piled on, so that it's actually rather reductionistic to look at it simply as a play on any one thing.)

Let's begin with the Doctor is Sin. In this episode, Rusty meets Doctor Henry Killinger, (Kissinger's super-hero double, I imagine), who leads him to confront the various psychological blocks that resulted from living in his father's shadow, and embracing his Shadow to become his true identity: a villain. 

The process of individuation is central to the process in Jungian psychology. Become what you truly are. To do this we have to, among other things, not only confront our shadow, but merge with it. In his autobiography, "Memories, Dreams and Reflections," Jung points out that the central thrust of his entire life's work is in the value of the personality, and that, far from being secondary or irrelevant, it is only in this that any of us might find any real meaning... if we have the balls to embrace what we are no matter the cost, including the derision of our so-called friends. 

In keeping with the overarching theme of the show, once his identity is revealed, Rusty recoils. Like so many of us, he clings to the delusional persona projected on us by others. Or, perhaps you'd rather read Killinger as a self-help guru, in which case Rusty made the right call. But that isn't at all the sense I came away with -- nor is it nearly as funny. 

In Assisted Suicide, we begin with Rusty's pathetic attempts at suicide, brought on, we soon discover, by his equally pathetic self-appointed arch nemesis, the Monarch. This leads to a jaunt through Rusty's mind, where we meet his Ego -- personified as an architect, an apt take on the ego rather than the common conception that ego somehow means "inflated self worth," which in any psychological context it does not -- his Id, who is mostly fixated on all the women Rusty could've slept with if he'd only sealed the deal -- the dual symbols of Thanatos and Eros, personified by Pete White and Billy Quizboy, and Rusty's Superego, who looks like a merger of Rusty and his stunted brother, who literally clawed his way from his innards in the season 1 finale.  

So much more could be said, but the episodes are a great deal more revealing than commentary can ever be. Nevertheless, Jung's own reflections on his relationship -- and ultimate schism -- from Freud, may actually prove useful in looking at these episodes side-by-side. 
I was never able to agree with Freud that dream is the "facade" behind which its meaning lies hidden -- a meaning already known but maliciously, so to speak, withheld from consciousness. To me, dreams are a part of nature, which harbors no intent to deceive, but expresses something as best it can, just as a plant grows or an animal seeks its food as best it can. These forms of life, too, have no intent to deceive our eyes, but we may deceive ourselves because we are shortsighted. Long before I met Freud, I met the unconscious, and dreams, which are its direct exponents, as natural processes to which no arbitrariness can be attributed, and above all no legerdemain. I knew no reason for the assumption that the tricks of consciousness can be extended to the natural processes of the unconscious. 
Or perhaps not! After all, art, as dream, can be a mirror of the unconscious. Does it matter if Doc Hammer or Jackson Publick intended for this particular reading of their symbols? There is reason to believe they did, but in agreement with Jung on this matter, I would argue that it is irrelevant. Media is, after all, a cracked mirror.

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