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Shadows and Illuminations: Spiritual Journeys to the Dark Side in "Young Goodman Brown" and Eyes Wide Shut

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The illuminating spiritual journey to wholeness—to "God"—can be fruitfully described as a journey into darkness. Both Christian and Buddhist writers present visions of a trek down into the valley of cares and concerns, or of a "wisdom of no escape" that gently accepts an "interesting, smelly, rich, fertile mess of stuff" to suggest the value of an encounter with darkness. This is related to Paul Tillich's call for a descent to depth, or to Michael Himes's claim that a sacramental imagination sees "what is there" in the wonderful worldly mess rather than rising above it to an ethereal mountaintop. Shadows and illuminations are not separate.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "Young Goodman Brown" and Stanley Kubrick's film Eyes Wide Shut are artistic depictions of such a spiritual journey to the dark side. In each case, an initially naive protagonist undergoes a dark adventure that breaks down his naiveté and forces him to confront depth, in Tillich's sense. But each digests his experience differently. The protagonist of Eyes Wide Shut gives up his stubborn certainties for a humble, uncertain, spiritually "silent" openness to the world and to his wife; the protagonist of "Young Goodman Brown," however, returns to his frozen certainties and ends up bitter and despairing. And yet, just as shadows and illuminations cannot be fully dichotomized, perhaps even these different kinds of endings are mutual supplements rather than opposites; perhaps each ending needs to be respected as a variation on the fragile human responses to a spiritual journey.


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