Gale's Answer to Jung

Italian psychiatrist Massimo Lanzaro explores conceptions of grief in this review of The Life of David Gale, a film by Alan Parker.


Archetypes show the stages in the maturing process of the personality, modelling the fundamental behaviour of the psyche and they present typical life situations in their purest state, as  “natural constants”,1 uncontaminated by personal history or psychology. The fact that the narratives are handed down through the generations demonstrates the universality of meaning in their archetypal themes. The characters themselves are not understood in terms of the individual Ego, but as archetypal constructions.

Cinematic archetypal coherence is the capacity to accurately and creatively capture the underling archetypal structure inherent to a story (Michael Conforti, 2005). Cinema is a telling of ancient truths, which provide access to the world of archetypes and the reality generated by them. Each archetypal drama is lived in accordance with the dynamics and dominants of that field and stories match up surprisingly well with eternal themes (fidelity to archetypal dominants). These motifs satisfy a primal psychological and spiritual need. Consciousness is what allows the individual to both establish a relationship to the archetypal dimension and to create a more personal response to that event. This is true either for the filmmaker and the spectator.

It is now more than half a century since C. G. Jung wrote Answer to Job (Jung, 1952), nothing less than a psychological study of the history of God over the last twenty-five hundred years. Less spectacularly considered, Jung attempted to understand how the Self, the image of God in the Western psyche, had undergone change and development over that time.

In a 1993 volume of the Journal of Analytical Psychology, two analysts2 believed it necessary to interpret the text reductively, as reflecting Jung’s childhood problems, so it is not surprising that this major work has proved difficult for many to grasp.

However, Jung's answer to the Book of Job should be also seen as an authentic attempt to deal with the problem of human suffering. Edward Edinger (1986) and David Hiles (2001) argued that Job can be regarded as the archetype of the human response to suffering, of our relationship to suffering.

While Jung does not seem to make such a suggestion, it is clearly implicit in his writing. Jung proposed that the Book of Job can serve as a paradigm for a certain experience of God, and that this has a special significance for our situation in today's world (Jung, C.W. 9, par. 562). He maintained that the study of archetypes is an excellent means of studying the comparative anatomy of the collective unconscious.

In this paper I propose to examine how Jung’s predictions have held up, to examine the developments of the archetype of the human response to suffering within different psychological approaches (Job’s archetypal theme) and allow for a (more or less plausible) reflection on “the current state of our collective unconscious”, by analyzing a movie directed by Alan Parker, The Life of David Gale.

On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross popularized thanatology as a subject for general social commentary. Written in plain language, this important book can help families understand as the death of a loved one draws near. The book introduced the author's seminal "stages of dying" or "stages of grief" model which is still widely quoted. According the Kübler-Ross model, there are five stages that a dying person goes through when they are told that they have a terminal illness. The five stages go in progression through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This model has been widely adopted by other authors and applied to many other situations where someone suffers a loss or change in social identity. The model is often used in bereavement work. Not all workers in the field agree with the Kübler-Ross model, and some critics feel the stages are too rigid.

Other authors, such as John Bowlby, developed models with different numbers of stages. Bowlby, a psychiatrist, was a leading researcher and teacher in the field of personality development. He was a former President of the International Association for Child Psychiatry and this series, particularly the first two volumes, are cornerstones of attachment theory in child development. Three books constitute John Bowlby's pioneering trilogy on attachment and loss. Volume One, Attachment, sets the stage by showing how bonds of attachment form. Volume Two, Separation: Anxiety and Anger, builds on the theme by showing the fundamental reactions to temporary disruptions of bonds. Volume Three, Loss: Sadness and Depression, culminates the series by showing how feelings of grief and bereavement are related to underlying patterns of attachment. Bowly concentrates on the major emotional consequences of loss, including feelings of sadness, depression, grief, and bereavement. It is one of the most thorough treatments of loss to appear in the literature. All three books in this series should be compulsory reading for anyone with a serious interest in the topic. His work as a whole was a major contribution to academic thinking about the development of attachment and affectional bonds, and the consequences of their disruption. Bowlby demonstrated that attachment of the infant to the mother is of overwhelming importance in determining the individual's later security and success in forming relations with others, and that separation from or loss of the mother can have a devastating effect.

John Bowlby's "four stages of grief" model is of particular historical interest, contrasting with the better-known "five stages" model popularized by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Bowlby's four stages are:

  • Numbing that usually lasts from a few hours to a week and may be interrupted by outbursts of extremely intense distress and/or anger. 
  • Yearning and searching for the lost figure lasting some months or sometimes for years. 
  • Disorganization and despair. 
  • Greater or less degree of re-organization, wherein one re-invests in life  and readjusts to move adaptively into the new world without forgetting the old

This 4-stage model is a revision of Bowlby's earlier model which had three stages, omitting the initial numbing stage. The original 3-phase model was published in "Processes of Mourning" (Int. J. Psycho-Anal. 42:317-40).

I will begin by presenting a summary of the fictional story’s plot, together with some comments, to refresh those who may not have seen it and to provide some necessary information and remarks about the phases of the grieving process faced by the main character. David Gale had a happy family life with a wife and a boy. However, on one occasion while his wife is away from home, he attends a party and has too much to drink. He allows himself to get carried away with a student who had been suspended earlier that day for failing grades. She encouraged him to get very physical with her, and then stabs him in the back by crying rape the next day. The case is dropped, but by this time Gale has lost his wife, job, home, self esteem, is hitting the bottle seriously, and is not allowed access to his son. His wife leaves him and takes his son, and he spirals into depression and drinking. His only companion is Constance, a fellow professor, the one who he will be charged with killing. They get closer, Gale moves in with her and he finds out she is dying of leukaemia. One night Gale goes on a bender and passes out in his old front yard. When he returns home he finds her dead. She was naked, with her hands cuffed behind her head and a plastic bag taped around her head. There was a tripod there, as if someone had taped it, but no tape was ever found. Gale is convicted and finds himself on death row, an odd twist of fate for a vocal critic of the death penalty. He awaits execution, and less than a week before his date with the fatal injection, Gale agrees to tell his story with Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet), a nervy journalist from a major newsmagazine who arrives with the office intern, Zack Stemmons. As Bloom discusses the facts of the Harraway murder with Gale, it becomes clear to her that the details simply do not add up. A mysterious stranger slips evidence to her that suggest Gale has been framed — leaving Bloom and Stemmons only a few days to solve the mystery and save Gale.

Alan Parker offers an excellent close-up of Gale’s progression towards his final decisions and a comprehensive view of his grieving process and his emotional states.

The Book of Job relates to the story of Job, his trials at the hands of the Satan (who destroys Job's possessions and family), his theological discussions with friends on the origins and nature of his suffering and his challenge to God.

Both Job and Gale face similar emotional responses as a reaction to their lossess, as I will now try to outline.

Anger and denial

(Gale’s speech, shouting drunk at the crowd) “Socrates is sentenced to death. But Athenian law let the condemned to come up with their own alternate punishment (why me? Why this?) Isn’t that a great idea? Where are the Athenians when you really need them? So anyway Socrates... and he was ugly... did I mention that?”
“Socrates was ugly, Plato was fat and Aristotle was a prissy dresser...”
Depression, disorganization and despair

When Gale's drinking problem worsens, he descends into loneliness and depression (the same stage of abandonment and spiritual emergency in which Job’s experience turns to torment). David Gale’s only support comes from Constance, a colleague and the local leader of a non-profit group dedicated to abolishing the death penalty. Gale and Constance are true soul mates and her role as a companion and a counsellor appears comparable to Job’s wife.

Attempts to readjust and reinvest in life

He tries not to give up his political and social commitments. Gale faces tyrannical, utterly illogical gods in the form of some aspects of academic and political power. A TV reporter asks the governer, “don’t you think three executions in one week is a little excessive”?”, and he replies “I say let’s bring them in, strap them down, and rock and roll .”

Gale continues to proclaim his innocence but soon he realises there is virtually no way he can ever resume a life of meaning, pleasure or joy.

Acceptance, non acceptance and paradoxical redemption

Both Gale and Job are robbed of their position, family, possessions and peace of mind. The difference, and maybe the starting point of the structuring of Gale’s peculiar coping strategy, is the loss of the female figure, when he discovers that Constance suffers from leukaemia and has a short life expectation. A death penalty abolitionist “decides” to “become a murderer”. Since Constance was going to die anyway; she decides to make it look like David did it, to prove that the system is flawed and that innocent people get sentenced to death. This was the plan all along, to make a martyr of Gale to show “they execute innocent people”.

Freed from its religious connotations, redemption involves a freedom from a course and spell, a breaking of an unconscious, archetypal constellation and possession. It usually starts with a deep act of reflection, contrition and acknowledgement of the results of our actions, all needed to initiate change. “Hitting the bottom” is somehow a prerequisite for redemption. In films, arts, literature etc. redemption is sometimes depicted as sudden (i.e.: Prof. Borg in Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries, Innominato in Manzoni’s novel The Betrothed, in Italian “I Promessi sposi”). Sometimes it’s simply impossible, missed or unresolved (i.e. in the movie Sophie’s Choice). Sometimes, as it appears in Gale’s story, there might be something “beyond” the classical concept of redemption.

Stage of meaning and Spiritual sacrifice

His world is one of internal despair and perhaps the deepest sorrow anyone could imagine. He eventually chooses and yet we know what must ultimately follow: the ending whiles tragic and surprising is anticipated throughout the story. In the following dialogue, Parker captures what I believe is the inner state of Gale’s heart and soul:

“We spend our whole lives trying to stop death... eating, inventing, loving, praying fighting... killing... but what do we really know about death?  Just that nobody comes back. But there comes a point in life, a moment… when your mind outlives its desires... its obsessions... when your habits survive your dreams... and when your losses (silence).. Maybe death is a gift... “

Developments of the God image

In the story of Job, the portrayal of Yahweh is as both a persecutor and a helper in the same image, and both aspects are as real as each other. Yahweh is not split but is a totality of inner opposites, and this Jung identifies as the coincidentia oppositorium, the conjunction of opposites (Jung, C.W. 9, par. 664). The importance of this conjunction must not be underestimated: Jung proposes that this terrible, tormenting image of Yahweh constitutes his moral defeat at the hands of Job, and consequently Job should be seen as standing morally higher than Yahweh (Jung, C.W. 9, par. 640).

Jung himself, however, pointed out the differences between what is considered to be a physical fact and religious belief. If, he suggests, we replace the notion of a physical fact with that of a psychic truth then we have a more amiable situation. Psychic facts are what could be called facts based upon faith and religious statements are of this order, for example, they refer without exception to things which cannot be established as physical facts--otherwise they would fall in the domain of natural sciences. The emphasis is not placed on the physical actuality of a thing but upon its meaning value. Thus whenever we speak of religious contents we move into a world of image, metaphor, and imagination. And this happens also when we speak of fairy tales or of the plot of a movie.

It is precisely this very same realization that lies also at the core of William Blake's interpretation of Job, but which Jung strangely fails to make explicit despite his extensive study of alchemy. Insisting on the notion of a moral defeat, over God by Job, Jung might be regarded there as being stuck in the coincidentia oppositorium and not being able to move beyond it.

What it is proposed is that this conjunction is what constitutes the God archetype, which Jung (in other writings) equates with the archetype of the Self. The confrontation with this archetype reveals the tragic contradictoriness of the Self, (and of “God”). To integrate this coincidentia oppositorium (the Self) is the ultimate challenge to human growth and it’s the unconscious conflict at the core of human existence.

1. Cf. E.G. Humbert, L’Hommeaux prises avec linconscient.
2. Newton, K.. Edinger, E. F. Transformation of the God-Image: An Elucidation of Jung's ‘Answer to Job’. Toronto, Inner City Books, 1992. Pp. 143. J. Anal. Psychol., 38:208-209.