Chuck’s Place: Black Swan—A Tragic Coming of Age

Please note: If you have not seen the movie Black Swan yet, you may not want to read this blog until after you’ve seen the movie.

A ballerina, the epitome of elegant, feminine beauty and form is swallowed up by a lethal schizophrenic process. This is the story of Black Swan.

I draw from Black Swan the archetypal underpinnings of coming of age: nature’s call to greater individuation; separation from mother; encounter with the shadow; and, in this case, a maladaptive initiation into full adulthood.

No one can successfully traverse the gateway to adulthood without a deep encounter with his or her passionate nature. With adolescence comes the rumblings and fires of our awakening sensual, passionate, and sexual natures. These are the impulses that will draw us beyond home and family into new life, new roles, and a deeper connection to our passionate selves.

Families that may have securely housed our innocence and forged our ego discipline and control can no longer provide a home for our evolving passionate natures. We must loosen the nursery tie to our families and allow ourselves to become full passionate, sexual beings, an essential part of our adult selves.

This road to passionate self is fraught with danger. Our childhood goals, or those of our parents for us, may rest upon the repression and sublimation of nature’s fires, energy channeled to forge a successful education and career. In the case of Black Swan, the goal of premier ballerina was presided over by a mother whose single focus was her daughter’s success. We must acknowledge the pressure on our fledgling ballerina of her suffocating mother parasitically stealing her daughter’s life to vicariously realize her own frozen, frustrated dreams of stardom.

All this being true, the deeper challenge is the daughter’s ambivalence about letting go of the safety of the nursery and opening to the thunderous pulsations of her own nature that will forever separate her from the security of mother’s womb. To go deeper into life she will need to cut this infantile protective cord that, at this stage of life, can only serve to entomb her in lifeless security.

We all struggle with a tie to this enticing but devouring security, symbolized by the protective mother in this film. She is the mother that welcomes our regressive turning away from the deepening challenge of life, as we fall into stages of victimhood, entitlement and depression. She soothes and numbs for the price of our spirit. We must rally the hero within ourselves to be delivered from such a regressive vortex, to take on the adventure and responsibility of discovering and integrating our whole selves.

The mother I speak of is an internal image within us all. She is the mother we constellate when fearfully confronted by life, be it in the world or within the hidden recesses of our body and soul. If our ego balks at taking on the challenge before us we activate this apparent nurturing great mother to self soothe and protect us from our fears. However, if we cling to regression, this supportive mother becomes the devouring mother who fully takes us back into the womb of depression. In fact, she becomes the death instinct itself—nature reabsorbing life energy for its own purposes, a mother consuming her child’s life. Our ontogenic imperative insists we choose life and be willing to fight for it, refusing the comfort of the regressive call. All responsibility rests with the ego. The devouring mother is not the ultimate antagonist. She is the consequence of the ego’s refusal of the call into deeper life.

Our ballerina does begin to fend off her symbiotic mother, however, largely through the onset of a schizophrenic process. Her ego cannot directly loosen its attachment to mother, however, her shadow—that is, the repressed part of herself that houses her rejected feelings, needs, and impulses—begins to assert itself by taking over her personality with aggressive acts of resistance and defiance. Her ego and shadow remain diametrically opposed, unintegrated, contributing to her fragmented, hallucinatory process.

The artistic director serves as the protagonist to allow the ballerina direct access to her sexual nature, essential to fully embodying the dance of the black swan. This challenge is deepened by the real life addition to the ballet company of a woman who is the perfect mirror of her latent, repressed, sensual self: her shadow. What ensues is a relationship part delusional and part real as our ballerina struggles to alternately merge with and fend off her shadow. Merger is expressed graphically by her hunger to sexually unite with her shadow.

Jung was clear that our shadow is always presented or symbolized by a person of our own sex, as our shadow contains qualities of self that are fully realizable in our conscious personality. In this case, the female shadow symbolizes our ballerina’s full feminine self, including her sexual and sensual self. Sexual union with her shadow is the most appropriate symbol and experience of this deeper self-connection. To merge sexually with a man without being able to unite with her sexual self will not resolve true ownership and connection to her sexual nature. An unintegrated sexual shadow is a major struggle in the sexual lives of many adults.

The psychic divide between ego and shadow broadens and is maintained by a series of psychological defenses. Our ballerina’s major defense to maintain her child ego stronghold is that of perfection. She works ruthlessly to perfect her technique. After four years in the ballet company she is the most perfect ballerina. However, her perfection cannot incorporate the spontaneous, passionate impulse of her deep nature and she falls short of the fluidity needed to dance the black swan. She fortifies her perfection with anorexia and purging as she desperately controls and holds on to her child’s body.

Even more gruesomely disturbing is her defense of body mutilation, whether it be scratching her back until it bleeds, peeling skin from her fingers until they bleed, or ultimately stabbing herself with glass. These various forms of self-mutilation serve several defensive functions. On a very primitive level, blood letting provides a release of the supposed illness in the body. In the case of our ballerina, the shadow impulse is projected upon the blood, which is released through tearing the skin.

Furthermore, the ritual act of scratching or peeling skin, leading ultimately to skin penetration and bleeding, serves as a displacement of a sexual impulse into a more acceptable form to the child ego.

The painful experience of bodily mutilation serves another defense called identification with the aggressor. Here, through bodily mutilation, she is able to both punish herself for her sexual impulses and feel the strength and power of living out the role of the repressive punitive parent.

Finally, I propose an archetypal basis for bodily mutilation present in all initiation rites of “primitive” societies. Initiation rites serve the societal and deep psychological function of ushering the initiate from childhood into adulthood. Wounding has always assumed a central role in initiation rites and shamanic journeys. The wound loosens the ego’s grip upon the familiar and the initiate is opened to a greater reality, presenting new possibilities to be incorporated into the existing sense of self. These ancient rites and journeys are also dangerous times, as initiates are subjected to energetic intensities that could easily result in “loss of soul” (schizophrenia in modern terms), or death. Hence, the caution of having elders other than the parents of the initiate overseeing and guiding is instrumental to this transformative ritual.

Our modern rational world has, unfortunately, lost its connection to these rituals, but the impulse to be initiated emerges spontaneously and misguidedly, in many cases of self-mutilation or fashionable body piercings. Through the loss of guided ritual, the modern world has required the developing ego of every individual to assume responsibility for accomplishing self-initiation. This deeper journey of initiation may be delayed, becoming instead a lifelong struggle to individuate. In fact, we may have a society of largely uninitiated adults. The far greater challenge of our time may be for the would-be initiate to defensively hold together the highly pressurized opposing energies within psyche and soma to allow for a lengthy individuation process, resulting finally in full adult initiation.

As our ballerina inches closer to opening night, her efforts to make contact with and unite with her shadow self become increasingly more dangerous and delusional. Even the moviegoer has trouble discerning which scenes are real and which are pure hallucination. Here lies, perhaps, the greatest failed defense: a full-blown schizophrenic process. I call it a failed defense because it serves to keep all the sub-personalities separate, at the cost of a central organizing factor: the ego.

The transition from late adolescence to early adulthood is one of the most vulnerable times in the life cycle for the onset of schizophrenia. The demands of adult roles, as well as the encounter with the shadow self, can shatter the personality into fragmented pieces like an earthquake creating new fault lines in the earth.

Only a conscious personality, able to loosen its hold on the child ego state, can allow nature to bring forth the deeper sensual self and make the transition into mature adulthood without serious damage. No wonder the initiation rites of yesteryear were so prominent in all societies.

In the case of our ballerina, though she completes the dance of both sides of the swan, white and black, they remain separate, unintegrated entities within herself and though the movie ends somewhat speculatively, to me, she went to her death having lived more fully in a fragmented way, but certainly not as a whole, integrated being.

Nature insists we move along the life cycle. This first major bridge, from child to adult, in coming of age, needs to be appreciated at a much deeper level in our modern world.

If you wish to correspond, please feel free to post a comment below.

Until we meet again,

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