Barry’s Blog # 328: Black Swans and White Vultures, Part Two of Seven

A man needs a little madness, or else he never dares cut the rope and be free! – Nikos Kazantzakis

What is madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance? – Theodore Roethke

 The quest to be perfect may well represent the quest to be whole, even if wholeness includes imperfection. See Marion Woodman’s book Addiction to Perfection. Beyond that, I can’t speculate on the feminine mysteries of escaping the grasp of the mother, partially because, traditionally, most women have had to wrestle with the reality of ultimately becoming mothers themselves. And, since the Greek myths were written down within a deeply patriarchal culture, the great majority of them describe the quests of the masculine, solar, heroic nature. Jungians have tended to resolve this tricky issue by arguing that these are stories of the individuation of the masculine principle within all people, regardless of gender. I don’t know if all women would agree.

We can interpret some of them as initiation stories that involve breaking out of the localized realm of the mother so as to emerge and return, acknowledged as adult men by the broader realm of the community. My essay “Initiation and the Mother” describes several distinct strategies described in myth. Some of these routes to the father are more successful than others, but it’s worth noting that the name of the hero Heracles means “the glory of Hera.” In another essay I consider “The Spell of the Mother.” 

Does Nina kill her dark twin or completely accept her in order to fully embody the dual roles of white and black swans? S3IB1Ph Does she go mad? Must she descend into madness in order to achieve the perfection of her art? Does she heal from the madness? What, after all, is madness? From the soul’s perspective, can madness have a purpose? In an earlier essay I address madness in America: Why are Americans so Freaking Crazy? 

Let’s not forget that Black Swan, like any great work of art, is not only about the personal or internal; it’s also about society and the external. QmrG1Hq

Misogynists and imperialists though they were, scientists that they would eventually become, the Greek mythmakers understood very well that this world contains a basic element beyond rationality. Their holy pantheon included a place for Dionysus, the god of madness. The classicist Walter Otto wrote, “A mad god exists only if there is a mad world which reveals itself through him.” And the Greeks also understood that madness could very well be a necessary stage in knowing oneself, as I write here and here.

Does Nina literally stab (and perhaps) kill herself, or is film action symbolic? What really matters, as in all listening to stories throughout time, is what is evoked in us. “Reality” – for both her and us – shifts regularly as she alternately conflicts with, makes love with and then kills her shadow double. Is it herself she kills, that she makes love with? In the end, does she die physically, or is this a symbol of initiation? As her life slips away from the fatal wound, Nina mutters, “I felt it. Perfect. I was perfect.” The final shot, rather than the traditional fade-to-black, is a fade-to-white, as if the white swan / childish / innocent / uninitiated “niña” has died, to be replaced by the black swan of experience.

Dan Ross concludes that

…her death is the price we pay when we give ourselves over to the archetypal completely without maintaining hold on the totality of our personality and its roots in the outer world…The risk in integration of the shadow is one can be consumed by it and overidentify with it and become psychotic. So Nina goes from one Swan to another but remains a swan, inflated, disconnected from the outer world, relationships, and in the end dies…She was unable to keep the two realms in tension, the swan realm and the human realm.

I disagree (although his assessment may well be more relevant in my discussion of a second film, in Part Six of this essay). In tragic drama, as in any dream, death is symbolic of what needs to die so that something greater, or deeper, may be born. Readers of my book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence may recall that there has been an ongoing academic dispute over the ending of Euripides’ play The Bacchae and its meaning. Do Cadmus and Agape make Pentheus whole again by reconstituting his dismembered body? Is that play about a successful initiation or a failed initiation? The rational mind may struggle with such questions, but the soul lives them, and does not require the easy escape of answers. As the director character in Black Swan says, Swan Lake’s Odette “…in death finds freedom.”

Read Part Three here.

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2 Responses to Barry’s Blog # 328: Black Swans and White Vultures, Part Two of Seven

  1. Pingback: Barry’s Blog # 327: Black Swans and White Vultures, Part One of Seven | madnessatthegates

  2. Pingback: Barry’s Blog # 327: Black Swans and White Vultures, Part One of Seven – Barry Spector’s Blog

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