Friday, 4 February 2011

On 'Black Swan', Repression, & 'The Yellow Wallpaper'

My novelist friend Selden really loves Carl Jung. (I got him a Carl Jung action figure once, actually, from Urban Outfitters or some funky little shop in Santa Barbara; I can't remember which.) And Carl Jung, I learned from Selden (and later from reading), has this thing about The Shadow: that part of ourselves that we learn is not desirable and so cram into the depths...

I think about this a lot. Once you know about the Jungian Shadow, you want to figure out what yours is and help it out. But sometimes you don't know how. (And sometimes people get to helping theirs 'out' without meaning to at all.)

In the film 'Black Swan', Nina, always a white swan, begins to explore her Shadow (her black swan) for her lead role in 'Swan Lake'. I'm struck by the factors and presences pushing and pulling Nina into and out of her Shadow: namely, her creepy, infantilizing mother and her abusive, seducing director. (All of these roles are brilliantly well played.)

Nina doesn't get to explore her proverbial dark side in any remotely safe or healthy ways. Her mother has trapped her inside a pink, endless childhood--her bedroom full of stuffed animals, her mother physically dressing and undressing her, with Nina calling her 'mommy' in a needy, babyish voice (the only thing, it seems, that will talk her mother back from the extreme edge of her bouts of rage).

Nor can Nina explore her Shadow in the world of the ballet--dominated by the forceful and dangerous director and a cut-throat group of ballerinas, many of whom seem to share Nina's eating disorder and her willingness to do anything to be on top in the company.

So from the beginning, is there any chance for Nina? At the end of the ballet, the swan queen can only find freedom in death: a fate that Nina shares. I watched an interview (from The Telegraph, I think) with Natalie Portman, who expressed her own commitment to Nina's breakthrough in the story, her realization that she can only aim to please herself.

Huh? Natalie Portman, this is not a happy story. As in Greek tragedy, Nina's fate is sealed from the beginning (and as in Shakespeare, we still want to watch it unfold, even though we know).

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's famous short story, written in 1899, the narrator, like Nina, can only lose herself entirely or free herself (in part) by creating an alternate reality in her own mind. She is fighting the same losing battle. Or is she?

All over literature is the suggestion of freedom through death, suicide, or madness. Shouldn't we all be terrified? The Jungian Shadow, we understand, will sometimes claw its way to the surface and demand a place--like Mr. Hyde does with Dr. Jekyll.

The narrator gets out of that damned wallpaper, even at the cost of her former self. When Nina crosses over to the dark side ('perfection' in the film) and becomes the black swan (literally and metaphorically in the film), she (like the swan queen) falls to her death. Is this a kind of escape similar to the kind of escape for Gilman's narrator?

More on this shortly...

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