Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
We got into a tangent on this in the "horror & spirituality" thread, so to prevent further diversion there I'll start this thread. Plus this film deserves its own thread, as there's much much more to explore in it. For now I'll just cut-and-paste the posts so far from the other thread.
a little off genre but i went to see the black swan with one of my daughters over the holidays, and i'll be damned if i didn't walk out of there feeling dissociated and in a somewhat diffused state of consciousness. damn aronofsky! it took me about 15 minutes of concentrated breathing, a couple of clove ciggie's, and a matcha latte and nanaimo bar to feel grounded again...i asked my eldest if she'd had any feelings after watching it previously and she said she had similar feelings walking out....
Actually Black Swan is right on topic, being a horror story of transcendence which includes madness and dark shadow. Excellent film, deeply disturbing and most illuninating of that deep, dark passion that looms forever below the surface, and what happens when it's brought to the surface. The choreographer brings the black swan out of her and it is truly transformative on so many levels. And while beautiful it is also oh so ugly.* This genre calls into question religious (and spiritual) notions that transformation is all about sweetness and light, love and compassion. Well worth a second and third viewing.
* I want your ugly, I want your disease, I want your love. --Lady Gaga
Black Swan is truly an incredible movie, powerfully drawn and acted -- and downright difficult to watch at points. (Those fingernail clippers!!!) I'm not sure it's a story of transcendence, however. Repressed (sub/un)-conscious material bursting into awareness is not necessarily "transformative;" it might instead lead to de-formation or disintegration -- even if such aspects perform "transcendently." This movie reminded me somewhat of Polanski's Repulsion -- a (mostly) first-person p.o.v. depiction of obsession and madness.
My own religious heritage has never taught me that transformation is "all about" sweetness and light -- unless one considers dark nights, suffering, rejection, and crucifixion (now there's a horror story!) as pleasant walks in the park.
Speaking of crucifixion, I presume Jesus knew what would happen with his acts of defiance, that it would lead to this end, and that such suffering was required to ascend into heaven? (I wonder if Jesus had self-cutting behavior as a child?) Metaphor or otherwise I see this same process with the heroine of Black Swan; through her self-destruction she experienced the creation of "perfection." I see it no more or less de-formulating or disintegrating than the crucifixion but rather a contemporary tale of it. Except perhaps that religious ascension is reserved for only "the one" in some stories, not the gifted but earthly person that makes herculean sacrifices? The latter can only disintegrate, not being divine by birth?
Another possibility: Jesus (both "earthly" and "divine") has a hunch but does not fully know what end will occur, and his suffering is not a set-in-stone requirement but a self-emptying choice made in/for other-directed love & reconciliation/union, the "kingdom of heaven."
Any "earthly person's" transformation could be toward either disintegration or wholeness. It depends on context and on circumstance. I do think Black Swan's crucifixion could be seen as a dark version of some kind of sacrificial "salvation." But I'm looking at it on a more mundane level, I guess. The main character cannot distinguish her inner monsters from outer reality. Despite her brilliant performance, she remains at the mercy of her imaginings. Her transformation, IMO, is into something fragmented and split-off, not toward kenosis and union.
I guess I don't see that we can cleanly differentiate fragmentation from kenosis, disintegration from wholeness. C'mon, even Jesus went nuts, talking to God, thinking he could literally raise from the dead, live without a physical body...
Yes, it might be difficult to differentiate while in the midst of the process of changing. The movie's ending is ambiguous; we as viewers are not sure ourselves . . . Liminality, bright and dark.
Aronofsky said in this review:
"When I started thinking about Swan Lake a dancer, I think Julie Kent, said to me that the story is really about a girl who gets caught by an evil magician who turns her into a swan during the day and a half-swan, half-human at night. It popped into my head, 'Oh, a were-swan.' And I realized I was making a werewolf movie ."
In this interview Portman says of her character:
"But it was absolutely a case of obsessive compulsive behavior. The scratching. The bulimia, obviously. Anorexia and bulimia are forms of OCD and ballet really lends itself to that because there’s such a sense of ritual — the wrapping of the shoes everyday and the preparing of new shoes for every performance. It’s such a process. It’s almost religious in nature. It’s almost like Jews putting on their tefillin or Catholics with their rosary beads and then they have this sort of godlike character in their director. It really is a devotional, ritualistic, religious art which you can relate to as an actor, too, because when you do a film you submit to your director in that way. Your director is your everything and you devote yourself to them and you want to help create their vision. So all of that, I think the sort of religious obsession compulsion would be my professional diagnosis."
Mary noted above that her religion isn't all sweetness and light, that there is suffering involved. Exactly. What I meant though is expressed in her follow up, talking about the clean differentiation between disintegration or wholeness. Jesus can be both earthly and divine but the "earthy" person it seems is more limited to this either/or. And it is this clean either/or that is at the root of metaphysicall thinking. I think Mary is closer to it regarding Jesus being both/and but he is not special in this regard: he is not god and we are just like him, have the same capacity for this transformation. And that Jesus' bodily part is just as much fucked up as any of us, just as dysfunctional psychologically. It seems that such obsessive behavior is part and parcel of sacrificing for one's art or spiritual experience or whatever. I.e., is there really any transformative experience that is wholly pure, wholly healthy, wholly functional without dysfunction?
It seems part of Portman's character, the part that drives her mad, is this belief in "perfection." While she is adept at the part of white swan with its elegance, grace and pure beauty she cannot master the black swan, the sensuous, down and dirty, seducing whore. Her home life is the epitome of this separation of purity and the elimination of any such distraction like sex. And this metaphysical separation, plus its sudden and violent eruption released by the choreographer and her rival, lead to its liberation in the most destructive, yet creative, performance.
Theurj, you wrote:
"And it is this clean either/or that is at the root of metaphysicall thinking. I think Mary is closer to it regarding Jesus being both/and but he is not special in this regard: he is not god and we are just like him, have the same capacity for this transformation. And that Jesus' bodily part is just as much fucked up as any of us, just as dysfunctional psychologically."
--You've described, to a certain degree, my faith: We are all "both/and," earthly/divine, children of God. (Collectively, the body of Christ.) (Or: all "weregods?" lol). Jesus is a brother and gifted teacher whose path of self-emptying love I follow. And transformation, as a process, is rife with light and shadow. I do not idolize "purity" or perfection. But I do think it's possible to move from dysfunction, illness, and fragmentation to sanity, health, and integration. The movement, the process itself, and the outcome are not "wholly clean" or anything like that. But, simply put: change in the direction of health can happen. And the seed must die and be buried before it breaks open, roots, sprouts, and flowers.
Another thought: Perhaps dysfunctional obsessiveness occurs when one is under the illusion that they can completely control of any process of transformation. The process is actually a gift and a grace that we give ourselves to, surrender to. The seed releases itself into the soil and allows itself to be broken open. We release ourselves into a current, trusting that it will take us where we are to go, not knowing where we will end up.
I know that I'm probably a failure at integral postmetaphysical spirituality / nonduality. I like stories and allegories too much. Tis what it is.
By the way, Theurj: Hello and happy new year! :)
I haven't seen this film yet, but I've been looking forward to it, being a fan of Aronofsky's work. I appreciate where you are taking this conversation, though, and I'm glad you (Edward) clarified your original remarks to Mary. I was going to comment, when you first made them, that making distinctions between madness and health, fragmentation and kenosis, etc, is not a lost cause, even if the boundaries are blurry and the way isn't always clear. I agree with how Mary has voiced this in her recent post (but would add that I don't think stories or allegories are in any way opposed to a postmetaphysical approach; in fact, some postmetaphysical thinkers put literature right at the center of discourse and praxis).
I have a poem I wrote about 25 years ago (you can probably pick up the "college student" scent on it) that touches on these charged, inseparable, blurry polarities of light/dark, pure/violent, life/death, mourning/celebration, etc, with swans as a central theme, so I thought I'd post it here.
It was not winter but the winds were cold
When I woke from the grey house of my sleep
And set step down the dwindling street
To walk the just-up sun, the sky
Bright as giants' bones,
The wind walked from some other map
To pillage the trees for leaves
And nail my hands to the cold, numb,
Dumb to mouth regrets,
And the road a wrest of men, flower-bowed,
Snow-bundled, blown quiet
By clattered leaves, pressed
Into themselves by wide sky.
Had my pockets been bigger,
I'd have climbed in to die.
But this sky isn't Ymir's skull, I thought.
It's empty, but it isn't dead.
And I found, far from the city,
Mud-stepped in the marsh
And crooked wood,
The sky was white as water,
Black with birds, sunfilled, still
As the lake was still,
And I stopped in a copse beside the water
And held my knees in numb, dumb hands
And shivered in the silence of the sun
High and white above the wood.
And in this heaven harbored house,
Amid the reeds and water
Ringing stones, the frogs' long song,
The young doe stepping shy,
I drifted quiet, caught by sleep
Till dusk had drifted down,
And I woke to see through leaves
The lake lapping swans,
Long-necked, white as the sky was cold.
The water was a burning church
In the downed sun.
I could have prayed to those nun-bent bodies,
Heads bowed back to caught clouds,
Still this singing minute to net
The songs they shot at heaven
In a faith of praise.
So bright a song surprised me.
I'd thought the air would bite it out.
But death was calm as water here, and as right,
And I sat and shivered broken silent
In the shed light of swans and the sun just down;
And as silence toppled down the lake,
I plunged my hands in the shed
Red waters of their praise.
Edward, I like this encapsulation of the movie: "This metaphysical separation, plus its [the black swan's] sudden and violent eruption released by the choreographer and her rival, lead to its liberation in the most destructive, yet creative, performance.
A related synopsis something from a Yahoo site [spoiler alert]:
The White Swan is an archetype: perfection, refinement, innocence, fragility. Aspiration. The Black Swan is lack of restraint, exuberance, and creative/sexual energy; dangerous, but whimsical and alluring. They are a duality, and in a way, are the two sides of art: technique and inspiration. Alternately, if you take a feminist stance, you could view them from the lens of the "virgin/whore" dichotomy.
The story is basically about someone who wants beauty and perfection, who longs to embody that in her art. But her slavish devotion to getting each movement down just isn't enough for that: you also need something else. To embody the forces represented in the Black Swan, Nina needs to be more than just devoted to ballet; she needs to be brave enough to embrace those forces. Artistic inspiration is kind of a dangerous thing. It exposes you to a darkness, a side of life that is wild and ferocious.
The changes in Nina's body, including her self-mutilation and the "rash" as well as the crazy "pulling feathers out of her body" sequence, are symbols of her desire for perfection. Her eating disorder is certainly the result of that. Although I'm sure most ballet dancers don't have Nina's problems, the extreme discipline required for professional ballet is, in itself, kind of a mutilation. Dancers' bodies literally transform to suit their art; ballet bodies are different from other bodies, and many dancers have talked about the incredible pressure to be perfect. And perfection is a bit like the Black Swan: seductive, but deadly and quite often unhealthy.
Beautiful swan poem, Bruce, "college-scent" and all. :)
It's reminiscent of philosopher-poet John O'Donohue's "Swanlight" (Recalling now that O'Donohue died two Januaries ago...)
If it could say itself January
Might brighten its syllables on the frost
Of these first New Year days whose cold is blue.
Meanwhile in this corner of its silence
A weak winter sun lowers down behind
The moor that rises away from the lake.
Beyond reach of light, the shadowed water
Succumbs to this darkening of spirit
That would deny the bog today’s twilight.
All of a sudden something else breaks through
To appear at the far end of the lake
In two diagrams of white, uneven light.
I have never seen white so absolute
And alone, glistening in awkward form
Dreaming across the water a bright path.
As it stirs and changes I see what it is:
Two swans have found the mirror in the lake
Where a V of horizon lets light through
To make them light-source and light-shape in one.
Now they swim and fade through windows of reed
And disrobe the lake of apparition.
I look and look into their vanishing
See nothing. Departing that perfect ground
I knew I had been hungry for a blessing.
— John O’Donohue © 2001
Here are some thoughts by Cameron Freeman that your recent post inspired me to type up:
Consequently, if we avoid listening to the explosive paradoxes that are intrinsic to the parables of Jesus it is because they might disorient us and change our world irrevocably, leaving us robbed of certainties and naked before the divine mystery that is God. For such radical pointing-out instructions give wholehearted expression to Jesus' passion for the Real, his urge to go to the very end, to go all the way, to the extreme experience of the 'impossible to say' at which point opposites coincide. For where Jesus' passion for the Cross inscribes and embodies the infra-structural zero-logic of the Kingdom, we find the infinite pain of crucifixion turns into the infinite joy of mystical ecstasy, as the erotic intensity of Love meets with the monstosity of crucifixion, just as the all-mighty power of God is revealed in the powerlessness and vulnerability of a suffering servant, while in the disaster of death hides the miracle of new creation.