An Alchemical Take on the Film "Black Swan"

For millennia, the practice of alchemy has provided knowledge of visible creation, nature, and God, as well as insight into the soul and psyche of humanity (Linden, 2003). Beginning in the fourth century, Western alchemy adopted the idea that God had fallen from the divine cosmos into physical matter and lost his sacredness, requiring a process in which he could become divine again, undergoing the work of being washed, purified, and raised up in to ever more liberating stages of divinity and perfection.

The goal of alchemy was to bring light to darkness, whether by turning lead into gold or shining the light of consciousness into the human mind, a healing practice that led to the transformation of the soul (Henderson & Sherwood, 2003). C.G.Jung likened alchemy to his theory of individuation, a circular and continuous effort requiring each individual to come into relationship with parts of ourselves that have become repressed, numbed, split-off, or disowned (Sharp, 1991).

In the recent film Black Swan (Aronofsky, 2010) we see a compelling example of the alchemical process in a contemporary setting. Nina Sayers (played by Natalie Portman) is a struggling dancer who has been passed over a number of times for a lead role in her ballet company. The film opens with a dream sequence in which Nina, in the lead role of the Swan Queen in Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake,” dances beautifully while interacting with a demonic counterpart. Nina awakens abruptly to the reality of her overwhelming desire to be chosen for the lead role of Swan Queen in the upcoming production her company is about to undertake.

The symbolism of the swan in alchemy is significant, appearing at least as far back as ancient Greece. In alchemy, birds represent the ability to mediate between heaven and earth. They are the dynamic capacity of the soul that undergoes transformation, flying free of corporal and sensual restraints but returning again and again in the alchemical process of distillation and new growth (McLean, 1979). Certainly the swan is one of the ultimate symbols of transformation as anyone who knows the fairy tale of the “ugly duckling” can attest.

In alchemy, there are four core progressive stages that make up the transformation of the prima materia, the base beginning substance, into gold. These stages associated with color date to the earliest beginnings of the field (Henderson & Sherwood, 2003). Various birds symbolically correlate with the progressive stages of the alchemical process. The blackness of nigredo, the initial phase, manifests as a dark existence that encompasses dread, depression, and destruction and is often imaged as a death process (McLean, 2010). In the alchemist’s lab, the blackness transforms to a whitening stage of purification called albedo and signified by the white swan. The ultimate stage, the fourth and final step transitions the prima materia, the raw material being worked, to a blood red phase called rubedo (Henderson & Sherwood, 2003).

This progression of black, white, and red in particular is significant in Black Swan. As the film begins, Nina finds herself in her initial encounter with inner work in the nigredo stage. Presumably in her twenties, yet still sleeping in her girlhood bed with pink quilts and a chorus of giant stuffed toys suffocating the room, Nina has never deflected the ministrations of her narcissistic and neurotic mother Erica (played by Barbara Hershey) who gave up her own questionable future career as a ballerina in a dance corps in order to give birth to Nina. Erica’s only reason for existing, it appears, is to live her unlived life through her daughter, and she has ensured that she is her daughter’s closest and only friend even while Nina exists in a constant low-level state of depression and despair, mottled by neurotic behaviors and thoughts.

Exemplary of the nigredo state, Nina is also undergoing putrifactio, a transitory and symbolic rotting process as she reveals a nasty lesion on her shoulder where her skin seems to be decomposing in a mass of bloody, rotting flesh. Meanwhile, Nina has bought into her mother’s manipulations and has dedicated her whole life to dance. She is desperate for perfection and to land the lead role in “Swan Lake.” Thomas (played by Vincent Cassel), the aggressive, demanding company director, is hesitant to put his faith in Nina because the lead must dance both the White Swan and the Black one. Though he admits Nina can dance the role of White Swan to perfection, he finds her too emotionally guarded and controlled to access the eroticism and charisma required to effectively portray the elegant and beguiling Black Swan. However, when Thomas goads Nina into an emotional response by abruptly trying to kiss her, Nina defensively bites him, surprising him and intriguing him enough to hand her the role.

C.G. Jung observed that opposites tend to show up in pairs or in a quaternity, particularly in alchemy (Edinger, 1995). While Nina initially appears rather immature and uninitiated, though not the untouched white of pure unworked innocence, there is a whiteness to Nina’s persona that allows her to dance the part of the White Swan to near-perfection. She has seen little of the world, been exposed to too few of the alchemical processes and agents which would blacken her and give her the patina she needs to differentiate. However, this whitened state is where Nina is challenged is in the role of the Black Swan. Ironically, though Nina shows up as archetypally “white” in her day-to-day self, she is unconsciously leading her life in a dramatic blackened alchemical state of nigredo, and what is needed to play the Black Swan is the whitening process of albedo, thereby creating the perfect paradoxical quaternity.

However, Edward Edinger (1995) points out that awareness can staunch the unconscious ping-pong effect and allow the desperate tug-of-war to abate. The more conscious we become of the opposites and their effect on us, the closer we come to coniunctio, the unification of opposing forces. Jung asserted that individuation requires every ego to eventually confront the split off or rejected parts of itself. Repeatedly in the film, Nina glimpses dark aspects of herself as she rides the subway, and she alternately pursues the shadowy figure or flees her dreamlike doppelganger in fear. Facing these aspects that seem so foreign and “otherly,” holding the tension between the known and the unknown as frightening as it may be, is the only way to allow something new to emerge. In Nina’s case, as she glimpses the dark side of herself more and more frequently, her ability to contain the opposites appears increasingly fragile.


Nina has been asked to "lose herself" to play the Black Swan, and progressively, she does. The result is a dark dramatic unfolding of Nina’s devastating dance with her psyche as she is pulled back and forth between the stages of black and white in the process of transformation. And, while living a symbolic life as Jung advocated—that is, seeking to understand the metaphor and symbolism presented to us as we go through the process of individuation—can transform us and help us find the elusive philosopher’s stone which is ultimate goal of alchemy, Nina increasingly loses sight of metaphor and pursues a dangerous path in which she takes herself and her situation a little too literally, leading to a dramatic conclusion.

*NOTE: This blog post is excerpted from a full-length paper. If you are interested (or want to find the references to citations here), you can find it on the “Articles” page of Depth Psychology Alliance (http://www.depthpsychologyalliance.com/page/articles-2) under “Film Reviews” to read the whole thing. SPOILER ALERT: The paper will give away the plot and ending of the movie, so if you haven’t seen it yet, you may want to wait!

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Comment by Paul Roberts on September 7, 2011 at 9:02pm

Bonnie. Thanks for your comment. Very interesting, and I enjoyed your article on Twitter

I have had powerful experiences involving birds in my own shamanic experiences with ayahuasca. In one, on my way back to my tambo in the jungle after a particularly powerful ceremony, as I was crossing a thatched bridge, I felt the flutter of a humming bird close to my face. When I looked closely at this bird I saw it had a small white light shining in its head.

The next day, I asked a friend who had lived in this place a while about this bird, assuming it was a real bird, an exotic phenomenon of the Amazon. This was my first time in the Amazon. As we were talking, the male shaman who had led the ceremony walked past and my friend asked him about the bird. He said simply and matter of factly that it was an embodiment of one of the icaros he had sung. I realised that it was not a "real" bird that I had seen though it had had such a strong physical presence. I had felt its wings fluttering on my face.

In the other experience, I was deeply immersed in a ceremony and listening to the same male shaman sing. I felt I was in a particular shamanic native American desert-type landscape, where I could hear distinctly four male voices even though there were only two male shaman singing. I also experienced the same male shaman as a bird, an eagle, singing for the sheer pleasure of flying. At the time, I felt very privileged to have been let into this world, and also very safe and protected in that world.

All this has led me to see birds with a new interest :-)

PS By the way I have stayed away from Twitter as I think I already spend too much time on the internet

Comment by Bonnie Bright on September 4, 2011 at 10:29am

Hi Paul: Thanks for your commentary on the "Black Swan: piece---AND you have tapped into a topic that has had some momentum for me in the recent past. Not only didi I write my thesis on the symbolic nature of honeybees--which are indeed mythologically important on a number of levels--but I am also a fan of Twitter and wrote a short piece  on the symbolic nature of Twitter using birds as the core symbol. Below are a few paragraphs of the essay (it's not extremely deep, but I think it's somewhat interesting). At any rate, not sure if you're interested in Twitter at all, but if you want to read the whole thing, you can do so here: http://www.depthpsychologyalliance.com/profiles/blogs/is-twitter-fo... 

"Throughout history birds have universally been symbols of power and freedom, serving in the role of messengers of the deities, mediators, and oracles. They thrive in water and in the air, linking the two dimensions surrounding humans and creating a unified world. In the Judeo-Christian religion, the dove is the bird of epiphany. In alchemy, the upward movement of the bird represents a search for a higher level of meaning.


Since ancient times, numerous feminine figurines representing the goddess, some with the head or mask of a bird have been uncovered from Egyptian, Sumerian, Minoan, and Greek civilizations, reminding us birds have long been considered sacred. Birds have historically and inevitably been linked to shamans who are thought to “fly” to other realms seeking healing and insight on behalf of the community, insight that may bring tremendous value to those who seek it. Additionally, magical flight lends itself to the idea of birds guiding the soul through the realm of the dead. In a society where dissociation and entertainment dominate after eclipsed the old deities, we need as much guidance as we can get to lead us into redemption.


Significantly, birds in mythology are often known to speak, imparting divine wisdom, warning of peril, telling the future,or guiding travelers along their way. In modern day, the study of bird vocalizations—some might call it “twitter”--has revealed strategic information regarding how humans learn and remember. Currently, birds are being studied to better understand how new neurons in the human brain affect memory. Birds provide a modal system for vocal learning because they are the only terrestrial animals besides humans that learn their vocalizations. Father birds tutor their babies to learn their song while it’s genetically encoded in primates (http://www1.cuny.edu/mu/forum/2010/06/08/using-birdsong-to-study-me...)."

 

 

Comment by Paul Roberts on September 3, 2011 at 4:06pm

Excellent commentary. Brought back the film for me and added a new dimension.

You wrote that: "In alchemy, birds represent the ability to mediate between heaven and earth. They are the dynamic capacity of the soul that undergoes transformation, flying free of corporal and sensual restraints but returning again and again in the alchemical process of distillation and new growth (McLean, 1979)"

I found that fascinating because in the Peruvian Shipibo tradition, birds are the messengers from the plant spirits to human beings.

Rudolf Steiner wrote something like that birds butterflies and bees are cosmic thought, memory and imagination. I cant now find the exact quote.

Do you have any other material on depth psychology and birds?

Comment by Karin Horowitz on February 9, 2011 at 9:14am
Thanks for your response too.  I see the point about the necessity of the blood and the redness - I just question the literalness of the depiction, the volume/amount, and what that says about art, communication, society in our time.  I wonder how, for example, Alfred Hitchcock or Ingmar Bergman would have done it - more subtly I expect and with at least as powerful an effect.  Anyway, all food for thought.  Hope you're well, Karin
Comment by Bonnie Bright on February 8, 2011 at 9:49pm
Hi Karin: Thanks for taking the time read the post. I agree with pretty much everything you're saying, as you can see. I also felt the movie, which I saw fairly early in its release even before so much of its hype, fell a little short of expectations. But--it had to be somewhat commercial, I guess, to attract the attention of studios who are looking for the big mainstream blockbuster. (What is the shadow side of stereotypical watered-down commercial films, I wonder?) The one thing I would say is that I think, from an alchemical standpoint, all that blood was absolutely necessary and significant to the stage of rubedo--the red stage. Red holds the promise of new dawn, and therefore rebirth. It is only through death (symbolically or otherwise) that something new can come about, and the redness of blood represents that new life. I presume the darker the nigredo--as in Nina's case--the more redness results. That's my two cents...
Comment by Karin Horowitz on February 8, 2011 at 9:55am

Hello Bonnie

 

I saw that you'd written this blog but I deliberately didn't read it till after I saw the film (yesterday in LA) and wrote my own brief thoughts about it.  Initially I was disappointed by it as I had high expectations. However, it's given me a lot of food for thought and I've really enjoyed reading your very comprehensive and evocative description of the alchemical resonances.

 

These are my own thoughts written before I'd read yours:

 

'The main character, Nina, was fashioned by her mother's will and sense of unfulfilled aspirations and hopes, and her mother's frustration at having given way to her own passion, had the baby and lost out on her dance career.  Nina suppresses her own passion, in line with her mother's will, which emerges as her shadow side embodied in the other dancer (Lily), which she both longs to express and integrate into herself but also despises and wants to kill as it compromises her desire for 'perfection'.  Her failure to integrate her darker side, instead letting it engulf her, ends up in her killing herself, whether in reality (physically) or not.  In that sense, the movie is very powerful psychologically - however all that blood made it too much like The Exorcist for me, and was that really necessary?  I don't think so, but I think that maybe in the literal time in which we live, for many viewers to engage and feel the power of it, the blood and gore is/was necessary.'
I don't know what you think, Bonnie.  Hope all is well,
Karin


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