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!