Black Swan, Freud, and the Monomyth

SPOILERS, SPOILERS, SPOILERS … spoilers, spoilers.

I just returned from seeing Black Swan at the cinema. As a piece of filmmaking, it is absolutely phenomenal. I have loved Darren Aronofsky since his debut, Pi. The only one of his films I have not seen is The Wrestler, mainly because that came out when I was living in China. I admit I don’t quite understand the story of The Fountain, but … ah, what storytelling!

Thus, he did not disappoint me with Black Swan, pushing us uncomfortably close to a mind maintaining but a tenuous hold on reality, gripping it with fingers slick with the sweat of obsession. But the question that my own mind is currently obsessing over is this: Is Black Swan ultimately a realization of or biting critique of Freudian psychology and Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth?

You can’t help but read the film in Freudian terms. I think I’ve seen the word “psychosexual” in nearly every review of it I’ve read. All the classic Freudian players are here: the overbearing, Superego of a mother, the fragile, repressed Ego hero, the free-spirited Id. The movie no less can be read in terms of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, with its Jungian concepts: the Bad Mother, the Hero, the Shadow, the Father. But the complexities that the film is able to twirl around with those concepts is what captivates me.

On the one hand, we have the Freudian reading: Nina, a sexually repressed ballerina lives at the mercy of her overbearing Superego, personified as her mother. Through her dancing and the prodding of her psychoanalyst/ballet director (who speaks in terms of “breakthroughs” and even sits her down on his couch before grilling her about her sexuality), she is able to unleash and ultimately harness her Id, breaking free of the confines of her oppressive Superego and achieving the height of perfection.

Joseph Campbell would describe it slightly differently, though in no less lofty terms: the Hero embarks on a journey of self-actualization by slipping out of her childhood prison (her Mother’s home/womb), aka The First Threshold, besting its Guardian (the Bad Mother), and entering the world of Adult Experience. There, she is confronted by her Shadow (her repressed sexuality) but with the guidance of her Father-figure/Mentor, she is able to overcome and assimilate her Shadow, becoming the Master of Two Worlds (her psyche and the stage) and reaching the height of perfection.

However, the critique of these readings comes in the actual events of the film, the things these overly metaphorical interpretations gloss over or try to nullify. The film’s horrifying plot introduces enough ambiguity that cracks begin to appear, if the above readings are not shattered altogether.

Take, for instance, Thomas Leroy, the ballet instructor. His obsession with Nina’s sexuality practically makes him a stand-in for Freud himself. Psychoanalysis would say he’s trying to help Nina express what has been repressed in her, but he’s doing that by literally sexually molesting her, both physically and psychologically. Furthermore, he has a reputation for this behavior. In what world could this possibly be acceptable? A world in which Freud is le roi.

The ending even complicates a black and white reading of Erica, Nina’s mother. Given a nuanced consideration, Erica can be seen as genuinely trying to keep her daughter alive, albeit in a severely imperfect way. Erica shows signs of mental disorder herself, but her actions are not only oppressive. She is also trying to protect her daughter, who exhibits signs of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (different from OCD), self-destructive mutilation, paranoid psychosis, and, ultimately, suicidal tendencies.

The ending, though, delivers the coup de grâce. Aronofsky achieves it by mixing the metaphorical with the literal when Nina finally battles her doppelgänger for psychic dominance. Campbell and Jung see this confrontation with what they call the Shadow as the ultimate test in human self-actualization and individuation. You must confront, overcome, and assimilate the Shadow, integrating it into your personality without it taking over, actualized in the movie by Nina’s fight with the phantom Lily/Nina/Black Swan in her dressing room, during which Nina confronts L/N/BS, stabs her to death (overcoming), and then delivers a bravura performance as the Black Swan in the ballet (assimilation). But the Shadow is part of your own psyche, so when you battle it (even figuratively) you are battling yourself. Thus, when Nina stabs her doppelgänger, she is literally stabbing herself.

This battle with her Shadow allows Nina to become the master of both her own psyche and the stage, a heroic triumph for Jung and Campbell. But it literally means death. This undercuts the entire Monomythic project and calls into question a society that would empower a perverted ballet director and hold as the ultimate perfection a suicidal (literally suicidal) obsession with achievement. Nina reaches her ultimate glory when she is at the height of her psychosis. Her catharsis, her breathy and elated realization of perfection as she bleeds to death, should give anyone pause the next time they hear Joseph Campbell’s maxim: “Follow your bliss.”

Ultimately, however, the question is am I seeing this in the film because Darren Aronofsky wants me to or because I want me to? I obviously have little love for Freud, Jung, or Campbell and quite a bit of love for Aronofsky. Thus, I recognize in myself a desire to see my own beliefs and values reflected in Aronofsky’s work. I don’t know. I’ll have to meditate on it. Because Black Swan does conform very well to Freudian and Jungian readings. But, honestly, their theories are so elastic, unscientific, and subjective that they consume and eradicate any utterance or text, which, of course, does not mean they are in any way “correct.” Ah, but that ending … it just seems so … perfect.

And a shout-out to the maestro of maestros, Clint Mansell, for another phenomenal soundtrack.

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10 thoughts on “Black Swan, Freud, and the Monomyth

  1. Too bad that (as somebody with small children) I cannot watch movies anymore. Following our debates about archetypes, I’d obviously love to weigh in on this. Gotta get myself to see this one, I guess….

    • Ha, clearly a reason not to have children! It’s definitely worth a see, though I would say all his movies are. I think my girlfriend is of the opinion that I’m trying too hard to salvage the story of the movie, but I don’t know. I may be convincing myself that it lends itself to this interpretation or, at least, an alternative, non-Freudian/non-Campbellian interpretation. I don’t know … maybe wishful thinking…. You can school me after you’ve seen it 🙂

  2. Ah, I love how the author of this text recognizes the objective value of the movie (if something like that can be said at all).

    But I want to confess something else here…

    I suffered from depression for 10 years, until I reached “be or not to be” stage.

    With luck and…luck, I went into Jungian therapy.

    I came out of it transformed, and cured. One thing I will never remember are the dreams I had at that period, wich are very…like this movie.

    So…Not to call in a debate of do Freudian or Jungian theoryes are true or false…

    …but they help. 🙂

    • Thank you for your comment! I heartens me to learn that you were able to overcome a depression that had plagued you for ten years, and it both titillates and aggravates my brain that you were able to do so with the help of Jungian therapy.

      I am also reluctant to enter a debate of whether or not Freudian and Jungian theories are true, and I fear that doing so may become rather personal for you. There is another question that your comment illuminates: Can a false belief be useful? The answer is, of course, yes, and I have no problem admitting that. An easy example is Newton’s F=ma. Objectively speaking, this equation is false; Einstein’s relativity and quantum mechanics pulverized it. And yet, Newton’s laws of motion were still the foundation of the Industrial Revolution. The rather sharp double-edge to that sword is that false beliefs (such as racism and sexism) can provide people with structures and schemata that help them function within the world but are also very destructive.

      I mean, what can I say? That you shouldn’t have been helped by Jungian therapy? Nonsense! I am overjoyed that you were. Jungian theory is dense and there is so much of it that goes in so many different directions that have been elaborated and altered so much by his followers that studying it can often lead to a headache of mythic proportions. Theoretically, it is a mess. Scientifically, it is almost completely baseless. Pragmatically? Well, there must be something there. At least there was for you, and that’s enough for me (right now ;)).

      I was emailing a friend of mine the other day about the Hard Problem of philosophy, that we are all stuck in our own brains, brains that are actively constructing our experience of the world, writing the narrative (as it were) of our lives, and that we can never really, really, really know the experience of another person. It reminds me that, no matter how ludicrous other people’s behavior may seem to me, it makes sense to them, given their narrative context. That doesn’t mean that each person is entitled to their own opinions, free of critical interrogation; it is not the triumph of relativism. But it is a step towards empathy and compassion.

      I have never been depressed, in the clinical definition of the word, but I have known people who have. And I have lost a friend who made the other decision when faced with the “to be or not to be” question. I am really happy that you didn’t make that decision and that you were able to climb out of that terrible abyss. Thanks again for stopping by!

  3. Ah, it’s my pleasure!

    But the thing you are reffering to, as the discussion of the therapy would struck me as personal – not at all!

    I understand why would you think of it that way. People tend to idolize the things that saved them, or feed them, or give them meaning of life.

    That was one of the underlying reasons of my depression. I was ‘stuck’ in one mode of attitude (obviously) and overtly sensitive to criticism…

    I wasn’t questioning anything…sadly, that led me to depression.

    So, fire away with criticism of anything! 🙂

    And you have a good blog here…I don’t read blogs at all, but yours is a fine one!

    Keep it up!

  4. The plot of this movie goes a little far behind Jung: it the the myth of Persefone. If you read the myth ( in Ovidio´s Methamosphosis) you will find all the characters of the movies: Demeter ( the mother who wants to keep the daughter eternally puber); Kore (Nina before the methamorphosis); the tutor (Hades). Not one part is missing of the myth: Nina descends into the underworld ( the disco), where she will be transformed to come back changed in a way that she can never be same again: as in the myth, Nina (Kore) “eats” the fruit of the underworld (in this case, ecstasy) that changes her and garanties her transformation. She knows there is something in the drink and still she drinks it. From this point of the movie on, she begins her complete transformation (rejection of her infancy by throwing all the toys from her room, slamming her mother out of the room,…)
    The movie begins like all greek myths; she commits hubris. She waks into her tutor´s office and tells him: I am the best for the role. The ultimate challenge to her God-tutor.
    This movie is a modern version of one of the most beautiful and antique myths ever.
    I have enyojed all the comments posted …

    • Hello, Paola, and welcome!

      I apologize for not replying sooner. My girlfriend and I just moved into a new apartment and it was a bit of an ordeal to setup our new internet service. But thank you for commenting, and I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the comments thus far. I do, however, differ from you on a few points.

      Actually, this is a good illustration of perhaps my biggest point of contention vis-a-vis our friend, Jung. I resist strongly the structuralist practice of dissecting a story into disparate parts, removed from context, and then equating one story with another. “God is in the details,” as they say, and for me the deep, piercing meaning is in the details, the context. In order to make that equation, it is my opinion that both stories (or religions or whatever one is comparing) must be distilled into vague, very general, grey stencils of what they were when examined separately. And in order to make the stories fit together, I think people grasp for details which aren’t necessarily given equal weight in both stories.

      For instance, Hades (the place) is given great importance in The Rape of Persephone, but the dance club is a pretty minor episode in Black Swan. Yes, she takes the drugs and has the fantasy, etc. but those things are merely stepping stones towards her ultimate transformation in the ballet studio. Her taking the ecstasy is a consequence of various forces within her life (not least of all her instructor) pushing her to question her own judgment in regards to her self-control and autonomy.

      I also disagree that the movie (and the myth, for that matter) begins with an act of hubris. Yes, Nina confronts Leroy and tells him she’s the best, but ambition is not hubris. Persephone (or Kore, depending on the variant) was simply picking flowers. She did not provoke Hades to rape her. He decided that on his own. That’s hubris. Sexually molesting your dancers is hubris.

      And I don’t think the Demeter myth is a tale of ego differentiation and self-actualization. It’s a story of cycles, of grief and inevitable loss. There is no stable conclusion because Demeter’s grief is doomed to repeat itself every year. The characters don’t come-of-age, as it were. Furthermore, Nina’s transformation is her ultimate death! Nina loses herself to the Black Swan. Nina dies. It is not a heroic death; it is a sacrifice on the altar of balletic art.

      And there is a danger in reading myths because our tendency is to believe that text is the myth. True myths (as defined here in the academic mythographer’s sense of a story passed down through oral tradition within one or more cultures, representing the beliefs of a people in relation to their world) do not have one True version. They exist in variants, each version given equal validity by the people who created them. We can’t choose one version and say, “This, this is the myth; the others are imperfect replications of this pure myth.” Yet, Freud, Jung, and Joseph Campbell (amongst many others) did this very thing with gusto.

      What do you think? Did I convince you of any of this? I will agree that there are certain resonances between the film and The Rape of Persephone, and they comment on each other in interesting ways. And I hadn’t considered Black Swan in relation to Demeter or Persephone/Kore until you mentioned it. So thank you for that 🙂 But I wouldn’t equate the two.

      • You seem pretty certain that she literally dies. Isn’t that a dubious assertion, given the ambiguity of the screenplay? Don’t individuation myths usually involve the subjects symbolic death? No, I don’t think it’s good to molest your students, nor do I think Jung is scientific; but neither is The Black Swan.

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