If you think the human psyche is home to nothing but goodness and beauty, then please step aside. Because if you continue reading, you might get upset. For we shall dive into a reality that is hard to grasp by nature. It is elusive, slippery, and does not want to be seen. It feels counter-intuitive and anti-life. It is indeed both.
There is an innate predator and killer in psyche. A psychic force that cannot be “rehabilitated”. A psychic force that does not transform. The challenge with all archetypal energies is to learn how to relate to them without being overtaken. For the feminine psyche, which always wants to connect and relate, this anti-life force is probably the most difficult one to come to terms with. It is too much for an individual psyche to digest.
This is the realm of Freud’s Thanatos and Jung’s dark side of the Self. These are the closest psychological images for psyche’s experience of something “evil”. Like all creatures, the human creature must also learn that there are predators, out there and within us.
The mythical imagination has always produced images and stories of this psychic reality.The tale of Bluebeard is one of them.Fairy tales are simple and pure expressions of the collective unconscious and offer a clear understanding of universal patterns in the human psyche. The Bluebeard story in short goes as follows ~ Three sisters were courted by a noble man who had an unusual blue beard. Two of them were frightened of this blue beard, but the third one fell for his charm and married him. She may do whatever she wants in his absence, open every door in his huge castle, except one. But curiosity wins out. Encouraged by her sisters, she opens the forbidden door and sees the blood and dismembered corpses of Bluebeard’s previous wives. She understands what is in store for her. Once Bluebeard found out that she has seen the hidden chamber, he comes after her. “Please, allow me to compose myself and prepare for my death” she pleads and was granted a quarter of an hour. She has no intention of going quietly into her slaughter. She posts her sisters on the castle ramparts and shouts “Sisters, sisters, do you see our brothers coming?” And the brothers do show up, just in the nick of time, and kill Bluebeard “leaving for the buzzards his blood and gristle”.
Just like a dream, a fairytale is not to be taken literally. It depicts the dance and the dynamics between the two grand archetypal forces, the masculine and the feminine, as they manifest in the collective as well as in the individual psyche. Both, dreams and fairy tales can be a kind of roadmap to discern an attitude that will allow, in fairy tale terms, for the princess to get her prince, and in Jungian language, for the union of opposites and the sacred marriage of the masculine and the feminine within ones soul.
Bluebeard is well and alive in the outer manifest world. In his densest form, a person, usually but not always, a male, becomes identified with Bluebeard’s energy and is then encountered, in the serial killer (yes, they do exist), the rapist, the human trafficker. Many of his victims won’t live to tell the story.
Even more prevalent is the sadistic, wife-beating husband. But Bluebeard also manifests through the man who is emotionally abusive. There is a violence that can be inflicted on a woman’s (AND the perpetrator’s) soul, which draws blood not from the physical but from the subtle body. This injury can be even more devastating than its physical counterpart. Sadly, it is ignored or played down by society.
The emotionally abusive man is often a pathological narcissist, unwilling/unable to genuinely feel for anyone (including his own feeling self), although he can be sentimental and whiny when it comes to his own needs. Because he is disconnected from a nourishing center in psyche, he always needs to put himself, his ego, into the center of his own lonely universe. His alienation from the source forces the pathological narcissist to more and more drastic measures. He violently seeks to pierce through to a reality that will finally support him. That often leaves a trail of blood and corpses, sometimes symbolically, sometimes unfortunately literally. Horrifying in both instances.
But our naive heroine, who fell for the deadly charmer, survives and Bluebeard is dismembered and dead. But if a fairy tale is a map, what do we learn about the right kind of attitude to escape Bluebeard? A few things stand out for me. Naive the young woman may be, but not submissive and obedient. She wants to know. Only her disobedience allows her to survive. She becomes a warrioress for life and lies to the lier. Like is cured by like. When she opened the door to the torture chamber, she truly sees. She does not escape into fantasies, as so many women in abusive relationships do, “It won’t happen to me, he really loves me, he will change”… and so on. Nor is she plagued by feelings of paralyzing shame for having been so terribly betrayed, (an irrational, but all-to-common response to abuse). When she sees, she knows, there is no more turning back.
Her willingness and strength to face the truth is activating positive masculine energies in her, which manifest in her ability to sever the ties of Bluebeard’s seductive charm. Bluebeard’s power is fading. His dismemberment has begun. Her own inner masculinity is gaining muscle, which the fairytale depicts in the sudden appearance of brothers who put an end to Bluebeard. As an archetypal force he will not disappear, but in the life of this woman Bluebeard has no more hold over her.
Addendum: The synopsis of the fairytale is based on the version printed in “Women who run with the Wolves” by the ever wonderful curandera, master storyteller and Jungian Analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Her discussion of Bluebeard is illuminating and the entire book is a must read for any woman negotiating her own path.
For those interested in the psychological and mythological meaning of fairy-tales, I would like to point to the work of Marie-Luise von Franz, one of the most brilliant first generation Jungian Analysts who was a close collaborator with C.G.Jung himself. I particularly recommend “The Interpretation of Fairy Tales” and “Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales”
The French director Catherine Breillart created a film version of “Bluebeard” in 2009, exploring the dark erotic bond characteristic of this particular dynamic, which might be of further interest.
Psychosis is the great other in Western civilization. Insanity, craziness, off-the-wallness is what frightens us the most. And for good reason, for one it is terrifying. And if that were not enough, we also run the risk of being immediately (over)medicated, hospitalized and stigmatized with that awful descriptive of having a “mental illness”. To be fair, there are of course psyches that are so fragile that they are hopelessly and helplessly flooded by what Jung refers to in the Red Book (RB) as the spirit of the depth. Much of this individual suffering can be alleviated by proper medication and designated caring environments. The psychiatric wards of most hospitals these days are not “caring environments”, but the problem is a systemic one and generally not the fault of the well intentioned but overworked and misinformed personnel of these wards. But the needs of this relatively small group of the population are not what I am addressing here. I am talking about you and me. The chances are that if you are reading this, you qualify for this much larger segment of the population, the reasonably well functioning average neurotic. What we generally deny is that we also have psychotic pockets in some of the more hidden corners of our psyche. Often a source of great fear and shame, these raw, uncontrollable spots in our inner landscape may also connect us to a divine, transpersonal reality.
A good working definition of psychosis is that the boundaries between inner and outer world have become blurry or non-existent. Remember the last time you completely lost it? Had a melt-down? Were so caught up in a personal complex that outer reality became skewed? This is where the other side begins. No problem as long as you can bounce back. The ability to recuperate from a moment, or days, or weeks, or even years of insanity is the real marker for psychic health and not having no knowledge of madness and therefore seeing (projecting) it only onto others. “It is unquestionable: if you enter into the world of the soul, you are like a madman, and a doctor would consider you to be sick”, Jung writes in the RB.
“I am seized by fear, but I know I must go in” he says, “the spirit of the depths opened my eyes and I caught a glimpse of the inner things, the world of my soul, the many-formed and changing”. The descent into the depths can be maddening and dangerous, but what is remarkable is that Jung also sees a form of madness looming when a person never leaves the surface. In other words, when a person is entirely identified with waking life and ego consciousness. In Jung’s words, “the spirit of this time is ungodly, the spirit of the depths is ungodly, balance is godly”. There is great wisdom in these three words, “balance is godly”. There is a time to be lost and there is a time to find oneself again. We fall apart and we are put together again. We breathe in and we breathe out. To accept the good and the bad. Life and death. Each cycle leaving us slightly changed. The secret of transformation lies in moving to this rhythm, consciously. “Depth and surface should mix so that new life can develop”, Jung writes.
Consciousness is related to awareness, but also to meaning. Without finding meaning in events, especially in our mad episodes, whether they take the form of a suicidal depression, a panic attack or an outburst worth a wrathful god, no light, no consciousness can be wrested out of it. “The meaning of events is the way of salvation that you create”, Jung writes.
The editor of the RB, Sonu Shamdasani, remarks in a footnote that what Jung is developing here in the Liber Primus is the connection between individual and collective psychology. What that means is that if we, as Jung did, look inward, give credence to our dreams, visions, fantasies and moods, when we dive into them versus running away, we will unavoidably come in contact with the forces of the collective unconscious and that can be terrifying and overwhelming. “My knowledge has a thousand voices, an army roaring like a lion, the air trembles when they speak, and I am their defenseless sacrifice”, Jung writes.
What is being sacrificed here? Jung suggests that it is our own head that needs to fall. Growth and new life are subjectively experienced as something most dreadful and even evil, like our own execution. “You thought you knew the abyss? Oh you clever people! It is another thing to experience it”, Jung writes. Our head is also sacrificed, when we let go of our judgment, when we accept experiences for what they are: expressions of the soul’s life regardless of how psychotic they might be. I know this is easier said than done, but Jung for one has walked the talk before us. The Red Book is proof, it can be done.