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.
At times relationships can feel like a nightmarish war zone. Whether the bond is romantic or sexual does not matter. Nor is it of any significance whether the partner is of the same or opposite sex. What matters is whether the “other” got under your skin. You know it when you feel it. An attraction, an affinity, a blissful roller coaster which can quickly break down all the coping strategies of a carefully created and nurtured persona. At times it may feel like madness knocking. That is not what we had in mind when we opened ourselves to another! Needs and emotions we never thought we had are gushing out of us. We may then find ourselves at a crossroads, though initially the choice of way is hardly in our control.
One thing that might happen is that all our defenses kick in and we regain what feels like ground under our feet. The inner whirlwind of affect is warded off ~ at the cost of our soul’s longing for a true connection to the inner other. The notion that there is an inner other, imaged and personified as a being of the opposite sex is at the core of Jungian thought. At first the ego knows nothing about this dynamic. But psyche needs to become conscious of herself. This evolutionary push towards consciousness is archetypal, it simply is. If we resist it, we will be dragged along, kicking and screaming and raging at the world. If we accept this archetypal urge towards consciousness, we can learn to breathe through the ride, as bumpy as it may be. Jung expresses this notion of the inner other in the Red Book (RB) as follows: “You, man, should not seek the feminine in women, but seek and recognize it in yourself….you, woman, should not seek the masculine in men but assume the masculine in yourself”.Psyche is bisexual. This is entirely unrelated to our sexual identifications. How do we then learn about the other within us? We unconsciously put (project) our unknown self onto another person. What we experience when these dynamics are enacted is a strong emotional reaction to another person. We might be irritated, repulsed, ticked off, but mostly, for better or worse, we might fall in love.We cannot help it because, as Jung says, “You are a slave of what you need in your soul”.
Let us consider the other direction at our crossroads. No doubt the less comfortable one, as the soul’s way always is. Welcome to our brave soul’s battle in her adventure of connecting to spirit. Because ultimately it is through the contrasexual archetype that the world beyond ego, the transpersonal, spiritual dimension opens up to us. “The part that you take over from the devil – joy -leads you into adventure”. How might one read this statement in the context of relationships? I opt to offer the following: to not resist the pull of your emotions, to make room for your love and hate and all the shades in between them, without allowing the emotional storms to take over. Not to be overtaken is often the hardest part and may require practice and support. Most important, however, is to never lose sight that while our attention is entirely hooked on the other person, we are always exploring and learning about ourselves. We are always reaching for and touching on an aspect of ourselves in the other.
Jung allows us a glimpse into the awkward and raw experience of his soul’s journey towards his feminine side. Writing from a man’s perspective in general and his own very private, subjective one in particular, Jung notes: “It is bitter for the most masculine man to accept his femininity, since it appears ridiculous to him, powerless and tawdry”. A woman’s experience will be different, but in most cases she will also struggle with her acceptance of the masculine within herself. This is when love can turn into hate. Because “he” is so dominant, so controlling, so violent, so insensitive etc. “He” may be all of that but these qualities may lie dormant in the woman’s psyche, unbeknown to her, but usually experienced by others. “The feminine in man is bound up with evil…..the masculine in the woman is bound up with evil”. Not an easy statement to swallow, “Therefore people hate to accept their own other”, Jung continues. The darkness of what we experience as evil feels too much to own and therefore needs to be projected on the one we are close. Remember a time when the one you loved turned into a monstrosity? I do.
“But if you accept it….that when you become the one who is mocked the white bird of your soul comes flying. It was far away but your humiliation attracted it” Jung writes. Only then can we claim to be a complete person. Only then can we venture into relationship. On one hand a relationship into the amoral world of the archetypal cosmic psyche and the other hand into a fully fleshed out relationship with another person. Only then may we be able to see and love the person for who they are.
Oh yes, said Eve to the serpent, lead me into temptation. For I want to know.