Brilliant, clever humor! Amazing how few words actually need to be changed to create a different story. I deeply love the original classic, and I had a blast reading this revision! Wonderland was perfectly primed to be turned into Zombieland. From the revamped Tenniel sketches to the details of Alice’s peculiar hunger, this book is quite entertaining. I would actually love to see it make it onto the big screen!
On Wednesday evening, I had the pleasure of visiting the C.G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles for the program Changing Women: Female Initiation for Our Time presented by Jennifer Koster. She discussed the archetype of initiation, looking specifically at this process for women, and drawing examples from the films Black Swan and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. (Note: spoilers for Black Swan included below).
Jennifer began the night by providing working definitions of ritual and initiation, terms that have a lot of depth. In her definition of ritual, she included the following elements: pure experience, culturally related, a universal cultural element, any sacred or secular event. She aptly concluded that ritual is so “expansive and omnipresent” that is is difficult to define. She defined initiation, in a broad sense, as the move from immaturity into adulthood. She drew on Bruce Lincoln’s text Emerging from the Chrysalis, summarizing four types of women’s initiation rites he discusses: body mutilation, identification with the mythic heroine, a cosmic journey, and the play of opposites.
Jennifer also discussed the difference between male and female initiation. While drawing on examples from Arnold van Gennep’s text The Rites of Passage, she reminded us that the majority of life consists of transitions. Traditionally, the male would go out into the world and take on a new role, while the female would turn inwards for initiation. Historically, the male initiation typically led to liminality, while the female initiation typically led to metamorphoses. In our modern time, however, women can change more outwardly and men can change more inwardly. Jennifer acknowledged that Jungians have long known that feminine doesn’t belong only to female and the masculine doesn’t belong to only male; the rest of the world is finally starting to catch up with us.
In the process of initiation, something has to be let go. Reflecting on Joseph Henderson’s text Thresholds of Initiation, Jennifer told us that the initiation archetype contains something that is forgotten and rediscovered. She drew an example from her own life, indicating that if she just writes from notes and quotations she’s jotted down, it becomes dry. Instead she has to step away from the source material, forget it, and then rediscover it as she writes from heart. What a beautiful example! Jennifer reminded us that it is painful to let go of what you thought you knew about life; initiation does feel like a loss, but it is a gaining. And even though you have to let go of that old self, it is still there with you. An audience member asked Jennifer, “What about when it’s not a choice??” to which she responded that the lack of choice is part of the initiation archetype. Furthermore, “you don’t get to be done with it until you’re done with it.”
Change does take time, as Jennifer emphasized several times, and can be imagined as a dance between the known and unknown. With life being filled with a constant cycle of change, this archetype of initiation is very powerful. Jennifer reminded us that the archetype does need to be relevant to the specific person, in her specific time, in her specific place. If the archetype doesn’t connect with the person, it won’t have any effect. Also, if you’re not ready for the change, it probably won’t stick. She also conveyed that initiation is deeply tied to the body and the eternal. The body holds a lot of life experience, and it is through our body that we connect to our soul. What’s so great about the archetype is that it reminds us that we have gone through change before and survived and can do so again.
In the final part of her lecture, Jennifer discussed cinema as a psychological medium and showed clips from Alice in Wonderland and Black Swan . We saw Alice falling down the rabbit hole and Nina’s dream in the opening scene. Alice seems to be going an adventure while Nina’s encounter contains a dark force making her change. It’s clear from the beginning that they are on different types of initiation. Alice encounters identification with the mythic heroine while Nina faces a cosmic journey. Both girls come to question their identity: Alice is literally questioned by the caterpillar while Nina is pushed by the director to show more of her Black Swan side when he forces a kiss on her.(In discussing Nina’s quest for perfection, Jennifer mentioned Marion Woodman’s text Addiction to Perfection. Lots of books to add to my “must read” list!) Ultimately, Nina’s journey is darker as she is more at odds with the person she is becoming than Alice is. The White Queen makes it clear to Alice that she has a choice about fighting the Jabberwocky while Nina’s mom locks her in her room forcing Nina to fiercely stand up for herself. In a way, Alice’s initiation is more cheerful and empowering, while Nina’s is related to death and transformation. This led to a the positing of an important question that comes up at the end of Black Swan: has Nina died symbolically or literally?
In her concluding remarks, Jennifer reminded us that these women are the dreams of men, with both films produced by men, and Alice in Wonderland initially written by a man. She opened up the question of what happens if we look at the film as a dream of the collective. After all, films are always collaborative. And then we can also consider how we respond to the images from film as a group. She left us with great ideas to chew on! I heard several people comment afterwards that the lecture was just too short!! We could have easily spent a whole day exploring just these two films. At the very least now, I want to rewatch both films from this archetypal perspective. Thank you, Jennifer, for opening my mind to even more ideas from the spring of depth psychology.
On a final note, I would like to add that in the scene where Natalie Portman stabs herself, she screams out, “It’s my turn!” and she takes on the red eyes of the black swan. I couldn’t help but think of River Tam in Serenity, shouting the same line to Simon. Here, River is ready to fight in defense of her brother. Nina is prepared to fight for herself. Both women have undergone a transformation, but River’s is certainly more empowering and selfless. I just find it interesting that they use the same line. Perhaps something I will explore down the road.