Shadows of darkness and light

Aurora, the dawn, the princess of light and goodness who is blessed by fairies to always have a smile on her face, has a dark, malefic shadow. When Aurora meets Maleficent (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYemY3xFsB4), she says, “I know who you are. You’ve been watching me my whole life. Your shadow has been following me ever since I was small.” She invites the shadow to come out from the dark forest so she can look upon her face. Maleficent answers “then you’ll be afraid.” In this short but brilliant pre-release teaser clip (which doesn’t correspond to the actual timeline of events in the film), when Maleficent steps out from the darkness, a wall of thorns immediately rises up around the enchanted forest, separating the shadow world of dark, mythical creatures from the human kingdom of light. It sounds like a perfect Jungian account of our first encounter with the shadow – when we first get a glimpse of parts of ourselves that frighten us and we habitually repress, we erect impassible walls to keep them out.

The shadow is most often represented as the darker elements of our self – the ones that our culture tends to disparage as shameful or destructive – which we hide, deny, repress or project as “faults” onto other people. Shadows are formed because as children we learn to construct a likable persona or social mask (our conscious, ego personality), in order to get love and approval from parents, educators and peers, which we feel we we need in order to survive. Everything that doesn’t fit this childish construction of the persona, we banish into shadowy fragments and splintered subpersonalities that we grow up unaware of. Since our attention is focused on keeping up the facade of the persona, the neglected aspects of the personality threaten to periodically come out to rage and storm the walls and to sabotage our conscious intentions. In order to maintain the persona, the shadow aspects of our personality are projected outwardly and defensively, by demonizing others. When we encounter these aspects in other people they immediately push all kinds of painful triggers because they still live in us but we are denying them – it’s like we’re confronted with a reflection in a mirror that we don’t want to see and we retaliate against the reflection by trying to smash the mirror in anger. However, it is not only “dark”and destructive qualities that are banished into the netherworlds of the subconscious, but many hidden gifts and latent potentials as well – like creativity, imagination, heightened intuition, our sixth sense, and possibly even our innocence, joy and enchanted view of the world – because at some point we came to believe that others deemed them unacceptable. Jung calls these the more benevolent and imaginative repressed aspects the golden shadow, although there is a deeper sense in which there is “gold” hidden under even the darkest, most destructive and socially unacceptable shadows, since they are all attempts, sometimes through misdirected, round-about detours, to fulfill a positive need for self-actualization. That is why all shadows can be transmuted into gold through the alchemy of individuation.

Unlike other films that dramatize the shadow theme, Maleficent contains a series of interesting reversals that make it difficult to maintain a typical reading. It’s easy to glimpse the differences by comparing it to one of the strongest examples of the shadow theme in Hollywood, the (first) Star Wars trilogy. In The Empire Strikes Back, during his training to become a Jedi warrior by balancing his inner conflicts and learning to channel “the force,” Luke Skywalker is confronted by something dark and disturbing. While in the forest with Yoda, he literally goes down the rabbit hole of his unconscious where he faces his most dangerous enemy – himself. The enemy appears to him in the guise of Darth Vader, the paragon of a malevolent, alienated and inhuman power, but after Luke cuts off Vader’s head with his sword of light, he sees that behind Vader’s dark mask is his (Luke’s) own face. In The Return of the Jedi, Luke achieves sovereignty by balancing the light and darkness within himself. In the final battle scene, when Luke faces Darth Vader – who he has discovered was once his father before he transformed into the malevolent Vader – he throws down his sword and refuses to fight his father, affirming that Vader cannot be pure evil and there must be some good left in his soul. And, in response to this act of compassion, Vader sacrifices his life to save Luke from the Emperor. The lesson behind the story is that the shadow cannot be defeated or vanquished through battle, but that it begins to dissolve when it receives the unexpected gift of love and acceptance. In the end, Vader is able to remove his inhuman shadow helmet and become Anakin Skywalker again before he dies.

On the surface of things, it seems like there’s similar shadow plot in Maleficent. Aurora encounters her shadow – an evil fairy who exhibits exactly the opposite qualities from her own innocent goodness, a fairy who has cursed her to fall into an eternal death-sleep at the age of 16. But Aurora refuses to see Maleficent as evil, she interprets her as a “fairy godmother” and showers her with love, gratitude, laugher and joy. She embraces Maleficent, sinister costume and horns and all. By the end, Maleficent’s shadow-mask is dissolved, and the curse on Aurora is broken when she receives “true love’s kiss” not by the suitor prince but by Maleficent herself, the only character in the film who can actually perform the shadow work of reconciliation. Maleficent is won over to the light, her heart has been softened, and she recaptures her lost self and receives back her wings. She is no longer a dark figure but an integrated self, “both hero and villain.”

This is how I read the film the first time I saw it, perhaps because I was familiar with the shadow theme from other films and sought to impose it, unchanged. But something felt not quite right about this interpretation. There are too many reversals in Maleficent to fit the familiar dark shadow plot. In the Star Wars trilogy, it is Luke Skywalker who comes face to face with his malevolent shadow, and the saga is a chronicle of how he is transformed by the encounter and comes to embrace the darkness in Vader that is also himself. But the story in Maleficent is not about Aurora embracing her dark shadow – she is all sweetness and light at the beginning and although she experiences one moment of pain, she remains more or less unchanged until the end. The story is about Maleficent’s journey of transformation, which then poses the question of who or what exactly is the shadow in the film. The entire plot is a series of reversals from the start. The reason the thorny wall goes up around the Moors is not to keep the shadow out; it is constructed by Maleficent to keep the human world out. The world of fairies and mythical creatures that inhabits the Moors is innocent, close to nature, seemingly predisposed towards goodness and cooperation, joyful, playful and profoundly anarchistic. As we’re told at the beginning, the Moors needs no ruler or hierarchy, unlike the other world of mankind, which is ruled by kings and despots. In the other world, men (the gender term is strongly implied by the film) lust for power in the form of domination over others and make pacts with dark forces to achieve it.

Maleficent, in her innocence as a young fairy who knows nothing about the games of power of the other world, is betrayed by the man she loves. Stefan plots to meet her in a solitary spot in the forest, slips a drug in her drink, and after she falls unconscious, he cuts off her wings to prove his power and loyalty to the dying king in the hope of becoming his successor. The wings are the symbolic and actual source of Maleficent’s power, which allow her to soar high and low and to connect, with joyful generosity, to the other beings in her world. It is a different kind of power than than the aspiration to dominate others, which is common in the world of men. In what is unmistakably an allegory of a rape scene, after her wings have been cut, Maleficent wakes up wounded and screaming, barely able to walk. The cane she conjures as a walking crutch after her wounding becomes the symbol of her domination, of her scepter as Queen of the Moors. In this first part of the story, it is Stefan who is Maleficent’s dark shadow, and because she ignores this and refuses to recognize the darkness that is in him and also in her, she succumbs to the unconscious, gravitational pull of that darkness and is transformed into a personification of Stefan’s malevolence, loosing all contact with her previous innocent, childlike self. She becomes an inverted mirror of her enemy, driven by the desire to recapture the power she has lost by seeking to gain power over others, which is illustrated by her act of self-coronation as Queen and by the other creatures of the Moors bowing uncomfortably and fearfully to her. She also becomes driven by resentment – she wants to get back at Stefan, in an eye for an eye fashion, and to wound him where it hurts the most. She tries to win power on same terms as the world that has wounded her.

This is a story about suffering trauma, falling into the pit of powerlessness and despair, rising out of it through anger, and the eventual reconciliation that doesn’t simply recapture the power that was lost but transcends it. Many reviews of the film have played upon its feminist plot because it is a story that unfolds between two women, while the men in the story are portrayed either as personifications of evil without any redeeming qualities, like Stefan and his predecessor king, or, at best, as charming buffoons, like Prince Philip, who plays no significant role other than to provide some comic relief and to illustrate the empty fantasy of a prince saving the damsel in distress. Read through this prism, it is men – and, implicitly, patriarchy – that conceive of and use power as an instrument of domination. And Maleficent is driven by her anger over having been abused by their power into mimicking it in order to survive. In the end, she can only be “saved” when she recaptures her lost feminine power by becoming a loving, maternal-figure to Aurora. Although I don’t want to deny that this subtext exists in the film, it seems to limit the manifold richness of the narrative into a single, narrow path.

Upon second sight, it appears to me that Maleficent is a story about the golden shadow, an allegory of developing from childhood into adulthood, and of how the self integrates and eventually overcomes experiences of loss, pain and trauma. When we experience traumatic events that leave us feeling as if we’ve been abused and betrayed by those we love, the immediate feeling of abjection and powerlessness causes us to loose our wings, our capacity to soar, our innocence, playfulness and fascination with the miraculous beings around us. The world literally becomes dark, morose, death-like. This also happens when there isn’t an overwhelmingly debilitating traumatic event. It can take place through a gradual process of socialization, as we come into contact with a common-sensical, adult world that measures power by accomplishment and by climbing the ladder of success (from living in a barn with animals to ruling in a castle). In response, we begin to let go, in small pieces instead of all at once, of our golden qualities of innocence, trust and joy, and to transform ourselves into the facade of the persona by mirroring the values and type of power that make up the consensus reality we encounter. Maleficent creates a dark persona as the result of an experience of trauma, which, paradoxically, ends up reinforcing her victimization through a series of self-destructive choices. To me it seems that Maleficent is actually “saved” from her path of self-destruction when she reconnects to the inner child that she has forsaken in the external mirror of Aurora. There are numerous scenes in the film in which Maleficent sees Aurora literally double the same gestures and behavior she displayed as a child, which make it clear that it is Aurora who is Maleficent’s mirror and not the other way around. At the end Maleficent re-integrates what she has repressed by embracing her golden shadow.

It seems natural that the first emotion we experience after a traumatic event that leave us inextricably weakened, feeling as if our power has been amputated, is rage. Anger is a power, a kind of energy that feels better (and is energetically of a higher vibration) than the depressive abjection of utter powerlessness. Blaming others for abusing or betraying us is the first step of a process of catharsis, and without it we cannot move on (I doubt there can be any genuine forgiveness without feeling a powerful surge of initial rage). It is worse not to give into that rage, to repress it. When emotions are repressed, they get stored as fragments of congealed, blocked energy in the cellular memory of the body and manifest as all kinds of imbalances and dis-ease. But most feelings – if we think of them simply as emotional surges, as living currents of energy circulating though the body – take only minutes to pass through unrestricted and be fully discharged, if we experience them fully and with awareness. What most often happens is that instead of experiencing and discharging a painful emotion, we begin to recycle it over and over again and to keep it alive by spinning stories about the evil other people have inflicted upon us and thus endlessly re-digesting the initial pain. And the rage that is otherwise necessary for a cathartic release becomes transformed into a resentment that eats away at our soul and robs us of the magical qualities of trust, spontaneity and pleasure, which are forced to go underground. There’s a world of difference between feeling a few moments of rage powerfully surge through the body, even multiple times until it is released, and keeping emotions of anger and revenge alive by re-digesting them for 16 years. What Nietzsche calls resentment is a kind of victim-consciousness that needs to blame others for one’s lot in life , which tries to get back at them either in a reciprocal eye for an eye fashion, by seeking to dominate them, or, when this is not possible because of a physical imbalance of power, then by imagining fantastic victories in heaven or a kind of inner victory in this life by enjoying the “superiority” of one’s moral character. It is because many people repress their golden shadow by becoming hardened and embittered after a traumatic experience that they live lives which are devoid of genuine empowerment (of expanding one’s own power by uplifting others) and also devoid of the feeling of truly being alive and enjoying the pleasures of the body and the miraculousness of other creatures in the world. Repressing the golden shadow means repressing the essential life-energy, creativity and joy that flows through it.

The wounding Maleficent experiences leads her to erect defenses against her oppressor (by creating a wall of thorns to keep him out), which become defenses against the rest of the world and also against herself. She interprets her former self, the innocent, trusting, good-hearted, joyful, child-like self as a form of vulnerability and weakness and tries to stamp out all traces of it from the persona of power as domination that she constructs. But the inner child she has repressed still lives in the recesses of her heart – and as she confesses to the sleeping Aurora at the end, the child manages to steal back her heart. By encountering this magical child in Aurora, Maleficent is reminded of everything that she has lost through her transformation into a persona of worldly power. She literally falls in love with her golden shadow, which she has banished through a curse of eternal sleep. Through her journey, Maleficent relearns the power of a love that is expressed through joy, enchantment and an empathic connection to others, and lets go of her desire for power as domination. And the reconciliation at the end is not a simple return to what she was before her “fall.” It is a second, mature innocence that has integrated the darkness that is within the world and within herself. There can be no understanding of innocence unless there is also a knowledge of the darkness of resentment and revenge, and there can be no magic of experiencing the generous power of a love that doesn’t demand anything unless one faces the darkness of a power that dominates and instrumentalists others as a means to an end. Uniting both shadows of darkness and light allows Maleficent to become an authentic self. Owning one’s shadow leads to integration, to a kind of sovereignty or self-mastery that arises from being able to balance the contradictory forces and energies within the self.

Maleficent contains many wonderful reversals of the classical fairy tale genre, but its most significant disruption is overturning a sense of clear boundaries between good and evil. Thinking about this reversal made me recall a Cherokee story I once heard, and just came across again through an inspired synchronicity (http://dreamrly.com/2014/11/22/fairy-tale-friday-two-wolves-cherokee). In the story, a grandfather tells his grandson that we all have to undergo an inner “battle” between our two wolves, the evil wolf of anger, envy, greed, guilt, resentment and falseness vs. the good wolf of joy, peace, love, generosity, compassion and truth. The grandfather concludes by saying the wolf who wins the battle is the wolf we choose to feed. Of course, there’s a profound truth to be grasped by the fact that our character and our world is shaped by what we give most of our focus to, and that we will have a significantly more fulfilling life by focusing on daily rituals that reinforce the habits of joy, love and generosity. But attempting to starve the other “evil” wolf by not feeding it with any attention at all doesn’t necessarily vanquish it. Sometimes it grows all the more powerful through our attempt to banish it from conscious awareness, threatening to explode and bare its fangs at the slightest provocation. What Maleficent (as well as the Star Wars trilogy) suggests is that to “win” we have to let go of the idea of a “battle” between the light and dark forces in ourselves, and to leave behind the self-loathing inherent in that model of the relationship between the I and I. Integration is an inner alchemy that is capable of transforming shadows through the magical act of acceptance and love.

The shadow, or shadows, in a more pluralistic sense of fragmented subpersonalities, are integral to who we are. Repressing our shadows of darkness and light not only dismisses their positive potential, but keeps us in a relationship of being perpetual strangers to ourselves, like unconscious actors sleepwalking through a performance of an incomprehensible role. What Maleficent lets go of after her self-transformation is the role of the persona – symbolically, she not only receives her wings back but removes her frightening and constricting black turban and lets down her hair again. When we unite with our shadows, we are no longer trying to hide anything from ourselves and from others and are able to fully express who we are in a truthful, genuine and vulnerable way. The power of this radical self-expression also transforms our relations with others – we stop projecting our own stuff onto them and are able to tap into an openness and receptivity that is vast enough to behold them in their fullness – masks, shadows, horns and all.

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19 comments

  1. Reblogged this on Tania Marie's Blog and commented:
    Another amazingly rich and powerful piece written by Anna Nimm. I so resonate with everything she shares here and in fact it is reflective of what I often get into discussion about in my workshops, as this is what I feel to be the key stuff. Again we are hitting on transmutation here.

    Having seen the movie Maleficent, I was right there with Anna, sharing in her insights, but even if you haven’t seen the movie, you will find this to be well worth the read and easy to grasp the concepts Anna so beautifully expresses.

    And if you get the chance to see the movie, please do.

    Thank you Anna Nimm for yet another brilliant and important share.

  2. Reblogged this on Laura Bruno's Blog and commented:
    Another deeply insightful and timely post by Anna Nimm!
    “This is a story about suffering trauma, falling into the pit of powerlessness and despair, rising out of it through anger, and the eventual reconciliation that doesn’t simply recapture the power that was lost but transcends it. ” … “Upon second sight, it appears to me that Maleficent is a story about the golden shadow, an allegory of developing from childhood into adulthood, and of how the self integrates and eventually overcomes experiences of loss, pain and trauma.” Once again, unpacking a fairy tale brings great reward. Thank you, Anna Nimm!

  3. Many congratulations Anna on this superbly crafted and deeply insightful article. I picked up on one passage in particular and which brought a knowing smile to my face: ” there’s a profound truth to be grasped by the fact that our character and our world is shaped by what we give most of our focus to, and that we will have a significantly more fulfilling life by focusing on daily rituals that reinforce the habits of joy, love and generosity. But attempting to starve the other “evil” wolf by not feeding it with any attention at all doesn’t necessarily vanquish it.”

    During my life, I have had a long and close association with a Buddhist monastery; more relevantly, with the recluses inhabiting it and also with lay visitors to it. There, as you would expect, there is a great emphasis on the ‘daily rituals’ you write of – meditative practices of ‘Metta’ (‘Loving Kindness’) and ‘Karuna’ (‘Compassion’). These are immensely powerful and beneficial forms of mental culture, the effects of which endure beyond their formal exercise in seated practice. And yet it remains the case that until these attributes become fully acculturated, there remains the potential for momentarily explosive expressions of rage. In fact, due to the garnering of mental concentration which accumulates in meditative and prayerful practices, these moments of rage are all the more shockingly powerful for their expression. The good news is that they work through almost instantaneously due to not identifying with them (if one’s insight is sufficiently developed), and they serve a necessary cathartic or purging function.

    1. Thanks for your insightful reply, Hariod. I’ve also had a long association with Buddhist mindful practices (and monastery retreats). After 4 years of vipassana, I didn’t find my negative emotions were able to instantaneously work themselves through simply by attentive awareness. And I believe the reason my meditation practices changed intuitively and spontaneously to a form of communion that engages with the subconscious (or lower self) and with the heart chakra is because, as I wrote in the longer article, self-observation has its limits. I think part of those limits is that self-observation doesn’t fully engage with the emotions (for me, Metta practice didn’t either, it was too abstract, conceptual and non-visual), and the other limitation is that it doesn’t engage with how unconscious formations and complexes function and why awareness is most often not enough to break their spell.

      1. I certainly agree that introspection has its limits Anna; and if we fail to recognise this we can fall into all sorts of erroneous ideas as to what constitutes our putative ‘reality’ and ‘self’. At the risk of sounding a little contrarian, I would beg to differ with you on the capacity for any sustained and sufficiently concentrated awareness to reveal the functioning of formerly unconscious tendencies. Whether the interpretation of dreams acts with similar efficacy I am not in any position to say. And as regards negative emotions working through almost instantaneously (let’s say, within 3-5 seconds) then as I said in qualification before, this is dependent upon not identifying with them egoically. I would argue that it is the identification with the imagined self that sustains and perpetuates any emotion. Having said this, the feeling component of the emotion (as against the thought component), will take longer to subside as the nervous system responds much more slowly than thought-forms alone.

        Just on your other point, then in their most powerful expression, and as I am sure you are aware Anna, Metta and Karuna enter the domain of pure concentrated feeling which largely bypasses conceptualisation – they are in fact absorption practices of concentration, so necessarily obtain beyond verbal and visual forms. I don’t know if you found it to be the case at the monastery which you attended, but these practices are often shunned or only half-heartedly engaged by those of us with a typically Western, acquisitive mind-set. We would rather get on with what we think of as the ‘real business’ of meditation – ontological insights. It is a shame, because Metta and Karuna greatly assist us in the development of insight practices such as Vipassanā. On the whole of course, we are all quite different; and what suits one may not suit another; and as they say, there are many paths leading up the mountain.

        Thank you for allowing me to engage here Anna; and for indulging my contrarianism!

        Hariod. ❤

  4. Dear Hariod, apologies for the late reply. I certainly do appreciate contrarianism. I also think there comes a point, as people try to argue a certain position (which I’m not sure either one of us was doing here, btw), when, as you concluded above, the most reasonable thing to admit is that different traditions and practices resonate with some and not with others based on their history, what type of chakra personalities they are, and many other factors. At one point I thought of writing a longer text about why Buddhist practices don’t resonate with me, and also what I find really problematic in the western adoption of the non-duality Advaita Vedanta discourse … but I find it a more constructive and positive (in the sense of not being negatively or critically focused) use of my time to explore and write about the ideas and practices that do inspire me.

    1. Jung apparently shared your perspective on the suitability of Buddhist practices for the Western mind-set, as doubtless you are aware Anna. I would certainly be interested to read your own thoughts on this if ever you do write on the subject.

      Oh! – don’t get me started on Neo-Advaita – on that, we certainly do share a disdain! Classical Advaita is wonderful, but this consumerist, pick ‘n mix corruption of it is shameful, misrepresentative and many people are getting burned by it.

  5. This seems to be our “human” awakening as we begin to understand that “war” only creates more “war”. I love this quote from your content. “The lesson behind the story is that the shadow cannot be defeated or vanquished through battle, but that it begins to dissolve when it receives the unexpected gift of love and acceptance. In the end, Vader is able to remove his inhuman shadow helmet and become Anakin Skywalker again before he dies.” I was speaking to a friend a week ago Luke Skywalkers laser seemed to be a symbol of love rather than “war” when he gave the unexpected gift of love.
    I want to see Maleficent now as it seems fabulous, with all kinds of symbolism. I LOVE love love your insights on this awesome film.
    Heading to Dallas for two weeks to help sister and will Hop back into your blog when I get back!

  6. Wanted to pop in and wish you a happy “new now” I did not come up with the new now phrase yet it resonates! Thank you for being in my world! Really looking forward to your next post! Let me know hen that time cones! Heart to heart Robyn

    1. Dear Robyn, thanks very much for both messages, and my apologies as I somehow managed to entirely miss the first one from two weeks ago. I think Luke’s laser sword is just a symbol of what Yoda calls “the force,” which is itself neutral, and it can become light or dark depending on how it is used. In any case, I hope you had nice holidays and thank you for hoping back. And the time has come, by the way. Happy new now to you as well…

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