Bluebeard, the Secret Hell.

The reason that we arrange to be led by folk we know don’t care about us is that there is an X in the equation which swings things away from what you might think was a more desirable outcome.

We acceed to authoritarian management because there is a covert pay-off. No-one has to do the difficult work of self-realisation.

‘It seems good to Us not to burden you with too many requirements.’ Acts 15;28

It’s okay, you don’t have to find your own way or fulfil any driving ambition. Its alright to be curtailed and told what to do…

because the part of us that minds it has a cunning plan…

to take refuge in the strong arm of he who’d beat you and so, in a very real sense, not be at home when he comes calling. The great thing about abdication is that you get to hold the torch when the castle is burned to the ground.

Alice Miller calls it ‘Identification with the Aggressor’, a process by which a child or subjugated person defends against the precarity of their situation by disocciating from it and forming a psychological alliance with the source of their suffering.

It was named ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ after bank raiders in Sweden took hostages that then became their fervent supporters, even writing to the Prime Minister asking to go with their captors. Hieress Patty Hearst became a gang member of the group that kidnapped her. Natascha Kampuch wept at the death of her jailer and rapist Wolfgang Priklopil, moved into his house and ran his car…

Levy-Bruhl called it participation-mystique, a process of  merging with another, initially observed..

‘in so-called primitive cultures where certain objects treated as holy artifacts were seen as filled with the spirit of their owners or worshipers.’ Gifford

 Without such meaningful totemic relationships that allow a person to be in the presence of their own mystery without being contaminated by it, we in the West do the same with pop stars and celebrity, reality TV and the cult of personality, which despite the high of being one with your hero..
‘can influence a person or group of persons into acting against their own best interest’. (ibid)
Identification with the Great Leader makes all kinds of heroic feats possible though you may not survive them. It wipes out all your troubles back home and replaces them with a fizzing riteousness so potent it can transcend the fear of death and calmly walk wave upon wave of unfaltering youth to the grave.
Sometimes the battlefield’s turf is the quietly carpeted drawing rooms
of gentility rather than the crack and thump of conquest at any price, but still….
‘a person caught up in this spell would rather die or injure him or herself than consider new information that might upend their thinking.’ ibid

Most people know the story of Bluebeard. He murdered his wives one after another and kept them in a secret locked room. He forbids his most recent bride from entering the room on pain of … well, a lot of pain, but she is unbearably curious and sneaks in while he is away…

just a peek…

Too late!

The room is a charnel house of former wives. She drops the key to the floor in horror where it becomes stained with blood that will not wash off no matter how she tries…

Bluebeard finds her out, and sets out to do just what he said he would do…  though she is saved in the last moment by her brothers who show up in the nick of time…

an’ cut ‘Ol Bluey down…

The traditional meaning is that of a cautionary tale,

‘Oh curiosity thou mortal bane, spite of my charms thou causest oft pain and sore regret..’ Charles Perrault

followed swiftly by reassurances that men are not so bad..

‘This a story is of time long pass’d; No husbands now such panic terrors cast; Nor weakly, with a vain despotic hand, Imperious, what’s impossible, command:’ (ibid)

More recently its been given socio-political attention with BB in the role of Patriarch enforcing gender roles with violence, or more psychologically with BB in the role of pathological narcissist. Clarrisa Pinkola Estes calls him,

‘the predator of the Psyche, wanting to sever intuition, a malignant force at odds with the instincts of the natural self.”

Von Franz amplifies this theme, BB is the destructive, murderous animus which must be encountered in order to grow..

”If a woman hasn’t gone through the experience of being trapped by a demon animus she only has unconscious thoughts.”

All well and good but there is a curious detail in the story that snags my attention.. Most of the interpretations are based on later versions of the tale in which the youngest of three sisters falls for his charms because she is naive, or she marries him against his will. But in the original by Perrault there’s neither foolishness nor abduction…

Bluebeard goes to one of his neighbours…

‘a lady of quality, whose two daughters were perfect beauties. He desired of her one of them in marriage, leaving to her the choice which of the two she would bestow upon him….

‘I want one of your children, it doesn’t matter which…’

None of this phases anyone. There is no outrage, no injunctions never to darken her door again. Mother colludes and passes of her kid like a mail-order bride who gradually identifies with BB rather than face how she has been betrayed.

There was nothing then to be seen but parties of pleasure, hunting, fishing, dancing, mirth and feasting. Every thing succeeded so well, that the youngest daughter began to think the master of the house not to have a beard so very blue, and that he was a mighty civil gentleman…

A six year old child, having been persuaded onto her parent’s lap rather than explore the nearby swings and play area, is trying to extricate herself in an ungainly way whilst mother chides her softly like Nursy from Blackadder..

‘Oh you.. banana-brain…’

child’s inaudible muttering…

What are you?… a banana-brain.

more muttering..

‘banana-brain, that’s what you are.’

And you could say its just harmless fun and the mother is ‘joking’ in an extroverted and jovial way. ‘Its just people being what they are,’ you say, but actually its the worst kind of cruelty.. making a child feel stupid for wanting a go on the swings, feeling like a banana-brain in adult life for wanting to explore, embittered and muttering in old age for the life that’s been denied her.

Such throw away lines are how lives are poisoned. Often repeated they become the kernel around which identity is built because our survival compells us to adapt to expectation. So even when she’s free she stumbles, can’t get co-ordinated, making a hash of her liberty, just like… a banana-brain.

Her inner life is destroyed, not by showdowns, punishments or overt rejection but by one thing parodying  another, by the wicked cleverness that can say you are stupid and I hate you with a smile. What’s the matter, can’t you take a joke?

Life is what you make it but more importantly its what you believe it to be. Life will faithfully offer us up our expectations of it, rising to manifest and mirror back to us all our prejudices, secret fears and covert assumptions.

‘We do not see the world as it is, we see it as we are.” Torah

That which we cannot face on the inside comes at us from the outside. Having had her inner life attacked by her social-climbing mother, our heroine learns to attack herself, killing off her sponteneity, deadening her sexuality, stringing up her feelings and hobbling the discriminating function that feelings are there to serve.

When she intrudes upon BB’s inner chamber she is bound to find there some expression of this violation. She is going to find her worst nightmares in the little room because she has entered into this arrangement in terrible bad faith, having sold out her integrity and the possibility of true love for the sake of a life of easy luxury.

BB is certainly a villain, but never pretending to be more or less than he is. There is no deception. ‘I want one of your daughters, I don’t care which.” The poor bride masks over the awful injury this constitutes by following suit, pretending that people and privacy don’t matter, but has to kill off her aliveness and subjugate herself to the tyranny of life’s baubles which will extract their pound of flesh from her one way or another. Her inner world will be attacked on a regular basis.

Life presents us with the face we show it and mirrors back to us inner states normally occluded from veiw.

I once comforted a woman whose husband had just had a heart attack and was at death’s door in hospital… but I withdrew my hand from her shoulder as if bitten by a snake when she wailed, ‘who will help me now?” Her thoughts were not of him, nor her tears about him, but about the burden of her middle-class chores.

Through her tears she then told me a dream that wild dogs had gotten into her lovely white Mercedes convertible and torn all the upholstery to pieces. Her inner life had been ripped out by her paltry material concerns and the utter failure to transcend her own petty troubles.

”We thought it was the outer event that had happened to us, but now see that it is we who have happened to ourselves.’ F. Wickes.

Its curious how much sympathy the heroine evokes, how villainous BB seems to be, polarised utterly with the Soldiers of Light, the brothers who finally do him in. Yahweh fairs much better in the popularity stakes when he puts Eve to the same test. Her curiosity gets her eternal damnation wheras Mrs BB just inherits everything and comes up smelling of roses.

There is no transformation. The dead wives are as much a part of her world as BB himself and killing him off still leaves her with the problem of life denied and the damage done to her personal destiny by the spell which compells her to identify with toxic values rather than her own gut feeling…

which says that people come before stuff.

 

 

In the Face of Adversity.

When I was a boy growing up in Africa we had a Pawpaw tree in the garden which refused to fruit. The gardener, Kimberley, suggested hacking a large hole in the trunk of the tree and stuffing it with a house brick. He assured my mother that this brutal treatment would have the desired effect.

She was horrified and refused to go along with the idea. In time the tree withered even further. Short of chopping it out entirely she eventually agreed to Kimberley’s extreme plan. The hole was duly cut with a fearsome looking panga right through the trunk of the scrawny tree and a house brick jammed into it. The tree perked up and within a year bore a crop of impressive fruit.

What induces growth is sometimes counter-­intuitive. Providing the best of all possible environs is not necessarily going to yield results. Sometimes what is actually required is adversity.

The pawpaw wasn’t fruiting because its life was too easy. Its comfort made no demands of it. It was being watered, mulched and excessively tended. Life was good for the pawpaw. Too good. Kimberley’s solution was to threaten its comfort zone in order to improve its motivation, to give it a ‘now or never’ ultimatum and the pawpaw duly rose to the occasion.

Are we so different? When did you ever achieve anything soulful when all your needs were being taken care of? When was your last, most productive period? What were your circumstances at that time? Most of us will identify with the pawpaw. Paradoxically we tend to fruit when times are toughest, when we seem to have the least resources.

Under difficult circumstances we are compelled to transcend the cultural and family safety nets that normally keep us safe but also limit and constrain. When we are happily living off the fat of the land we have enough to satisfy ourselves. When times are abundant there is no pressing need to embark on difficult adventures.

From this vantage point hardship and evolution itself are interlinked. Recent studies show that the further away from the cradle of infancy in the Alduvi Gorge humanity roamed, the more complex our DNA became, culminating in the most complex genetic codes in the people of South America who travelled furthest. In other words there is a direct link between genetic evolution and facing the unknown.

www.hhmi.org/biointeractive/using-dna-trace-human-migration

It’s as though the Psyche were compensating the hardship of life by flowering into it. Nature is self­ regulating. If circumstances don’t boom then consciousness will. You may wish for an easy life but the consequences for your inner world could be potentially disastrous. In the music business it is a standing joke that second albums are second rate. Their initial success  can rob the performer of the hunger upon which genius feeds.

Without struggle there is no fruit. We cannot help wishing for some­one to step in and relieve us of the burden of having to deal with the world but if the longing to be rescued is granted it…

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‘sterilizes the inner process’. (Von Franz 1986)

You need only look at the fate of figures like Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse and dozens of others who lived the dream to see what a nightmare it actually turned out to be. There are just as many examples from history: writer Jakob Boehme who deteriorated under the protective wing of Baron von Metz, abstract artist Roger Hilton who drank himself to death, Mark Rothko who blew his brains out at the height of his career and Tchaikovsky who drank infested water and died after being feted for writing his greatest symphony, the 1812 overture.

All this gives rise to a very real problem. Since creative endeavour wants to be ‘out there‘, bringing success and ease in its wake, how are we to sustain it when the fruit of our labour has a way of killing the tree that bears it?

Perhaps you could say by analogy that the creative principle is like a jealous lover who makes us endure a great deal for her attentions. She will tolerate our being friends with Success and Reward, but if these others become the focus of our attention, if we flirt with them too much, she will storm off in high dudgeon.

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The lived sense of an inner relationship is what helps to prevent the creative fruit from rotting on the tree. Humility is a dynamic quality that acknowledges its sources. I saw this best put by Elizabeth Franklin in a Ted talk. She’s the author of ‘Love, Eat, Play’, and was speaking about how to avoid the dis­ease of success. The trick, she says, is to recognise that genius has its own life.

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In ancient times ’genius’ was recognised as a daemon that inspired, literally, that we breathed in. It was other, not-­me, but helped co-­create the project at hand. Nowadays we are tempted to view genius as an aspect of the personality, which is to remain in an arid, unconscious identification with Sublimity.

When we do this we suffer the fate of Adonis who didn’t know the true identity of his lover, Venus. He has a night of passion but then goes swiftly to his death. Suffering and meaning are indivisible from one another. Struggle is necessary to growth without which meaning withers. We learn the lessons that life has for us through these experiences of suffering or psychic discomfort.

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‘Pain, grief, loss and ceaseless frustration of every kind are there for a real and dramatic purpose; to wake us up, to enable and almost force us to release our imprisoned splendour.’ (Sogyal Rimpoche 1996).

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We may rarely understand what is being invited of us at the time, but if we resist our suffering on account of this we can only multiply our misfortune.

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‘Our suffering is [as much] produced by an attitude of intransigent
rebellion to the circumstances at hand as by the circumstances
themselves’. (Martin Israel 1998).

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The sages agree, that which banishes suffering is none other than itself consciously embraced, or, to quote the Tao te Ching (1993),

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‘only if one suffers from this suffering, does one become free of
suffering.’

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So long as we try to escape our suffering we cannot be free. Why? Because freedom is the experience of unconditional participation in life, all of which occurs in the here and now. Any attempt to escape from suffering means also the attempt to escape from or avoid what is happening in the moment.

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This is not to say that we then find meaning in suffering by the trite formula that ‘everything happens for a reason’. Such a mechanistic rendering simply echoes the archaic beliefs in a vengeful god punishing us for indiscretions we have yet to confess. It also presupposes a childlike wish that we can keep tragedy at bay simply by being good.

As such it is no more an evolved philosophy of life than refraining from stepping on the cracks in the pavement so the bears won’t get you. It is a way of thinking about life devoid of chaos where we can continue to play at reflecting upon life for as long as it is uncomplicated. I much prefer the rendering of Joel ben Izzy (2005),

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‘I still believe that things in this world do, indeed, happen for a reason. But sometimes that reason only comes after they happen. It is not a reason we find, but one we carve, sculpted from our own painand loss, bound together with love and compassion.’

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Wanting to be free of suffering or feeling we’ve deserved it somehow is mostly what suffering is made of. There is no escape and no blame to be had. Any attempt to escape or explain just makes it worse. If you would diminish suffering you can only let it be. It is through suffering that one may begin to gain some semblance of self knowledge that may then throw perspective on the experience. Suffering actively embraced can help us cultivate compassion and empathy for self and others. Our wholeness hatches in some strange nests.

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Consumer culture has so conditioned us to experience any frustration of our desires as something to be surmounted without delay that we find it almost impossible to attribute adversity with value. There is an apocryphal story about Jung who one day had a man come and see him in a terrible crisis. He had lost his job and his wife in the same week. Jung excused himself from the room but quickly reappeared with a bottle of champagne and two glasses. ‘What are you doing?’ asked the man. ‘Celebrating,’ replied Jung, ‘You’ve just been given the opportunity to completely reinvent yourself.’

This article is an excerpt of my new book, ‘Abundant Delicious’, http://andywhiteblog.com/