Monday, July 11, 2011

Archetypal Dimensions

 It has occurred to me to write about the principal life theme of each character in Commune of Women. That is to say, each of the women  of Commune of Women embodies an archetype, to a greater or lesser degree.

So--what is an archetype? An archetype is a symbol that is universally understood; a prototype. For example, in myths and stories, even across different cultures, the Good Mother and Bad Mother archetypes are readily recognizable in the good (but often dead or absent) mother and the wicked step-mother, the Good Fairy and Evil Witch, or the Wicked Queen and the Good Princess. Other common archetypes in stories are the King, the Noble Knight, the Soldier, the Whore, the Fool, the Orphan, the Teacher, the Priest or Priestess, the Wise Old Woman or Man, and the like. Archetypes give us a basis for understanding the personality and behavior of a character.

A pitfall of an archetypal characterization is that it may become superficial and stereotypical. I’m sure we’ve all read books in which characters are two-dimensional, cardboard people, because they are so predictable. Or ones in which the character is an epitome: noble and courageous beyond the norm, or Christ-like, or debauched, to such an extent that we understand them more as symbols than as flesh and blood human beings. This is so because they so purely embody only one archetype, while to some extent we all, in real life, are mixtures of various archetypal influences and this is what gives our personalities their uniqueness.

One person may epitomize the Good Mother, for example, but secretly cherish that part of herself that is related to the goddess of love, Venus. So we find a woman baking cookies for her home-bound children—while wearing a low-cut blouse and French perfume. Or a man may appear rational, cold and miserly; someone completely unapproachable for any kind of personal warmth—but secretly he is sending money to an orphanage to support needy children, thus expressing his conflict between cold self-sufficiency and the need for intimacy. You might find it interesting to ask yourself which archetypes are blending—and sometimes warring—in your own psyche.

Let’s take as an example one of the characters of Commune of Women, Ondine the artist, who is wealthy, well-educated and -traveled, and who has recently inherited an aristocratic home from her aunt, Tante Collette, on the eastern seaboard of France. Ondine is a dancer as well as a talented artist--beautiful, slender, stylishly clothed, and married to a highly successful and handsome man. What more could any woman want?

And yet we find, at the beginning of Commune of Women, that Ondine is dissatisfied, depressed and confused. For all her good fortune and multiple advantages, she cannot create the pictures or sculpt the sculptures that arise within her. She is burdened rather than inspired by the Artist archetype, creative, passionate and driven, that shapes her personality. What is going on here?

Underlying the dominant Artist archetype is another, that has insidiously taken control: the Neurotic. What characterizes neurosis is passivity and a kind of paranoid and defensive attitude toward external reality. The Neurotic sees life as menacing and influencing them from without and loses sight, completely, of a proactive stance that influences life from within. It is one’s very passivity that makes life appear so menacing, when, in fact, it is largely the projected ghosts of one’s own fears that one perceives “out there.” Thus, passivity swiftly becomes psychological paralysis. This is the state in which Ondine finds herself at the beginning of Commune of Women.

There is only one real remedy for this kind of stalemate: to express in real life one’s own true, inner dimension. In Ondine’s case, this crucial step has been evaded and that evasion has been encouraged by her controlling and judgmental husband. As horrific and tragic as her situation is, when she becomes entrapped in a life-threatening situation, it also offers her a doorway into the greater edifice of her own self. Under the pressure of the very real archetypal presence of Death, she must go within for the resources and courage necessary not only to survive but to break free of the living death she has been enduring for decades.

Will she be able to accomplish this transformation in herself, or will her passivity, in the end, amount to a true death sentence?  Therein hangs the tale.

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