Feb 1, 2011

Desire, Doubt, and the Black Swan

I'm setting aside my previous plan for today -- to finally write a piece discussing the recent book Academically Adrift, the various intersecting controversies it has provoked (or better put exposed), and its use of the CLA as a measure for student learning.  Last night, at our little local downtown theatre, I watched the recent movie Black Swan, and I was so impressed, by the beauty of the production (within a production), resilient brittleness of the main character, the almost claustrophobic spatiality, the interplay play of doubt, desire, and discipline -- so taken, so provoked both affectively and intellectually, that I decided to hazard my very first piece on a film.  Not precisely a review, but not an article either, more reflections on the directions the action and the character takes, informed by thoughts of a few philosophers whose relevance and applicability suggest themselves to those who have long meditated on their works.  Less obvious, I'll grant, to those encountering them only in passing or secondhand, but perhaps this will become clearer though this short essay.  Those philosophical interlocutors I'm bringing in are two Frenchmen, Rene Descartes and Jacques Lacan.  To what I expect is the relief -- or perhaps the disappointment -- of my readers, I write with a style much more "cartesian" than "lacanian," preferring clarity to obliquity and erudition.

Black swan focuses on one central character, Nina (Natalie Portman), the only one to undergo anything which might be called development -- a strong claim which I think deserves a bit of explanation. What I mean is this:  the other characters are important, written and portrayed in their fullness, coming across as living, real human beings, not simply types or stand-ins.  I cannot fault the acting of any of the characters to whom Nina seems inextricably bound:  the neurosis and just-held-in-check intensity of her controlling mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), Thomas' (Vincent Leroy) intent focus on the demands of the craft, sliding along each downward lingering glance after an explanation, a command, into lechery.  The tragically disintegrating former star Beth (Winona Ryder), the straightforward pleasure-seeking  Lily (Mila Kunis) -- these are all believable, palpable even, but they all travel along the trajectories plotted out for them from the start, following their structured desires, making demands that flow and unfold from their characters.


Nina too begins with traits clearly and multiply portrayed. She is the "good girl" in more than one sense.  She is her own taskmaster who has so internalized the demands of her mother, a former-dancer living through her daughter, and Vincent, the ruler of the dance company, that she forces performance upon herself, even in practice, aiming at perfection, preparing in pain.  She defers to her mother, inhabiting an apartment and world of expectations symbolized by the ballerina music box next to her bed.  Sexually, she is immature, surrounding herself with little-girl things at home, uncertain with and about men and their desires, demure enough for Vincent to wonder if she is still a virgin.   Her desire, as it is permitted to emerge, centers on dancing, on becoming "perfect" like Beth, taking, or rather being given, a star role.  In short, she is beautiful but stunted, repressed.  Nina is not disintegrated nor yet disintegrating, but is far from whole.  The symbolic role she seeks, the Princess in Swan Lake, will reveal her lack of integration and even development, how out of touch she is with portions of herself.

Black Swan centers on Nina, and introduces doubt and psychical discohension thematically through devices of dreams vivid enough to be mistaken for reality, scenes of sex and struggle imagined as real, hallucinations of Nina's mirrored partial body, transforming whole body in dance, projected dark twin body outside herself.  At a point, one starts to wonder if perhaps some of the characters are not simply projections of Nina's  personality, one already fragmented, playing its desires and conflicts out.  Perhaps she lives alone in her apartment, imagining her mother, onto whom she displaces desires which she would rather escape or follow in her own way, but whose demands she must play out?  Perhaps when Lily's face, dark with desire or in shock from being stabbed, shifts into Nina's, this signifies that Lily is simply an imago within Nina's imaginary register, just "in her head," as we say?

Here is where I am reminded of Descartes Meditations, in (the narrative -- we must not forget-- of) which, once doubt is taken far enough, it takes on a life of its own within the conscious subject, who now might exist on his or her own.  What seems to be an external world might be simply the figments of one's own active  imagination.  Descartes himself is healthier in outlook than late moderns credit him with, for he rejects the idea that everything could be merely a fiction of his own fancy.  He does not go the Gnostic route, nor take certain eastenr paths and find that he is in fact the All, or God, or whatever.  Instead, he has to imagine an evil, all-powerful genius who could make him think he has a body, that the external world exists and is as it appears, and by extension that other people, with all of their substantiality and personality , their shared narratives, desires, remembrances and preoccupations also exist.

Any psychoanalyst would of course see in this stance of Descartes a brave ignorance of the unconscious, the reality that the acting and desiring, even thinking and speaking, subject is not identical with the conscious ego, the lit-up Cartesian space of the Cogito.  If there seem to be others external to myself, and I begin to doubt who is real and who is simply myself, if I see their faces replaced by by own so that she who I struggle with in sex or death turns out to be me -- is not the eventual and inevitable denouement of that path of doubt the realization that me, myself, and I are competing, combining, conversing? Is that not precisely the madness into which Nina is slipping?

No, such interpretations, which would cheapen this film, rendering it disappointingly like all those other so clever flicks where we find out it in the end was all just a dream, imagination, delirium, that we have been the viewers of a narrow narcissism -- those are belied by three features, one of plot, another of character, the third of dialogue. And with each of these, we and Nina, are pulled out of the play of the imaginary, past the procession of the symbolic, and confronted by the real, what resists, what remains, what exceeds the scope of the conflicts, the exchanges, the goings-on between Nina, her shadow self, and her construals of the other characters.

Though the plot turns on her progressive awareness of and attempts to incorporate lost, unacknowledged, repressed, and now demanded portions of her psyche within the symbolic frameworks of the ballet company and the slowly building performance of Swan Lake, though it includes these moments opening towards the interpretation that a character is really a projected portion of her fragmenting self, the plot then drags her back to reality, and to the one realm of desire she fully understands, the ballet itself, the opportunity Nina yearns for and takes.  She cannot afford to be cracking up, and not only because that would preclude the ongoing realization and culmination of her desire, but because she is tangled in the knotted together, interwoven, overlaid threads of every other character's desires.

The other characters are real, enunciating their demands upon Nina, displaying their desires that not only include but go beyond her.  Thomas wants her, looks her over, inquires pointedly about particulars of her sexual history, seduces her, as he says, but principally because what he wants from Lily is her portrayal, her enactment of the libidinous, unrestrained Black Swan.  He wants her to step into the shoes and the slot of Beth, the aging, to be replaced ballerina who the other girls denigrate and Nina defends, his "little princess." Lily wants Nina to have a good time, offers her a relationship of familiarity both bodily and in following their desires, in dancing, performing, enjoying themselves at the bar, but when Nina is dreaming so vividly of Lily's embraces in her bed, after having gathered the courage to openly defy her mother from Lily's imagined presence, the real Lily is back in her place getting it on with the guy she picked up precisely for that purpose.  Beth, eclipsed, seeks not a disintegration of psyche, but a physical one, destruction, deadened by the full frustration of her desires.  Erika is simply a mess, a mass of desires cramped into the only place we see her until the last scene, the apartment.  These cannot be mere reflections of Nina.  They are, each of them, too real for that, precisely in the sense that their desires cannot be neatly fit into her own.  In fact, what we see in her character's development is a growing -- though not triumphantly complete -- grasp of what their desires actually are, coupled with a sundering or subversion on Nina's part, choosing her own desires which now she comes to understand as her own over theirs if they conflict.

Erika, Lily, Thomas, even Beth, speak their own desires to Nina.  Aside from Beth, or even including Beth -- whose bitterness leads her to tell the truth to Nina about the perfection she pursues -- these characters also tell Nina what they want her to desire.  Erika and Lily, even Thomas in his way, express their worries, their concerns about the directions Nina's desires take.  The role will be too much, it will demand what she cannot give, she needs to unwind, she needs to stay in and rest . . . . When the lines between constant reality and fantasized imagination or symbolic role begin to shift, their speaking  provides Nina with anchor points, guiderails.

That which is repressed not only will find a way to show itself, to venture along the currents and courses of the unconscious, to manifest its -- or rather in Nina's case, her desire through ciphers of scratching, nails, and skin.  as it comes to the fore, it will also reveal its deformity.  Romantics often imagine desire repressed as healthy, even pure, in contrast to the repressing consciousness.  They only realize too late that release of the repressed reveals, if not monsters, at best things that have grown in the dark, out of shape, immature.  The closest thing to a figure of healthy adult desire in Black Swan, confident, conscious of itself, choosing when and how to follow its own dictates, knowing what it wants and whose desires it will satisfy and how far to get it, is Lily.

When it appears with the beginnings of personality, it does so first in portions, glimpses, a dark imago of herself passing in a corridor, her mirror image's lack of movement or extra movement, its confronting glance.  Her unconscious desire manifests even earlier in unexplained fingernail etching on her back, a network of scratches of which she is aware, and which she hides.  She can explain how they got there, but she does not understand how or why.  Jumping forward, her desire will manifest itself most tangibly and in its fullness in her paranoic attack on the aggressive, threatening, supplanting Black Swan, who is herself, and also Lily, in the mirror, smashed against the mirror, pierced by a shard, dragged off and hidden in the shower, all the time imagined -- imagined in the moment which allows Nina the closest approximation to reintegration of her fragmented psyche possible to her.

It is often imagined that the basic message, the fundamental insight of psychoanalysis was that all desire is at bottom sexual in nature, that every other mode of desire is in some way sublimation. Certainly not the case for Lacan, who bears much closer affinities with Augustine and other church Fathers in this respect -- understanding the full scope of desire, grasping in that in many cases and in its essence  sexual desire is so much more that simply appetite for pleasure of the flesh, dominance of or submission to another, or even recognition, play.  It also involves the desire for love, even when, inchoate, this cannot be adequately articulated or conceptualized.  As Plato had his characters tell us in the Symposium, it involves a desire for wholeness, integration, perpetuity of the good.  Psychoanalytically, sexual desire, its course, its pursuit, its culmination veers after recovery of what has been repressed, lost, made impossible.  Always?  No, not always, granted but in Nina's case, yes.

It is a portion of her psyche that rises up out of the depths to supplant, to replace, to possess her, a clash of sensual sexuality against desire restrained, channeled, disciplined, Black against White, Nina/Lily against Nina.  And the moment of triumph in the movie is not when she falls, completed, the White Swan stabbed by a dagger of glass.  Nor it is her brilliant, lusty, "perfect" performance in which she inhabits the flesh of the Black Swan so thoroughly her skin goosepimples then sprouts wings of inky plumes.  It is when Nina takes by surprise the aggressor who desires her out of the way, ambushes her, overflows her with now accepted, understood, actively flowing desire, puts aside all doubt, all uncertainty, decides.  She wrests from the imaginary Black Swan her symbolic role in the ballet, on the stage, in the hearts and eyes of the onlookers, from the lips of Thomas, and having consumed her entirely in the pinioning and flutters in the lights before the crowd, she heads back to the dressing room.  There she realizes. . . . and then, as whole as she can be, the White Swan is ready now to die.