Breaking out: Varo, Carrington, and blackening the patriarchal paradigm

Remedies Varo and Leonora Carrington are hardly old people when life hurts them deeply. In the preceding pages, we have reflected on the transformation and healing that painting, as a spiritual practice and as a depth psychological form of active imagination, brought to each woman’s life and art. Now, we shift and widen our gaze. Jung believed that we gather the world to ourselves when we face our shadow and attend to dreams and other workings of unconscious life (1954/1969: para. 432). What happens if we apply this foundational Jungian idea to the creative work of Carrington and Varo?

The Terrible Mother and the voice of the eternal Feminine

With cultural complexes related to patriarchal power in mind, the images painted by Carrington and Varo can be considered as living symbols midwifed by the archetypal forces of the transpersonal psyche in a symbolic effort to begin the blackening of the patriarchal paradigm. In such a context, the suffering the women endured in their personal histories acquires teleological meaning and finds both the keyhole and the key to breaking out of a paradigm that traps women and men in a “deeply flawed” democracy in which “basic rights of intimate life are in political peril, issues of racial and gender inequality persist, and economic inequality worsens” (Gilligan & Richards, 2009: 11).

Returning to Varo’s creative and symbolic use of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, we see in her painting, Minotaur, that she has rendered a different image, bringing out of the labyrinth the male’s shamed and split-off inner feminine, experienced by men through projection as monstrous and devouring. The distorted perception of women as devouring has terrified men who fear their own inner feminine throughout human history. Folk tales from multiple cultures offer stories of the vagina dentata. From the Latin meaning toothed vagina, old stories of the vagina dentata evoke the lethality of women, whose genital opening is said to contain teeth—theperfect implements for castration of the man’s penis and testicles and for the annihilation of his masculine core (in part through the elimination of the ability to produce semen). Some of the folk tales of the vagina dentata may have been told to discourage rape. In others, the image of the vagina dentata seems to express a feminine archetypal rage at male domination of women and a violent patriarchal response to that rage. Erich Neumann mentioned a folk tale that told of a fish who lives in the vagina of a Terrible Mother. “The hero,” according to Neumann, “is the man who overcomes the Terrible Mother, breaks the teeth out of her vagina, and so makes her into a woman” (1955/1963: 168).

With her image of the Minotaur, Varo dissolved the projection onto women of the unconscious distress of the shamed male and his fear of dismemberment by the presence of the inner, archetypal Feminine—Neumann’s Terrible Mother. Varo began this psychological process in Dead Leaves by withdrawing from the labyrinth of the unconscious the blue thread of imagination that led the heroic male, Theseus, to the Minotaur. In her painting, Varo reveals the Minotaur she has drawn out from the labyrinth as the numinous Feminine. Her Minotaur is female, with the bluish light of the imaginatio radiating from the crown of her head.

In the artist’s painting, behind the once monstrous but now reborn and redeemed creature, there is a keyhole in a black crack in the wall of a small room. In the female Minotaur’s right hand is a key. With the key that fits into the keyhole, Varo seems to suggest the alchemical intercourse between the archetypal Feminine and Masculine. The union, or inner marriage, of these different but complementary forces turns out to be crucial to Varo’s vision of a world where cultural complexes can be softened, and men and women liberated from adversarial roles as combatants in a war between sexes. Varo’s vision, hinted at in her painting of a female Minotaur, is for the making of a world in which men and women—accessing within themselves the Feminine, Masculine, and Other—work together as conscious collaborators to nourish the soul of all beings and the cosmos in which life unfolds. From a Jungian perspective, the message Varo is sending us through her imagery seems clear enough: The Feminine holds the key to the re-making of the starting condition, which must be freed from traumatic suppression and repression of external and internalized patriarchal influences.

Gilligan and Richards cited trauma research that clearly identified “loss of voice as the psychic core of traumatic experience, an inability to tell one’s story” (2009: 165). They found this traumatic core of female experience, in which patriarchal demands silence the female voice, embedded in the Freudian origins of depth psychology, typically marked by the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900. In The Deepening Darkness: Patriarchy, Resistance, and Democracy’s Future, Gilligan and Richards examined “Freud’s increasingly fraught relationship to women patients” (168). In his early work, “Freud had come to astonishing discoveries about the human psyche and invented a method to unravel its secrets, a method that freed women ... to know and to say what they knew” (166). As he developed psychoanalysis, Freud

not only listened carefully and responsively to what women said in free association but also accorded them ultimate authority in the process of discovering the conflicts underlying their neurotic symptoms, thus undoing the initiation that had led them to substitute a father’s [patriarchal] voice for their own. (166)

Over time, according to Gilligan and Richards, Freud’s initial sensitivity to women faltered as he disavowed his “unmanly” sensibilities for relationality and “deep human sympathy” in a bid for recognition within the field of psychiatry (Freud, as cited in Gilligan & Richards, 2009: 166). At the expense of his female patients and the countless women whose treatment he influenced, Freud sought success in a societal structure that responds to vulnerability with misogynistic superiority and ruthless subjugation of anything that threatens “the fundamental rule of patriarchy: the claim on the part of the father to authority” (2009: 162).

For a time, Freud had attuned himself to bringing women back in touch with parts of their experience that had become dissociated, that is, held apart from consciousness. However, faced with numerous unresolved issues, including the death of his father, Freud, a son traumatized by loss, shifted course dramatically. Once devoted to connecting women with their own knowledge, Freud began to ignore, and thus mute, the voice of his female patients. As Gilligan and Richards observed, “We hear him discrediting women’s experience and overriding their claims to knowledge with his own” (2009: 168).

What was it about women’s hysteria that threatened an androcentric society? “The most common symptom of hysteria, the loss of voice, carries the political message: I have been silenced” (Gilligan & Richards, 2009: 177). Society, led by the field of psychology, responded punitively and self-protectively to the psyche’s distress at having been silenced, imprisoning women involuntarily in asylums—now not only the voices but also their bodies removed, gone. In patriarchy, Doyle wrote, “female sexuality can exist only with male permission, in answer to male need, and in fact, female desire is so inherently subversive that it’s best to just pretend it doesn’t exist” (2019: 78).

Psychologically, Gilligan and Richards concluded,

The riddle of femininity in patriarchy ... arises from the confusing perception that to be a good woman in patriarchy, a woman must become selfless: She must sacrifice her voice for the sake of relationship—a sacrifice that poses a nonsense riddle because psychologically it cannot be solved. Without voice, one is not present; there is no relationship, only the chimera of relationship. The human desire for relationship becomes in itself an act of resistance to loss of voice, meaning to trauma. (2009: 168)

All of this means, as Jean Baker Miller asserted, that “women, by their very existence, confront and challenge men because they have been made the embodiment of the dominant culture’s unsolved problems” (1986: 58, emphasis in original). At the same time, women struggle with the introjected presence of the patriarchy—as internalized strictures that both protect their sociopsychological survival and persecute the inner voice that would threaten it. When, as women, Miller concluded,

we can think only in terms given by the dominant culture and when that culture not only does not attend to our own experiences but specifically denies and devalues them, we are left with no way of conceptualizing our lives. Under these circumstances, a woman is often left with a global, undefined sense that she must be wrong. (58)

What does Freud’s capitulation to patriarchy and the silencing and devaluing of women and feminine relationality have to do with the friendship between Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington? For the two women, friendship formed a space in which they could each receive acceptance and healing through embodied experiences of being seen, heard, and known by the other person. Neither woman would have called herself an activist. Varo and Carrington both considered themselves artists. By whatever name they identified, their friendship and their art offered the women a way to find and use the female voice to produce images that speak volumes about women’s experience and the numinous and mysterious powers of goddesses and other Feminine forces.

Did the artists intend their painted images as protests against “cultural forces that attack, demean, and silence women” (Gilligan & Snider, 2018: 84)? We do not know if the artists were conscious protestors of patriarchy. What we do know is that Varo and Carrington were artists who studied and experimented with the numinous power of symbols to channel and express living archetypal energy. Consciously or unconsciously, then, the women made art that serves symbolic and subversive social purposes. In this way, Gilligan and Richards noted, the women were fulfilling an archetypal imperative: “Since patriarchy rests on a suppression of voice and a rewriting of history, artists can perform the vital function of speaking the truth and shifting the framework” (2009: 198).

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