Threads of change: Death, rebirth, and the dream of the executioner
Varo’s dream of the executioner includes a host of images that are important if we are to engage with and understand the alchemical process of transformation at work in her art and life. There is the egg. There is weaving. There is the executioner. There is the man with whom she wove her destiny for all eternity. And there is the secret—the knowledge so dangerous she had to be killed. From a Jungian perspective, we can consider these related images as symbolic threads. In the chapters that follow we weave the threads of the dream through the artist’s paintings to blend them into a gestalt that reveals the essence of who Varo was and the social change her images are trying to help us create.
In what follows, we work with Varo’s dream and paintings not to unravel them, as Freud said, but, following Hillman, to restore to the images their “capacity to perturb the soul to excess that, by bringing an image close to death,” makes it live again (1979: 130). For Varo, a painting was like a mirror: She was looking at herself in the images. Or perhaps she was looking at personified figures who were dreaming her life toward—or into— death for the purpose of initiating the rebirth of life on a more conscious, and more ensouled, plane.
With Varo, there is a powerful alchemy at work in which the ego responds to the soul’s need to come alive through intimate proximity with death. Varo’s images transport us into a realm of night and death where the soul shows us its experience of death and dying—thus bringing itself to life. Varo’s paintings evoke the beauty and terror of soul living its trueness in and through its familiarity with and closeness to death. Lingering in the underworld and engaging with Varo in the alchemical process of imaginatio, we see that the soul knows how to engage with death, not only for the betterment of one person but for community and culture as well.
1 In The Dream and the Underworld, Hillman wrote that “the idea that dreams are a preparation for death appears both among the romantics and the Greeks ... We may understand this now less literally and more as the removal of elements (Tagesreste) out of life and giving them soul values” (fn 55, 223).
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Embroidering the Earth's Mantle