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Archetypal images for the transformation of shame

Literature provides countless stories that depict an emergence from a death of the ego. For the sake of brevity, let’s take a look only at images linked to the work of Freud and Jung. Emergence from the death of the ego can look like Perseus’ experiences in Barth’s re-telling of the story of Medusa’s beheading. In Perseid, Perseus opens his closed eyes and meets those of Medusa (in order to cut off her head he was not allowed to look into her eyes). He discovers her beauty and realizes that there is no other true love. He returns to kiss her and gaze into her open eyes. Since then, the two lovers lay side by side as constellations in the skies. Medusa says that she is still tormented by the thought that perhaps Perseus’ decision to look directly at her was “an act not of love but of suicide, or a desperate impulse to immortality-by-petrifaction.” What she saw when she looked at her reflection in his eyes was a Gorgon, as Athena had foretold. Perseus assures her that he beheld in her eyes “two things in instantaneous succession.” First, he saw himself as he was - no longer a hero but still vigorous and “grown too wise to wish his time turned back.” Second “were the stars in her own eyes, reflected from his and re-reflected to infinity - stars of quite a miraculous, yes blinding love, which transfigured everything in view” (Barth, 1972: 133).

The ego dies when it is exposed to more shame than it can tolerate - and lives through it. Think of Oedipus who loses his kingdom, his position of power and wealth, and becomes the pollution of Thebes. Upon his realizations he gouges out his own eyes, and by doing so becomes a blind seer. In Sophocles’ subsequent tragedy, Oedipus at Colonus , the old, blind Oedipus finds respite at last in the grove of the Erinyes, representatives of ancient maternal power. He returns to the maternal feminine, and so death crowns his tragic life with mystical solemnity. In the end, Oedipus the King, through the crash of his heroic fate, realizes the truth about himself: that he is an inferior, weak and small creature. And yet it is this knowledge that reconnects him to the earth. Blind and infirm, “the lightless depths of Earth bursting open in kindness to receive him” (Sophocles/Fagles, 1982: 364), the Great Mother takes her son back into herself. Only through her containment in the eternal round of existence can a man live with the truth of his existence.

[Oedipus] is one of the great human figures whose agony and suffering lead to more gracious and civilized behavior, who, still embedded in the old order of which they are the products, stand there as its last great victims, and at the same time as founders of a new age.

(Bachofen, 1948: 442)

In his hubris, Oedipus was possessed by a preconceived notion of who he was, and this prevented him from seeking or seeing otherwise. In other words, pride reigned supreme to the exclusion of other thoughts. Upon his own self-castration by plucking out his eyes, he overcomes his ego-inflated blindness and is strengthened by the tragic insight rather than succumbing helplessly to it.

Attis is another male who castrates himself. Remember the phallic rock carving of Attis from Jung’s garden? He was a god eventually driven insane by his mother’s mad love for him. He castrated himself, symbolic of a man’s resistance to incest in protection of the mother of infancy. His auto-castration represents subservience to the Great Mother in an age where as yet there was no father to stand by the side of the son, a very different form of male sexuality that is so prized today.

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