Addiction To Perfection: Black Swan & The Anti-Woke Wars
In Darren Aronofsky’s psychological horror film Black Swan, Nina, a ballerina obsessed with perfection, must take on two roles in the season’s latest show: First, that of a pure, lily white swan who is innocent and perfect, in fact a bit too perfect. According to the ballet director, Nina, who is played by Natalie Portman, is too consumed with perfection and this makes her a bit too rigid to be able to transform into the second role, the black swan, who is loose, open, and spontaneous. Whoever stars in this role must be able to play both, but Nina has not learned how to integrate her dark side. So she can only be transformed into the black swan while being unconsciously driven to madness by disorders, including bulimia, self-cutting, and an obsessive desire for order and prediction.
I watched this film only recently after receiving a recommendation on Twitter, and after reading Marion Woodman’s book, ‘Addiction to Perfection.’ Marion was a Jungian scholar who suffered from anorexia in her youth and her book explores the psychological underpinnings of eating disorders in our society. Juxtaposing both Marion’s book and Aronofsky’s film was a real study into the coping mechanisms we construct for ourselves in pursuit of the unachievable goal of perfection.
Why unachievable? Because perfection is a construct that refuses to admit the basic structure of what it actually means to be human: A being which by definition is always becoming, always growing, never static, always subject to change. To pursue perfection is to seek the foreclosure of such change and this always means death. As Marion points out in her book, this happened to figures like “Marilyn Monroe who tried to break out of the glare of the spotlights, but couldn’t. Neither the film studios nor the audiences would let her. Addiction to perfection is at root a suicidal addiction. The addict is simulating not life but death. Almost inevitably a woman addicted to perfection will view herself as a work of art, and her real terror is that the work of being so absolutely precious may in one instant be destroyed.”
At the end of Black Swan, we see this very prediction of suicide come to fruition. Nina cannot walk into the darkness in an organic way. She approaches becoming the black swan with the precision of a knife instead of the grace of a swan. Her inner being has become split, like we see in cases of schizophrenia. Unlike the Yin Yang which symbolizes the integration and balance of darkness and light, Nina’s Yin and Yang are at war with each other.
In a way we see this pattern repeating itself in some of our culture wars today, or rather in the very idea of a culture war to begin with. Folks on the left and right see each other as representative of absolute monsters to be vanquished instead of ideas whose energies must be integrated and transmuted. I recently had an exchange with Chris Rufo and David French on Twitter, more emblematic of an internal dispute since both of these gentlemen are on the right. But French, who is a lawyer by trade, criticized Rufo for trying to pass a bill called the Stop Woke Act in Florida, a bill which has now been paused by courts for infringing upon free speech. In this case I agreed with French but I was intrigued to learn more about where Rufo was coming from. When pressed, he posted an article lamenting the excesses of anti-harassment law, an article whose author claimed that anti-harassment laws were good but sometimes resulted in excess. When I read this, I noticed a glaring omission from Rufo who’d created a simple binary. He stated that the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited a large amount of speech in public and private institutions, the evidence for which he presented with the aforementioned article. But that same article, again, praised the Civil Rights acts and laments only its overreach, an overreach which is not only always possible but INEVITABLE because imperfection in human affairs is inevitable.
When I asked Chris if he agreed with the author’s observation, unfortunately he did not answer my question. Listen, I get it. Chris, like Nina, is at war. War is the only metaphor, the only heuristic he knows that can capture the moment he’s in. And in a war there is no compromising with the enemy. But the problem is that Chris fails to answer the question because he cannot. If he says he agrees with the author, then he would have to admit that excesses exist in his ‘Stop Woke Act.’ If he says he disagrees, then he would contradict the earlier claim he’d made about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But by failing to answer and failing to reckon with his own excesses, like Nina, Chris begins to go down a path of cannibalization. By failing to acknowledge that the very thing which exists within his enemy also exists within him — an inclination to overreach, to excess, and to power grabs — he goes down a path which I’m afraid will ultimately end in destruction. He and many in this camp are unknowingly at war, not only with their enemies, but most tragically with themselves.
The political polarization of our time and the need to constantly shape one’s image after the approval of whoever is on social media — and this is a temptation I personally feel as someone who is active on social media — are both illustrations of this trend. It becomes all too easy to sacrifice authenticity on the altar of being liked, especially when the practice of nuance is not only not in vogue, but considered, in some cases to be a demonstration of the countenancing of evil itself. We see this in the binary, all-or-nothing thinking that tempts people to align with their political teams, come hell or high water, as a matter of affirming their own worthiness, and moral salvation. Both those who identify as woke and those who identify as anti-woke fall into this trap. All the more so because not only are they at war with each other; they are at war with different aspects of themselves.
Now, when we speak of the principle of the divine, we are not speaking of this. We are speaking of something else entirely outside of this paradigm, something completely separate and above it. The principle of the divine — which has been called many things by many cultures: Christos, Shiva, Osiris, Moshiach, and so on and so forth — is the awakened creativity of every moment, which presupposes the assimilation of the darkness and the light.
Perfection allows us no such beauty and is a denial of the mystery at the heart of being itself, which the black, dark, swan represents because “black” and “dark” are simply synonyms for the unknown. To enter into proper relationship with life, to perform creative acts, requires a healthy orientation with the unknown. The dogma of perfection makes this impossible and turns curiosity — the root word of which is care — into a sin. The outcome of this, at least in our lifetime, is the corporatization of identity, the obscuring of the individual soul into a generalized statistic — and you’ve seen this, haven’t you?
To some, I am merely a member of BIPOC. You might be a member of the LGBTQ community. Or perhaps you identify as woke? Or Maybe anti-woke. These conglomerated labels cannot capture the complexity of who you and I are. And we as a species didn’t always do this, before we were hunger-gatherers it was commonplace for us to see each and every individual as a unique, unrepeatable being, but that has been replaced for a long long time with the conglomeration of identity and the subsequent treatment of a human being as a data point all in service of holy prediction and order.
So I believe we’ve got to transform our relationship to perfection and grow out of it and as long as we don’t we will be addicted to it and in pursuit of it, like Nina, we will kill ourselves on stage, in front of the whole world to see. This is not to say that order is bad but that it becomes a form of idolatry if it is not balanced with a reverence for the unknown, for the blackness, for the mystery at the heart of your being, for the mystery that is at the heart of your very lives.
The book is called Addiction to Perfection: The Still Unravished Bride by Marion Woodman. And the film is Black Swan by Darren Aronofsky. Read the book, watch the film, and tell me what you think about the combo in the comments.