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The Curse of Mythologized Love: Lessons from Swan Lake

There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness. // Friedrich Nietzsche

Swan / Lugano Switzerland
Sheri Heller

Recently I had the privilege of viewing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake performed by the brilliant Bolshoi ballet. Naturally being a psychotherapist, this epic tale catalyzed in me an analytical exploration of the love between Prince Siegfried and the Swan Maiden Odette.

The story imparts that through Siegfried’s love Odette can experience the freedom she desires, as his love will break the Sorcerers spell, which preserves her as a swan. Breaking the spell is a potent theme in Swan Lake. Odette embodies beauty and purity, but cannot fulfill her natural birthright as a woman. Siegfried’s love with it’s potential to humanize Odette can free her from her curse so she can shed her swan identity and be the woman she was born to be. The implicit meaning here is that the power of real love liberates the authentic self from the trap of a fraudulent persona and allows for integration.

Siegfried pledges undying love and fidelity to Odette, but tragically his inflated idealism and pursuit of perfect romantic love, is influenced by the dark hand of fate. Tested by fate Siegfried fails. He is bewitched by Odette’s doppelganger, the dangerously seductive Black Swan Odile. Blinded by enchantment, Siegfried succumbs to his attraction to Odile, thus abandoning his love for Odette by taking Odile as his bride. As the saga prevails, Siegfried awakens to his betrayal and begs Odette for forgiveness. Although he is forgiven by Odette they can no longer unite, and Siegfried finds himself alone crushed by harsh reality and his psychological torment. Odette is left with her curse and Siegfreid is left to accept that the fantasy of perfection and omnipotence can never be fulfilled.

The psychological torment of Siegfried epitomizes the lover who chases illusions and is destroyed by his fixation on an immature mental projection of an elevated perfect love, devoid of flaws and adult responsibility. From a psychological perspective, the compulsive need to escape to an otherworldly experience of union, in pursuit of the unattainable iconic lover speaks of unresolved disillusionment and trauma. Object relations theory purports that the impulse to idolize another reveals a deep-seated quest to have all needs gratified by a sexualized parental figure. Thus, Siegfried's fixation on Odette suggests that he is in the throes of a traumatic enactment. There are implications that Siegfrieds masculine power was usurped by his mother. Siegfried is to keep up appearances and fulfill his privileged role by choosing an appropriate bride from an array of young princesses selected by his mother the Queen. Siegfried defies his mother through his disinterest in her chosen suitors, and attempts to reclaim his manhood by pledging undying love to his idolized object of perfection, Odette. By deluding himself with fantasies of perfection, his emasculation and pain is obscured by illusory power and dreams of loves perfection. Turning to omnipotent fantasies of idolized love allows him to falsely believe that he is saved from his impotence, and shielded from the Bad Mother

Hypothetically, for Siegfried any perceived ‘badness’ in the other is unbearable as it shatters the idealized projection of perfect love and catapults him back into that intolerable moment of humiliation when his mother sadistically withdrew her love. The developmental task of tolerating disappointment while concomitantly loving another is necessary to mature relatedness. For some this experience of disappointment is split off and the fantasy of the ‘perfect’ other is tenaciously held onto. The beloved is either all good or all bad when vestiges of idiosyncratic humanity slip in. Since the deification of a beloved is an antidote to the oppressive pain of impotence, it is common when the idolized beloved eventually disappoints she is devalued and ultimately discarded if a humanized perspective cannot occur.

In certain versions of Swan Lake Siegfried and Odette end their enslavement through death. In the process of psychological transformation there is a figurative death passage which occurs. The resurrection of the true Self is predicated on this death passage, as it gives birth to psychic wholeness. So perhaps it is through death, and hence rebirth, that Siegfried and Odette achieve surrender to the consummation of their spiritual love, and are able to fulfill their eternal pledge to one another. Death being the great equalizer will put all fears to rest, so that love in it's perfection will paradoxically mend Siegfried's internal split so that he can choose to love responsibly and offer Odette the freedom to rise above her Swan personae and become the woman she yearns to be.