Erla Thorarinsdottir in Hallgrimskirkja
By Ólafur Gíslason
When I visited Erla Thorarinsdottir at her studio to observe her works in progress for her exhibition in Hallgrimskirkja, the final words from Goethe’s tragedy about Faust started resounding in my ears like a persistent echo: „Das Ewig-Weibliche / Zieht uns hinan“, or as it sounds in the translation of A. S. Kline: Woman, eternal / Beckons us on.
Those feminine forms, the breasts, the hearts and the vulva that recurrently opens in a rhythm of forms and nuances, perpetually reborn from silver to gold, an echo of some lost motifs and vanished memories that simultaneously conjured up unfathomable visions ranging from the nocturnal silver moon to the golden sun of the day. What is this femininity about that recalls us from these works and what did Goethe mean with the final words of the Chorus Mysticus in his magnificent and ambiguous late-18th-century tragedy about human destiny? These questions have puzzled people to this present day. For Goethe’s tragedy is just as relevant today as it was in the 18th century. This story about the man that sells his soul to Mephistopheles believing this will allow him to both enjoy love and dominate the world with the assistance of evil. The multiple interpretations of Goethe’s play will not be accounted for here, let it just be assumed that Faust’s progress and struggle is no less relevant in our times, it is not a story of a conflict between heaven and earth or the Heavens and Hell, rather the conflict that goes directly through man’s mind and body and the core of what it means to be human. That the story reflects, in the words of Jung, the “alchemical process” that shapes the individual consciousness, the disintegration and then reunion in a new and distinguished form.
Whether we try to explain Erla’s and Goethe’s femininity from a religious or a secular point of view, we cannot evade looking at it as a transcendence: man must step out the box of his own existence to handle the truth that can neither be measured nor touched upon, but is an event in itself: the experience related to our inner reality that Freud called sub-conscious and Umberto Galmberti among others has called “the sphere of the sacred”, where all logic and difference ends.[i]
The femininity Goethe indicates in Faust is neither the Virgin Mary nor Eve, rather both at the same time, neither Demeter nor Persephone if we look further back to the polytheism of the ancient Greeks, but rather both: The primordial mother-goddess of creation and death that the Lithuanian anthropologist Marija Gimbustas calls “the intimidating Venus of prehistoric times”, a prolific yet annihilating goddess of life and death whose remains have been found in prehistoric sepulchres around Europe from the period Gimbutas calls matriarchal, reaching from around 30000 B.C. to about 2500 B.C.[ii]
The images of femininity Gimbutas unmasked in the goddess figures of prehistoric European times, has a parallel in Jung’s definition of the “Kingdom of Mothers” in Goethe’s Faust, where he amongst other says:
“The Kingdom of Mothers” [in Faust] has multiple parallels to the womb that often assumes the form of sub-consciousness in creative pictorial executions. This libido is a natural force, at once good and evil, that is to say morally neutral. By connecting to this force, Faust manages to execute his life’s work, first with negative results, later on for the good of mankind. In the Kingdom of Mothers he finds the Tripod, the hermetic vessel that accommodates “the Royal Wedding [the wedding of Paris and Helen in Faust]”.[iii]
Thus Jung explains in a fairly convincing way the “alchemic” ideas that form the basis of Goethe’s whole tragedy and epitomizes in the final “invocation of femininity” that thereby becomes one form of the unconscious archetype of the mother-goddess common to all humans.
The Hungarian cultural anthropologist Karoly Kerényi made an interesting remark on this image of femininity as it appears in Greek mythology in the mother Demeter (goddess of fertility) and her daughter Kore (otherwise known as Persephone, the queen of the Underworld or Hades), both connected to the Eleusinian mysteries in Greece. There, the initiated were granted an insight into the mysteries of afterlife. Kerényi reasons, referencing an ancient text[iv], that at the mysteries in Eleusis the mother and daughter Demeter and Kore became one person, “the Holy Mother of Eleusis”. The secret of the Eleusinian mysteries consisted in an experience that was supposed to be a “totally new, surprising and logically unfathomable” and gave people an insight into the progress of eternal life. The uniqueness of the experience of the initiated in Eleusis consisted according to Kerényi in the radical difference between “knowing something” and “being something”:
“It is one thing to have the knowledge of the seed and the germ [of Demeter], another to have experienced them both in the past and future in connection with one’s own existence and continuity. Or as professor Jung claimed: To experience in that way the recursion [apocastasi ] of the forefathers’ life and how they prolong their existence through the bridge of the living individual present and life in coming generations. Knowledge with this core – the being in death – can certainly not be underestimated.”[v]
In short, Kerényi says, the event of “the miracle” in Eleusis took place as the attendants watched in silence how the seed of Demeter germinated, thereafter followed by a loud cry from the hierophant (high priest). The Eleusinian mysteries thus have a parallel, according to Kerényi, in the Blood Miracle that still regularly takes place in Naples today when the blood of the patron saint Gennaro liquefies again and again, 1700 years after his execution.
Kerényi, however, makes a clear distinction between a “miracle” and a “mystery”:
“The miracle always and everywhere wants to become public. The mystery thrives in silence. Does the secret of every real, great mystery not lie in simplicity itself? When spoken of, it is transformed into words, in silence it is the being itself. And it is also a miracle in the way that the whole existence of man with all its controversies is.”
Let me bring this discussion about Erla Thorarinsdottir’s exhibition to a close with the final words from Faust: Alles Vergängliche /Ist nur ein Gleichnis; /Das Unzulängliche, / Hier wird’s Ereignis;/ Das Unbeschreibliche, / Hier ist’s getan; / Das Ewig-Weibliche / Zieht uns hinan. (All that is temporal is only an allegory, unsatisfactory, here it happens, the indescribable, here it is realized, the eternal feminine calls upon us.)
[i] Umberto Galimberti: Orme del sacro – Il cristianesimo e la desacralizzazione del sacro. Milano, 2000, p.13-31
[ii] “The Fertility Goddess or Mother Goddess is a more complex image than most people think. She was not only the Mother Goddess who commands fertility, or the Lady of the Beasts who governs the fecundity of animals and all wild nature, or the frightening Mother Terrible, but a composite image with traits accumulated from both the pre-agricultural and agricultural eras. During the latter she became essentially a Goddess of Regeneration, i.e., a Moon Goddess, a product of a sedentary, matrilineal community, encompassing the archetypal unity and multiplicity of feminine nature. She was a giver of life and promotor of fertility and at the same time wielded the destructive power of nature. The feminine nature, like the moon is light as well as dark ”Marija Gimbutas: The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe 7000 – 3000 BC. London, 1974, pgs. 152. The most famous image of this sort is the “Venus of Willendorf”, about 25000 years old.
[iii] C. G. Jung: Symbole der Wandlung: Analyse des Vorspiels zu eine Schizophrenie, here translated from Italian: Simboli della transformazione, Torino 2002, pg. 129.
[iv] See P.Roussel: : Les cultes égyptiens à Delos, 1916
[v] Károly Kerényi: Epilegomeni. Il miracolo di Eleusi. from the epilogue of the book Einfürung in das Wesen der Myhologie, that he published in collaboration with C.G.Jung in 1941, here translated from Italian: Prologemi allo studio scientifico della mitologia, Torino 1972, pgs. 255-256.