Stephanie Pope on the Hero's Journey Essay Series Pt6 Musing On The Pale Man for
myth and poetry

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The UnHappy Hero Part 6: Pan’s Labyrinth: Musings On The Pale Man
                 lenses extend
unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish
                      returns on its unself.
                                                         A world of made
                      is not a world of born—pity poor flesh
--------------------------------------------------------e.e.cummings, pity this monster manunkind

pale manThe upper-world historical setting in Pan’s Labyrinth or The Labyrinth of the Faun, the end of the Second World War, a moment when the Spanish resistance fully believed that the Allies would turn around and help them take care of Franco – something they proved not to do, is set contra distinct an underworld or nether world of images. The nether story precedes beginnings and endings. Its primary role seems to be that of leading back.

In any desensus one is to loosen one’s tie to the literal and material sense of self-as-thing which includes one’s attachment to life and its circumstance. One is to enter imaginally and in timely time a timeless, changeless setting, a no thing such as is that realm of fairy tale, legend and myth. This depth-in-death-perceiving leap down is into a labyrinth of the inward, invisible world.

This nether world is archetypal and host to primordial imagination. Contact with this transpersonal ground opens special windows of opportunity for growth. Such growth, not without trauma, increases with the ‘seismic’ proportions of the precipitating event. It will shake the very foundations of individual assumptions about life, and perhaps even shatter these. This particular description introduces the nature of thriving itself. (see Diane Zimberoff, Journal of Heart Centered Therapies, 3/22/2005, Trauma, Transition and Thriving)

Hence, the nether story may serve as it does now as container for confrontation with monsters and horrors and things that go bump in the night. After 911, such things as our own horror of death go bump here. This is because experiences sufficiently "seismic" to shake or shatter the foundations of the individual's assumptions about life also conjure associations with death. The nether story is that immaterial in-scape where libido poured, as did our own subjective notions in the subtle and not so subtle attitudes about the horror and shocking terrors of 911 and then talk of weapons of mass destruction and war with Iraq surfaced and ran amuck among us. Our nether story is one into which the impersonal subjectivities of these events, the attitudes held and loosed about such things coalesced to conjure in us all the pale monster, manunkind.

Encounter with The Pale Man introduces encounter with traumatic experience in the realm of nightmare, Pan’s realm. Yet what is recognized in such space is primarily an opportunity for growth beyond the personal and even existential self. Although there are lesser ways, Ofelia’s encounter shows she surpasses her prior level of functioning. Such an image recognizes ‘thriving’. The ‘thriving outcome’ has been studied extensively, and is generally called traumatic growth (Zimeroff, p6). It is from such grounds touched by the earth-shaker, Poseidon we soul-make to reclaim, reframe and broaden our challenges to freedom in spite of the perceptible socio-political narrowing of what is permissably possible to choose between in our nationally proclaimed sets of choices. For it has also been noticed how when a traumatized individual's identity is based also on something transcendent to herself and the world, a stance of nether-worldly connectedness, then the losses inherent in such trauma may also become psychical building blocks of transformation. (Zimberoff 9)

There is no doubt how Del Toro sees his “Pale Man”

I wanted to represent political power within the creatures," del Toro says, "and that particular character somehow came to represent the church and the devouring of children. The original design was just an old man who seemed to have lost a lot of weight and was covered in loose skin. Girl Interrupted, Dec.,2006

The real cinema story will have been a timely story. It will have happened where the myth, the imagination and the soul of the movie communed in the nether in each of us uniquely. For it is here in between these realms another seeming space will have opened. This space will have been transitional and communal.  A subtle ground of uncertain place it will have be-come in certain space that place where our own individual and unique uncertainties came to presence. This is the metaphorical "midpoint" of our life. Of here it could be told, there is in subtle substance what will have held the possibilities of our own psyche’s transformation while transformation happened into something more, or truer. It is here we died to the impossible nature of impossible things…things such as cannot be told.

If you have ever been up against a wall like this and felt between the rock and the hard place in it you may know what I mean. In such a moment life becomes like the movie story, a dark fantasy regarding choice in the presence of something immortal where knowledge of our own death will have lost its horror and our horror will have confrontation with what it fears. In Del Toro’s own words

I was trying to uncover a common thread between the 'real world' and the 'imaginary world', which I found in one of the seminal bloodlines within fairytales: the bloodline of choice. It's something that has intrigued me since Cronos, through Hellboy, and now to Pan's Labyrinth: the way your choices define you. And I thought it would be great to counterpoint an institutional lack of choice, which is fascism, with the chance to choose which the girl takes in this movie.
                                                              -Girl Interrupted, December, 2006

The image upper most in my mind as I attempt this essay is the one I uncovered while looking at the movie and writing part three of this series on the unhappy hero. It is the image of the stolen child or changling. This image hides an even darker horror. It is the horrible recognition of one's own unwanted flesh.  The Pale Man is a sack of skin, all skin and bone.  He’s hiding, in both senses of the term, the pale, nether nature within his own absence of flesh.  

Ofelia will enter this world, a world repugnant to her. What she does here she does freely. First, she freely chooses to obey guidance and enter this world. She then chooses to disobey what commands here. In essence, she does not choose to inherit the flesh of this fatherhood which is scant in terms of what it will flesh. Traumatic change will require a belief of self that transcends both ego death and existential existence. This is the transpersonal identity, something to which the image idea of the changeling may refer. If you click on the word “changling” in this sentence now you will read that one way to prevent the unwanted flesh of the changling is to place over the infant in the cradle an article of clothing of the father’s. More severe methods fantasize a torture to flesh that devours flesh to release the unwanted one and send it back to the fey world. Such emplotting may be an avoidance of contact with the transpersonal identity of the archetypal shadow.

death playing violinThe transpersonal identity is a process of individuation through which one must face the personal shadow to tend to psychological health. Sometimes, however, one will re-cover an encounter with the archetypal shadow.  Encounter with trauma is just such a re-covery. Jung puts it this way

In other words, it is quite within the bounds of possibility for a man to recognize the relative evil of his nature, but it is a rare and shattering experience for him to gaze into the face of absolute evil -Psyche and Symbol, p 148

If you go back over your experience of the movie you will begin to sense this kind of transcending movement within traumatic growth freely in play. Knowing when to obey and when to disobey means knowledge of what ennobles your inner life and brings it “flesh”.  Navigating transpersonal space requires anchor in staying true to one's depth nature; Ofelia must be intentional about what part of herself she choose to identify with, a choice in integrity, morals, values, and priorities. In other words, Ofelia stays connected to what in self-reflection has brought Ofelia to life.  What has brought her to life is her anchor. It has its root in the material imagination.
Death Playing A Violin, Arnold Bocklin
Swiss Symbolist Painter, 1827-1901

What The Pale Man lacks is an actively moving material imagination. He is dead to it.

In my own musings this unwanted flesh of the changling is a metaphorical reference to that which is less material than I can think. In other words, I can’t think it at all. I can experience it, however, without mediation, as what the world outside myself is; this being at root what I am, both inside and outside the same—so in tune, in fact, both inside and outside vanish! I can next think about what it is I have experienced in a self-reflective way. This self-reflection is what I mean when I say “imagine”.  And the image is what comes to represent what could not ever have been told. The image is also what unleashes a torrent of words, something this six part series on the unhappy hero can attest, inspired as it is by the literary image of the changling. Gaston Bachelard calls this the mobility of an image or the way an image refuses to desert its imaginary principle(see Bachelard, Air pp2-3)

So now, I keep re imagining specifically the devalued relationship imagination has had with reason in a moment of horror like 911. I imagine it is something like what keeps reflecting back to me in the imagination of the movie through Ofelia’s encounter with The Pale Man.  For Del Toro, a lapsed Catholic, the Church represents one such representation for an “institutional lack of choice”. The Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth is a living corpse much like David Miller’s notion for how we are living with dead religious images now. (see The UnHappy Hero Pt 5)

I also keep thinking about our society’s refusal to nurture the imaginal life of its people, our collective life of images and our inability to honor with high award such contribution. Where I muse upon and explore some of the movie images I continue to experience our western psyche’s struggle with a belief in the illegitimacy of imagination as not as capable in contributing something equally real to reality (the rock I mentioned earlier) up against a refusal to accept an ability to imagine as co-creative with reason and necessary to manifest the fullest reality at work. This is the “hard” place in that sense that it will be no actual place but a choice that must be made. The choice falls here in this hard place –a pathological moment that most constellates our fullest awareness of soul in its essential form.

Imagination, at times, is like an illegitimate child, a changling or like a piece of chalk in the hands of Ofelia, or like a plastic knife in the hands of passengers on the hijacked planes during 911. Imagination will have been all that one will have had to help one become immune to the knowledge of one’s death and be ennobled in one’s depth with responses destined to avert greater harm.

The image of the illegitimate child, the one not truly belonging to the father’s sphere of influence will run the gamut in poetry’s ways of knowing and expressing the passions in play historically but always such tension is couched in a specific acknowledgement, a failure to thriveThere is no official consensus on what constitutes failure to thrive in persons (it is not classed as a medical disease) but treatment means getting at the underlying causes for it. It is usually measured in infants as a ratio between weight gain and growth.

In fairy tale terms I can think of Hansel and Gretal and have a sense for this failure while the story unfolding now as then as always and according to Girl Interrupted, “speaks to a power that evil itself cannot imagine.” According to the 911 Commission, one of our failures as a society is in our ability to imagine. We have this fantasy of growth or myth of progress but we have not developed in our ability to deal with the soul-loss such progression creates. Evil, it seems, involves an inability to provide psychic weight to our reasons and ways. They haunt us as dead religious images, monsters and fey.

We must provide adequate means for how our psyche “weighs” this fantasy whose horrific consequences must be reckoned in the soul-making that achieved it and soul it contains. One of the more difficult concerns has to do with losing our fear of death or becoming immune to our own dying in ways that do not deface our own living well.


The Pale Man
What Ofelia Saw
Grandmother Eyes

poetry by Ric Williams

a thousand doors
the infinite turning
for the absence of rain

extended reading

Pan's Labyrinth

more on changlings

George W Bush's Favorite Fairy Tale

Hero, Pt5

Hero, Pt1
Hero, Pt 2
Hero, Pt 3
Hero, Pt4
mythopoetics mythopoesis
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