"Were we supposed to believe that was real? Because if we were, a lot of it didn't make sense."
The man speaking was leaving the Midtown Art Cinema just behind me. He was talking to his companion.
"I think she was just psycho," the other man said, "so it didn't have to make a lot of sense."
We had just seen Guillermo del Toro's film, Pan's Labyrinth. The movie, set in Franco's Spain, has received a tremendous amount of deserving praise. It's about a young girl, Ofelia, whose mother marries a sadistic soldier. They live in a remote outpost in a forest filled with insurgents, whom the soldier enjoys hunting, torturing and killing.
The forest, like that of any fairy tale or myth, turns out to be enchanted and Ofelia encounters the faun-god Pan. She is given three errands in the underworld to reclaim her lost place as princess of that realm.
I was destined to love the movie. I've been a mythology nerd since my four years of Latin in high school. And the writers I enjoyed most in my undergrad Spanish studies were the magical realists such as Jorge Luis Borges who clearly inspired del Toro. Probably the best-known example of magical realism, in print and on film, is Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate.
The conversation I overheard as I left the theater reminded me of countless ones I've had with clients. They want to talk about their asshole of a boss and I want to hear about their dreams.
"Dreams aren't real," they say. "My boss is."
"So when you wake up from a nightmare, covered in sweat with your heart racing, that's not real?" I reply.
Pan is the god of the nightmare. The dream, like any other product of the imagination, is a labyrinth and the function of any labyrinth, like the one in Chartres Cathedral or in this movie, is to lead us inward, to another world. Ofelia, whose name derives from the Greek word for "help," does not "retreat into fantasy" as many critics put it. Nor does she develop schizophrenia.
She journeys to the center of herself to find help in her imagination, much as Alice did when she fell down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. What she does is completely natural and what she encounters is as healing as her fate in this world is violent. The world of the imagination, I wanted to tell the man behind me as I left the theater, is as real as the world you're walking through.
The movie is virtually a primer on the nature of the imaginal. Perhaps the hardest thing I've found to communicate to clients -- and the hardest thing to honor myself -- is that what we encounter in the imagination is not valuable because of an interpretation we apply to it. It's the journey itself that can transform us. The willingness to follow images in dreams and reverie, like Ofelia's willingness to follow Pan's instructions, can open a new world. Refuse to follow the imagination, as Ofelia does once, and the world loses its magical reality. We are left with only the effort to survive.
Pan's Labyrinth also demonstrates how the free imagination negates the fantasy of perfection. Indeed, Ofelia's fascist stepfather -- like all fascists -- hides behind the belief that his sadism is in service to creating "a new Spain, a clean Spain." (We see the same thinking, if less extreme, in America's fascist religious right.)
But the liberated imagination does not heal us by purifying us. It brings us into the shadowland of the soul, where the inherency of evil is understood. There are countless reminders of this in the film. One of the more subtle ones is when Ofelia descends to Pan's world and the word "echo" reverberates in a cave. Echo, in fact, is the name of a nymph whom Pan loved. But, in one telling, when she rejected him, he incited such panic among shepherds that they tore her to pieces, leaving only her voice behind.
Christianity and other monotheistic religions cannot tolerate this notion that good and evil can properly coexist in the same person -- much less in a god. Thus, the goat-like Pan became the Christian image of Satan -- pure evil in opposition to the pure love represented by Christ.
But the imagination is not so simple. Pan both torments and rescues Ofelia. So it is in our dreams and reverie. It is only those who refuse to imagine freely who become one-sided like Ofelia's almost cartoonishly evil stepfather. Besides being a primer on the imagination, Pan's Labyrinth is, obviously, also a political allegory of the present. See the movie.
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.
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