Transformation of the Feminine

“Transformation of the Feminine” is a sculpture that conveys a sense of emergence, of a woman stepping out from inside a tree.

Ten years ago, I had a dream in which there appeared the image of a half-woman, half-tree. In 2003, I dreamed the image of a woman who was now emerging from the tree.

I realized that this image of the woman emerging from the tree is what Jung calls a “symbol of transformation” (CW 5). From an object relations perspective, the image is an example of what Christopher Bollas calls a “transformational object” (1979).

This realization resonated in various dimensions for me – experimentially, emotionally, aesthetically, sexually, and spiritually. The dream image informed me that it needed to be created as a sculpture in clay. While processing the image, I began to draw it. I made a number of preliminary drawings – some with the woman in (or as) the tree, others with the woman stepping out of the tree.

Creating an art work, a sculpture of the woman emerging from the tree, was a way for me to engage with my creativity and to experiment with the theory and practice of psychoanalysis. I now recognize just how essential creative expression is to consciousness and just how vital it is to value it.

I decided to apply the Jungian technique of “amplification” to the image from my recent dream. Amplification is a comparative method. When one amplifies an image from a dream, one compares it to the same or similar images in other sources (for example, myths, fairy tales, folktales, art, literature, and culture) in order to establish archetypal parallels.

Although the image of the woman coming out of a tree came to me in a dream – that is, from my own, personal unconscious – the image of a woman going into a tree (or turning into a tree) already exists in the collective unconscious and predates my dream archetypally. For example, in Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: The Strife of Love in a Dream, Francesco Colonna describes the transformation of seven nymphs into trees in the presence of the god Jupiter. A woodcut illustrates the process:

This is what Colonna says about the seven nymphs:

They then transformed themselves into green trees of transparent emerald, covered with bright blue flowers, which bowed devoutly to the high god. The last one was entirely turned to a tree, her feet becoming roots; the next, all but her feet; the third, all but the part from the waist to the arms; and so on, successively. But the tops of the virginal heads showed that the metamorphosis would happen to each in turn. (Colonna 1999: 174)

“Trees in dreams,” Raymond de Becker says, “frequently assume human, and often female shape.” They may then indicate a process of transformation. According to de Becker, “If some development is taking place in the dreamer, the tree begins by animating itself at the top, its branches turning into arms and hands; then the trunk is animated, and lastly the roots free themselves from the soil and become legs and feet.” De Becker mentions that this process is illustrated in “certain editions of the Dream of Poliphilus” (1968:345). In addition, he notes that “Mme Ania Teillard has presented, in Le magie en mille images, a most exhaustive series emanating from the dream of one of her female patients” (1968: 345-6).

In Greek mythology, a nymph who inhabits a tree is a dryad. In this respect, Cornelius Castoriadis rebuts the notion that a tree is ever just a tree, that nature is ever just nature (even, for example, in terms of the double helix) – or that any perception is pure and simple. “Whether the tree be the dwelling-place of the dryad or the centre of a ceaseless metabolic activity governed by DNA, it is never purely and simply: tree,” Castoriadis asserts. “A pure perception is but the purest of abstractions; ‘natural’ perception is never natural” (130).

The image of the woman in a tree (or as a tree) also occurs in the myth of Daphne and Apollo. In the Metamorphoses, Ovid recounts how Cupid shot a “dull” arrow into Daphne’s heart to “stop” love and a “gold” arrow into Apollo’s heart to “start” love. Ovid says that, as a result, “sex, love, marriage mean nothing” to Daphne. In contrast, “Apollo sees Daphne & wants sex.” Apollo runs after Daphne, but Daphne runs away from Apollo. Just as Apollo is about to catch up and catch her, Daphne prays to the River Peneus: “Help, father, if your river’s divine, change my too attractive shape!” Ovid then describes the transformation of the woman into a tree:

prayer barely out, heavy numbness seizes
limbs, soft breasts enclose in bark, hair
in leaf, arms branch, feet (so swift)
root; head, a tree-top. (Ovid 1989: 16)

Daphne runs away from Apollo, and then she turns into a tree. From a psychoanalytic perspective, when evasion fails as a defense, transformation finally “succeeds” as a defense. That is, the transformation of Daphne into a tree accomplishes the purpose of defending her against the sexual pursuit of Apollo.

In the index that Stith Thompson has prepared of motifs in folk literature, there are many variations on the theme of transformation. For example, there are types “D200. Transformation: man to object” and “D210: Transformation: man to vegetable form” (1955 2: 26), as well as “D215. Transformation: man to tree” (1955 2: 26). Thompson includes the myth of the transformation of Daphne into a tree as type “D215.1. Transformation: man (woman) to laurel” (1955 2: 27). Other trees into which a person is transformed in folk literature include the linden, apple, mulberry, almond, and mango. The reversal of this process is type “D431.2. Transformation: tree to person” (1955 2: 40). The motivation for transformation is also an important consideration for Thompson. For example, he mentions type “D642. Transformation to escape difficult situation” (1955 2: 71), as well as type “D642.3. Transformation to escape lover” (1955 2: 72) – both of which apply to Daphne, for whom transformation is escapism.

One of the types of metamorphoses that P.M.C. Forbes Irving studies in Greek myths is transformation into a plant. Among these stories, the largest group by far, he says, describe how a god’s favorite human (or lover) becomes that god’s favorite plant. The tendency is for these stories to employ either of two plots – one of which is that of the story of Daphne. The plot is “transformation to preserve virginity” (1990: 129). According to Forbes Irving, animism is an improbable explanation for the Greek myths of transformation into a plant. “There is little evidence,” he says, “that the Greeks ever believed in tree-souls or tree-spirits in so far as this implies an identity of plant and human being” (1990:130). He notes that not until Ovid is there any such notion and argues, therefore, that belief in tree-souls or tree-spirits is more plausibly an Italian rather than a Greek belief. Forbes Irving proposes that the stories of the transformation of a god’s favorite human into that god’s favorite plant illustrate “some expression such as ‘Apollo loves the laurel'”(1990: 132-3). Even the transformation of Daphne into a laurel tree does not entirely deter Apollo. “We are told,” Forbes Irving says, “that Apollo’s love for Daphne did not cease and that he is now a lover (erastes) of its leaves, while Ovid pictures him embracing and kissing the tree itself” (1990: 133). A god kissing a plant is, however, qualitatively (perhaps even perversely) different from a god kissing a human. Thus Forbes Irving says that “all these stories are to some extent tragedies in which the love of god and mortal is unfulfilled.” He remarks that in a number of them “it is the heroine’s extreme love of virginity that frustrates the god, and the tree perpetuates her virgin state” (1990: 135).

James Hillman compares Dionysus with Apollo in pursuit of Daphne. Hillman observes that Dionysus is not misogynous but androgynous, “bisexual in the first place,” always already both male and female. For Dionysus, he notes, the coniunctio of male and female is not sought and attained but is “given” – in contrast to Apollo. “In fact,” Hillman emphasizes, “the seeking of the coniunctio, as Apollo pursuing Daphne, is self-defeating because it hyperactivates the male, driving the psyche into vegetative regression, Daphne into laurel tree” (1972: 259). When the male hyperactively pursues, the female regressively vegetates.

Thomas Moore, who analyzes the psychology of “soul mates,” wonders why Daphne flees from Apollo and turns into a tree. The myth of Daphne and Apollo, he concludes, is about the theme of detachment in relationships. “This flight of the young nymphlike woman away from the great Apollo,” Moore says, “is the key image in the story, and may help us gain insight into dreams of flight and those times in our lives when we find ourselves anxiously running away from attachment.” Moore mentions a number of artists who have rendered “this wondrous image, the girl becoming a tree,” in a variety of media (1994: 12):

In marble, Bernini shows the leaves delicately growing from her arms and hands. In Perugino’s Allegorical Combat between Chastity and Voluptuousness, Daphne is woman from her neck down, but from her head and arms grows a tall branching tree. In a Magrittelike modern painting by Jan Balet, Apollo wears a bowler hat and black suit, while Daphne, naked, her hair flaming red, her arms having become brilliant green branches, runs among tall dark trees just out of reach. (Moore 1994: 12-13).

For Moore, the transformation of Daphne into a tree is the preservation of virginity. He does not, however, reduce Daphne to a virgin body fleeing from sex. An alternative perspective, Moore says, might regard Daphne as the “virgin soul fleeing from the spirit of cultural, Apollonic achievements of intellect, art, and even healing” – all of them accomplishments in the style of consciousness specific to Apollo. In this respect, Moore says that fleeing from Apollo may not be a psychopathological resistance or defense but “may be Daphne sensitivities, honest emotions keeping the soul intact.” According to Moore, the dynamic of Daphne versus Apollo personifies a number of oppositions – for example, the virginal versus the marital, the solitary versus the relational, and the natural versus the cultural. As he summarizes Daphne, she prefers “to be transformed backward into nature, rather than forward into human culture” (1994: 13). An identification with the myth of Daphne, Moore says, may “keep us in a regressive state, like a tree instead of a person, safely insulated with bark, and unattached to the world that sees our beauty and our potential, that desires us and quite naturally seeks out intimacy with us” (1994: 14).

Joseph Campbell employs the myth of Daphne to describe schizophrenics, who he says experience “a terrific drop-off and regression, backward in time and biologically as well.” The regression is to an intrauterine state. “Falling back into his own past,” Campbell says, “the psychotic becomes an infant, a fetus in the womb.” The regression can even be to a vegetative state. “One has the frightening experience,” Campbell says, “of slipping back to animal consciousness, into animal forms, sub-animal forms, even plantlike.” For Campbell, the myth of Daphne, “the nymph who was turned into a laurel tree,” is an image of that condition. “Such an image, read in psychological terms,” he says, “would be the image of a psychosis.” The transformation of Daphne is an example of an extreme, if effective, defense. “Approached in love by the god Apollo,” Campbell says, “the virgin was terrified, cried for help to her father, the river-god Peneus, and he turned her into a tree” (1972: 219)

To say that “a woman is a tree” is not only a metamorphosis but also a metaphor. In this respect, Umberto Eco notes that the expression The girl is a birch is an instance of an “intensional” metaphor (not an “extensional” metaphor, for the expression The girl is a birch has null extension in external reality). Implicit in the expression are certain if-then postulates about semantic properties: (1) If a girl, then human and (2) If a birch, then nonhuman. It would be a contradiction in terms to say that “to be human is to be nonhuman.” The expression The girl is a birch is obviously to be interpreted metaphorically. If it were interpreted literally, Eco says, it would be either a “semantically incorrect expression” or a “lie” (110). To say that semantic properties are transferred from one term of the metaphor to the other term (for example, from “girl” to “birch”) or between both terms (so that the girl has some “vegetal” property and the birch some “human” property is not, Eco says, very informative and may even seem almost parodic. “Establishing that a ‘transference’ or transfer of properties occurs in the sentence She is a birch, whereby a girl would acquire the seme ‘vegetal’ or birch the seme ‘human’, tells us very little about what happens in the interpretation and production of that trope,” he says. “In fact, if we try to paraphrase the result (‘This girl is human but also has a vegetal property’) we see that it is not very far from being a parody of itself” (113).

Any transformation from the human form into a nonhuman form, including a tree, Harold F. Searles calls a “phylogenetic regression.” He believes that humans experience anxiety “not merely lest we regress ontogenetically (to an infantile or an intrauterine state, for example) but also lest we regress further, phylogenetically as it were, to an animal, vegetable, or even inorganic state” (1960: 180). A phylogenetic regression is, in effect, an evolutionary reversal. When a higher form (human) turns into a lower form (animal, vegetable, mineral, or whatever) what occurs is a psychic devolution. Psychically, the human form devolves into a nonhuman form.

Searles amplifies the phenomenon of phylogenetic regression in the context of Greek myths and other sources. For example, he recounts the myth of Dryope, who is transformed into a tree (her feet transformed into roots and her skin transformed into bark) after she plucks blossoms from a lotus tree that secretes not sap but blood. This lotus tree is actually the nymph Lotis, who, in flight from a pursuer (like Daphne in flight from Apollo), has previously been transformed into that tree as a refuge. Similarly, Searles mentions Dante’s Inferno, in which men who have committed suicide are damned to hell and transformed into trees: “Men we were, and now are turned to trees” (1960: 182).

With a number of examples from psychoanalytic case material, Searles demonstrates that the transformation of people into trees is not only an ancient myth but also a modern fantasy – a delusion of contemporary schizophrenic patients. He describes a schizophrenic patient who declares: “They’re not going to turn me into a tree.” The patient deplores and protests what she considers a fact – that “they turn people into trees.” The practice of turning people into trees is preposterous, she believes, because it is so unnecessary – for, as she observes, “there is no lack of trees from natural sources – from seeds of other trees.” Then the patient recounts an anecdote. She says that she was once at a place “where they turned people into trees.” To Searles, the patient then emphasizes, with a significant look, “They were called ‘liveoaks,'” as if the mere name proved that the trees were actually people. The patient says that an “arm” – which she immediately corrects to a “branch” (as if she has committed a Freudian slip) – had been torn off one of these trees and that it did not look “like wood” but “like muscle fibers” (1960: 184). If they wanted to turn trees into people because they wanted to “make a friend,” that would be understandable, the patient says, but because “there is no lack of people or of trees,” she wants to know “why do they turn people into trees, and trees into people” (1960: 185).

Searles (1960) cites another psychoanalyst, Herman Nunberg, who describes a delusion that a patient dignifies as a “theory” of transformation. The patient does not apply this “Theory of Transformation” exclusively to human beings. The process, Nunberg says, “takes its course in the entire world,” with “all living creatures” transforming, or “changing successively into ever-lower beings, until they become inanimate objects like plants, minerals, dirt, and so on” – with the process then reversing, the dirt transforming into lower beings, then higher beings, “up to the human being” (1948: 9).

Searles (1960) also cites a novelist, Alberto Moravia, who recounts a fictional dream in which the dreamer thinks that he is a tree. “Shaped like a tree – black, leafless, rain-soaked, numb with cold – he was standing on the top of a bare, frost-bound hill,” Moravia says, “stretching out his arms which were branches and his open fingers which were twigs” (1950: 255). Suddenly, a transformation from tree to man begins. Moravia describes the experience as follows:

And to him it seemed that, starting from his roots deep-sunk in the earth, a wave of joyous hunger spread upward through his trunk; and this, overflowing the casing of bark, burst out through his branches in a thousand green and shining buds. These buds, in their turn, swiftly opened, became leaves, tendrils, boughs. And he felt himself growing, multiplying, pullulating endlessly, in an irresistible, fabulous rush of abundance, in every direction and from every part. All at once he was no longer a tree, but a man, standing upright with his arms raised toward the sun. (Moravia 1950: 256).

In this fictional dream, there is a transformation not of the feminine but of the masculine. Men as well as women turn into trees, and then those trees may turn back into men again. A man may not have been transformed into a tree but may have been enclosed in a tree. A patient recounts to Gerhard Adler a dream that includes just such an image:

I am talking to a man who is, as it were, clothed in a close-fitting garment of tree bark. His body to the neck, his arms to the wrist, are enclosed in bark. He says something like “I can’t . . . (do something you ask me to do), but I can. . . .” Still half asleep, I think he said, “I cannot explain to you, but I can let you look for yourself.” (Adler 1961: 85)

Adler says that the patient “talked of the man as the ‘tree man,’ equating him with the tree as such, with its ‘spirit.'” In this regard, Adler remarks, the man in the dream “expresses the numen of the tree.” Adler situates this image in the context of “the general symbolism of the tree” (1961: 85). The tree, he says, is “the central symbol of fertility and growth in the ritual and myth of the Great Mother” (1961: 85-6). As Adler interprets the tree, it is “the place of birth, the seat of power, a life-bearer and a savior, the place of transformation and renewal” (1961: 86).

Searles describes another schizophrenic patient who was convinced that “trees are people who have been transformed, tragically, into trees.” One source of this delusion, Searles says, was an experience that the patient had as a child:

The family was living on a farm, and they needed some firewood. The patient, as she recounted it, had made a simple and practical suggestion to her mother, ‘Why don’t we get a power saw and cut down the trees [which had died long before] in the orchard?’ At this, the mother had gasped and said, ‘Good heavens, no!’ and had shown every indication of being utterly horrified. This reaction of her mother had made the child suspect that the trees must really be people, for only through some such interpretation could she find her mother’s reaction to be a sensible one. (Searles 1965: 361-2)

Although it is perhaps possible that as a child this patient knew Greek myths, including the myth of the transformation of Daphne into a tree, Searles does not mention any such mythological knowledge. From a Jungian perspective, the probability is that the fantasy of the transformation of people into trees is an archetypal image and an example of the spontaneity and autonomy of the unconscious.

Searles also discusses another patient with a similar delusion. “Trees, walls of buildings, and so on were imbued with persons,” he says. “Everything, in fact, had once existed in the form of a person who had been turned, by the malevolent, omnipotent, Circe-like outer forces such as myself, into a tree or a plant, or the wall of a building, or a rug, or whatever.” The patient tried to reverse this process and free each person. Searles reports that “she strove anguishedly to find some means of liberating him or her into a human form again” (Langs and Searles 1980: 193).

As Jung describes the symbolic process, it employs images that are typical – or archetypal. “The symbols of transformation,” he says, “portray the process, as well as its dangers, in typical images” (1939: 93). According to Jung, there are three stages to the symbolic process (beginning, intermediate, and advanced), and there are symbols of transformation specific to each of these stages. For example, it is among what Jung calls the “intermediate symbols” that he says “the tree has its place, or transformation into a tree” (1939: 94).

Psychoanalytically, the tree is not only an image from the unconscious. It is also an image of the unconscious. By turning into a tree, Daphne (the feminine) enters into a tree, or enters into the unconscious, where she hides from Apollo (the masculine). Thus the myth of Daphne and Apollo is an example of how the feminine may defend itself against the masculine by (as Ovid says) changing (her too attractive) shape. In this myth, the feminine “introverts,” turns “in,” turns into a tree, turns into the unconscious for defensive purposes. The result of this metamorphosis is what Norman O. Brown calls “the tree body of Daphne” (1991: 18-19).

In The Power of Trees, Michael Perlman says of the myth of Daphne and Apollo that if we imagine “the transformation of human into tree” not “as something that happens once and for all” but “as something that happens over and over in our lives,” then “the myth leads us to consider what goes on when we imagine ourselves in treelike terms” (1994: 91). My dreams have given me the opportunity not only to imagine myself in treelike terms but also to imagine what it means for all of us to experience radical, shape-changing transformations at various times in our lives.

For Robert Jay Lifton, perhaps the most impressive image of shape-changing transformations is “Proteus, the Greek sea god of many forms” (1993: 1). Lifton has introduced into psychology the idea of the “protean self,” which epitomizes the contemporary human condition, in which the self rapidly turns into a virtual infinity of different forms in a effort at adaptive resiliency. Proteus even (like Daphne) turns into a tree! In the Odyssey, Lifton notes, Homer says that Proteus first assumes “a whiskered lion’s shape,/a serpent then; a leopard; a great boar;/then sousing water; then a tall green tree” (1993: 5). The idea of a “protean self” suggests the possibility of another idea, what I might call the “daphnean self” – a self that, like Daphne, goes into (or turns into) a tree and then eventually comes out of the tree.

The dream that I had ten years ago, in which there appeared an image that was half-woman, half-tree corresponds to the phase represented in the myth of Daphne and Apollo – that is, to the stage in which the feminine turns into a tree for self-protection. In contrast, in my recent dream from 2003, I saw a woman, her leg lifted up, gently stepping out of a full-grown tree – as if the mature tree had provided what Winnicott calls a “facilitating environment” (1965) in order for all of the various transformations to take place necessary for me to realize instinctually that it was now time for me to step out, or “come out.” The woman in the dream was opening up, removing the bark, and stepping out of the tree into the world, as if this process was a natural “birth.” I could sense what the woman felt in the dream.

Since this second dream, I’ve been able to embody my own femininity and not feel so threatened. My new dream corresponds to the stage of transformation in which the feminine emerges from the tree – independent, assertive, and courageous – ready to encounter reality in all its fullness. This is the stage of transformation that the poet Thomas Carew depicts when he imagines Daphne finally emerging from the tree, transformed into her full humanity, embracing Apollo:

Daphne hath broke her bark, and that swift foot
Which th’ angry gods had fasten’d with a root
To the fix’d earth, doth now unfetter’d run
To meet th’ embraces of the youthful Sun. (Carew n.d.)

In recent years, scientists in a number of different disciplines have developed what they call “emergence theory” (Thompson 1991). Some Jungians have begun to apply this theory psychoanalytically. For example, Joe Cambray refers to “’emergent phenomena’ – a term coming from the literature on complex adaptive systems” (2003: 455). In just this way, I regard the image of the woman coming out of the tree as an emergent phenomenon from the unconscious. In this terminology, the emergent phenomenon is also what Jung calls a symbol of transformation or Bollas calls a transformational object. This emergent-transformative process is illustrated in my art work, the sculpture of the woman stepping out from inside the tree.Living with the image of the woman-and-the-tree for the last decade has broadened my awareness of the significance of increasing consciousness. I now understand in a very intimate way just how much time, commitment, and determination are needed for a full emergence and transformation to take place. Having my two dreams, analyzing them, and creating my sculpture of the woman coming out of the tree have enabled me to appreciate the enormity of the analytic work that all of us must undergo.


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