‘The solemn Alps – the siren Alps’

Last week I went to see ‘Dancing in the Flames’, the film about the Jungian analyst Marion Woodman where she is interviewed by Andrew Harvey.  A compelling story.  She talked about how when she was a child, she was a gypsy six days a week (her protective heroine was Joan of Arc) and then she smartened up on a Sunday (her father was a minister). Her life challenge was about getting in touch with the gypsy within, and Emily Dickinson was one of her key touchstones in this process.  She read this poem incredibly evocatively with a verbal use of pause that brings Dickinson’s punctuation to life:

‘Our lives are Swiss –

So still — so Cool —
Till some odd afternoon
The Alps neglect their Curtains
And we look farther on!

Italy stands the other side!
While like a guard between —
The solemn Alps —
The siren Alps
Forever intervene!’

I think we all have an Italy and Switzerland within us, a gypsy and a Sunday School child.  And we all have our Alps.

I have also recently been reading a fascinating biography of Tenzin Palmo, the first Western Buddhist nun, Cave in the Snow by Vicki Mackenzie.  She talks about the tension inside of her between being a passionate worldly woman vs being a nun, and how at various times in her youth she thought she might be a woman for as long as a relationship lasted and then revert to being a nun.  But the nun wins out, reconciling and integrating her human passion, and it was when she spent 12 years living in a tiny cave high up in the Himalayas, up a treacherous path through the Tibetan Alps, that she knew she was happy with that outcome.

It strikes me that, on the surface, Marion Woodman and Tenzin Palmo made opposite choices, but did they really?  Interestingly, both embraced the feminine, if apparently, superficially anyway, in very different ways.

The way we reconcile these impulses or aspects of ourselves is a lifelong dilemma.  Perhaps many people reconcile them through suppression or denial – but suppression isn’t reconciliation.  There needs to be some kind of working through to achieve a real integration.  And perhaps this is the process of individuation.

Maybe this process is a little like having Switzerland and Italy – as a choice.  On one level, the choice is binary.  Where shall I go to study or for my holiday – or to live?  Through the glossy holiday brochures, they both make a pitch for or at you.  They are both appealing, but you know deep down that the one is the place you are meant to be.  Maybe you know that straightaway, maybe it takes time to realise.

What happens if Switzerland tells tales about Italy and Italy badmouths the Swiss? 

‘The Swiss are so straightlaced, they will restrict you, everything will be organised, controlled and counted.  Life will be so predictable and so dull.’

‘Ah, but the Italians are emotion run wild.  They are too extreme, there is no order, you will go mad!’

And more likely than not, many of us are on the Swiss side and always the solemn Alps – the siren Alps, stand in between.  When will they neglect their curtains?

Standing on the Alps (or was it Stanage Edge in Derbyshire? – the equivalent of the Alps for someone with a fear of heights!), I hear two voices clamouring to tell truth and deriding the truth of the other.  But the only voice worth listening to is the one that is inside.  A third voice.


What is this third voice?  The voice that leaps off shore or rises from the water, that sees beyond the Alps and beyond the countries on either side.  It is not a voice that evaluates or interprets.

‘I think I have two sides to my nature – one is this basic need to be alone, the love of isolation, the other is a sociability and friendliness,’ says Tenzin Palmo.  Coming down from the cave in the mountains after all those years, she speaks of her experience:

‘There is a kind of inner freedom which I don’t think I had when I started – an inner peace and clarity…there is an inner distance towards whatever occurs, whether what’s occurring is outwards or inwards.’  [Cave in the Snow, pages 143-144]

The clamour of life subsides, perhaps Italy and Switzerland’s voices fade whether they be outside or within, as this quieter voice speaks from beyond the illusion of their invitations and demands.

“‘Sometimes, it feels like being in an empty house with all the doors and windows wide open and the wind just blowing through without anything obstructing it.  Not always.  Sometimes one gets caught up again, but now one knows that one is caught up again….It’s not a cold emptiness,’ she stated emphatically, ‘it’s a warm spaciousness.'”

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1 Response to ‘The solemn Alps – the siren Alps’

  1. Viv says:

    Very powerful.

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