Arlene Diane Landau’s important new book Tragic Beauty: The Dark Side of Venus Aphrodite and the Loss and Regeneration of Soul [Spring Journal Books, 2012] fills a gap in Jungian, mythological and depth psychological literature. Tragic Beauty is a reflective, twenty-first century examination of the dark shadow of the Aphrodite archetype--from the female gaze. Landau’s book functions on many levels: at once deeply personal, clinical/professional, literary, and spiritually enlightening.
A native of Los Angeles, Landau approaches the golden goddess Aphrodite as a Jungian analyst, a mythologist, and as someone who has experienced Aphrodite’s enchantment. Landau was a veteran performer in the film and television industry, with hundreds of credits as an actor, model, dancer and extra; she understands the impossible pressures of the Aphrodite complex and the goddess’ eternal allure. In the dreamscape business of the Hollywood entertainment industry, women must always be young, beautiful, sexy, and attractive. But the pitfalls of living solely in Aphrodite’s thrall are profound; Landau makes this clear from her autobiographical reflections and her patients’ dreams. Landau writes in the Foreword: “Women who embody the Aphrodite archetype have much less choice in how they behave or react than they, or others, imagine…The dark side of the pursuit of beauty is especially apparent with aging…” (xi).
From the opening pages, Landau describes women today around the world who embody the Aphrodite/Venus archetype: “Aphrodite girls always stand out” (1). After a discussion of the Love Goddess’ mythological origin stories, classic literary figures linked to Aphrodite are introduced: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Nastasya (6). Landau cites Karl Kerényi about Aphrodite’s rarely discussed ties to death and “the grave,” such as the epithet “Epitymbidia”(6). Tales of plastic surgery and prostitution are recounted—also a part of Aphrodite’s tragic shadow. At the end of Chapter One, Landau recommends a balancing of other female archetypes to counter Aphrodite’s hold, especially to combat the wounds of aging for women who identify primarily with the Goddess of Love.
In Chapter Two, Landau provides ample evidence from film and literature of a continued cultural fascination with Aphrodite, and of the tragic trajectory of storylines centered on Goddess of Love types. These include the 2000 film “Malèna,” written and directed by Guiseppe Tornatore; Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 literary masterpiece Madame Bovary; and two Thomas Hardy novels, The Return of the Native and Jude the Obscure. The male characters in some of these works, Landau notes, function only to mirror the self-image of the Aphrodite-linked female figures (22).
Actresses and celebrities in the spotlight are the focus for Chapter Three. Here, Landau reveals her own Beverly Hills-Hollywood stories, including details of an horrific murder in her own family. Moving to showbiz tales, Landau reveals that she once refused a date with Elvis, whom she met on a set, and also turned down an invitation to pose nude in Playboy. Landau describes the function of a “stand-in,” one of her other entertainment jobs—as someone to fill in or substitute for a star while technical details on the set are worked out. Landau says the stand-in is a “shadow” figure (26); Hollywood’s darkness is further amplified in the next section.
Landau provides a long list of “dead blondes” who are now Hollywood legend, including “Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Jean Seberg, Jean Harlow, Anna Nicole Smith” (27). Another attribute: Female stars identified with Aphrodite often have many husbands. Princess Diana is part of the tragic mix of Venus-linked celebrities (28). Actress Lana Clarkson, who died in Phil Spector’s home in 2003, is profiled, as is adult film star Marilyn Chambers who passed way in 2009 in a trailer home at age 59 (Landau 30).
Classical Aphrodite and her “sisters” are featured in Chapter Four. These are the goddesses that Landau recommends to balance the psyche. The works of Hesiod, Homer, Euripides, Plato, and Sappho are the foundations for this section. The Goddess of Love’s complicated relationships with goddess-sisters Athena, Hestia, and Artemis are explored here, as seen in the Fifth Homeric Hymn. Paris and Helen of Troy are two more pawns of Aphrodite’s persuasive powers: “…those who fall under Aphrodite’s influence are not allowed to escape a passionate dalliance without trouble” (39). Landau emphasizes the mythological import of Aphrodite’s ten children, with a special mention of the mysterious genesis of Eros/Cupid (Aphrodite’s son or brother). Landau ends the classical portion with a deeper look at Athena (as embodied by Sandra Day O’Conner, Condoleezza Rice), Artemis (Jane Goodall, Amelia Earhart), and Hestia. The mother archetype Demeter (in part, Angelina Jolie) figures here. Landau states: “It is very important for an Aphrodite type to develop some relationship, psychologically, to the ways of being female represented by her sisters” (48).
In Chapters Five and Six, Landau turns to Jung and Jungian analysis for a deepening of our understanding of the Love Goddess archetype. In Five, definitions of “archetype” and “the collective unconscious” are expertly explained; Landau writes: “myths reveal the nature of the human soul” (54). A remarkable section on the alchemical treaties illustrations called the Rosarium Philosophorum  follows. Landau notes: “These ten pictures provide a map of the human psyche in regard to the stages of erotic love (as well as the analytic/therapeutic transference) and transformation” (63). In Six, Landau shares some fascinating dreams—and treatments--of her Aphrodite-identified or Aphrodite-less patients in therapy. Landau reveals a “Sleeping Beauty” dream of her own, and then delves into those of: Stephanie, a betrayed, Aphrodite-identified wife; and Cindy, an Aphrodite-less, single woman. Other patients profiled include the aging Betty and the suicidal Kory. The “father-identified” aspect of an Aphrodite woman is strongly supported here (80).
The final chapter of Tragic Beauty is about the goddess Sophia. The fairy tale of Snow White opens the last portion, with a nod to the Queen’s jealousy when she hears the famous answer to the refrain “Mirror, mirror on the wall/Who’s the fairest of them all?” An aging Aphrodite’s similar jealousy when she’s no longer “most fair” does not serve the psyche. Landau writes: “Knowing Sophia [Wisdom]…has helped my Aphrodite soul”(90). Landau sees the literary character Sonya from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment as an inspiring Sophia figure: “Sophia’s story tells us that following the path of seeking soul in the world requires us to pay attention to the ‘soul-spark’ of that which is abandoned, thereby bringing psychological consciousness to humankind” (93). Landau recommends Athena, too, as an archetypal figure of wisdom. In the Epilogue, Landau identifies Aphrodite’s true gift and ends with the hope that her book will bring other women to consciousness.
Tragic Beauty: The Dark Side of Venus/Aphrodite and the Loss and Regeneration of Soul is a brave, rich, and thorough book with a hopeful arc; by revealing her own journey as a performer, through her calling to become a Jungian analyst, to her treatment of Aphrodite-related patients in her own practice, Landau guides us through the perils and pleasures of Aphrodite, and shows us why/how to seek balance through the exploration of other goddesses—especially key for women in our appearance-driven, youth-oriented, media-dominated culture. Landau’s multi-faceted approach (mythic, literary, psychological, personal) and her vast knowledge of pop culture ensure that the book is always accessible, intriguing and potent. Her passion for the topic is evident in each chapter. Near the end, Landau writes: “I have had to carry powerful Aphrodite energies, along with a numinous yearning to learn—holding both amid the shards of horrific tragedies. It is my task to understand Sophia not just from my mind and my animus, but from my imagination, my soul” (94).