The Enneagram of personality, the domain of the soul and The Queen’s Gambit

“What our age thinks of as the “shadow” and inferior parts of the psyche contain more than something merely negative.  The very fact that through self-knowledge, i.e., by exploring our own souls, we come upon the instincts and their world of imagery should throw some light on the powers slumbering in the psyche…they are potentialities of the greatest dynamism.” – Carl Jung

On Sunday 23 May Dimitri Martinis and I will be running a workshop exploring writing and reading fictional characters using the Enneagram, with a focus on Beth Harmon, the main character in the extraordinarily popular, Golden Globe award-winning Netflix series – the Queen’s Gambit. The cost is R1200 and we are offering some free places to students of film & creative writing. Email melodyemmett@gmail.com for details. A zoom link and some prep will be sent to those who register.

The Enneagram was originally associated with several ancient wisdom traditions. It has become popular as a way of understanding human expression and personality. The word ‘Enneagram’, derived from the Greek for nine (ennea) consists of nine points organised on the circumference of a circle. The symbol goes back as early as 2500 B.C. in Babylon or the Middle East.  It was also taught by the Greek mathematician/philosopher Pythagoras. A Greek-Armenian spiritual teacher, George Gurdjieff, who was probably born in 1866, first introduced the Enneagram to the modern world. His interest was in human growth and transformation and he used the Enneagram to illustrate natural laws and processes of spiritual development.

In the 1950s the Enneagram of personality was first introduced by a Bolivian-born psychologist, Oscar Ichazo and later by the Chilean psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo. 

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The Enneagram of personality is a great tool for understanding the defence mechanisms and survival strategies we adopt from childhood to make our way in the world.  It is also a very useful tool for interpreting and crafting convincing characters for literature and film. 

The nine points on the Enneagram are associated with certain emotional and cognitive tendencies. Naranjo identified key virtues and vices (fixations) associated with each Enneagram Type.

  1. Type 1 (The strict perfectionist): Anger – Perfectionism
  2. Type 2 (The considerate helper): Pride – False abundance
  3. Type 3 (The competitive achiever): Vanity – Self-deception, Attractiveness
  4. Type 4 (The intense creative): Envy – False lack
  5. Type 5 (The quiet specialist): Avarice – Detachment
  6. Type 6 (The loyal skeptic) Fear – accusation
  7. Type 7 (The enthusiastic visionary): Gluttony – Indulgence, Fraudulence
  8. Type 8 (The active controller): Lust – Vengeance, Intensity
  9. Type 9: The adaptive peacemaker): Indolence – Self-forgetting

As we grow in understanding of our Enneagram Type we develop valuable insights into which of our qualities obstruct us or support us on our life’s path and how we can build on them, temper them, or grow beyond them by embracing the qualities of other Enneagram Types to which we are connected in the dynamic system. Cultivating self-compassion is an essential part of the journey. Without it, we can’t reach our full potential.

The same applies to the fictional characters that move, inspire, enlighten, educate us.  In The Queen’s Gambit, Beth Harmon’s tendency to spiral down into a dark place of isolation and addiction is a necessary part of her heroine’s journey as a character. These often distressing events are stepping stones that move her to the point at which – with Jolene’s help – she can take a good, hard look at what her life has become and choose a new way. 

The Netflix series is an interpretation of the novel by Walter Tevis and although the character Beth Harmon is fictional, as is the case with so many fictional characters, parts of her journey are drawn from the lives of real people.  One of these is the world-renowned chess champion Bobby Fischer.  Beth wins the 1967 US championship in the same year that Fischer won his final American title. Fischer first became a chess champion at the age of 14 — Beth does the same at the age of 16. Fischer taught himself Russian to better prepare for competitions, Beth does too.  Beth beats Vasily Borgov in Moscow. Fischer beat Russia’s Boris Spassky.

Walter Tevis also weaves his own experiences and opinions into the character of Beth Harmon.  In 1983, Tevis told the New York Times that apart from being a good chess player, he, too, was exposed to drugs at a young age.

Walter Tevis

“I was diagnosed as having a rheumatic heart and given heavy drug doses in a hospital. That’s where Beth’s drug dependency comes from in the novel,” Tevis said. “Writing about her was purgative. There was some pain — I did a lot of dreaming while writing that part of the story. But artistically, I didn’t allow myself to be self-indulgent,” Tevis said.

He also said he wanted The Queen’s Gambit to be a “tribute to brainy women” like his daughter, Julie. “I like Beth for her bravery and intelligence. In the past, many women have had to hide their brains,” he said.

Increasingly today, Enneagram teachers and coaches are gravitating towards the spiritual roots of the Enneagram.  Corporate coaches teach their clients mindfulness mediation and intersperse their Enneagram training workshops with times for silent reflection rather than robust, vocal networking. This is also a positive spinoff of Covid-19. Internationally renowned Enneagram teacher and writer, Russ Hudson begins each session with silent reflection and teaches the sacred dances originally taught by Gurdjieff.

Gurdjieff essentially saw the 9 Enneagram points as portals to insight into the survival strategies we have developed (different for each Enneagram Type) and as springboards for spiritual transformation by opening ourselves to our capacity to take a detached or transcendent view of how and when our survival agendas and defence mechanisms kick in.  

Watching The Queen’s Gambit I have had a sense of the unseen forces moving the characters along, as is so often the case in real life. 

“In the West, we didn’t grow up learning about non-material forces.  But this has become critical curriculum. We must learn how to work with life in all its dimensions, seen and unseen.”

Margaret wheatley

As we dig into our characters’ emotional motivations to understand them from the inside out, we also take a transcendent perspective as crafters of fiction and film.  We invent our characters and storyline (or adapt them from a book as in the case of The Queen’s Gambit) and allow them to evolve. In the process, unexpected dimensions may reveal themselves.  Beth’s realisation that Jolene and Mr Shaibel had been watching out for her for years from a distance gives a sense of unseen forces at work. This is what happens in real life.  Meaning is revealed as we make the journey.

In his book, ‘The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling (1996), the founder of archetypal psychology James Hillman says:

“There is more in a human life than our theories of it allow. Sooner or later something seems to call us onto a particular path. You may remember this ‘something’ as a signal moment in childhood when an urge out of nowhere, a fascination, a peculiar turn of events struck like an annunciation:  This is what I must do; this is what I’ve got to have. This is who I am.”

In Beth Harmon’s case, the meeting with Mr Shaibel in the orphanage basement is one of those moments.  In this workshop we delve into such moments to tease out their significance for the Enneagram Type of the character, and how they play out in the overall narrative.

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