Analysis of ‘Blow Out’

Blow Out is a 1981 thriller film written and directed by Brian De Palma. It stars John Travolta and Nancy Allen, with John Lithgow and Dennis Franz.

Though the film pays homage to Hitchcock and a number of slasher films, it is directly based on Michelangelo Antonioni‘s Blowup, replacing the medium of photography with that of audio recording. In this way, Blow Out is also influenced by The Conversation, by Francis Ford Coppola.

Though Blow Out was largely praised on release–in particular, Travolta’s and Allen’s performances, De Palma’s direction, and the film’s visual style–it didn’t do well at the box office. Over the years, however, it has developed into a cult film. Quentin Tarantino has called Blow Out one of his favourite films.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

Since Blow Out is based on Blowup, it’s useful to compare and contrast the themes in both films. I discuss the themes of Blowup in my analysis of that film, so you can look there, Dear Reader, for a more thorough discussion of that; whereas here I’ll only briefly refer to them as I compare and contrast them with those of Blow Out.

In Blowup, there is an exploration of how one’s perception of reality is deceptive: something caught and frozen in mid-action in a photograph may not be what it seems, since reality is fluid, in endless motion, and so what is caught in the photo may be wildly out of context. Similarly, sounds can go by in time so fast that our ears can miss them…unless one happens to have the sensitive, attentive ears of a sound effects technician like Jack Terry (Travolta).

There are crucial contrasts between these films, though, in their exploration of perception and reality. Thomas, the photographer in Blowup, overanalyzes photos he’s taken, and he ends up imagining a murder having taken place that, in my interpretation at least, probably never happened. His analysis has led to an illusion, projected from himself onto the scene based on his own guilt feelings. Jack’s analysis of sounds he’s recorded, on the other hand, lead to the truth, as well as proof of that truth…though his attempts to publicize that truth are thwarted.

Thomas’s conflict between his faulty perceptions and reality are of a more philosophical nature. Jack’s difficulties proving the truth of what he’s perceived–the sound of a gunshot blowing out the tire of a politician’s car, causing it to fall into a lake, killing him–are the stuff of a political conspiracy, which in the end Jack cannot prove, because the evidence is destroyed.

So both films explore how reality is manipulated in some sense: in Blowup, it’s manipulated in Thomas’s mind in an effort to deflect personal guilt; in Blow Out, a Chappaquiddick-style killing is manipulated to look like an accident, with all the evidence of the blown-out tire removed.

Another point of comparison between the two films is how they deal with sexism. Thomas is routinely disrespectful to his models, generally female, until an assertive woman in the park where he took the photos, which included her and her lover, confronts him about them, demanding him to give her the negatives. In Blow Out, pretty much every woman (apart from extras and a TV anchorwoman) is young, beautiful, sexualized, and–I hate to say it–ditzy. Rather than being a promotion of sexism, though, I’d say that De Palma’s film, like Antonioni’s in its own way, is a comment on sexism.

By presenting almost all the women in Blow Out as hot-looking bimbos, we’re seeing a commentary not on how women actually are, but rather how they’re perceived in society, especially in the media. Remember that a theme common to both films is the contrast between perception and reality, and how perception is manipulated through such instruments of the media as photography and sound effects.

Feminists have written book after book about the evil of presenting women as sex objects, and of how such presentations of women give men power over them. The film’s portrayal of women as stupid and talentless reinforces that sense of female powerlessness under men. It’s easy to see the link, therefore, between on the one hand, female beauty (so attractive to sexual predators) and a woman’s perceived lack of intelligence or talent (i.e., those awful, fake screams for the slasher film that Jack is doing the sound for), and on the other hand, women’s vulnerability to male serial killers. One is reminded of that old Chinese misogynist saying, “女子無才便是德” (“If a woman has no talents, that is virtue for her.”)

Blow Out is known as a film concerned with the mechanics of movie-making, how visuals and sound are put together to make an effective illusion (e.g., Jack’s synching up of the recorded sounds of the blow out and car crash with a set of photos of the incident, run together to make a crude, short film), a story for an audience to get lost in watching. The element of political conspiracy in the film, and the cover-up of the assassination of the politician in the car, presenting it in the media as a mere accident, shows how this film’s preoccupations with the mechanics of visuals and sound can be expanded on into a general critique of the media as a tool used by the powerful to thwart the powerless.

The film begins as what looks like a third-rate slasher film. We see things from the POV of the killer, who is approaching a sorority house at night; we’re reminded of the opening of Black Christmas. That many of the sorority girls are engaging in various forms of naughtiness (dancing in see-through nighties by a window, where a security man is enjoying the show; a woman having sex with a man by her window, where the killer watches them; a woman masturbating in her room) before the killing spree starts suggests a parody of Friday the 13th, released the year before Blow Out.

That POV camera also suggests Hitchcock’s voyeuristic camera, and the killer’s first victim being a girl in a shower is an obvious allusion to Psycho. The actress’s terribly unrealistic scream at seeing the killer’s knife destroys the illusion, and we soon realize that we’ve been watching Coed Frenzy, a slasher film that Jack and producer Sam (played by Peter Boyden) are doing post-production on.

This shift from thinking the slasher film is the real story to knowing it’s a film within a film is comparable to many moments in Blowup when we’re led to believe, for example, that at the beginning Thomas is one of the destitute men until he gets in his nice car and drives away. As in Blowup, a major theme in Blow Out is the tension between appearance and reality.

And just after we’ve been briefly tricked into thinking that Coed Frenzy is the real story, we soon come to realize that much of what’s going on in Coed Frenzy is paralleled in what’s going on in Jack’s story. The theme of maniacal men terrorizing the powerless is seen not only in the killer in the slasher film; he has his double in Burke (Lithgow), a psychopath working for the rival candidate of McRyan, the presidential hopeful killed in the car crash.

Sam likes neither the showering girl’s fake-sounding scream nor the wind that Jack has chosen for the beginning of Coed Frenzy (i.e., with the killer outside the house at night), so Sam wants Jack to help him find a better female screamer as well as to record new wind effects. This altering of sounds to get a more ‘realistic’ effect ironically makes the film all the more fake (i.e., getting the sounds from sources far removed from the originals), and it reinforces the theme of how the media, a tool of the powerful, is used to deceive the powerless.

Jack goes to a park by a lake to record wind that night. As he’s recording the blowing of the wind, we see an example of De Palma’s use of the split screen (i.e., Jack recording in one half, and a closeup of an owl in the other…to get that ominous effect). This splitting-up of the screen causes a kind of Brechtian alienation effect, destroying the movie goers’ illusion that what they see is an actual world, and reminding them that they’re seeing a show. Again, the use of split screen is part of the theme of media as an illusion used to manipulate the emotions of the common people.

Wind, air, breath–these make up a recurring motif in the film, symbolic of life and of communication. If Jack hadn’t been out there this night recording wind, Sally (Allen) would be dead in McRyan’s car at the bottom of the lake–drowned, her air supply cut off. Burke typically kills his victims by strangling them with piano wire, by cutting off their air supply.

The Hebrew word for soul is nephesh, which literally means ‘breath.’ Recall Genesis 2:7. There’s also the Spirit of God, the ruach, which literally means ‘wind,’ or ‘breath.‘ So wind and breath are symbols of life in the film.

Another point is that sound travels through air. Jack’s preoccupation with sounds, the sound of the blow-out of the tire (from Burke’s shooting of it) in particular, letting air out of the tire, further reinforces the motif of air throughout the film.

Only Jack, with his sensitive, attentive ear for sounds, is up to rescuing Sally…and at the end of the film, not even he can save her. He represents that male ideal so many modern women have wanted: a man who listens.

He is the kind of man Sally so desperately needs, because all of the other men in her life exploit her. Manny Karp (Franz) is more or less her pimp, giving her jobs to get in bed with powerful, wealthy men so he can take photos of them together, blackmail the men, and pay her far less that she’s worth. McRyan was supposed to have been thus blackmailed, him being the one challenging the president in the upcoming election, but Burke wanted to blow out the tire of his car as well.

Powerful men like McRyan exploit Sally for sex; sleazebags like Karp exploit her for money and sex (indeed, he even tries to rape her at one point), and psychopaths like Burke want to kill her to clear up loose ends, for political purposes. That Sally is pretty and speaks in a high-pitched, ‘ditzy’ voice, reinforces her sense of naïve vulnerability, her everywoman powerlessness in a male-dominated society.

She is exploited and abused in all of these ways, and she is also made invisible, in how the politicians allied with McRyan don’t want the public to know that she was in the car with him. Keeping her involvement out of the media’s awareness, to prevent a scandal that would taint his memory and hurt his family even worse, is nonetheless another example of disguising the truth with the media, by way of omission. Hence, Jack is made to sneak Sally out of the hospital so the media won’t know about her.

The theme of disguising the truth comes in other forms, including Sally’s own choices. In the hospital, she’s embarrassed to be seen by Jack without her makeup on, though he insists, being the nice, sensitive guy he is, that she looks fine without it. Later, she talks to him about her skill as a makeup artist to make women’s faces look better…that is, to disguise reality in a mask of cosmetics.

Other disguises of reality include Burke’s replacing of the shot-out tire with a new one, so the news will report McRyan’s death as a mere accident, and when Jack insists it was a deliberate murder and a cover-up, everyone will think he’s a crackpot conspiracy theorist. Certainly, Detective Mackey (played by John Aquino), who has done the investigation on McRyan’s death and doesn’t even like Jack (for having used his sound-man skills to put away a number of corrupt cops), thinks the death was an accident and treats Jack’s suspicions with contempt.

It’s significant that Burke, hired by and therefore associated with American politicians, is a murdering psychopath. Hollywood movies typically portray psychopaths as violent killers, as in the slasher films that Coed Frenzy parodies. In fact, this Hollywood portrayal is a wildly exaggerated stereotypification, for usually these people, though lacking in empathy, enjoying exploiting and hurting others remorselessly, and needing excitement, often enough get their kicks within the limits of the law. Burke thus is another distortion of reality in Blow Out.

Still, as an employee of the American government, Burke is aptly presented as a serial killer, as a symbolic critique of the imperialist US government. Consider all of the violent deaths caused by American interference in the politics of other countries. In this connection, it is grimly fitting that this serial killer is referred to as the “Liberty Bell Strangler,” given that the killings occur around “Liberty Day,” the time of celebrations and a parade commemorating the Liberty Bell.

Indeed, the murder of Sally happens right on the night of the commemoration; we see her screaming for Jack to save her while she’s standing against a huge backdrop of the American flag. This land of ‘liberty’ has a killer hired by American politicians going after some of the most vulnerable people of the world–women in particular.

The false presentation of reality–the celebration–is what is seen on the TV. The identity of the serial killer, he being an employee of the US government, is conveniently kept secret, since the news reporters claim that who he is remains unknown…which seems odd when the police, after finding his body, would presumably find some kind of ID on him. The government plot is covered up, and the people continue to believe in the ‘freedom and democracy‘ of the US.

Now, the liberal producers of Blow Out would have us believe that Burke represents an aberration of the system, since the politician in on the plot to blackmail McRyan–during a telephone conversation with Burke, and disgusted with his excesses–tries to distance himself from the psychopath. This is a common liberal tactic: the system, apparently, is OK; we just have to get rid of the ‘bad apples’ in it. Again, this is how it appears to us in the media–not so in reality.

All of Jack’s attempts to present proof of the plot to kill McRyan are erased or destroyed by Burke. Stills from video filmed by Karl are sold to a tabloid, presenting the false story of a car accident instead of a killing. But at least Jack has been able to provide better wind and “a good scream” (Sally’s) from his recordings. It’s painfully ironic that the only way the producers of Coed Frenzy can get a convincing scream is from one of a girl really being murdered.

The weakest and most vulnerable in society are looked down on, demeaned, over-sexualized, and ultimately killed. Only sensitive Jack has seen the human being behind Sally’s pretty face; as a result, he’s fallen in love with her, and he mourns her death, obsessively listening to recordings of her last words before Burke gets to her. He cares for her through listening to her, not leering at her.

Just as his attempts to root out police corruption, through wiretapping someone to record evidence, result in an undercover cop’s getting killed, so do his attempts to expose a government conspiracy, again through wiretapping Sally, get her killed. Jack’s attempts at achieving justice fail; his sensitive listening just falls on deaf…and dead…ears.

‘Mama,’ a Psychological Horror Novel, Chapter Two

And now that we’ve arrived in my apartment, I’ll take you over to Mama’s bedroom, where I’ll show you the proof that she was evil and, therefore, I had to kill her. Just step this way and follow me.

Here, her room. It looks pretty ordinary, doesn’t it? With all the usual things: her bed, her dresser, her closet, etc., nothing out of the ordinary, right? Well, let me show you something in one of her dresser drawers that will make your hair stand on end!

I’ll just open this drawer, and…here it is, this book. Look at the title: Bewitching Smells…er, Spells. Let me open it up and flip through the pages, so you can get a full idea.

Check out all these herbs she uses to make magic spells: lavender, rosemary, basil, thyme, sage, etc. I’ll flip past these pages and show you some more interesting, incriminating stuff…

Here, look at all these pictures of bottles of potions. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think they were bottles of perfume or something, but I know! They’re all phials of magic potions she’d been using on me and on anyone else she wanted to control!

Anyway, we can look at that later. I’ll just put it back in the drawer for now. Now–you, the man I see in the mirror of Mama’s dresser drawer, my superego, my conscience, as it were–come with me into the living room, and there I’ll tell you the whole story: how I found out she was a witch, how I plotted to kill her using a little magic of my own, and how she actually died at my hands. Let’s go.

Yes, let’s sit on either side of the living room TV, you on the sofa under the mirror where I can see you, and me in the big, comfy chair. It all started with this TV, where I was just starting to watch a horror movie on Netflix. I’d never seen any of the Friday the 13th movies, not being interested in any of them, but nothing else was on that night.

Mama was going to bed. “You keep the volume down, Roger,” she told me as she was going into her room. “I have to get up early tomorrow to do some work at the pet store.”

“OK, Mama,” I said as the movie began. There was this strange sound I’d hear from time to time in the movie: “Ch-ch-ch-ch…ha-ha-ha-ha…”

Several more minutes into the film, I heard her call to me from her bedroom: “Roger?”

I paused the film. “What is it, Mama?”

“I left my pillow on the sofa,” she said. “You know, my little pink one. Bring it in here for me, would you?”

“Yes, Mama,” I said, then took it into her room. I’d left the door wide open as I handed it to her. I looked over at the top of her dresser, where the book was sitting, all white and innocent-looking, except for its title, which I barely made out in the dim light coming from the living room: Bewitching Spells.

I shuddered as I stared at it, frozen in my tracks for several seconds.

“Roger?” she said, waking me out of my daze. “You can go now. I’d like to get some sleep, if you don’t mind.”

“Oh, yeah, uh…sorry, Mama,” I said, then went out of her room and closed the door. I went back to the TV and unpaused it. I no longer paid any attention to the movie, though I sat on the sofa in a trance, staring at the screen. I kept hearing an echoey, reverberating whisper: “Kill…Mama…”

That night happened a couple of months ago, and I kept hearing that whispering in my head, over and over again, in the days and weeks that followed: “Kill…Mama…” I also kept the vision in my mind’s eye of that white book cover, with that disturbing title: Bewitching Spells.

The day after that night–always hearing “Kill…Mama…” in my mind’s ear, again and again, at least once every two minutes, and often far more frequently than that–I waited for her to leave the apartment for the pet food store. As soon as she was gone, I went right into her room to look at that book again.

Now it was in her dresser drawer, the same one you and I just saw it in. I’m sure she was trying to hide it from me, though hiding it had slipped her mind on the night that I first saw it, surely.

Though I flipped through the pages and saw all the pictures of the herbs and phials of magic potions, as you and I just saw, I was careful not only to keep the book in its drawn-out drawer, but also to keep it in the exact same position in the drawer, so she wouldn’t suspect I’d found it and learned of her schemes. Indeed, apart from opening the book and flipping through the pages, I didn’t move the book one millimetre from where she’d left it.

Yet as I flipped through the pages and had my worst fears about Mama confirmed, I felt a tear or two run down my cheeks. Apart from the sheer terror I felt knowing what power she’d had over me, the power she’d always had, I also felt the most stinging betrayal. How could she have done this to me? I’m her son! She was supposed to love me, not hex me! What had I done to deserve such an evil mother?

Memories of my relationship with her flashed before me: all those times she’d bullied me, told me what to do in her growling voice, showed me no pity or compassion whenever I’d been hurt as a child, all of those things now took on a new meaning for me, a meaning that gave no comfort, but a meaning that at least made some sense of all of my life’s suffering. It had all been her fault!

The most significant of all of these memories, starting from my early childhood, was how I’d always felt incapable of fighting back. Oh, I had the rage inside me to fight, I oh, so wanted to, but somehow I couldn’t. It was something deeper, more fundamental, than mere cowardice…it was like a mental block, like Alex DeLarge and the Ludovico Technique used on him to stop him from committing crimes.

Now I knew what the cause had always been for my consistent inability to stand up for myself. It was her magic spells, all used to control me! That’s why not only could I never stand up to her, but I also could never stick up for myself against all the bullies at school, in the neighbourhood, even against little kids! Yes, I was that pathetic, but in my defence, Mama had been jinxing me the whole time!

Knowing my own mother had always wanted me to be weak and cowed, this hurt more than anything else ever had in my whole life. Her magic had done nothing less than ruin my whole life. By the end of this meditation, with her book open in that drawer in front of me, I was sobbing. Fortunately, none of my tears dropped on the pages, so Mama wouldn’t know I’d been looking at them.

I closed the book and the drawer, then I went out of her room, wiping my tears off my face. I kept hearing that reverberating whispering: “Kill…Mama…”

I’m sure that at least a large portion, if not almost all, of my hallucinating–visual and auditory, for the most part–has been the result of her spells. It was part of her scheme to control me, to make me doubt my senses and feel that I needed her total guidance in life.

My hallucinations cannot, however, have all been directly caused by her magic. That voice I kept hearing, the one that whispered, “Kill…Mama…”, couldn’t have been caused by her spells. Why would she have wanted me to kill her? She never showed any suicidal tendencies, and even if she’d secretly wanted to die, she could have simply killed herself–why involve me in it?

No, that voice telling me to kill her must have come from another source. Since she was surely using her magic to control other people, as well as me, there must be spirits out there, agents of good, that recognized her evil and wanted me to be their agent of justice, of retribution.

For though her spells weren’t the source of every single voice I’ve heard in my head, her spells surely altered my brain to the point where I’ve been creating my own hallucinations, my mind altering the things I see and hear to serve some kind of purpose that I’m not consciously aware of. I had to remove her from my life in the hopes that her spells might wear off soon after, and I will then be free to live a normal, happy life, at last!

Hey…wait a minute. Who is that? Just a sec. I wanna look out the window, and see who that is. Hey, that’s that man at the funeral, the one my aunt tried to introduce me to. What’s he doing there, standing across the street and looking up at my window? What does he want? He doesn’t still think he’s my father, does he? What a creep! I’ll give him the finger: there, that should get rid of him…good. He saw it, and he’s going away.

Alright, back to the comfy chair, and back to my story. Now, to kill her, I knew I had to be really careful, ’cause with her skill at using magic, she’d probably see me coming from a mile away; so I knew that using any spells from her book would be a no-go from the start. I’d have to get a magic book of my own. I wouldn’t even bring the book into the apartment, nor would I research anything online at my laptop here. I’d go to the library on the other side of town, take notes there, and proceed accordingly.

In the library, I found a book on how to make a voodoo doll. I knitted it up at home, telling Mama that it would be a gift for her great niece, my aunt’s granddaughter, five-year-old Emma. I did a convincing acting job, even if I say so myself, telling Mama the lie with a perfectly calm voice and face. She was surprised at my generosity: her only doubt was that I had any inkling towards doing something nice for anyone, let alone sweet little Emma, whom I sincerely adore. This was the kind of hurtful attitude I’d always resented in Mama.

Nonetheless, she never indicated any suspicions in what I’d been planning. I kept at work knitting up that doll, privately amused that she was seeing me there creating the instrument of her imminent death, and not knowing of that at all. Of course, as I was knitting away, I was careful never to think about the doll as anything other than a gift for Emma–just in case Mama’s magic gave her the ability to read my mind!

A month later, the doll was finished. It took so long because I have no skill whatsoever at knitting, of course. Mama laughed at me for the many mistakes I made, taunting me that I should have just given up. Those mistakes forced me to start all over again, many times–it was so frustrating, but I was determined to kill her. Her taunts only hardened me in my resolution.

I didn’t want Mama to see it during the final stages of knitting, because I’d managed to make it look like her, so that she’d, naturally, get suspicious. So during the final stages, I worked in my bedroom with the door locked, or when she was out.

According to the book I’d found in the library, I had to do some magical incantations in a ritual to ensure that the doll would be linked to her. I’d also used yarn and knitting needles she had handled, as well as material from an old shirt she used to wear, but which I’d rescued from the garbage just in time.

I did the ritual in my bedroom at night, with my door locked. I was taking an enormous risk, since she might have sensed, through her own magical powers, what I was doing; but I had no other choice than to do it there, for where else could I have done a magical ritual without anyone interfering?

I did the ritual with the lights off, and a circle of glowing candles surrounding me. I’d bought a black mat with a giant white pentacle on it. I played a recording of soft chanting on my laptop. Mama was already in bed, so I figured she wouldn’t notice the sounds.

My success at making the doll near her, without her suspecting anything, encouraged me to keep going, and to take the chance of doing the ritual there at home. Perhaps her powers were weakening with the onset of old age–who knows?

I stared at the eyes of the doll, visualizing that it was my real mother sitting across from me on that pentacle mat. I kept hearing “Kill…Mama…” over and over again; I softly whispered it, too, in time with the chanting as it reverberated in my ears.

I remembered, shortly before the night I’d watched Friday the 13th, that Mama had begun clutching at her chest and complaining of pains there. I understand that such pain is how heart attacks start to happen. So during my ritual, I visualized those pains getting worse, leading towards heart attacks.

I kept whispering “Kill…Mama…” while holding little pins I would soon stab into the chest of the doll; as I did these things, I’d visualize Mama having heart attacks.

I continued with the ritual, repeating the same actions for another twenty minutes, according to the instructions of the book. I never stuck a pin in the doll that night, for according to the book, you can’t do that until the effects of the completed ritual have fanned out and permeated the whole area, a process that would take the rest of the night. This was another reason I had to do the ritual near her: to ensure the spell would contact her and her energy as soon as possible.

The next morning was when I could finally put the magic to the test. I heard her moving around outside my bedroom: she was probably going to the kitchen. I was holding the doll in one hand, and a pin in the other.

I heard a familiar groan of pain from her; I imagined she was grabbing at her chest again. This seemed like a good cue to stab the pin in the doll’s chest…so I did.

Now I heard a huge roar of pain from her. A dish smashed on the kitchen floor: she’d obviously dropped it. I grinned. My doll worked!

Though I left the pin in the doll’s chest, I wouldn’t stick another one in for a few days. I wanted Mama’s death to be gradual, not suspiciously sudden. I also wanted her to suffer before she died.

Because I’d left the pin in the doll’s chest, I saw Mama going about her day frequently clutching at her chest and moaning in pain. She went to a doctor after three days of that pin in the doll; he just gave her pills.

Back at home, I stuck another pin in the doll’s chest.

In my bedroom, I heard her wail in pain in the kitchen, and this was just after she’d taken one of her pills. My grin grew wider.

Over the next few days, she took more of the pills, going from one at a time to two, then three, despite the doctor insisting she take only one at a time.

The following week, I stuck in a third pin.

She bellowed and fell to the living room floor with a thud.

I called an ambulance, and she was taken to the hospital. I let her rest there for several days, making visits, too, of course, and acting all concerned for her welfare. I think my acting job was convincing.

All the medication they were giving her had managed to cancel out the pain my pins in my doll were giving her. About a week later, she was released, and I took her back home.

The day after that, I stuck a fourth pin in the doll. She fell down dead.

The funeral happened a week after that.

…and here we are now.


Imagine a railroad track that ends where the bridge is out,
over a
no one
want to
fall off
to his

People on a train
are going on that railroad track, right to the end of it.
of the

Marxists, liberals, and right-wingers
are all on that train, racing toward certain doom.
of the
are all
to the
as if
to die.

The liberals are just sitting in their seats,
with a strange faith that the track will go

Only the Marxists, the Leninists in particular,
are going to the back, running to jump off,
all of
is safe.

Analysis of ‘Pawn Hearts’

Pawn Hearts is Van der Graaf Generator‘s fourth album, released in 1971. It has only three tracks: two ten-to eleven-minute songs on Side One, and a side-long suite, “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers,” on Side Two–though a fourth track, “Theme One,” an instrumental written by George Martin, is included on some US and Canadian releases of the album.

The album wasn’t a success in the UK, but it went to number one in Italy, where the band were treated like superstars when touring there. Pressure from touring, nonetheless, caused them to break up for the first time in 1972.

The band originally intended Pawn Hearts to be a double album, like Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, but Charisma Records, Van der Graaf Generator’s label, vetoed the idea. Keyboardist Hugh Banton originally didn’t want to include the side-long suite of Side Two, preferring more commercial material, like “Killer,” from the band’s previous album, H to He, Who Am the Only One. The 2005 reissue includes extra material, including “Theme One,” “W (first version),” “Angle of Incidents,” “Ponker’s Theme,” and “Dimunitions.”

I’ll be analyzing the original three tracks, though, of which the lyrics can be found here. And here is a link to a recording of the full original album.

The album’s title is derived from a spoonerism made up by saxophonist/flautist David Jackson, who said he was going over to the studio to “dub on some more porn harts,” instead of “horn parts.” Consider the saying of the spoonerism with the non-rhotic British accent, and it’s easy to hear it evolve into “pawn hearts.” Added to this is what singer/guitarist/keyboardist/main songwriter/lyricist/bandleader Peter Hammill said to album artist Paul Whitehead: “no matter if you’re a king, a pauper or whatever – you’re a pawn.” As a result, the album cover shows people of various walks of life as pawn pieces in chess floating above the Earth, with a kind of cloud curtain in the back.

We thus all have the hearts of pawns: the title of the album in this way sets the tone of what we’re about to hear. As pawns, used and manipulated by those in power, we’re like lemmings mindlessly running off a cliff. The killer lives inside us because we don’t act to help those in need, we don’t release the angels also living inside us. Our plague as lighthouse keepers, so to speak, is in sitting helplessly as others crash and die on the shore.

“Lemmings” opens with a fade-in and Hammill playing a tune of single notes on an acoustic guitar, a tune he’ll soon sing in falsetto. Banton’s organ and Jackson’s flute, the latter going back and forth from A to B, can be heard in the background, along with Guy Evans on the drums.

Hammill sings of standing on “the highest cliff top,” looking down and all around, and seeing those he loves “crashing on quite blindly to the sea.” These are the lemmings, those who foolishly follow the leader and go mindlessly to their destruction. He, knowing better, refuses to go along with their “game.”

This watching of the lemmings’ self-destruction into the sea links with the predicament of the lighthouse keeper on Side Two, who despairs as he sees sailors’ boats crash into the rocks on the shore, and he feels powerless to prevent the deaths.

The music then switches to the main riff, punctuated by Jackson’s saxophones. It’s played with an alternating of two bars of 6/8 and one of 3/4, except for the last line of each of the corresponding verses that Hammill sings, which is two bars of 6/8, one of 5/8, then a return to 4/4.

In the first of these verses, Hammill sings of “heroes” who “are found wanting.” One looks out, but “can see no dawn.” These are the words of the lemmings, who “are drawing near to the cliffs” and “can hear the call.”

While the themes of Pawn Hearts are, of course, universal, applying to the problems of any time, past, present, and future, and applying anywhere, I see them especially applying to the problems of our world today, even though Hammill had no way of predicting today’s problems. There was plenty to fear of nuclear brinksmanship back when he wrote these lyrics, back during the Cold War; and there’s plenty to fear of similar nuclear brinksmanship during our current, needless Cold War with Russia and China.

Such fears make Pawn Hearts especially relevant in today’s world, regardless of the original intentions of Van der Graaf Generator. So many of us today see the lemmings running off the cliff, and like the lighthouse keeper of the side-long suite on Side Two, we watch in despair and powerlessness as they run, crash, and self-destruct, taking us all with them.

“What course is there left but to die?”

The 6/8, 6/8, 3/4 riff returns, with Hammill again singing of our disappointment with our “high kings.” The lemmings are as disappointed as all of us are, yet they’re still willing to “hurtle on into the dark portal…into the unknown maw.” Part of this hurtling to self-destruction is because of blind foolishness; part of it is despairing resignation to our fate. “They know it’s really far too late to stop us.” Lemming and lighthouse keeper, in this way, are one, just as the lighthouse keeper will feel himself at one with the sailors/lemmings on Side Two, as we’ll soon see.

“What cause is there left but to die?”

Next comes a brief instrumental break, with Hammill strumming acoustic guitar chords in G minor, playing a melody of which a variation will be heard soon in his singing. In the verse he sings, we hear of the mental conflict felt between hope, however faint, and the resignation to doom that makes us want to end it all sooner.

This theme continues on the sax, climaxing with Hammill bellowing, three times in head voice, a high note in F, the third time with him going down from F to D. Then we have a grating segue into the “Cog” section of the song.

We hear an angular riff on Jackson’s saxophones, made all the more dissonant and angular by a counterpoint from Banton’s organ. In the verses of this section, Hammill sings of how we’re mutilated by the “steel spokes” and “cogs” of the political machines under which we all suffer. We suffer from others, but also from ourselves, since, as we learn from the final verse of the song, we’re “merely cogs of hatred.” We suffer as lemmings hurtling to our self-destruction, hating whom the ruling class manipulates us into hating; and we suffer as lighthouse keepers who watch this needless self-destruction, powerless to do anything about it.

“But there still is time…”

Next comes another segue, imitative of 1960s avant-garde jazz with its dissonant piano and saxophones. That we would hear such tense music after Hammill’s words of hope just emphasizes how flimsy that hope is. This segue brings us back to the main saxophone riff (6/8, 6/8, 3/4), and then to the final verses of the song.

Hammill sings of how we must do the opposite of what the lemmings are doing. We must “fight with our lives,” “unite the blood,” and “avert the disaster.” Whatever disaster he may have been thinking of at the time, we today can think of stopping WWIII, a very real and nearing danger, and also environmental disaster, to “abate the flood.”

“Screaming in the mob” will do nothing to help us. Instead, we must “look to the why and where we are”: we can’t solve our problems without properly understanding them. With this understanding comes the hope: “What choice is there left but to live?” It is for “the hope of saving our children’s children’s little ones.” They, the future generations, are our hope. The hope of happiness lies in creating a future that they can live in and enjoy, if we can’t do so ourselves here and now.

“What choice is there left but to try?”

The sense of the feebleness of this hope is heard in how weakly Hammill sings this last line, especially the lethargic way he says “try” at the end. The dimness of that hope is further emphasized with the song’s instrumental ending, with Banton’s dark organ chords and Jackson’s flute playing a dissonant version of that strummed acoustic guitar part before the “Cogs” section.

The song ends with a dissonant flourish of organ, flute, and drums, giving an ambiguous feeling: has hope been realized, or has it been frustrated?

“Man-Erg” is an odd title for what is quite possibly Van der Graaf Generator’s best song. One proposed interpretation, one I’m far from 100% convinced of, is that the title is an anagram for “German,” implying the Nazi stereotype (which ties in with that photo of the band in the inner sleeve of the album cover, them all doing Nazi salutes during a break from playing a game of “Crowborough Tennis.” The saluting is obviously just the band joking around: why would they be seriously advocating such an unpopular, hateful ideology?) Though the Germans of the Nazi era were certainly lemmings in their own…right, driving their country to its self-destruction, and therefore such an interpretation fits in with the general themes of the album, it detracts from the sympathy we feel for the man Hammill is singing for…unless he were understood to be having second thoughts about his fascism, and feeling remorse over it.

Another possible interpretation for the title, as I see it, is that “Erg” is literally that: a unit of energy, an amount of work as understood in physics. Such an interpretation is plausible, given Hammill’s educational background in Liberal Studies in science during his university years; consider in this connection the implied meaning of H to He (Hydrogen to Helium), as well as the S.H.M. section of “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” (i.e., simple harmonic motion). “Erg” thus could be understood as metaphorical of any action a man is responsible for, good or bad…or a guilty lack of needed action.

The song begins with a plaintive piano chord progression of F-major, 1st-inversion C-major (i.e., with E in the bass), D-minor 7th, and C-major, root position. We hear a high C played throughout the progression, in other words. Hammill sings of a character tormented with conflicts over the bad sides (“the killer”) and the good sides (“angels”) that “live inside [him].” “The killer” and “angels” are good and bad internal objects derived probably from his experiences with his parents, in their good and bad forms. “The killer” is the more repressed of the two sides, “lightly sleeping in the quiet of his room,” but he comes to consciousness sometimes, too, causing mayhem.

One intriguing stylistic quality of Banton’s playing of the Hammond organ is how he can make it sound like a pipe organ. Indeed, the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll aptly refers to “Hugh Banton’s churchy Hammond organ” (page 1026). This “churchy” sound is a fitting background to Hammill’s lyrics about a man with a “killer” and “angels” inside him, a man plagued with guilt, craving redemption of the sort one might try to find in a church.

…and what is he feeling guilty about? What does he need redemption for, be it through Christ, or through whomever? Since the themes of Pawn Hearts include those of helplessly watching lemmings destroy themselves, sitting back as a lighthouse keeper and doing nothing as sailors crash on the rocky shore, I’d say he feels like a “killer” for not doing anything to prevent the deaths. Recall that old saying often attributed (incorrectly) to Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

In these three tracks, we have a Hegelian triad, with “Lemmings” and “Man-Erg” opposing each other: the first song is about the self-destructive fools whose actions the man in “Man-Erg” is so opposed to; the second song is about him confronting his own guilt in doing nothing to stop their foolishness, while his more ‘angelic’ side wishes to help; “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” is the sublation of the opposing former two, depicting and merging both sides, and also resolving the lighthouse keeper’s guilt by…suicide, or by finding peace through rationalizations?

Anyway, back to the second track. After “the killer” and “angels” verses, there is an abrupt break from the sweet, plaintive opening tune, into a tense middle section, introduced by Jackson’s saxophones, first screeching downward glissandi, then playing perfect fourths of G and C in three bars of 3/4 time, then a wailing bar of 2/4, and a 3/4 bar of organ notes playing eighth notes of B-flat, C, A, C, A-flat, and C.

These six eighth notes will form the second half of a tense riff in 11/8 time (subdivided 5 plus 6), the first half of which being made up of five eighth notes, being tritones of C and F-sharp, played on the organ. Banton solos over this riff on a Farfisa Professional electric organ.

[Since Robert Fripp of King Crimson played electric guitar as a guest musician on Pawn Hearts–he sat in on H to He, too–I used to think that this brief solo was by him; but I soon suspected, based on the sound of the attacks of the notes played, that it sounds more like keyboard tapping than the plucking of strings. It turns out I must be right in my suspicions; in fact, it remains an utter mystery to me where Fripp’s playing can be heard pretty much anywhere on the album, since he apparently plays on all three tracks. I find this mystery to be particularly frustrating, given Fripp’s distinctive guitar playing style, which should be easy to pick out.]

After this brief soloing, we hear an example of Hammill’s trademark tortured vocal screams, the helpless viewer of the lemmings/sailors crashing on the rocks below, him wanting to be free (i.e., of his guilt) and to know who he really is. Those internal objects I referred to above, “the killer” and the “angels” were projected into him, as I would imagine, from his parents when he was a child, telling him on the one hand never to interfere in others’ affairs, and on the other hand to do what is right. As projections from other people, neither “the killer” nor the “angels” are the real him, of course. Undue parental influence has a way of stifling the growth of our authentic selves.

The 11/8 riff does a drawn-out ritardando until the A-flat of the aforementioned six eighth-notes is stretched out and part of a tritone with D in the bass. The music calms down and switches to a progression beginning with F-major and its relative minor in D. Hammill has switched from playing an acoustic to an electric piano.

Hammill sings of his isolation (“cloisters”) and “the acolytes of gloom,” those internal bad objects that assist him in his misery, as it were. “Death’s Head” is his reminder that he can’t stop the self-destruction of the lemmings/sailors, and that their destruction is his own.

“And I am doomed,” sings Hammill against a background of F-sharp, F, E, and F major. Then he sings of “the pranksters of [his] youth” who are “laughing in [his] courtyard,” a reference to his attempts at regression to an innocent, childlike state, an attempt to escape his despair. The “Old Man,” who is the wiser part of himself, nonetheless brings him back to reality and “tells [him] truth.”

Next comes some sax soloing by Jackson, then a rather bombastic passage with a return of the acoustic piano (this passage will be heard again, in a more developed form, at the end of the song), and a return to the original theme with the F major/1st-inversion C major/D minor 7th/root position C major progression.

Along with “the killer” and the “angels,” Hammill sings of how the protagonist himself is in there, his true self…but who is this man, really? He’s no hero, that’s for sure, for he’s done nothing to prevent the deaths of the lemmings/sailors. Will he be “damned” for his inaction? He’s “just a man,” after all.

He knows that he, like all of us, is a complex combination of good and evil (“killers, angels,” as well as “dictators, saviours”). In our predicament of lemmings hurtling to their self-destruction, our sin of inaction to prevent these deaths make us no better than the dictators we often blindly follow (we’re reminded of that Nazi salute photo), for we are neglecting our potential to be saviours, not giving aid to the “refugees in war and peace.”

“As long as man lives,” there is hope…but time is running out, and for us listeners now in the 2020s, WWIII is coming ever closer, as is the destruction of our planet, ecologically speaking.

The chord progression of the “I’m just a man” section–G major and F major (twice), then A minor, G major, F major, etc.–is soon combined with the tense 11/8 riff, punctuated by Hammill singing five Gs, then F/G/E/G/E-flat/G.

The tense 11/8 riff is heard alone, followed by and ending with that bombastic passage I mentioned above, but a longer, drawn-out version, with Evans banging on tympani. Thus ends Side One, and we flip the record over.

“A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” opens with Hammill playing electric piano, the reverberating tone of which suggests the movement of the water; we hear an opening chord of D minor 7th added 9th.

In part one of this side-long suite, “Eyewitness,” Hammill sings of a sailor “waiting for [his] saviour” as a storm at sea is tearing him apart. But perhaps this is really the lighthouse keeper empathically identifying with the suffering, dying sailor (whose “fingers feel like seaweed”), hence his guilt. He’s “too far out” and “too far in” because of his alienation from his work: too far away from the dying sailors to save them, and too introverted to reach out to help. “Too far out” and “too far in” could also refer to the sailors (with whom he identifies) as being too far out to be saved, and too far in the water to be pulled out.

When he says his “nights are numbered, too,” we can interpret these words in the dual sense given in the preceding paragraph: this could be the voice of a sailor who knows he’ll die soon in a storm at sea, or this could be the voice of the lighthouse keeper, identifying with the sailor in his fear of imminent death. It could also simply mean that the keeper is contemplating suicide.

As I said above, “Lemmings” is essentially about those rushing to their self-destruction, those other than this eyewitness; “Man-Erg” is about the eyewitness; and “Plague” is about him and those he sees getting killed–there’s a kind of fusion of both sides, of the watcher and those watched, a sublation effected through his empathy and guilt over his inaction, the “Erg” that the “Man” never does.

“The stars” don’t “shine” for him: he feels fated to die, as do the sailors/lemmings he identifies with. Indeed, he “prophes[ies] disaster,” for he knows the doom that’s coming, that which he can’t prevent (and therefore feels he’s partly responsible for), as “the witness and the seal of death.” Such a prophet of doom is what you become “when you see the skeletons of sailing-ship spars sinking low.” All of those “ancient myths” seem eerily true.

Part two, “Pictures/Lighthouse,” is an instrumental interlude starting with Jackson’s flute, imitative of birdsong, played over Banton’s organ arpeggios. A bit of saxophone is similarly imitative of bird-calls, then the saxes imitate the ships’ horns, after which Evans’s drums suggest the ships crashing. Next comes Banton’s churchy organ again, playing a passage that has been compared to Messiaen‘s Catholic pipe organ works. Perhaps this juxtaposition of ships crashing, killing the sailors, followed by ‘religious’ music is meant to suggest the dead sailors going to heaven…or is this just the keeper’s wish fulfillment, to assuage his guilt?

With part three, we briefly return to “Eyewitness” and the melancholy theme in D minor. If that organ music, as representing the dead sailors’ entry into heaven, is the keeper’s wish-fulfillment, it seems that he has rejected that wish as unattainable, for Hammill sings of the keeper as recognizing that it’s too late for “contrition” (besides, it might be hard for the keeper to conceive of those who ‘swear like sailors’ as dying in a state of sanctified grace).

All the keeper can do is sit helplessly in regret, “think[ing] on how it might have been” if he could have been able to prevent the deaths. All alone, he is trapped in the mental prison of his torturous thoughts, “locked in silent monologue, in silent scream,” this last word Hammill fittingly, and characteristically, screaming.

He sees “the waves crash on the bleak stones of the tower” from which he’s been watching the ships as they crash on the rocky shore with the waves. Seeing the waves crash on the tower, just as they–and the ships–crash on the shore again suggests his empathic identification with the sailors/lemmings. Thus, he is “overcome” with guilt, and “much too tired to speak.”

Part four, “S.H.M.”, means, as I mentioned above, ‘simple harmonic motion’ on the scientific level, but it’s also a rearrangement of the letters H.M.S., or “His (or Her) Majesty’s Ship.” He sees the ghosts of the dead sailors, heightening his guilt. Since they’re “intent on destroying what they’ve lost,” this is him, in seeing his own destruction linked with theirs, once again identifying with them. If he can be destroyed with them, his guilt will be assuaged. Thus, his imagined dying with them is more wish-fulfillment.

He compares the “lost mastheads” in “the freezing dark” to his “isolated tower,” once again to “parallel” his experience with that of the sailors, thus identifying himself with them. There’s a dark descent of notes in the bass, leading to the next section.

Part five, “The Presence of the Night,” starts with a melancholy, soft passage in A minor, going back and forth between that and F major. Fripp’s guitar is in this passage, though it’s buried under the sax, organ, and drums–you have to listen carefully to hear his soft, improvised soloing…rather similar to how he plays in a soft passage in “The Court of the Crimson King,” in the middle of the song, soft guitar notes heard behind Ian McDonald‘s flute soloing.

Hammill sings of ghosts calling out “Alone, alone,” just as the keeper is all alone, a paralleling that again shows his identification with them. Since he empathizes with them in this identification, he also wonders if anyone else will empathize with him if he died: “Would you cry if I died? Would you catch the final words of mine?”

With these words, we shift from the melancholy loneliness of the beginning of this fifth part to rising tension, building to a riff of three bars in 7/8, each subdivided 3 + 4, then a bar in 5/4, ending in eighth-note triplets before returning to 4/4. In the bass, this 7/8 passage ascends from A to B, C, D, E, and F, then in the 5/4 bar, it descends in arpeggios from C major to B minor and to a resolution back in A minor, which again is in 4/4. This section reaches a climax with the 7/8 and 5/4 parts, excluding the resolution in 4/4.

Hammill sings of wanting to be free (of his guilt) and of wanting to be himself–as he did in the 11/8 section of “Man-Erg.” He sings of the keeper’s fears of dying “very slowly alone,” yet also of wanting to be allowed to be “completely alone,” that is, to be without the company of those voices that plague him so with guilt.

[Incidentally, Hammill sings these verses in mixed voice on the album, but in a live performance of “Plague,” done on TV in Belgium in 1972, due to a lack of regular practice of the suite–since, recorded with so much studio gimmickry, it to a great extent couldn’t be reproduced live–his voice, I’m sorry to note, cracks a bit when he sings these verses.]

With the odd-metre climax of part five, we shift into part six, “Kosmos Tours,” written by Evans based around a short piano riff in A major, with tritones between the tonic and E-flat, and between C-sharp and G. It’s quite a chaotic passage, with energetic drumming and two lines of dissonant counterpoint played by Banton on an ARP synthesizer, one line in the treble, the other in the bass. The whole passage, in its wildness, musically suggests being caught in a maelstrom at sea, which leads to my next point, a brief verse ending part six.

I must be honest about this verse: I find it overdone, not only with the alliteration of “maelstrom of my memory,” but also the mixed metaphor of “maelstrom” and “vampire.” It’s rather melodramatic, even by Hammill’s standards. I never liked it.

Still, “over the brink I fall” once again links the keeper with the sailors, in how he wishes to fall over the brink of the lighthouse tower and into the sea, and in how he identifies with the sailors, who in the storm, fall over the brink of their shattered ships and into the sea. On the word “fall,” the piano bangs a hard, dissonant A minor chord with an added sixth.

Now, we move into part seven, “Custard’s Last Stand,” which melodically starts in a more cheerful C major on the organ, though Hammill’s lyrics remain as gloomy as ever. He sings of his hopes for “the key,” but he can’t “reach the door.” He wants “to walk on the sea,” like Christ in Mark 6:45-52, but he can’t “ever keep [his] feet dry.”

The keeper yearns for some kind of happiness, for peace of mind, but this is of course ever elusive. In doing his job in the lighthouse tower, he “scan[s] the horizon” and “must keep [his] eyes on all parts of [himself].” Obviously, he must also keep his eyes on the sailors, so “all parts of me”–be they as each man intact, or torn to pieces–is yet another example of his self-identification with the sailors.

He’s “lost [his] way,” and “like a dog in the night, [he has] run to a manger,” where he feels himself to be a “stranger.” The reference to a manger suggests again his wish to be like Christ. As Hammill sang in “Man-Erg,” he’s “just a man…dictators, saviours, refugees.” He feels himself to be a killer of sailors/lemmings in his inaction, and he yearns to be a saviour, since he identifies empathically with the “refugees” of the sea.

He is “chasing solitary peace,” which as I said above, he is yearning for but can’t find, an escape from the hell of other people who he feels are judging him for his inaction. Such peace will never be fulfilling, though, for he cannot escape his problems, his Jungian Shadow. He’s “too close to the light,” and so he can’t see right. The light is also the glare of the lighthouse, making it hard for him to see the incoming ships. Its light blinds himself, and perhaps its glare also blinds the sailors, who then can’t steer their ships properly; thus they will crash on the rocky shore. So “I blind me” also means ‘I blind them,’ once again identifying himself with the sailors.

A minor chord on the organ and a drum roll on a tom-tom lead into part eight, “The Clot Thickens,” which comes in attacking our ears. A tense riff beginning in 5/4 is led by Hammill singing a number of questions: Where? How? When? Who? With all of his unanswered questions, the lighthouse keeper is in a state of utter confusion, which is heightened by the intensity of the music. His identification with the suffering and dying sailors is reaching a point where he is losing his ability to distinguish himself from them: “I am me, me are we, we can’t see any way out of here.” The incoherence of his words indicate a psychotic break from reality, intensified further by the dissonant music.

The 5/4 riff repeats instrumentally a few times, then we come to a climactic level of tension in which, the keeper in his growing psychosis over his unbearable guilt, cannot tell the difference between himself and the drowning sailors at all. His wish-fulfillment, in this growing delusion, is to imagine himself dying and drowning at sea with them, his punishment and atonement for his sinful inaction, an assuaging of his guilt.

An angular synthesizer tone is heard playing an awkward, irregular theme in a fifteen-beat cycle that can be subdivided 4 + 5 + 6; I would interpret it either as 4/8, 5/8, and 3/4, or perhaps 3/4, 3/8, and 3/4. It suggests another maelstrom, or an otherwise wild storm at sea (yet, symbolically, it’s also his psychological fragmentation), with boats smashed to pieces and sailors’ bodies mutilated. Banton adds a Mellotron with wavering pitch bends of tapes of the string section, to add to the musical tension and chaos.

Note Hammill’s reference to “the lemmings coming,” his equating of them with the sailors–hence my frequent reference to the lemmings/sailors in this analysis. He also repeats “I’m just a man,” a line from “Man-Erg.” Thus we can see how all three songs are thematically united, and why I treat them all as telling the same story, if from somewhat different points of view.

The final parts of the suite, “Land’s End (Sineline)” and “We Go Now,” begin with a more cheerful, optimistic piano progression in E-flat major. Hammill sings of the keeper being “pulled into the spell,” that is, into the water; yet, “spell” could also metaphorically mean magical spell, that is, the ‘magical’ illusion of a hallucination. He says he feels he is drowning, but if he is, how can he be able to give voice to the experience?

It’s been said that the ambiguous resolution to the story is that the keeper either kills himself by throwing himself in the water and drowning, or he finds peace of mind by somehow rationalizing his situation. I’d say that, in a way, he does both: by hallucinating a psychic merging with the sailors, he imagines he’s drowned with them, and in this way, he’s found peace of mind through an imagined atonement.

The cheerful melody thus represents his illusory peace. Only through such a deep state of delusion, imagining he is a ghost among the other sailors’ ghosts, can he feel reconciled with them. Delusion is his rationalization.

“I feel you around me; I know you well,” Hammill sings. The keeper imagines he is at one with the ghosts and with the sea. In his psychotic state, he is experiencing the undifferentiated state of what Lacan called the Real. It’s a paradoxical state: it can be both traumatizing and mystical, like Bion‘s O, the “deep and formless infinite.” It’s traumatizing if one is still attached to one’s ego, but if one gives up one’s individual existence, one can find peace. “Whose is my voice?” the keeper asks, suggesting a giving-up of the ego, a merging with the sailor-ghosts.

Still, one isn’t too sure if he means it when he says, “It doesn’t feel so very bad now…begin to feel very glad now.” He could be simply in denial of his ongoing pain; “the end is the start” could refer to his attainment of an ouroboros-like, cyclical infinity, or it could mean he’ll cyclically return to that pain after a temporary respite from it.

“All things are a part/apart” is a most ambiguous ending line. Are all things a part of a Brahman-like infinity, the keeper’s Atman linked to a pantheistic whole, an ouroboros of nirvana? Or are all things torn apart, through a physical mutilation and drowning at sea, or apart in the sense of psychological fragmentation, his psychotic breakdown? Is it a combination of the two?

Since the cheerful melody starts to decay into dissonance at the end of the suite, I suspect that the keeper has simply gone mad, and that his ‘peace of mind’ is only a delusion whose purpose is to keep his mental state manageable…though this stability can only last for so long.

We go now…he and the sailor-ghosts as a merged unity–into heaven, or hell?

Fripp is supposed to be playing at the end of the suite: again, is the soloing we hear by him, or is it Banton’s Farfisa?

Though as I said above, the themes of this masterpiece album by Van der Graaf Generator are universal and applicable to any time, I feel that they are especially relevant to us now in the 2020s. Many of us, including myself, are watching the madness of our political leaders in the West, who are needlessly provoking Russia and China into war, all because the US/NATO imperialists won’t accept the emergence of a multipolar world.

The mainstream corporate media in the West continue to scapegoat Russia and China, and the masses in the West far too often buy into these media lies, which are told to manufacture consent for war and greater nuclear brinksmanship. As I said, many of us feel like prophets crying out in the wilderness, or like the lighthouse keeper, watching the lemmings, or sailors–choose whichever metaphor you prefer–going along with the banging of the war drums, cheering on the Ukrainian soldiers without realizing–or in denial–that many of them are Nazis (eerily giving that inner sleeve photo of the band greater thematic weight)!

This isn’t about being ‘pro-Russia’ or ‘pro-China’: it’s about being anti-war.

Like the lighthouse keeper, we’re watching this growing madness, ourselves going crazy trying to warn people. Yet still, the lemmings just keep on supporting the political status quo, running off the cliff, dooming us all.

Will we drown in the madness of a nuclear WWIII, or will we drown as a result of rising sea levels and global warming? Are we going to sit back and watch helplessly, or are we going to be a man and…erg? Are we going to have pawn hearts, or peace-loving ones, those of people who can think for themselves?

My Short Story, ‘Family Dies,’ Published in the Western Horror Anthology, ‘Shut Up and Bleed’

My Western horror short story, ‘Family Dies,’ has been published in Shut Up and Bleed, a new Western horror short story anthology soon to be found on Amazon (June 1st, to be exact). Other great horror short stories in the anthology are by Christine Morgan, Katie Berry, Tim Curran, C. Derick Miller, Chuck Buda, BL Blankenship, Megan Stockton, and Jon Steffen.

Here is a link to the Amazon page.

Many thanks to BL Blankenship, who set this up for all of us writers included in the project! He also set up the Book Without a Name Western horror short story anthology, in which I have two stories published, namely, “Ghost Town,” and “The Lake.”

So, come June 1st, please go over to Amazon and order yourself a copy of Shut Up and Bleed! 🙂

‘Mama,’ a Psychological Horror Novel, Chapter One

I killed my mother!

Nobody knows it was I who killed her, of course: everybody thinks she simply died of a heart attack; that’s how the doctor says she died. But I know…

I’ll tell you how I did it later, for if I tell you now, you’ll never believe me. In fact, you’ll think I’m crazy for believing such a method would work.

Since you’re probably assuming I’m a terrible person for doing what I did, since matricide is considered one of the worst crimes anyone could ever commit, I should explain my reasons for doing it, in the hopes that you’ll understand me, and not judge me so harshly for my extreme act.

My name is Roger Mark Gunn, and I’m in my mid-thirties. I’ve lived with Mama in an apartment in Toronto my whole life. That’s right: we never moved, and I’ve never been able to find a job that pays enough so I could move out, find a girl, fall in love, get married, and live a normal life. Even if I could have, though, Mama wouldn’t have allowed it, anyway.

The only work I’ve ever done has been as a cashier in her pet food store. It’s been so humiliating having to call out “Mama!” to the back of the store to get her to come to the front every time I needed her to help with a customer. But that embarrassment was among the least of my problems with her.

Most people have fond, affectionate feelings for their mothers. Their mothers truly want what’s best for them; these mothers encourage their sons and daughters to chase after their dreams, and they comfort you when you’re down.

Not so with Mama.

What you have to understand about Mama is that she was not a normal person. She was insane. She was domineering, clingy, and demanding. She messed with my mind. She made me believe that I lack abilities where I really do have them. She undermined my ability to develop self-confidence, and she did this on purpose–the opposite of what a mother is supposed to do!

Worse than all of this, she would tell me that my perception of reality is distorted, that I hallucinate regularly. She started saying such things to me when I was a child, around when I was nine or ten years old. To give her lies an aura of authority, she claimed that psychiatrists had examined me thoroughly, and that I was a diagnosed psychotic. She said they recommended putting me away in an institution, but out of her ‘love’ for me, she saved me from such a fate!

She claimed that she’d done everything out of love for me, that only she knew how to take care of me. I don’t believe a word of any of this, though. I know better.

She was trying to control my life by making me believe that I couldn’t do anything without her, that I’m nothing without her. Well, I’m about to prove her wrong!

What I’ve said so far surely hasn’t convinced you that she deserved to die, as awful as she was to me, based on what I’ve just said. After all, she did leave me a lot of money to live on, so I can live comfortably on my own for the rest of my life. But she was much, much worse to me that what I’ve said so far. Again, I can’t tell you everything just now, since you’ll think I’m crazy. I have to let you know bit by bit, so you’ll be prepared for the worst. Please be patient.

I never knew my father. Mama told me he ran off as soon as he learned he’d got her pregnant, but I’m convinced she way lying. I’m sure she killed him, but in a way that no one would ever suspect her of murder, in a way I’ll explain later, when I think you’re ready to hear the shocking truth.

All through my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, I felt as though there was a terrible void in my life, a huge gap, a hole in which something vital was missing. This missing element was a father, someone to help me make the transition from childhood to adulthood, to teach me how to be a man. Mama took him from me.

All my mental health problems stem from this lack, I’m sure of it. I’ve lived in that apartment with Mama as if no one else existed in the whole world. It was only Mama and me, the two of us looking in each other’s eyes as if each of us were looking at him- or herself in a mirror reflection. It’s as though I existed as an extension of her, and her as an extension of me. It’s as if we were joined at the hip–well, I finally cut myself loose!

There was always this feeling as if we owned each other. No one else was ever allowed to share the attention of either of us. That, I believe, is why she removed my father from our lives, and that is why she always found ways to frustrate my every attempt at making friends.

The guidance of a father would have helped me make a smooth entrance into society. Mama never wanted me to achieve such an entrance; this is why I never made friends at school or in the neighbourhood, why I was always picked on and bullied by my classmates and the other kids in the neighbourhood, and why I could never hold down a job with an employer other than Mama. She ruined my life! She made me into a loser!

I’m sure that my father was really a great man, though she only spoke ill of him, to deceive me, to make me believe she was the only one who truly loved me. She wanted me to remain completely under her control. That is why I had to kill her: to free myself from her tentacles! Since my whole sense of myself was always bound up in her, now that she’s gone, I can finally be free to be my true self!

If only it didn’t feel as if my true self were a bottomless pit of infinite blackness.

I’ve always felt alone, as if there were a huge brick wall separating myself from the rest of humanity. Before, I at least had her to keep me company. Now, as I stand here, at Mama’s funeral, there are all of these people here, including my aunt, her sister, and other family and ‘friends’ whom I barely even know.

Even here, with all of these people, I still feel all alone, in a world that’s almost like a dream.

Oh, no…my aunt is coming over here to talk to me! God, give me strength!

“Roger?” she says to me with a fake smile. “Will you be OK without my sister to take care of you? I don’t like the idea of you living alone in that apartment. Also, there’s no way you can take care of that pet food store all by yourself. No offense, sweetie, but you have a rather feeble grip on reality as it is, as we all know, and you’ll need some help managing the store, so I’m willing to fill in for Anne, being with so much free time of my own these days.” She stops speaking for a moment and frowns. “Are you listening to me, Roger?”

“Yes,” I say coolly. “Do whatever you want.”

She sighs and sneers at me, then she says, “Look over there, Roger. Do you see that man standing by the minister? The one about your mother’s age? His name is Reynold, and this is amazing luck that we found him here and now, but he’s your long-lost fa–“

“Impossible,” I say, not even looking at the man. “My father died decades ago.”

“Roger,” she says. “He approached me just before the funeral started. He told me about his relationship with your mother. He told me details about her that could only have been known by a man who knew her intimately, around the time your mother was pregnant with you. He wants to meet his son.”

“Well, I’m sure his son is out there somewhere in the world,” I say, looking away from her and from the man with the iciest of faces. “Let the man seek him out, for he isn’t me. I mean, look at him.” I gesture over to the bald, frowning man, in his mid-sixties, skinny and with a gut bigger than mine, wearing a dull grey suit. “I’m sure my father was much more of a man than that.”

Now my aunt is frowning at me, then her eyes and mouth are agape, in as much of a shock at my rejection of the man as he is. “Roger, you horrify me,” she says.

I see her walk back to the man, shaking her head and apologizing to him. It makes no difference to me.

Dad is dead.

Just like Mama.

The funeral service is finally over, thank God. Now I can go home. There, I’ll show you all the proof there is to see that she was the kind of person I know her to have been. Then you’ll know why I was perfectly justified in ending her life.

Again, I can’t quite tell you why yet, not until I show you the proof and explain the background, so you won’t think I’m crazy. Come home with me.

For now, the only hint that I can give you is that I’m so justified in my killing of her, even the Bible sanctions it…not that I believe anything in the Bible, mind you, but I mention it to emphasize my freedom from guilt.

The relevant verse is Exodus 22:18, if you’re curious.


We can sweat the small stuff, enduring those tiny drops
that don’t upset too much, being so small. Yet, them being
so cold, irregular, and incessant, the irritation slowly builds





take it anymore.

It’s like Chinese water torture: sweat will drip off your chin
as the cold drops slowly fall, tapping on your scalp. Knowing
when they are coming, you’re prepared, and they’d be bearable,





know when they will hit, so the anticipation is crazy-making.

Gold was supposed to trickle down decades ago, but it
was pyrite. The decades went by, the trickling was icy cold,
& now we’re mad, getting cut off from reality more and more,





helping us, or organizing, or showing us a way out of this mess. Each drip
may just be one drop of water, but these all add up to a lake of fire over time.
Someone, please, turn off the tap, so we can all have peace.

Analysis of ‘Un Homme Qui Dort’

Un homme qui dort (“The Man Who Sleeps,” or “A Man Asleep”) is a 1974 French film directed by Bernard Queysanne and Georges Perec, based on Perec’s story of the same name. It stars Jacques Spiesser.

The film’s script is taken completely from the text of Perec’s prose, though in a condensed form. The text is in the second person singular, as though the narrator (recited by Ludmila Mikaël in the original French, and by Shelley Duvall in English translation) were speaking to Spiesser’s character.

The black-and-white film was almost lost, but it was restored on DVD in 2007. It received some critical acclaim, winning the Prix Jean Vigo in 1974.

Here is a link to quotes from the film in English translation, here is a link to an English translation of Perec’s story (or is it the script for the film?), and here is a link to the film with English subtitles. Here is a link to the English language version.

A twenty-five-year-old Parisian university student (Spiesser), whose name is not given (thus making him a kind of everyman), lives in a one-room chambre de bonne. His feelings of alienation have risen to such a pitch that he no longer wishes to participate in social life. “…you discover, without surprise, that something is wrong, that you don’t know how to live and that you never will know.”

The notion that he is “a man asleep” is metaphorical. Actually, he wanders the streets of Paris instead of going to school and hanging out with friends. He’s living the life of an automaton, devoid of human interaction; it’s an attempt at indifference as a way of alleviating suffering. Self-isolation, he hopes, is a way to nirvana.

He’s as passive as can practically be achieved: “…it’s not action at all, but an absence of action…”

He imagines that someone else, his twin, his double, will get out of bed, wash, shave, dress, go out, and attend school for him. This idea of a double is significant, for it is expressed in other forms: the narrator, addressing him as “you,” is the rambling of his own thoughts in a kind of unwritten diary; also, there’s his cracked, Lacanian mirror, the specular image of which he is alienated from, too.

Finally, there’s the reproduction of René Magritte‘s 1937 surrealist painting, La reproduction interdite, showing a man standing in front of a mirror, his back to us and facing it; but instead of seeing the man’s face reflected back to us, we see the back of his head just as we do of the actual man in front of the mirror. About fifteen minutes into the film, when the student has gone into a theatre to see a movie, we see a surreal variation of this picture, but it’s the student, and the images show him repeatedly facing away from his ‘reflection.’ More self-alienation.

All of these doublings of himself indicate his having left the social and cultural world of the Symbolic Order in order to regress into the narcissistic, dyadic world of the Imaginary. In time, the horrors of the Real will jolt him out of his isolation, and force him to reintegrate into the Symbolic.

It’s also significant that the movie is in black-and-white, when colour film was easily available, and when, by the early 70s, virtually all movies were in colour. I see the choice of black-and-white to be symbolic of black-and-white thinking, or psychological splitting, part of the cause of this young man’s psychological problems.

According to Melanie Klein, the paranoid-schizoid position causes us to split people into being perceived as all-good or all-bad, the bad ones being projected outward and split off from us. This is what the student is doing, though he seems to feel that virtually all elements of society are bad, so he splits them off, including his internal objects of them, and projects them outward, imagining himself to be safe without them.

But of course, he won’t be safe without them, because the internal objects are a part of himself; hence, towards the end of the film, when the tension is raised and he realizes he can’t just cut himself off from the world, we see the black-and-white film in negative images.

Still, for the time being, anyway, he feels a sense of peace and bliss from no longer engaging with the world. Wouldn’t we all love to break away like this?! To give up on all responsibilities, to let Freud‘s death drive kick in, and be at rest, no longer suffering with the rest of the world.

Pleasure, for Freud, consists in the relaxation of tension, which in the form of death, is the ultimate relaxation of it; hence, the death drive as being merely the other side of the same coin as that of the libido, part of Eros. We sense that the young student is aiming for just such a relaxation of tension, though, like Hamlet, he’s too chicken to go through with suicide.

So life as a passive, indifferent automaton seems a reasonable compromise. Indifference, in this regard, is like that of the Buddhist avoiding gratification of desire, or attachment to the world…but without the Buddhist’s hard discipline, of course. The non-existence of nirvana, no-thing-ness, the escape from existence as pain, dukkha, is the death-paradise the student seeks.

We’re reminded of Hamlet’s soliloquy:

“…to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep…” (III, i)

It is in this sense that we should understand the young student to be “the man who sleeps.”

Recall that the narrator, his anima mirror-double, says, “You have no desire to carry on […] the fleeting and poignant desire to hear no more, to see no more, to remain silent and motionless. Crazy dreams of solitude.”

At one point, in the middle of this solitude, he imagines he has reached this point of nirvana, for the narrator says the following to him:

“As the hours, the days, the weeks, the seasons slip by, you detach yourself from everything.
You discover, with something that sometimes almost resembles exhilaration, that you are free, that nothing is weighing you down, nothing pleases or displeases you.
You find, in this life exempt from wear and tear and with no thrill in it other than these suspended moments, an almost perfect happiness, fascinating, occasionally swollen by new emotions.
You are living in a blessed parenthesis, in a vacuum full of promise, and from which you expect nothing.
You are invisible, limpid, transparent.
You no longer exist…”

His friends have stopped over to say hello, but he ignores the knocking on his door and the paper messages slipped under it. He wants no contact with others, for he has come to understand that hell is other people; he doesn’t want to bear their judgemental gaze…yet the narrator, his internalized Other, addressing him with a judgemental “you,” ensures that he will never escape the hell of judgemental others. Therefore, there is no exit for him, not even in indifferent solitude.

(We hear, almost an hour into the film, “Il n’y a pas d’issue,” that is, “There is no way out,” or “There is no exit”; now, Sartre‘s play is named Huis clos–“Closed Door”–in the original French, but English translations of the play with titles like No Way Out and No Exit would have been well known by the time Perec began writing his story. Besides, the student, when in his chambre de bonne, typically has his door closed, anyway.)

When we see him wandering the streets of Paris, we usually see few if any other people there. This can be seen in the middle of the day, when the streets presumably would be far busier: could he be dreaming during these moments, experiencing wish-fulfillment?

Alone, in his chambre, he smokes, drinks Nescafé, looks up at the cracks on his ceiling (easily associated with the cracks in his mirror, all symbols of his fragmented self), and plays a game of cards similar to solitaire. This escape from the social world, into one of solitary play and contemplation, is not too far removed from the maladaptive daydreaming of traumatized people, or the self-isolation of sufferers of stress from Adverse Childhood Experiences.

His room–small, hot, claustrophobic, and with those cracks in the ceiling and on the mirror–is nonetheless “the centre of the world” for him. The room thus in many ways represents himself: fragmented, narcissistic, a place to hide himself in sleep, and a place to escape from when he can no longer stand himself. He’s as passive as that dripping tap, or those six socks soaking in the pink plastic bowl–sharks as indolent as he is.

With his loss of interest in social life comes also his loss of interest in time, whose passing he barely notices. Similarly, when during his wandering of the Parisian streets, two twin boys in identical clothes are running past him from behind while rattling a ruler against the palings of a fence he’s walking beside, he isn’t at all irritated by the noise. The boys’ duality parallels his duality as against his alienated self, his image in the mirror, the man twice seen in the Magritte picture with his back to us, his imaginary double replacing him in going about his normal daily routine, and his anima narrator…except that the boys are, in their energetic, enthusiastic participation in life, his dialectical opposite–what he still could be if he weren’t so alienated from everything and everyone.

In the Luxembourg Garden, he watches the pensioners playing cards, comparable to his own playing of his solitaire-esque game in his room. Such a comparison suggests a unity of self and other vis-à-vis him and the pensioners…also a dialectical unity between the elderly and his young self.

In a development of this theme of self and other, young vs. old, we see him watching an old man sitting on a bench staring into space “for hours on end,” as if mummified, “gazing into emptiness.” The young man, admiring the elder, would like to know his secrets, for the latter seems to have attained the ideal of detached indifference for which the former has been striving. (One is reminded of Prince Siddhartha seeing a holy man, and thus being inspired to find enlightenment himself.) He looks at the old man as if staring into a mirror, gazing at his ideal-I…so much better than his reflection in his cracked mirror in his room.

At one point, while reading the business news in Le Monde, he imagines himself to be some important businessman or politician smoking a cigar and getting out of a car. Ending the narcissistic fantasy of him identifying himself with important men, he is seen as his ordinary self, playing pinball.

When playing his solitaire-like card game, he removes the aces, so he has no ‘ace in the hole,’ or ‘ace up his sleeve.’ Accordingly, he rarely succeeds at the game, yet winning doesn’t matter to him, for what would winning mean to him, anyway? The card game, after all, is like life: if he’s indifferent to life, why would he care any more about winning at some card game? He goes through the motions like an automaton, all meaninglessly, just as he does through life.

We’ve noticed, by now, that he’s been biting his nails.

As I mentioned above, he reaches a point when his ‘mastery,’ as it were, of the indifferent life has allowed him to attain a kind of bliss. He seems as indifferent as the dripping tap, as the six socks soaking in the plastic pink bowl, as a fly, as a tree, as a rat.

He speaks no more than is absolutely necessary: in this disengagement with language, and therefore with society, he is leaving the Symbolic. “Indifference dissolves language and scrambles the signs.” Though he’d seem to be blissfully regressing to the narcissism of the Imaginary, before long, he’ll experience the trauma of the undifferentiated Real.

In this sense of non-differentiation, he finds himself with a series of choices of ‘you do, or you don’t do.’ These include:

You walk or you do not walk.
You sleep or you do not sleep.
You buy Le Monde or you do not buy it.
You eat or you do not eat.

A little later, the narrator says, “You play pinball or you don’t.” All of these ‘do or not do’ expressions remind us of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Just as Hamlet suffered from an inability to act, whether in killing his uncle Claudius or in killing himself, so does the young Parisian student feel incapable of acting, hence his automaton-like passivity and indifference. Still, in the end, like Hamlet, he must act.

Tense music can be heard playing in the background, suggesting that he is reaching the limit of how long he can continue to live the ‘indifferent’ life. Though I mentioned above the black-and-white film as representing his black-and-white psychological splitting, there’s also the preponderance of grey, for he is “a grey man with no connotation of dullness.” Indeed, his life has grown so dull that he’s forgotten what excitement is.

In his narcissism, in his imagined mastery of the indifferent life, he fancies himself “the nameless master of the world.” Buddha-like, he has seen that motionless old man the way Prince Siddhartha saw the impressive holy man (after having seen the old, sick, and dead men, as you’ll recall from his legendary life story), and now he imagines he has attained enlightenment. “All you are is all you know.” Total, narcissistic solipsism…nirvana? I think not.

So in his ‘mastery’ of the indifferent, he’s “inaccessible, like a tree, like a shop window, like a rat.” We again see a shot of him watching the motionless old man, as if he were looking in a mirror at his ideal-I, or like the Buddha seeing the holy man. We see a shot of that indifferent dripping tap, too, as well as shots of a walkway with trees, benches, and fences on either side, yet devoid of any people…the misanthropic young man’s ideal world.

But he soon comes to realize all of the ways that he is not at all like the ‘enlightened’ and ‘indifferent’ rat; for rats don’t have sleepless nights, they don’t bite their fingernails, they don’t wake up bathed in sweat, they don’t dream, against which the young man has no protection.

We come back to Hamlet: “to sleep, perchance to dream.”

Just as Hamlet couldn’t use the “sleep of death” as an escape from his problems, for he’d then have the nightmare of hell to deal with after having committed the sin of suicide, so can’t this young student use the sleep of indifference as an escape from his alienating world, for his nightmares are the return of repressed pain that he’ll never be able to project onto the world and be rid of.

Such an understanding “makes us rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of”.

To get back to the biting of his fingernails, we learn that he bites them so violently that they bleed and are in unbearable pain. This violent biting is an example of his excessive attempts at splitting off and projecting those ‘black’ parts of himself that he doesn’t accept. The biting represents his alienation from himself, his refusal to integrate his Shadow.

Rats don’t play pinball, either, and when he plays, for hours on end, he’s in a rage…hardly indifferent. No, he isn’t much of a Buddha. But like Hamlet, he “can play or not play.” He can’t start up a conversation with the pinball machine, though, and this incidentally would seem to be his reason for preferring pinball to people. At the same time, a pinball machine cannot give him the human response, the love, that he so obviously needs.

It is in this very retreat from human company, replacing it with things that will never satisfy, that we can all relate to the young man; for don’t we all, in our own way, attempt a sleep of indifference to the world?

The narrator says repeatedly that he drifts around the streets, an odd behaviour for someone who has supposedly ‘found the answer’ to his problems. He goes back to his room and tries to go to sleep, but he can’t; instead, he would “calmly measure the sticky extent of [his] unhappiness,” and he goes out again and wanders the streets at night.

It is around this point that we start noticing a switch to negative film, back and forth between this and regular black-and-white film. We also hear the first of a series of references to “monstrous” things, or to “monsters”–in this case, “the monstrous factory gates.” We also hear of “impatient crowds,” which I believe are the “monsters” he’s been trying so hard to rid himself of.

Now, unhappiness hasn’t come to him all of a sudden: it’s gradually appeared to him, as if without his knowing until it was fully formed. Unhappiness has been in the cracks on his ceiling, and on his mirror, in the dripping tap, in those things in which he saw blissful indifference. All of his wandering has been meaningless.

As we see him biting his fingernails again, there’s a rapping, percussive sound in the background, reinforcing the sense of his agitation. He keeps playing his absurd card game, having removed the aces, but it offers no way out of his malaise…the same as with his wandering.

By now, an hour into the film, the narrator is speaking faster, with more urgency in her voice. We see negative film again, with crowds of people on the street. That rapping noise is still being heard. “The monsters have come into your life,” the narrator says, “the rats, your fellow creatures, your brothers. The monsters in their tens, their hundreds, their thousands.” These crowds of people are the ones he’s been trying to get away from…but can’t. This is also one of the first references to “rats” that is negative…interesting that this is happening now.

As we see more of the negative film, we hear the narrator say, “You follow their shadows [i.e., those of the “monsters,” the crowds of people], you are their shadow [i.e., you are the very thing you see in them that you won’t accept].” As the rapping sound continues, we also hear the narrator speaking faster, and we hear a dissonant chord played on a keyboard.

We see more shots of crowds of people walking on the streets, we hear more rapping, and the dissonant keyboard chord. Images of condemned, torn-down buildings, too. More references to “monsters,” all those people he hates. The juxtaposition of all these jarring images, sounds, and words is, of course, deliberate. The narrator’s voice is getting more and more agitated. The film alternates between normal black and white and negative film during this climactic moment.

The narrator mentions “…all the others who are even worse, the smug, the smart-Alecs, the self-satisfied…” These people seem suspiciously like projections of himself as the would-be indifferent Buddha. Again, he’s trying to split off and throw away what it is inside himself that he doesn’t like–the Shadow he needs to integrate.

After more repetitions of “monster,” the wanderer in his ongoing bitter meditation starts tossing around the word “sad” through his narrator mouthpiece: “sad city, sad lights in the sad streets, sad clowns in sad music-halls, sad queues outside the sad cinemas, sad furniture in the sad stores.”

His heavenly bliss of indifference has become the hell of a most non-gay Paris.

He feels like a prisoner in his cell, like a rat trying to escape its maze. Again, how odd it is that only now is a rat being used as a simile for something negative. He’s starting to realize that his retreat from the world has never been anything good.

The narrator has finally calmed down. Among the shots of rubble, we see a surrealist image of a sink standing alone; instead of containing water, though, we see a flame on it. Should we interpret this rubble of torn-down buildings, and his flaming sink, as representative of his chambre de bonne, in turn representative of himself, torn apart, fragmented, burning, in a psychotic break with reality, in the traumatic agony of Lacan’s Real Order?

“You are afraid,” the narrator says as he looks at all of the rubble, the home he meant to return to. We see a shot of his cracked mirror again, in between the shots of him looking at the rubble. He runs away, another attempt to run away from himself and his problems. We see the burning sink collapse.

Next is a shot of him calmly walking down a street between parked cars. He is calm, and it seems that he has come to accept the necessity of returning to a life in the real world. We hear an eerie tune played on an organ: a repetition of D to G on the right hand (and variations thereof), a descent in the bass from G to F, then to E-flat and to D-flat. A female voice accompanies the organ by singing a high G.

The young man is no wiser from his detachment from the world. “Indifference has not made you any different.” The nirvana of indifference has led back to the samsara of involvement with the world. Still, he won’t be judged for his failed experiment, for he has done nothing wrong. “No, [he is] not the nameless master of the world.” He’s no Buddha. He is afraid, waiting for the rain to stop…as we all are.

The film ends with the same shot of the buildings of the city that we saw at the beginning. The film has come full circle; he’s back where he began. He’s woken up from his metaphorical sleep, ready to go back into the world with the rest of us. We must all wake from our sleep of death, of indifference, and be involved in life again.

‘Slashers,’ a Sci-Fi Short Story

Two small spherical objects, one red, the other blue, were flying through space in search of life. They entered the Milky Way, then our solar system, having already sensed life on Earth.

They had a kind of cloaking device, ensuring that we would not detect their imminent arrival. By the time they had passed Jupiter in their approach to Earth, they had already absorbed volumes of information about us, including our warlike nature.

The red and blue balls were not spaceships. They were intelligent, technologically-advanced life forms who communicated with each other in a kind of mental telepathy. This is what they said to each other about humanity.

RED: What a hateful, hostile, and cruel life form!
BLUE: Yes. They maim and kill each other, and they do the same to all the subordinate life forms.
RED: If they are allowed to keep living, they will only prolong their own suffering and that of every other life form on the planet.
BLUE: Yes. Ending all their lives quickly, rather than letting them slowly kill themselves, would be kindness to them. Any potential for good in them is far too scanted to compensate for all the evil. We must destroy them.

The balls descended on the Earth, passing through our atmosphere as undetected as before. Only when they hit the ground, with crashing thuds that caused dirt to fly in the air, did we become aware of their presence.

…and even then, instead of being alarmed by this new, alien intervention in our lives, we found ourselves mesmerized by them, too fascinated to be afraid. This hypnotic state was caused by the balls’ technology.

The balls had landed on a flat field about fifty yards apart from each other. They began rolling towards each other on the bumpy ground, slashing through the grass and cutting into the dirt, for as soon as they’d landed, sharp, bonelike spikes came out of the balls, each about ten centimeters in length.

A family having a picnic saw them rolling at each other and causing the sliced-up earth to fly in the air in jumping spots of brown. The father and his two sons of six and eight ran closer to get a better look.

“What are those things, Dad?” the eight-year-old asked.

“I have no idea, Ian,” his dad said.

The balls smashed into each other with a loud, metallic, clanging noise, making them bounce back the way they came. A strange odour emanated through the air beyond the man and his two boys, so that the mother, having remained back at the picnic layout of food on a quilt, also smelled it.

The entire family felt a little dizzy for a few seconds on inhaling the smell.

After that, the man and two boys came closer. The mother left the picnic area and joined them.

Rapt, all four of them watched the spiked red and blue balls roll at each other again.

“Dad,” Ian asked, “did they just get a bit bigger?”

“Yeah, it looks that way,” the father said. “First, they were about the size of basketballs. Now, they’re a bit bigger than the size of medicine balls. The spikes are proportionately longer, too.”

“They’re fighting, aren’t they, Daddy?” the six-year-old asked.

“It looks that way, Jimmy,” Dad said.

“I hope the red one wins,” said Ian.

“So do I,” Dad said.

“Yeah, well, I’m rooting for the blue one,” Mom said.

“Me, too, Mommy,” Jimmy said.

The balls smashed into each other again, making another terrible, deafening metallic sound. All four family members winced and covered their ears. Nonetheless, they were enjoying the show…especially after breathing in more of that alien smell, which wafted in the air in a light pink smoke.

“Could they be aliens?” Ian asked. “Y’know, like Transformers?”

“Could be,” Dad said. “They got bigger again.”

Indeed, the diameter of the balls was the length of the man’s torso, from his waist to his neck. Each time they raced at each other, it was from a distance in between that grew in proportion to the growth in their size. As they accelerated at each other, the family anticipated the noise of the coming crash by covering their ears.

Some other people, coming by car, stopped and got out, then ran in the tall grass to get a closer look at the growing, clashing balls. They smelled the pink fumes and quickly chose sides to root for.

The dirt being dug up and flying in the air looked like swarms of insects. The balls smashed together again, causing a painful ringing in everyone’s ears.

Still, the people couldn’t take their eyes off the spectacle.

They breathed in more of the pink fumes, and felt themselves, after a brief dizziness, more and more hypnotized, transfixed by the battling balls.

“Come on, Blue!” the mother called out.

“Yeah, go, Blue, go!” Jimmy shouted.

“No way!” Ian said. “Red is better! Go, Red!”

Blue is better!” Jimmy shouted, snarling at his older brother. “Red sucks!”

“It does not!” Ian said, frowning hatefully down at Jimmy. “Blue is the one that sucks!”

Red sucks! Blue’s the best!”

Red is the best! Blue sucks!”

Red sucks!” Jimmy kicked Ian in the knee.

“You little bastard!” Ian gave Jimmy a hard shove, throwing the little boy down in the grass and banging his back against a sharp rock.

Jimmy’s bawling was completely ignored by his older brother and parents, who continued watching the clashing balls, which were now of the diameter of the father’s height. Since with every bouncing back after a collision, the ever-growing balls were proportionately widening their distance from each other, now they were slashing more than just the grass and dirt of the field. Groves of trees on both extreme ends of the field were being mown down by the balls.

The fascinated spectators, breathing more and more of the increasingly potent pink fumes, were now stepping forward, closer and closer to the action, utterly oblivious to the danger they were subjecting themselves to. That family was closest to those spiked balls, but the people who’d arrived later in their cars weren’t far behind.

All of them were chanting “Red! Red! Red!” or “Blue! Blue! Blue!” as they got perilously closer.

The supporters of the red ball came together in a group, as did the supporters of the blue ball. None of them gave a second’s thought to being crushed under the weight of the balls, or of being slashed by the spikes.

They all just kept chanting their colour and walking closer.

By now, those groves of trees were completely torn into fragments and shards of brown and green, lying in a mess on the ground. The balls were three times the size of the tallest of their watchers.

Jimmy was the first to be killed, crushed under the blue ball that he’d been rooting for. He’d shown no fear at all as he, ever-mesmerized, walked under it. His mother, equally unafraid and in a daze, would die next, her body sliced in two by a spike from her beloved blue ball.

Ian would then get crushed under the red ball, one of whose spikes would stab his father through his chest, the bloody point going far out of his back.

Indeed, the balls deliberately calculated their moves, as well as the moves of the people, to ensure every one, without exception, was killed by the very ball they were cheering for, as a kind of cruel irony.

In the end, the entire field was turned into a mash-up of brown, green, and red.

And the balls just continued rolling at each other from farther and farther away from each other, then clashing, then growing again.

By the time they were three times the size of a barn, they’d both crashed into and destroyed several barns and houses. The occupants of these, as mesmerized by the pink gas as the first group of people were, all were crushed, stabbed into, or bisected…all without even one scream of terror.

No police or army made the slightest attempt to stop the red and blue balls. Nobody in the news media, mainstream or alternative, uttered a word of warning, though all media reported on the phenomenon as if it were the most riveting of entertainment. Indeed, all anyone did in response to the balls’ presence was to go over and look with fascination, or if too far away, to watch it on TV, read about it online or in newspapers or magazines, or hear about it on the radio.

All of those who watched the clashing in person, of course, breathed in the pink fumes and became all the more enthralled with the spectacle.

Within an hour of the entire event, the balls had grown to the point of their diameters equalling the height of apartment buildings. By this time, they were rolling through cities on either side of that field, crushing and destroying houses and skyscrapers far faster than any wrecking balls could.

Still, there was no hope of any resistance from the people, who just stared at the rolling, slashing, and crushing like mindless zombies. A mass chanting of “Red! Red! Red!” and “Blue! Blue! Blue!” could be heard throughout both cities.

Any words or actions other than these were those of people fighting with each other for cheering on the ‘wrong’ colour. This fighting would end when the supporters of either ball wandered into their respective groups, always chanting the colour of their choice.

…until that colour crushed, slashed, or stabbed into them.

And with all that clashing into each other, neither ball had even one, ever-so-tiny, scratch on its red or blue surface.

Still, the supporters of each side imagined the other ball to be losing. With each clash, the supporters of Red would watch Blue bounce back as if badly damaged, and would pay no mind to how Red would bounce back with equal force, though Blue’s supporters would watch Red’s bouncing back and ignore Blue’s.

The people would argue these absurdities:

“Ooh! Red took a real beating that time.”

“You mean Blue took the beating.”

“No, Red did! Blue doesn’t even have a scratch.”

Red doesn’t have even a scratch! Are you blind?”

“Are you blind?”

Then the two would have a fistfight.

…yet, as I said, neither ball had even one scratch.

By the time the spiked balls’ diameters had equalled the height of the tallest buildings in the world, they were now rolling back and forth way beyond the widths of fields or cities, but now back along the entire width of the North American continent, from the east coast to the west, destroying everything and killing everyone, man, woman, and child, in their path.

Nobody felt any fear when coming dangerously close to the paths rolled on; all anyone ever did was watch, on TV or in person, and cheer for his or her colour.

When the red ball went back beyond the west coast and across the Pacific Ocean, as when the blue ball went past the east coast and across The Atlantic Ocean, both balls flew across the surfaces of the water, not sinking down into it…though their spikes managed to slash into or stab much of the marine life.

By the time the balls, in their rolling back from clashes, had reached the shores of northern Asia and Europe, they’d grown monstrously huge, easily visible from space. Blue rolled through Paris, killing everyone to a man and destroying every piece of architecture there; one would never see the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe again. Red went through the Great Wall of China, smashing a huge section of it to pieces.

The pink fumes by now had spread around the world, ensuring that not one person could resist being enthralled by the spectacle. No one even flinched at the sight of crushed cities or massacred people from the ceaseless rolling and clashing of those two ever-growing juggernauts. People imagined they saw damage only on the ball they were opposed to.

Once the balls had been rolling so wide apart that they were clashing twice at a time, that is, rolling so far back that they’d roll all the way around the world, to clash once in North America, then in Kazakhstan, they’d grown to be each about a sixth of the size of the Earth, excluding their proportionally lengthening spikes, which were digging deep into the ground and ripping it up.

Now that they were rolling along the entire diameter of the Earth, the balls changed the direction of the rolling, to destroy the rest of the planet. No longer tearing up just the north, they shifted more and more southward, slashing into southern Europe and Asia, ripping through all of the US, mutilating Africa, and destroying Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean islands.

…and all the (momentary) survivors did was continue watching in awe, never budging from their TVs, computer screens, tablets, or–so to speak–front-row seats.

When nuclear arsenals got smashed into, the destruction their explosions caused was insignificant compared to what the balls were doing.

By the time the balls were starting to roll across the southern hemisphere, slashing into the northern countries of South America, central Africa, Indonesia, and the northernmost tip of Australia, the balls and their spikes had grown so much that they were tearing the Earth up into chunks of rock that broke away. The planet no longer even remotely resembled a sphere; instead, it was looking more and more like an asteroid field with a huge chunk of jagged rock in the middle.

…and the ever-so-few survivors, the remainder of their lives now so pitifully brief, only continued staring at the giant balls…if their electricity and Wi-Fi were still working. If not, they just stared mindlessly at black screens, unmoving.

Once everything was essentially destroyed, the balls pulled in their spikes, floated away from the chunks of Earth–smashing into a number of now-useless satellites–and shrank back to their original sizes.

As they flew out of the solar system, they reflected on what they’d just done.

RED: Now the people of Earth know true happiness, as they could ever have it.
BLUE: Yes. They have death to enjoy.


There have always been
a concentrated group
of people who
will know

the wise way to go, but
how do we get all
the others out
there to

of our current trap?
There are those
to the right,
they who

thing amiss about
class conflict,
but believe
to be

Then, there are those
on the ultra-left
who are not

without any faults.
how can one

thin a space to get
us all out of
this mess