Analysis of ‘The Dead Zone’

The Dead Zone is a supernatural thriller novel by Stephen King that was published in 1979. It’s about a man, Johnny Smith, who has psychic powers of precognition and clairvoyance, which give him visions of the past or future of whomever he touches.

David Cronenberg directed a film adaptation, with Christopher Walken as Smith, in 1983. A TV series with Anthony Michael Hall as Smith was produced in the 2000s. I’ll be referencing the novel and Cronenberg’s film.

Here are some quotes, from the novel:

“But the people didn’t elect buffoons to Washington. Well—hardly ever.” (p. 199)

“Did I grow a third eye?” –Johnny, p. 98

Nothing is ever lost, Sarah. Nothing that can’t be found.” (p. 402)

“It’s been my experience that ninety-five percent of the people who walk the earth are simply inert, Johnny. One percent are saints, and one percent are assholes. The other three percent are the people who do what they say they can do.” –Roger Chatsworth, p. 285

“PRECOGNITION, TELEPATHY, BULLSHIT! EAT MY DONG, YOU EXTRASENSORY TURKEY!” –hate letter to Johnny, p. 181

Well, we all do what we can, and it has to be good enough…and if it isn’t good enough, it has to do.” –Johnny’s letter to Sarah, p. 401

“…some things are better lost than found.” –Dr. Sam Weizak, to Johnny, p. 223

From the film:

‘”Bless me”? Do you know what God did for me? He threw an 18-wheeled truck at me and bounced me into nowhere for five years! When I woke up, my girl was gone, my job was gone, my legs are just about useless… Blessed me? God’s been a real sport to me!’ –Johnny Smith

“I need your support, I need your expertise, I need your input, and most importantly, I need your money.” [laughter] –Greg Stillson

“I have had a vision that I am going to be President of the United States someday. And nobody, and I mean nobody is going to stop me!” –Stillson

“Let’s send Greg Stillson to the United States Senate – and mediocrity to hell!” –Stillson […]

Johnny Smith: I’ve been tutoring this boy named Stuart. In the vision, I saw him drown. But that’s not the point. In the vision, something was missing.

Dr. Sam Weizak: How – how do you mean?

Johnny Smith: It was like… a blank spot, a dead zone.

Dr. Sam Weizak: First of all, tell me, did the boy, in fact, drown?

Johnny Smith: His father wanted him to play hockey. I talked him out of it. The boy’s alive.

Dr. Sam Weizak: Ah. Yes. Don’t you see how clear it is? Not only can you see the future, you can…

Johnny Smith: I can change it.

Dr. Sam Weizak: You can change it, exactly. Here. Yes, John. That is your… your “dead zone.” The possibility of… of altering the outcome of your premonitions. It’s fascinating. Let me make a note. […]

Johnny Smith: [touching the mother of serial killer Frank Dodd] You knew? Didn’t you?

Henrietta Dodd: You… you’re a devil, sent from Hell!

Henrietta Dodd (played by Colleen Dewhurst), mother of cop/serial killer Frank.

In spite of his special powers of knowing what most people couldn’t know, Johnny also has a limit to that unique knowledge, a realm of unknowing that he calls the dead zone: ‘The tumor lies in that area which I always called “the dead zone.”‘ (p. 396) This leads us to a central theme in the novel, a dialectical understanding of the relationship between knowing and unknowing. The biting head of the ouroboros (where dialectical opposites meet) of extrasensory knowledge leads to the bitten tail of unknowing.

Connected to this yin-and-yang concept of knowledge and ignorance is the relationship between organized religion–an authoritarian establishment often associated with superstition and fundamentalist bigotry towards any other forms of knowledge contradictory to its dogma–and intuitive mysticism and spirituality. Johnny’s mother, Vera, adheres to the former; Greg Stillson peddles the former as a Bible salesman in the 1950s; and Johnny demonstrates the latter with his psychic powers.

In this connection, consider what the Tao Te Ching says: “To realize that our knowledge is ignorance, this is a noble insight. To regard our ignorance as knowledge, this is mental sickness.” (71) Also, “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.” (56) Vera’s overconfidence in the ‘truth’ of her Christian fundamentalism, with her attendant neuroticism, demonstrates how she thinks she knows the truth, but doesn’t. Johnny’s admitted “dead zone” of unknowing, along with his unassuming nature, evading the spotlight, shows how he knows, because he doesn’t know.

Added to this virtue is Johnny’s loving, empathic nature. Those who insist on fundamentalist interpretations of Biblical prophecy, obsessing over how Scripture supposedly warns us of 20th and 21st century evils, things its writers couldn’t possibly have known, ought to recall what Paul wrote to the Corinthian church: “…though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2)

Sarah Hazlett (née Bracknell–played by Brooke Adams) and Johnny Smith (Walken).

Johnny has oceans of this love: he has it for his father, his mother (as irritating as her fundamentalism may be), and for his girl, Sarah, whom he would have married, if not for his car accident and four-and-a-half-year coma, a kind of extended stay in the belly of the great fish, making Jonah‘s sojourn a mere pit-stop in comparison.

In relation to the rest of the events of the story (and to Jonah’s, and to Jesus’ death and resurrection, to which Johnny’s coma is symbolically associated), the timing of Johnny’s coma is unusual. The coma occurs towards the beginning of the novel/film, before his hesitancy to use his abilities for the good of the world; whereas Jonah’s wish to escape having to obey God’s command preceded his time in the belly of the great fish. The same goes for Jesus’ harrowing of Hell, between his death and resurrection: this harrowing occurs towards the end of the four Gospels, after his temptation by the devil in the wilderness, and after his spiritual struggle in Gethsemane, as we know.

Johnny’s name is a pun on Jonah; it also shares a J with Jesus (Yeshua being a variant of Joshua). Johnny is a teacher, with a good heart, like Jesus (who was often called ‘rabbi’), and also like carpenter Jesus, he’s a man of modest means. Contrast Johnny with Trump-like, narcissistic Stillson, whose ambition is to become the US president one day, and to prove his daddy wrong, that he’s better than Daddy claimed he is (‘…his father was…bellowing, “You’re no good, runt! You’re no fucking good!”‘p. 9).

Heinz Kohut wrote of how the narcissistic personality grows from a lack of parental empathy, and this is clearly what Stillson lacked in childhood. Johnny, in contrast, has deeply loving parents, instilling a self-love in him that cultivates humility. Just as there’s a dialectical relationship between knowing and unknowing, so is there such a relationship between humility/self-love and narcissism/self-hate.

Greg Stillson (played by Martin Sheen), the man who would be president.

As it is within, so is it without: Johnny gives out love as best he can to the world, even when cruel, bad luck takes away his job and the love of his life (ironically and dialectically, right after his amazingly good luck on the Wheel of Fortune); Stillson, on the other hand, abuses a dog (when selling Bibles!–pp. 5-7), and bullies those around him to make them comply with his ambitions (e.g., Chapter 18). Even in the alternate future Johnny prevents, with Stillson achieving his presidential ambition, he chooses nuclear genocide over diplomacy with the Soviets. Johnny projects and introjects good, Stillson, evil, regardless of good or ill fortune.

In the end, though Johnny dies, his spirit is felt by Sarah: his Christ-like spiritual body (i.e., his hand–p. 401) touches her. In the novel, we don’t read of Stillson’s suicide, as we see it in the film; he is, however, spiritually destroyed by the scandal caused by his using a child as a human shield against Johnny’s rifle. In the end, Greg is still just the son of his contemptuous father. Johnny, however, is more of a son of God, not just through his abilities, but also through his selfless sacrifice for humanity.

Indeed, in many ways, Johnny’s life can be paralleled with Christ’s, though the order of events seem scrambled, reversed, or even of a contrary nature when compared to the narrative of the Gospels. As I’ve stated above, Johnny’s ‘death-and-resurrection’ coma occurs towards the beginning, rather than at the end, of the story. His final act of sacrifice to save humanity involves trying to kill a malefactor (Stillson) rather than save one, as Jesus does when he says, “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

When Johnny is shot, a bullet hits him in the hand (in the movie), suggesting the stigmata. According to the novel, the last bullet to hit him goes “into the left side of his midsection” (p. 384), comparable to the spear stuck in Christ’s side (John 19:34), the last piercing of his skin. Stillson’s use of the child as a human shield suggests the self-centredness of the other crucified malefactor: “If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.” (Luke 23:39)

Johnny and Sarah never stopped loving each other.

Sarah’s relationship with Johnny, still a love relationship after she married Walt Hazlett during Johnny’s coma, is an illicit one, since she commits adultery by sleeping with Johnny. Her adultery invites comparison with Mary Magdalene, who visited Christ’s tomb when he, risen from the dead, spoke her name (John 20:16). The comparison is clearer when Sarah feels the hand of Johnny’s spirit on her neck (p. 401)

So Johnny is the Jesus of anti-authoritarianism, symbolically in his ‘death-resurrection’ coma happening at the beginning of the story, rather than at the end, as in the Gospels; in his salvific assassination attempt on Stillson; in the superiority of Johnny’s psychic powers to the dogma of Christian fundamentalism.

“He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” (1 John 4:8) Johnny may have a dead zone, but he still has more in him than mortal knowledge, for he is full of love for humanity.

And even Vera’s unknowing has its limits, for she is right that Johnny should use his divine gift to help humanity. He is reluctant to at first, and in this way his struggle parallels Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, or Jonah’s attempted flight from God.

But Johnny eventually relents, helping the police catch a serial killer/rapist, who as it turns out is a cop himself, Frank Dodd! Here again, we see the anti-authoritarian Jesus in Johnny, exposing a killer among the authorities, the cops–something that upsets Sheriff Bannerman, who has held Dodd in high regard up to this point. This anti-authority Johnny is in this respect like anti-authoritarian Jesus, who exposed the moral hypocrisy of the Pharisees, the legal and religious authorities of his time. (Matthew 23)

Frank Dodd’s suicide, as envisioned in the film.

Dodd, as a serial killer/rapist, is of the Norman Bates/Ed Gein variety: he lives at home with his mother, Henrietta, from whom he’s received his pathologies, in particular, the notion of “those cheap slutty women that’d be happy to give a nice boy like my Frank an incurable disease” (p. 252). Henrietta is so obsessed with ‘protecting’ her son from “those cheap slutty women” that she “put a clothespin on it so [little Frank would] know how it felt…when you got a disease. A disease from one of those nasty-fuckers, they’re all nasty-fuckers, and they have to be stopped…” (p. 240)

The attitude that Dodd got from his mother, that ‘all women are whores,’ while his mother is apparently the only feminine angel (she who pierced his dick with a clothespin when he was a child!), is an example of psychological splitting, a common defence mechanism, but one here that is taken to a pathological level.

Thus we see in Dodd, as we see in Stillson, a common origin of authoritarian thinking: toxic parenting (consider Philip Larkin‘s famous poem in this regard). The Biblical injunction to “honour thy father and thy mother” is transferred, by the victims of toxic parents, onto a similarly pathological honouring of authority figures–police, politicians, and religious leaders, even to the point of revering scriptural conceptions of divinity.

Now, Johnny has quite a flawed mother, one whose religious excesses he even compares to Henrietta’s pathologies: “there was something in her eyes, narrowed to glittering slits in their puffy sockets, that reminded him unpleasantly of the way his mother’s eyes had sometimes looked when Vera Smith was transported into one of her religious frenzies.” (p. 251)

Johnny having one of his visions.

But Vera’s faults don’t cause Johnny to split his internal and external worlds into narcissistic idealizing and devaluing, as Stillson’s and Dodd’s parents do. Johnny’s psychic gift symbolizes his empathy, for it connects and unifies him with the external world, rather than alienates him from it. His precognition and clairvoyance also link the past, present, and future for him. Finally, the paradox of his knowing and unknowing, his psychic authority (coupled with his spiritual anti-authoritarianism), the living death of his coma, and his saving of the world by trying to murder Stillson, all show how his actions unify opposites.

Thus, Johnny symbolizes the ideal that I call The Three Unities, those of Space, Time, and Action, a spirituality free of the authoritarianism of organized religion. This dialectical monism is similar to Wilfred Bion‘s concept of O, an ineffable, inscrutable notion of Ultimate Reality that is attained only through an “abandonment of memory, desire, understanding, sense impressions — and perhaps also the abandonment of ego itself.” (Grotstein) This abandonment of understanding almost sounds like a giving-up of knowledge…the dead zone for accessing divine knowledge? Attaining knowing through a cloud of unknowing? How dialectical!

To return to the Christian symbolism of the story, I find it interesting to compare Johnny’s suffering with Jesus’ passion. As I’ve stated above, Johnny’s coma is a symbolic death and resurrection. Jesus’ physical suffering–his scourging, the crown of thorns, the nails through his hands and feet, and the torture of slowly dying on a cross (hence the term excruciating)–is the temporal opposite of Johnny’s psychological suffering–losing Sarah, losing four and a half years of his life, losing his teaching job, and losing his ability to walk normally–which comes after his coma.

This reversal of events symbolizes how Johnny’s a kind of ‘anti-Jesus,’ if you will (not an antichrist, of course!), in that his miraculous acts, his self-sacrifice, and his love of humanity don’t result in a new religion exploiting his memory to establish yet another authoritarian institution. His dead zone, emphasized in the story to the point of being its title, shows how important it is to stress the limitations of one’s talents and knowledge, which is the true basis of humility.

If we pretend we don’t have those limitations, we become like the “slick” Dodd (p, 240), or “The Laughing Tiger” Stillson (p. 293), men whose overweening pride collapses into shame, as when Dodd confesses (p. 255) and kills himself, and in the aftermath of Stillson’s use of a child as a human shield. Tragic irony for the hubristic.

(By the way, another bit of paradoxical irony is seen in how narcissistic Stillson is compared to Trump, and in many ways correctly so, of course: yet, where Stillson as president endangers humanity by wanting to start nuclear war with Russia, Trump’s relative reluctance to show hostility to Russia is what makes the political establishment dislike him. As I’ve argued elsewhere, though, our reasons for disliking him should be the same reasons for disliking that political establishment: they’re all authoritarian narcissists, and they’re all dangerous…but hey! What do I know?)

Stephen King, The Dead Zone, Signet Books, New York, 1979

Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching, Shambhala, New York, 1961

‘Creeps,’ an Erotic Horror Novel, Chapter Six

Thea went into Capitol and found Petunia’s picture on their computers. In five minutes, she was in a room with her naked friend. Since she rightly suspected they were being watched and listened to, Thea had to pretend she was a lesbian. 

She got on the bed with Petunia and held her close. 

“I’m sorry, Petunia, but I have to pretend,” she whispered, lightly kissing Petunia on the cheek. “Why are you here?” 

“What do you want me to do to please you?” Petunia asked in a voice that sounded so fake, Thea couldn’t believe Guy thought it was genuine. Help me, Thea, Petunia thought; please get me out of here. 

Men, Thea thought as she rocked Petunia back and forth in her arms; they have no empathy, no ability to distinguish fake emotion from real. I’m so disappointed in Guy: he only heard what he wanted to hear from Petunia. He’s no better than Dad was when he was fucking whores behind Mom’s back. 

“I want to free you from here,” Thea whispered, between kisses, in Petunia’s ear. “How did you get mixed up in all this?” 

“Do you want to lick my pussy, or shall I lick yours?” Petunia said with a fake smile when she looked into Thea’s eyes, then she thought, I must get you to understand, Thea: help me. Please, feel the message I write on your arm. 

“Are you on drugs? Is that why you’re saying that?” Thea whispered into Petunia’s ear. 

Petunia put her finger on Thea’s arm, moving it in a line. 

“You don’t seem high,” Thea whispered, noting what felt like an H written on her arm. They’re using some kind of mind control on her. They must be, she thought. Now she felt an E. 

Petunia was shaking all over, for this writing was being done with the greatest effort. She managed to keep that finger steady, though, and wrote an L on Thea’s arm. 

“H…E…L…” Thea whispered in Petunia’s ear, careful to be as inaudible as possible, for fear of any hidden microphones in the room. “Help?” 

Petunia wrote a P, then a U…then an S. 

“Help us?” Thea whispered. “Of course.” She’s not the only victim, she thought. “Of course we’ll figure out a way to free you all.” Capitol has a whole legion of sex slaves here, all mind-controlled in some way, as Petunia is, she thought; Guy and I can’t limit our mission to saving only her. We have to save them all. But how? They legalized prostitution, as long as it’s ‘consensual,’ and with the way Petunia’s acting, under some form of mind control, Capitol will be able to trick anyone we get to investigate into thinking she is consenting to all this. 

Thea held Petunia close, still rocking her back and forth as she felt that finger write H-E-L-P-U-S over and over again. 

She seems to have a little bit of bodily control, Thea thought; I wonder if we can get her to write those letters on the hand of a government official investigating this prostitution operation. 

Always worried about microphones, Thea used her finger to write W-E-W-I-L-L-H-E-L-P-Y-O-U on Petunia’s back, over and over again, to reassure her. 

“OK, I think we can stop here,” Thea said aloud after being with Petunia for about fifty minutes. 

“But you have ten more minutes,” Petunia said. Please don’t leave me, Thea, she thought; I wish you could hold me like this forever. 

She needs me, Thea thought; I’d better stay here till the end. “You’re right. I want my money’s worth,” she said for the microphones to pick up. 

The ten minutes went by, the whole time Thea holding her tight, rocking her back and forth, and writing W-E-W-I-L-L-H-E-L-P-Y-O-U on her back.  

Finally, her hour was up. 

“OK, sweetie, I have to go now,” Thea said, getting off the bed with Petunia and caressing her cheek. “I’ll be back. I promise.” She smiled at her, then walked towards the door. 

******************** 

“That’s odd,” a man watching video of the room said. “All she wanted to do was cuddle with Petunia Walker? No sex? Almost the whole time, she didn’t talk to Petunia, except near the end. She doesn’t even seem like the kind of person who’d come here. She seems too straight to want to come here.” 

“You’re right,” another man watching said. “I’ll bet she’s one of those anti-prostitution protesters checking up on our operation.” 

“What should we do, Mark?” the first man asked. 

“Same as always, Jim,” Mark said. “Remember her, and keep an eye on any woman looking like her coming back here.” 

“OK, Boss.” 

“She’ll never be able to prove anything. She’ll try, as so many others have, then fail.”

‘Creeps,’ an Erotic Horror Novel, Chapter Five

[Some sexual content.]

“Guy, can I talk to you upstairs alone for a minute, please?” Thea called down to the basement from the first floor of their house. “Sorry, Bill and John, I need to talk to him in private.” 

“OK, I guess we’ll meet you at my house later,” John said, getting up from the couch with Bill. “See you then.” 

“Yeah, sorry guys,” Guy said as his friends went up the stairs. “I’ll be up in a minute, Thea.” 

“This is important,” she said. “Don’t take your time.” 

Two minutes later, Guy and Thea were alone in the kitchen. 

“I couldn’t help overhearing what you said about Petunia LeBar,” Thea said, frowning. 

“You were eavesdropping on me again?” Guy said, frowning back at her. “Don’t I deserve privacy? Don’t I have any rights?” 

“What about her rights? What about her privacy?” 

“Look, she’s lowered herself to that lifestyle, she’s gotta take responsibility for her bad choices.” 

“How about your lowering yourself to being a whoremonger, you creep! You take some responsibility. She’s my friend; you know that! And you raped her for money!” 

“What the fuck?! I never raped anyone! She agreed to it. She was smiling the whole time.” 

“I don’t believe you, Guy. She couldn’t possibly have consented. I’ve known her for years. We shared that apartment together, when you used to visit all the time, before I moved out to support you after Dad died. Petunia would never have become a prostitute willingly. Someone’s exploiting her desperation, giving her drugs, or something, to make her smile at you.” 

“She didn’t look high.” 

“She must have been. She would never do that kind of work, even if desperate for money. She’d have considered other options.” 

“People change, Thea.” 

“Not that much in a mere year, Guy. Where is she? In Capitol? They’re controlling her, somehow. We’ve got to get her out of there.” 

“We?” Guy asked. “Why do I have to help?” 

“To redeem yourself, to her and to the world. You fancied her once, didn’t you? That’s why you visited our old apartment so many times, not so much to talk to me about stuff, but as excuses to see her, though you were too shy to go out into the garden, where she was watering her flowers, and talk to her. But you weren’t too shy to fuck her when she couldn’t say no, eh? You coward! Well, now you can help me help her. Let’s go.” 

*************** 

The following night, Petunia lay on her cot and ruminated over how she’d gotten mixed up in Capitol. Memories flashed before her mind’s eye in fragments, made all the more incoherent, and even surreal, by the drug she’d been given to make her go to sleep. Indeed, as with the night she tried to escape, the drug made it difficult for her to distinguish conscious thought from dream. 

Thea walked out the door with a suitcase in each hand…What was I going to do?…No one to replace her as a roommate…Rent too expensive…Landlord kicked me out…No way was I going to go back to Vancouver and live with my mom and dad, I hate them…Found a cheap place…lots of cockroaches, awful place, but no other affordable one…I was just a waitress, really stressed out, yelled at a customer one day…spilled coffee on another…I got fired…Didn’t know what else to do…Walked into Ricardo Davis’s office…His sign outside said they’d give me full training…I’m a high school dropout…money was running out…I took a chance on Davis’s job offer…figured my tits and ass would make him like me, was wearing a tight red dress, wore heavy makeup, I looked like a whore…got the job, later learned what a bad mistake I’d made…What he saw wasn’t the real me, but it was what he wanted…too much of what he wanted…Give him what he wants, give him what he wants…maybe he’ll pay me better…not… 

I answered a questionnaire for him…no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers, just had to be honest…no questions of work experience, but mostly personal questions…strange…Was I close to my family? No, didn’t want to be…How was my financial situation? Terrible, desperate…How many boyfriends had I had? More than five…questions like that, didn’t seem relevant to any kind of job…I sat across from him, uncrossed my legs and spread them a bit…He looked down, could see my white panties…I’d intended that…Give him what he wants…give him what he wants… 

On my first day, I wore a tight-fitting brown wool jumper dress…went only half-way down my upper legs…I sat across from him, let the dress ride up my legs…he could see my purple lace panties…thought about my cockroach-infested apartment…Ricardo saw me frowning…told me to come over to him…I sat on his lap, could feel his hard-on under my ass…I cried on his shoulder, rubbed by ass on his cock (Give him what he wants)…told him about my money problems…he promised to help…he paid me only enough to afford the nasty apartment I was in… 

But I was in bed with him…he fucked my pussy, fucked my ass…I sucked his cock, let him come on my face…I was his whore and his secretary…would walk about his office in my underwear, sometimes even naked, just to please him (Give him what he wants, give him what he wants)…He didn’t pay me any better, though… 

He’s fucking me in the ass…is it him, or someone else?…No, it’s someone else…I’m sucking Guy’s cock, aren’t I?…or is it someone else?…Wait, Ken Maynard’s curvy, big-titted maid, Rosa is beside me, as naked as I am…she has three men fucking her, too, just as I have…All the men are in suits, only Rosa and I are naked…she has three men’s cocks in her, in her mouth, in her pussy, in her ass…I have three men, too, fucking me in the same way…Six men in suits, with their flies open and their cocks in us…is that Ricardo fucking Rosa’s ass?…I can’t tell…she’s blowing her boss, Ken Maynard, I think…I’m so high, I don’t know if I’m awake and stoned, or dreaming…I hope I’m dreaming…I hope I wake up from this nightmare soon… 

‘Creeps,’ an Erotic Horror Novel, Chapter Four

Two hours later, Guy came home. Two of his friends had arrived and were watching TV in his basement den. 

“Hey, there you are,” one of them said. “Your sister let us in and told us you’d probably be back soon. Where were you?” 

“In Capitol,” Guy said as he hurried down the stairs to meet them on the couch. “You’ll never believe who’s hooking there.” 

“You went to the whorehouse?!” his second friend shouted. 

“Hey, not so loud, John, you idiot,” Guy said. “My sister’s upstairs.” 

Too late: Thea heard them, and she was now eavesdropping. 

“OK, so who’s working there?” John asked. 

“Remember that girl I had a crush on, the one who used to share an apartment with my sister?” Guy asked. “Petunia LeBar, or Petunia Walker, as she calls herself now. Petunia Streetwalker’s more like it. She’s a whore over there now.” 

“No way!” the first friend shouted. “Petunia’s sucking dick over in Capitol?” 

“Yeah, Bill, that, and taking it in the pussy and in the ass,” Guy said. “She served me with a smile, the dirty little whore.” 

I can’t believe it, Thea thought. I won’t believe it. 

“How was she?” Bill asked with a lewd smirk. “I mean…her body…her skills.” 

“Oh, better than I’d ever imagined,” Guy said. “Such a nice, tight little body. And can she ever suck dick! I’m actually kind of disappointed, though. I thought she was a better person than to be doing that kind of work.” 

I know she’s better than that, Thea thought. 

************** 

That night, Petunia lay on her cot, weeping, as were a number of other ‘Commodities’ (as the staff of Capitol referred to them) in the bedroom they shared. Even the mind-controlling Creep that had just been put into them to help them sleep, which was just starting to take effect, hadn’t prevented them from expressing themselves on at least some level. 

Oh, Guy, she thought as she sobbed, I’m sure you think of me as nothing better than a lowly whore, with that fake grin on my face, tricking you into believing I enjoy my ‘work’. If only you knew that you were seeing, hearing, and feeling a false me; my true self was weeping the whole time, and though you may have been disappointed with me, I was much more disappointed with you. You didn’t know that I was being forced to have sex with you, but were you being forced to have sex with me? 

************** 

The next morning at breakfast, she sat with the talkative man and the woman who’d kept shushing him again. Normally, everyone was randomly assigned seats at different tables for every meal, to prevent the development of friendships; but by fluke these three were put together again. She couldn’t eat from her bowl; she just sat and frowned. The green Creep put in all of them kept them docile, but it didn’t force her to eat. 

In fact, she even found the will to talk with the others, if in that typical, sleepy way. “Have any of you…,” she began, her tired eyes flapping, “ever had to…service a client…who is someone…you know…personally?” 

“Yeah,” the woman whispered. “There’s this one…asshole who’s always…hated me…He’s come here…regularly…to fuck me, ever since he learned…I was here…He ass-fucks me…and comes on my face…Spanks my ass…all just to…humiliate me…Bastard.” 

“A gay man…fucks and blows me…regularly,” the man said. “But not because…he knew me before…He just likes me…Still, I’m not gay, and I hate…having to…service him.” 

“A guy…I used to know…and like…just had me…in all three holes,” Petunia said, tears rolling down her cheeks. “I feel so…trashy.” 

“Don’t show…too much feeling, sweetie,” the woman whispered. “I used to…cry like that…Then, when I…tried to escape…with two…other women, I saw her…dying…in front of me…They used those…killer worms…on her…They kill us sometimes…we have to be…careful…They’re watching.” 

“I can’t…hold it in…anymore,” Petunia sobbed. 

“Try to stop…feeling anything,” the woman whispered. “I’ve gone through…this bullshit…for so long, I don’t…feel anything anymore…I’ve turned off…all my emotions…That way, it doesn’t hurt anymore.” 

“I wish…I could do that,” Petunia said, now trying to stop crying. 

“So do I,” the man said. Then he whispered, “What’s your name?” 

“Petunia.” She picked up a bread roll and bit into it. 

“I’m Sam.” 

“We shouldn’t…be doing this, but I’m Wendy…They’ll hear…They don’t like…for us…to get close.” 

“What difference…does it make?” Sam asked. 

“They’ll kill us,” Wendy said. 

“I know,” Sam said. “The way things are, I’d rather die.” 

“Shut up,” Wendy whispered. “I don’t want…you to die.” 

“I’ve got to get out…of here,” Petunia said. “I’m going crazy.” 

“You’re not alone…in that feeling,” Sam said. “But it’s…so fuckin’ difficult…It’s impossible…They’d never…let us go.” 

“That Frank guy…got out,” Wendy whispered. “They announced it.” 

“I think…they were lying,” Sam said. “To give us hope.” 

“I think…they were lying, too,” Petunia said. 

“Why lie?” Wendy asked. “Why give us…false hope?” 

“To keep us…from despairing,” he said. “If we lose hope, it’ll affect…our physical health, and we won’t be…desirable…as Commodities anymore.” 

“Still, we have…to try to get out,” Petunia said. I can’t…live like this…If only…someone outside…would help us.” 

“I’ll try…to get out, or be killed,” he said. “Both options are…OK with me…I’m straight…Sucking dick…isn’t OK with me.” 

Suddenly, a voice boomed from the intercom: “Stop the chatter down there. Eat. You’re having your showers in ten minutes.” 

Again, they all kept quiet for the rest of their meal. 

If only someone outside would help us, Petunia wished again; Guy, I wanted you to help me, not to hump me. 

‘Creeps,’ an Erotic Horror Novel, Chapter Three

[WARNING: sexual content]

Guy Cummings tossed the come-stained tissues in the trash can, pulled up his pants, and zipped up his fly. He looked at the girl’s face on his computer monitor. “Petunia Walker?” he whispered. “That isn’t really Petunia LeBar, is it? Could ‘Walker’ be a phoney name?” 

In the picture, she was naked and on all fours on a bed in what looked like a hotel room, her ass pointing at the camera so Guy could see her anus and vulva in every detail. With her face also revealed from looking back at the camera, she looked exactly like the Petunia he knew about a year back, her body being even more beautiful than he’d ever imagined. And according to the ad, she was working as a prostitute for Capitol, a brothel in downtown Toronto, just a short drive from his home in Mississauga. Since consensual sex work, including brothels, had recently been legalized in Canada and the US, all Guy had to do was get on a bus and go over to Capitol to see if she really was Petunia LeBar. 

For $200, he could enjoy her for an hour, too. 

I want that to be her, for the sake of my cock, he thought; but for the sake of my heart, I don’t want that to be her. I’ll find out soon enough, anyway. 

He turned off his computer, left his room, then washed his hands in the bathroom. He checked his wallet: he had only $50 there, but his bank card was also there. Off to the ATM. 

“Where are you off to, all of a sudden?” his older sister, Thea, asked as she saw him rushing to the front door. 

“I’m just going to the ATM, then to meet with a friend,” he said as he went outside. “Bye.” 

************** 

An hour and a half later, he was walking through the front door of Capitol. A number of men were there, looking at computer screens with pictures of naked women, a few with pictures of naked men. He approached an unused computer. 

“Can I help you find anyone in particular?” an approaching staff member in a tuxedo asked him with a smile. 

“Yes,” Guy said, flipping through the pictures of young blonde women. “On one of your ads, there was a beautiful thin blonde girl who looked familiar to me. I can’t believe she’s a prostitute.” 

“Let me help you,” the man said, setting the computer menu to Young, Thin, Blonde Women. He started flipping through the pictures. “Stop me when you see her.” 

“It says her name is Petunia Walker, though she looks like a girl I once knew called Petunia LeBar,” Guy said. 

“The girls change their names here, to avoid being bothered during their free time,” he lied, still flipping through the pictures. 

“Stop!” Guy said, recognizing Petunia’s face in a frontal nude picture of her standing on a balcony. “That must be her. Guy Cummings, you sure are one lucky guy.” 

“That’s your name?” the man asked. “Guy?” 

“Yeah.” 

“Well, Guy, just wait a few minutes, and you’ll be reunited with her.” He left to get her ready for Guy. 

Indeed, just five minutes later, Guy was in a small, white room, with a bed in the far-right corner, and steel hooks on the two doors, for hanging clothes. He’d come through the first door; and she, completely naked, came through the second door, which was to the left of the bed from his point of view. 

“Petunia?” he asked, his eyes unable to resist the temptation to look down at her firm, little breasts, shaved pussy, and bare feet. 

“Guy?” she said in what he hadn’t noticed was a forced voice and an even more forced grin. My God, she thought; not him. Not naked before him. And I can’t even control my body to cover myself or control my words. “Long time, no see.” 

“Never seen this much of you, till today.” 

He hadn’t noticed a thin tear running down her right cheek. 

“What would you like to do with me?” she asked, in a robot-like way. I’ve got to tell him that I’m being forced into prostitution, she thought; but I can’t say anything other than what they make me say! 

“Well, since this is the life you’ve chosen for yourself, I guess we’ll fuck,” he said, unzipping his pants. 

Another tear ran down her cheek, unnoticed by him. He sat on the corner of the bed with his pants down to his ankles and his hard cock pointing up. She got on top and aimed it into her pussy, which had been lubricated by a Creep. 

As she was bouncing up and down on his cock, he was thinking, This can’t be Petunia. I never knew her to be this easy with her body. She must have gotten financially desperate to be doing this kind of work. This can’t be the real Petunia…but I guess it is. 

She, too, had thoughts racing through her brain: This is beyond humiliating! Oh, God, Guy must think I’m the lowest trash to be doing this! But how could he know that I have no control over my body or my words; the thing that slithered in my ear—it must have taken control of my brain functioning, or almost all of it, anyway. I must fight to use what little of my body I can control to tell him that this whore he sees and is touching isn’t the real me. She strained to make the finger of her right hand, which was on his arm, write a message on it. 

She’d managed to write H-E-, but he didn’t like how it tickled, so he brushed her hand away and continued fucking. She tried again, writing an H, but he decided he’d fucked her pussy long enough. 

I’d like to fuck him, she thought as she continued going up and down on him; because he’s cute, and I’ve always liked him…but not like this! Not fuck under these circumstances! 

He said, “OK, I think I want to fuck you in the ass now.” She got off of him, then got on the bed on all fours. Still hard, he got behind her. Looking at her asshole, he said, “Wow, you’re already lubed.” 

It was the worm-thing they put in my ass, she thought as he slid his cock inside. Oh, Guy, why didn’t you let me finish writing my message on your arm? I’d let you fuck me if only we weren’t here, though since you now think I’m a whore, I wish we weren’t fucking. I used to like you, though I don’t think I do anymore, knowing what you think of me. But, how could you think otherwise? 

How could she lower herself to this? he thought as he fucked her ass. I really thought she was better than this. My hard-on is loving this…but my heart is hating it. 

She looked back at him, hoping he’d see the tears of shame in her eyes, tears he still hadn’t noticed. She reached back to his right hand, which was on her right thigh, and tried to write a message with her finger on his hand again. 

She managed to write H-E-L-, but he didn’t like the tickling. “Why do you keep tickling my hand?” he said. “Stop it!” He brushed her hand off again. She looked away from him, and down at the pillow, on which several teardrops had fallen. 

After sliding in and out of her ass for about five minutes, he said, “OK, how about a blow job to finish me off? I still can’t seem to come.” He pulled out. 

“OK,” she sighed, then got off the bed and knelt on the floor. He sat on the side of the bed, with her head between his knees. She looked up into his eyes as she began kissing and licking the tip of his cock. 

He looked down into her teary eyes as she took him halfway into her mouth. He assumed her tears were from the pleasure from the sex, so much of a slut did she seem to him. 

Please, see the pain in my face, she thought as her lips continued to slide up and down his shaft. I hate it here so much. If no one will help me get out…oh, someone just kill me, quickly.

‘Creeps,’ an Erotic Horror Novel, Chapter Two

Petunia woke up in bed, in a large, shared bedroom with about a dozen other naked, thin young women like her, as well as two naked men. Most of them were either black, southeast Asian, Latin American, or aboriginal. She still felt a little doped-up, as all the others felt, but the drugs used on all of them the night before, to help them sleep, were wearing off.  

When they all got out of bed, they were made to stand beside their beds, bent over and with their legs wide apart. A green Creep was on the floor between the feet of each person, who then felt it race up his or her leg and into her vagina, or his anus. They all got a jolt from this intrusion, and continued shaking for about half a minute, then the drug inside the Creep had its effect, and they all calmed and became docile and passive. They felt a lulling, massaging effect throughout their bodies; what they saw before themselves seemed wavelike, the colours tending toward turquoise. It was like walking at the foot of the ocean. They seemed to breathe water. 

A pretty, twenty-year-old blonde with hair just over her shoulders, Petunia had creamy, smooth skin, blue eyes, and small but firm breasts. She’d had her pubic hair removed just before being taken here, to Capitol. She was a sexy little pixie, but she’d never wanted to be sexy for the staff of this hell of a whorehouse. 

Capitol was set up by the captors of all these naked women and men, about five women for each man. Petunia and the others left their bedroom and went into a large cafeteria for breakfast, eating with a few dozen other naked women and men. She sat at a table with three men and four other women. She didn’t know any of them; she had to sit at a seat with her name on it. No one ever sat in the same place with the same people; the Capitol staff didn’t want them to develop strong friendships with anybody. 

The people at her table, nonetheless, were engaged in a conversation; they were fighting against the lulling effects of the drug they’d just been given. Still, as energetic as they tried to be, they had to keep their voices down, for microphones and cameras were picking up on everything they said and did; and if any of them said something the Capitol staff heard, one of those killer Creeps might crawl inside her or him…as with Frank. 

“Did anyone…try to escape…last night?” a woman asked in a droning voice, her eyes half closed. 

Petunia was too afraid to say anything. Also, she was peaking from the high of the Creep drug. 

“I heard…a few screams,” a man sitting beside the woman said, in a similar monotone, and with similarly heavy eyes. “Maybe I was dreaming, but I also heard…some shuffling overhead, in the tunnels. Somebody…did try to get out. But, I think, only tried.” 

Petunia shuddered at the memory his words evoked, but she still wouldn’t say a word; even if she hadn’t been high, she wouldn’t have said anything. She just pretended to ignore what he said. 

“Have any of you…ever wondered…about the colours…of those things?” another woman asked, one sitting beside Petunia. “I’ll bet…the different colours…have a meaning.” 

“Like, the blue ones…are a drug…to knock us out…and the yellow ones…kill you?” the man asked. “That’s what I think…The yellow ones…are the lethal ones. Watch out…for those.” 

“Keep your voices down,” a woman sitting on the other side of Petunia said. “Remember, they’re listening…to everything…we say.” 

Suddenly, an announcement was made over the intercom: “Well, one man got lucky last night. Frank Bender escaped.” 

Frank? Petunia thought; the guy crawling in back of me, the one who got killed by the Creeps—wasn’t his name Frank? Was what happened last night a dream, were there two Franks escaping with me, or am I hearing lies? 

“What makes you think…the colours…of the Creeps…have a…special meaning?” the first woman asked. 

“I tried escaping…about a month ago,” the man whispered. “I looked…behind me…when I heard…the screeching sound…they make…I saw…blue and yellow ones…A woman…crawling in front of me…got a yellow one…up her asshole…I saw her shaking…as if she were…burning inside…She fell…I touched her chest…No heartbeat…I heard no breathing…she was dead…Then a blue one…got in my ear…I felt high, then lost consciousness…The next morning, I was eating breakfast…like right now, still as high…as we all are now.”  

“Did anyone here…try to escape…last night?” the first woman asked. 

“Yeah,” Petunia said. “But I’m not…trying that again.” 

“Maybe not,” he said. “But we should…all organize…a union…of some kind, and plan…to break out of here.” 

“Shut up!” whispered the woman who told him to be quiet before. “They’ll hear!…You’ll get…us all killed…They’ll sic…the yellow ones on us…one of these nights.” 

“They’ll kill us all…sooner or later…anyway,” he whispered. “When we get too old, and we no longer…make a profit for them.” 

“Keep quiet,” she warned again. 

“Stop the chatter!” the voice over the intercom said. 

Petunia remained quiet, as did the others, for the rest of mealtime. If only some people outside could organize a union of some kind, and plan to break us all out of here, she thought. 

‘Creeps,’ an Erotic Horror Novel, Chapter One

The tunnel was claustrophobic, stuffy, and dark, except for occasional glowing circles of light that dotted the sides. There was a rank smell of burned corpses.  

Sometimes the walls of the tunnel felt, and even looked, like human flesh, with almost psychedelic lights, which flashed around the eyes of the naked man and woman who were crawling through, lighting their way, yet also confusing them. At other times, the walls their hands, knees, and feet thumped against felt like steel, with only a faint light far, far ahead, suggesting a way outside. The light dosage of drugs that had been put into their bodies, to put them to sleep earlier that night, made it difficult to distinguish between dream and reality. All they knew was that they had to get out of this place. 

When they’d been knocked out by the drugs, the man had been dreaming about swimming deep in the dark sea at night, seemingly able to breathe water. The woman had been dreaming about crawling through a giant intestine. Then they both heard the sound of a door sliding open, and they woke up…or had they? They crawled in, her not sure if she was still crawling through a giant intestine, or through a steel-walled tunnel, and him not sure if he was still swimming in an ocean, or crawling through a transparent plastic tunnel, surrounded by the sea. 

The dream-like state of their consciousness, what they saw, heard, and felt in their bodies and brains, seemed to shift from consciousness to unconsciousness like the waves of the ocean. Her sense that the tunnel would shift back and forth from intestine flesh walls to those of metal, and his sense of crawling in a tunnel of transparent plastic, or of swimming in the sea at night, would similarly shift back and forth, again, like the waves of the ocean. Like crests and troughs, undulating up and down: that’s how the back-and-forth shifting from the surreal to the real felt for them. They both almost felt as if they were breathing water. 

Speaking of wetness, only their soaking sweat covered their total nakedness as they shuffled through, banging their elbows and knees against the sides of the tunnel. The desperate urge to escape made Petunia LeBar and the man crawling behind her forget their fatigue, as well as the unbearable heat. 

“How much longer, do you think?” the man asked in gasps, seeing transparent plastic walls around him. 

“I think…I see a tiny…dot of light…up ahead,” she panted, now crawling faster in what seemed like a giant’s intestine. “We’re almost there.” 

“Thank God,” he said, now seeming to swim. “We’ll be free…of those bastards.” 

“The light…is getting bigger,” she said, seeing metal walls around her. “This is it.” 

They started crawling faster, in eager anticipation of their soon-to-come freedom. The shifts from intestine-to-metal-to-intestine-to-metal were speeding up for her, as were the back-and-forth shifts from transparent plastic walls to ocean water for him. 

Then, from behind, they heard the squealing sounds…like a million screeching violins in a crescendo. 

“Oh, no,” she said with shaking breaths. 

An electric shock of adrenaline neutralized the stupor they’d felt from the drugs, a reaction that came every time all escapers heard those sounds in the tunnels. Now, they recognized the steel walls of the tunnel all around them, and they saw only that. 

“Let’s hurry…before they get us…Be brave!” he said. Suddenly, though, he felt an army of short, thick worm-like things crawling up his legs. “Oh, God! They’re on me!” 

“Oh, my God! Frank! No!” 

She looked back and saw the short, glowing Creeps, wiggling in colours of blue, yellow, green, and orange, some crawling past him and towards her, others crawling all over his body, aiming for his ass and head. 

Before he could close his buttocks in time, one of those things slithered inside his anus. He screamed and jerked his whole body, banging against the walls, roof, and floor of the tunnel, as the Creep slid deep inside his rectum, then into his intestines as fast as mercury. It wiggled inside, tickling him; then other Creeps made their way inside, one in his right ear, one up his left nostril, two in his mouth, and another up his ass. 

He kept banging his head and limbs against the walls of the tunnel in all helplessness as he endured the unbearable tickling…so unbearable that he ignored the pain of his bruised and bloody toes and fingers. 

Then the first Creep settled in his intestines… 

…and the burning began. 

“Oh! Oh! It’s hot!” he groaned. 

“Frank! Frank! Oh, God, don’t die on me!” she bawled, slowing her crawling, confused over whether to go back and help him or flee the approaching Creeps. 

He moaned in pain at first, then the ball of fire he felt inside himself grew, burning holes in his internal organs. He felt the fire cut into his stomach. 

“Ah! It’s burning!” he screamed, then coughed blood, his body now shaking and writhing with as much violence as that of the burning Creep. Then his body went limp and he lost consciousness, falling on the floor of the tunnel. 

So horrified was she by his death, always sobbing and shaking, that she hadn’t noticed the Creeps crawling up her legs. 

Then she snapped out of it. 

“Oh, God!” she shrieked, trying to close her legs; but one of those things was too fast for her, and it slid inside her vagina. 

Her whole body shook. She screamed, putting two fingers inside to try to scoop it out, then two other Creeps slinked in. They got past her flickering fingers and joined the first, deep inside her now. Then one of those wigglers crept inside her anus. 

“Oh!” 

The three inside her vagina melted. She felt the ooze permeating her body within seconds, passing through the mucous membranes of her internal organs. The other one snaked up her rectum and into her intestines. As she continued shaking all over, banging against the tunnel walls as Frank had, she softly sobbed. 

Am I going to die, too? she wondered. 

That worm melted inside her, too, in about the same area of her body as the one that killed Frank, and she could feel its substance pass into her bloodstream and spread throughout her body. 

But, what was it? 

Would it burn her insides, too? If it was going to do that, she figured it would have already begun burning. It had to be something else. But what? Part of her would have preferred the burning and a quick death to her forced life of prostitution in this hell of a house. She trembled as she waited for it to take effect, for she knew these worm-like Creeps were how her enslavers kept her and all the other nude women and men here under their control. 

Soon enough, she began to feel the effect of a drug. She grew light-headed, her body swaying left to right. It almost felt like ecstasy, but it was a depressant rather than a stimulant. That ocean of dark waves she’d been seeing before her grew darker, and wavier, now. She now had no sense at all of being in a smelly, hot tunnel: it really felt as if she were breathing deep underwater like a fish swimming about at night, among a school of glowing jellyfish. 

Her eyes grew heavy, and the glowing multi-colour Creeps surrounding her grew foggier before her eyes. Her limbs and head grew even heavier, and within a minute she slumped onto the floor of the tunnel and passed out.

Analysis of ‘The Power and the Glory’

The Power and the Glory is a political concept album recorded in 1974 by British progressive rock band Gentle Giant. While the eccentric, complex (by prog standards!), and dissonant music of this band, for obvious reasons, never resulted in widespread commercial success for them, this album–despite being one of their most dissonant–was an attempt, on some level, to expand their audience in the US.

Sherman Hemsley, having been an accomplished musician himself, was a fan of progressive rock; on Dinah Shore‘s TV show, Dinah!, he apparently danced to ‘Proclamation,’ the rather funky first track on the album. If anyone out there has footage of this holy TV moment, I would be eternally grateful if he or she could present me with video of it.

Here is a link to all the lyrics on the album, including those for the bonus title track. The songs tell the story of a politician who, at first, seems to want to help the people, but then gets mired in the corrupt system and ends up the very kind of politician he was supposed to be trying to cure the system of…an all-too-familiar problem, making the album as relevant today as it was forty-five years ago.

The studio version of ‘Proclamation’ begins with a roaring crowd of supporters of the rising politician, unnamed because…really…he or she could be anyone, past, present, or future. Then we hear multi-instrumentalist Kerry Minnear playing a jaunty tune on an electric piano, typically idiosyncratic Gentle Giant. This quirky jauntiness suggests the shaky hope we feel that the politician will deliver on his promises.

Singer Derek Shulman comes in on the off-beat (or at least what feels like the off-beat, at the beginning of the studio version of the song), an example of Gentle Giant’s typical trickiness, but also a suggestion that we already have little reason to trust the tricky politician’s promises to cure the ailing nation.

“You may not have all you want or you need.” May not? Of course we don’t! Politicians, conservative or liberal, always ensure the imperialist, class structure of society while making empty promises of change, for the sole purpose of appeasing the masses and stopping them from revolting.

“All that you have has been due to my hand.” What do we have that’s come from you? Empty promises? Blind hopes? Not what we genuinely need.

“It can change. It can stay the same./Who can say, who can make their claim?” The situation can change only through revolution; voting will keep it the same, with only the outer appearance of change. That’s my claim, for what it’s worth.

“The situation we are in at this time/Neither a good one, nor is it so unblest.” The politician must acknowledge the discontents of the people, yet from his privileged point of view, it isn’t so bad, either. Hence, all he has to make are some cosmetic changes to satisfy the herd, while leaving the same basic structure intact.

“Hail!” the crowd of mindless supporters shouts.

“Unity’s strength and all must be as one.” Solidarity and oneness are what we want, but “confidence in you, hope will reflect in me.” Mr. Politician, you have not yet earned our confidence, nor should we hope too much from you. “You are my people,” the politician says, putting on the charm, but that “there must be no change” is a hint that he has no intention of curing any of our societal, economic, and political ills. This is what he “will say,” this is how he “will make [his] claim.”

Still, the mindless rabble listens uncritically, chanting “Hail!”

The music gets increasingly discordant in the middle section, especially with Minnear’s organ, culminating in “Hail to the power, and to glory’s way!” The loud, dissonant chords emphasize the evil that inevitably results from the kind of blind nationalism and chauvinism that is too often inspired by manipulative demagogues, who lead the masses by the nose.

Next, we hear harmonic resolution (relatively speaking, of course: this is Gentle Giant, after all) behind the words “day by day,” which is repeated under an electric piano in the bass, bitonal in relation to the fading-out singing and organ. This bitonality suggests the two-faced nature of politicians, as well as the discordance between, on the one side, the lying politician, and on the other, the gullible public.

The next part uses a technique frequently used by Gentle Giant, one called hocketing, only with the instruments here rather than voices, so it is rather like Klangfarbenmelodie. It reassembles the fragments of the opening jaunty tune played on the electric piano, yet this time played not only on that keyboard, but also on organ, Gary Green‘s guitar, and a high-hat on John Weathers‘s drum kit. This need to reassemble the parts suggests an attempt to heal the collective wounds of the nation…and yet, we end up right back where we started. The song fades out with the roaring crowd again.

The studio version of ‘So Sincere‘ opens with a dissonant counterpoint played by Derek Shulman on sax, his brother Ray on violin, and Minnear plucking pizzicatos on a cello. This dissonance makes it clear that we should note the utter sarcasm in saying politicians’ words are “so sincere.”

“Hear, he’ll do it all for you,” sings Minnear…and so the insincerity begins. “Wise, and knowing what to do.” Knowing what to do…for whose benefit?

“And every word is…” Wait for the punchline…”Lies.”

“He only tells the truth…Means, not anything he says…” Later, “Wrong, he makes his promise right.” Note the proliferation of contradictions: lies/truth, yes/no, wrong/right, full/empty, good/bad. Corrupt politicians confuse us with their contradictory speech, denying what they said earlier, which they now contradict, and never resolving class contradictions–they only perpetuate those…and if you don’t watch carefully, “You’ll never know why.”

The dissonance comes to a head in the chorus, with Derek singing, “So sin-cere!” and ending with the deliberate pun, “So sin.”

Now, the guile and cunning of politicians are one thing, but there’s another side to this problem–the credulity of the public who listen to their revered leader’s bullshit, hoping that finally, this new one is going to make everything right. This is the subject of ‘Aspirations,’ sung by Minnear as he plays the electric piano.

This is probably my favourite song on the whole album, for in this one we can feel the pain and hopes of the people for a better world, sung in a sympathetic melody. “See our dreams all coming true, it depends on you.” (Not if “you” is your average politician.)

The followers already have some vague sense that their faith is “aimless blind,” yet they hope all the same that their new leader’s claims are “really so sincere.” They hope he can “be our guide,” even after they’ve been disappointed so many times before. They never learn. “Make us strong, build our unity, all men as one, it is all in you.” Seriously? All in one man?

“Hopes, dreams, hopes, dreaming that all our sorrows gone…” Apart from noting how ungrammatical this line sounds, I can’t help hearing, “go on,” rather than “gone,” suggesting an unconscious Freudian slip, revealing the death drive behind all these foolish “hopes [and] dreams.”

Playing the Game‘ is interesting when heard juxtaposed with a viewing of the album cover: vying for political power is like a card game–part luck, part strategy, all about trying to win as big a portion of the pot as possible.

Minnear’s marimba opening of the studio version of the song was replaced in live performance by Derek’s strumming a “Shulberry,” a kind of electric ukulele with three strings. Furthermore, instead of playing a violin as he did in the studio version, Ray played a second electric guitar in concert.

The politician has “the key to the back door” of his secret connections, his “hand touching bounds never had before.” He has power for the first time in his life…and he likes it. His games are all “won before they’re played for,” and “no opposition can stage a fight.” He’ll “never, ever lose” at the game of politics.

Corruption no longer seems ugly when it benefits you, with your “thoughts never spoken,” your “silent words left unsaid.” Because of the success that corruption allows you to cheat at getting, the music of the song is upbeat.

The politician may be content, but the masses have finally caught on, and they are furious, as we hear in “Cogs In Cogs,” which opens with intricate counterpoint in Minnear’s keyboards, Ray’s bass, and Green’s guitar, played in alternating 6/8 and 9/8 time. Next, we hear a tricky riff with a bar of 6/8, then one in 4/16; then there’s a brief riff in 9/16, then another brief riff in 7/8 before Derek comes in singing. This structural complexity symbolizes the trickiness of politicians’ unending deceit.

Derek’s voice, loud and aggressive, unlike Minnear’s soft and gentle singing, is apt for a song about the “anger and the rising murmur” of the people over the politician’s every “empty promise.”

“Cogs in cogs” is a vivid image to describe the revolving cycles of hope and disappointment felt with each new politician voted into office. The anger, accompanying disillusionment over the latest in a line of corrupt politicians, should be the thing that “breaks the old circle,” but the cycle soon begins turning again, “the wheel slowly turns around.”

“The air is sour with discontent,” but we never learn; for after this current politician is reviled and removed, a new one comes along to raise our hopes, then disappoint us once again. “The circle turns around, the changing voices calling…” Derek’s overdubbed voice in the studio version, during the bridge (a section played instrumentally live), sings these words over and over again, reflecting this unchanging cyclical reality of hope, disappointment, hope, disappointment, hope, disappointment…

No God’s a Man‘ expresses more of the sadness and disillusion than the anger felt when realizing the politician is like all the others. Our idealized politician, a “god,” is never the reality, just a man. Hear the sadness in Ray’s and Green’s acoustic guitar doubling; hear it in Green’s bluesy electric guitar licks in the middle of the song, a style that is natural for him to play.

The singing of the first two verses, harmonizing in independent voices (Derek, Minnear, Ray, Green, and Weathers), in a style reminiscent of Renaissance vocal polyphony (a singing technique frequently heard in Gentle Giant’s music), suggests the clamour of disappointed people who, frowning at the face of the corrupt politician, are “now telling him to go.”

The music grows dissonant again in ‘The Face,’ which focuses on the corrupt nature of politics, and how one tries to hold on to power in spite of waning popularity. When the politician’s face is showing, he tries to put his mask back on. “Hide your mask, show the face that is sorry.”

Normally, Gentle Giant’s use of dissonance is more subtle, hidden in the counterpoint; not blatant and obvious, as it is in King Crimson (e.g., the chaotic ending of ‘21st Century Schizoid Man,’ or Keith Tippett‘s piano cluster chords in ‘Cat Food‘) or in Frank Zappa’s modernist orchestral music (e.g., the 200 Motels soundtrack).

In ‘The Face,’ Gentle Giant is blatantly dissonant, too, particularly with Ray’s grating electric violin solo. This dissonance is, again, suggestive of class conflict, between the greed in the leaders and the wishes of the people.

Valedictory‘ is a hard rock variation on themes played more jauntily in ‘Proclamation.’ We’ve come full circle (as in ‘cogs in cogs’), and while the corrupt politician is doing all he can in terms of damage control after all the scandals have exposed him, we know “things must stay, there must be no change.” We’ve come back to the beginning…again.

We start looking for another idealized politician we can follow blindly: “time to rearrange.” The dissonant keyboard music in 5/4 that we heard in the middle of ‘Proclamation’ is heard again (on Green’s guitar and Minnear’s synthesizer), descending chromatic notes that come round and round in circles, culminating, at the end of the song, in a cry of “Hail!…”

…then the tape speeds up and spins out of control, bringing the album to an abrupt end, and implying that nothing’s been learned…

No, nothing at all. (Oops, wrong album.)

But that’s the whole point of the album. We never learn. Will we ever?

Politicians on both sides of the mainstream political fence have made big promises, then disappointed us. This is true of leaders in the remote past, the recent past, and…I prophesy with utmost confidence…the future.

Voting and reform do nothing to change the system, for it was never meant to change anything. It keeps the same class structure intact and placates the masses, with liberals throwing a few bones to the poor to prevent revolution; with conservatives hypocritically preaching about the need to cut costs…while they spend wildly on the military; and with fascists stomping on us with their jackboots if we dare to…dare I say it?…start a revolution.

“Anger and the rising murmur breaks the old circle” [my emphasis]

Analysis of ‘Scanners’

Scanners is a 1981 Canadian science fiction/horror film written and directed by David Cronenberg and starring Stephen Lack, Michael Ironside, Jennifer O’Neill, and Patrick McGoohan. It is about people with mind powers (empathy, telepathy, telekinesis, etc.) who are wanted by a company, ConSec, that hopes to exploit their powers. Elsewhere, there’s a rogue scanner (Ironside) who also wants scanners to build an army and rule the world; any scanner who won’t join him…he kills, as he does any other enemies.

Here are some quotes from the film:

Cameron Vale: You called me a scanner. What is that?

Paul Ruth: Freak of nature, born with a certain form of ESP; derangement of the synapses which we call telepathy. […]

“My art… keeps me sane.” –Benjamin Pierce, gesturing at plaster head

“You are 35 years old, Mr. Vale. Why are you such a derelict? Such a piece of human junk? [pause] The answer’s simple. You’re a scanner, which you don’t realize. And that has been the source of all your agony. But I will show you now that it can be a source of great power.” –Paul Ruth

Darryl Revok: This was a test campaign used in 1947 to market a new product. The product was a drug, a tranquilizer called ‘Ephemerol’. It was aimed at pregnant women. If it had worked it would have been marketed all over North America. But the campaign failed and the drug failed, because it had a side effect on the unborn children. An invisible side effect.

Cameron: It created Scanners. […]

[striking at Cameron with scanner abilities] “All right. We’re gonna do this the scanner way. I’m gonna suck your brain dry! Everything you are is gonna become me. You’re gonna be with me Cameron, no matter what. After all, brothers should be close, don’t you think?” –Darryl Revok

“I’m here, Kim. We’ve won, we’ve won.” –Cameron Vale, in Revok’s body

Cameron Vale.

What is particularly interesting about this film is the relationship between inner, psychic reality and outer, socioeconomic and political reality. There’s also how politics and economics affect family life, and vice versa.

ConSec, as a private security firm that wants to capitalize on scanners as a potential weapon, is a representation of capitalist, imperialist war profiteering, reminding one of Lockheed-Martin et al. That Vale’s and Revok’s father, Dr. Paul Ruth (McCoohan), has few qualms about using his sons for profit shows how politics and economics damage family life.

Ruth is the inventor of ephemerol–a drug he put on the market for pregnant women back in the 1940s, but which also had the surprising side effect of creating scanners. He gave his pregnant wife the strongest doses of ephemerol, making his two sons the most powerful scanners.

Ruth seems to know that Vale and Revok are his sons, but it doesn’t seem to matter much to him, for shows little fatherly attitude to them–he just wants to use Vale to hunt down Revok; and what’s more to the point is why he abandoned his sons when they were little, leaving Vale to become a derelict, and leaving Revok to become a psychopath. His fear of the ‘Ripe’ program creating new scanners gives him a jolt, but until this realization, he’s been content to use scanners like his sons for the sake of ConSec profiteering.

Dr. Paul Ruth.

It’s often hell enough being an empath of the ordinary kind, always intensely feeling the emotions of others, especially their pain. But Vale’s sensory overload, his agony from hearing the whispers of others, from further off in a shopping mall, where two middle class women at a table look down on him as a ‘bum’…that’s excruciating. So connected to others he is, yet so alienated. So close to others…yet, so far away.

The point is that scanners are extremely sensitive, gifted people. The trauma of being separated from their parents and any normal, loving human contact is unbearable for them. It’s easy to see how Vale and Revok would go mad with their powers, though in almost opposite ways.

Revok went so insane he tried to kill himself by drilling a hole in his head. The mark is like a third eye of Siva; in fact, black-and-white video of him, interviewed by a psychiatrist, shows an eye drawn on the bandage where the drill mark is. His pain is his higher mystical knowledge, as it were. Later, instead of trying to destroy his own mind, he succeeds in destroying that of another scanner in the famous head explosion scene.

This scene perfectly exemplifies, in symbolic form, projection of Revok’s death drive onto someone else. All of his fragmentation and psychological falling apart, all of his inner pain thrown at another scanner.

Darryl Revok is about to blow the mind of a fellow scanner.

ConSec staff try to control Revok by giving him a shot of ephemerol, the very drug that has given him his powers in the first place. (Vale has been calmed down with the same drug when Dr. Ruth has him in his custody.) A pun on ephemeral, the drug temporarily inhibits scanning ability; this paradox of giving and inhibiting the psychic powers exemplifies the dialectical relationship between opposites that I symbolize with the ouroboros. From the serpent’s biting head of maximum scanner powers, we shift to the serpent’s bitten tail of their suppression.

Similarly, there’s a dialectical relationship between the extreme sensitivity and empathy of scanners and their psychopathic opposite, as seen in Revok. When younger, he must have felt the agonizing of that extreme sensitivity and empathy, and the pain drove him to put that hole in his head. This self-injury was him crossing the serpent’s biting head of empathy over to its bitten tail of psychopathic lack of empathy.

Benjamin Pierce (played by Robert A. Silverman) was similarly violent to his family because of the torment that scanner empathy gives him; now, he uses his art to stop the pain from driving him mad. When Cameron Vale learns how to control his scanner powers, he too can function without going mad; but Pierce knows that, apart from his art, the only way to avoid pain is to avoid contact with people–that closeness, in a world of alienation, causes his empathy to torment him. The serpent’s head of closeness, what we would normally find an emotionally healing thing, for Pierce too easily slips over to the serpent’s bitten tail of new wounds.

While ConSec’s exploitation of scanners as human weapons for profit is easily allegorized as capitalist commodification, Revok’s building up of a scanner army, not only to rival ConSec, but also to rule the world, can be allegorized as a form of fascism (i.e., the superiority of scanners, a new master race). Note how Revok’s company, Biocarbon Amalgamate, is a rival, not the opposite, of ConSec; Revok is also running his ‘Ripe’ program through ConSec. Note what this ‘love-hate relationship,’ if you will, between the rival companies also implies, symbolically, about the relationship between capitalism and fascism.

Kim Obrist.

The real opposition to this pair of rivals is a group of scanners led by Kim Obrist (played by O’Neill), who meet in private. When Vale finds them, though, he unwittingly leads Revok’s assassins to them, too…as he had led them to Pierce.

Obrist’s group of scanners sit together in a circle, in a meditative state, and use their powers to connect with each other. The scene is proof of how empathy doesn’t have to be painful; when used among friends, it can cause a sense of communal love to grow. Indeed, the sight of them together meditating in that circle, looks almost like a mystical experience for them. Closeness to others can be a good thing, after all.

So, if ConSec represents capitalism, and Revok and his assassins represent fascism, then Vale and Obrist’s group of scanners can be seen to represent socialism…though, it must be emphasized, a libertarian, anarchist, form of socialism, since their group is poorly protected. Indeed, Revok’s assassins come in and kill everyone except Vale and Obrist; it’s like when Franco‘s fascists took over Spain and crushed the communists and anarchists within a mere three years.

Vale and Obrist learn of Revok’s rival company, whose ‘Ripe’ program is giving pregnant women ephemerol to make new scanner babies. Revok also has a corporate spy, Braedon Keller (played by Lawrence Dane), who is giving Revok information about ConSec, as well as trying to stop Vale and Obrist. Revok even has Keller kill Ruth: this goes to show you how capitalist success makes a failure of one’s home.

Keller, about to kill Dr. Ruth.

The whole point of the contrast between the communal oneness of Obrist’s scanners, as against ConSec and Revok, is to see how empathy should be used to hold us together, not drive us mad and tear us apart. Cooperation and mutual aid, not competition and destruction of perceived enemies, are what will move humanity forward.

We see how, in ConSec’s profit motive, capitalism manipulates our feelings to make us enemies of each other; here sensitivity is distorted into feelings of persecutory anxiety, a move from the ouroboros’s head of empathic feeling to the serpent’s tail of psychopathic lack of feeling. When the ConSec security guards try to apprehend Vale and Obrist, she makes the man pointing a gun at her think he’s threatening his mother with it; he breaks down and weeps. Here again we see the tense relationship between upholding the capitalist system and one’s family relations.

(Recall what Marx, in The Communist Manifesto, had to say about the family in relation to capitalism: “Abolition of the family! Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists.

“On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution.

“The bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course when its complement vanishes, and both will vanish with the vanishing of capital.

“Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty.” [Marx, page 52])

Back to the movie. When Revok has Vale and Obrist in his custody, he hopes to make a last gasp at connection with someone, his own brother. Of course, his plan to dominate the world with his future scanner army is too insane an idea for Vale to accept, so Revok feels as betrayed by him as by all the others.

Revok, sucking Vale dry.

The ensuing final confrontation between the two most powerful scanners is symbolically a sublation of opposing ideologies–socialism and fascist domination–and thus it is, in a way, comparable to the USSR’s Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany.

The war ended in a victory for communism over fascism, but a costly and even ambiguous one; for those on the west of divided Germany still had ex-Nazis in their government, and the US incorporated some ex-Nazis in their government, too, via Operation Paperclip. Small wonder Dr. Strangelove was a Nazi stereotype in Kubrick’s satirical 1964 movie, and small wonder East Germany called the Berlin Wall the “antifascist protective rampart.” When opposing forces come that close together, there’s bound to be tension.

Similarly, with Vale and Revok, we feel a chilling tension when the latter says, “brothers should be close, don’t you think?” as he begins sucking the former dry. This feeling of intense closeness, in a hostile world full of alienation, is the central theme of Scanners. This is why the scanners’ heightened empathy, with the attendant sensory overload, is so agonizing for them.

As Revok continues to “suck [Vale’s] brain dry,” pulling Vale into him, we see the dialectical resolving of contradictions. In this particular case, we see not only the symbolic sublation of fascism vs. socialism, but also of self vs. other, for it is through Revok’s introjection of Vale, and Vale’s projection of himself into Revok, that one sees oneself in others, and vice versa. This is Bion‘s container/contained, dramatized; it’s also apparent in the logo used for ephemerol.

At first, Revok seems to have the upper hand: Vale is cringing, his veins are popping out blood, and he even tears a gory scar on his cheek. Revok is grinning maniacally.

Revok seems to have the upper hand.

Then, Vale regains his composure, even as he’s covered in blood and set on fire psychically by Revok. Vale’s eyes explode in splashes of blood, while Revok’s show only the whites. By the end of the confrontation, we’re not sure who’s won.

Indeed, when Obrist wakes up and comes into the room, she sees Vale’s body lying in a silhouette of ashes, yet her scanning ability seems to detect Vale’s presence. Crouching in a corner and with a coat covering him, Revok is seen; but with Vale’s eyes instead of Revok’s dark ones, and without Revok’s forehead mark (his ‘third eye of Siva,’ as I like to call it), he says in Vale’s voice, “We’ve won.”

Obviously, Vale and Revok are one…but who won? Whose personality is dominating Revok’s body? Is that really Vale’s voice we’re hearing, or is Revok psychically forcing Vale to say he and Obrist have won, to trick her?

Revok is Siva, the destroyer. Ruth is Brahma, the creator (of all scanners). Vale is Vishnu, the preserver, the sustainer of his life throughout the film, in all his struggles to survive. By dying and resurrecting, with his mind put into Revok’s body, Vale is also a Christ figure, the spirit conquering the flesh. I, however, am a materialist, and I see mostly Revok’s body. So who won?

Has Revok really been eliminated at the end of the film?

And as far as my political allegory for the film is concerned, who were the real postwar winners, the political left, or the right? Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito were defeated, but many fascists survived 1945. Only some Nazis went on trial at Nuremberg. Francoist Spain carried on unchecked until Franco’s death in 1975. Pinochet’s authoritarian, right-wing government, with the help of the CIA, replaced Allende’s in 1973. Israel, irony of ironies, has become a racist apartheid state. And fascism in Europe and Brazil has been on the rise in recent years, as against a largely impotent left.

And even if Vale is in control of Revok’s body, he and Obrist will still have to deal with ConSec, which hopes to make weapons out of that new generation of scanners about to be born. So, if that’s Vale’s real voice saying, “We’ve won,” what justification does he have to be so overconfident?

Dialectical thinking mustn’t be reduced to the cliché triad of thesis/negation/sublation, as even I’ve done in other posts, for the sake of brevity. With every sublation comes a new thesis to be contradicted, for the idea of dialectics is to give us all a sense that reality is a fluid, ever-changing thing, not permanent blocks of stasis. The sublation of socialism defeating fascism had merely lead to a new contradiction, the Cold War, which was resolved in the dissolution of the USSR and the rise of neoliberalism. If we’re lucky to triumph over this new variation in class war, there will be new contradictions to resolve under the dictatorship of the proletariat, such as the danger of a resurgence of capitalism.

The microcosm of such contradictions is in the family situation, where so much alienation is spawned, as we see in Ruth’s so troubled sons. He cared so little about the monsters he’d created, and their fusion in one body, one mind, could very well be a new battleground, all inside one body. Will Obrist be able to accept it? Will Vale and Revok be able to?

With the end of Siva/Revok, is Vishnu/Vale’s reincarnation the start of a new cycle of creation/preservation/destruction, a new thesis to be negated and sublated? It seems that way. Vale considers Revok to be a reincarnation of Brahma/Ruth: could Vale’s judgement be a projection, now that he’s reincarnated in the Ruth-reincarnation of Revok? The cycle of dialectics spins round and round, forever, it seems, with not only irresolution of class conflict, but also irresolution of family conflict.

And this irresolution in the family, who “should be close,” is the true horror symbolized in this film.

Analysis of Aeschylus’ ‘Persians’

The Persians is a historical tragedy Aeschylus wrote, and which won first prize in the dramatic competitions in 472 BCE. It is his earliest surviving play, and the only one we have of his based on historical sources, rather than on Greek myth. It tells the story of Xerxes‘ disastrous invasion of Greece, Persia’s second humiliating defeat after the failed attempt by his father, Darius I, to invade Greece.

The translation I’ll be basing this analysis on is a brand new one by Mark Will, which can be found here on Amazon. It’s a literal translation that comes as close as possible to paralleling the poetry of the original Greek. It also includes an excellent introduction that not only explains the historical background of the play, but also, in a timely way, relates imperial Persia’s losses to contemporary concerns, making it a kind of cautionary tale about what the US’s current imperialist excesses will most likely lead to.

Here are some of Will‘s translated lines:

“Oh, wretched me, having met/this loathsome, obscure fate/because a demon savage-mindedly trod upon/the Persian race!” –Xerxes, beginning of Episode 4, page 68, lines 909-912

“My son found sharp the vengeance/of famous Athens, for they did not suffice,/the barbarians whom Marathon destroyed before./Intending to make retribution for them, my son/has caused so great a plethora of calamities.” —Atossa, Episode 1, page 45, lines 473-477

“Groan and mourn,/cry heavy and/heavenly distress!/Strain the sadly wailing,/clamorous, wretched voice!

“Torn by the whirlpool,/they are mangled by the voiceless,/by the children of the undefiled sea!

“And the deprived house mourns/the man of the family, and childless fathers/are demonized by distress,/and old men bewailing/everything perceive pain.” –Chorus, Choral Ode 2, page 49, lines 571-583

Structurally, the play can be divided into four parts: 1) premonitions and fears for the Persian army, as felt by the Chorus of Persian Elders and by Atossa, Darius’ widow queen and King Xerxes’ mother; 2) the calamity of the Persian army’s defeat at the Battle of Salamis, as told by a messenger; 3) the Ghost of Darius’ report of further Persian woe, and counsel not to attempt an invasion of Greece again [lines 790-792]; and 4) Xerxes’ despair when he returns to Susa, his clothes in tatters.

[Bear in mind that my four-way division of the play differs from Will’s, whose Episode 1 combines my parts one and two, as described in the previous paragraph, and his Episode 2 is a speech by Atossa, just before his Episode 3 and my part three, with Darius’ ghost. Each of his Episodes is preceded by a Choral Ode, with strophes, antistrophes, and epodes; whereas I’m dividing the play in terms of thematic contrasts I’ve seen.]

The choral poetry comments on the fortunes of the Persian empire, past and present. We hear of the great glories of Persia’s imperial past, her conquest of Ionia, and the achievements of Darius the Great (Choral Ode 4, pages 66-67).

While it’s more typical in Greek tragedy to start the play with a hubristic character who experiences a sudden reversal of fortune (peripeteia) and a realization (anagnorisis) of some terrible truth, both of these elements propelling the action towards tragedy (e.g., a fall of pride); there seems to be very little of such contrast in The Persians. The flowing of the plot, from beginning to end, seems a sea of undifferentiated sorrow.

Xerxes’ hubris is felt offstage, while he’s creating the pontoon bridges for his army to cross the Hellespont (lines 65-72; also lines 743-750), and when his troops commit sacrilege (lines 809-812) by destroying the images of Greek gods at their temples. This hubris is described by the characters in Susa, where the whole play takes place. Instead of seeing a boastful king, we hear the Chorus expressing their fears, for the Persian army, who at the beginning of the play (lines 8-15, 107-139) have not sent any reports on the progress of the invasion. The Chorus’ pride is only in Persia’s past.

This fear morphs into sorrow from the messenger’s report; then further sorrow from what Darius’ ghost knows of the army’s other misfortunes, coupled with his not-so-comforting advice not to invade Greece again; and finally despairing sorrow on shamed Xerxes’ return. Fear, woe, more woe, and the worst. The whole play is a continuous descent into sadness.

As I’ve said above, Mark Will parallels this Persian woe to the predicted fate of the US’s near future, with–as I would add–the ascent of China and Russia as against American imperialist overreach, with its absurd military overspending and over trillion-dollar debt, a ticking time bomb that will destroy the US sooner than the military-industrial complex expects. Will also asks us to use this play to help us sympathize with Iran (Translator’s Preface, page 11), the modern Persia threatened with invasion from, ironically, the American Persia of today.

While I affirm Mark Will’s parallels to contemporary events as perfectly true and legitimate, I see another parallel between The Persians and the recent past: the decline in Persian might, and its military humiliations, can be compared to those of the Soviet Union in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Hamartia in political leaders should be understood as a warning to them that “missing the mark” can lead to political catastrophes for the nation. Xerxes’ foolish overconfidence in his army and navy leads to missteps and his huge losses. This missing the mark is easily seen in the military misadventures of the US over the past twenty years, as Will observes. I’d say that a missing of the mark (quite an understatement, given the growing treason in the USSR, especially from Khrushchev onwards) is also attributable to Gorbachev‘s mismanagement of Soviet affairs.

A series of woes befell the USSR that parallel those of Xerxes and his army. The US lured the USSR into a war with Afghanistan, a war that was a major factor in the weakening of the socialist state (this is rather like Xerxes being manipulated into planning “this voyage and campaign against Hellas” by “evil men” [lines 753-758]). The USSR’s loss against the mujahideen, who were proxy warriors (including Bin Laden) for the US, was a humiliating defeat comparable to that of Xerxes.

Furthermore, Xerxes’ listening to the Greeks’ plans to flee at night, and taking them at their word (lines 355-371), is comparable to Gorbachev thinking he could negotiate with the US and NATO over whether to open up the Soviet economy to the West, and to allow the reunification of Germany, breaking down the anti-fascist protection Wall. Xerxes’ gullibility caused his humiliating loss at Salamis, as Gorbachev’s caused not only the USSR’s dissolution, but also the eastward advance of NATO.

The Persian loss is considered a momentous turn of events in Western history; for if the Persians had won, the West, some argue, would likely have been inundated with Persian, rather than Greek, culture. Their loss is assumed to have been a good thing, with Greek democracy triumphing over Persian despotism. Certainly Hegel thought so in his Philosophy of History:

“The World-Historical contact of the Greeks was with the Persians; in that, Greece exhibited itself in its most glorious aspect…In the case before us, the interest of the World’s History hung trembling in the balance. Oriental despotism–a world united under one lord and sovereign–on the one side, and separate states–insignificant in extent and resources, but animated by free individuality–on the other side, stood front to front in array of battle. Never in History has the superiority of spiritual power over material bulk–and that of no contemptible amount–been made so gloriously manifest.” (Hegel, pages 256-258)

On closer inspection, however, it can be argued that the Persians under the Achaemenid Dynasty were closer to real democracy than the Greeks. Achaemenid-era Persians had far fewer slaves than Greeks, and Persian women enjoyed far better rights than their Greek counterparts.

This point is especially salient when we parallel it with the propagandistic portrayal of American “democracy,” with its history of racism, slavery, genocide of Native Americans, income inequality, and mass incarceration, as against the USSR‘s having considerably fewer of these evils. Certainly, Paul Robeson felt far more at home in the USSR than in his native US.

Paralleled with the end of Persian hegemony over the region, and thus the liberation of Greece, is the notion that the USSR’s dissolution meant the triumph of American capitalist democracy and “the end of history.” Consider how the rise of neoliberalism under the Clintons, coupled with the near ubiquity of American imperialist war, have shown the lie of this democracy.

With the end of the Achaemenid Dynasty came the rise of Alexander the Great, whose imperialism–justified as a spreading of Greek culture and civilization to the barbarians of the East–parallels American neoconservative arrogance.

The Ghost of Darius advising the Persians not to invade Greece again seems to me like the ghost of Stalin wishing to advise the Soviets of the 1980s to revert to Socialism in One Country, rather than attempt to bring it about in other countries like Afghanistan.

The Messenger, by his own admission, describes only a fraction of the misfortunes that have befallen the Persian army and navy. Though they outnumbered the Greeks, they’ve been mostly destroyed. Most of the survivors have perished on their journey back home, through hunger or thirst (lines 482-491).

Darius’ Ghost also informs the Chorus and Atossa of newer woes. This piling up of one misfortune after another is, on the one hand, a warning of the karmic future of US imperialist overreach, as Will maintains; but on the other hand, as I am arguing, this accumulation of woe is also something that can be paralleled with the growing suffering in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.

The US and NATO were scheming at how they could bring about the USSR’s downfall. There were shortages of food, which was Gorbachev‘s responsibility. Through the establishment of “free market” economic policies, the traitors in the Russian government privatized and seized state-owned assets, and removed the Soviet social safety net, throwing millions of Russians into poverty and starvation, and allowing the ascendance of Russian oligarchs; and when the people tried to bring back socialism, not only did the US’s puppet, Yeltsin, use violence to stop them, but the US also helped Russia’s extremely unpopular leader get reelected in 1996.

Some have called the suffering of Russians in the 1990s an “economic genocide.” This woe after woe after woe is easily paralleled with Persian suffering in the play. Russians have consistently, in poll after poll, regretted the end of the Soviet system, especially recently. Apart from the lost social services, Russians are nostalgic of when their country was once a great world power; as the Chorus, in their lamentations, reminisce of Persia in Choral Ode 4. Putin is well-known for having said that the fall of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

So when we get to Xerxes’ return to Susa, with his clothes in tatters, we see the final amalgamation of Persian suffering and despair. Back and forth between him and the Chorus, we hear “Ototototoi!” [Philip Vellacott, page 151], “Ay, ay!” [Will, page 76], and “Woe!” during their exodos from the stage. This quick cutting back and forth of brief one-liners, as opposed to the long speeches heard before, symbolically suggests the psychological fragmentation and disintegration each Persian is experiencing.

We may wonder what the ancient Greek response was to Xerxes’ humiliation. For many, it must have been Schadenfreude to see their oppressors finally brought so low, knowing it really happened: remember Xerxes’ words, line 1034, “Distressing, but a joy to our enemies.” (page 76) Similarly, many on the left, including American socialists, are eagerly awaiting the downfall of the American empire, which some experts say may happen by the 2030s.

There’s also a sympathetic reading of the play, though, in which one pities the Persians; and after all, the whole point of tragedy is to arouse pity and terror, as well as to bring about the catharsis of those emotions. At least some Greeks in the audience must have felt that pity for Xerxes and Atossa, or else how could the play have won first prize in 472 BCE?

Certainly, we leftists can pity the Russians, who lost their great Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Neither I nor many leftists agree with Reagan’s projection that the USSR was an “evil empire”; though Maoists, during the time of the Sino-Soviet split, thought it was an empire. I see the USSR rather as a check against imperialism, though a flawed one.

In the end, we can see my paralleling of the play with modern problems, in a dialectical sense, with Will’s paralleling. And his thesis, with my negation, can undergo a sublation to give a deeper message about US imperialism: it destroys any attempts to end its evil, causing oceans of woe; then it will destroy itself, bringing karmic woe on itself.

Evil empire, indeed.

Aeschylus, Persians, a new translation by Mark Will, Cadmus and Harmony Media, 2018