Analysis of ‘Citizen Kane’

Citizen Kane is a 1941 film produced and directed by Orson Welles, and written by him and Herman J. Mankiewicz. It stars Welles in the title role, or Charles Foster Kane, with Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloane, George Coulouris, Ray Collins, and Agnes Moorehead.

It is regarded as not only one of the greatest films of all time, but by many as the greatest film of all time, with its distinctive cinematography, makeup, and narrative style being seen as way ahead of their time. Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland used deep focus and camera angles going upward to include ceilings in shots, even cutting into the floor to achieve such unusual angles. Makeup realistically conveyed aging in Kane and other characters shown over a span of decades; and the non-linear narrative showed Kane’s life in flashbacks, from multiple points of view.

Such tropes as a reporter seeking to uncover a mystery (in this case, the meaning behind Kane’s last word, “Rosebud”), and the retelling of the past from multiple points of view, have influenced such films as Velvet Goldmine. And like the mysterious pop star in that movie, Kane is a wealthy, powerful, and narcissistic man loved by many…and hated by many more.

While based mainly on right-wing newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Kane is a composite character based also on left-leaning newspaper man Joseph Pulitzer, and businessmen Samuel Insull and Harold Fowler McCormick, whose second wife, Ganna Walska, was a failed opera singer, like Kane’s second wife, Susan Alexander (Comingore). Since Hearst knew the movie would portray him in an unflattering light (How else would one portray a Nazi sympathizer who published such blatant falsehoods as the “Holodomor” in his newspapers?), he tried to stop the film from being made.

A link to famous quotes from the film can be found here.

The film begins, significantly, with a shot of a sign saying “No Trespassing” (as will be the ending shot). Next, we see a shot of Kane’s mansion, Xanadu, up high on a mountain in the background. The point of this beginning is to emphasize his ownership of private property, that he is a wealthy capitalist.

We see Kane in his last moments, with a closeup of his mouth as he whispers, “Rosebud” and drops a snow globe; then he dies, and we see an approaching nurse in the curved reflection of part of the shattered snow globe. To get close to Kane–something no one’s ever really done, not even his wives–is to know him, to know the connection between “Rosebud” and the winter scene of the snow globe: the sled of his childhood. The sight of the nurse in the snow globe’s reflection is symbolic of Kane’s narcissistic attitude towards other people–they are a mere reflection of himself, not independent entities unto themselves.

The narrative introduction to him and to his death is presented in an appropriate way: he was a newspaper man, so one should present his death in the form of newsreels and front-page articles. On the one hand, Kane–like Hearst–was a purveyor of sensationalistic yellow journalism; on the other hand, people today have an especial distrust of the mainstream media (90% of the American part of which is owned by six corporations, and which is internationally networked to serve the interests of the global capitalist class). These two considerations show that we should regard this media presentation of Kane’s death as a form of theatre, as artificial, as lies mixed in with truth.

For indeed, Kane’s whole life has been a cleverly sculptured lie. And since Kane is the personification of the mass media, this means that the film is, in large part, about media dishonesty. As Kane tells a reporter, “Don’t believe everything you hear on the radio.” Aptly ironic words from a producer of yellow journalism who then tells the reporter to read his newspaper instead.

Just as his life has been a lie, so is Xanadu. The film makes explicit the name of the mansion as a reference to Coleridge‘s “Kubla Khan” by quoting its first two lines in the newsreel. Kubla Kane, if you will, decreed a stately pleasure dome in Florida, his failed attempt at building paradise on earth, a huge mansion on a tall mountain reaching into the sky, suggestive of Babel.

He collected two of every animal on the earth to put in a zoo in Xanadu, suggestive of Noah’s ark, a symbolic attempt to bring man back from the sinful world and into Eden, part of his failed attempt at regaining paradise. Such extravagance reminds one of Michael Jackson’s animal collections, an eccentricity only the rich can afford.

Kane’s whole life has been an attempt to regain the paradise he lost as a child, that of parental love. No animals, statues, or mansion can replace such a loss, though. He has no one, nothing to look up to.

“Rosebud,” printed on his childhood sled, is an interesting choice of words. The sled glides on snow, whose coldness is suggestive of death and alienation, whereas the rosebud is suggestive of life and the warmth of human company. Therefore, a rosebud on top of death’s coldness is symbolic of his wish to maintain life and love over death and alienation, the carefree life of childhood over the dead conformity of adulthood.

In the scene of his childhood home in Colorado, young Charles is outside with his sled and throwing snowballs. Inside his home are his mother (Moorehead), his father, and Walter Parks Thatcher (Coulouris), who are discussing how the boy will inherit a huge fortune when he reaches twenty-five years of age; but he must immediately leave his parents to be taken care of by Thatcher until he comes of age and receives the money.

A good example of the use of deep focus in Citizen Kane is this scene, in which Mr. Kane is arguing with Mrs. Kane and Thatcher over the boy’s fate. All four characters, nearer and farther away on the screen, are equally in focus, suggesting what should be their equal importance. Since, however, the mining deed leading to the boy’s future fortune is in his mother’s name, the decision to give him over to Thatcher’s guardianship is hers alone, raising her importance over that of the others.

Accordingly, she and Thatcher are in the foreground in the shot, while Mr. Kane–whose wish to continue raising his son is being disregarded–is further back in the shot, and young Charles is the farthest back, behind the window and out in the snow, the one whose future and fate are being decided without his consent, the one whose emotional needs are not only being disregarded…they aren’t even being contemplated.

His well-meaning mother wants to ensure he’s financially as well-off as possible, but she’s oblivious to his emotional needs: to have the love of his mother and father at hand as he grows up. She has given no thought at all to the psychological scars she will be causing him through this unwitting emotional neglect.

Money can’t buy you love: that’s what Citizen Kane is all about.

According to Heinz Kohut‘s notion of the bipolar self, healthy psychological structure is established through two poles: one of narcissistic mirroring (the grandiose self), and one of an idealized parental imago. When one pole is compromised or frustrated, the other can compensate; when both poles are compromised or frustrated, the person in question is in danger of psychological fragmentation, against which the defence of pathological narcissism may be erected. Young Charles, wrested away from his parents and thus with neither a mirror for his grandiosity nor a parental role model to idealize, will resort to narcissism to keep from falling apart…until even his own narcissism won’t save him at the end of the film.

Added to these problems is his unresolved Oedipal conflict. (This being a 1941 film, when Freudian ideas were still in vogue, it is not out of place to analyze it with those ideas.) He asks his mother if she’ll leave Colorado with him, which of course she won’t. Since having him cared for by Thatcher is her idea, this is tantamount to little Charles’s being betrayed by the object of his Oedipal desire.

His father acquiesces to the situation, and when he speaks of little Charles’s leaving with Thatcher, he tries to put on a happy face, telling the boy that he’ll be rich. Mr. Kane’s giving in to Mrs. Kane’s and Thatcher’s wishes, therefore, is another betrayal to the boy. The result is that his parents have become what Melanie Klein called the bad mother and bad father, frustrating little Charles instead of giving what he wants and needs, as the good mother and father would do.

This parental betrayal, as the boy would see it, results in splitting, which when projected out into the world, would in turn result in a perception of the world as all good or all bad…Xanadu, or Thatcher. And because Thatcher is Charles’s new guardian, and will remain so until he reaches age twenty-five and can claim his fortune, Thatcher is receiving a transference of growing Kane’s Oedipal hostility to the bad father.

Young Kane goes to study in a number of prestigious universities, where he meets Jedediah Leland (Cotten), and where he’s expelled from each of them, presumably to spite Thatcher, and because his pathological narcissism is way out of control. Again, to spite Thatcher (with the utmost success), Kane goes into the newspaper business.

He takes over the floundering Inquirer, and resorts to yellow journalism to hurt the business interests of rich landlords and businessmen like Thatcher, again to spite him. Kane rationalizes his newspaper’s dubious reporting by claiming he’s defending the interests of the common working man against bloodsuckers like Thatcher…but we shouldn’t forget that Kane, as a capitalist, and a particularly narcissistic one at that, is no better. His attacks on Thatcher and his ilk are just that: part of his personal vendetta against the symbolic bad father who took Kane away from his good father and mother. Recall that the Oedipus complex is a narcissistic trauma, a wish to hog Mommy and Daddy all to oneself; yet Kane has had them snatched away from him by nothing less than the capitalist system itself.

At a party, Kane puts on a show with pretty young women dancers and a man singing all about how great Kane is. It’s his grandiosity all put on display, a presentation of his grandeur that’s as phoney as that of his “singer” second wife, Susan Kane, née Alexander (Comingmore), on whom he’ll later project that grandiosity.

Now as with any narcissist, this grandiosity of Kane’s is really just a front to disguise how empty he feels inside. His outer grandiosity and vanity have a dialectical relationship with his inner self-hate. As Kane is seen dancing like a ladies’ man with the girls, Leland and Bernstein (Sloane)–Kane’s business associates–are discussing him, among other things.

In another example of the effectiveness of deep focus to bring about symbolism, all three men are in the shot, equally focused on to represent what should be their equal worth; but Leland and Bernstein are in the foreground, and Kane is seen further back, in the window reflection with the dancing girls…just like the shot of him as a boy out in the snow while Mr. and Mrs. Kane discuss his fate with Thatcher. His narcissism is derived from the lack of empathy and love he got from his parents, who discussed him without involving him. The shot of Leland and Bernstein, discussing Kane without including him, symbolizes this ongoing reality of Kane’s object relations.

Other examples of scenes whose visual effects symbolize Kane’s grandiosity–as a disguise for how small he feels inside–include the shot of an aging Kane giving Thatcher financial control over his paper: Kane walks away from the camera towards windows that, at first, don’t seem large, but when he reaches them, we see they’re much larger…making Kane much smaller than he seems.

Another example is in Xanadu, by a fireplace, where he is arguing with Susan; he walks away from her and towards the fireplace which, by the time he reaches it, is seen as much larger than we thought. Yet another example is when Kane is typing and finishing Leland’s negative review of one of Susan’s performances: Kane seems huge in the foreground, but when Leland approaches, he isn’t comparatively all that big anymore.

Other examples of how the clever camerawork reinforces symbolic meaning include the upward angles, symbolizing Kane’s urge to find an ideal to look up to, someone or something to replace Kane’s long-lost idealized parental imago, or to gratify his narcissism by having us look up to him. One shot, looking up at Thatcher during Christmas when Kane is a boy, represents the idealized parental imago as spoiled, ruined, turned into the banker as the symbolic bad father substitute.

Elsewhere, Xanadu, that castle up on a mountain, is the ideal transferred onto a place, a new Eden linking Kane–or so he’d have it–to God the Father. The mirror reflections–of the nurse in the broken snow globe, Kane in the window reflection while Leland and Bernstein are chatting, and old Kane walking past a multiple mirror reflection–all symbolize his need to have his grandiosity mirrored back to him, to have others mirror empathy back to him…because he sees his worth only in terms of such mirroring.

The deterioration of his first marriage, to Emily Norton (played by Ruth Warrick), niece of the American president, is given expression through clever cinematography. First, the newlyweds are shown together at a table at breakfast and very much in love…or so it would seem. Kane, in serving her breakfast and carrying on about how beautiful she is and how much he’s in love with her, is just demonstrating the first phase of the idealize, devalue, and discard cycle of narcissistically abusive relationships.

The scene switches quickly over the years, showing the changing relationship of Kane and Emily at the table, with her complaining of his constant preoccupation with his newspaper and emotional neglect of her. He’s going into the devalue phase of the relationship. They’re filmed separately now, rather than together in the same shot.

Next, he speaks derisively of her uncle, to which she reminds her husband that her uncle is the president. Kane imagines this “mistake” will be “corrected one of these days.” On another occasion, he speaks of making people think “what [he] tell[s] them to think.” His mask of modesty is slipping; his narcissism is showing.

Finally, through a shot of the two sitting at the ends of their table, we see how estranged they’ve become towards each other. In fact, instead of talking, they’re reading newspapers: his, the Inquirer, and hers, the Chronicle.

The discard stage comes around the time when Kane hopes to be elected governor of the state of New York. He has been having an affair with Susan Alexander, and boss Jim Gettys, fearful of losing to Kane and being made vulnerable to charges of corruption from Kane, blackmails him with the threat of exposing his adultery if he doesn’t back out of the race.

Kane’s campaign as a “fighting liberal” and advocate for the common working man, as against corrupt Gettys, is more fakery on Kane’s part. His public image as a “friend of the working man” is an example of his narcissistic False Self; he, the future “landlord” of Xanadu, is as much a rapacious member of the ruling class as Gettys is. Kane’s campaign occurs fairly near the time that he, in Europe, has hobnobbed with Hitler and Franco. His later denunciations of them mean nothing: a true friend of the working man would never be friendly with fascists. Here’s an example of Kane as representing Hearst.

Thatcher, in his animus towards Kane, calls him a “communist” (as many right-wingers do to anyone who is even one or two millimetres to the left of them), in spite of how fake his sympathies with the working man are. Actual labour organizers denounce Kane as a “fascist.” Yet Kane, in his false modesty, just considers himself an American–hence the ironic title of the film.

In his associating with fascists, then denouncing them (only for the sake of his public image, of course), Kane is really just showing himself as a typical example of the shady liberal, who bends to the left or right depending on which way the political wind happens to be blowing at the time. Comparable examples include LBJ and his war on poverty, along with his escalation of the Vietnam War on the mendacious Gulf of Tonkin incident. Elsewhere, there’s when Obama spoke of wanting to “spread the wealth around” while on the campaign trail; then when president, he bailed out the banks, and helped with the coup d’état that kicked out pro-Russia Yanukovych from Ukraine and replaced him with a pro-Western government and paramilitary units with neo-Nazis!

To go back to his beginning relationship with Susan, Kane meets her when a coach has splashed mud all over his suit, and she laughs at him, causing him a narcissistic injury he keeps well under control, but lets out just enough to ask her why she’s laughing. She doesn’t know he’s a big newspaper tycoon, and she’s encountered him in a vulnerable state, like a mother with her little boy.

In her apartment, he likes how she, not knowing who he is, likes him just for himself; so he opens up to her, as a little boy might divulge his vulnerabilities to his mother. Kane speaks of meaning to head over to a warehouse holding old possessions of his from his childhood (which, by the way, include his “Rosebud” sled); he also mentions the death of his mother years ago. This divulging of his personal life to a pretty young woman he hardly knows, to a woman who charms him with her giggles and her toothache, is because of a transference of his Oedipal feelings for his mother onto Susan. In her, Kane has found a new ideal…

His forced defeat to Gettys (on whom, speaking of transferences, he’s shifted his hate of Thatcher), as well as the loss of his financial control over his newspaper businesses to Thatcher because of the Depression, means the pole of Kane’s grandiose self has taken a beating. As I said above about the bipolar self, though, Kane has the other pole, that of idealization, to compensate for his loss of narcissistic grandiosity.

…and this is where Susan, the would-be opera star, comes in.

Kane divorces Emily and marries Susan, planning to make her a great opera star; but in all of this, he’s just making her into an extension of himself (just as the narcissist has made “the working man” an extension of himself, people whom he’d gift with benefits, rather than people with rights they should have always had). Significantly, he says “we” will be an opera star, rather than she will be one. He thinks he owns her, just as (as Leland has observed) he thinks he owns the working man.

The particular problem here is, apart from Susan’s not really wanting to sing opera, that she simply isn’t talented enough. Still, Kane is fixated on making her a great opera singer, a fixation that begins when, on their first meeting, she mentions her mother having wanted her to sing opera; recall that here he’s just spoken of his mother’s death to her, too, and so this fixation is another of those elements that connects Susan to his Oedipal feelings for his long-lost mother, his original ideal.

Still, Susan can’t sing. Her singing teacher is frustrated with her inadequate voice to the point of throwing comical temper tantrums. She is especially incapable of the dramatic aspect of opera, for which Leland’s blunt review gets him fired by Kane. She cannot be his ideal…yet he won’t let her not be his ideal. As with Kane’s public persona and his newspaper, her ‘virtuosity’ is a lie.

Her suicide attempt forces Kane to accept her giving up on her singing. Their relationship continues to deteriorate after that. Her only way of passing the time half-way pleasurably is to do jigsaw puzzles, one of the first of which we see, significantly, is of a winter scene. Elsewhere, there’s the snow globe, which he first sees when he meets Susan.

When Jerry Thompson (played by William Alland), the reporter assigned to investigate the meaning of “Rosebud,” discusses at the film’s end how he’s never discovered that meaning (he himself is usually shrouded in shadows, implying that he’s the personification of Rosebud’s never-answered mystery), he speaks of Kane’s last word as a missing puzzle piece. Susan, the winter scene puzzle, the snow globe, the sled, and Kane’s mother back in snowy Colorado–they’re all interconnected.

When Susan finally leaves Kane, he falls apart because–having already lost the pole of grandiosity–he’s now lost the other pole, the compensating one of ideals. He, lacking psychological structure, fragments, like the pieces of a puzzle taken apart. By trashing the bedroom, he is trying to project outwards the tearing-apart of his inner world.

Kane’s loss of Susan, the ideal on whom he transferred his Oedipal feelings for his original ideal, his mother, has led him to contemplate the snow globe, whose winter scene and house remind him of his original Xanadu, his childhood home in Colorado, where he had the love of his parents, especially his mother. Losing Susan feels like losing Mother all over again; her leaving him is like Mother’s betraying signature on the dotted line and sending him away with Thatcher.

I’m guessing his mother bought him the sled. Even if not so, “Rosebud” symbolizes Kane’s objet petit a, what he chased for all his life–in the forms of the Inquirer, Emily, governor of New York, Xanadu, animals, statues, and Susan–but never got…his mother’s love.

Most of the Rest of My Pop Songs

Photo by Jessica Lewis on Pexels.com

Thanks to a wonderful friend of mine, a really kind Dutch woman named Gerda Hovius, I finally have access to most of the rest of the pop song recordings I published on the Jamendo website, where for some reason I cannot listen to or download them. She, having access to the Luxembourg website, emailed the recordings to me, so I could download them and post them on another music site called SoundClick. Thanks a million, Gerda!

On Jamendo, I had posted these songs in albums by the names of The Human Element, Meeting Places, and Infinite Ocean. There are only five songs I need to have emailed to me: “Meeting Place,” “Better,” “‘Til Divorce Do Us Part,” and “Lethargy,” from Meeting Places; and “Moonlit Strolls,” from Infinite Ocean.

In my previous posts, My Classical Music Compositions and Some Pop Songs I Wrote, I discussed all the other music I saved from Jamendo, music which can be found on SoundCloud, MixCloud, ReverbNation, and Jango (“Let Me Come In”). Now, all my pop songs–except, for now, the five mentioned in the previous paragraph–can be found on my page on SoundClick.

On all these pop song recordings, I sang all the vocals, played all the instruments, and did all the recording, mixing, and mastering. Please, Dear Reader and Listener…don’t hold this against me.

I’ll discuss these newly-saved songs in the order in which they appear on those three Jamendo albums. After “Let Me Come In,” the first track off my first pop album, The Human Element, came the song, “Resilient.” Like the song before it, “Resilient” has a synth/electronic drum background. It’s a song about being determined at self-improvement, despite the discouraging words I heard from my family and from classmates when I was a kid.

Grateful” is the first of a number of songs in which I, trying to find a distinctive sound, experimented with the influence of Balinese gamelan music. Instead of using the Indonesian metallophones, however, I used synthetic imitations, which I played on the keyboard, of xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, and tubular bells. Instead of bass and drums, I used a synthetic bassoon sound and played bongoes.

Unfortunately, when I recorded the songs for the first two albums, I didn’t really know what I was doing, as far as mixing and mastering is concerned (I was particularly clueless about compression); what’s worse, I no longer have the original master recordings (for reasons I won’t go into), so I can’t go back to them and correct my mistakes. What you hear is what you get, I’m afraid. I just hope, Dear Reader and Listener, that you’ll be patient and indulgent of the recordings’ many imperfections.

I didn’t mix my lead vocal track of “Grateful” well, so you’ll have difficulty making out the lyrics (except for the chorus and bridge, maybe); the song page has the lyrics printed out, though. Anyway, the song expresses my gratitude for being able to leave Canada and find work in East Asia, and for finding the woman I love and am married to. I’m doubly grateful for having distanced myself from my emotionally abusive Canadian family.

Freedom” is also about my gratitude in getting away from that abusive family, and it also has the gamelan-influenced sound, though it’s a more energetic song than “Grateful.” It is also inspired musically by King Crimson‘s “Thela Hun Ginjeet,” and it has a bassoon sound instead of bass, bongoes instead of drums, and Chinese temple blocks which I played in a 5/4 cross-rhythm to the 4/4 of the rest of the instrumentation.

Life Is a Dream (This Naïve Spell)” is a Latin-jazz tune composed at the acoustic guitar, similar to “Without You With Me.” Lyrically, it’s about the foolishness of idealistic dreaming about a perfect world. It’s mostly in 4/4 time, with a brief passage of two bars in 5/4 after each verse, the first bar being a fast single-note run on the guitar (doubled on the piano), and the second bar being harmonics (and electric piano).

The last two songs on The Human Element are “I Lie Alone” and “She Was a Funky Girl,” both of which I described on my previous post about my songs. So this leads me to a discussion of the songs on my second pop album (and my personal favourite, despite its imperfect mixing and mastering), Meeting Places.

The first track on that album was the electronic dance song, “Blow” (discussed previously), and the second track was “Meeting Place,” which as I mentioned above, I don’t have downloaded yet. This leads me to a discussion of the third track, “Regrets?

This song also has the gamelan-influenced sound, but it’s also inspired by a live version of “Once In a Lifetime,” by The Talking Heads. The tuned percussion sounds are in 6/8 time, in a cross-rhythm against the 4/4 played by the rest of the instrumentation (vocals, electric guitar, bassoon sound, recorders, harmonica, and percussion).

“Regrets?” is about the conflict that often exists between conservative parents, who want their kids to get high-paying jobs, and their kids, who’d rather pursue their dreams and become, for example, professional musicians. Where are the regrets–in being financially successful, but suffering in a soul-crushing, conformist job; or in being poor, but artistically fulfilled?

After “Better,” “‘Til Divorce Do Us Part,” and “Lethargy” (none of which I’ve downloaded yet) comes “Blues for the Abused,” a blues/jazz song I composed at the acoustic guitar, which is about my mourning over not having the loving family I needed as a child. The opening and ending chord progressions were inspired by Django Reinhardt‘s closing chord progression on “Souvenirs,” and the body of the song is inspired by a combination of Robert Johnson blues and the Queen song “Dreamer’s Ball.”

She Moves Me” is a love song I wrote for my wife. It’s partly inspired by the Queen song “She Makes Me (Stormtrooper in Stilettos),” and was composed at the acoustic guitar. I wish I’d sung it better, to be perfectly frank; I overdid the vibrato, making my pitch wobbly and unstable in the bass range.

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers” is about the exploitative internet porn business. In F-sharp major, it’s musically inspired by the Wham! song “Everything She Wants,” and Queen’s “Body Language.”

My third pop album, Infinite Ocean, opened with the naughty dance song, “Lucille,” followed by the more serious “Angelic Devils” (both songs were discussed in my previous post). After that came the album’s title track, which of course inspired the name of my blog.

The song has the gamelan-inspired tuned percussion sounds again, playing notes that ascend and descend, like the waves of the ocean. Recorders are played in 4/4, and the bassoon sound is in 5/8. These winds play pairs of rising and falling notes, also like the waves of the ocean. Their conflicting cross-rhythms are meant to symbolize cycles of life that each have different durations.

A high-pitched two-note phrase I played on an ocarina (an instrument I haven’t a prayer of mastering!) is heard during the chorus. I played a classical guitar during the bridge, and I did an electronic piano solo at the end.

The song is about the Brahman-like, pantheistic All that is the unity of the universe. The waves of the ocean, crests and troughs representing the thesis and negation of the material dialectic (the rising and falling representing the sublation), symbolizes the flowing back and forth of yin and yang.

My Cold Heart” was composed at the electric guitar, the 7/8 strumming of seventh chords in which thirds alternate with seconds (or ninths, if you prefer). The opening and middle instrumental sections have saxophone sounds playing a melody over paralleled minor seventh chords. The song is about my feelings of alienation from other people, brought on by the emotional abuse I suffered as a child. I wish I could be close to others, but I can’t.

Tribal Victory March” is a song whose lyrics express my anti-war sentiment ironically through the perspective of the leader of the victorious tribe (understood as a metaphor for any imperialist government of today). He says his army has vanquished “all of my,…our foes” (that was no error in my singing). The leader, or demagogue, representative of any president of today’s world (Bush, Obama, Trump, whoever you like), celebrates the violence and rape inflicted on an enemy he deems to be his nation’s enemy, rather than only his own and that of the ruling class. His people slavishly repeat his words, since they’re unable or unwilling to think for themselves.

Musically, the song was inspired by an African recording of a solo male voice alternating with a group of singers repeating his words; the singing is followed by the sound of a plethora of horns over a pounding rhythm. My song imitates these musical ideas in principle, but with my own harmonies (based on equal octave divisions [whole tone scale, octatonic scale, augmented triad, and the tritone], as in a number of my classical music compositions), my soloing on an acoustic guitar and on a recorder (in a whole tone scale).

The Happy Song” is probably my least successful song. I’m not happy with my singing on it (I’m bordering on, if not lapsing into, straining). I also attempt a scat-singing vocal solo that I’m not 100% sure of. Apart from that, the song imitates a 1930s/1940s jazz style, and it preaches a philosophy of happiness I don’t think I’ve practiced in any capacity. I include the recording here only for the sake of completeness, and I hope, Dear Reader and (at your own risk!) Listener, you’ll be kind in your judgement of it.

After “Moonlit Strolls,” the last of the five not-yet-downloaded songs, comes “Nothing to Fear,” which is musically influenced by soft, slow gamelan music, and is lyrically influenced by the quasi-Hindu mysticism of “Infinite Ocean.”

I’m Hip” is the one straightforward rock song I’ve recorded. I’m affecting a rock singer’s voice here, though I’m not sure if I succeeded. I back this up musically with distorted electric rhythm and lead guitars, harmonica, and bass and drum sounds I played on a keyboard. Lyrically, the song is about my escape from the mental imprisonment of my emotionally abusive past, so I need no longer think of myself as ‘less cool’ than other people.

Anyway, that’s all for now, musically speaking. If I can get someone to email me those other five songs, which I consider to be among the better ones, I’ll write up a blog post featuring them, with the recordings published (presumably) on SoundClick.

Analysis of ‘Seven Samurai’

Seven Samurai is a 1954 Japanese epic film directed by Akira Kurosawa, and written by him, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni. It stars Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Isao Kimura, and Daisuke Katō, with Keiko Tsushima, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Inaba, Yoshio Tsuchiya, and Minoru Chiaki.

It is widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, having a great influence on innumerable films after it. The Magnificent Seven is a 1960 cowboy adaptation of it. The assembling of the team of men to fight the villains, having originated in Seven Samurai, is a trope used by many films since, including even Marvel‘s Avengers. The climactic fight in torrential rain has been imitated in films like Blade Runner and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Quotes from Seven Samurai in English translation can be found here.

Though few will doubt the greatness of this film, many will find its length, almost three-and-a-half hours, daunting; and non-Japanese viewers may be bored with having to read the subtitles of a black-and-white film set in feudal Japan. So how can we help a young, Western audience used to the flash of contemporary action and superhero films appreciate this old classic? How can we get the current generation to relate to the predicament of its protagonists, peasants from a world long gone?

I believe we can achieve this by doing a Marxist allegory of the conflict between bandits and peasant farmers, who enlist the aid of samurai to stop the bandits from taking their food, as a conflict between capitalist imperialists, who invade Third World countries, and the oppressed poor of those countries, who need the aid of a revolutionary vanguard to stop the imperialists.

After all, what are the imperialist countries of the US and NATO, if not bandits who invade, bomb, and steal resources from other countries, as they have in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria? If the American imperialists don’t steal by direct means as these, they’ll do so through orchestrating coups d’état, as they have in countries like Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Chile in 1973, or the ultimately failed coup in Bolivia in 2019-2020.

Only through the organization of a vanguard political party could the Soviets have succeeded in repelling the White Army during the Russian Civil War, and in the Red Army‘s defeat of the Nazis during WWII. The peasant farmers in Seven Samurai are powerless against the bandits, who are armed not only with swords but also with muskets; just as the global proletariat is helpless against the imperial war machine, armed with state-of-the-art weapons technology…and with nukes. The proletarians of the global south need the leadership, training, weapons, and encouragement of a vanguard.

The film begins with the thundering hooves of the bandits’ horses as they approach the village of the peasants. Civil War in late 16th-century Japan has left the land lawless. Since Japan in my allegory is representative of our world today (recall that the film was made in 1954, when US imperialism was a big enough problem even then [e.g., the total destruction of North Korea during the Korean War, something Japan herself had experienced not quite even a decade before] to justify my allegory), the civil war can be seen to symbolize the current state of perpetual war, and its lawless disregard for the sovereignty of nations.

A peasant overhears the bandits discussing the plan to return to the village and steal the farmers’ barley once it’s harvested many months later. The peasant goes to tell the other villagers of the future danger, and they all plunge into grief and near despair.

The fear of a future attack can be compared to how Russians today must feel, with NATO activity near the Russian border; or to how Chinese must feel, with not only American military bases virtually surrounding their country in the shape of a giant noose, as John Pilger has described it, but also the US-backed provocations of the Hong Kong protestors, the American navy in the South China Sea, and the sale of over a billion dollars in weapons to Taiwan.

On top of this are the starvation sanctions imposed on North Korea, Venezuela, and Iran, and the continuous threats to their countries, as well as the economic embargo on Cuba and its recent labelling by Mike Pompeo, who freely admits to being a liar, as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Back to the film. While Manzō (played by Kamatari Fujiwara) suggests simply giving in to the bandits and hoping enough food will be left over so they’ll have enough to survive, one hot-headed peasant named Rikichi (Tsuchiya), angry because of a particular outrage (to be revealed later) done by the bandits against him the last time they attacked, wants to fight back. The willingness to acquiesce to the bullying bandits parallels how many today passively accept rising income inequality, endless wars, surveillance, and the piecemeal removal of all of our freedoms, while Rikichi’s hunger for revenge is comparable to those of us who know that revolution is the solution to today’s ills.

Other, more despairing peasants complain of land taxes, forced labour, war, droughts, and a useless, unsympathetic magistrate, and now there are bandits! These peasants wail that the gods never help them, and they wish just to die. Here we see parallels to today’s world, in which the middle classes are taxed up the kazoo rather than the rich; the government, which works for the rich, doesn’t care about the poor, and religion increasingly shows itself inadequate in giving us comfort.

The peasants decide to ask Gisaku (played by Kokuten Kōdō), a wise elder of the village, what he thinks they should do. He knows of a time when samurai saved peasants from a bandit attack, so he suggests finding samurai to help them. His declaration of the effectiveness of this plan is like a prophecy: thus he is like Marx, foreseeing the revolutionary uprising against our rich oppressors.

The peasants have no way of paying the samurai, though. All they have of value is their food. The old man suggests, therefore, that they find hungry samurai. We today must also find leaders who are as desperate as we are to help us free ourselves from oppression.

Millions of Americans find themselves jobless and in danger of being thrown out on the street; meanwhile, the wealth of the billionaire class continues to rise. They are today’s bandits, making peasants of us all.

Rikichi, Manzō, and their scouting party leave the village and go to a city in search of samurai, several of whom can be seen walking about with their sheathed swords. The peasants try asking a few for help, but are rebuffed by the arrogant samurai, who think it galling that lowly farmers would ask to hire men of their higher social class.

Since I consider the seven samurai who will help the peasants to represent the vanguard, these unwilling samurai can be seen to represent those more snobbish leftist academics and intelligentsia who would rather talk the Marxist talk than get their hands dirty and be in touch with the working class. Similarly, Trotsky didn’t think much of peasants, as contrasted with the sympathetic attitude of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao toward them.

And since we learn, later in the film, that samurai have actually attacked peasant villages, we can compare these arrogant samurai to the class traitors among the would-be vanguard, like Trotsky, Khrushchev, etc. This arrogance leads us to a discussion of one of the central themes of Seven Samurai: pride/honour vs. humility/shame, and the dialectical relationship between the two.

The peasants’ fortunes change when they encounter an aging rōnin willing to rescue a boy being held hostage by a thief in a small house. This samurai, named Kambei Shimada (Shimura), cuts off his chonmage (deemed a shocking degradation for a samurai) and dresses in a monk’s robes to trick the thief into thinking Kambei won’t hurt him.

Upon killing the thief and saving the boy, Kambei wins the admiration of all witnessing the rescue. He’s humbled himself by shaving his head and pretending to be an unassuming monk, but in doing so, he’s also raised his status among his onlookers to such a point that not only do the peasants hope for his help against the bandits, but the young son of a samurai named Katsushirō (Kimura) bows before him and begs him to let the boy be his disciple.

We see more of the dialectical unity of opposites when, after Kambei–humbly denying his greatness as a warrior (i.e., he’s typically lost battles)–refuses to be Katsushirō’s master, we see proud, buffoonish Kikuchiyo (Mifune) claim he’s a samurai; then Kambei, not wanting the boy to be influenced by such a fool, becomes his master.

At this point, it is apposite to explore how the characters compare and contrast with each other. These are fully-rounded characters, each with his or her share of faults, but still sympathetic and likeable.

Kambei is wise, reserved, and humble, but still able to laugh and be merry. Katsushirō is naïve, inexperienced, and eager to find men to look up to and idealize, and the handsome boy’s youthful passion allows him to be distracted by the charms of Manzō’s pretty daughter, Shino (Tsushima); but he has a noble heart, and he fights bravely.

Kikuchiyo may be a loud-mouthed ass who acts impulsively and earns the ridicule of the samurai far too often, but he also earns our sympathy when we learn that he was a peasant who lost his family in a samurai raid; and when he fights bravely and sacrifices his life to kill the leader of the bandits in the final battle, he earns our respect.

Rikichi is quick to anger, especially when the samurai tease him about needing a wife. He takes offence to these taunts because, as we learn later in the film, during the previous raid, the bandits abducted his wife (played by Yukiko Shimazaki) and made her their concubine.

Manzō is absurdly over-protective of Shino. Fearing she’ll be a target of samurai lust, he insists on cutting her hair short (making her feel dishonoured in a way comparable to how one would think Kambei would feel after his shaving of his head) and making the samurai think she’s a boy. Manzō’s patriarchal pride turns to shame when he sees his greatest fears realized: Katsushirō has seduced her. The shame is Manzō’s, though, not the young lovers’, for Katsushirō doesn’t see her as a mere plaything…he’s in love with her, and her foolish father doesn’t want to accept it.

So in these, and in all the other protagonists, there is a humanity that inspires sympathy in us and justifies the length of the film, for we learn to care about them. When we consider who these characters represent in my allegory, our caring for them can inspire us to care about the poor all over the world. These characters all have their needs, desires, hopes, fears, and pain, just as the global proletariat do, however invisible they may be to us in the First World.

Our introduction to the stoic master swordsman, Kyūzō (Miyaguchi) is another opportunity to see the dialectical relationship between pride/honour and humility/shame. Kyūzō tests his abilities with another man in an open area, but they use lances. Kyūzō says he struck first, while the other man insists it was a tie, and he is so offended with the pride he projects onto Kyūzō that he challenges him to a swordfight.

Kyūzō warns him not to be foolish, but the proud opponent won’t take no for an answer. They fight with swords this time; Kyūzō’s opponent is loud, blustery, and ostentatious in his aggression, as against Kyūzō’s quiet poise and calm. Predictably, Kyūzō strikes first and kills the man.

Kambei and the peasants would have such a skilled swordsman join their cause, but he joins them only after a period of time to consider it. Kambei’s old friend and comrade, Shichirōji (Katō), joins them, as does good-natured Gorōbei (Inaba) simply because he finds Kambei an intriguing fellow samurai to work with.

Another example of nobility in humility is when Gorōbei meets Heihachi (Chiaki), a samurai of moderate ability who is willing to chop wood for an elderly man in exchange for food. These are the kind of people one wants for a vanguard: not careerists or opportunists who will drop us at the first sign of promotion or higher pay, but who understand the nobility of helping the poor for its own sake.

Near at hand is Kikuchiyo, who has been following the samurai and insists on joining them. His pride shifts dialectically into shame when he produces a scroll purportedly of his samurai lineage, though the name “Kikuchiyo” on the scroll indicates someone who’d be thirteen years of age as of the time of our story, not the actual thirty-something samurai wannabe.

Nonetheless, he is accepted into the group, if only because his asinine behaviour amuses the others; and so the group of seven samurai is complete. Indeed, when it is announced to the villagers that the samurai have arrived, and the villagers–under the paranoid, anti-samurai influence of Manzō–are afraid to come out of their huts and meet their seven visitors, Kikuckiyo sounds the village alarm, suggesting a bandit raid, and the villagers come out, begging the samurai to protect them. He has thus shown his usefulness.

Three samurai look over a map of the village and surrounding area, planning how they will defend it from a bandit attack. Shichirōji will have a fence made to block the western entry point, the southern entry will be flooded, and a bridge will be destroyed to prevent entry from the east. This use of tactics is paralleled by the use of theory by Marxists: without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement, something many on the left fail to understand.

The vanguard is also typically not appreciated by many on the left, just as the samurai aren’t initially appreciated by the peasants. Many on the left, if not most of them, sadly, believe the bourgeois lies and propaganda vilifying Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, failing to put the problems of the years of their leadership in their proper political and economic contexts; it’s assumed that the vanguard are the same as any other power-hungry group of politicians and demagogues.

Similarly, the villagers, having listened to Manzō, are afraid their daughters will be used by the samurai for their sexual sport, or are afraid that these seven samurai are no better than the typical, arrogant, predatory samurai. These forms of dissension are as bad for the peasants as is the danger of the bandits; just as the anti-communist left is as bad for the global poor as the capitalists are.

Another difficulty the samurai must deal with is their inability to defend the three outlying buildings. The core twenty in the centre are the priority, but those villagers living in the outlying areas don’t want to accept having to give up their homes and move into and crowd the centre.

In fact, while Kikuchiyo tries to raise the morale of the villagers by joking about the men giving their wives some loving that night, those villagers from the outer areas get angry and try to walk out. Kambei scolds them and, threatening them with his sword, makes them return.

Here we learn an important message about solidarity. We can’t repel imperial invasions and capitalist plunder without a unified working class and peasantry helping each other. Dissension among the various factions of the Soviets in the early 1920s, during a dangerous time when capitalist encirclement threatened the end of the USSR, forced the vanguard to be authoritarian.

Still, most of the Soviets backed their government, and poll after poll since the USSR’s dissolution has shown that a majority of Russians consider life under the Soviet system to have been a happier one than the current capitalist one in their country. Similarly, in the movie, the peasants come to love and appreciate the protection they get from the samurai.

After the intermission, we see the peasants harvesting the barley in the fields, and Kikuchiyo is eyeing the young women workers lustfully. Rikichi gets offended at some banter from Heihachi about getting a wife. That night, Heihachi talks to Rikichi about what’s troubling him and tries to get him to open up, which he won’t do, for he’s too ashamed to let the samurai know his wife has been abducted to be used to satisfy bandit lust.

Still, part of solidarity is the need for open communication among comrades, something difficult to achieve when there’s so much alienation caused by class conflict. Though the world depicted in Seven Samurai is that of late 16th century feudal Japan, the class conflict of such a world is easily compared with that of the modern world of capitalism. For as Marx stated in The Communist Manifesto, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

The conflict between feudal lords and peasants is clearly paralleled with the conflict between bourgeois and proletarians. Poverty and want compels many to commit theft in order to live, hence the bandits, as well as all the crime we witness in modern capitalist society. Providing for people’s basic needs–food, shelter, health care, education, employment, etc.–would reduce the compulsion to commit crimes to a minimum…except that the capitalists, who exploit workers and get rich off their value-producing labour, are the greatest bandits of all, and won’t allow for the needed provision.

Back to the film. Three bandits are spotted in the hills and, later, looking through the fence onto the village. Kikuchiyo opens his big mouth, endangering the village by revealing to the bandits that samurai are there to defend it. Kyūzō, Kikuchiyo, and Katsushirō are tasked with leaving the village and catching the three bandits before they can tell the others.

Kambei instructs Katsushirō only to watch the other two men catch the bandits. He lies hiding among the flowers while Kikuchiyo is up in a tree, ready to pounce on a bandit, and Kyūzō is sitting at the foot of the tree, hiding behind it and meditating as the three bandits approach.

In his meditation, Kyūzō is demonstrating No Mind, or wuxin. By emptying his mind of all distracting thoughts, he is embracing the void that dialectically encompasses nothing, or No-thing, and the Brahman-like everything, or what I would call the Infinite Ocean. This focus gives Kyūzō the connection to divinity needed to be ready to strike and kill without missing his target. The wise, in doing nothing, leave nothing undone, as it says in the Tao Te Ching.

When the bandits appear, Kyūzō strikes down and kills two of them, while Kikuchiyo falls on and captures the third, who–bound–is taken back to the village and forced to disclose the location of the bandits’ hideout. The villagers want to kill him, something to which the samurai are opposed; but an old woman whose son has been killed by the bandits wants her revenge (as does Rikichi, of course), so the samurai reluctantly allow her to have it.

Now Rikichi, Heihachi, Kikuchiyo, and Kyūzō go off to find the hideout. It’s burned down, with many bandits killed, but Rikichi discovers his wife-turned-concubine there, too; too ashamed to return with him, she runs into the flames and dies. In an attempt to rescue Rikichi, Heihachi is mortally wounded in the fighting, and his death compounds Rikichi’s grief.

Immediately after the burial and mourning of Heihachi, the bandits attack. It is discovered that they have three muskets, so the samurai and peasants must be careful. Kikuchiyo foolishly taunts the users of the muskets, and he’s lucky not to be shot by any of them.

Those who own the three outlying houses are not so lucky, though, for the bandits burn down those houses in revenge for the burning down of their hideout. The old man, Gisaku, is too stubborn to leave his house, so he dies in the fire. A mother who has been speared stays alive just long enough to save her baby. Kikuchiyo takes the child and wails in grief, for he is reminded of how he and his family suffered the exact same fate when he was a child.

In the context of my Marxist-Leninist allegory, the bandits’ reprisal, as well as the suffering it causes, is a symbolic reminder of the constant danger of counterrevolution, that with every small victory can come new threats from those who would try to restore the oppressive, predatory old way of doing things. This danger is what forces socialist states to take harsh measures to defend themselves.

The three muskets represent a superior form of technology (in today’s world, that would be nuclear weapons) that must be appropriated–not for attack, but for self-defence. People in the West often decry the ‘danger’ that the DPRK supposedly poses with its nuclear weapons programme, while hypocritically oblivious to the double-standard that indulges Western possession of such weapons (England, France, surely Israel, and the one country to use them to kill people, the US). Socialist states like the USSR and Mao’s China needed nuclear weapons to deter a Western attack, not to attack the West, as is popularly assumed.

Similarly, the samurai know that they need to get their hands on those muskets, so Kyūzō runs off to get one. His success awes Katsushirō, who gazes in admiration at a swordsman so humble that he doesn’t even seem to understand why the boy is idolizing him so much.

Later, Katsushirõ tells Kikuchiyo about how impressive he finds Kyūzō; the fool pretends he couldn’t care less, but he secretly envies the swordsman, and in his pride, Kikuchiyo goes off to the bandits to steal another musket. He too succeeds, having disguised himself as a bandit and tricking one who has the second firearm. When Kikuchiyo proudly returns to the village with the musket, though, Kambei’s reaction to his recklessness is only anger.

Here again we see the film’s dialectical presentation of the relationship between pride/honour and humility/shame. Kyūzō gets a musket, but not for his own personal glory; he does so out of duty. Hence, he is admired by Katsushirō. Kikuchiyo covets that admiration, and in doing the same thing as Kyūzō, though with selfish motives, he is shamed.

With each ensuing battle, many bandits are killed, and we see Kambei paint Xes in the circles representing the bandits on a sheet of paper. He does so with a mix of satisfaction and sadness, for with these killings of bandits, there have also been deaths on their own side, in particular, the deaths of Gorōbei and timid, simple old Yohei.

Despite having been verbally abused as stupid and weak throughout the film, Yohei dies (with an arrow in the back) honourably, having bravely helped defend the village as best he could. (Earlier, we see Yohei, having speared a bandit, in an absurd pose of paralytic shock, his mouth agape at its jaw-cracking widest.) Again, humility/shame and pride/honour are dialectically united.

Also, the deaths on both sides can be seen to symbolize, on the one hand, the progressive erasure of class differences (the bandits, understood as personifying the predatory bourgeoisie), and on the other, the withering away of the state, as personified by the seven samurai as vanguard.

The samurai must prepare for the final confrontation with the remaining bandits, which will happen on a morning of heavy rain. The night before, tensions are high in anticipation of the morning’s danger, and a furious Manzō has discovered his daughter in a tryst with Katsushirō.

Manzō beats her and publicly shames her, but the other samurai try to get him to forgive her, explaining that the tensions of the moment can provoke reckless behaviour. Rikichi scolds Manzō, saying there’s nothing wrong with being in love; at least Shino wasn’t raped by the bandits, as Rikichi’s wife was.

In this night of wild emotions, we see the opposite of the wuxin mindset that is ideal for preparation for battle. Instead of emptying one’s thoughts to find one’s connection with the divine, one is overwhelmed with one’s preoccupations, leading to confusion and raising the level of danger.

The rainy morning of the battle, however, finds the samurai and peasants in a focused mindset; it’s as if the passions of the preceding night have purged them of preoccupations, causing a dialectical shift from extreme distraction to extreme focus; it’s as if they’ve all learned from the foolishness of Manzō’s anger. (Recall his previous worries about Shino being seduced by a samurai, and Gisaku telling him how foolish it is to fear for one’s whiskers when one’s head is to be cut off.) One might think a torrential downpour would be irritating and distracting, but our protagonists don’t allow themselves to be swayed by such discomfort in the least.

The bandits are clearly losing, one of them having fallen off of his saddle and being dragged in the mud by his horse. Still, the leader of the bandits has the last musket, and like a coward, he hides in a house with the screaming women of the village, whom he threatens to kill if they make more noise.

He shoots and kills Kyūzō, enraging Katsushirō and Kikuchiyo, the latter racing after the villain in the house and getting mortally wounded himself. Still, the dying man proves his worth in the end and stabs the bandit before falling to the ground himself. Kambei tells Katsushirō they’ve won; all the bandits are killed. The boy wails in anguish, though, for he never got his chance to avenge Kyūzō.

On a pleasant, sunny day afterwards, we see the peasants planting crops in the fields and playing celebratory, victory music, with Rikichi–smiling, for a change–chanting and playing a drum, and Manzō playing a flute. The three surviving samurai–Kambei, Shichirōji, and Katsushiro–are standing by the burial area of their fallen comrades and frowning. Shino passes by and snubs Katsushirō, for the patriarchal influence of her father has made her too ashamed to continue her romance with him, however much he sill loves her, and doesn’t care about their class differences.

Kambei sadly observes that the victory belongs to the peasants, not to the samurai. In the context of my allegory, this makes sense, for in spite of the anti-communist slanders about a vanguard’s supposed hunger for power, the vanguard–as symbolized by these seven samurai–really want to have the power to end hunger. The battle was never about glorifying the higher-caste samurai; it was about liberating the peasants, as is the vanguard’s intention for the working poor of the world.

This understanding should be our response to critics’ allegation of Kurosawa’s ‘elitism.’ Though it is more than safe to assume that Kurosawa was nowhere near being a communist, making my Marxist allegory seem out of place, he was a more progressive writer/director than he seemed. Having seen only Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, and Ran, I can’t speak with any measure of authority on most of his films; but in the case of this one, the presentation of social class and sex roles isn’t meant as a defence of the old traditions, but as a critique of them.

Remember that his heroic samurai are the exception, not the rule, in this film. Most of the samurai are arrogant, and it’s known that they are often the attackers, rather than the defenders, of peasants, who are regarded most sympathetically, in spite of how bumbling they are often portrayed. For these reasons, I consider the critics’ charging of Kurosawa of elitism to be invalid, at least with regard to Seven Samurai. In any case, his one non-Japanese language film, Dersu Uzala, was partly Soviet-financed, so I doubt that he was all that inimical to the more egalitarian leanings of socialism.

The analysis and interpretation of a film needn’t strictly conform to what its auteur has said about it, since–as I’ve learned from psychoanalysis–unconscious meaning can be expressed through parapraxes, revealing intent far removed from what the creator has explained in interviews. Therefore I stand by my leftist interpretation, especially since I believe it can inspire new viewers of Seven Samurai to apply its notions of heroism and sacrifice to today’s problems.

Loving Families Don’t Drag You Down

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One thing that the family scapegoat, or identified patient, may find remarkable–when comparing his (or her) relationship with his toxic family to other people’s relationships with their far healthier families–is the conspicuous lack of affection the former has for his or her family, as against the healthy affection felt in normal families.

Now, something that the scapegoat has, which the flying monkeys of the toxic family don’t have, is an honest view of the lovelessness of that family. The narcissistic parents and their flying monkey sons and daughters boast of how ‘loving’ they are as a family; but such boasting is really just reaction formation, used as a cover for the family dysfunction that is their reality.

We scapegoats know that love is not just something in words–it’s mainly in actions. The toxic family can say they ‘love’ the scapegoat over and over again until they’re blue in the face, but the scapegoat who is wise to them won’t believe a word of it.

The reason we don’t believe these empty professions of love is because those who have ‘loved’ us so much keep dragging us down. Yes, even the best of families have their share of conflicts and frustrations between members, but there is no systematic degrading of one member by the others.

One way I often got dragged down by my family was that I was constantly infantilized by them. They would talk down to me as if I were an idiot, speak condescendingly to me as if I–for a long time already an adult–were ten years old, and treat my attempts to stick up for myself as if I was being ‘mouthy.’

This is one way a toxic family can retain power over the scapegoat: by making him or her feel like an eternal, overgrown child. This way, the victim feels overawed by the victimizers, never able to see past their illusory authority, and never able to fight back and free him- or herself.

If your family truly loves you, they want to help you rise as high as possible. They celebrate your every success, and they empathize with and comfort you whenever you experience a setback, failure, or otherwise heartbreaking moment.

When toxic families do these good things for you, it’s the exception, not the rule, which is, as I’ve said above, dragging you down. Healthy families dragging you down, on the other hand, is the exception to the rule…which is raising you up.

No, no family is completely good or completely evil; but the healthy ones are predominantly good, and the toxic ones are predominantly evil. So, when in an argument with your toxic family, if they mention their good moments with you, which they’ll do to manipulate you, confuse you, and guilt-trip you into falling back in line and believing their b.s., remember that those ‘good moments’ are the minority, and that they fade into insignificance compared with the many more bad moments.

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Instead of celebrating my successes, my late, probably narcissistic mother tended to find ways to drag me down. Back when I was in grade four, and I was getting my first As in school, I was naturally proud to tell my parents about my new achievement; but this was around the time she started spouting off about my supposed autism. (Read here to learn about my mother’s autism lie in detail, and how I came to the conclusion that my childhood ‘diagnosis’ was all a fabrication of hers.)

In the form of a kind of back-handed compliment, she would claim that my new academic success was a manifestation of a “miracle from God” that I’d been pulled out of a state of extreme retardation (associated with ‘my autism’) to become a reasonably intelligent person. Her plan had always been to make me feel, somehow, behind everyone else. It was gaslighting at its most brutal.

Even if I really had an autism spectrum disorder, be it a mild one like Asperger Syndrome (AS) or the more severe kind she’d claimed I had, any reasonable mother who loves her child would never tell him or her that this academic success was a “miracle”: she’d just say she was proud of him. She wouldn’t prate on and on about psychiatrists recommending locking him or her up in an asylum and throwing away the key (as my mom did to me), even if the shrinks had really recommended that! My mother would have known that the psychiatrists were wrong in their judgement, and she would have tried to encourage me as best she could.

She wouldn’t have said that she wasn’t sure if I would have made a good garbageman, as she did (I’m actually a teacher). She’d have had the common sense…and the love for me…to think to herself, He doesn’t need to know what they said about him. Telling him what they said would be harmful to him.

But none of what my mom said to me was about love (though she certainly pretended she was speaking out of love!) or about common sense. It was about tricking an impressionable child into believing he was inferior to his siblings and to everyone else around him. The “miracle” had just made me a little less inferior…and I should be thankful to God for that, apparently.

Her intentions were all about dragging me down, for she didn’t want me to get any higher.

Now, that one time in my childhood was the first major time that my mother dragged me down when I was rising up. The second major time she did this was twenty to twenty-five years later, when I’d proven myself a successful, capable English teacher in East Asia, and I was about to marry my Taiwanese girlfriend, Judy. Mom decided to revive discussion of ‘my autism’ in the form of AS.

Since my life had already improved to the point where she couldn’t reasonably sustain an argument that I had ever been mentally incompetent, and since talk of miracles from God would have sounded inane to the ears of a man in his early thirties, my mom knew she had to modify her lies to make them plausible in the context of my new life situation. Hence, she shifted from talking about classical autism to the mild, socially inept form of Asperger Syndrome.

Still, it had the same effect of dragging me down: she could remind me of how awkward I was as a kid, reawaken those old feelings of pain and insecurity in me, watch me get upset, then enjoy her new source of narcissistic supply.

God forbid that I should ever cross the line and build self-confidence! The very idea that I should ever feel as though I fit in with other people was anathema to her. Small wonder she smiled like a Cheshire cat when she said that I, as a teen, had the maturity of a small child, as a young adult, had the maturity of a teen, and as a then-33-year-old, had the maturity of a 23-year-old. I was infuriated; but I’ll bet she thoroughly enjoyed making me feel that way.

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The fact that I was going to marry Judy and never go back to live in southern Ontario must have been at least a huge part of Mom’s motive to drag me down like that. By no longer living near her and the rest of the family, I would no longer be controlled by them, the way they’d once controlled me, back when I was a kid living in Canada.

Mom wanted that power and control back, as did my older sister, J., Mom’s golden child and ‘mini-me,’ so using AS to stir up my old insecurities and make me feel emotionally dependent on them was a desperate, last-ditch attempt to hoover me back into the dysfunctional family relationship.

Mom, of course, wasn’t the only one in the family to drag me down. As I said above, J. was a huge contributor to the problem, always rationalizing her attitude, as Mom did, with claims that she was ‘only trying to help‘ me.

During a visit to Canada that I’d made with Judy back in about the late summer of 2001, we were all at a picnic. I had made a preference of drinking one particular drink (orange soda, as I recall), and J. decided to nag me for drinking so much of it that there’d be too little left for anyone else. I don’t think anyone else there really cared, but J. couldn’t resist making 31-year-old me feel like a 10-year-old.

As I discussed in a previous post (scroll down to Part VI), on that day at the picnic, J. also expressed distaste at the idea of me marrying Judy. Did J. think her disapproval was going to deter me from marrying the woman I love? Does J. think my marrying Judy has been the decisive factor in my not returning to Canada, when it is my family’s toxic nature that is the real decisive factor?

By hoping I wouldn’t marry Judy and would return to Canada, J. was trying to drag me down. She failed.

Another dragging-down that I experienced, back in my teens, was because of my eldest brother, R. I’ve written before of the long rant he gave about our father supposedly loving us more or less based on our academic performance. It was an absolutely nonsensical belief R. had (he having been in his early to mid twenties at the time, so one would have expected a more mature attitude from him), one I suspect our mother planted in his head when he was a kid; Dad was just trying, in his dysfunctional way, to push us to work harder at school (by shaming us, sadly, if we failed), and getting disappointed when we didn’t do better.

Anyway, as an ego defence against R.’s belief that we all thought he was “the idiot of the family” for having quit high school back in the mid-70s, he claimed that he’d known many who got high marks at school, and who were “absolute idiots.” Now granted, it was a fault of mine at the time to allow myself to be unduly influenced by the opinions and flippant attitudes of others, but I was just a kid then. R. made me believe that there was no reason to take any pride in my academic success, so I lost much of my motivation to work hard at school, thus limiting my job prospects after graduating.

My doing well at school was one of the few things I had in my teens to feel good about, and this was with Mom’s nonsense about ‘my autism,’ and her supposed worries of having to continue to take care of a ‘forty-year-old moron’ (yes, she described me with that last word) in the far-off future. R’s bruised ego was more important to him than his youngest brother’s already fragile self-confidence, and he dragged me down even further, as Mom had been doing.

The times that my other elder brother, F., dragged me down were too numerous to count, and so varying in their bullying and sadism that I hardly know where to begin listing them off. Trauma tends to make one forget many of the bad memories, so I tend to repeat the same ones over and over again. Suffice it to say, along with all the verbal abuse he (as well as that of Mom, Dad, R., and J.) had subjected me to on a regular, almost daily basis, F. was the one who got physical with me: hitting me, spitting on me, threatening beatings or (on one night) to throw me outside in the Canadian winter cold (remember that I was a kid at the time: he was much bigger than I), and so many other degradations that to him were “fun.”

Photo by Fahmy Danar Sutisna on Pexels.com

The long-term psychological effects of bullying and childhood adversity have been extensively studied. The research shows that children subjected to this kind of emotional abuse suffer all kinds of problems, not only a lack of self-esteem, but also from problems relating to other people, trust issues, emotional dysregulation, and escape in such forms as maladaptive daydreaming.

The family would attribute these problems of mine to ‘my autism,’ with no empathy for me, but instead with a judgemental attitude, never taking any responsibility for the huge role they played in causing these problems. (To be fair to them, no, they weren’t responsible for all of the problems, but they were responsible to enough of an extent that they should have, but of course essentially never, acknowledged their role, and should have shown a sincerely apologetic attitude.)

My father, though not really part of the narcissist collective that the other four made up, was a seriously flawed man who dragged me down in other ways than they did. He rarely defended me against the attacks of the other four, and rarely sympathized with me over the problems they caused for me. His biggest fault, though, was his right-wing thinking, with all the attendant bigotries; and he taught me, in my youth, to think in those ways, from the mid-1990s to the late 2000s.

So while I didn’t directly suffer narcissistic abuse from him, I did suffer emotional abuse from him in the form of psychological corrupting–in this particular case, him teaching me his prejudices. Though I, in my initially liberal attitude, resisted, I eventually succumbed to an agreement with his mean-spirited attitude, through having heard an ongoing repetition of his slurs on blacks, women, socialism, etc. Those fifteen-odd years were truly lost years for me, his having dragged me down to such a base way of thinking that I now deeply regret.

His death back in 2009, I must say at the risk of sounding terribly unfilial, was a liberating moment for me, since I no longer felt I needed his approval for my beliefs. Consequently, I did something I never thought I’d ever do: go from the political centre-right to the far left, as you can surmise from my other blog posts.

So my message to you, Dear Reader, is this. Do you find yourself sitting on the fence with respect to your relationship with your family? If you feel frequently hurt by them, but you’re still not sure if the bad times are such that you consider the good times not worth putting up with the bad, ask yourself if the times they drag you down are the majority, or just the minority. Is their dragging you down more significant than their raising you up, or vice versa?

The answers to these questions should determine whether or not to go no contact with them.

Analysis of ‘Johnny Got His Gun’

Johnny Got His Gun is a 1938 anti-war novel written by Dalton Trumbo, published the following year, and adapted into a 1971 film, which was also written and directed by him (with an uncredited writing collaboration from Luis Buñuel). The film stars Timothy Bottoms, with co-stars Kathy FieldsMarsha HuntJason RobardsDonald Sutherland, and Diane Varsi.

The book was temporarily taken out of print several times, when such wars as WWII and the Korean War broke out; for the book’s anti-war sentiment was deemed inappropriate at those times. Having been a member of the Communist Party USA during WWII, Dalton agreed to the non-printing of his novel, as long as the Soviet Union remained allies with the US against the Nazis during the war. As for the far right, isolationists among them sent Trumbo letters asking for copies of the book while it had been out of print. He reported the letter-writers to the FBI, but it turns out the FBI was far more interested in him, a leftist, than in the rightist writers.

The novel tells the story through a third-person subjective, or limited, narration, meaning we get the story from the protagonist’s point of view, that of Joe Bonham (played by Bottoms in the film). This means that the perspective of the medical staff is given only in the film adaptation. Other differences between novel and film include the rearrangement of some scenes into a different order, and the inclusion of scenes in the film with Christ (Sutherland) generally having been written by Buñuel (assuming IMDb is trustworthy here), although the scene of Christ playing cards with Joe, the redhead, the Swede (played by David Soul), and the other soldiers is in the novel (Book II, Chapter 16), and around 27-30 minutes into the film.

The film was originally a modest success, but became a cult film after Metallica‘s video for their songOne,” which included scenes from the film, revived interest in it. In fact, Metallica bought the rights to the film so they could use scenes from it in their video without having to pay royalties on it.

Links to quotes from the film can be found here.

Joe Bonham, a young American soldier in WWI, has been severely injured from the blast of an artillery shell, rendering him limbless, eyeless, deaf, and without a nose, tongue, or teeth. To make matters worse, the army medical staff taking care of him, not knowing who he is (three minutes into the film), and mistakenly thinking he’s decerebrated from his injuries, assume that he feels no pain or pleasure, and that he has no memories or dreams; so they keep him alive for medical research.

Joe gradually comes to the horrifying realization that all that’s left of him are his torso, genitals, and mutilated head (from Chapter 3 onward), with only the sense of touch left to link himself with the world, and with his consciousness intact to realize the virtually hopeless state that is the remainder of his natural life. This is alienation in the extreme, as only war can cause it.

The medical staff are keeping him alive so they can study him, the rationalization being that such study can be a help to future injured soldiers. When he realizes fully what’s been done to him, he’d like to kill himself by cutting off his own breathing, but he can’t, because the staff have him breathing through tubes directly connected to his lungs (Chapter 5, pages 28-29).

So, the overarching theme of the story is loss, lack. Joe has lost not only all the body parts that can make him useful, help him to enjoy the company of other people, or give his life meaning; not only has he lost his will to live and his faith in God (especially by the end of the story); but he has lost the very ability to end his life.

Normally, desire is aroused by a stimulation of the senses, so we’d think that a lack of those senses might cause one to be able to resist the sensual temptations of the world and attain peace, nirvana; but Joe is someone used to the physical pleasures of the world, to the enjoyment of relationships with other people, so being deprived of all of that, all of a sudden, is something he cannot accept. His is a Lacanian lack giving rise to desire: a desire to be useful to others, to be recognized and acknowledged by others, to be wanted by others (e.g., his girlfriend, Kareen [Fields]).

How can he be worth anything to anybody (other than that impersonal medical staff who are exploiting him for their own purposes) in his mutilated state? As a quadruple amputee with his face blown off, he’s been symbolically castrated, though, ironically, his genitals are still intact (Joey’s got his gun), they being the symbol of desire par excellence. Instead of letting go of his desires, which would lead to nirvana, he has them all the more, trapping him in a symbolic samsara. His is a living death: note how the novel is divided into two books, called ‘The Dead,’ and ‘The Living.’ It’s as if he’s dying (despair), then living again (new hope), then dying again (frustrated hope), then living again (revived, if feeble, hopes), a symbolic reincarnation into a world of endless suffering, of hell.

His hell is the undifferentiated world of what Lacan called the Real. He cannot tell day from night, dream from waking life, or fantasy from reality (especially with all the sedatives he’s getting). He cannot measure time with any degree of accuracy, though he certainly tries very hard to.

Communication borders on impossible for him, except towards the end of the story, when a nurse uses her finger to spell “MERRY CHRISTMAS” on his bare chest (Chapter 17, page 86); and when he uses the Morse Code, tapping the back of his head on a pillow, to communicate with the army brass, only to have his wishes rejected. Therefore, his connection with the Symbolic Order, the therapeutic world of language, culture, and society, is a tenuous one.

The paradoxically terrifying/beatific world of the Real, or to use Bion‘s terminology, O, is one beyond the senses, a suspension of memory and desire. James S. Grotstein says, “A transformation in ‘O’ is attainable only by the disciplined abandonment of memory, desire, understanding, sense impressions — and perhaps also the abandonment of ego itself.” Such a place could be heavenly, like nirvana, if Joe could just let go of his ego and the world he’s lost; but of course, he’ll never do that, so he can only experience the hellish aspect of O, the Real, which is dialectically right next to the heavenly aspect (consider my use of the ouroboros, which symbolizes a circular continuum, the dialectical relationship between opposites [i.e., the serpent’s head biting its tail], to get at my meaning), depending on whether or not one clings to desire.

Trumbo’s novel begins with memories of sounds, like the sound of the telephone ringing. His hearing is the first thing he discovers he’s lost, and ironically, he has a ringing sound in his ears, reminding him of the telephone. Added to this, he remembers a sad phone call at work in the bakery: he must go home, for his father (Robards) has died. More of the theme of loss.

Other sounds Joe remembers are of music, his mother’s singing (beginning of Chapter 2) and piano playing (Chapter 1), something he’ll never get to enjoy again. In subsequent chapters, Joe remembers other sensory pleasures, like his mom’s home cooking (Chapter 2), a listing-off of various delicious foods (her baked bread, her canned peaches, cherries, raspberries, black berries, plums and apricots, her jams, jellies, preserves, and chilli sauces; the sandwiches of the hamburger man on Fifth and Main, etc.), all foods he’ll never get to taste again. He describes the aches and pains in his arms and legs, doing hard physical labour, in the hot sun, to the point of exhaustion (Chapter 4, pages 19-21).

He describes going to bed with Kareen (Chapter 3, page 15; and about nine minutes into the film), their one and only intimate time before he’s shipped off to fight the war, an indulgence her father allows, amazingly. All of these vivid sensual descriptions are here to underscore, for the reader, all that Joe has lost.

The film symbolically reflects the difference between what he had (and what he wishes he still had) and what he’s lost by showing his memories, dreams, and fantasies in colour (the dreams and fantasies being in saturated colour), and showing his current, hellish reality in the hospital in black and white. Indeed, all he has left are his memories and fantasies.

All these memories of his reinforce in our minds that Joe is a human being, with a heart and feelings, with dreams, hopes, and desires, like everyone else. He’s more than just a guinea pig for the medical staff to study and experiment on.

This understanding is the anti-war basis of the story: soldiers aren’t just pieces of meat (like the piece of meat that Joe has been reduced to) for the army and ruling class to use for their selfish purposes. Of course, these selfish purposes–the imperialist competition to control the lion’s share of the world’s land and resources–are cloaked behind rationalizations of keeping the world “safe for democracy.”

Now, what is meant here by “democracy” is not really the power of the people, but what is properly called the dictatorship or the bourgeoisie, or the rule of the rich. Boys like Joe are recruited to kill and die to protect and serve the interests of the capitalist class. This story’s setting during WWI is significant in how Lenin at the time wrote Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, a polemic against the war (understood as an inter-imperialist competition among the great powers of the time for land and resources), which was very unpopular in Russia. And as soon as the Bolsheviks took power, they worked to get Russia out of the war.

If only American communists could have been so successful.

The novel’s defiant, anti-war tone reaches its highest pitch at the ends of Books I and II, in which Joe speaks contemptuously of that old lie about the “fight for liberty.” As Joe says on page 49, “What the hell does liberty mean anyhow?” His response to the importance of liberty is “my life is important” (page 50). As for Joe’s defiance of the war machine and what it has done to him, hear Donald Sutherland’s reading of passages from the end of Book II (pages 103-104).

Now, since Joe has realized what a big mistake he made believing the bourgeois imperialist lie of ‘fighting for democracy,’ we should try to understand what originally drove him to buy into that lie. It was his love of his father and his wish to identify with him, to win his father’s love. Though his father cynically realizes that ‘defending democracy’ is really just about “young men killing each other,” Joe as a naïve little boy just goes along with the apparent virtue of such a fight. After all, as his father says, “Young men don’t have homes; that’s why they must go out and kill each other.” (Recall, in this connection, the fourth line in the bridge to the lyrics of the Black Sabbath song, “War Pigs,” which came out close to the same time as the film.)

Joe deems his father a failure who has nothing but his phallic fishing pole to give him distinction (not even Joe has distinction, apparently, as his father frankly tells him), but this is the only father little Joe has. Joe manages to lose that fishing pole one day when fishing not with his dad, but with his friend, Bill Harper (Chapter 9, and at about 1:16:30 into the film). The loss of the fishing pole is another symbolic castration. Joe’s memories of his father hugging him, and wanting to receive a hug from him, are–I believe–wish-fulfillments of Joe’s (the line separating his actual memories and how he wishes to remember his past is a hazy one). His father’s death, and the loss of the fishing pole, goad Joe–through guilt feelings–into being willing to do what “any man would give his only begotten son” for…kill and be killed for democracy.

This choice of words, “only begotten son,” is intriguing. It reminds one of John 3:16. Joe’s father would give his only begotten son to die for an ideal, freedom, which sounds like God the Father giving His only begotten Son to die for our sins, so sinners can live in an ideal world, heaven, which is freedom from sin and death.

This comparison leads us to the understanding that Joe, in the extremity of his suffering, is comparing himself, however obliquely, to Christ. He is suffering in an excruciating manner similar in a number of ways to how Jesus suffered. In his state of living death, Joe is harrowing Hell, so to speak, as Christ did.

The two books of Trumbo’s novel, recall, are named “The Dead” and “The Living.” The reverse order of these names suggests resurrection. On the other hand, Christ will return to judge the living and the dead (1 Peter 4:5). This understanding gives depth to Joe’s dreams and fantasies of conversing with Christ, for it gives meaning–and a sense of grandeur–to Joe’s suffering.

His dream of a rat biting into a wound behind a bandage on his side, or his chest (something he, at first, can’t tell from waking reality–Chapter 7, page 41; and 45 minutes into the film) suggests the spear in Christ’s side. The loss of Joe’s limbs is analogous to the stigmata in Christ’s hands and feet; recall how he believes the doctors have amputated his arms and legs–for example, he feels the pinching and pricking of sharp instruments when they remove the bandages from where his left arm would have been (Chapter 3, page 13). And the mutilation of Joe’s face parallels Christ’s crown of thorns, the digging of those thorns into His head.

The mutilation of Joe’s body, and the mental disorientation he feels as a result, symbolizes and literally means that he is in danger of suffering psychological fragmentation. Pathological narcissism–in Joe’s case, the covert kind in which one sees oneself as a grandiose victim–is an effective–if dysfunctional–defence against such fragmentation. In Joe’s case, this narcissism expresses itself by his comparing of his suffering to that of Christ.

In the film, when Joe is with Christ in one of his fantasies (46-50 minutes into the film)–when Christ is doing His carpenter work–and Joe is speaking about his fears of having the rat nightmare again, the two are looking in each other’s faces as if Joe were looking into a mirror…that is, the narcissistic mirroring of the self in the other. As a dream, the scene is a wish-fulfillment for Joe in which he hopes to find a solution to the rat nightmare problem, which of course Christ can’t solve, because Joe’s problems are material, not spiritual, ones: Joe has no mouth with which to yell himself back into consciousness, he has no eyes to open, and he has no limbs with which to knock the rat off of him. This must have been a scene that atheist Buñuel wrote, for Christ is no help to Joe, and He Himself acknowledges that no one really believes in Him.

Joe remembers his Christian Science preacher from childhood telling him that God is Spirit (35 minutes into the film), as is man in his true nature, which makes Christ vaguely comparable with Joe, who barely has a body anymore, and barely has any sensory contact with the physical world. Joe, like Christ on the Cross, feels “forsaken” (Chapter 20, page 101) by the medical staff, who refuse to grant him his request to be taken around in a glass box and presented as a kind of freakish icon to teach people about the horrors of war.

To be taken all over the US and displayed thus, as an anti-war icon, is comparable to Christian missionaries traveling the world and spreading the Word of the Gospel (Matthew 28:19). Joe’s message of saving lives, though, is the salvation of physical lives, not that of spiritual ones. “He had a vision of himself as a new kind of Christ as a man who carries within himself all the seeds of a new order of things. He was the new messiah of the battlefields saying to people as I am so shall you be.” (Chapter 20, page 103)

As we can see, this association of Joe with Jesus is far more apparent in the novel, especially towards the end, than in the film. And if he is like Christ, we can find Mary parallels, too.

First, when Joe realizes the extremity of his predicament, he feels as helpless as a baby in the womb (Chapter 7, page 37), and he–in his thoughts–calls out to his mother for help (Chapter 5, page 25). This association of limbless Joe with a baby in the womb can also be linked with his recollection of his mother’s telling of the Christmas story, with Joseph and pregnant Mary trying to find an inn in Bethlehem to spend the night (Chapter 17, pages 88-90).

Without his mother to know of his mental cries for help, Joe must rely on the care of the nurses, on whom he transfers his Oedipal feelings, which have resurfaced as a result of his regression to an infantile state, this being part of his coping mechanism.

Having transferred feelings of Oedipal love from his mother onto the nurses, Joe finds one nurse in particular–as noted especially in the film (Varsi)–whose tearful compassion for him is receptive to that love. Accordingly, she masturbates him (Chapter 14, page 72); about an hour and fifteen minutes into the film). Remember, though, the blurred line between his fantasy world (i.e., wish-fulfillment) and his reality. How much of her massaging is real, and how much is his imagination?

Since the Oedipal transference is sent to her, and since it is she who writes “MERRY CHRISTMAS” with her finger on his chest, this nurse can be seen as the Mary to his Jesus. The tears in her eyes over his suffering make her a kind of mater dolorosa, Our Lady of Compassion.

Now, these Christ and Mary parallels do not mean that Trumbo was trying to present a Christian “prince of peace” kind of anti-war story. Such symbolism only serves to express the gravity of Joe’s suffering through the use of familiar religious imagery. This is no story about “faith, hope, and charity“: on the contrary, it is about bottomless despair, which is especially apparent at the end of the film.

Joe’s pitying nurse would be an exterminating angel, were one of the doctors not to stop her from cutting off Joe’s air supply to euthanize him. The doctor, whose “stupidity” is bluntly noted by the chaplain in the film, would keep Joe alive in that hellish state so he can continue to be studied. For this is the whole point of war: the exploitation of young men to kill, to be killed, and to be otherwise used as a kind of commodity for the benefit of the powerful.

Unable to kill himself, unable to live in any meaningful way, unable to communicate and be listened to (i.e., to re-enter the social world of the Symbolic; our libido seeks other people’s company, as Fairbairn noted), and hovering between consciousness and unconsciousness because of the sedatives the doctors keep giving him, Joe is trapped in the undifferentiated void of the Real. If he could only let go of his attachment to his ego, that illusory self we all have from our contemplation of our mirror reflection, the Imaginary, then he might find peace.

But his was never a Buddhist or Hindu upbringing, of course: it was a Christian one, from which he derived his narcissistically amplified ego by identifying with Christ. And since even the religious systems of the Far East typically hold up the authoritarian and class basis of their respective societies, they would be of little help to him, anyway. His predicament is a material one, not a spiritual one. The eternal death of his Hell is not being able to choose when he can die.

He might see himself as Christ-like, as a fisher of men, but he lost his father’s fishing pole…just as he’s lost everything else. And just as Joe’s father is dead, so is God the Father dead…hence, there’s no Christ to wake Joe out of his nightmare.

‘Germ,’ a Horror Short Story

[SEXUAL CONTENT]

Vera crouched in the shower stall, trembling in fear as the water sprayed down on her bruised body. In her mind, she replayed the beating she’d got from Bob, her pimp.

“Only two hundred bucks?” he’d said after thumbing through the bills in her bedroom.

“Business was slow tonight,” she’d said in a shaky voice.

“You had at least four men in here today, probably five or six,” he’d said, scowling at her. “You may not be all that great-looking anymore, but you’re good for more customers that this. You’re holding out on me again, aren’t you? Empty your purse!”

She’d done so. There were at least one thousand dollars from that day alone. Now she was really shaking.

“Bitch, you never learn!” he’d said, followed immediately by the first punch, to her jaw on the lower left side.

As she shook remembering each punch to her face, shoulders, and chest, she never noticed a tiny green splat, no bigger than the tip of her index finger, go from a tile next to the shower drain, up her right foot, then her ankle, calf, knee, upper leg, and finally deep inside her vagina.

It never tickled or anything; it felt no different than the water soaking her body.

She did notice, however, and about ten seconds later, a strange, warm, vibrating feeling all over her body. It was surprising, but it felt good, soothing. The pain from her beating faded away.

She looked down at where the bruises had been on her chest, two of them, each just above a breast.

They were gone.

Her breasts were bigger, rounder, and firmer, too. Her hairy pubes were replaced by a landing strip.

“Holy shit,” she whispered.

Now with a new energy, she got up on her feet and quickly began running a lather all over herself. As she’d been soaping up her face, she felt no cut just below her lip on the left.

Once she was clean and rinsed off, she got out of the shower stall, towelled herself off, and ran out of the bathroom to find her bedroom mirror, a tall one giving her a full view of her body, from her head to her toes.

She examined her entire body, turning around and eyeing every inch of her skin. No cuts, no bruises…

…and no imperfections from ageing.

“What…the…hell?” she gasped, with agape eyes.

This 38-year-old woman now had the body of a 22-year-old porn star.

She couldn’t explain it.

She couldn’t stop grinning, either.

*********

All tarted up in a tight-fitting red dress to show off her new figure, Vera was out on the streets again, hoping to make a huge ton of cash all at once, to speed up her savings so she could leave this town and Bob forever.

Maybe she’d even find a good man and never have to hook again.

Someone like Derek.

Over the next several hours, she’d had two johns, a nice one and a bad one, this second one having worn a tacky pink paisley shirt. His attitude towards women was as bad as his taste in clothes, for he’d aggressively fucked her so it hurt inside; he also enjoyed slapping her around as he fucked her.

He left her apartment in a hurry, having never taken off his clothes for the sex. He’d unzipped himself, whipped it out, slipped on a condom, done her, pulled off the condom, zipped himself up, paid her, then ran off.

“Bastard,” she hissed after he’d slammed the door behind him.

All the pain from each of his slaps went away seconds after she got them; her vaginal pain disappeared by the time he’d left, too.

Wow, she thought. What is this super-power I’ve got? Is there an angel above who’s pitying me?

Ten minutes later, she was back on the street and, about twenty minutes after that, she found another john.

“Lookin’ for some action?” she asked him.

“Sure do,” he said, smiling and approaching. “How much for…?”

He was interrupted by a grunting sound coming at them from the side, a shuffling and scraping sound on the sidewalk.

They turned their heads and looked over to where the sounds were coming from…and their eyes and mouths widened.

A man without legs or a right arm was crawling towards Vera, his empty pants legs and pink shirt sleeve sliding behind his ass.

“You…bitch,” he hissed, then a few of his teeth fell out. “What did…you…ungh…” His tongue came off and got stuck in his throat. He coughed it out, then it lay on the pavement beside his cheek.

She screamed, then she and her new john ran away from the crawling man.

“Who was that guy?” the john asked her as they reached her apartment.

“I don’t know,” she lied, for she’d recognized the crawler’s paisley shirt.

*********

In her bedroom again, she danced and stripped for her new customer, proudly displaying her new and improved body.

He gazed in awe at her nakedness.

“Wow, you’re hot,” he panted, unzipping his jeans.

“Thanks,” she said with a grin.

“How much for anal?” he asked.

Her smile vanished. “I…d-don’t do anal.”

“I want anal!” he shouted, then punched her hard in the gut.

She buckled and fell on the bed. He pulled off his T-shirt, jeans, and underwear, then got on the bed with her.

The pain from the punch was gone within seconds, but he got her in position for anal rape too quickly for her to resist him.

He shoved it in raw. She screamed in pain, and though the pain of each ramming went away quickly enough, the relief didn’t amount to anything, for the old pain got replaced by that of a new ramming in each time. After a few minutes of the ordeal, he pulled out and came all over her buttocks.

She lay there on the bed, sobbing.

My daddy did that to me when I was a teen, she thought. “You bastard.”

“That’s what you get for choosing to be a whore, bitch,” he panted, and reached down for his pants and underwear…but, “Ungh!

His dick fell off.

He screamed at the sight of it between his shoes. Then his balls fell off.

“What the fuck?!” he screamed in a soprano voice. “What…germ…did you pass onto me?”

His nose fell off.

Oddly, there was never any blood.

He screamed again. A few teeth fell out.

Her pain was all gone. She wiped his come off her ass with a tissue, sat facing him, and smiled.

His left arm fell off. Now, he was the one sobbing.

She got back into position for anal and spread her buttocks wide open. She looked back at him with a mock-seductive look. “Wanna fuck my ass, baby?”

He glared at her, but just then, his right eye fell out.

She got off the bed and went for his jeans. She pulled out his wallet. “OK,” she said, “how much have you got in here?”

He tried to reach for his wallet, but his lower jaw fell off. “Umph!” he grunted.

She pushed him to the floor. Now, all of his remaining limbs detached from his torso. His head came off, too, and rolled to the other side of the bedroom. Finally, all was still and quiet.

So, she thought as she continued thumbing through his wallet, I guess I know what happened to Mr. Pink Paisley. Fucker got what he deserved.

“What?!” she yelled. “Only twenty-five bucks? No ATM card, either. You were gonna rape me, and not even pay me?! You fucker!!” She stomped on his left arm. The fingers and thumb detached and rolled away. “I’d better get some garbage bags and clean up this mess.”

********

She was back on the streets later that night. It was past midnight. Now, she was almost hoping for nasty customers, so she could see them come to pieces from her new powers.

As she looked around for men to attract, she thought she saw the first john who’d had her since her transformation–the nice one. Same clothes–a white T-shirt and black pants–same brown hair, same skinny build and height–about the same as hers. Same face, too…she thought.

Wow, she thought. He didn’t come apart. He didn’t die, like those two bastards. Is it because he was gentle with me? Is that even him? Looks a lot like him, but I can’t be sure in the dark.

Then she saw Derek.

Speaking of nice guys, she thought. Here comes my man, or so I’d wish him to be. He’s one of the few johns I actually like having sex with.

He approached her with a smile.

“Hi, Derek,” she said, beaming at him.

“Wow, you’re looking the best you ever have,” he said.

“Thanks,” she said, turning around for him with pride. “I’m glad you like it.”

“Not that you had to change your looks at all, of course,” he said. “I’ve always thought you were beautiful just as you are.”

“You are so sweet to me.”

“My pleasure,” he said, offering her his escorting arm. “Shall we?”

“Uh, OK,” she said, and took his arm.

“Why the hesitation?” he asked as they began walking towards her apartment.

I can’t tell him about the Germ, she said. He’ll dump me. But what if he catches it? “I-I had a few nasty johns today,” she said.

“Well, if you don’t feel up to having sex, why are you out here streetwalking?” he asked.

“Because I have to, silly,” she said. “Bob will beat me up if I don’t. You know that.”

“I’d like to beat Bob up.”

“He’s much too big for you to beat him in a fight. He’d kick your ass. Besides, even if you won the fight, he has all his mafia friends who’d kill you.”

“I’ve gotta take you out of this town, far away from him. If only I had the money,” Derek said.

“You have had the money to pay for sex with me, and that’s been on lots of occasions over the months. Why not save your money instead of blowing it all on me?”

“One, because I’m so hot for you, I’ve got to have you as often as possible. Two, because I want you to experience a gentle, considerate john as often as possible, to offset and take away the time from the nasty johns, and to pay you more than they will.”

“Bob just takes the extra money for himself. You’re giving it all to him, not to me.”

“Bastard. Anyway, how’d you get to be so…well, more than usually beautiful today?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “A good makeup job?”

“Come on, it’s much more than cosmetics, Vera. You’re much more shapely than your usual shapely self, like a girl half your age. What did you do?”

“I really don’t know,” she said as they reached the front door of her apartment building.

“Black magic?”

“I don’t know. Strange things have been happening tonight. I can’t explain it.”

“Really?” he said as they got in the elevator. “Anyway, whatever it is, you look really beautiful. Of course, as I said before, you always did look beautiful, makeover or no makeover.”

“Thanks,” she said with a giggle. I really like him, she thought. I wanna make love with him so badly…but I shouldn’t!

They reached her floor and got out of the elevator. As they walked down the hall to her apartment, he said, “I’m burning to make love to you.”

“So am I,” she said, fitting her key into her door. “I’d do it with you for free, you know that, but Bob–“

“Even without the threat of Bob, I’d pay you, to help you make ends meet. If only I could get you away from that piece-of-shit pimp.”

They went inside. “If he were dead, we wouldn’t need to leave,” she said, thinking, Maybe, with this new power of mine, I could coax Bob into a suicide fuck. They went over to her couch and sat together.

“Don’t do anything foolish to get the cops after you,” he said, then he put his arm around her and kissed her on the cheek.

“Wait,” she said, pushing him away. “Not right now.”

“Those two guys before me really shook you up, didn’t they?”

“Yeah. I just need a few minutes.” Or days…or weeks…or years…

“Well, OK,” he said, taking his arm away. “I don’t wanna pressure you into sex. We can sit and talk for a while.”

“Thanks.” You are so sweet, Derek. I wanna have sex with you so badly…yet because you’re so sweet, I can’t have sex with you. If I saw your body falling to pieces the way those two other guys’ bodies did, I’d fall to pieces!

She sat on his lap, delighted with the feeling of his erection under her buttocks…yet terrified of it, too.

“Cuddling will be fine,” she said. They put their arms around each other. She pecked him on the lips. Cradling her in his arms, he slowly rocked her back and forth as they looked into each other’s eyes. “I think I love you.”

“I know I love you,” he said.

“What do you see in an older woman like me, in such damaged goods?”

“Well, maybe it’s because you’re damaged…not in body, but in how you’ve been hurt so much. I see the pain in your eyes. My mom used to have that look. Your pain arouses my wish to help you, to love you.”

Now I know I love you, she thought while smiling at him.

They started with a few pecks on the lips. Within ten seconds, the pecking phased into French kissing. The pleasure he was giving her made her forget, for the moment, all of her worries, and she let him get her out of her dress.

In pink underwear, black stockings, and black high heels, she was allowing his hands to roam all over her skin. She let him unhook her bra, and it slid off with a proud wiggle of her breasts.

“Do you like them?” she asked with a grin.

He looked down at them. “Whoa!” he said while fondling them. “No silicone. How is this possible?”

“I don’t know. I only know that I like it.”

They resumed French kissing. He pulled off her panties to reveal her new landing strip.

“Did you get a waxing?” he asked breathily.

“No,” she sighed between kisses. “As I said,…I can’t…explain it.”

This is really weird, he thought while unzipping his fly. Still, I guess I can’t complain. He got on the floor and lay on his back.

She hesitated before mounting him. Will he die if we fuck? she wondered. Will his dick fall off?

He furrowed his brow at her hesitating. “Still don’t wanna do it?” he asked.

She was too horny to say no. She rationalized it thus: If he dies, I’ll lose him. But if we never screw, I’ll never enjoy him, which is the same as losing him, because I’ll never have him. Besides, he might dump me for someone else if I hold out too long, and that means losing him, too. I’ll have to take my chances and see if he survives a fuck. “Yes, let’s do it,” she panted.

“You sure?” he asked while putting on a condom.

“Yes!” She took it in, with sighs of rising pitches and loudness.

As she moved up and down on him in the cowgirl position, her mind swung back and forth between fear and desire. Was that brunet in the white T-shirt and black pants really my first john after my beautifying…was he really the nice one? she wondered. Did he survive–if it was him–because he was nice to me, or because this poisonous Germ in me hadn’t taken effect just yet? The answer would seem to be the first one, because the beautifying took effect so much sooner, and because everything about the Germ seems to be working in my favour, like the quick healing. I’m glad those two asshole johns died, and if that guy I saw was the nice john, still alive and healthy, I can be confident that Derek will be OK…but I only think I saw the nice john! I can’t be sure.

Because her pleasure was limited by her worries, she wasn’t as lubricated as she should have been.

In his passion, Derek gave her a hard ram; it felt like a stab against her vaginal walls.

“Oww!” she yelped.

“Sorry,” he panted, then tried to move in more gently.

“It’s OK,” she sighed…or was it? Even if the Germ is benign to me, she thought, would it misinterpret my pain as Derek deliberately hurting me? Is the Germ some kind of alien that doesn’t know the difference between accidentally and intentionally hurting people? If that’s so, I’d better try to enjoy this sex the best I can. It’s too late to stop it, anyway–there’s no turning back. The guy in paisley wore a condom, too, and it didn’t save him from the Germ.

She looked down in his eyes and tried to focus on her love for him. They were getting more and more excited, but he gave her another impassioned, hard ram.

“Oww!” she screamed. Oh please, Germ-alien, or whatever the hell you are, don’t think of Derek as an enemy. Don’t kill him!

“Sorry,” he said again. “I didn’t mean…to do that.”

Did you hear that, Germ-alien? she thought. C’mon, Vera: focus on your desire!

“I’m gonna…blow my load! Oh!” he grunted.

“I’m…almost…there, too. Ah!

They orgasmed at about the same time. He pulled out and removed his condom.

Here it is, she thought, watching him closely. The moment of truth. She got off of him.

He started getting himself off the floor. “Ungh!”

“Oh, my God!” she screamed. “Are you OK?”

“Yeah, sure,” he said, getting to his feet. “I just haven’t put my dick away yet. Silly me. I should’ve done it before.”

As he was putting it in his pants, she watched with a terrible dread. He noted her staring at him.

“I don’t need any help, thank you,” he said with a sneer. “Ooh!”

“What’s wrong?” she fired out in terror.

“Nothing,” he said, zipping himself up. “It’s just really sensitive after a fuck. If I’m not careful with it, I’ll hurt myself.” He saw the look of fear still in her eyes. “Why are you so jumpy tonight? Did my aggressive fucking remind you of those two bastards?”

“Yeah, in a way…not that you’re at all like them, of course.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you feel that way. I guess I’m just clumsy when I’m horny.”

“Oh, you’re the best lover I’ve ever had,” she said.

“Thanks,” he said while stretching. “Oww!”

“Oh, God! Are you OK?”

“Yeah. I just pulled a muscle in my back, that’s all.” He took his wallet out of his pants pocket.

“Thank God.” So far.

“Why are you so worried about me hurting myself all of a sudden?” He took out a few hundred dollars and paid her.

“N-nothing,” she said, taking his money. “I just…care about you.”

“That’s sweet,” he said, put his wallet back in his pocket, then kissed her on the cheek. As he walked to the door, he said, “I’ll call you tomorrow, late morning or early afternoon.”

“OK.” I sure as fuck hope you do. “Bye.”

“Bye.” He walked out the door and into the hall.

She stood at the open door and watched him approach the elevator. I guess he’s gonna be OK.

“Oomph!” he grunted as his knees buckled.

“Oh, God, no!” she screamed, running out to him.

“I’m fine,” he said with a wincing face. “I just sprained my ankle. What is it? Are you worried you’ve given me a bug or something?”

“Oh, no,” she said with a nervous giggle. “Of course not.”

“Look, two guys sexually assaulted you tonight, so you’re not feeling well. Go to bed and sleep it off. I’d stay and comfort you, but that asshole Bob would charge me for extra hours I cannot afford. Good night–I’ll call you tomorrow.” He kissed her, got in the elevator, and left.

********

Early in the afternoon of the next day, Vera had just about finished with another nasty john, one who’d punched her in the face before receiving a blow job from her.

When he came in her mouth, he noticed the disappearance of the bruise, cut, and blood on her face.

“Wow,” he said. “You heal quickly, bitch. I’ll just have to give you another taste of my fist.” But as soon as he balled up his fist, that arm fell off. He screamed. “What the fuck…?”

He spat a few teeth out.

She got up off her knees, sat on the edge of her bed, and watched him, grinning.

“You bitch!” he screamed, spitting out a few more teeth. “What have you done to m–?”

His lower jaw fell off, then his cock and balls did. She laughed.

He shook his head and groaned.

Then his head fell off.

“I still have the power,” she said, then picked up his body parts and put them in big, black plastic bags, and set them next to those of the night before, which contained the body parts of the man who’d anally raped her. “I was so worried that I’d lost the power after Derek’s survival, which I hope has lasted up to now…wait! He hasn’t called me yet, the way he promised!”

She rushed over to her phone, which was on her coffee table in the living room. She noted the time: already 1:30 in the afternoon. She dialled his number in a near-panic. After an eternity of waiting through six rings of the dial tone, he finally answered it.

“Derek?”

“Yeah?”

“How are you? Are you OK? You said you’d call earlier today, and you didn’t, so I got worried.”

“Yeah, of course I’m OK,” he said. He heard a sigh of relief. “Why wouldn’t I be? I was just too busy with work to call earlier, that’s all. Sorry for making you wait. Anyway, are you gonna tell me why you’re so worried about me getting sick and dying, or whatever your problem is?”

“Yeah, I’ll tell you everything tonight,” she said.

“What about Bob?” Derek asked. “I don’t have any money for another screw tonight. He won’t want me around if I don’t pay.”

“Oh, I’ll take care of Bob, don’t worry.”

“What are you gonna do? Don’t go putting yourself in a situation where he beats you up again.”

“Won’t happen, I promise. See you here tonight.”

She hung up, then texted Bob: I made a lot of money today and last night but Im keeping it all if you have a problem with that come here and tell me CUL8R

When Bob stormed into her apartment, which was no later than ten minutes after receiving her text, he–approaching her wide-open bedroom doorway–found her naked on her bed, on all fours, with her back to him, her ass pointed out at him with both of her holes showing on purpose.

“So, you’re keeping all the money for yourself, are y–? Whoa,” he said once he’d reached her bedroom doorway, and was now checking her out and feeling his jeans’ zipper already straining from his hard-on. “That’s the best you’ve looked in a long time, Vera. If you spent the money on improving your looks, I might forgive you…almost. What did you do to yourself?”

“Oh, I didn’t spend any money on my looks,” she said, looking back at him with an inviting smirk.

“Well, how did you suddenly become so hot-looking? Normally, you look like a dog.”

You bastard, she thought; Derek would never say that to me. “You don’t need to know.”

“Well, I say I do,” he said, approaching the bed. “You’re my product.”

“All you need to know is that you’re not getting your greasy fingers on one penny of my money.”

“Well, in that case,” he said, unzipping his pants and getting on the bed on his knees behind her, “I’ll just have to give you one hell of a hate-fuck.”

Still looking back at him and grinning, she said, “Come and get it, baby.”