Tables

Many
have
plenty of food on their tables,
but
let
it
go
to
waste.

Others, with crumbs on their tables,
regard
every
bit
as
a
blessing.

Still others are lucky to have tables at all,
much
less
roofs
over
their
families’ heads.

The
Galilean
overturned all the tables that were in the temple,
those
of
men
who
sold
and
bought,

but
those
praying to Him at their dinner tables
don’t
give
all
that
much
to the poor.

How
might
the masses turn the tables on the rich,
and
set
our
tables
to sate all?

Analysis of ‘Inception’

I: Introduction

Inception is a 2010 science fiction action film written and directed by Christopher Nolan, who also produced it with his wife, Emma Thomas. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio, with an ensemble cast including Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Elliot Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Dileep Rao, Tom Berenger, and Michael Caine.

Nolan had been working on a story about “dream stealers” for nine to ten years, originally conceiving of it as a horror film before making it a kind of heist film. He was influenced by such movies as The Matrix, Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor, and even his own Memento, to an extent. He postponed making Inception until he’d got enough experience making large-scale films like the first two of his Dark Knight trilogy.

Inception was the fourth-highest-grossing film of 2010; it is considered one of the best films of the 2010s, and it won four Oscars (Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects). It was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction, and Best Original Score.

Here is a link to quotes from the film, and here is a link to the script.

II: Unconscious vs. Subconscious

What is, for me, especially intriguing about Inception is the intersection of several themes: the unconscious (here infelicitously called the “subconscious“–more on that soon), manipulation, capitalism, trauma, strained family relationships, the blurred distinction between fantasy and reality, and perhaps most importantly, what shared, lucid dreaming can be seen to represent–the viewing of a movie in a theatre with other people.

Let’s now look at each of these themes one by one.

“Subconscious” is a popular term in psychology to refer to what psychoanalysis calls the unconscious. While I’m sure Nolan never intended to adhere to Freudian thinking to any significant extent (beyond, perhaps, the estranged, bitter feelings that Robert Fischer [Murphy] has for his dying father, Maurice [played by Pete Postlethwaite]), a bitterness that could be at least partly Oedipal), I must favor the term unconscious over subconscious, and here’s why.

Subconscious, as Freud explained, is an unclear way of expressing what that part of the mind is, what is ‘outside’ of conscious thinking. Is it topographical, i.e., existing underneath consciousness, as is almost literally indicated in the movie? Is it qualitative, indicating another, subterranean consciousness, again, as Inception seems to imply?

The unconscious, on the other hand, is not concerned with some kind of mental ‘place.’ Rather, it’s properly concerned with what we do not know. Unconscious impulses, for example, don’t ‘hide underneath’: the repressed, on the contrary, returns to consciousness, though in a new, unrecognizable form. It isn’t ‘underground’; it hides in plain sight.

Significantly, Dominick ‘Dom’ Cobb (DiCaprio) and his team of thought-thieves are fully aware of what’s going on in the “subconscious” world of their shared, lucid dreams. There’s something unmistakably topographic and subterranean in these dreams-within-dreams. So however psychoanalysts may cringe at the use of the word “subconscious,” we must go along with Nolan’s word choices and imagery, going down an elevator with Ariadne (Page) to lower and lower levels of this subterranean land to see what this “subconscious” actually symbolizes.

III: Fantasy vs. Reality

Here we come to one of the intersections of theme. The dreams-within-dreams of the “subconscious” represent further and further removes from reality, deeper and deeper forays into fantasy. That the dreams generally look as if they could be events occurring in reality (Ariadne’s alterations of the Parisian cityscape, among other exceptions, notwithstanding) shows how blurred is the distinction between fantasy and reality in the film.

Small wonder the dream-thieves have to carry around totems (e.g., the spinning top, or Arthur’s die) to test if they’re dreaming or in the real world. Small wonder that Mal (Cotillard) kept killing herself to wake up, only to do so again for the last time in the real world, her still being obsessively deluded (thanks to Dom’s planting of an inception in her mind) that she was always in dreams-within-dreams. Incidentally, the inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality is indicative of psychosis, which is what I suspect Inception is really all about.

IV: Capitalism and Manipulation

The implanting of false beliefs into the minds of the marks of the dream-thieves–be this implanting inception (putting the beginning of an idea into one’s mind) or extraction (stealing a company’s secrets as the goal of corporate espionage) through conning the mark into trusting the dream-thieves into opening up completely and thus making oneself vulnerable to them–is manipulation in the service of one set of capitalists trying to defeat their competition. As Marx once said, “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, page 929) Here we see the intersection of the themes of manipulation and capitalism, in the realm of the unconscious, in deeper and deeper layers of fantasy that get confused with reality.

Indeed, the company that Dom Cobb works for, Cobol Engineering (not only on which his surname is a pun [i.e., Cobb is a microcosm of the company], but also on which cobalt–extracted from the earth, like company secrets, by poor Congolese children for use in our cellphones–seems a pun), is a kind of mafia organization in the field of corporate espionage, in which failure can endanger an employee’s life. As I’ve argued many times in other blog posts, the mafia (criminal businesses) is a fitting metaphor for capitalists: note the expensive suits we see on Dom, the dominant, leading member of the dream-thieves.

Those of us on the political left are acutely aware of how capitalism results in alienation, which in turn leads to such problems as strained family relationships (i.e., Fischer and his dying father, as well as Cobb’s inability to return to the US and be with his kids) and emotional trauma (the hurt Fischer feels from the contempt Maurice has always had for him; Cobb’s guilt over how his inception for Mal drove her to suicide).

V: Dream Theatre?

A number of commentators on Inception have interpreted its use of shared, lucid dreaming as symbolic of people in a darkened movie theatre watching a film together. Getting caught up in the movie’s story is hypnotic, dreamlike. We can see more thematic intersection here in how not only the marketing of movies is a part of capitalism, but also how films are used to manipulate their viewers emotionally. The CIA is often consulted by moviemakers, who are required to portray the organization–known for ruthlessly helping in the overthrow of many governments opposed to US imperialist interests–as benign. Accordingly, films like Top Gun: Maverick and the Marvel superhero movies are blatant American military propaganda.

Now, this notion of shared, lucid dreaming as symbolic of people watching a movie together can be extended, I believe, to the idea of people watching TV together–TV shows and commercials–listening to the radio, being hooked on the internet, etc. In other words, the fantasy world of dreams can be a metaphor for the hypnotizing effect of the media.

Note the dream-like quality of many of our recent TV commercials. Instead of focusing on the products, as the commercials of the past did, these ads focus on images of a happy, carefree life. The commercials are fantasies, removals from reality, just like the shared dreams in Inception. An escape from the world…all in the service of capitalism, while pretending that the profit motive of capitalism isn’t at all present. The urge to buy what’s being sold sneaks into the unconscious by association with the fantasy presented, the inception of the desire for the product, our imaginary appetites…all while extracting our cash.

We might want to remember how Edward Bernays–whose double uncle was Freud, incidentally–used psychoanalytic concepts to help advertisers and political power structures to colonize the unconscious and manipulate people into buying this or that product, and to manufacture consent. (Bernays, by the way, was involved in the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état for the sake of the United Fruit Company.)

VI: Putting All the Themes Together

So these are all the ways that the unconscious, manipulation, capitalism, trauma, strained family relationships, the hazy line between fantasy and reality, and dreams as a metaphor for film (and the media in general) intersect in Inception. Though inception means beginning, or the establishment of an institution or activity, I see in the word a pun on deception, or the planting of a deceptive idea into someone’s unconscious.

So the film can be seen to be about how the capitalist/imperialist-run media manipulates the mind, and how our attempts to escape the horrors of the capitalist world, in order to enter a haven of fantasy, can backfire and lead to psychosis.

VII: Inception of Inception

The film begins with Cobb washed up on a shore, then taken by Japanese guards to see an extremely aged Mr. Saito (Watanabe), the businessman who wants Cobb’s team of dream-thieves to plant the inception of an idea into young Fischer’s head, to break up his dying father’s corporation so that of Saito–Fischer’s competition–can reign supreme. We eventually learn that this washing-up on the Japanese shore isn’t the beginning, but the near-end, of the story.

After this, we go back to the beginning of the story, when Cobb’s team is attempting an extraction of company secrets from the unconscious of dreaming, younger Saito while on a train going in the direction of Kyoto. We see the same big house as in the previous, deep-fantasy scene of aged Saito.

We soon learn, after the dangerous meddling of Mal (actually, Cobb’s projection of her, or as I see her, his internal object of her), that this scene in Saito’s house is really a dream within a dream, this ‘outer’ dream, as it were, being that of Nash (played by Lukas Haas), Cobb’s dream architect before the team employs Ariadne.

A couple of interesting points should be made about Nash and his dream, which make me question his motives. His dream includes a huge mob of insurrectionary rioters out in the streets, all about to force their way into the building where Cobb, Saito, and Arthur (Gordon-Levitt) are having the dream within the dream, in Saito’s house. Note that, according to Freud, a dream is the fulfillment of a wish. Later, Nash betrays the rest of Cobb’s team. Is Nash a man with unconscious leftist sympathies (i.e., with revolutionaries in his wish-fulfillment-dream) making a failed attempt at undermining capitalist Cobol, and is his botching of the carpet a Freudian slip, reflecting his conflicted commitment to the team?

VIII: What Cobb Will Do to Get Back Home

Cobb wants so badly to be reunited with his son and daughter back in the US that he’s willing to take Saito’s offer to clear his name there of Mal’s death, in exchange for planting an inception in Robert Fischer’s mind, an undertaking Cobb knows is extremely dangerous and difficult to do. After all, he did it to Mal, and what happened? Still, he can’t bear to be separated from his kids.

To assemble his new team, he first goes to Paris, where his father-in-law, Professor Stephen Miles (Caine), who taught him about navigating the unconscious mind, recommends he hire Ariadne. Her name, an obvious reference to the woman in Greek myth who helped Theseus navigate the Labyrinth so he could get out after killing the Minotaur, is fitting. She proves her skills as a potential dream-architect by quickly improvising mazes complex enough to convince Cobb she’s up for the job. Just as the mythical Ariadne helped Theseus get out of the infernal Labyrinth, so does Inception‘s Ariadne help Cobb find the strength to confront his trauma over Mal’s suicide, to let go of his attachment to his internal object of her, and thus to be able to navigate his way back up to the top, to escape the hell of endless dreams-within-dreams.

Next, Cobb has to go to Mombassa, Kenya–a city crawling with Cobol agents looking to catch and kill him for his failed mission in Japan–to find Eames (Hardy), a forger able to impersonate people in dreams. The agents chasing Cobb through the streets of Mombassa is the one instance of an ‘action movie’ scene in Inception that happens in the real, non-dreaming world…or is this the real, non-dreaming world? (More on that later.)

Eames recommends Yusuf (Rao), a chemist who will provide a sedative to keep the team under as they navigate the different layers of the “subconscious,” dream-with-dream worlds, while also allowing the team to hear a recording of Edith Piaf singing “Non, je ne regrette rien” (“I regret nothing”), their synchronized cue, or “kick,” to wake them at the right time.

IX: Drugs

Though we’re not meant to think of Yusuf as some kind of drug dealer, that scene of him with all those people taking his sedative in the dark basement of his place of work…it sure makes one think of, say, an opium den. These users of the sedative dream for four hours each day because, as one of them tells Cobb, “The dream has become their reality.”

Even if Yusuf is not to be understood to be an actual drug dealer, what he’s doing in this basement is surely symbolic of what a drug dealer would do, at the very least. Such an understanding is crucial when we consider the theme of the unsure distinction between fantasy and reality as presented in Inception. After all, as I noted above, psychosis is characterized by an inability to tell the difference between fantasy and reality, and drugs (with their hallucinogenic effects) can induce psychosis, including sedatives.

Furthermore, in the alienating, cutthroat world of capitalism, emotional trauma often leads to substance abuse as an attempt to escape that pain. An escape into fantasy relieves, however temporarily, one of the pain of facing reality, and drugs obviously help with that feeling of escape. Drugs can cause mental illness, just as the stress of living under capitalism has been observed to cause mental illness. In these connections, it’s easy to see why Dom and Mal went so deep into the dream world, into so many layers under layers of dreams-within-dreams; in searching for the Garden of Eden, they ended up in the ninth circle of Hell.

X: Splitting

Mal’s suicide, as I’ve said, is a pain that Dom finds unbearable, especially since his planting of the inception in her mind–that her world was unreal–means he’s guilty of causing her death. He cannot let her go, so he keeps her internal object as a kind of ghost haunting his mind. She’s there, but the trauma of her suicide is also there; so he tries to protect himself from that pain, however unsuccessfully, through the defence mechanisms of projection and splitting.

Dom thus experiences what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid positionparanoid because of the persecutory anxiety he feels whenever her projection interferes, often violently, with his team’s attempts at extraction; and schizoid because of the splitting of Mal into absolute good and bad versions of herself.

Dom, in his unconscious attempts to preserve the good Mal, can’t help but be forced to confront the bad Mal–hence her apt name as a pun on the French word for bad. Only when he goes the farthest down all the layers of his “subconscious,” down all those dreams-within-dreams, to return to the paradise/hell that he constructed with her, back before she died, only then do we see the good Mal, when he tells her he has to let her go.

His trauma is one example of how capitalist alienation harms relationships, including family ones. Another example is that of Robert and Maurice Fischer. The dying father, founder and owner of a great, powerful corporation, is annoyed that he has to pass on the control of the family business to a son he regards as inadequate for such a great responsibility. Some of this father/son hostility could be Oedipal, as I mentioned above; on the father’s end, it could be a Laius complex, or a fear of the son supplanting the father.

XI: Sympathy for the Dominant

One thing that is, or at least should be, striking about this story is how we, the audience, are all lulled into sympathizing with these characters. We’re dealing here with dishonest, lying, manipulating, gaslighting people who are all out for themselves, all working within a capitalist context. Manipulating young Fischer into ending his father’s business is meant to allow their competition, Saito’s company, to thrive. It is the insidious nature of neoliberal capitalist ideology–“there is no alternative“–that tricks the audience into sympathizing with a bunch of con men.

Dom is seen on several occasions, just after waking up, to be spinning a top to make sure he isn’t still dreaming. As we understand, if it stops spinning, he’s relieved to know he’s in the real world…or is he? One’s totem–like Arthur’s die–is supposed to be known only by its owner: its look, feel, weight, etc. Dom, however, has come into the habit of using a top originally owned by Mal. So even if it stops spinning, is his reassurance of no longer dreaming valid?

XII: In Dreamland

Back to the story. The team is assembled and ready. On a flight to the US, Fischer is put to sleep to share a dream with Dom, Arthur, Eames, Ariadne, Saito, and Yusuf. This first shared dream, Yusuf’s, is set on the streets of a city in teeming rain.

Fischer, trying to take a cab, is kidnapped. Arthur, whose job was to research Fischer thoroughly, has failed to learn that the team’s mark has unconscious security to fight off extractors like them. Dom is furious with Arthur for his oversights.

This unconscious security, in the form of men shooting at Cobb et al and therefore putting them all in danger–if shot and killed in the dream–of being trapped in Limbo (an inescapable labyrinth of the unconscious, like being in a coma) because of Yusuf’s powerful sedative, is a personification of Fischer’s ego defence mechanisms, these ones being unconscious.

As the Ego Psychologists understood unconscious ego defence, here’s an explanation: “the ego also contains complex unconscious defensive arrangements that have evolved to satisfy the demands of neurotic compromise, ways of thinking that keep repressed impulses out of conscious awareness in an ongoing way. Unlike unconscious id impulses that respond with enthusiasm to the prospect of liberation in making their presence felt…, unconscious ego defenses gain nothing from being exposed. Their unobtrusive, seamless presence in the patient’s psychic life is perfectly acceptable (ego syntonic) to the patient; they often function as a central feature of the patient’s larger personality organization…The ego, charged with the daunting task of keeping the peace between warring internal parties and ensuring socially acceptable functioning, works more effectively if it works undercover.” (Mitchell and Black, page 26)

XIII: Wake Up Dead?

One fascinating idea in this film is the paradoxical notion that if you are killed in a dream, you wake up. It’s the reverse of what Hamlet said: “To die, to sleep–/No more” (III, i, 60). Now, with Yusuf’s sedative, dying in the dream makes matters much more complicated: “To die, to sleep;/To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub;/For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,/When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/Must give us pause.” (III, I, 64-68)

Another complicating factor in Fischer’s troubled family life is his “Uncle Peter” Browning (Berenger), his godfather and fellow executive of his father’s company. Browning acts as a kind of surrogate father for Fischer, being there for him in ways that his father never wanted to be. Cobb’s team will manipulate this relationship through Eames’s impersonation of Browning, to introduce the idea of Maurice having an alternate will to dissolve the company.

Inception, as Eames has previously pointed out, is “a very subtle art.” Fischer’s first introduction to the idea of the alternate will is to be a negative one, a plausible further instance of his father’s contempt for him; further down in the dreams, the dissolving of the company is meant to be a positive exhortation of him to do his own thing, giving him a catharsis.

XIV: Dreams-within-dreams

Anyway, everyone on the team except Yusuf–who is driving around on the first dream level, since it’s his dream–is sedated into going down to the second dream level, Arthur’s dream, which is set in a hotel. Here, Dom convinces Robert that his ‘security’ is really working against him, as part of the ruse to go deeper into his “subconscious.” Here we have Dom gaslighting Robert into distrusting his own unconscious ego defence mechanisms.

To get to the layer of Fischer’s “subconscious” where he will receive the inception of the idea to end his father’s business to start something of his own, the team must be sedated further, into a dream set around an alpine fortress. Several problems occur: Mal interferes again and shoots Robert before he can receive the inception; also, Yusuf sets up the Edith Piaf kick too early.

Arthur and Eames therefore must improvise a new set of kicks to be synchronized with them hitting the water in Yusuf’s truck in the first dream, with Arthur rigging a hotel elevator with all the floating dreamers tied up, and with the alpine fortress being set up with explosives. Saito having been shot as well as Robert means both of them are in Limbo, forcing Dom and Ariadne to go further down another level to rescue them…in Dom’s constructed dream-world with Mal.

Here is where Dom must confront his trauma with Mal. He must let go of his attachment to his internal object of the good Mal, and he must do it quickly, for getting Robert and Saito back is of paramount importance. Indeed, Ariadne importunes Dom to hurry…but can one be cured of one’s trauma in such a short time? (Indeed, Ariadne shoots Mal to speed things up.)

It seems that he has managed to do so, for he leaves Mal, and they get Robert and Saito back–the rescue of the latter through, essentially, a repeat of that opening scene with Dom washing ashore on the beach and being taken to Saito’s big house by his Japanese guards. Neither Dom nor Saito wants to die a lonely old man, filled with regret, hence the choice of Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” as the kick to wake everyone up with.

XV: Maladaptive Dreaming

No rationally thinking person wants to waste away in a fantasy world, only years later to snap out of it and be full of regret for such a wasted life. Yet the alienating world of capitalism makes such a retreat into fantasy so tempting. Small wonder so many of us out there escape reality through drugs, online video games, porn, movies, TV, consumerism, internet addiction, etc.

Robert returns to the alpine fortress dream and receives the inception. Everyone, including Dom, manages to get back up using all the synchronized kicks in time. I’d say it’s all a little too good to be true.

Dom wakes up on the airplane with all the others, who smile at him, glad to see him back. Saito makes the necessary phone call to clear Dom of the charge of murdering Mal, so he can go through customs without a hitch. Recall above how I mentioned that, according to Freud, dreams are wish-fulfillments. Dom’s wishes are all being fulfilled, aren’t they?

The action and excitement of the dreams, fighting off Robert’s unconscious security, is an instance of how these shared, lucid dreams parallel the entertainment of watching a movie in a theatre. We’re back in the ‘real world’ now, in the airport; but Dom had an ‘action movie’ moment in Mombassa, too. Has his ‘waking’ world been real, or has it been dream, too?

XVI: Conclusion–Nothing But a Dreamer

Here’s an interesting thought: we’ve been assuming that Mal killed herself, mistakenly thinking she was trying to wake herself from a dream, but…what if she was right? Could Dom have lost count of all the dream layers, thinking his time with her on the building ledges was real, when it was actually another dream? She’d been assessed by three different psychiatrists to be sane, so is he the one with a psychotic inability to distinguish fantasy from reality?

When he claims that she didn’t want to go back to the real world, is he projecting onto her his wish to stay in the world of dreams? Is this what calling Mal his “projection” really means?

At the end, when he spins the top and walks away to see his kids, he doesn’t care if it stops spinning or not. Or maybe he’s afraid to see it keep spinning. In any case, the top was Mal’s totem originally, so if its slight wobble at the very end indicates that it will stop spinning, this hardly assures us that he’s in the real world now.

Some think the real plan, masterminded by Miles (who, recall, recommended Ariadne to be the architect), was to pull Cobb out of the dream world. If so, I don’t think it worked. Cobb prefers fantasy to reality, like so many of us with our drugs, movies, TV, etc. I think Mal is still waiting for him in the waking world; but like those TV commercials that show people enjoying quality time with family, or like all those action movies we enjoy in the theatre, Cobb would rather escape from, than have to continue living in, the stresses of the capitalist world.

His Hell is his Eden…even without Mal.

‘The Targeter,’ a Surreal Novel, Chapter Four

I’m peaking on the ecstasy now!

It’s been a while since I snorted that line of ketamine, so it should be kicking in any second.

I have a few lines ready on the coffee table here. Would you like to snort one? I also have a few more E pills. Want to take one and break it in two, so you can down a half pill? I have some Jim Beam and Coke in the kitchen, if you want a drink. It’s much more fun being drunk and stoned with a friend than doing it alone.

Wait, I just finished off that joint; I’ll roll another one, then you and I can smoke it together. Let me just get out another paper…there…spread the marijuana on it…good…Now I’ll roll it…seal it…there…Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll light it up and take the first few tokes…[inhaling sounds, and a pause as I hold it in.]

[Blowing it out my mouth] OK, now I’ll hand it over to you…Wait a minute…[looking more carefully at what seems to be a shadowy human shape in the chair next to me, then seeing…] “Nobody’s there!” I say out loud, embarrassed at my hallucination. Wow, I think. This dope is powerful. I thought that was my cousin David for a while, back when we were still friends…talk about wishful thinking.

My new glass of Jim Beam and Coke is sitting on my coffee table. I haven’t had any of it yet, so I pick up the glass and gulp a bit down. The Indian music is still playing, the tablas still making the outside gunfire and explosions hardly noticeable, if at all.

Still, the fear has been looming in the back of my mind, fear of imminent death. Here’s the good news, and just in the nick of time, too: the ketamine is kicking in.

I’m looking down at my coffee table. Instead of seeing its wooden frame and legs, and its transparent glass top, through which I’d normally see stacks of books, paper, and notebooks in which I write the first drafts of my blog articles, I see what looks like a large, dark green growth of fungi. Soon, the whole room looks as if I’m surrounded by such dark green fungi.

A room of mushrooms.

This is not exactly the feeling of protection that I’ve been hoping for. But wait–something else is beginning to happen, something that is feeling rather protective.

It looks and feels…as if there’s…a kind of…electric force field all around me. It feels…as strange as this must sound…as if this force field will protect me…from the bullets and bombs outside.

Yes…this feels safe…this feels good. Even without the tabla tapping, I’m far too stoned to notice the sounds of war outside, too stoned to care about the danger. This is the safety I want to have…not real safety, of course, since getting that is impossible. I’m not so stoned as to think nothing will happen to my body. The prospect of being incinerated by a bomb, or being riddled with bullets, is still very real.

I’m just too stoned to care.

The feeling of protection, however illusory, is getting even better. Now I feel as if my skin has turned into a metallic, protective armour. Eat your heart out, Tony Stark. When the Indian music is over, I should put on my Black Sabbath CD–Paranoid. I’ve been paranoid enough lately.

“No nuclear blast can kill me now,” I mumble in a slurred, barely intelligible voice. I close my eyes, and hovering between consciousness and unconsciousness, I begin one hell of a trip…

Analysis of ‘Central Park in the Dark’ and ‘The Unanswered Question’

I: Introduction

Charles Ives‘s Two Contemplations (1908) are his Central Park in the Dark (1906) and The Unanswered Question (1908), though Central Park in the Dark has also been grouped with his Hallowe’en and The Pond in “Three Outdoor Scenes.” Central Park in the Dark and The Unanswered Question embody many of the avant-garde musical ideas that Ives famously toyed with, independently of the European experimentation that took place often in the years following the completion of these two compositions.

In fact, Ives’s own innovations had precedent in the curious musical experimentation of his father, George Ives, who was fascinated with the clash of harmony heard in, for example, the polytonal effect of two marching bands playing completely different pieces while passing each other on the street. Young Charles picked up on his father’s then-highly-unusual open-mindedness about the different possibilities of musical expression, and he incorporated these ideas in his own compositions.

Indeed, independently of Stravinsky and Darius Milhaud, Ives made use of polytonality and polyrhythms. Before Bartók, Ives composed agonizing dissonances. Before Henry Cowell, Ives used tone clusters. Without any cognizance of such pieces as, say, Schoenberg‘s 1906-7 Chamber Symphony No. 1, Ives used quartal and quintal harmony (in Central Park in the Dark, as we’ll see). Independently of Alois Hába, Ives composed music with quarter tones. And before Stockhausen, Ives experimented with spatial effects.

The first of these two pieces I’ll be looking at was originally called A Contemplation of Nothing Serious or Central Park in the Dark in “The Good Old Summer Time”. In contrast, the second of these was originally called A Contemplation of a Serious Matter or The Unanswered Perennial Question. Ives wrote detailed notes explaining the programmatic meaning of these pieces. As to whether either of these pieces deal with matters that are or aren’t serious, I’ll give my opinion on that later.

Both pieces are scored for chamber orchestra, allowing for at least some degree of variation in the instrumentation: for example, the two pianos in Central Park in the Dark can be a player piano and a grand piano; while in The Unanswered Question, the woodwind quartet can be all flutes, or two flutes, an oboe, and a clarinet. Both pieces have string sections, each playing a repeated progression representing “silence,” a kind of static music that hovers in the background, while the other instruments (in The Unanswered Question, the four woodwinds and a solo trumpet; in Central Park in the Dark, piccolo, flute, oboe, E-flat (B-flat) clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion, and the two pianos) play independently of the strings, and to a great extent at least, independently of each other, culminating in a huge chaos of dissonance.

So, though the two pieces are understood to be programmatically opposed to each other, there is actually much that is paralleled between them, suggesting (in my opinion, at least) that the opposition of “Serious” and “Nothing Serious” is a dialectical opposition.

Here is a link (with the score) to Central Park in the Dark, here is a link (also with the score) to The Unanswered Question, and here is a link to Samuel Andreyev‘s analysis of The Unanswered Question.

II: Central Park in the Dark

Ives’s programmatic notes for the piece are as follows:

“This piece purports to be a picture-in-sounds of the sounds of nature and of happenings that men would hear some thirty or so years ago (before the combustion engine and radio monopolized the earth and air), when sitting on a bench in Central Park on a hot summer night.”

and

“The strings represent the night sounds and silent darkness – interrupted by sounds from the Casino over the pond – of street singers coming up from the Circle singing, in spots, the tunes of those days – of some “night owls” from Healy’s whistling the latest of the Freshman March – the “occasional elevated”, a street parade, or a “break-down” in the distance – of newsboys crying “uxtries” – of pianolas having a ragtime war in the apartment house “over the garden wall”, a street car and a street band join in the chorus – a fire engine, a cab horse runs away, lands “over the fence and out”, the wayfarers shout – again the darkness is heard – an echo over the pond – and we walk home.”

As much as Ives’s notes insist that the story, if you will, of this piece is of something trifling and even pleasantly amusing, I can’t help hearing in that string arrangement, “the night sounds and silent darkness,” an eerie, foreboding quality, as if dangers are lurking in the dark. Indeed, that string arrangement is a brilliantly experimental progression using dissonant, non-triadic harmony.

The string progression is, for the most part, in parallel motion, with a number of notable exceptions, some of which I’ll point out. Both the cellos and contrabasses are playing a sustained A-flat for two bars before going up to a B-flat, then the cellos tend to follow the intervallic structures of the upper strings, often moving in parallel motion with them, while the contrabasses stick to B-flat for three bars, then go down to F-sharp for three bars, then to E-flat for the final two bars of the cycle before going back to A-flat.

The first and second violins and the violas play, for the first two bars, stacks of pairs of augmented triads, starting at the bottom with a stack of D and F-sharp and B-flat, and on top of it, E, G-sharp, and C. All of these notes together, along with the A-flats in the cellos and contrabasses (enharmonic with the G-sharp), make up the whole-tone scale.

These violins and violas move up and down by minor thirds in parallel motion over the course of these first two bars, thus returning to the notes I mentioned in the previous paragraph before switching from augmented triads to stacks of perfect fourths, going from the third measure to the end of the fifth measure.

The cellos join the violins and violas in making these stacks of perfect fourths, going mostly in parallel motion until the sixth measure, when the intervals change to eerily dissonant stacks of tritones, starting with a stack of G-flat and C-natural (cellos), G and C-sharp (violas), and G-sharp and D-natural (second violins), with the first violins playing a high A. Each pair of tritones is also a minor ninth apart from the one above or below it, creating especially sharp discords.

These tritones of second violins, violas, and cellos move mostly in parallel motion, culminating in a chromatic ascension topped with the first violins of F-sharp, G, G-sharp, and A-natural that resolves to stacks of perfect fifths in the ninth bar, starting with a stack of E-flat (contrabasses), B-flat (cellos), F (violas), C-natural and G-natural (second violins), and D-natural and that A in the first violins that was tied over from the previous bar.

The perfect fifth stacks continue for the ninth and tenth bars, in mostly parallel motion without the contrabasses, which sustain the E-flat. The very last high note of the first violin pairing, a D-flat, isn’t a perfect fifth from the note under it, a B, because this D-flat must flow comfortably by a half-step to the C of the first high note of the first violins, to return us to the beginning of the cycle, with the augmented triad stacks.

So what we get in this progression in the strings is generally an expansion of intervals from augmented triads (i.e., major thirds), to perfect fourths, to tritones, and to perfect fifths, then back to the augmented triads to begin the cycle all over again. These strings–which, recall, “represent the night sounds and silent darkness,” notated ppp–in their cyclical expansion of intervals and mostly parallel motion, represent a sense of sameness underneath all the surface changes about to be heard in the woodwinds, pianos, brass, and percussion.

Just as with the stasis of the strings in The Unanswered Question, these strings would seem to represent a spiritual mystery incomprehensible to the senses, or to the noisy, dissonant winds and other instruments that fight for dominance at repeated points in the rest of the piece.

The first of these other instruments is a B-flat clarinet playing a piano melody that seems to be in G-flat major, though if that’s true, we never hear the tonic, and an A-natural, heard when the clarinet decrescendos to pianissimo, would be outside of the G-flat major scale. Therefore, if this clarinet tune is understood to be tonal, its tonality is unclear.

The same uncertainty of tonality is heard in the tune that the next woodwind, a flute, plays–coming after a second tune on the clarinet that is almost the same as the first tune, though it ends differently. As the second clarinet tune ends, the flute begins with quarter notes in C, then B, A, and B again in a quintuplet. The flute tune would seem to be in C major, but again, accidentals make its tonality unsure. The same is true of the next woodwind melody, one played pianissimo on the oboe.

What is sure about all three woodwinds, as well as the lyrical solo violin and bouncy piano parts to appear after a statement of the string progression alone (from the last bar of the perfect fourth stacks onward), is that these added parts are, for the most part, melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically independent of the strings. As we know, Ives liked having clashing, independent instrumental parts heard simultaneously.

In traditional music, the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic reconciliation of all the different instrumental parts is meant to give coherence and unity to a composition, a sense that all of the parts are conforming to and ‘obeying,’ as it were, the rules to give a piece a single direction to be followed, a collective of tones moving to the beat and tonality of, so to speak, one master. The music of Ives, however, defies this insistence on musical conformity and uniformity, preferring to allow each part to go its own way.

In this ‘going one’s own way,’ we can perceive a kind of individualist philosophy underlying the musical experimentation of Ives. If we understand the woodwinds, brass, pianos, and percussion of Central Park in the Dark (as well as the trumpet and woodwind quartet of The Unanswered Question) to be representative of people, then their clashing independence can be heard to be telling us that we should welcome differences of opinion and habit, rather than frown on them.

Vive la différence! Ives seems to be saying.

On the other hand, the soft string parts of both pieces seem to represent that mystical, subatomic unity underneath all the differences that our senses perceive. To use Hindu concepts as metaphors for my purpose, the string progressions are Brahman, while the clashing, independent woodwind, brass, piano, and percussion parts represent the sensory illusion of Māyā.

To attain spiritual peace, Ives seems to be saying through his music, we must stop trying to force everything around us to follow any one, dominant way of doing things. We must just let things be as they are and tolerate them, like the man sitting in Central Park that summer night, listening to all those clashing, conflicting sounds, accepting the fact that contradiction is a universal reality.

[Now, speaking of contradiction, in case any of the readers of my political posts thinks I’m contradicting myself here, realize that the dominant way of doing things that we today are being forced to follow is that of capitalism/imperialism, which when completely wiped off the face of the Earth will result in the withering away of the state, because the class differences that necessitate the existence of a state (to protect the dominant class’s interests) will be eliminated. The slavish obeying of bosses, worker alienation, and addiction to wealth, social status, and material things are far more destructive to individual freedom than socialism could ever be.]

As with The Unanswered Question, in Central Park in the Dark the independent parts pop up and disappear on and off throughout the work. In both works, the instrumental groups are also to be separated spatially (in the case of The Unanswered Question, the strings are to be “off stage,” if possible, away from the trumpet and woodwinds). These spatial separations reinforce the idea that the music each group plays is to be understood as coming from different worlds (i.e., Brahman vs. illusory Māyā, nirvana vs. samsāra).

Approaching the climax of Central Park in the Dark, we hear ragtime piano tunes, flute, and oboe. We also hear the B-flat clarinet quoting Hello! Ma Baby, which will be heard again on the trumpet (One may recall that old Warner Bros. cartoon with the singing and dancing frog). Apparently, the Washington Post March is also played by the marching band group, though I can’t locate it, buried in the chaos and cacophony of everyone playing together. The climax ends with a huge, dissonant swell in the brass and woodwinds, all playing trills in fff.

We return to hearing just the soft string progression. The clarinet comes in softly soon after (piano), then the flute, both of them playing pianissimo together, then we hear the lyrical solo violin part. The winds and solo violin stop, allowing the string progression to play alone again, from the chromatic ascension at the end of the tritone-stack section to that of the perfect fifths stacks.

The piece ends with just the beginning augmented triad stack of (top to bottom) C, G-sharp, E, and B-flat, F-sharp, D. These whole notes decrescendo from pppp to silence.

III: The Unanswered Question

Now, Central Park in the Dark is supposed to be “a contemplation of nothing serious”; whereas The Unanswered Question is supposed to be “a contemplation of a serious matter.” Recall above, though, how I treated that ‘non-serious’ contemplation as actually being the one that is truly edifying in a spiritual, philosophical sense: we should welcome differences of opinion, and note that these contradictory elements are just the illusion of Māyā, deceptions of the senses that cloak the mystical, unifying reality that the strings represent.

I would argue, on the other hand, that the futility of answering “the perennial question of existence” proves how absurd the very pondering of that question is, let alone trying to answer it. Therefore, such a futile pondering is a truly trivial matter. If the question can’t be answered, why waste one’s time asking it? Put away such distractions, and as Camus would later teach us, accept the absurdity and meaninglessness of life. Like Sisyphus, be happy while rolling the stone uphill, as pointless and fruitless as the labour is. Be like the fellow in Central Park at night, hearing the conflicting musical parts: don’t try to make sense of the senseless, and just sit there, receive it all, and be.

Such an understanding is the dialectical unity of the serious vs. non-serious in these two Ives works. Instead of seeing them as opposites of each other, we should see them as paradoxical parallels of each other. Hence, both have ‘silent’ strings looming in the background (or offstage), with conflicting, independent parts clashing with each other and with the strings, these independent parts appearing, disappearing, and reappearing throughout both pieces.

The musical parallels thus reflect the philosophical parallels I described above.

The strings, which open The Unanswered Question playing a G-major chord, ppp and con sordino, represent “the silence of the Druids–who Know, See and Hear Nothing,” according to the text Ives wrote to explain the meaning of the work. The Druids never recorded their knowledge in written form; we know of it only through the writings of others. I can’t say for sure what Ives meant by the Druids ‘knowing, seeing, and hearing nothing,’ but perhaps the point is that even the Druids, for all their wisdom, had the humility to admit to themselves that in that wisdom, “all is vanity,” hence their refusal to write it down.

So the ever-so-softly played, muted strings represent the ‘silent’ Druids’ reticence, their wise reluctance to describe the ineffable reality of life, a reality too fluid to be captured in the ossification of words, words that would distort our perception of that reality too much to be effective. Each string part is also spaced widely apart from the others, giving them all a hovering, ethereal effect. As Ives further describes the strings, they are “like the eternal music of the spheres“; or as I described them (and those of Central Park in the Dark) above, they represent Brahman, nirvana.

The string progression, to simplify, goes from a G-major chord to a B-minor chord, then to a C-major chord (at first, with a suspension second [D] before the second violins do a retardation to the third [E]). Then we have an A-minor chord, which ultimately resolves back to G-major. This, essentially, is the string progression for the whole piece (with some variations later): I, III, VI (a six-four chord), IV, I (with an added 6th), II, I. Note the conspicuous lack of a dominant (V) chord–e.g., no D-dominant seventh chord. The lack of a V chord reinforces the progression’s sense of stasis, which is fitting, since the strings represent that sense of the eternal–unchanging, unaffected by impermanence of the material world.

Still, there are fools among us who aspire to wisdom, to intellectual preeminence, and must ask the question: “What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? What is God’s plan for us?” This question is represented by the trumpet (or English horn, or oboe, or clarinet, according to the score). The tune it plays is without a discernible tonal centre: B-flat, C-sharp, E-natural, E-flat, and C-natural (this last note alternating with B-natural in each reiteration of the tune). Actually, they’re (pretty much) all notes from the octatonic scale.

This lack of a tonal centre is fitting, given the absurdity of trying to receive an understanding of the infinite complexity of life through a straightforward answer, given presumably in the form of a brief sentence. The question itself is pointless, since it can’t be answered.

There are folks out there who aspire to such a stratospheric level of wisdom. Yet as it says in the Tao Te Ching, 56, “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.” And as Touchstone observed in As You Like It, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” (V, i)

Speaking of such talkative fools, the woodwinds (as I said above, either four flutes, or two flutes, an oboe, and a clarinet) attempt an answer to the perennial question. We shouldn’t be surprised to hear how dissonant and atonal their answer is, for after all, which two people will have the same, or even harmonious, answers to such an absurd question? They can only fight with each other for dominance, as religions have done throughout history.

The first of these woodwind answers, marked adagio and piano, is a tentative, cautious, timid attempt, yet ultimately failing. We have mostly tied, held notes, rather than a flurry of them. With each successive attempt, though, the notes are played a bit faster, a bit louder, and with slightly shorter rhythmic values.

Indeed, as the piece carries on, these woodwind answers get more and more frustrated and desperate to get it right, though of course always getting it wrong. By the time of the final attempt at an answer, the woodwinds are frantic, marked molto agitato, con fuoco–a flurry of frenetic notes that botch the answer so badly, they end in a piercing tone cluster.

In the end, the woodwinds give up. The trumpet asks the question one last time, without getting another attempt at an answer. The piece concludes with just the strings holding the G-major chord in whole notes tied over several bars, in a decrescendo to ppp, then to pppp.

IV: Conclusion

So, as we can see, which contemplation is “a serious matter,” and which is “nothing serious,” is at the least a matter of opinion, and at the most the dialectical reverse of each other. Is sitting in a park listening to conflicting tunes “nothing serious,” and is wanting an answer to the meaning of life “a serious matter,” or is it the other way around?

You know my answer; and just for the sake of clarity, my articles on The Three Unities aren’t an attempt to answer “the perennial question,” or to provide life with meaning. Rather, they’re an attempt to provide a sense of organization to the cosmos. Nonetheless, these attempts of mine, too, are more than likely horribly wrong–just more flatulent flutes being dissonant windbags, blowing out fetid, intellectual nonsense.

In sum: don’t take life too seriously. We aren’t getting out of it alive, anyway.

‘The Targeter,’ a Surreal Novel, Chapter Three

The interminable series of commercials is over, and the news is back, with updates on the progress that the People’s Liberation Army is making all along the West coast of the island, and how feebly the local forces are trying to repel them. I just gulped down the last of my drink, and I’m off to fix myself a second Jim Beam and Coke.

With that done in my kitchen, I’ve returned with my refilled glass to the living room. Having set my glass on the coffee table and sat down, I’ve picked up the joint I rolled and I’m lighting it. I toke on it a few times and hold the smoke in for as long as I can hold my breath. I finally let it out and look down at my ecstasy pills.

I pick one up and break it in half. Before I pop it in my mouth, I look over at my window and listen to the outside gunfire and explosives for a few seconds. A gulp of my drink takes the half-pill down my gullet.

I see President Harris on the TV again. “My fellow Americans, we have a job to do,” she says in that posturing, ‘patriotic’ voice of hers. “My administration will do all it has to do to preserve and protect our fragile democracy from the aggression of autocratic Russia and China. This is our last chance at saving freedom for the world. The enemy is an evil that must be stopped at all costs.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I grunt, then reach for the remote and turn the TV off. “I can’t take any more of that.” Preserve and protect our feeble democracy, I think. What democracy, even if a feeble one, do we have in a world where the richest eight men in the world share the same amount of wealth as do the poorest half of all the world, millions of people in Third World countries? How do we all have freedom, even fragile freedom, when every time we leave our homes and go outside, we have to wear masks because of a disease that, especially now, is largely no worse than a head cold? What freedom exists in a world where we can only vote for politicians whose only concern is protecting the interests of the rich? Is protecting this ‘freedom’ worth risking nuclear annihilation? “I need music.”

I get up and go over to my CD player and CDs. I find a CD of some old South Indian Carnatic music on the Nonesuch label, music played on the flute, violin, and tabla drums. I put that on and go back to sit by the coffee table. I hear the drone of the tanpura beginning the music, and I sit back on my sofa, enjoying the high I’m getting from the joint and waiting for the E to kick in.

Thanks to the joint, everything looks, sounds, and feels slower and more intense. Music always sounds better when you’re stoned. In fact, the tapping of the tablas is, for the most part, drowning out the noise of the gunfire and explosions outside, so I don’t feel so paranoid. I reach over, pick up the joint, and take a few more puffs.

The bird-like tunes of the flute, as well as the violin glissandi, are making me feel as if I’m in the peaceful environs of nature. I sit back on the sofa, close my eyes, and imagine myself in such a serene place.

I try doing something I’ve done many times, with varying degrees of success and failure, to give myself peace of mind. I meditate on the unity of everything in the universe at the subatomic level, on how at that level, nothing really matters, because everything is all one there. If so, there is no death, because there’s no life either, with any of life’s pain and suffering. Think of how Thích Quảng Đức was able to immolate himself back in 1963.

So if I die from gunfire, a conventional bomb, or a nuke, why should I care, right? It’s only a reshuffling, as it were, of all the subatomic particles, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

A few of the explosions outside are getting louder, which is hardly reassuring for me. On the other hand, a half hour has gone by, and I can feel the E starting to kick in. Sparkly sensations of love are tingling all over my body. I just need to feel more of the illusion of protection.

Time to snort a line of K.

Thrones

She
had
the
big
chair, just
as so many
before her

used
that
seat
with
the intent to
take over and
plunder worlds.

One
may
sit
and
rest, while
many more
must fight

to
be
in
an
adequate
state of
existence.

One
can
sit
and
take it easy
on a throne
without gems,

and
the
men
and
women of the
world can be
seated as well.

So
we
in
an
abased state
must rise up
so all may sit.

Analysis of ‘Insomnia’

Insomnia is a 2002 psychological thriller film directed by Christopher Nolan and written by Hillary Seitz, a remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name that was directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg (his film debut) and written by him and Nikolaj Frobenius. The 2002 film stars Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank, with Maura Tierney, Martin Donovan, Nicky Katt, and Paul Dooley; the Scandinavian equivalent of Pacino’s character, the insomniac, was played by Stellan Skarsgård.

The 2002 film is the only Nolan film that he didn’t write or cowrite; it was also part of his transition from independent filmmaking to studio, mainstream Hollywood movies. It was praised, with a 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 200 reviews; Pacino’s and Williams’s performances were given especial praise, the latter’s being a noted departure, as with his performance in One Hour Photo, from his more usual zany, comic acting, to portraying a dangerously disturbed character.

Here is a link to quotes from the 2002 film, and here is a link to the complete 1997 film…but with French subtitles.

The Norwegian film begins with the murder of a 17-year-old girl, Tanja (played by Maria Mathiesen), during the credits; whereas Nolan’s film shows the murder of its equivalent, 17-year-old Kay Connell (played by Crystal Lowe) in split-second flashbacks. The 1997 film shows a shot of an airplane going over clouds obscuring the sun as it takes police officers Jonas Engström (Skarsgård) and Erik Vik (played by Sverre Anker Ousdal) to a Norwegian town above the Arctic Circle, the land of the midnight sun. This obscuring of light will be a recurring theme, symbolic and literal, in both movies.

In the 2002 film, the American equivalents of Engström and Vik, respectively LA Detectives Will Dormer (Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Donovan) are in a small plane flying to Nightmute, Alaska to investigate the equivalent crime there.

While the dominant theme of both films is, of course, guilt, another can be seen: the blurred distinction between opposites, as blurred as the vision of each film’s insomniac cop. These unclearly defined opposites include insomnia itself (one is sleepless, but sleepy), day and night (in the Arctic region, the summer sun is shining at night), and right and wrong (our cops catch killers, but the former aren’t exactly innocent themselves: Dormer’s planting of questionable evidence; Engström’s sexual misconduct).

Both Dormer and Engström have reputations as excellent cops; in fact, young local Nightmute Detective Ellie Burr (Swank) admires Dormer for his investigative work. Still, these good reputations of the American and Swedish cops are thin disguises of their not-so-laudable true selves, dark sides that are coming to light just as surely as the midnight sun that keeps poking through the two men’s hotel room windows as they try to sleep.

How are their dark sides coming to light? Dormer has internal affairs wanting to reopen a child rapist/murderer case in which he planted evidence to ensure conviction; Eckhart is going to testify against him, naturally causing resentment in Dormer. Engström eavesdrops on Vik gossiping about an “intimate conversation” between Engström and a female witness from a former case back in Sweden. As we can see, there’s a blurry boundary between good reputations and bad character, too.

One point to be emphasized about the cops’ bad characters being obscured by their good reputations–like those clouds obscuring the sun, or like the cops’ attempts to block out the sunlight coming through their hotel windows–is that these two cops aren’t all that much better than the men they’re trying to charge with murder. As we all should know by now, cops–as protectors of the interests of the bourgeoisie–are often as guilty of crimes (murder, bribery, etc.) as those they arrest, while often getting far better protection from punishment than the criminals can get.

Connected to this protection is the guilt many cops must feel over their own wrongdoings. And how does anyone deal with feelings of guilt or anxiety? Through the use of defence mechanisms, which in the case of Insomnia include denial, rationalization, suppression, splitting, and most importantly of all, projection…including projective identification.

Dormer would naturally deny his deliberate falsifying of evidence to convict the child rapist/murderer, including when he, on the phone to the one in LA who’s in charge of internal affairs, curses him out, acting as if he’s the victim of a kind of witch hunt. Dormer also rationalizes his planting of false evidence and his resistance to the reopening of his cases, speaking not of the stain on his reputation, but rather the danger of letting criminals back out on the street.

He and Engström try to suppress their guilt over…accidentally?…shooting and killing their partners (recall that Walter Finch [Williams] and Jon Holt [played by Bjørn Floberg] also claim that their murders were accidents) by never confessing to them. The cops suppress, but cannot repress, their guilt, hence their sleeplessness.

When Hap confesses to Dormer that he has to cut a deal with internal affairs to stop them from digging up any dirt on him (a rationalization of Hap’s own guilt over betraying his partner), Dormer makes no secret of his anger over this betrayal. He engages in splitting Hap into a ‘bad Hap’ (the betrayer) and a ‘good Hap’ (his still-reliable partner). Dormer’s experience of the paranoid-schizoid position (‘paranoid’ because of his feelings of betrayal, and fear that the ‘bad Hap’ internal object will plague him with guilt after killing Hap; ‘schizoid’ from the splitting of Hap into absolute good and bad versions of him) will turn into the depressive position after he kills Hap and feels guilty about it, his hallucinations of Hap (his ‘ghost,’ as it were) being his projected internal object of Hap.

Similarly, Engström’s resentment after overhearing Vik gossip about the former’s sexual indiscretion with the female witness–which seems intensified by VIk’s recollection of being in their hotel before, having taken a room that a man and woman claimed was theirs rather than Vik’s and his wife’s (and given aging Vik’s failing memory, this incident seems to be a garbled memory of Vik and his fellow cops, “armed to the teeth,” coming to a room and finding Engström with that woman in that “intimate conversation”)–seems to have caused him to split Vik into good and bad Viks. This splitting may have facilitated Engström’s shooting of Vik as a Freudian slip rather than as an innocent mistake, as is the case with Dormer shooting Hap. That obscuring fog was most convenient for our protagonists.

The most important defence mechanism against guilt and anxiety, as far as Insomnia is concerned, is projection, as well as projective identification. In the case of Engström and Holt, the boundary between the two is especially blurred: both are guilty of sexual misconduct (i.e., Holt’s sexual advances on Tanja before killing her, as well as Engström’s on Ane, the girl at the front desk of his hotel [played by Maria Bonnevie], and Engström’s putting his hand up the skirt of Freya [played by Marianne O. Ulrichsen], Tanja’s teen classmate, who’s quickly replaced her for the affections of Eilert [played by Bjørn Moan], her abusive boyfriend) and of an ‘accidental’ killing they wish to conceal. Engström would love to project his guilt onto Holt, but he can’t.

Dormer would love to project his perfidious nature (i.e., his betrayal of justice in his planting of false evidence) onto Hap (for betraying Dormer by cooperating with internal affairs), and onto the people in internal affairs (for, as Dormer sees it, betraying the people by reopening his cases and freeing criminals), but he ultimately can’t project his guilt onto them any more than Engström can.

Dormer projects his own guilt onto the criminals he goes after: in his own words, he says that he “assign[s] guilt” by tampering with evidence to ensure the conviction of criminals whose guilt he is convinced of (if lacking in sufficient proof). The conviction of such criminals, however, is not his job; that’s for the prosecution. He also likes to taunt Finch and Randy Stetz (Kay’s abusive boyfriend, played by Jonathan Jackson) by talking about their brutality to Kay; again, talking about the guilt of others offers temporary relief from Dormer’s own guilt.

Similarly, Engström provokes Eilert by insinuating that the boy’s sexual inadequacies are his motive for having beaten Tanja. Again, a focus on Eilert’s guilt diverts attention from that of Engström.

Now, projective identification takes projection a step further by manipulating the object of one’s projections into manifesting proof of the projected traits. We can see this, in a symbolic sense, in Dormer’s/Engström’s falsifying of evidence, which includes Engström’s planting of Holt’s gun in Eilert’s room so he’ll be charged with murdering Vik and Tanja.

In both films, there are a number of scenes that have…well, hidden ways downward. I’m thinking of, for example, the hidden passageway under the shed that allows Finch/Holt to escape when the cops try to catch him with Kay’s/Tanja’s bag as a lure. Similarly, there’s when Dormer chases Finch over the logs floating on the water, and Dormer slips and falls in, allowing Finch to get away again. And finally, there’s when Holt dies at the pier by falling through rotten floorboards and into the water, hitting his head; and when Fiinch, at his lake house, is shot and falls into the water below.

These ‘hidden ways downward,’ for lack of a better way to describe them, are symbolic of the unconscious mind, that hidden place where unknown ideas are thought, and unknown desires are felt and given expression in unrecognizable ways. After finding and rushing through the passageway under the shed, Dormer/Engström comes out into the fog, also symbolic of the unconscious, and shoots Eckhart/Vik, with that fog hiding the guilty cop’s unconsciously murderous intent behind an ‘accident,’ a kind of Freudian slip.

Before Eckhart dies, he tells Dormer he believes he’s shot him on purpose, to stop him from cooperating with internal affairs. Vik simply ran the wrong way, having gone right instead of left as planned. Neither Dormer nor Engström, however, can assuage their guilt by imagining they have made a mere mistake. Hap’s death is no mishap.

What’s more, chasing and not being able to catch Finch/Holt can be seen to represent how Dormer/Engström can’t bring themselves to assign guilt to a man they know they’re no better than. Dormer shoots Finch, but only after Finch has already shot Dormer, rather like when Hamlet kills Claudius only after he knows he himself is about to die from a poisoned wound. The unconscious has a way of making sure the ‘correct’ mistakes are made.

Now, the light of truth will never stop bothering Dormer/Engström. The insomniac cops want to hide in the darkness of their projections, denials, and rationalizations, but the sunlight keeps poking through their windows, no matter how much they try to block it out.

Wilfred R. Bion had insights on the relationship between projection, sleeplessness, and hallucinations that are useful for understanding the psychological state of Dormer/Engström. The irritating light of the midnight sun that keeps coming through their hotel windows is an example of what Bion called beta elements, unprocessed, raw sensory data that need to be detoxified (through alpha function) to be turned into alpha elements, processed, detoxified, and usable for thoughts and dreams.

If these beta elements are too painful to be processed in one’s mind, one cannot soothe oneself, as is the case with Dormer/Engström. Our sleepless cops keep trying to project the light outward, the light of truth that symbolizes the reality of their sins. The blocking-out of the light thus represents what Bion called a beta screen, which is an accumulation of projected beta elements one hasn’t processed or detoxified.

If one doesn’t detoxify these agitating raw sensory data–which in the case of these films represents the cops’ guilt–one cannot create thoughts for dreams and therefore one cannot sleep (Bion, page 7). If this sleeplessness goes on long enough, one will begin to hallucinate, as Dormer/Engström do. Their hallucinations, visions of Hap/Vik, are projections of the internal objects of their dead partners, split-off, hallucinatory projections that Bion called bizarre objects. (Go here for more on Bion and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

Just as Hap’s name is a pun on how, by sheer hap…or was it sheer hap?…he got shot and killed, so is Will Dormer’s name a pair of puns. With a will, Will finds a way not only to ensure conviction of the child rapist/murderer who otherwise would have been acquitted through a reasonable doubt, he also finds a way to falsify evidence so it seems that Hap was shot with a gun other than Will’s. Ainsi, Dormer ne peut pas dormir.

Our teen killers, Finch/Holt, cannot sleep either, of course, and being doubles of their respective cops, they have their own defence mechanisms for wrestling with their inner demons. They rationalize and minimize their murders, claiming they were accidents, that things simply got out of hand, slipped and snowballed from a few slaps to a beating-to-death of their victims.

Finch speaks of how “scared shitless” he is as he keeps hitting Kay, first to stop her from laughing at him for his sexual advances, then to stop her screaming. The slippery slope of escalation has led to his beating Kay to death; then, his fear suddenly switches to calm, yet another blurry distinction between opposites.

When Finch/Holt cleans the body, washing the hair and clipping the fingernails in order to remove all physical traces linking Kay/Tanja to their killers, this cleaning is a symbolic denial of the men’s guilt.

Confession is good for the soul, so when Finch tells Dormer, over the phone, how he came to kill Kay, how her laughter provoked him, and how his violence escalated, he says he’ll be able to sleep better. Similarly, Dormer must feel at least some relief after telling Rachel (Tierney) at the hotel about his tampering with the evidence that convicted the child rapist/murderer.

An interesting contrast between the Norwegian and American versions of the film is in how their respective villains die. In the former, Holt dies from a mere accidental fall, as ‘accidental’ a death as his murder of Tanja, or Engström’s shooting of Vik (Was Holt’s death a suicidal Freudian slip?). In the 2002 film, we have the typical American climactic fight between the good guy and the bad guy, them both shooting and killing each other. The more artistically-inclined European film is more of a psychological study of guilt than a thriller, more morally ambiguous.

Accordingly, Dormer dies of his gunshot wound having redeemed himself by telling Burr–who’s found out about his falsifying of the cause of Hap’s death–not to throw the incriminating evidence into the lake. When Engström, however, is presented with the incriminating evidence by Burr’s equivalent in the 1997 film, Hilde Hagen (played by Gisken Armand), she just puts it on a table in front of him and leaves him without getting him in trouble.

Engström is thus able to leave town with bodily freedom, but no clear conscience. The police privilege of protection from prosecution won’t protect him from his guilt. While Dormer is finally able “to die, to sleep, no more,” Engström, however bodily safe, will never sleep, for he “does murder sleep,” as the 1997 film’s last shot of his eyes glowing in the dark are eyes that will never close.

‘The Targeter,’ a Surreal Novel, Chapter Two

Lemme take another sip of my drink before I continue. Ahh, there.

My joint is rolled and ready to be lit up, my lines of ketamine are ready to be snorted, and several ecstasy pills are lying here on my coffee table, to the immediate left of the ketamine lines.

The machine gun fire and explosions outside have continued, uninterrupted, and slightly louder.

Before I get wasted, I need a moment to think.

As I hear the fighting going on outside, I wonder how many of those weapons were manufactured by Sakia. Even if none of them were (which is unlikely, given that my parents are so preoccupied with maximizing Sakia’s profits that they’re willing to sell to the Chinese on both sides of the current conflict), the principle is still the same. The whole reason for all of these wars is to enrich the coffers of weapons manufacturers like Sakia.

My mom and dad love money so much that they’re willing to sell weapons that could have their own son killed. Even if they aren’t being sold to the East Asian theatre of this new world war, they’re at least being sold to the East European NATO member countries, provoking Russia and bringing us all closer to nuclear annihilation. My parents are doing their part to ensure we’re all killed, including me.

I first started arguing with my father, Sutton Dana Gordimer, and my mother, Maya, about all the evil their profit-making was doing back when I’d learned, from reading a newspaper article, of Iraqi kids in a school bus killed when a drone missile made by Sakia hit it; this was back in the mid-2000s.

Both my parents dismissed the story as “unimportant.”

When I showed how furious I was at their callous attitude to the child victims, my mother tried to guilt-trip me over enjoying the privileged life of a rich kid, rich from Sakia’s success and my parents’ hard work. My father tossed in a little racism, not caring about the fate of “a few smelly, brown-skinned kids.”

As I learned of more and more deaths in Iraq, and later (once I’d moved here to teach English) in Libya and Syria, all the time knowing Sakia had sold billions of dollars in weapons to those who would kill these victims, I felt that I couldn’t accept any of the money Sakia made from these killings. So when my mother, during a long-distance phone call, brought up my future inheritance several years ago (she meant it to guilt-trip me for my having stopped communicating with them several years before that), I told her, in all bluntness, “I don’t want your Sakia money!”

She replied by saying, “That’s not exactly a sage decision to make, Sidney Arthur [the snobbish way she typically addressed me].”

“Oh, it’s very sage!” I retorted. “I’m the sage of Sakia, didn’t you know that? in refusing Sakia money. I won’t benefit materially from your blood money!”

“Oh, you are such an idealistic fool!” she growled, then hung up.

As far as I’m concerned, Maya Gordimer was never a mother to me, in the true sense of the word. I don’t know: maybe when I was a newborn baby, before I can remember, she had some kind of maternal feelings for me. But I’m guessing she, as a real mother, died, say, a week or so after I was born. She’s been a tyrant ever since.

As far back as I can remember, she’s always resented my very existence, and hated me for my sensitivity; I suspect she envies it, since that narcissist has none of her own. She never wanted me to have friends, or normal, healthy relationships of any kind: she always tried to make me feel too different from other people to feel as if I belonged.

She encouraged hostility, however tacitly, in my elder siblings towards me, allowing them to bully me when I was a child. When all three of them died suddenly in a car accident (several years before I moved to East Asia), and I didn’t shed even one tear for any of those who were meant to take over the company when our parents were to retire, Mom just scowled at me as if I was the unfeeling one, rather than her.

I suspect that her making my family enemies with me didn’t end with my late siblings. I suspect that she also sabotaged my friendship with my paternal cousin, David Adam Gordimer. We’d been good friends throughout our childhoods and young adulthoods; then, things turned strange…

I may be getting totally wasted on drugs and alcohol tonight, but I’m normally nowhere near this much of a druggie. David, however, always was, ever since his teens. His regular smoking of marijuana from those days, as well as his experimentation with LSD, opium, and ecstasy over the years, has surely affected his brain functioning.

I don’t know for sure, since I’m not qualified to be giving opinions in the psychiatric field, but I suspect David has developed paranoid schizophrenia. He’s had all kinds of delusional fantasies about me supposedly betraying his trust: gossiping about him with former friends of ours, stealing girlfriends and drugs from him, among other absurdities.

I suspect my mother has whispered all manner of malignant nonsense into his ears, reinforcing his paranoia and prompting him to send me abusive, incoherent word salads of emails loaded with wild, unsubstantiated accusations. It’s an abuse not so far removed from the nastiness I used to hear from my elder brothers and sister back when they were alive, hence my suspicions that the illusions of Maya were behind it all, for I’m sure she’d squirted her poison in their ears, too.

With my three siblings gone, my parents were relying on me, however reluctantly, to take over Sakia; but as I’ve said, I want nothing to do with their murderous business. They’d looked to David as a possible heir, but his increasing mental instability proved how hopeless he would be at running the company. My continuing refusal to take over the company may have been what prompted Mom to turn David against me…to spite me.

David must understand, deep down, that the world he sees and hears around himself is a surreal, hallucinatory one. He medicates himself with his cigarettes and pot to soothe and ease the terror he feels at a world he can no longer understand. He probably also envies me for my more stable mental state, though he’s projected his mental problems onto me, when repeating the nonsense my mom says about how “different” I am from everybody else.

The online abuse David has subjected me to was either through direct emails to me, or in comments on my blog, ironically called The Sage of Sakia, on which I’ve expressed my vehement opposition to my parents’ evil business. David has seen my attacks on Sakia as “treason” against the Gordimer family, rather than the principled antiwar stance that it is.

Again, I believe David envies me for having at least the ability, if not the willingness (which he has), to take over Sakia when my parents want to retire (which is coming soon, if not already upon us). Now, he hasn’t contacted me in years, unless it’s been under a fake name in a more recent abusive comment on my anti-Sakia posts.

Is he in a mental hospital? He should be, though I don’t expect anyone in the family to care enough to get him to see a doctor.

In all of my inter-family fighting over the years, whether between my mom, David, or my elder siblings on one side and me on the other, my father either neglected to say anything or he’s sided with them against me, which has been almost every time.

Some fucking family.

All the more reason for me to loathe life.

All the more reason for me to attempt an escape from it all through drugs and alcohol.

I’m going the David route…to death.

I wonder if I’ll die in a state of lunacy similar to his, only a happy one.

Tightrope

If
I
lean
too much the one way, or too much the other, I will fall.

If
the
rope
went in a straight line, I could keep my balance well enough,

but
the
rope
keeps veering to the right, making me counterbalance left.

How
far
is
too far left, or not left enough? Is moderate “too balanced”?

One
has
to
walk it slowly, yet the human race’s time is running out.

We
can
not
stay on one side; we must go, yet to fall is certain death.