Analysis of ‘The Last of Sheila’

The Last of Sheila is a 1973 murder mystery film written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, and produced and directed by Herbert Ross. It stars James Mason, Richard Benjamin, Joan Hackett, James Coburn, Dyan Cannon, Ian McShane, and Raquel Welsh.

Sondheim and Perkins were inspired by the scavenger hunt games they used to play with their friends back in the late 60s and early 70s, the kinds of games we see Clinton Greene (Coburn) play with his guests in the film–Philip Dexter (Mason), Alice Wood (Welsh), Lee Parkman (Hackett), Anthony Wood (McShane), Christine (Cannon), and Tom Parkman (Benjamin)–aboard his yacht on the French Riviera. These games involve searching around such places as hotels, etc., to find clues to solve tricky mysteries.

But the game Clinton wants to play–“The Sheila Greene Memorial Gossip Game” (named after his late wife [played by Yvonne Romain], a Hollywood gossip columnist who was mysteriously killed, a year before the film’s main action starts, by a hit-and-run killer…one of the guests on Clinton’s yacht)–involves real pieces of gossip about his guests, embarrassing secrets that, in some cases, provoke a guest or two to try to murder him.

Here are some quotes (WARNING–SPOILERS AHEAD!):

“Sheila. Sheila, come on back!” –Clinton

“What do you mean, what do I mean? This is the same b-group that was at your house the night Sheila got bounced to the hedges.” –Christine, on the phone with Clinton

“Darling, I must hang up now. One of my cast is peeing on my leg. Something Garbo never did, even at her moodiest. Bye now.” –Philip, with a little girl sitting on his lap

“Who did this room? Parker Brothers?” –Lee, on entering Clinton’s yacht

“What a game! And now, Tom gets to write it; Philip gets to direct it; and what’s-her-face, I mean, ah, my new client, Miss Alice Wood, gets to thrill you as Sheila Greene. Who rose from call girl to columnist… Ha-ha-ha.” –Christine, to Tom and Lee

“Well, I’m thinking of calling it…don’t be shocked, now: The Last of Sheila. Fox is interested, Paramount‘s interested. The perfect woman’s picture. Every bit as big as Love Story.” –Clinton

“Do you think we’ll ever hear the last of Sheila?” –Lee

“There’s nothing worse than a hustler with bad timing.” –Christine, on Anthony’s failed attempt to be made an associate producer for Clinton’s ‘Last of Sheila’ film project

Christine: [while suntanning] I have to do 25 minutes on my stomach.
Alice: To make up for the 25 minutes you spent on your back, last night?

Christine: I’m here because I’ve got a client to keep, and one to get. What’s your excuse?
Lee: I’m trying to hold on to a husband… who’s trying to hold on.
Christine: With your money?

“Honey, would you drop me down a Tab? My mouth is so dry, I feel like they could shoot ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ in it.” –Christine

Clinton Greene: [Gesturing to a small island not too far from his yacht] You like it? [They all look, while Clinton beams proudly] I love it. Tiny, tiny islands fascinate my ass. I’ve got this crazy broker in London that sends me these brochures on all the islands for sale all over the world. Little impoverished islands. A few thousand dollars cash, and you’re practically king to six shepherds and their families. Or whatever. I read every word on every island. Then you know what I do? I tear them neatly in half and drop them in the wastebasket. Then I say to myself…
Christine: [interrupting] I’m still weak, Clinton, but I’m eating solid food.
Clinton Greene: I say to myself, “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s to have my island speech interrupted.” [continues] I say to myself: “No, you poor people… you don’t deserve a good king like me.” That’s what I say!

Lee: Have I ever told you how sweet you were to me, when I was a child?…at Daddy’s legendary Sunday lunches.
Philip: I can still see you on Olivia de Havilland‘s lap.
Lee: It’s funny, you know, she was one of the few people that Sheila ever had anything good to say about.

“Just enough time for me to get dressed as a catamite, if I knew what it was.” –Christine, waiting to get ready to play the game and search for who has the ‘HOMOSEXUAL’ card

“Do you think there’s a homosexual aboard the yacht?” –Lee, asking Tom

“It was more than a game. It was a private joke.” –Tom

“It was an accident! It was an accident, I swear, Clinton! I was DRINKING!” –Lee

“The last of Sheila should be an A. Hit and run doesn’t begin with an A, does it, Tom?” –Philip

“I don’t have any gloves.” –Tom, with puppets on his hands, ready to strangle Philip

“Dictate it tomorrow when you can get a secretary. You know, he killed her, she killed him.” –Christine, just after Tom’s attempted murder of Philip

“Well, I think I’ll turn in. I’m almost dead on my feet. So much to do tomorrow and still a few pages to type tonight.” –Philip, implying a warning to Tom not to make a second attempt to kill him

“In these perilous times, one can’t be too careful.” –Philip

“Honey, let me hit you with a couple of names. Yul Brynner is Clinton. Paul and Joanne as Tom and Lee! I know, I hope it has enough content for ’em. Who have I got for Alice? Oh, I know, Carly Simon. I mean the soundtrack album alone will pay for her clothes. Now, now don’t scream. Virna Lisi. No, darling, as me!” –Christine

Beyond being a witty murder mystery (which generally got positive reviews, such as this one by Roger Ebert), The Last of Sheila is also a satire of the sins of bourgeois liberal Hollywood. We’re dealing here with people who are proud and narcissistic, who enjoy spreading rumours about the faults of others. They pretend to be progressive, but really it’s all about raising their social status, trying to get back on top, not wanting to be has-beens anymore.

Sheila, who has bashed people time and time again in her gossip column over the years, doesn’t take it as well as she dishes it out; so after hearing an unwelcome remark from Clinton during a conversation at a party in the Greenes’ home in Bel Air, she storms outside and walks it off in her neighbourhood that night. A driver who is obviously extremely inebriated slams into her, kills her, then drives away. The driver’s identity isn’t known…until a year later, when Clinton invites his guests to his yacht on the Mediterranean to play his new game.

He also wishes to begin a new film project, The Last of Sheila, and is offering his guests jobs in it. Alice is an actress; Tom is a screenwriter frustrated with only doing rewrites of others’ work; Anthony is Alice’s husband and manager, and hopes to be an associate producer for the new film; Christine is a talent agent; Philip is a “has-been” director; and Lee, Tom’s wife, is…well, rich.

All of these guests have truly gossip-worthy faults, each of which is suggested as they are introduced at the beginning of the movie. Alice is seen in a gift shop, looking at things she seems tempted to sneak into her purse and walk out with. Tom is seen in a photo with Clinton, the two men seeming a bit too close and familiar with each other. Anthony, taking Alice away from annoying reporters, knocks one of them down. Christine is seen in her office, her gossipy mouth rattling off like a machine gun. Philip, directing a commercial with a group of cute little girls, has one of them sitting on his lap. Lee is seen with a drink in her hand; surprisingly, it’s just ginger ale.

One recurring theme in this film, apart from the obvious one about gossip, is that of the stark difference between appearance and reality. Those who seem good are actually bad, and vice versa. Be leery of those who would seem sleuths, when in fact they’re, in varying degrees, the guilty.

Similarly, though Clinton is offering his guests jobs for his new Sheila movie project, he’s actually exploiting their desperate need and hope to get back in the good graces of the Hollywood power establishment. He is thus the quintessential capitalist, knowing he can taunt them again and again, and get away with it. He is thus also the typical unlikeable murder victim.

Clinton’s very game for them to play involves “six pretend pieces of gossip” that are all very real, but not given to those who are guilty of those embarrassing secrets. (More spoilers ahead!) It’s his fun way of making his guests squirm.

The embarrassing secrets are printed on small, white rectangular cards saying, “You are a…SHOPLIFTER, HOMOSEXUAL, EX-CONVICT, INFORMER, LITTLE CHILD MOLESTER, and ALCOHOLIC.” These secrets thus are presented as labels, suggesting that each person guilty of such a secret is perceived as having his or her whole identity bound up in that label, when actually, these are just things that each of them at one point in his or her past was guilty of.

Alice was caught shoplifting back when she was a teen, and Philip bailed the pretty girl out…then he did other things with her. Tom, actually married to Lee and having an affair with Alice, had a brief gay fling with Clinton after Sheila was killed. Anthony has twice done time for assault. Christine gave some names to the HUAC. Lee “was AA for a while.”

So Clinton’s game, on the surface, is just a fun scavenger hunt to amuse his guests during their vacation in the south of France. But just as the job offer in the movie project–with better billing for those who score better in the game–is just what the guests need to repair their damaged careers and reputations, while it’s really just Clinton exploiting their desperation, so is the game a sadistic exploitation of their insecurities. What seems good is really bad.

Now, are any of those secrets damaging enough to their reputations to be a motive to murder Clinton? During the day, in between the nights of the hunts for the owners of the SHOPLIFTER and HOMOSEXUAL cards, Clinton and his guests are all either on the yacht or swimming by it (in the latter case, Clinton and Christine). Clinton is especially loud out there, taunting Tom and Philip about their flagging careers, while Christine alternates between singing and calling out to Vittorio (played by Pierre Rosso), the captain of the yacht’s crew, each member of which wears a white T-shirt with SHEILA printed on it.

Someone turns on the yacht’s propellors, almost killing Christine, who’s unlucky enough to have been floating too close to them. There’s no reason for anyone to want to kill her: as she herself later observes, they aren’t in Hollywood, where her informing ruined the careers of many. Clinton must have been the intended target, given what a few guests have already surmised about the cards’ secrets.

But which of the guests has a secret embarrassing enough for him or her to want to kill Clinton before it is outed? Philip’s having helped out teen Alice…in more ways than one…is a strong motive, but then there was that hit-and-run killing of Sheila.

Someone will demonstrate that strong enough motive to murder Clinton during the scavenger hunt on a small island with a castle in which a group of monks once lived, centuries ago. Indeed, Clinton et al will be wearing monks’ robes as they search for clues to determine who has the HOMOSEXUAL card.

What’s interesting about the monastery scene is how it symbolizes what I said earlier about seeming good while secretly being sinful. According to a brochure read by Anthony, the monastery was inhabited by “perverts, onanists, catamites, and other riff-raff of the day.” Seeming devotees to God were really engaging in sexually transgressive behaviour, hence Clinton’s choice of the island for the hunt for the owner of the HOMOSEXUAL card.

Clinton and the others will wear monks’ robes, symbolically hiding their sins in holiness. Clinton’s “island speech,” given earlier on his yacht, demonstrates the narcissism of the capitalist who would imperialistically buy and own an island, but then decline to, feeling he’s too good to be the king of the lowly, poor inhabitants of that island.

In this castle of supposed holiness, the murder is committed, the ultimate contrast between seeming saintliness and actual wickedness. Furthermore, there’s the contrast between the apparent murder of Clinton (his face bashed in with a large candlestick while he sits in the priest’s box), and his actual murder (having been stabbed from behind with an ice pick).

Back in the yacht the next day, after discovering Clinton’s body, him apparently killed from a loose rock having fallen and hit him on the head, there is the first of two solutions as to how he was really killed, and by whom. This solution, provided by Tom, is the seeming explanation, as opposed to the actual solution given by Philip at the end of the movie.

The contrast between what seems to be and what is is made especially clear by what a nice man Tom seems to be, the clever sleuth, and the man he really is, as discovered at the end of the movie: not so nice, and not all that clever, either.

An example of how Tom can make himself into the ‘nice guy’ is by claiming that Alice’s HOMOSEXUAL card applies to him. Of all the six cards, this one is the least damaging to one’s reputation (the fact that the screenwriters were both LGBT men helps in this regard). What’s more, Clinton, surely aware of how the gossip would fly out everywhere, seemingly isn’t worried about people finding out about his gay affair with Tom; we even see him caress Tom’s cheek publicly, on the yacht, when telling him that his card would be played out last, on Saturday.

As of the beginning of the 1970s, progressives in significant numbers were no longer joining conservatives in regarding homosexuality as a vice. We can see the Hollywood liberal hypocrisy here as evident in Anthony’s reaction to Tom’s claim to that card. By claiming the HOMOSEXUAL card, Tom is “in the clear”: he needn’t fear the nastier labels of the remaining cards.

Why does Tom have “the exclusive right to that card?” Anthony angrily asks. When Tom, in his answer, implies the possibility that it could also apply to Anthony, the latter senses a slur on his manhood–hence the hypocritical Hollywood liberal attitude to homosexuality: ‘it’s OK to be gay, but don’t call me one.’

As we go through who lays claim to the other cards–Alice, after being pressured by Tom, irritably admits to being the SHOPLIFTER, and Christine to being the INFORMER–the tension builds. The tension is especially high, since Tom has revealed that his card says, “You are a HIT-AND-RUN KILLER.”

It’s implied that Tom has been hoping to label Anthony with this card, and thus to make him seem Clinton’s murderer; certainly this is what Anthony thinks Tom is doing. But Anthony triumphantly claims the EX-CONVICT card, leaving the LITTLE CHILD MOLESTER card for Philip, and HIT-AND-RUN for…

Lee tearfully breaks the tension by admitting that when her car hit Sheila, she was “too drunk to drive.” She also believes that, after confronting Clinton in the priest’s box and begging him to stop the game (with a confused look on her face from hearing Clinton’s voice cruelly refusing to stop, but also from seeing his motionless body in the darkness, his lips not seeming to be moving, either), she accidentally killed him by smashing open the door to the confessional and hitting him in the face with that big candlestick.

So, the guilty party seems to have been sought in Anthony, but has been found in Lee, who, sobbing, leaves the others, taking with her a bottle of Jim Beam, and goes off to her cabin to drink her guilt and shame away. Later, she is discovered in the bathtub with slashed wrists.

Remember, though, that nothing is as it seems in this movie. Anthony may have a criminal record, but he is guilty of no wrong-doing in this story. The murder mystery only seems to have been solved. Tom has come across as a nice guy, and as gay; but he’s actually having an affair with Alice, and with Lee dead, Tom is free to have Alice and to inherit Lee’s estate of $5,000,000. Finally, we are only assuming that Lee has slashed her own wrists.

It’s far less unpleasant to think that the deaths of Sheila and Clinton Greene are the result of accidental killings, and that Lee’s death is a tragic suicide brought on by overwhelming guilt, than it is to contemplate that these deaths (at least two of them) were deliberate murders. The real killer of Clinton, imitating his voice in the confessional when provoking Lee, is projecting his murderous intent onto her by pretending she cared only about the damage to her car when it hit Sheila.

Given the nasty gossip that Sheila was spouting over the years in her column, much (if not almost all) of which must have inspired Clinton’s gossip cards, Lee’s not having seen Sheila when she hit her could have been unconsciously motivated, a Freudian skid, if you will.

Removing the exploitative Greene dynasty, so to speak, from the lives of the guests on the yacht (not the mention Clinton’s crew) might have been more liberating had the ‘removers’ shown more solidarity and comradeship. Instead, their motives are of pure selfishness: they’ll all make the Sheila film without Clinton, Tom will get Alice as well as Lee’s money, and none of them will have to put up with Clinton’s verbal bullying anymore.

In the end, the character with by far the most shameful secret–LITTLE CHILD MOLESTER–is the one to get to the truth of what has happened to Clinton and to Lee. Philip learns that the killer dropped a cigarette in the priest’s box, making Clinton bend down to get it while the killer pulled out an ice pick and stabbed Clinton in the back. The killer then imitated Clinton’s voice, fooling Christine and Lee.

Next, Philip discovers a photo, put in plain view on a wall by the yacht bar, of all six guests meticulously posed by Clinton under the letters of SHEILA as painted on the side of his yacht. Philip is under the S, Alice under H, Lee under E, Anthony under I, Christine under L, and Tom under A. Philip also remembers that on the first day, Clinton said they don’t have to move (e.g., search around the city or the monks’ castle to find the clues to everyone’s cards) to play the game…if they’re smart enough.

Philip also remembers that Tom crumpled his card on the first day, while his HIT-AND-RUN KILLER card is not crumpled. The first hunt was for Philip’s SHOPLIFTER card, and the second hunt was for Alice’s HOMOSEXUAL card. These two initial letters spell out SH, leading Philip to speculate that Lee’s EX-CONVICT card, Anthony’s INFORMER card, Christine’s LITTLE CHILD MOLESTER card (the redundant word LITTLE was needed to provide the L)…would spell out SHEIL…

But then there’s Tom’s…HIT-AND-RUN KILLER? The last of Sheila should be an A, not an H. Then we recall Tom’s crumpled card, which actually was ALCOHOLIC, a most fitting secret for Lee. Tom thus is the murderer of both her and Clinton.

Now, even though Philip has proven to be the truth-telling sleuth of the movie, this doesn’t mean that he’s completely innocent, either. Never is what seems to be true actually the truth. He is the one, by his own admission, who turned on the propellor while Clinton was splashing about in the water beside the yacht. Tom, meanwhile, had Guido (played by Serge Citon) to vouch for his alibi, and thus Tom could be encouraged to carry on with his own murderous plans after Philip’s failure.

Just before Tom attempts to kill Philip, he says that Clinton’s crew are all ashore celebrating the death of their boss (i.e., no one is onboard to stop Tom from killing Philip…or so Tom thinks). But of course the killing of Clinton can in no way even symbolize a socialist revolution (Clinton’s crew are really no better off now than they were before); a bourgeois has killed a bourgeois, and Philip, Christine et al are going to get rich making Clinton’s film without him.

Instead of seeking justice for Clinton and Lee, Philip and Christine (the latter having come up from her cabin on the yacht and, just in time, interrupted Tom’s attempt on Philip’s life) decide to blackmail Tom into using all of Lee’s money to finance the Sheila film. Tom won’t even get to write the screenplay: Philip wants the first draft to be written by an outsider. Tom will have to do rewrites again. What’s more, Philip that very night will type up a sealed letter to his lawyer–to be opened in the event of his death–exposing everything Tom has done, if he ever tries to kill Philip again.

The violence we see in this movie, that of bourgeois against bourgeois, shows not only the hypocrisy of the narcissistic Hollywood liberal–who would seem to be doing right, but who in reality is as exploitive as any other capitalist–but also the poisonous lack of solidarity between people. There isn’t even a sense of loyalty in the guests’ marriages, with these adulterers and adulteresses.

All these narcissists care about is rising up, so they have no qualms about stepping on others, in the forms of murder or gossip, to achieve their ascent. Small wonder we hear Bette Midler‘s song “Friends” as an ironic ending to a film with so much alienation in it.

You gotta have friends, Tom.

Tom had some friends, but they’re gone…

‘Pointy Sticks,’ a Short Prose Poem by Cass Wilson

A poet friend of mine, Cass Wilson, whose work I’ve looked at before, has recently published this new prose poem on her Spillwords page. Let’s take a look at it. Again, I’m putting her words in italics to distinguish them from mine.

Pointy Sticks

Incessant pointy sticks, endlessly poked at her through the bars of her self imposed prison.
She grabbed at the earth, pushing it inside the wounds, foolishly thinking if she could fill the holes left by the sticks, then she’d be complete once more.
But one stick was replaced by two. Then four. Then multiplied until she was just a hole herself. Nothing left of her but a vast, empty black hole where her heart once was.
The other parts of her, incarcerated in the illusionary safety of her solitude, the place she longed to be and to flee, both simultaneously; just floated away over time, grains of someone who had once been, but was no more.

And now, for my analysis.

The “incessant pointy sticks” can be seen to represent a number of things. Since they’ve “poked at her,” they can easily be seen to be phallic, the poking thus symbolic of the sexual abuse (I certainly hope, for the writer’s sake, that this isn’t meant to be literally autobiographical!) of a woman. Her pushing of the earth “inside the wounds,” suggestive of an introjection of the mother goddess in the hopes of healing, is an attempt to heal the injured female of the wounds of male dominance.

Another way to think about the pointy sticks is to think of them in terms of projective identification, a Kleinian concept that Wilfred Bion expanded on through his theory of containment. Normally, in a healthy mother/infant relationship, the mother is a container of her baby’s anxieties, frustrations, etc., taking in those harsh emotions (the contained), detoxifying them, then returning them to the baby in a form it can tolerate, thus soothing it. (Click here for more on Bion and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

The container is given a feminine symbol, suggesting a yoni, and the contained is given a masculine, and thus phallic, symbol. So containment, or projective identification as a primitive, preverbal form of communication between parent and infant, can be seen as symbolized by the sex act, with energy passing from one person to the other, then back again.

The problem arises when this containment is negative. Instead of leading to a soothing of one’s anxieties, a processing of trauma, in negative containment, seen in abusive parent/child relationships, the pain is intensified; this is what we see described in this prose poem. The pointing sticks are phallic daggers causing yonic wounds in the poet’s body, a symbolic rape.

Healing from such trauma isn’t a simple matter of appealing to the mythological feminine. One tries to rid oneself of the pain by pretending it isn’t there, and so one never frees oneself from one’s “self imposed prison.” It’s self-imposed because one isn’t doing what one must do to free oneself, even though one knows one must heal the pain by confronting it, by feeling it.

The pointy sticks are like the heads of the Hydra, for when one cuts a head off, it is “replaced by two.” When one cuts the two off, then there are four. Since the sticks are phallic, cutting them off–castration as symbolic of hating men–isn’t the solution, for however justified women’s anger is at the all-too-typical male attitude, hating men leads to an even more intensely misogynistic reaction from them. Whatever we send out there, karma brings back to us.

Please don’t confuse what I’ve said above with victim-blaming; I’m not trying to judge women for being angry with men, something they very, very often have a perfect right to do. This isn’t about passing judgement; it’s about finding real healing.

Ending male dominance must be dealt with more subtly, in a manner that makes an ally out of a former enemy; otherwise, the female sufferer will be nothing but a giant yonic dungeon of her own pain, of her own making, “a vast, empty black hole where her heart once was.”

Part of how negative containment intensifies pain, turning anxiety into what Bion called a nameless dread, is the use of projective identification to eject parts of the self out into the external world in an attempt not to have to deal with the parts of oneself that one doesn’t want to accept. These ejected parts are the “other parts of her, incarcerated in the illusionary safety of her solitude, the place she longed to be and to flee.”

If one ejects too many of the undesirable parts of oneself, one feels oneself to be disintegrating, suffering psychological fragmentation, leading to a psychotic break with reality. Narcissism can be a dysfunctional attempt to protect oneself from this kind of fragmentation, the danger of an underlying borderline structure, as Otto Kernberg has observed.

Those ejected parts of herself “just floated away over time, grains of someone who had once been, but was no more.” Those ejections, accumulating over time, result in the fading away of the self, a gradual disintegration. The projected parts that float away become what Bion called bizarre objects, or hallucinated objects felt to be in the external world but which are imbued with characteristics of one’s own personality.

One cannot rid oneself of pain by projecting it outwards. The broken pieces must all be put back together. Instead of division and fragmentation, there must be oneness. Splitting must be replaced with integration of one’s good and bad internal objects (e.g., the internalized ‘good mother’ and the ‘bad father’ of the psyche), or reparation–a shift from what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive position.

The broken-off parts must be freed of their incarceration, from one’s “self imposed prison.” One’s solitude, or hiding from the world, gives an “illusionary safety,” but it will never give one lasting healing. True healing comes from connection with others, from a communal love.

Tears

Pain wells up
inside us. It is so
poisonous that

w
e

m
u
s
t

c
r
y

i
t

o
u
t
.

Some people
turn their teardrops
into bullets,

t
h
e
n

f
i
r
e

t
h
e
m

a
t

u
s
.

The holes put
in our hearts pour
tears of blood,

t
h
e

r
e
d

r
a
i
n

o
f

s
o
b
s
.

How do we
make the weeping
stop? Not by

m
a
k
i
n
g

g
u
n
s

o
f

o
u
r

e
y
e
s
,

but by making
mirrors of them, by
looking at each

other, listening.
We can dry our faces,
and see clearly.

Analysis of ‘Salò’

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma) is a 1975 art horror film directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. The screenplay, written by Sergio Citti and Pasolini, was based on the Marquis de Sade‘s unfinished pornographic novel of the same name (sans Salò, or). Pasolini updated the story, moving it from the Château de Silling in 18th century France to the final years of WWII, in fascist Italy, during the time of the fascist Republic of Salò.

The film stars Paolo Bonacelli (who also played Cassius Chaerea in the Penthouse Caligula film), Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto Paolo Quintavalle, and Aldo Valletti as four wealthy libertines who abduct, sexually abuse, torture, and ultimately murder a group of teenage boys and girls. The cast also includes Caterina Boratto, Elsa De Giorgi, and Hélène Surgère as three middle-aged prostitutes who tell erotic stories to inflame the lust of the libertines and inspire them to acts of depravity.

Salò was and still is controversial for its shocking depiction of sexual violence against the teenaged boys and girls, at least some of whom are believed to have been underage at the time of filming, though they all look as though they could be 18 or 19 years of age. For these reasons, Salò is considered one of the most disturbing films ever made. It has been banned in many countries.

As a gay communist, Pasolini was trying to make some harsh social critiques in the making of this movie, especially as a critique of capitalism and the atrocities of fascism. He was murdered by bitter anti-communists, who allegedly had in their possession stolen rolls of film from the movie, just after its completion. Still, despite the unsettling subject matter of the film (or rather, because of it), Salò has been highly praised by many critics.

Here are some quotes, in English translation:

[first lines: four men, sitting at a table, each sign a booklet] The Duke: Your Excellency.
The Magistrate: Mr. President.
The President: My lord.
The Bishop: All’s good if it’s excessive.

“Dear friends, marrying each other’s daughters will unite our destinies for ever.” –the Duke

“Within a budding grove, the girls think but of love. Hear the radio, drinking tea and to hell with being free. They’ve no idea the bourgeoisie has never hesitated to kill its children.” –the Duke

“Signora Vaccari is sure to soon turn them into first class whores. Nothing is more contagious than evil.” –the Magistrate

“I was nine when my sister took me to Milan to meet Signora Calzetti. She examined me and asked if I wanted to work for her. I said I would, if the pay was good. My first client, a stout man named Vaccari, looked me over carefully. At once, I showed him my pussy, which I thought was very special. He covered his eyes: “Out of the question. I’m not interested in your vagina, cover it up.” He covered me, making me lie down, and said “All these little whores know is to flaunt their vaginas. Now I shall have to recover from that disgusting sight.” –Signora Vaccari

“Homage to the rear temple is often more fervent than the other.” –the President

“On the bridge of Perati, there flies a black flag, the mourning of the Julian regiment that goes to war. On the bridge of Perati, there flies a black flag. The best young men lie under the earth.” –the Duke, singing

“We Fascists are the only true anarchists, naturally, once we’re masters of the state. In fact, the one true anarchy is that of power.” –the Duke

“It is when I see others degraded that I rejoice knowing it is better to be me than the scum of “the people”. Whenever men are equal, without that difference, happiness cannot exist. So you wouldn’t aid the humble, the unhappy. In all the world no voluptuousness flatters the senses more than social privilege.” –the Duke

“I remember I once had a mother too, who aroused similar feelings in me. As soon as I could, I sent her to the next world. I have never known such subtle pleasure as when she closed her eyes for the last time.” –the Duke

The Duke: [Renata is crying] Are you crying for your mama? Come, I’ll console you! Come here to me!
The President: [singing] Come, little darling to your good daddy / He’ll sing you a lullaby
The Duke: Heavens, what an opportunity you offer me. Sra. Maggi’s tale must be acted upon at once.
Female Victim: Sir, Sir. Pity. Respect my grief. I’m suffering so, at my mother’s fate. She died for me and I’ll never see her again.
The Duke: Undress her.
Female Victim: Kill me! At least God, whom I implore, will pity me. Kill me, but don’t dishonour me.
The Duke: This whining’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever heard.

The President: [while eating a meal of faeces] Carlo, do this with your fingers. [the President sticks two fingers in his mouth] And say, “I can’t eat rice with my fingers like this.”
Male Victim: [with fingers in his mouth] I can’t eat rice.
The President: Then eat shit.

“It is not enough to kill the same person over and over again. It is far more recommendable to kill as many beings as possible.” –Signora Castelli

“Idiot, did you really think we would kill you? Don’t you see we want to kill you a thousand times, to the limits of eternity, if eternity could have limits?” –the Bishop

“The principle of all greatness on earth has long been totally bathed in blood. And, my friends, if my memory does not betray me – yes, that’s it: without bloodshed, there is no forgiveness. Without bloodshed. Baudelaire.” –the Magistrate

[last lines: two young male guards are dancing with each other] Guard: What’s your girlfriend’s name?
Guard: Marguerita.

Four wealthy and politically powerful libertines–a duke (Bonacelli), a president (Valletti), a bishop (Cataldi), and a magistrate (Quintavalle)–discuss plans to marry each other’s daughters (without their consent, of course), as well as to abduct youths and maidens to abuse sexually and torture physically and mentally (and even kill some of them) over a period of four months.

These four libertines obviously represent the ruling class, though in the context of late fascist Italy (i.e., Mussolini and Hitler are about to lose the war), we can see their sadism as representing capitalism in crisis (fascism, properly understood, is a kind of hyper-capitalism). When such a crisis occurs, the gentle, smiling face of the liberal is revealed to be a mask covering the scowling face of fascism. Hence, the four men’s cruelty.

The victims, frequently if not always naked, represent the proletariat: exploited, brutalized, vulnerable, humiliated, and lacking the means to live freely. Recall Hamlet’s use of the word naked (‘stripped of all belongings, without means’ [Crystal and Crystal, page 292], as used in Hamlet, Act IV, Scene vii, lines 43-51), to understand the symbolic meaning of the victims’ nakedness.

The studs, or fouteurs (“fuckers”) in Sade’s story (Sade, page 80), as well as the young male collaborators, or guards (dressed in the uniforms of the Decima Flottiglia MAS) represent the police and standing army of the bourgeois state. They are comparable to the militarized police of today. Without them, the four libertines would have no power, and the same, of course, goes for the state.

These young men are all rounded up to work for the four libertines, and only one of them, Ezio, is reluctant to do so. Indeed, when the guards apprehend the libertines’ daughters, all as members of the bourgeoisie who normally would be used to much better treatment (apart from their fathers’ previous rapes of them, as understood in Sade’s novel), Ezio apologizes to the women, saying he must obey orders. If only all of these thugs could understand that some orders shouldn’t be obeyed, such horrors as those seen in this movie wouldn’t happen.

But how does one get through to class collaborators?

Since capitalism is sheer hell for the poor–as I observed in my analysis of American Psycho, another story involving brutal violence inflicted by the rich–it is appropriate that Salò be divided into sections reminding us of Dante‘s Inferno: Anteinferno, Circle of Manias, Circle of Shit, and Circle of Blood. Abandon all hope, ye proletarians who enter here.

None of the four libertines are named, and the studs and collaborators aren’t often called by name. The three middle-aged prostitute storytellers are named, but the piano player isn’t; and of the victims who are named, most have names equal or approximate to those of the actors portraying them, as if naming them was an afterthought by Pasolini. Thus, we aren’t very conscious of the names of many of the characters. This near-anonymity reinforces the sense of emotional distance, the alienation, felt not just between all the characters, but between them and us, the audience.

Indeed, one of the many reasons that this film is so disturbing to viewers, as has been noted by critics, is how we cannot get close to any of the characters, there being too many of them to focus on any; so it is difficult to empathize with, to care for, any of them individually (except for shit-eating, motherless Renata and the daughter who is tripped and raped at dinner, and these are only a few incidents, not plot points drawn out for the full length of the film), and the ability to empathize with individual characters is crucial for grounding in the story, for being able to enjoy it.

We pity the victims in a general sense, we pity them en masse, but we can’t follow any individual character arcs. There is no sense of anyone growing, developing, or changing; it’s just victims entering a sea of trauma and swimming through undifferentiated torment from beginning to end.

We know the victims are doomed, and that their depraved masters are irredeemable. There’s nothing anybody can do to help the victims, so all that there is here is a sadistic stasis throughout. Lasciate ogne speranza,…

In Sade’s novel, the characters are grouped and categorized in a manner almost like taxonomy: the four libertines, the prostitute storytellers, the libertines’ daughters, the huit fouteurs, the four elderly, ugly women, etc. The numbers of characters are often reduced (e.g., four studs instead of eight) in the film, and Sade generally names the characters, but this sense of ‘taxonomy’ is retained in Salò.

This categorizing of characters is significant in terms of the Italian fascist context of the film, since Mussolini wanted his fascist society to be broken up into corporate groups of people according to the functions they were meant to perform in society (syndicates). When Mussolini spoke of “corporatism,” this is what he meant, not the corporatocracy that we see today, the unholy alliance of business corporations with the state, which is really just the logical extreme that capitalism comes to.

The fact that the libertines allow their daughters to be abused and killed doesn’t in any way detract from them also being symbolic of the bourgeoisie. The daughters are every bit as representative of capitalists–that is, the less fortunate ones–as their fathers are. Recall Marx’s words: “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, page 929)

Apart from the fact that their fathers’ cruelty to them is a reflection of the patriarchal family, especially cruel in a fascist context, the daughters as victims can be seen as representative of, for example, the Jewish petite bourgeoisie up until the Nazis stripped them of their rights with the Nuremberg Laws. Hence, the daughters being stripped naked and forced to stay naked throughout the four months, humiliated, made to serve everyone’s meals and to endure being spat on by the guards and raped by the studs.

Indeed, the first scene in which the daughters appear as naked waitresses is one that I find to be among the most painful to watch. What we see here is the essence of fascism: the guards and studs, as class collaborators instead of joining in solidarity to overthrow the ruling class, would rather target and bully a select portion of the petite bourgeoisie, symbolized by the daughters.

That poor daughter who is tripped and raped by one of the studs, while the others watch and laugh at her–the bourgeois fathers would rather sing a song together than help the girl. This is the essence of the bourgeois family: being more concerned with maintaining power and prestige than even with helping their own children.

Marx, in The Communist Manifesto, wrote of how there is no meaningful sense of family among the proletariat: “On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution…Do you charge us [communists] with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty.” (II: Proletarians and Communists)

Indeed, with all the teen victims snatched away from their parents (and Renata actually having witnessed the murder of her own mother, who tried to save her), we can see the truth of Marx’s observation. To make matters worse, though, we see this injustice to the family extended to that of the bourgeoisie itself, in the form of the libertines’ abuse of their daughters. The psychopathic and narcissistic libertines have no qualms at all about abusing their own flesh and blood.

The prostitutes, catering on the one hand to libertine lust with their erotic storytelling, and on the other hand being far less vicious to the victims, can be seen to represent the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie. The ruling class maintains its power over us with a kind of one-two punch: the liberal jab, and the conservative right-cross.

When liberals are elected, they give the people the false hope that all will be well with their modest reforms, which don’t really help the people in any meaningful way, but rather exist as concessions that keep us at bay and stave off revolution. Then, when we’re comfortable and complacent, conservatives get elected and create harsher legislation, which we hate but ultimately get used to, so no attempt is ever made, when liberals get reelected, to reverse the hated new laws. One-two punch.

We can see such a situation as symbolized by how, for example, Signora Vaccari holds naked Renata in her arms as a mother would her child. Yet it isn’t long after that that the trembling, traumatized girl is forced into a mock marriage with Sergio during the ceremony of which the Duke fondles a number of the male and female victims; then the boy and girl are pressured to fondle each other, then they are raped by the libertines to stop them from consummating their own ‘marriage.’

Later, at the beginning of the Circle of Blood, the duke, president, and magistrate, all in women’s clothes, growl at the weeping victims, demanding that they smile and laugh during this ‘joyous’ occasion of a mock wedding between the libertine ‘brides’ and the stud grooms. Vaccari and the piano player (played by Sonia Saviange) improvise jokes to make the victims laugh. We all know, however, that this is only a brief respite from the teens’ endless frowning.

Another way that the prostitute storytellers can be seen as symbolic of liberals is in how their lewd stories parody, and thus can represent, our permissive pop culture, with its gratuitous swearing in Hollywood movies and sexually suggestive pop and rock songs. We seem to be liberated with such indulgences, but in our growing poverty, we aren’t.

The scene in which the libertines have the victims, including their daughters, crawl naked on all fours and bark like dogs to be fed is significant. I suspect they have been starved, and the only way they can hope to be fed is to degrade themselves in this way. It makes me think of how capitalists use charity to create the illusion that their philanthropy is generosity rather than just good public relations. Poverty is solved by a socialist reorganizing of society, providing guaranteed housing, healthcare, employment, education, etc., not giving occasional ‘charitable’ dollars to the poor.

When the poor are given alms out of pity, that pity is really condescension coming from the ruling class. And in Salò, when one of the male victims (Lamberto) refuses to be so degraded, the magistrate whips him until he passes out. Later, the magistrate hides nails in some food and feeds it to one of the daughters, who screams in pain on having the nails stab into her mouth. Some charity.

From the Circle of Manias we go to an even more torturous one, the Circle of Shit. It is appropriate that this one be in the middle of the movie, for as film scholar Stephen Barber has observed, Salò is centred around the anus. This is true not only because of the revolting coprophagia that we see, but also in all the sodomy, that is, all the gay sex.

On one level, the coprophagia–at the dinner table in particular–represents our society’s overindulgence in junk food. When you see a fork or a spoon raising a turd from a plate up to one’s ever-so-reluctant mouth, think of a McDonald’s hamburger.

On a deeper level, though–and this is especially evident in the notorious scene in which the Duke defecates on the floor and forces Renata to eat it–the coprophagia can be seen to represent the splitting-off and projection of hated aspects of oneself (understood as internal objects of the negative aspects of one’s parents), to be introjected by others. Melanie Klein observed that a baby, experiencing what she called the paranoid-schizoid position, would engage in projective identification, ejecting unwanted parts of itself and making its mother receive those projections, which in unconscious phantasy often come in the forms of faeces or urine.

Wilfred Bion took Klein’s notion of projective identification further, stating that babies and psychotics use it as a primitive, pre-verbal form of communication. Bion‘s theory of containment is normally applied to a mother’s soothing of her distressed, agitated baby, or to a therapist dealing with a deeply disturbed patient. Negative containment (see Bion, pages 97-99), however, results when a narcissistic or psychopathic parent, or therapist–or in the case of Salò, the four libertines–do the opposite of soothing, worsening the agitation of the baby, patient, or Salò victims, so that the distress changes into a nameless dread.

The container, or receiver of the stressful emotions (the parent or therapist), is given a feminine symbol, implying a yoni; the contained, or projection of those emotions (those of the baby or patient), is given a masculine symbol, implying a phallus. So the process of containment can, in turn, be symbolized by the notion of making love. In Salò, however, the container isn’t symbolized by the yoni, but by the anus.

The soothing of containment as symbolized by lovemaking, therefore, has relevance in Salò only in the context of homosexual sex, hence the homoeroticism in the film shouldn’t be surprising. The only mutually pleasurable sex in this film is between libertines and their willing gay partners (symbolic class collaborators), i.e., the bishop and his stud, and the duke and his catamite (Rino), one of the few boys among the victims who, because of his willing submission, isn’t brutalized. Apart from these oases from abuse (including some lesbian sex among the female victims), there is only rape.

This rape, be it penile/vaginal or anal rape, is all a symbol of the negative containment described above. The libertines, studs, and guards project their viciousness onto their victims, either in the form of rapes, or, using their shit as the contained, they project their cruelty into their victims’ mouths, another container.

The resulting trauma is the victims’ nameless dread. The introjectively identified cruelty is then manifested in the victims when they later betray other victims, or when Umberto, a victim promoted to guard/collaborator to replace Ezio, calls the boy victims “culattoni!” (faggots!)

One doesn’t have to accept Freud‘s theory of anal expulsiveness (i.e., drive theory) to see its symbolic resonance as applied to Salò. Two noteworthy traits associated with anal expulsiveness are cruelty and emotional outbursts, as are seen plentifully among the libertines in this film. Psychopathy, antisocial personality disorder, and narcissism are understood to be caused to a great extent by childhood trauma, which is then projected onto others in the negative container/contained way described above. It’s easy to believe that the four libertines were abused as children, then grew up to be abusers themselves; the same goes for the studs and guards.

At the beginning of the Circle of Blood, we shouldn’t mistake the libertines’ cross-dressing for transgenderism. If anything, their transvestitism and gay marriage to the studs is a fascist mockery of the LGBT community. These are the kind of men who would put muscular transwomen into sporting competitions with cis-women to ensure that the latter lose every time. It’s a typical divide-and-conquer tactic that the ruling class uses to keep the people distracted from revolution.

Fascists and Nazis, of course, have never tolerated the LGBT community. Even Ernst Röhm, the gay leader of the SA, was an exception proving the rule. He was only grudgingly tolerated by Hitler until the Night of the Long Knives, when the Nazis eliminated all of their potential political enemies, using the very politically powerful Röhm’s homosexuality as a rationale to have him killed (apart from an unsubstantiated claim that he was trying to wrest Hitler from power, the so-called “Röhm Putsch”). So when we see any gay sex or cross-dressing among the libertines, none of it should be understood as an affirmation of LGBT rights: it’s just that those four men can do anything they like, because they can, because they have the power.

The mounting suffering of the victims, and their powerlessness, causes their alienation to grow, meaning–apart from the occasional lesbian sex we see–they never feel any sense of solidarity, togetherness, or mutual aid. So when the bishop comes into their sleeping areas and threatens them with punishment for breaking any of their little rules, the victims promptly betray their fellow sufferers so they can save their own skins. This culminates in the betrayal of Ezio, the only guard who obeys the libertines with reluctance.

He is found making love with a black servant girl, offending not only the libertines’ disgust at the sight of penile-vaginal sex (and the implication that the boy and girl are fucking because they love each other, like the husbands and wives they lampoon with their mock marriages), but also arousing their abhorrence of interracial sex. And Ezio’s final offence is his raised fist: the two naked lovers are then shot.

The lovers’ nakedness shows their proletarian identification with the victims. His bold standing there, frontally nude (before four men with lecherous desires for young male bodies) and raising his fist, emphasizes his defiance of their hegemony.

They hesitate before killing him. Is it their lustful reluctance to waste a beautiful body they haven’t taken the opportunity to enjoy? Is it awe at his boldness, when he has absolutely no means to defend himself or fight back (refer above to Hamlet’s use of the word naked)? Is it shock at his unexpected socialist salute, indicating their unwitting employment of one they’d deem a traitor?

The only other reluctant collaborator among them is the piano player, who upon realizing the full extent of her employers’ murderous designs, jumps out of a window and kills herself. Such is the despair that so aggravated a form of right-wing hegemony can arouse in those who love freedom.

Finally, the libertines choose those victims they’ll have murdered, including all their daughters. Wearing blue ribbons around their arms, they await their doom, the daughters sitting in a large bin filled with shit. The daughter who was tripped and raped by the stud at dinner, imitating Christ on the Cross, shouts, “God, God, why have you abandoned us?” When a parent frustrates his or her children (or in this case, abuses them), their oft-used defence mechanism is splitting the parent into absolute good and bad, with a wish to expel the bad parent and keep the good one near; in this case, God as the good father is gone, while the libertines as all-too-bad fathers are all-too-present.

Not only are these victims murdered, they are killed in the most agonizing, sadistic, and drawn-out of ways. The boy Sergio is branded on the nipple. The daughters are raped one last time, one of them killed by hanging. The boy Franco has his tongue cut out. Renata’s breasts are burned, as is a boy’s penis, and a girl is scalped.

The libertines, studs, and guards are the gleefully willing perpetrators, of course, but each libertine goes inside the house to take a turn to watch the murders, which occur outside, from a window, viewing the cruelty through small binoculars. This voyeurism is comparable to our watching of violence in movies and on TV: we’ve seen so much of it that we’re desensitized to it; the voyeurs’ watching of the violence from farther away symbolizes our emotional distance from such violence when we see it on TV and in film.

The two guards we see at the end of the film, two boys dancing to music–can be seen as another fascist mockery of the LGBT community. One of them has a girlfriend named Marguerita–I don’t think he is bisexual.

The horrors seen in this film should be understood as prophetic, a dire warning of a reality that is more and more apparent each coming year. The film’s sadism only symbolizes that reality, but it’s no less of a reality just because of symbolism. Neoliberal capitalism hadn’t yet come into its own as of the mid-Seventies, but Pasolini knew that all of the imperialist ingredients were already on the table. The fascist shit dishes were going to be made and eaten, and quite soon: he could smell them.

Analysis of ‘Eyes Wide Shut’

Eyes Wide Shut is a 1999 erotic thriller produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick, his last film before he died. It was also written by him and Frederic Raphael, based on the novella Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler. It stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (actually married at the time), who play Bill and Alice Harford, a doctor and his wife who, just before Christmas, struggle with jealousy and temptations to adultery.

The film follows Schnitzler’s novella closely, changing only the setting (from early 20th century Vienna, during the Carnival, to late 20th century New York City, pre-Christmas) and characters’ names (Fridolin to Bill Harford, Albertina/Albertine to Alice, Nachtigall to Nick Nightingale [played by Todd Field], Mizzi to Domino, etc.), and adding more erotic or quasi-erotic content (i.e., more nude scenes). A 1969 German TV movie, with English subtitles, of Traumnovelle can be found here.

Here are some quotes:

“Don’t you think one of the charms of marriage is that it makes deception a necessity for both parties?” –Sandor, the Hungarian dancing with Alice

“Sex is the last thing on my mind when I’m with a patient.” –Bill, to Alice

Bill: Uh… look… women don’t… They basically, just don’t think like that.
Alice: Millions of years of evolution, right? Right!? Men have to stick it in every place they can, but for women it’s just about security, and commitment, and- and whatever the fuck else!
Bill: A little oversimplified, Alice, but yes, something like that.
Alice: If you men only knew.

“I first saw him that morning in the lobby. He was- he was checking into the hotel and he was following the bellboy with his luggage… to the elevator. He… he glanced at me as he walked past; just a glance. Nothing more. And I… could hardly… move. That afternoon, Helena went to the movie with her friend and… you and I made love. And we made plans about our future. And we talked about Helena. And yet, at no time, was he ever out of my mind. And I thought that if he wanted me, even if it was only… for one night… I was ready to give up everything. You. Helena. My whole fucking future. Everything. And yet it was weird because at the same time, you were dearer to me than ever. And… and at that moment, my love for you was both… tender… and sad. I… I barely slept that night. And I woke up the next morning in a panic. I don’t know if I was afraid that he had left or that he might still be there. But by dinner… I realized he was gone. And I was relieved.” –Alice, telling Bill about the naval officer she was tempted to have an affair with during the family vacation at Cape Cod

Mysterious Woman: [at the masked orgy] I don’t know who you are or what you think you’re doing, but you obviously don’t belong here.
Dr. Bill Harford: I’m sorry. I think you must have me mistaken for someone else.
Mysterious Woman: [whispering] Don’t be crazy. You are in great danger.

Red Cloak: [pleasantly] Please, come forward. May I have the password?
Bill: Fidelio.
Red Cloak: That’s correct, sir! That is the password… for admittance. But may I ask, what is the password for the house?
Bill: The password for the house…
Red Cloak: Yes?
Bill: I’m sorry. I… seem to have… forgotten it.
Red Cloak: That’s unfortunate! Because here, it makes no difference whether you have forgotten it, or whether you never knew it. You will kindly remove your mask. [Bill removes mask] Now, get undressed.
Bill: [nervously] Get… undressed?
Red Cloak: [sternly] Remove your clothes.
Bill: Uh… gentlemen…
Red Cloak: Remove your clothes. Or would you like us to do it for you?

“If the good doctor himself should ever want anything again… anything at all… it needn’t be a costume.” –Mr. Milich

“Listen, Bill, I don’t think you realize what kind of trouble you were in last night. Who do you think those people were? Those were not just ordinary people there. If I told you their names… I’m not gonna tell you their names, but if I did, I don’t think you’ll sleep so well.” –Ziegler

Bill: There was a… there was a… there was, uh, a woman there. Who, uh… tried to warn me.
Ziegler: I know.
Bill: Do you know who she was?
Ziegler: Yes. She was… she was a hooker. Sorry, but… that’s what she was.
Bill: A hooker?
Ziegler: Bill, suppose I told you that… that everything that happened to you there… the threats, the- the girl’s warnings, her last minute intervention, suppose I said that all of that… was staged. That it was a kind of charade. That it was fake.
Bill: Fake?
Ziegler: Yes, fake.
Bill: Why would they do that?
Ziegler: Why? In plain words… to scare the living shit out of you. To keep you quiet about where you’d been and what you’d seen.

Bill: The woman lying dead in the morgue was the woman at the party.
Ziegler: Yes.
Bill: Well, Victor, maybe I’m missing something here. You call it fake, a charade… Do you mind telling me what kind of fucking charade ends up with somebody turning up dead!?
Ziegler: Okay, Bill, let’s cut the bullshit, alright? You’ve been way out of your depth for the last twenty-four hours. You want to know what kind of charade? I’ll tell you exactly what kind. That whole play-acted “take me” sacrifice that you’ve been jerking off with had nothing to do with her real death. Nothing happened after you left that hadn’t happened to her before. She got her brains fucked out. Period.

“And no dream is ever just a dream.” –Bill

Themes pervading both Eyes Wide Shut and Traumnovelle include jealousy, temptation, and the blurry distinction between dream/fantasy and reality. Also, there’s a close relationship between sex and death, between Eros and Thanatos.

One night, Dr. Bill Harford and his wife, Alice, go to a Christmas party hosted by his wealthy friend and patient, Victor Ziegler (played by Sydney Pollack). Both husband and wife are assailed with temptations almost from their arrival: a handsome Hungarian named Sandor makes moves on her, while Bill has two beautiful young models charming him. Already tipsy Alice, while dancing with Sandor, sees Bill with the two women and feels a pang of jealousy.

Soon after, Bill is to be subjected potentially to more temptation when Ziegler needs him upstairs to take care of a beautiful and naked prostitute who has overdosed on speedball. Now, Bill can easily resist thoughts of lust for her, since his love and commitment to Alice is…so far…unshaken by any fears of unfaithfulness from her.

Indeed, the whole time Bill is examining the nude prostitute, he looks only at her face, asking her to open her eyes and look at him. He never gives in to the temptation of looking down at her body. He asks what her name is (Mandy, played by Julienne Davis), showing further that he, as a responsible doctor and family man, has no interest at all in treating her like a sex object.

He tells her that she’s lucky she hasn’t died…this time, but she mustn’t do these kinds of dangerous drugs ever again. To Bill, she’s a human being, though to Ziegler, her rich client, she’s a human commodity to be enjoyed. In this scene, we see the first example of sex juxtaposed with death, or at least the danger of death.

Bill, as a middle class bourgeois, is content with what he has, since he feels no threat of losing it. But when Alice, stoned with him on marijuana the night after the party, tells him of the temptation she had of having an affair with a naval officer while she and Bill were on vacation in Cape Cod the year before, he wonders if she’s told him the whole truth, or if she’s concealing an actual affair she’s had with the man.

Bill’s fear of having been cuckolded is a symbolic castration of him, an unmanning. The resulting lack gives rise to a desire for other women he hitherto hasn’t had. A further unmanning occurs when Bill is walking the streets of New York that night, after making a sudden house call (during which a woman, the daughter of a man who has just died, declares her love to Bill…more temptation for him). A group of college-age men, one of whom bumps into Bill, taunts him with homophobic slurs. Like Fridolin in Traumnovelle, Bill feels like a coward for not challenging them to a fight.

Soon after, as he continues walking the streets, moping, and ruminating about Alice’s suspected adultery, a pretty young prostitute named Domino (played by Vinessa Shaw) comes up to him and invites him up to her apartment. Here we see how his symbolic castration, his wounded sense of manhood, his lack, gives rise to his desire.

Though he doesn’t go through with having sex with Domino (a phone call from Alice ruins the mood), the point is that he has seriously considered the sex. He even pays her the full amount.

Bourgeois, middle class Bill is liberal in his thinking: smoking pot with Alice, respectful to women when they are undressed, and therefore repressing his darker desires. But when the security of his world is threatened, those darker impulses of his start to come to the surface.

In The Liberal Mindset, I described the psychological conflict the liberal has between his id impulses towards pleasure (sex, drugs, etc.) and his superego-influenced sense of morality about responsibility to social justice issues. Since Schnitzler and Freud thought very similarly about sex and psychology (they even exchanged correspondence), it seems appropriate to apply Freudian psychoanalysis to my interpretation of this movie.

Bill, as a doctor and devoted husband (and as a bourgeois liberal), has a strong superego that normally prevents him from indulging in any temptations to adultery or to objectifying women. As long as all that is his is secure, he will be a good boy; but if the security of what is his is threatened, his superego will no longer restrain his id.

Similarly with the liberal, as long as his or her class privileges are safe, he or she will be generous and have a kind attitude towards the disadvantaged. He or she will make endless pleas for peace, and will speak out against such problems as income inequality; but elect the wrong presidential candidate, and the liberal will bang the war drums against any country accused–without a shred of evidence–of having aided said candidate to win, and he or she will have no qualms about voting in a candidate equally right-wing as this wrongfully elected incumbent, no matter how unsympathetic this new, desired candidate is to millennials or to the plight of the poor…as long as he is a Democrat.

The mask of the superego slips off, and we see the face of the id. Speaking of masks…

After the failed encounter with Domino (already proof of Bill’s willingness to exploit the poverty of prostitutes to satisfy his desires), Bill finds a night club where he knows his old friend, Nick Nightingale, is playing jazz piano. The two men chat after the end of the gig, and Bill learns of Nick’s next, far more exciting one: in the mansion of a secret society whose members are masked and cloaked, and where there will also be a bevy of beautiful, nude women!

By the end of the movie, we learn that Ziegler is one of the masked men in the mansion, as is Mandy, according to him, anyway (though she, also masked, and the one who warns Bill to leave immediately, is played by a different actress–Abigail Good). These nude, masked women are obviously prostitutes meant to satisfy the lust of the men of the secret society, men of wealth, power, and influence. By an interesting irony, the men’s masks give them their power, the power of anonymity; the prostitutes’ masks strip them of their power, by making them faceless, robbing them of their individuality, making them mere commodities instead of letting them be human beings.

Bill–the man whose superego kept him from objectifying women before, kept him from ever dreaming [!] of exploiting prostitutes, now, with his suspicions of Alice’s infidelity (and the password to the house is Fidelio!)–is letting his id run wild. He eagerly insists that Nightingale give him the password and address to the mansion.

Given the outrageous nature of the goings-on in the mansion, the pagan, seemingly near-Satanic rituals, and the orgies, as well as how unlikely the members of the secret society would just let Bill in, him having arrived in a taxi cab instead of in a limo, it seems less likely that Bill has really experienced the orgy scene than that he has just dreamed it, or at least fantasized about it.

Traumnovelle means “Dream Story”; Eyes Wide Shut seems to mean “eyes wide open while seeing a dream” (i.e., with one’s eyes shut), or it could mean refusing to see reality, preferring to see one’s fantasies. In other words, one is so preoccupied with seeing the fantasies used to gratify the pleasure principle (id), and is so preoccupied with the accompanying guilt (superego), that one’s eyes are shut to the reality principle (ego).

Along with the controversy of the sexual material in much of Schnitzler’s writing, he was also known to have been a highly sexed man, given to many a dalliance with women. Added to this was his chauvinistic attitude, most prevalent at the time, of course, that his female lovers ought to have been virgins. Only he was permitted to have a multitude of lovers.

There is much of Schnitzler in Fridolin (and therefore also in Bill, though in a more muted form, thanks to Kubrick’s and Raphael’s rewrites), and so his sexual double standards are reflected in the protagonist’s attitude; though, to be fair, Fridolin and Bill have their share of guilt over their sexual venturings. Indeed, on some level, Traumnovelle seems to have been Schnitzler’s purging of his own voracious sexual appetite.

So, has the whole, wild night really happened, is it just Bill’s imagination, or is it somewhere in between? A dream is the fulfillment of a wish, as Freud originally observed; or, as he observed two decades later in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, with his theories of the death drive and repetition compulsion, sometimes one engages in patterns of self-injury, or acts out unpleasant experiences over and over again. In other words, sometimes one has self-destructive urges, as Bill’s refusal to heed the Mysterious Woman’s warnings of the danger that the secret society poses to him–were it all a dream dramatized in his mind–would seem to indicate.

Recall that Bill has just smoked weed with Alice before going out for the house call. I don’t think his being stoned has detracted from the fantastic aspects of his experiences that night. He could easily have nodded off in his cab a couple of times–the ride to the house call and back–and he could thus have dreamt all, or at least part, of the more extreme experiences.

Certainly his encounter at the costume rental, with Mr. Milich (played by Rade Serbedžija) and his sex-kitten teen daughter (played by Leelee Sobieski), her being caught undressed with two Asian men in that awkward incident, seems wild enough to have been part of a dream. Then again, maybe much of it really did happen, for such is the blurred line between fantasy and reality in this film.

So, when Bill arrives at the mansion, we can interpret the meaning of the ritualistic, orgiastic goings-on inside in two ways: as having really happened, or as a dream/fantasy of his. Let’s consider the former interpretation first.

Like the authoritarian power of priests in ancient religion, we can see the ritualistic elements in the mansion as symbolic of the religious awe one might feel in the presence of such powerful people. In Traumnovelle, the masked men wear monks’ hoods and cloaks, and the masked prostitutes wear nuns’ habits.

As for the orgiastic aspect, the prostitutes’ nudity represents their powerlessness as have-nots (consider Shakespeare’s use of naked, as meaning ‘stripped of all belongings, without means’ [Crystal and Crystal, page 292], as used in Hamlet, Act IV, Scene vii, lines 43-51), as contrasted with the clothed men, the haves, the rich and powerful. Their threat to strip Bill of his clothes is thus to deprive him of his power, too. The women’s powerlessness is a lack of their own, giving rise to the desire for such things as drugs (i.e., Mandy’s speedball), a manic defence against the depression they must feel from always being sexually exploited.

The secret society’s exploitation of the prostitutes reminds us of Jeffrey Epstein‘s and Ghislaine Maxwell‘s prostituting of underage girls to satisfy the hebephilia and ephebophilia of all those implicated in the scandal. Their gargantuan amounts of wealth buy them the power needed to silence or kill anyone who may squeal, just as Bill is threatened by the Red Cloak (played by Leon Vitali).

So much for the interpretation that the mansion scene really happened. Now let’s interpret the scene from the point of view that Bill has imagined, or dreamed, the whole thing. Now, the goings-on in the house are a dramatization of the thought processes of Bill’s unconscious.

What we have here is a dream that is a wish-fulfillment of Bill’s desires (an orgy of anonymous sex), as well as a fulfillment, on some level at least, of his self-destructive urges (the threats). Sex meets death.

Many of the goings-on represent unconscious ego defence mechanisms: denial (Bill’s mask; his pretence that he’s a member of the secret society), projection (the members of the secret society indulging in the naughtiness instead of him), reaction formation (in Traumnovelle, the monks’ and nuns’ clothes, symbolizing the secret society’s wish to seem virtuous rather than sinful; in the original script, they were supposed to be monks’ cloaks, and actually, the cloaks and hoods we see are still rather similar to those of monks), and turning against oneself (Bill is threatened, though he hasn’t indulged in any of the sex: he’s only been watching).

Since much of the ego and superego are unconscious, the defence mechanisms tend to be activated unconsciously, too: “…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 in the analytic hour, unconscious ego defenses gain nothing from being exposed…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)

The password, Fidelio, represents Bill’s wish that his wife be faithful to him, even though he, like Schnitzler, wishes he could get away with being unfaithful to her. The fact that he is tricked into thinking there’s a second password means that his id is fulfilled by being allowed in the house, while his superego‘s unconscious wish to be punished for his thoughts of infidelity is also satisfied.

If the mansion scene is all a dream, the Mysterious Woman can easily be Mandy, who can also know that he is Bill, the doctor who helped her get through her OD ordeal, which she can see as him having saved her life. (In his narcissistic imagination, Bill can then think that this nude beauty likes him.)

Her offer “to redeem him,” a perversely Christ-like moment amidst orgiastic activity that some may deem Satanic, can be seen thus as Mandy wishing to repay Bill for having helped her at Ziegler’s Christmas party. If the mansion scene has really happened, though, her willingness to take the punishment (presumably death) for a man she apparently doesn’t know could come from her hatred of her life as an exploited prostitute, a kind of suicide.

As the focal point of Bill’s dream, the secret society is, on the one hand, an intimidatingly powerful, wealthy, influential group, and on the other hand, an envied group whose indulgence in forbidden pleasures is something Bill would love to join. They could, in this sense, be seen to represent the NWO of the conspiracy theorists (many have tried unconvincingly to associate the secret society with such things as the Illuminati), that is, in his imagination, in his dreams, as opposed to reality.

The secret society could also represent–again, in Bill’s imagination only–the “corporatists” that the right-wing libertarians accuse of perverting the “free market.” The corporatist NWO is both feared and unconsciously admired and envied, since they have a power and influence that their detractors would gladly wield, were the detractors as rich and successful.

Bill is conflicted between his id wanting to join the big club we aren’t in and participating in their lewd indulgence, and his superego‘s moral condemnation of their wickedness, hence his leaving the house unscathed and sexually unfulfilled, with a prostitute dying for him. The right-wing libertarian similarly condemns the corruption of the bourgeois state and its super-rich beneficiaries, imagining that this corruption has nothing to do with “real capitalism,” when it is easy to believe that, were he to rise up to the level of the elite, he too would be defending his and their opulence, claiming they’d got there through ‘hard work, gumption, and talent,’ rather than through the merciless exploitation of the working class. Just look at the libertarian Koch brothers to see what I mean.

The liberal has similar repressed desires, including his wish to preserve his class privileges, though his loftier ego ideal would have him pretend to care for the exploited, as Bill consciously does Mandy.

So, a combination of Bill’s jealousy over Alice’s suspected infidelity, his smoking of weed intensifying that jealousy and fogging his mind, his fatigue throughout the night, his presumed napping in the cabs, and his own guilt over his near-succumbing to temptation has all blurred the boundary between fantasy and reality for him.

The stress he has felt–Was the Mysterious Woman murdered by the secret society? Was she Mandy? Did she just OD one too many times? Will the secret society have him and his family killed? Did he just dream/imagine it all?–is at least to a large extent just a dramatization of his own conflict.

Projecting onto a murderous, rich elite helps Bill to forget that he, too, has at least wanted, and has the money, to exploit prostitutes, just as Milich, the owner of the small costuming business, prostitutes his own daughter. Whether petite or grande, bourgeois are still bourgeois.

Bill has the same desires as Alice, who definitely dreams of being in an orgy with men and laughs while dreaming, then weeps about it after waking up. Here we see the difference between the indulgent unconscious and the censorious conscious mind. Bill also has the same desires as Ziegler, whose Christmas party, with the constant flirtation among the guests, is a double of the mansion orgy, as well as its inspiration for Bill’s dream. Alice’s orgy dream is also a double of the mansion orgy dream.

If the mansion orgy is a dream, so is every following scene associated with it. These scenes include Bill’s return to the house gates to receive the warning letter, his fortuitous discovery of a newspaper article about Mandy’s death by drug overdose, his seeing her body at the morgue (his id ogling her nude body like a necrophile, though his superego mourns her death and his ego fears for his and his family’s lives), and Ziegler’s explanation that her “sacrifice” was staged. All of these scenes thus are unconscious wish-fulfillments, expressions of Eros, as well as expressions of the death drive.

Finally, Bill breaks down and cries in his bedroom, waking Alice up, because he sees his mask on the pillow beside her. Is this because the secret society’s muscle have been following him everywhere, or has he, because of all the stress he’s been enduring, hallucinated it? (Alice doesn’t seem to notice it.)

After all, he returned to Domino’s apartment with a gift, hoping to finish what he started the last time; and since she wasn’t home, but her pretty roommate was there instead, he was tempted to cheat with her. The news of Domino being HIV-positive reinforces the sex/death link. Domino’s bedroom walls are also covered in masks, inspiring the mansion dream as well as linking his guilt feelings with seeing (or hallucinating) his mask lying on his pillow.

He tearfully confesses everything to Alice, and the last scene shows them Christmas shopping with their daughter in the toy section of a department store. Their discussion of the matter doesn’t seem to be so much about the threats of a secret society as about his guilt feelings. This would explain why, as a solution, their focus is on loving each other, and why Alice says that, as soon as possible, they should “Fuck.” It’s all about dealing with their temptations to adultery, not a fear of being murdered.

Meanwhile, Christmas lights and decorations have been seen throughout the movie, except for the ‘Satanic’ mansion scene, of course. Christmas in this context should not in any way be confused with the Christmas spirit. In line with the commodification of women (symbolic of the exploitation of the working class in general) seen from beginning to end, Christmas here should be understood only in terms of consumerism, the fetishization of commodities, hence the final scene of the Harfords doing their Christmas shopping.

The point is that ending the elite’s exploitation of prostitutes, and of all of the working class, must include those lower-level bourgeois, like Bill, also no longer exploiting other people. One cannot stop at overthrowing those at the very top; one must overturn the entire capitalist system, and those among the petite bourgeoisie can be a great help, provided they join the workers’ cause. As Mao once said, “Our closest friends are the entire semi-proletariat and petty bourgeoisie.” (Mao, page 7)

Consider the opening of Traumnovelle, when the daughter of Fridolin and Albertine is reading the story in which “brown slaves” row a prince’s galley to a caliph’s palace. The narration’s concern is with the prince meeting the princess once he reaches the shore; the slaves, however, are as faceless, as anonymously disposable, as the nude masked women in the mansion.

Bill has shown all that concern for Mandy, but he has done so from the hypocritical point of view of a liberal. As with his condolences for Domino over her having tested HIV-positive, his empathy for Mandy is a thin disguise–a mask–covering his desire to have both women in bed.

The proletariat is always “ready to redeem” the bourgeoisie, suffering and dying so the rich can continue to live well. “Someone died,” Ziegler says to Bill, referring to Mandy. “It happens all the time. Life goes on. It always does, until it doesn’t.” The eyes of the bourgeoisie are wide open to the pleasures they can see, but shut to the suffering of those they pay to give them that pleasure. Life is a dream story for the wealthy, but a nightmare, a trauma novella, for the poor.

Rewriting Your Life Story

Because of the trauma we suffer as victims of narcissistic and emotional abuse, we tend to ruminate about our past long after the period of abuse is over. The past can dominate our lives, through such things as intrusive thoughts, so much that it’s as if the painful period was our life in its entirety.

How can we break free from the past? There are many methods that can help, such as meditation, putting our trauma into words, using self-hypnosis to treat the past as something no longer relevant to our present lives, or using auto-hypnosis to imagine a new, idealized family to replace, in our minds, the abusive family we grew up with.

Another method, suggested by Michele Lee Nieves in this video, is to rewrite one’s life story. Instead of rehashing the same old pain from before, now that we’re out of the abusive relationship, we imagine a new, positive end to our life story to give us a sense of hope and purpose in our new lives.

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To give an example, I’ll rewrite my own life story here and now. I’m going to parallel it with many points in the legendary life of the Buddha: this is not meant to imply that I’m in any way even remotely comparable to him in the saintly or enlightened sense (I’m quite the opposite, actually, and I don’t mean that in the dialectical sense!), but rather that both life narratives chart a course from the realization of suffering to a striving to end that suffering. I find such correspondences to be inspiring in my quest to be healed. Let’s begin:

I was born into a petite bourgeois, middle-class family who fancied themselves very capable. My parents imagined themselves to be the ultimate authorities of their world, like a king and queen.

My mother, as I’ve explained many times in a number of posts, was a habitual liar, gaslighting, triangulating, and doing smear campaigns against me and my cousins to the rest of the family. My elder siblings, her flying monkeys, helped her bully and emotionally abuse me. Because of her many needless fabrications, I can see her as the very personification of illusion, the māyā, or powerful, illusory magic, as it were, that addles the mind, deceives us, and thus causes suffering.

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It was as though she’d died shortly after I was born, for I afterwards felt little affection from her, just the illusion of maternal care masking an agenda to keep me in her control. I was a sensitive child, and the rest of the family had little patience for me. My father wanted me to get a high-paying job in something like business: I had no interest whatsoever in such things.

When I was a young man, I finally ventured out into the world and learned what it was really like, as opposed to the world my family had hoped to keep me inside, with superficially pleasant things to keep me distracted from the truth. A number of things I saw outside made me understand the illusions of home.

I realized that my mother, the personification of all those illusions, was getting old. Her ideas about me were old and outmoded, having no more usefulness in my life. In fact, they’d never been useful.

I realized that she, as that personification of māyā, was a sick woman. Sick with breast cancer, but more importantly, sick with some form of pathological narcissism.

Finally, she died, not only physically, but also as any kind of guide in my life. In fact, she’d never been a real guide. As I said above, it was as if she’d died only about a week after my birth.

A fourth realization came after her death, though: I learned of people who overcame their trauma, and who were able to live their lives in peace, in spite of their previous suffering. I thus decided that I wanted to achieve the same peace.

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Naturally, there was resistance from the family, but I insisted on having my way. I renounced them as the toxic environment that they were and are. Even the inheritance money my mother left for me–a lot of money!— I gave up, insisting that the lawyers give my fourth in thirds to my older brothers and sister.

I gave the money up–an act most people would consider foolish, of course–because I felt it would be hypocritical of me to feel such animosity towards my mother on the one hand, and yet say, “Oh, but gimme-gimme the money!” on the other. I had to be consistent with my principles: if I was to renounce the family, I had to renounce everything, even sacrificing the good parts.

Also, giving up the money was my way of telling the family that my motives are far from always self-centred, an attribute they used to justify their bullying and demeaning of me. If all there was to me was selfishness, why wouldn’t I just take the money? I had a perfect legal right to it, and I could still say that Mom’s giving it to me came nowhere close to compensating for all the injuries she’d done to me. Still, I gave it up…because contrary to what the family believes about me, not everything in me is about getting more and more for myself.

Finally, I gave up the money because I didn’t want to feel in any way obligated to have anything to do with them anymore. I didn’t want to be beholden to them at all.

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My next move was to learn everything I could about the root causes of the abuse I’d suffered (narcissistic mothers), and about how to heal myself. I learned a lot of useful things, but I also turned a few bad corners (e.g. spending a lot of money on an online course that gave me only minimal help; also, sharing many of my blog posts on these topics on Facebook pages with unappreciative members…a.k.a. haters). I’ve found myself more inclined to find the answers I need on my own.

I’ve also found meditation helpful, though temptations distract me. I’ve been assailed by doubts about whether I correctly interpreted the meaning of what happened to me as a child; this is known as second-guessing. The guilt-tripping and shaming that that toxic family subjected me to, as well as all of their gaslighting, was the basis of my second-guessing. Overall, however, I’ve managed not to cave into these doubts.

Other temptations have not been so easy to resist. Feelings of anger towards my former abusers, sometimes in the form of intrusive thoughts, distracts me from focusing on what I call the Three Unities (those of Space, Time, and Action) that give me soothing peace if I concentrate hard enough. Other times, it’s lustful desires that break my concentration. Usually, though, it’s simply itchiness. In the long run, I manage to overcome these distractions.

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Now, outside of the healing power of meditation, I nonetheless struggle with my emotional pain, and it causes me to manifest self-destructiveness in the forms of sleeplessness, poor nutrition, and a generally unhealthy, irritable mood. Add to all of this my C-PTSD tendency to catastrophize any problem, and I can pull myself down very low.

Thankfully, I have the love of my wife, who–despite how difficult she finds it to be patient with a man as irritable as I am–makes sure I get a reasonable amount of fruit in my diet, among other healthy foods. She is the best thing that ever happened to me.

Since her having helped me through my worst emotional period, just following my mother’s death and my estrangement from the family, I have shown more resolve in practicing meditation and in formulating a philosophy to help me heal. When it comes to the roots of narcissistic abuse, I’ve come to understand certain basic truths:

  1. While the experience of a kind of, so to speak, psychic mutilation is common and universal, some have it far worse than others.
  2. This psychic mutilation is a lack that gives rise to desire, which in turn causes more suffering; and those whose psychic mutilation is more severe (as among those with NPD or other Cluster B personality disorders), causing in them even greater desire, those people in turn cause ever more suffering.
  3. This suffering and psychic mutilation can be healed.
  4. It can be healed through the following: having the right understanding of the above three truths; making a firm decision to heal; speaking with kind, rather than violent, words (to oneself as well as to others); acting with kindness and selflessness to others; writing, with the most vividly descriptive of words, about all of one’s pain; making an effort to resist the old, painful habits, while striving also to revive and sustain new and healthy habits; always being mindful and remembering to strive for the goal of healing; and meditating with the most focused of concentration.
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In the process of moving towards this goal of healing, we must remember to strive with diligence, but also with moderation. We mustn’t expect too much of ourselves too soon, and we mustn’t beat ourselves over the head with shame when we inevitably fail from time to time. At the same time, we mustn’t be lazy or complacent, lest we backslide into our previous, mutilated emotional state.

One thing to remember is that the ego is an illusion, the narcissistic looking at oneself in the mirror or pond reflection, a defence against psychic mutilation. This fake ego, taken to extremes, leads to pathological narcissistic states. We aren’t permanent entities unto ourselves; there is just the infinite ocean of the universe, and we are all just drops of water in it.

As difficult as this all will be to understand and achieve, we can take refuge in the notion of our universal potential to be at one with the peaceful, oceanic state of what I call the Unity of Space, what Hindus call that identity of Atman with Brahman. We can also take refuge in all the teachings we have learned from, these written here above and those from outside sources. Finally, we can take refuge in the community and empathy of fellow sufferers, fellow victims of narcissistic and emotional abuse (whether online or in one’s immediate physical vicinity); and we can take refuge in the internalized parental system as discussed here.

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In life, I will continue to face difficult people, and will face challenges; there is no escape from problems, but if I face those difficulties with the philosophical ideas laid out here, I should be able to cope reasonably well. Happiness doesn’t consist in an absence of problems; it consists in the ability to deal with them.

Along with problems, though, life will sometimes give us blessings. We should always be grateful for every good thing that comes our way, and never take blessings for granted. Besides, gratitude, felt regularly, increases happiness.

I have a lot to be grateful for, especially during the past twenty-four years. Instead of being the absurdly wrong things the family claimed I would be (My mother wondered in her lies if I, an ‘autistic‘ child of about nine or ten, would ever even make a good garbageman; my bully-brother F. growled that I’d be “a loser for the rest of my life” back when I was a teen), instead of me being any of that nonsense, I have become a successful English teacher, one who not only teaches the language, but also aspects of Western culture, as well as political concepts.

I have a wonderful wife whom I love dearly, one who also suffers my ill temper with far more patience than I deserve. Now, if I can fully heal from my early traumas, she’ll see how much of a good man I can be. My wish for her to see the very best version of myself should be plentiful a motive in me to strive hard for that healing. This success would give a much-needed, and much-deserved, happy ending to so sadly-begun a life.

************

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As you can see, Dear Reader, I started my narrative with the sad, inauspicious beginnings associated with the family’s narcissistic abuse. Then I moved into a gradual transformation of the bad beginnings, through my reflections on all that was wrong, into a growing sense of knowledge of myself and the world surrounding me. I ended on a happy, encouraging note, one that would inspire me to continue down the good path.

When you rewrite your life story, my suggestion is to write in a similarly transformative narrative arc. Good luck with it! 🙂

Archaic Trauma

[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]

By “archaic,” I refer to the use of the term by post-Freudian psychoanalysts like Melanie Klein. She wrote of the terrifying archaic mother that exists in babies’ minds during their first few months, when they’re experiencing what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position. This position is a splitting of the internal object of the mother into extremes of good and bad, accompanied by intense persecutory anxiety after trying to split off and project the bad mother.

Heinz Kohut also referred to archaic feelings in the infantile mental state, old feelings that are brought back to the surface of consciousness in the adult patient through the narcissistic transferences. He studied and treated patients with narcissistic personality disorders, those who “are suffering from specific disturbances in the realm of the self and of those archaic objects cathected with narcissistic libido (self-objects) which are still in intimate connection with the archaic self (i.e., objects which are not experienced as separate and independent from the self).” (Kohut, page 3)

So I’m using “archaic” to mean old emotional experiences from early childhood and infancy, repressed as the years go by and forgotten about. Yet remember that whatever we repress comes back, though in a new and unrecognizable form.

Many of our traumas are of this archaic kind. As infants, we can’t prevent moments when our parents frustrated us, which results in us using the defence mechanism of splitting, or dividing our internal mental representations of our parents into absolute good and bad, and then projecting the bad half outward. If those parents have gone beyond being merely frustrating, and have ventured into being emotionally neglectful or even abusive, imagine how much more severe the splitting will be, and how much more severe the archaic trauma will be.

I’ve written several times before of my speculations on what my mother’s infancy and early childhood must have been like, she having been born in England in August, 1938, and doubtlessly having been surrounded by stressed-out parents and relatives during the Blitz, if not having endured the ordeal of bombings right there in their own city.

To have to take in, as a tender infant, such overwhelming agitation would have been unbearable. Such bad vibes would have had to be expelled and split off from the self. There’s no way an infant would have been able to process such archaic trauma.

The two poles of my mother’s nascent personality–those two being her infantile grandiose self, using her own mother as an empathic mirror of it, and her father as idealized parental imago–were in an unstable state because of the war. When her father died, she as a child lost the idealized pole, her beloved role model, forever; when, as I suspect, she found her now-single mother too busy and stressed to be sufficiently emotionally available for her, the other pole was insecure.

Her mother’s marrying of her now step-father must have caused some friction, that of the “No one can replace my daddy” sort. To defend herself from the psychological fragmentation that would accompany this weakening of her bipolar self–which, had it not been weakened, would have resulted in her grandiose self being let down in bearable amounts (known as “optimal frustration“), leading to mature, restrained, and healthy levels of narcissism–my mother would have had to build up a pathologically narcissistic False Self.

This False Self of hers gave her stability, allowing her to function in the world, in spite of her pathologies. That archaic trauma, however, was never resolved. Whatever gets pushed back into the unconscious will return, as I said above, though in a form that isn’t easily recognized.

I have every reason to suspect that, now grown-up, married to my dad, and a mother, she regularly behaved like a tyrant to my elder siblings, my brothers R. and F., and my sister, J, when they were little. I suspect that the bulk of the abuse they suffered from her was either before I was born, or when I was too young to know what was going on, let alone remember.

I’ve already related the story of our mother bragging (decades after the incident) about pulling down the pants of R. (then a kid) and publicly spanking him in a supermarket for “being a brat” (his fault, for all I know, could have been anywhere on a continuum from “being a brat” to just causing her narcissistic injury). “He never did it again,” she boasted, proud of her power over a little boy.

I’ll bet there were many instances of her doing this kind of thing to all three of my siblings, of her (and, to be fair to her, of our dad doing it, too) beating them (physically or mentally) into submission. The archaic trauma that they’d have felt, at so young an age, would have made it virtually impossible for them to process what had been done to them, let alone understand its true meaning.

Children at such a tender age are far too helpless to go around questioning the motives of their parents. In their state of utter dependency, children cannot afford (literally) to contemplate the possibility that their parents are, often if not almost always, bad people. When punished, bullied, threatened, or abused by Mom or Dad, a child will find it easier to blame him- or herself for the problem; this is a defence mechanism called turning against oneself.

The frustrating bad parent is nonetheless still there, and the child has to deal with the resulting pain in one form or another. As I said above, the child can engage in splitting, recognizing only the good parent and attempting to project the bad one far outside himself. This ejecting, I believe, is what R., F., and J. did with those aspects of our mother that were so hurtful. They also turned against themselves whenever she flew into narcissistic rages, instead of contemplating the far more painful possibility that one of the two crucial people feeding them, clothing them, and putting a roof over their heads often got mad at them for immature, totally unjustified reasons.

J., the golden child of our family (and therefore the top candidate to be the narcissistic second-in-command in our family, since our father tended to be bad-mouthed by our mother, that is, if she felt he’d crossed her in some way), would have been disappointed in Dad’s insufficient empathic mirroring of her grandiose self; so J. would have compensated for this insufficiency by having Mom as her idealized parental imago.

Because of this idealizing, J. would react to any of our mother’s rages with fawning. What makes my elder siblings’ world have psychological stability is their bedrock belief in the narrative that our mother was a ‘wonderful, loving family woman’…yes, one who gossiped about and bad-mouthed her nephews, stirred up resentment and division in our family, and emotionally abused me with gaslighting and lies about an autism spectrum disorder I’ve never had. Some love.

This insistence that Mom was ‘so wonderful and loving,’ just like Mom’s having told me on her deathbed that she’d given me “the most love” (i.e., more than she’d given R., F., and J., which is utter nonsense–she most obviously favoured J., her golden child), was a blatant example of reaction formation. To keep alive the myth that ‘we’re all one big happy, loving family,’ R., F., and J. speak of Mom’s wonderful love instead of facing up to the painful reality that was the opposite of this fabled love: at best, she loved us conditionally–if we gave her narcissistic supply, she was good to us; if we failed to give her that supply, there’d be hell to pay. R., F., and J. learned how to play Mom’s game.

I didn’t learn the game, because I didn’t want to (I hate phoniness). I would also pay dearly for that refusal. I paid for my individual ways by being made into the family scapegoat, or identified patient. My ‘illness’ as that ‘patient’ was the autism lie, a label used to make me feel different from everyone else, and thus to isolate me, judge me, and make me feel inferior to the rest of the family.

You see, they all had their forms of archaic trauma, and they needed to release all that pent-up pain. In me, someone five years younger than J., six years younger than F., and eight years younger than R. (making them adolescents when I was a little boy, and young adults when I was an adolescent), they had the perfect emotional punching bag. They projected everything they hated about themselves onto me, and displaced all their frustration at the split-off bad mother and bad father onto me. Getting all that negative energy out of themselves allowed them otherwise to function.

I, on the other hand, didn’t have the luxury of a younger brother or sister that I could take out all my pain on. That my elder siblings, mother, and to an extent my father, could use me for that purpose shows not only how spectacularly they failed at being that ‘loving family’ they fancied themselves to be, but also shows what cowards they were. Anyone can take his frustrations out on a powerless child; not everyone can look in the mirror and see what’s wrong with himself.

Now, to be fair, on a number of occasions, I as a teacher have found myself blowing up at students (little kids, generally) whenever they irritated me, frustrated me, or made my job stressful in any other way. I have also, unlike R., F., J., or our late mother, usually apologized sincerely to those kids and made genuine efforts to control my anger. And I have never used gaslighting on a student to make him believe he had a mental disorder he doesn’t have, to maintain power over him.

The bullying that my family subjected me to involved intimidating me to the point where I rarely dared to fight back. This, of course, started when I was very little, and they were all much bigger than I. At the time, my caving in to them and letting them walk all over me was a simple survival tactic. By the time I’d grown taller, I was already programmed never to fight back. Our mother’s typical defending of them at my expense only reinforced that programmed passivity of mine. The bullying I endured in school didn’t help, of course.

This timidity of mine, my ‘freeze‘ response, was based on my archaic trauma. If I ever dared to fight back, I knew the family would double down on me with their nastiness, because they never wanted to lose power over me. Their rationalizations over why they ‘had to’ get so nasty (I was ‘so frustrating’ and ‘annoying,’ while they apparently never were), combined with a few good deeds done here and there for me, reassured them of their collective delusion that they were always ‘loving’ to me.

Our family relationships were based on lies, for not only did Mom have her False Self, but she also assigned False Selves to us: I had to play the role of scapegoat; J. was the golden child; R. and F. were somewhere between golden children (to the extent that Mom had them be that way) and lost children (to the extent that she and Dad would have them that way); and Dad, to an extent, had the ‘tyrannical parent’ label projected onto him by Mom. None of us could be our authentic selves, for keeping the family myth alive was all important.

Curing these archaic traumas, however, is crucial to our healing process. We have to dig deep down into our early years to find the root cause of this pain. The fact that uncovering this pain is…well, painful…naturally discourages us from trying, and many of us cannot afford psychotherapy.

I find that mindfulness meditation is helpful in finding a state of calm with which to start the day, a way to contain all my agitations, but it isn’t enough. In Bion‘s containment theory, we learn (originally as babies through our mothers’ help) how to process agitating emotional experiences, detoxify them, and transform them into acceptable feelings. My ocean meditation, imagining my body to be part of an infinite ocean, with waves of energy flowing in, through, and out of me, can represent this taking in of agitating feelings, detoxifying them, and passing out the transformed, soothing vibes.

I’d be fooling myself, and I’d be being disingenuous to you, Dear Reader, if I were to say that such meditating is all we needed to do. Meditation helps a lot, I think, but we need to do more to detoxify our archaic traumas.

This is where putting trauma into words comes in. We need to face those old, painful experiences and find a way to express our feelings about them, without judgement, and all the while validating how we feel. When the trauma hit us, we felt angry, hurt, betrayed, frightened, crazy…and it’s OK to have felt that way. There’s no shame in feeling these feelings; such feelings are part of being human.

We have to feel these feelings, write about them, talk about them, create art based on them…whatever will help the healing process. We have to mourn the loving family we never got to have. This is how we get past the paranoid-schizoid position–that of splitting everyone and everything into black-and-white halves, then ejecting the bad half instead of facing it–and move into the depressive position–of integrating the split halves, seeing everyone and everything as a grey mixture of good and bad…because whatever splitting we do outside is also split inside ourselves.

In case you’re wondering, Dear Reader, if I’m at all working on integrating the split halves of my ‘good mother’ and ‘bad mother,’ as well as the split halves of my siblings, the best answer I can give you is this. Though, through the course of this and almost all of every other post I’ve written about my family, you’ve read me bash each and every one of them; I’ve also on occasion acknowledged that they all have their good sides, too, including my late mother. My negative judgement of them (and I’m sure they have the same overall assessment of me, too) is based on finding that what’s bad in them exceeds what was and is good in them.

As for the remaining ‘good mother’ in my mother, I have this quandary that I can never resolve: how am I to judge those times when she was good to me, that is, when the goodness was real kindness on her part, and when was the goodness just a reward for having given her narcissistic supply? What percentage should I attribute to the former, and what percentage to the latter? Given all the evil she’d done to me, I find I can only assume that the former portion is the smaller–much smaller–amount. Given the collective narcissism she spawned in her flying monkeys, my siblings, I can only assume that their genuinely heart-felt moments of goodness to me were also few and far between.

It’s an awful feeling going through your life knowing your family never truly loved you, that it was more of an act put on to preserve their public image than anything sincere. You go through life not knowing what real love is, not knowing who to trust, because the dysfunctional, abusive family you grew up in is how you define a ‘normal’ family, in the absence of strong alternatives. When loving people present themselves to you, you tend to reject them because your trauma won’t allow you to trust even people totally worthy of that trust.

Because of these difficulties, it is imperative that we go through these archaic traumas and find ways to heal. You don’t want to continue with the same destructive patterns that those traumas caused you to make into habits. There are lots of videos on YouTube (you might like Michelle Lee Nieves‘s videos, or perhaps Richard Grannon‘s) and online articles out there; I recommend you look for them, if you find that what I’ve written is ineffective.

Meanwhile, do mindfulness meditations, engage in self-care regularly, catch yourself whenever you engage in negative self-talk, practice self-compassion, write about your traumatic feelings (that’s what I’m doing here, for myself!), listen to positive affirmations while in a semi-hypnotic, meditative state (to make you more suggestible to the affirmations), and find communities of support.

Remember, above all, that you are none of those awful things your abusers called you. All that verbal abuse was just them projecting everything wrong with themselves onto you. None of that was you. And if you’re none of those bad things, why not begin to believe that you’re a whole lot of good things instead?

Knees

For
far
too
long
have cops pressed knees
on black men’s necks.

For
too
long
have
blacks had to kneel
before standing whites.

Yet,
at
one
time,
Colin took a knee
when they’d have him stand.

The
Man
up
top
would keep down low
those he despises.

To
end
the
pain,
we’ll have to rise,
get up, and fight.

Stand
when
we
must,
kneel when we wish,
rest when we win.

Let’s
kneel
and
pray
that, one day soon,
we all will stand

as
one,
and
no
more will whites kneel
on blacks’ sore necks.

Analysis of the Echo and Narcissus Myth

I will be basing my analysis of this myth largely on the poetic narrative in Ovid‘s Metamorphoses. Though Ovid uses the Roman names for the gods, I’ll be using the Greek names.

Echo and Narcissus represent two extremes of the human personality. Echo is all for other people, to the detriment of herself, and Narcissus is all for himself, to the detriment of others…and of himself.

As the personification of excessive ego-libido, though, Narcissus isn’t the only character in this story who is tainted with this vice. Zeus and Hera, in their own ways, are excessively egotistical and exploitative, too, being the king and queen of heaven, and having all the privileges and arrogance of a ruling class.

Zeus’ presumptuous arrogance lies in, among other things, his belief that he is entitled to enjoy any pretty young mortal woman or nymph he likes. He jumps them and ravishes them without any consideration for whether or not they consent to his lustful acts.

Of course, Hera doesn’t approve of his affairs, but no part of her anger comes from any consideration that Zeus is a rapist; rather, her wrath comes from the narcissistic injury she feels at not being enough to satisfy his lust. (Recall, also, that she is his elder sister as well as his wife, and she would proudly deny that women enjoy sex as much as a man; accordingly, she is annoyed when Tiresias tells her women enjoy it much more than men do.) Instead of feeling any compassion for Zeus’ rape victims, she punishes them for tempting him away from her, thus blaming the victim.

As for Echo, the Oread is merely obeying Zeus’s command by distracting Hera with her long-winded stories, giving the nymphs he has enjoyed time to get away, so he’d not be caught in the act of adultery with them. Echo may be talkative, but this in itself is a minor fault. Hera’s punishment, forcing Echo never to say anything other than the final words of anyone speaking immediately before her mimicking, is too much to bear.

Hera’s punishment, an excessive one motivated by narcissistic rage against someone who couldn’t refuse Zeus’ command, is a form of emotional abuse. Echo’s loquacity is a fault, but one’s right not to have to suffer emotional abuse should not be dependent on one not having any significant faults.

Taking away Echo’s ability to speak her own words, making her only repeat those of others, is tantamount to taking away her very individuality, her identity. To exist as a person is dependent on one’s ability to express what one feels inside. Talking is, in itself, a kind of psychotherapy.

Just as narcissism is derived from Narcissus, so is “Echoism” derived from Echo. Coined by psychoanalyst Dean Davis and popularized by psychologist Dr. Craig Malkin, Echoism is the polar opposite of narcissism. Echoists are extreme codependent people-pleasers. Just as narcissists live in a solipsistic world in which other people are mere extensions of themselves, Echoists are so much extensions of others that they have no sense of themselves at all.

Small wonder Echo–in her pining away, in her despair over Narcissus’ rejection of her love–disintegrates…her body vanishing, her only remaining existence being her voice, never even speaking its own words, but only imitating the words of others. The Echoist’s personality is engulfed, swallowed up, by the personalities of other people.

As for Narcissus, we see not only his ego-libido (self-love)–in the form of what Freud called secondary narcissism, a regression from the object-libido (love of others) one is supposed to develop after outgrowing the ego-libido of infantile primary narcissism–but we also see malignant traits in him, directed towards other people. His contempt for others is shown in the cruelty with which he rejects not only the love of Echo, but that of all of the admirers–male and female–of his good looks.

Narcissists are known for their viciousness and cruelty to others, and their namesake is, of course, no exception. Ameinius, a man who feels an unrequited homosexual passion for Narcissus, kills himself out of grief, but not before praying to have his cruel love-object understand the pain of never being able to have the object of his desire. According to Ovid, Nemesis hears his prayer; according to Robert Gravesversion of the narrative, Artemis answers it (Graves, page 287).

And so, Narcissus goes for a drink from that fateful pool of water. His admiration of his reflection is like Lacan‘s notion of the mirror stage, only Narcissus’ experience is an extreme version of the self-alienation we all as infants first experience on at least some level.

He sees his ideal-I in the watery reflection; it’s him, yet it isn’t him. Infants develop a sense of an ego when they first see themselves in a mirror, the reflection showing a unified, coherent totality of a self, as opposed to the awkward, clumsy, fragmented self the baby feels himself to be. One feels oneself to be so incomplete, yet the specular image seems so whole, so together, so perfect…and so over there, not here, even when the reflection is as close to oneself as it is to Narcissus. So close, yet so far away.

The ideal of perfection seen over there is something one strives to equal for the length of one’s life, just as Narcissus aches to hold in his arms the body he sees in the watery reflection, but can’t hold (Mary M. Innes translation, page 92). He can’t, just as none of us can attain the ideal we see in the mirror, that fantasied self-image, for the ego we see over there is a lie.

The lie that Narcissus sees in the water is his narcissistic False Self; his True Self is the wretched young man looking down into the water. As Tiresias has prophesied, Narcissus will live to an old age…if he never comes to know himself. Too late for that; the boy was better off vainly admiring his seemingly perfect False Self, never knowing the limitations of his True Self.

As Narcissus suffers from a love that will never be returned to him, so does Echo. Yet where her identity fades into nothingness, all that’s left being a voice imitative of others, his death is really a transformation into another pretty object to be admired–the narcissus flower of white petals and a yellow centre (Innes, page 94…though, in Graves’s version, he plunges a dagger into his chest, and the narcissus flower springs up from his blood soaked on the ground–page 288).

Her disintegration symbolizes how the codependent victim of narcissistic abuse is slowly chipped away at, caused to erode, to lose one’s sense of self to one’s domineering environment, only repeating the feelings of others, never one’s own feelings. His transformation into a flower symbolizes how, even in death, a narcissist can still be loved and admired, even by such victims of his as Echo (who mourns for Narcissus to the end), as well as by his flying monkeys and enablers.

Echoism and narcissism thus represent two uncomfortable extremes on a personality spectrum. A balance between ego-libido and object-libido (love for other people) should be striven for. One must have neither too much nor too little a sense of self. There must be neither all-I nor all-you…but we.

Of course, this split between extreme self-love and self-hate might not be so pronounced in our society if the ruling class–each Zeus and Hera of today’s world–weren’t so vain themselves. For it is their self-absorption that causes the alienation resulting, in turn, in the pathologies of the masses.

Analysis of ‘A Cure for Wellness’

A Cure for Wellness is a 2016 psychological horror film written for the screen by Justin Haythe and directed by Gore Verbinski, based on a story they wrote together. It stars Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, and Mia Goth.

Haythe and Verbinski were inspired by Thomas Mann‘s novel, The Magic Mountain, which also features a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. This inspiration in turn suggests the influence of Nietzsche‘s having spent many summers in Switzerland, often hiking in the Alps, in the hopes that the climate and fresh air would be therapeutic for his ill health.

The film got mixed-to-negative reviews because of its perceived-to-be excessive length, and its ending, which some deemed disappointing–though its visuals and performances were generally praised. Perhaps if one thought of it less as a horror film, and more as a drama with thought-provoking, philosophical themes, one would see more value in it, as I hope to demonstrate. Indeed, there seems to be the potential for the film to become a cult classic.

Furthermore, though this film came out in 2016/2017, a reconsideration of it (as of this post’s 2020 publication) would be timely, given the current coronavirus outbreak. The American response to the crisis has been markedly inferior to that of China and Cuba: on the one hand, not enough is being done in terms of helping the overworked, underfunded health services; and on the other hand, too much fear-mongering seems to be going on in the media, often motivated by governments with authoritarian agendas. The film deals with similar issues: the capitalist world cares too little about the sick, while Dr. Volmer (Isaacs), director of the sanitarium in which the story is set, seems overly solicitous of patients’ health…and for not-so-noble reasons.

This analysis is dedicated, and with a shout-out to, my Facebook friend, Gunnar Angeles, who, as a fan of the film, has been eager to have me write something up on it. I hope you like it, Gunnar.

Here are some quotes:

“There is a sickness inside us. Rising like the bile that leaves that bitter taste at the back of our throats. It’s there in every one of you seated around the table. We deny its existence until one day the body rebels against the mind and screams out, ‘I am not a well man.’ No doubt you will think only of the merger. That unclean melding of two equally diseased institutions. But the truth cannot be ignored. For only when we know what ails us can we hope to find the cure. I will not return. Do not attempt to contact me again. Sincerely, Roland E. Pembroke.” –Lockhart (DeHaan), reading Pembroke’s letter while sitting at a boardroom table

“Dad? Dad!” –9-year-old Lockhart (Douglas Hamilton), on seeing his father jump off a bridge

“You ever have a twelve inch black dick in your ass? Prison, Mr. Lockhart.” –Hollis

“No-one ever leaves.” –Hannah von Reichmerl (Goth)

Pembroke (Harry Groener): Is that why you came all this way? Ambition? Then you have it worse than any of us.
Lockhart: What’s that?
Pembroke: The sickness. Your father saw the truth long before the rest of us. The pointlessness of the entire endeavor. We’ve all done terrible things. So many terrible things…[submerging into the pool water]

“There’s something in the water. There’s something in the fucking water!” –Lockhart

Hannah: You made me believe I could leave here one day.
Lockhart: Why would anybody wanna leave?” [brainwashed, and grinning with dentures]

“I’m not a patient!” –Lockhart (repeated line)

Volmer (Isaacs): For the human physiology, the effect of the water can be quite toxic…unless, of course, it is properly filtered. The baron devised the process, using the bodies of peasants that belonged to his land. He managed to distill the water to its life-giving essence. Of course, he paid a terrible price for his ingenuity. His only mistake was to use subjects who were unwilling. Luckily, times have changed. The last two hundred years have been the most productive in human history. Man rid himself of God, of hierarchy, of everything that gave him meaning, until he was left worshipping the empty altar of his own ambition. That is why they come, men like you. You’re quite right, Mr. Lockhart: no one ever leaves. What you fail to understand is that no one wants to.

Pembroke[brainwashed] I’ve never felt better.

[last lines]
Hollis (Lisa Banes): [as Lockhart begins cycling away with Hannah] Are you insane?
Lockhart[last line of the film; with a crazed grin on his face] Actually… I’m feeling much better now![Lockhart continues biking into the night]

The film’s paradoxical title already introduces a theme before the story has even begun: the dialectical relationship between illness and health. (Recall Dr. Volmer’s words: “Do you know what the cure for the human condition is? Disease. Because only then is there hope for a cure.”) Put another way, sometimes those who would harm us the worst are those who claim to be most concerned for our health.

The protagonist, a young American businessman named Lockhart, is aptly named, for his name sounds like a pun on ‘locked heart.’ Indeed, the trauma he suffered as a child, watching his father commit suicide by jumping off a bridge, when combined with his experience of the cutthroat world of capitalism, has closed his heart from enjoying close relationships with other people. His ‘locked heart’ will be opened soon enough, though, when he meets Hannah.

The board of directors of his company want him to go to the Swiss Alps to find and bring back a fellow executive, an elderly man named Pembroke, who is desperately needed by the company to help sign a merger and deal with a criminal investigation of malfeasance–something that’s Lockhart’s fault, but something they plan to make Pembroke take responsibility for.

The only half-decent relationship Lockhart has with anybody is with his mother, and even this relationship is tenuous. She makes a figurine of a ballerina who “doesn’t know she’s dreaming,” and gives it to him. Just before his trip to Switzerland, his mother dies, something he recalls in a long dream during, ironically, the one good, long sleep he’s had in ages.

His giving of the ballerina figurine to Hannah is symbolic of his love of his mother transferred onto the girl. His growing relationship with Hannah–from his having a beer with her in a pub, to her giving the now “awake” figurine back to him (a return of that love, which in turn breaks him out of his mad acceptance of the “cure” that Volmer has, through gaslighting, manipulated him into taking on)–unlocks his heart and makes him want to rescue her from her rapist father.

The true cure to illness has always been, and always will be, loving relationships…but back to the beginning of the story.

Pembroke is staying in a large sanitarium, a castle-like building with a strange history, as Lockhart’s driver there tells him. A baron who lived there several centuries ago, in order to preserve a “pure” bloodline, wanted to marry his sister. She was infertile, and so he tried to create a kind of medicine to cure her. His experiments involved killing off local peasants by using their bodies to filter out toxins from water in a local aquifer, water that otherwise has life-extending properties; the peasants grew so enraged at him, after finding all the poorly-hidden corpses, that they rose up against him. They cut out the baby from the woman’s now-fertile womb, they threw it in the aquifer (though it survived!), they burned the woman at the stake, and they burned the baron’s castle to the ground.

Already in this story of incest among nobility do we see the dialectical relationship between illness and health. Throughout history, from ancient Egypt to the Habsburgs and later, royalty has rationalized inbreeding among them to preserve a ‘pure bloodline.’ Yet everyone knows, as all of these royals should have, that inbreeding results in birth defects, producing the opposite of a perceived ‘pure bloodline,’–instead of getting the healthiest, ‘noblest’ offspring, one gets the least healthy of them.

Pembroke has written a letter to the New York company, saying he won’t return because his aspiration to be ‘cured’ renders insignificant his aspiration for more wealth. This wish to find a ‘cure’ to what ails him is like a religious experience; indeed, one interpretation of the health centre is that it’s a metaphor for a religious cult. Recall Jesus’ words: “They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick.” (Luke 5:31)

That no one who enters the sanatarium ever leaves should give us pause about this ‘paradise.’ Recall the sign over the entrance to Dante‘s hell: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter.” (Canto III, line 9) This hope is a hope of leaving the world of suffering, the hope of getting well. There’s no exit, Sartre‘s hell of other people, where one’s self-concept is trapped in the opinions of others. The ‘ill people’ in the sanitarium can never see themselves as well if Volmer doesn’t say they’re well, and so, they can never leave. In this relationship between heaven and hell, this dialectical unity of opposites, we also see the unity between sickness and wellness.

Accordingly, Pembroke never gets better, nor does anyone else in the sanatarium. People there drink lots and lots of water, but they become…dehydrated, more unity in opposites. The aquifer water, toxic to humans, nonetheless causes the eels swimming in it to extend their lives–dialectical unity of life and death. Anyone who has read enough of my posts knows by now know that I use water, with its dialectically flowing waves, to symbolize a nirvana-like state, a kind of heavenly eternal life. But bliss is only one aspect of this ineffable state of being, and this film presents water in its blissful and traumatizing aspects, heaven and hell, health and sickness, eternal life and death.

This two-sided nature of Ultimate Reality is something I’ve noted in the ocean in my Moby-Dick analysis, as it’s been noted in Wilfred Bion‘s concept of O, in Lacan‘s Real Order, and in primordial Chaos as I’ve interpreted it here.

So the sanatarium is a Spenserian bower of bliss for the elderly patients: they seem to enjoy a blissful life of having their ‘ailments’ cured, they amuse themselves on the front lawn by playing badminton and cricket, by doing t’ai chi, or by doing crosswords, as Victoria Watkins (Celia Imrie) does. None, except her and Lockhart, suspect that something insidiously evil is going on.

The fact that most of the patients, except special-case Hannah, are elderly is interesting. They are all senior citizens; she is mentally even younger than her physical, teen years. Their naïve, uncritical acceptance of the ‘cure,’ as well as hers suggests a dialectical relationship between her being so young and their being so old, something aptly expressed in Shakespeare’s As You Like it:

Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. (Act II, Scene vii, lines 163-166)

So, the gullibility of the elderly patients is a dialectical match for the sweet innocence of Hannah, who we eventually learn is Dr. Volmer’s daughter. He is in fact a kind of father figure to all the patients of the sanatorium; he takes on a paternalistic attitude to Lockhart, too. He rarely gets angry from Lockhart’s rebelliousness, but the doctor typically shows a subtle condescension to him, in his insistence that Lockhart, the identified patient who’s always acting up, isn’t well.

Hannah hates being holed up in Volmer’s ‘castle,’ as evinced by her constant frowning and pouting, like an annoyed little girl. When Lockhart challenges her always only doing what she’s “supposed to do,” she finally gets the courage to rebel; so her riding with Lockhart on her bicycle down the mountain is like her experiencing adolescent willfulness.

Rebelling against her father–who, as Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream says, “should be as a god” to her–is like Nietzsche saying, “God is dead!” Thus begins Hannah’s down-going.

This rebellious adolescent phase is intensified when she and Lockhart enter a pub patronized by a gang of antisocial teens. She has her first beer and dances to music on a jukebox while one of the boys dirty dances with her, hoping to do the obvious with her.

Prior to this dancing, she goes into the girls’ washroom. The girls of the gang ask her for a tampon; she seems a “freak” to them for not responding. She doesn’t even seem to know what a tampon is, implying that she hasn’t had her first period yet. We eventually learn that the distilled liquid in the small blue bottles lengthens one’s life by slowing the aging process…hence her infantilized state, both physical and mental.

She does, towards the end of the film, finally have her period, while standing in the swimming pool, her blood attracting a swarm of eels. She’s terrified by all the blood, and she goes to get help from Volmer. Her fearful ignorance of menstruation reminds us of Carrie, whom I described in my analysis of the novel as a psychological baby in a teen’s body. Hannah, too, is such a baby, and Volmer is like a secular Margaret White to her–overprotecting, domineering, emotionally abusive.

Volmer’s ending of a fight between Lockhart and the boy who’s been trying to seduce Hannah in the pub shows the doctor’s authoritarian dominance; for everyone in the pub, including those nasty teens, is intimidated by him, just as the naughtiest son often is by his father. This is how we should think of the sanatorium’s director: as a domineering father whose religious-cult-like authority must never be defied or challenged.

Lockhart’s continued defiance, however, constantly gets him in trouble with Volmer, causing him at one point to have one of his upper front teeth pulled out in an agonizing way reminding us of that scene with Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man.

This tooth-pulling also reminds us of Trelkovsky’s predicament in The Tenant. In my analysis of that movie, I associated the loss of his tooth with castration, which in Lacanian psychoanalysis is symbolic of any bodily mutilation, or of lack, giving rise to desire.

Lack as the cause of desire leads to what the eels can be seen to symbolize, especially since they swim around in that water, that ‘healing’ water I associate with nirvanic bliss, or the eternal life of heaven. The water is life-extending for the eels, but toxic to humans; so the advantage it gives the eels is a human lack covetously desired by Volmer. Since the water is dialectically both immortalizing (as it were) and killing, the eels swimming in it can be seen to represent this destructive, hellish aspect; for theirs is an immortality denied to us.

The eels, as I see them, are symbolic castrated phalluses. This phallic association is especially apparent when one considers scenes with them in which erotic elements are juxtaposed (Consider also how young Freud did research attempting to find the location of male eels’ sexual organs!). When Lockhart is in the tank and sees the giant eels swimming around him, a man supposed to be supervising him has a sexual encounter with a nurse who bares her breasts while he masturbates; she also feeds him drops of that life-extending fluid. In another scene, Lockhart dreams of naked Hannah in a bathtub with eels slithering around her body.

The castrated phallus symbolizes the lack that gives rise to desire, which in turn causes suffering and perpetuates samsara, the negation of nirvana. In this sense we see the dialectical relationship between illness and health, between heaven and hell. Though Nietzsche spent all those years in the 1880s in the health-affirming Alps, by 1889 he still had a mental breakdown from which he never recovered.

Since the long-living eels swimming in the aquifer water are crucial for Volmer in proving its life-extending properties–prompting him to filter it with human bodies to create the fluid for this “mad immortal man” who “on honeydew hath fed,/And drunk the milk of Paradise” (Coleridge, “Kubla Khan,” last two lines)–we see that his “cure for wellness” involves a regression from an ill state (or just a seemingly ill one) to an even worse one. The human filters regress from ‘illness’ to death.

We see many manifestations of regression in this film. The elderly patients regress to a dependent state similar to childhood (see the Shakespeare quote above). We see in infantilized Hannah a regression from her physical teen years to her being mentally like a little girl (recall the reference to Carrie above).

Elsewhere, we see in all those CEOs in the sanatarium taking “an enforced vacation” a regression from modern-day capitalism to–symbolically speaking–feudalism, since we learn that Volmer is actually the baron of two hundred years ago (whose family, the Von Reichmerls, were the owners of the land on the mountain where the sanatarium is), kept alive all this time with the fluid.

Under feudalism, serfs (e.g., peasant farmers, etc.) worked for their feudal lord on his land in exchange for his protection. Everyone knew his place, and no one questioned this class system. The absolutism of the Church and of kings and queens thrived under this system until such revolutions as those in France overthrew the feudal lords and monarchies and replaced them with a new set of class masters, the bourgeoisie. In this film, however, the revolutionary change of masters has regressed…gone backward.

Capitalism is an economic system desperately needing to be overthrown, but feudalism (even in the symbolic sense that I’m describing it in this film) is no improvement. What’s worse, not only are these aged ex-capitalist human filters working–as it were–for their feudal master, the baron who calls himself Volmer, by letting him kill them in their filtering of the aquifer water, the now-purified of which is his “milk of paradise,” so to speak; but they are letting him do this in all willingness. His sanatarium, his “stately pleasure-dome” (Coleridge, line 2) is also like a feudal Brave New World, and his water is the soma his patients all get high on. People enjoy their oppression too much to revolt.

He has them drink his water, which dehydrates them, makes their teeth fall out, and ultimately kills them. The patients’ bodies filter the toxins in the aquifer water, distilling it so he can drink only its healthier aspects, his liquid of (potential) immortality. This exchange of drunken liquids is symbolic of the narcissist’s manipulative use of projective and introjective identification. The abuser’s bad parts are projected out onto his victims; he keeps only the good parts. He doesn’t merely imagine that his victims embody his vices: he manipulates them to internalize his bad projections and to manifest them in real life, as symbolized by Volmer’s patients drinking his water. They believe the lie that he is selling, his ‘cure.’

Remember Pembroke’s words to Lockhart as the former is in the pool? He says, “It’s our fluids that must be purified.” Pembroke seems spiritually enlightened early on in the film, in the letter he’s written to the company; but these words of his in the pool remind us of those spoken by Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) in Dr. Strangelove: “I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion, and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” The cure for wellness is madness, as we see in Volmer’s near driving of Lockhart mad with the cure.

Just as there is a disproportionately large number of narcissists and psychopaths in the capitalist class, so were there far too many of them among feudal lords, monarchies, and ancient slave-masters. Royals’ and nobles’ tendency towards inbreeding reflects narcissism both in their arrogant wish to maintain a ‘pure bloodline’ (i.e., not ‘contaminating’ it with the blood of the ‘inferior’ classes), and in their belief that indulging in incest was a privilege permissible only to them. After all, Uranus procreated with his mother Gaea, Cronus slept with his older sister, Rhea, to bear the Olympian gods, and Zeus married his older sister, Hera. The kings of heaven could commit incest, so why not allow the kings of earth to do so, too?

For narcissists like Volmer, man is something to be overcome. Volmer will teach us the superman.

The baron’s wish to commit procreative incest with both his sister and his daughter, Hannah (who he notes, with delight, even looks like her mother), reflects his narcissistic wish to procreate with a lover as close to being himself as possible. He’d procreate asexually, if he could.

The removal of his false face to reveal his ugly burns symbolizes the contrast between the narcissistic False Self and the True Self. His claim that he’s done all for Hannah’s sake is, of course, a lie and reaction formation: he’s done everything for himself (just as the abusive parent who imposes Munchausen Syndrome by proxy on her child), for she is just a metaphorical mirror of his narcissistic self. His love for her is just Narcissus pining away at his reflection in the pond, his ideal-I.

The baron ties Hannah’s arms to the upper bedposts, then tears her top open, exposing her breasts. As she struggles to get free, he speaks of how her mother, his sister, “was also somewhat resistant” to have sex with him “at first,” then “she grew to like it,” a typical rapist’s rationalization. That he must have also tied up his sister before raping her is a safe assumption.

Lockhart helps rescue her, then she returns the favour when the baron almost kills him. By cracking her father’s skull open with a shovel, Hannah is being the phallic woman, demonstrating her newfound strength, as contrasted with all of his symbolically castrated patients. Lockhart burns the building down, one of many examples in this film suggesting Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence, as expounded in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. There are many examples of the eternal recurrence implied in the film; I’ll give a few examples.

At the beginning of the film, we hear that “Delaware” is “dead,” but then Lockhart says it’s “resurrected.” One of his parents died, then the other does. The patients were literal children decades ago, now they’re experiencing a “second childishness.” The baron killed off his peasants to make the “cure,” and now he is killing off a new, capitalist kind of ‘peasant.’ He committed incestuous rape with his sister, and now he at least attempts to do so again with Hannah. His castle was burned down centuries ago; it’s burned down again.

Pembroke writes a letter describing his ‘religious experience,’ and not wanting to return to New York; Lockhart writes a similar letter, if less willingly. Lockhart has gotten away from his New York bosses early into the film; he gets away from them again at the end of the film. He and Hannah ride on their bike down the mountain in the middle of the film; they do so again at the end.

Also, the baron renounced God so he could marry his sister, much to the dismay of the Church; Lockhart and Hannah, in killing him and burning down the sanatarium, have renounced Volmer, the God of the “cure” so they can be free of him, much to the dismay of his staff and the rest of his ‘cult.’ As Lockhart rides down the mountain with Hannah, grinning his grin of dentures, he can proclaim, “Volmer is dead.” The narcissism of man is something to be overcome.

Thus begins Lockhart’s down-going.