Analysis of the Ancient Greek Creation Myth

I: Introduction

As is typical of Greek myth in general, there are conflicting versions of the stories of the primordial deities and the roles they play in the creation. I’ll be basing most of this analysis on Hesiod‘s Theogony, with some references from sources like Homer, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes as well.

I am less interested in presenting an ‘accurate’ account of the creation (What is an ‘accurate account’ of it? It’s myth, not science; and as I said above, there are contradictory versions of it.) than I am in exploring possible symbolic and allegorical meanings in it. This is my interpretation of such meanings, for what that’s worth. I’m no expert in mythography or anthropology, so take what I’m writing with a generous grain of salt.

The narration may unfold with the passing of time, that is, from generation to generation in the family tree of the gods; but this allegory here is not about presenting events in a temporal sense. It’s more about understanding the relationships and contrasts between different states of being. Also, I’m not bringing up every single god and goddess, Titan and Titaness; there are simply too many names to enumerate here, and I’m more interested in the direction the narrative takes, and the symbolism and themes I see in it, than I’d be in going over every single detail found in Hesiod, etc.

II: The Nirvana-Void

Hesiod begins, after the customary invocation of the Muses, with Chaos, which in modern English would be better rendered as the Chasm, a void of formless nothingness, the ground from which everything comes. Note the dialectical relationship between nothing and everything (or being), which Hegel sublated as becoming in his Science of Logic (Hegel, Chapter One, ‘Being,’ pages 82-83).

A comparison with other religious and mystical traditions is useful. The void of nothing/everything in Hinduism is Brahman, a union with which is salvation, or liberation from worldly suffering, to the Hindu. It’s interesting in this context to compare the ancient Greek concept of Chaos with the Hindu creation myth, from the Rig Veda, 10.129; both consider everything to have paradoxically arisen from a void (“nothingness was not, nor existence”), resulting in darkness, “unillumined cosmic water,” then “desire descended on [the One].”

For Buddhists, this nothing/everything is the Dharmakāya (“the body of reality”), the Buddha-nature existing in everything; and the void of liberation from samsāra is nirvana. For Taoists, the dialectical interrelation of yin and yang is the Tao.

To return to ancient Greek traditions, the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said that “everything flows“; so the basic unifying principle behind everything, those particles of which everything is composed and which can also be regarded as waves–Chaos, Brahman, the Tao, Bion‘s O (the thing-in-itself), or in a sense, even Lacan‘s Real Order, can be symbolized as the waves of an infinite ocean.

Small wonder Homer, in Book XIV of The Iliad, had Hera say that all the gods descended from Oceanus: “I go now to the ends of the generous earth, on a visit/to Okeanos, when the gods have risen, and Tethys our mother/who brought me up kindly in their own house, and cared for me/and took me from Rheia, at that time when Zeus of the wide brows/drove Kronos underneath the earth and the barren water.” (Homer, page 299, lines 200-204) Recall also that the gods are personifications of everything, including abstract concepts, hence polytheism‘s tendency towards pantheism.

Now, this oneness behind everything isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There is no sentimentality to be found here. Bion’s O, and especially Lacan’s Real, have traumatizing aspects, too. The visionary ego death that Aldous Huxley wrote about in the use of drugs in Heaven and Hell has, as his essay’s title suggests, both blissful and terrifying aspects, depending on one’s physical, or especially mental, health (Huxley, pages 88-91). The ocean in Moby-Dick has both good and bad aspects, too, and Melville warns the pantheists not to ignore the dark side of the infinite seas (‘The Mast-Head,’ 35).

So, pantheism is best qualified with dialectical monism in order to avoid a sentimental oversimplification of the truth. The All should not be so naïvely seen as it is in Wordsworth‘s “Tintern Abbey“; Kubrick‘s vision of Chaos (as I interpret it in my analysis) at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey is much more accurate. This is the tohu wa-bohu of Genesis 1:2, the “waste and void” state of the world when God creates heaven and earth.

III: Darkness, Light, and Desire

In keeping with the darker side of Chaos, it gives birth to Erebus (“darkness”), Tartarus (“hell”), and the goddess Nyx (“night”). This begetting of negativity is comparable to Otto Rank‘s notion of birth trauma, after which the frustrated baby experiences psychological splitting as a defence mechanism against a scary world of suffering it cannot understand.

This splitting will in turn result in the antitheses of those dark deities, namely Aether (“light,” “upper sky”) and Hemera (“day”). According to a passage in Aristophanes‘ comedy, The Birds, Nyx laid an egg in Erebus, giving birth to Eros (“love,” but more accurately rendered “desire”):

“First, Void, and the Night. No glimmer of light pierced Tartarus’ boundless dominions;
Nor Earth nor Air nor Firmament there. Then Night of the ebony pinions
Brought forth in her nest within Erebus’ breast an Egg, by the Whirlwind sired;
From whence was born, as the months rolled on, great Eros, the ever desired,
With wings on his shoulders of scintillant gold, as swift as the storm in his flying,
Who mated with Space in a darkling embrace, in the bosom of Tartarus lying.
‘Twas thus that our breed was engendered, the seed hatched out by this epochal union,
No gods were above us till turbulent Love had effected a cosmic communion.
From mystic espousals, atomic carousals–a vast, cataclysmic commotion–
Arose the Divinities, Heaven’s infinities, Earth, and the billows of Ocean.
So, nothing can be as primeval as we. Our sonship to Eros, moreover,
Is proved by our flight and our constant delight in befriending a passionate lover.”
(Aristophanes, The Birds, starting from about line 690, pages 255-256)

Soon comes Gaea, the earth-mother goddess who gives birth to Ouranos (“heaven”). Mother and son become wife and husband. This incestuous union, seen in light of my analogy of the above-mentioned gods of darkness and light with a baby’s use of psychological splitting, can thus also be seen as analogous with the fulfillment of the infantile Oedipal fantasy.

The point of all my allegorizing is to show how this creation myth can be seen to represent changing psychological states. We go from the peace of mind of the Chasm, that restful embryonic state in the dark womb, what Romain Rolland called–in his correspondence with Freud–the “oceanic feeling” of bliss, to the trauma of entering the physical world–birth.

The dark deities can also be seen to represent the unconscious, with Chaos representing the collective unconscious. The mythographers’ and poets’ narrations can thus be seen as dramatizations of unconscious urges and strivings, feelings that can be traced back to primal, archaic, infantile emotional states.

The splitting into dark vs. light, night vs. day, etc., all these separations indicate a lack, in one half in a realm, of the other, opposite half (as opposed to the original unity in Chaos), a lack (manque à être) that gives rise to desire, as Lacan observed, a desire personified by Eros.

Note how the descendants of Nyx tend to be of dark, gloomy, negative things–not all of them, of course, but most of them, in varying degrees: Moros (“doom”), Thanatos (“death”), Momus (“blame,” “reproach,” “disgrace,” “satire,” and “mockery”), Oizys (“pain,” “misery,” “anxiety,” “grief,” and “depression”), Nemesis (“retribution”), Apate (“deceit,” “fraud”), Geras (“old age”), and Eris (“strife,” “discord”). The rest of Nyx’s offspring are mostly neutral, at best; only Philotes “(“love,” “affection,” “friendship”) is positive.

Eris’ offspring in turn are also generally negative: Ponos (“hardship,” “toil”), Lethe (“forgetfulness,” “oblivion,” “concealment,” “unmindfulness”), Limos (“starvation”), the Algea (“physical and mental pains”), the Hysminai (“battles,” “conflicts,” “combats”), the Machai (“wars”), the Phonoi (“murders”), the Androktasiai (“manslaughters”), the Neikea (“quarrels,” “arguments”), the Pseudea (“lies”), the Amphillogiai (“disputes”), Dysnomia (“lawlessness”), and Atë (“ruin,” “mischief,” “delusion,” “folly”).

IV: Lack and Desire

As we can see, things go from a blissful (or at least relatively blissful) state to a hellish one rather quickly. It’s like the dialectical relationship between opposites that I’ve symbolized in previous posts with the ouroboros: where the serpent’s biting head is one extreme opposite, its bitten tail is the other extreme, and the coiled middle of its body is every intermediate point on a circular continuum. We thus could see the biting head as blissful Chaos, the bitten tail as the hellish existence of most of Nyx’s and Eris’ children, and the coiled middle, going in the direction towards the head, as the other gods’ and Titans’ striving, through desire, to replace the lack and attain happiness once again.

Now, the nature of the desire felt between Gaea and Ouranos in their sexual union is a transgressive desire (i.e., mother/son incest). Such transgressive indulgence in pleasure is what Lacan called jouissance. It’s transgressive in its excess, a kind of ‘surplus-value‘ of pleasure (to borrow a Marxian term), enjoyment for its own sake.

To use my ouroboros symbolism again, this excessive pleasure is the serpent’s head biting its tail, leading to enjoyment’s extreme opposite, the pain of the bitten tail. The offspring of Gaea’s and Ouranos’ thrilling sexual union are the Titans (Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Tethys, and Cronus), Cyclopes (who will give Zeus his thunderbolt), and Hecatoncheires (“the hundred-handed ones”)…these latter two trios being an ugly bunch, so Ouranos hates all his children and imprisons them in a secret place in Gaea’s body, angering her.

The earth-mother goddess gives her Titan son, Cronus, a flint-sickle knife with which to attack Ouranos, since Cronus is the only Titan willing to get revenge on his wicked father. Cronus uses the knife to castrate his father: he throws the severed genitals into the sea; a foam grows around them in the water, and Aphrodite emerges nude from the foam.

Is there a more vivid representation of Lacanian lack, through the image of castration, giving rise to desire (as symbolized by the birth of Aphrodite), anywhere in myth, art, or literature? In an interesting reversal, instead of the father threatening the Oedipally-minded son with castration, the son does so to the father.

V: From Blessedness to Suffering

My allegorizing of the mythic narrative here, though, isn’t concerned with time sequence. In fact, I see the process of creation here as happening in reverse order to its allegorical meaning–that is, if that meaning is to be understood as a progression from sinful desire to spiritual liberation. We go from the perfect blessedness (as I interpret it) of Brahman-like Chaos to the world of suffering because, as Blake put it, “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.

In the Greek narrative, we’re moving away from nirvanic bliss and deeper into the suffering of physical life–in ‘reverse order,’ as it were–so it would seem appropriate to have sons castrating fathers instead of vice versa (an Oedipal wish-fulfillment, with castration anxiety projected onto fathers; and Ouranos, lacking a father as a rival, shares a bed with his mother, Gaea, so we have even more Oedipal wish-fulfillment). Thus, we have the Laius complex instead of the Oedipal one. (I explored these ideas in my analysis of Eraserhead.)

With the beauty and desirability of nude Aphrodite emerging from the foam around Ouranos’ severed genitals, we must juxtapose a dialectical opposite: the vengeful Erinyes, or Furies, which have come from the blood of those genitals, as have the Giants and the Meliae. Desire comes from lack, pleasure comes with pain, and desire causes suffering.

VI: Family Feuding

With Cronus’ ascent to the throne as the new king of heaven comes the same hostility to his children as Ouranos has had. The intergenerational conflict returns in cycles, so we’ll see a wickedness in Cronus similar to that of his father…much worse, actually; for instead of merely imprisoning those who are a threat to his power, or who are a source of loathing and disgust to him, Cronus decides to eat all of his newborn children! Recall the shocking paintings that have depicted this atrocity.

His wife and older sister, Rhea (note the incest parallel with Gaea and Ouranos, and later with Zeus and his older sister, Hera…more transgressive jouissance), is as upset with his devouring of their children as Gaea has been with Ouranos’ imprisoning of their children; so Rhea, too, plots with her youngest son, Zeus, to get revenge on Cronus and free the eaten children (by feeding Cronus an emetic and making him throw them all up). Another parallel with the revenge on the first-generation father, noted by Freud (page 469) and John Tzetzes (as Robert Graves noted), is Zeus’ castration of Cronus, often censored from Greek creation mythologies.

So, what we’ve had since the creation of Eros is a whole lot of procreation (since the ancients believed that all things are created through intermingling in the form of sex), leading to a whole lot of family strife, power struggles, and ultimately, war. For in order to depose Cronus and establish Zeus as the new king of heaven, there must be a ten-year war (the Titanomachy) between the Olympian gods (Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, those just regurgitated by Cronus, and Zeus) on the one side, and Cronus and the Titans (including Atlas) on the other side. (Themis and Prometheus are the only Titans who fight on Zeus’ side.)

Zeus gets help from the Cyclopes through their giving him lightning as a weapon, and from the three Hecatoncheires, whose three hundred arms hurl huge rocks at the Titans, ultimately burying them. They’ll all be imprisoned in Tartarus forever (though some accounts say Zeus eventually frees them).

Next comes the Gigantomachy, Zeus’ and the Olympians’ battle with the Giants. Typhon, a huge whirlwind, a serpentine giant, and–according to Hesiod–the son of Gaea and Tartarus (from whom we get the Romanization of the Chinese taifeng>>>typhoon), is the next to challenge, and to be defeated by, Zeus.

VII: Stability and Authority

So Zeus is now the king of heaven, and his brothers–Poseidon and Hades–are respectively the kings of the sea and the underworld, the lower levels of the flat, tiered cosmos as imagined by the ancients. But Zeus has the same fear of being deposed, a fear projected from his own unfilial attitude to Cronus, who in turn has been equally unfilial to Ouranos. Zeus’ solution to the problem is to carry it further than just eating his children. His wife at the time, the wise Titaness Metis, is pregnant with their child, so he eats both child and mother!

This eating of threats to one’s power, this imprisoning of them, is symbolic of repression of unwanted or unacceptable feelings into the unconscious; but as psychoanalysts know, the repressed always returns, though in an unrecognizable form. In Zeus’ case, that return of the symbolic repressed will come in the form of Athena, coming out of his aching skull fully-grown with her armour and weapons. He needn’t fear, though, for she is all for the father, representative of the shift from matrilineal to patrilineal forms of societal organization. Read the Oresteia to see my point about that shift. The following passage from The Eumenides, spoken by Apollo, should clarify it:

“The mother of what is called her child is not its parent, but only the nurse of the newly implanted germ. The begetter is the parent, whereas she, as a stranger for a stranger, doth but preserve the sprout, except God shall blight its birth. And I will offer thee a sure proof of what I say: fatherhood there may be, when mother there is none. Here at hand is a witness, the child of Olympian Zeus–and not so much as nursed in the darkness of the womb, but such a scion as no goddess could bring forth.
“But for my part, O Pallas, as in all things else, as so with this man; for I have sent him as suppliant to thy sanctuary that he might prove faithful for all time to come, and that thou, O Goddess, mightest win him as a new ally, him and his after-race, and it abide everlastingly that the posterity of this people maintain their plighted bond.” –Apollo, Eumenides, pages 335, 337)

All of the myths leading up to Zeus’ accession to the throne have reflected matrilineality: goddesses sometimes bear children through sexual union with a male, other times through parthenogenesis, reflective of the prehistoric ignorance of the male role in reproduction. Since succession is matrilineal at this point, Gaea is free to take on more lovers than just Ouranos; so she has mated with another son of hers, Pontus, a god of the sea (more transgressive, Oedipal pleasure [according to Hesiod, Pontus has no father]!), and has these children: Nereus, Thaumas, Phorcys, Ceto, and Eurybia. Furthermore, god-kings are humiliated, castrated, and deposed, while queen goddesses–though furious with the wickedness of their male consorts–remain bodily intact.

But now that Zeus is king of the heavens, having married his older sister, Hera, he can freely do as he pleases without fear of direct retribution against himself, while he hypocritically judges the wickedness of others, especially that of mortals. This reflects the new patrilineal way, and the authoritarianism of the patriarchal family. Zeus is incestuously married, he has castrated and deposed his father, and much to Hera’s annoyance, he seduces and ravishes pretty mortal maidens.

Yet, “he’s the greatest god of all,” as Claudius observed (here at 33:32).

VIII: Conclusion–The Creation as an Allegory for Our Times

We can see, through this narrative, just how far we’ve erred from the blissful, oceanic state of the beginning. From the formless, peaceful oneness of the Void, we’ve gone to the dualism of splitting into the dark and light, then to transgressive indulgence in pleasure leading to jealousy and hate, and from there to violence, war, and the imprisonment of the humiliated and defeated.

Finally, stability is established, but through authoritarian rule, and with all the double standards that allow the ruling classes–be they the masters of slaves in the ancient world, as I described in my Caligula analysis, or the feudal landlords of 500 to 1,000 years ago, or the bourgeoisie today–to indulge in all manner of sinfulness, for which we, the small people, will be punished as soon as we are caught.

How do we regain that primal bliss? I don’t have any definitive answers, of course, but for what it’s worth, I imagine that going backwards in the narrative I just analyzed is going in the right direction. I don’t mean physically or literally going in that direction, of course; I’m talking about revisiting the psychological traumas that the various points in the narrative symbolize. Efforts have been made to reverse the patrilineal double standards against women–efforts far more successful in the socialist states than in the capitalist West, though socialist progress has since been thwarted by imperialism. I would advise reviving that progress.

Added to the sociological healing must also come the needed psychological healing. Optimal frustration (as Heinz Kohut called it) of the narcissistic tendencies (those linked with Oedipal traumas) must be coupled with integration of the split parts of the personality, a shift from what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid to the depressive position. Bliss is actually a marriage of heaven and hell, of dark with the light.

When heaven and hell are ‘divorced,’ so to speak, as in the case of psychological splitting, one tends to project the hellish part outward in order to avoid a pain we must face. We must feel our trauma if we’re to heal it.

Many would rather escape to a world of pleasure than face that pain. The resulting manic defence means indulgence in sex, drugs, etc., that is, the transgressive, excess pleasure of jouissance, which is a pleasure that spills over into pain, for no two opposites, including pleasure and pain, are permanently, decisively separated.

The Olympian gods of our ruling class may, however, separate pleasure (reserved for themselves alone) from pain (to which only the poor are subjected). The acquisition of wealth is a zero-sum game, coupled with extremes of poverty. In this connection, it’s useful that Lacan was inspired by Marx’s notion of surplus value in expounding on the surplus-pleasure of jouissance, or excess pleasure for its own sake. This pleasure, spilling over into pain, is exploitative.

Zeus rapes maidens, just as the Epsteins and Weinsteins of our world, as well as some Catholic priests, sexually assault the innocent. The oligarchs of today are our gods, living up high on the Mount Olympus of their wealth and power, while we struggle at the bottom of that mountain.

Those up on Olympus must be brought down. Those traumas of ours, repressed and imprisoned in the Tartarus of our unconscious, must be freed by being acknowledged, or else they’ll sneak out, often in surprising and unwelcome forms. The lack that gives rise to desire, that symbolic castration of Ouranos and Cronus, must also be acknowledged, or else desire will fly out of control, leading to more conflicts and wars, both political and psychological.

The blissful Chasm is a world of unified dark and light, lacking and having, a communion of free-flowing people, interconnected, integrated, communicative…peaceful. Let’s go back to the beginning.

Analysis of “The Machinist”

The Machinist is a 2004 Spanish/American/French/British psychological horror film written by Scott Kosar and directed by Brad Anderson. It stars Christian Bale as Trevor Reznik, an emaciated, insomniac machinist unable to cope with guilt feelings. His worsening mental state causes him to spiral into a psychotic break with reality.

This is one of Bale’s best performances in my opinion. His dedication to the role–outstripping that of Robert De Niro (who gained about 60 pounds for Raging Bull)–involved losing 62 pounds. Michael Ironside, Jennifer Jason Leigh, John Sharian, and Aitana Sánchez-Gijón all play supporting roles.

Here are some quotes:

“If you were any thinner, you wouldn’t exist.” –Stevie, to Trevor

Trevor Reznik: Stevie, I haven’t slept in a year.
Stevie: Jesus Christ!
Trevor Reznik: I tried him too.

“Congratulations, Reznik. You just made my shit-list!” –Tucker

Marie: Trevor, is someone chasing you?
Trevor Reznik: Not yet. But they will when they find out who I am.

“A little guilt goes a long way.” –Trevor

“How do you wake up from a nightmare if you’re not asleep?” –movie tagline

Trevor Reznik: I wish there was some way I could repay you.
Miller: Well, for starters you could give me your left arm.

Ivan: Oh, no. You look like you seen a ghost.
Trevor Reznik: Funny you should say that. The guys at work don’t think you exist.
Ivan: That’s why I can’t get a raise.

“You’re going straight to Hell on Route 666!” –‘Route 666’ Loudspeaker

“I’d like to report a hit-and-run.” –Trevor [repeated line]

[after realizing his fault] “I know who you are… I know who you are… I know who you are… I know who you are.” –Trevor

“Right now I wanna sleep. I just want to sleep.” –Trevor [last line]

The film begins, actually, towards the end of the story. Trevor is at the height of his psychosis, disposing of a body rolled up in a rug into the ocean at night. Someone with a flashlight shines it in his face, agitating him. Nothing else is revealed of the scene at the time: we’ll have to wait until the end of the film to find out. This refusal to let the truth be known will be a feature of Trevor’s psychology, as we’ll see later.

Trevor Reznik’s name is a pun on Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails; this is appropriate, given the downward spiral that Trevor is experiencing. The Machinist is also influenced by Dostoyevsky‘s novella, The Double, just as Black Swan is. Ivan is Trevor’s double…but which one is the good version of him, and which the bad? It isn’t who Trevor thinks it is.

Actually, there are a lot of doubles in this movie, a lot of pairings: Trevor and Ivan, Trevor and Miller (Ironside), Maria (Sánchez-Gijón) and Stevie (Leigh), Maria and the actual server in the airport diner, Supervisor Furman and Tucker, Maria and Nicholas, and even Trevor and Stevie, and him and Maria. I’ll explain each of these pairings now.

Ivan is Trevor’s double in that he is a hallucinated projection of everything Trevor wishes he could forget about himself. This is why, psychologically and metaphorically speaking (as opposed to the physiological cause–his insomnia), he’s emaciated: he wants to remove so much of himself that he would thin himself to death; hence Stevie’s remark that if he were any thinner, he wouldn’t exist. Trevor reacts to this joke in a spirit of levity, moving almost like a ghost, for he, with his death drive, would like to project so much of himself outward (i.e., out into Ivan) that he would disintegrate.

Trevor can be doubled with Miller in that, in causing the accident that costs Miller his left arm, Trevor is projecting his own psychological fragmentation onto Miller. Trevor is distracted by his hallucination of Ivan, which causes Trevor to lean on and press the activator (which then can’t be turned off), which in turn causes Miller’s sleeved arm to be stuck and pulled into the cutting zone of the mill, where his hand is then mutilated. Later, the same accident almost happens to Trevor, who flips out on his coworkers, imagining in his paranoia that they have tried to get revenge on him.

He wants to project his own violence onto others instead of admitting his guilt to himself. He would tear the ugly parts of himself away and give them to others, to his Ivan hallucination, to his coworkers; he’d even project his unconscious fantasies of self-injury and of the reducing of his body to nothingness (manifested otherwise by being hit by a car outside the DMV, and by his emaciation) onto Miller by ‘accidentally’ hacking off his arm.

Maria and Stevie are doubles in that both women serve as metaphorical mirrors of what Trevor would like to see smiling back at him, to remind him that there still is something good inside of him, making him worthy of love. These women give him his desired recognition of the Other that Lacan wrote of. As mirrored reflections of his need for love, both women are thus each a double of Trevor. Maria even repeats Stevie’s line that if he were any thinner, he wouldn’t exist.

These reflections are illusory, though, in that Stevie is a prostitute whose affections he is paying for (recall when she says, worrying about him dying of insomnia, “You’re my best client. Can’t afford to lose you.”; then he sarcastically says, “Gee, thanks.”); and Maria is every bit as much a hallucination as Ivan is. Thus, with Maria as a fantasy waitress compared with the real server in the airport diner seen towards the end of the film, both waitresses are doubles of each other.

Trevor’s boss, Supervisor Furman, is a somewhat gentler version of the foreman–nasty, scowling Tucker (Furman–foreman: note the pun). Their power and authority over Trevor and the other machinists reflect the worker alienation felt under capitalism. One worker calls out, “Master Tucker, motherfucker,” so they don’t like the foreman…but they dislike Trevor so much more. The existence of unions, the earnestness of the investigation of Miller’s accident, and Miller’s pay settlement can smooth over the rough edges of a working life under capitalism only so much: imagine how much worse it is in sweatshops in the Third World. Trevor’s job is, sadly, among the best American capitalism can offer the working class. Furman is thus like the ‘good cop,’ and Tucker is the ‘bad cop.’

Finally, Maria and her son, Nicholas, can be seen as doubles in that both are harmed by Trevor’s accidentally hitting and killing her boy. He dies, and she is emotionally scarred by the loss…both are victims of Trevor’s hit-and-run irresponsibility, and therefore personify his repressed guilt.

In this connection, it’s interesting to note Trevor’s ride with hallucinated Nicholas in “Route 666” in the amusement park scene. As I’ve explained elsewhere, 666 refers to the Roman emperor Nero, who had his mother, Agrippina the Younger, killed (and who, it was rumoured, committed incest with her), and who also–or so it was once believed–kicked his pregnant wife, Poppaea Sabina, causing her to have a miscarriage. The historicity of the kicking and incest are dubious, but we’re concerned with theme and symbolism here, not with historical accuracy.

Trevor is well-read; we see him in his apartment reading Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot early in the film. He also has a good vocabulary, far better than Miller’s. This all suggests that he’d be well-educated enough to know about such things as Nero’s wickedness, if not the historical inaccuracy and bias of Tacitus and Suetonius, the latter of whom gave this uncorroborated account of the kicking in The Twelve Caesars: “Though [Nero] doted on Poppaea…he kicked her to death while she was pregnant and ill, because she complained that he came home late from the races.” (Nero, 35, page 233)

My point in mentioning all of this is that Trevor–in fantasizing about going with Nicholas on the “Route 666” ride–is unconsciously associating his guilty self with the mother-killing, child-killing, incestuous Nero of legend (if not exactly of history). In killing the boy physically by hitting him with his car, Trevor has also killed the boy’s mother emotionally. Trevor, we learn early on, is also saddened by the death of his own mother; he transfers his unconscious Oedipal feelings for her onto pretty Maria, for whom he has romantic feelings.

Trevor can never sleep, for there’s no rest for the wicked (derived from Isaiah 57:20-21). Trevor does murder sleep. He’s tried Christ, as he tells Stevie while in bed with her…but he clearly identifies more with the Antichrist.

The guilt of killing a child and evading responsibility is overwhelming for Trevor, so he must try to erase the crime from his mind by using the defence mechanism of repression. The problem with repression is that the anxiety-causing memory never goes away; instead, it reappears in consciousness, though in an unrecognizable form.

[This is why psychoanalysts use the word unconscious, rather than the somewhat fuzzy word subconscious. We’re not talking about burying pain deep down ‘underneath consciousness,’ where one may hope it will never reappear. No!…the pain gets repressed, then it bounces back into consciousness, yet we don’t know it’s there–it’s unconscious, not known.]

In Trevor’s case, we go beyond what isn’t known: he doesn’t want to know. This refusal to know is what Wilfred Bion called -K. This is also why Trevor grows increasingly isolated, since growing in K involves social interaction and linking through exchanges of projective identification. Instead of interacting with real people, Trevor socializes mainly with hallucinated people.

Trevor is experiencing an extreme version of what WRD Fairbairn called the “basic schizoid position.” This means that Trevor is engaging in splitting: instead of relating to objects (i.e., other people) in a normal way, seeing them as grey mixtures of good and bad, he sees them in black-and-white absolutes of all-good people and all-bad people.

His relationship with Stevie, up until his complete psychotic breakdown, is what Fairbairn, replacing Freud‘s ego, called the Central Ego (Trevor) as linked to the Ideal Object (Stevie); this object is ideal because relationships with real people are ideal, that is, psychologically healthy.

His relationship with hallucinated Maria is Fairbairn’s Libidinal Ego (Trevor) with the Exciting Object (Maria), replacing Freud’s id. Trevor’s relationship with hallucinated Ivan is Fairbairn’s rough equivalent of Freud’s superego, the Anti-libidinal Ego, or Internal Saboteur (Trevor) linked to the Rejecting Object (Ivan).

Ivan is Trevor’s projected bad conscience; Ivan rejects Trevor’s every attempt to forget running over and killing the boy; Ivan also rejects Trevor’s other projections, like his post-it notes, imagining someone other than himself is writing them. This is why Trevor comes to hate (and imagines himself killing) Ivan, and imagines Ivan wants to kill Nicholas, when it’s Trevor who’s killed the boy. In hating and feeling hostility to Ivan, Trevor is hating his projected self.

Maria, as the Exciting Object of Trevor’s Libidinal Ego, is a double of Stevie in more than that both women give him solace as his symbolic, empathic mirrors. He has romantic feelings for pretty Maria, just as he has sexual feelings for Stevie. Part of these feelings is in how Maria is not only a mother, but is a reminder, a transference, of his own mother. Recall the scene in his fantasy date with her, on Mother’s Day, in the amusement park, when he takes a photo of her and Nicholas in front of the merry-go-round. He pauses for a moment, addled by a memory of a photo taken of him as a boy (Nicholas’s age) with his mother in front of the same merry-go-round, about two decades before.

This transference from his mother onto Maria, especially in light of his fantasy date with her in her home, the two of them having some wine, suggests unconscious Oedipal feelings in Trevor, that universal narcissistic trauma. This connection becomes more evident when he looks at a large glass bowl on Maria’s coffee table in the fantasy; it’s actually in his apartment, having belonged to his mother when she was alive. It’s also a yonic symbol.

These unconscious Oedipal feelings, transferred onto the mother of the boy he’s killed in the hit-and-run, compound his guilt and pain to the point that he loses the courage to face up to what he’s done. Killing her boy is like harming his own beloved mama; and since her son has been killed, it feels as if Trevor has killed himself. Small wonder he’s self-harming: not sleeping leading to a rapid loss of weight, and even deliberately walking out onto a road to be hit by a car (driven, incidentally, by a mother with her child beside her).

Added to all of this is Trevor’s repeated endangering of others whenever he drives: running red lights and nearly colliding with other drivers (at the same intersection where the accident occurred that killed the boy), just to chase Ivan’s car, that of a man who doesn’t even exist! Also, he still lets himself be distracted by such things as his car cigarette lighter instead of keeping his eyes on the road. One would think that he’s learned his lesson since the accident a year before, but these continuous acts of carelessness are examples of the unconscious reenactment of trauma that Freud, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, called “the compulsion to repeat.”

Prior to all of Trevor’s self-destructive acts, he showed off an overtly narcissistic persona, driving a 1969 red Pontiac Firebird, wearing stylish cowboy boots, sunglasses, and overconfidently allowing himself to be distracted by his cigarette lighter as he lights his cigarette, just before hitting the boy. Elsewhere, he is seen in a photo with his coworker, Reynolds, having proudly caught a huge fish.

This narcissistic False Self served him well until the accident. Now he, in his shame, must disavow and repress all these acts of ostentation, for it’s this cocky overconfidence that’s led to killing the boy and hurting the mother on whom he’s since transferred his narcissistic Oedipal feelings. That False Self has been his only defence against psychological fragmentation…and he’s now lost that defence.

This disavowing and repressing of narcissistic grandiosity and idealizing of the Oedipally-desired parent, as Heinz Kohut described in a diagram on page 185 of his book, The Analysis of the Self, is seen in Trevor’s denial that he’s in the fishing photo with Reynolds (that it’s grinning Ivan, rather than proud Trevor, in the photo), his denial that Ivan’s red sports car is really his (with the licence plate number reversed), and the delusion that Nicholas is still alive.

Kohut’s notion of the bipolar self is what he considered the basis of healthy psychological structure: the two poles are the grandiose self, as seen in healthy, cowboy-boot-wearing Trevor, and the idealized parental imago, as expressed in his memories of his mother, his internalized object of her in his mind. When one of the two poles is compromised, as in the case of Trevor’s mother dying, the other pole is emphasized in order to compensate, as we see in Trevor’s grandiosity, him as the cocky, stylish driver of the Firebird.

When both poles are compromised, however, there’s the danger of psychological disintegration, as when Trevor’s grandiosity is blown to pieces after hitting the boy. His only way to hang on is through his relationship with Stevie, his fantasy with hallucinated, guilt-easing Maria, and the projection of all his cockiness onto hallucinated Ivan.

When he imagines Stevie is part of the “plot” to persecute him (because he can’t accept that it’s him in the fishing photo, rather than his Ivan projection); then he finds no Maria working in the airport diner; then he learns that slitting the throat of a hallucination doesn’t kill it, he realizes he has no more illusions to hide behind.

The post-it note that says, “Who are you?” and the one with the hangman game are again projected onto an imagined outsider sneaking into Trevor’s apartment, instead of him simply admitting that he’s been writing them all himself. Stevie says that hit-and-run drivers should be hanged, reinforcing a guilt he keeps trying to deny. He keeps guessing wrong answers to the hangman game: TUCKER, MOTHER, MILLER,…until finally, he admits it’s KILLER–himself.

The hanged man in the game is a stick-man drawing, a mirror of emaciated Trevor (just as the stick-people of Maria and Nicholas in the Mother’s Day card are mirrors of his guilt, those whom he’s killed metaphorically and literally) in his unconscious wish to thin himself to death. His deliberate avoidance of the right answer, KILLER, is an example of Bion’s -K, the refusal to know the truth about himself. As a result of -K, he creates Ivan, a bizarre object, a hallucinated projection of himself.

Trevor’s slow but sure discovery of the truth (his going from -K to K), as horrifying as it is for him, is like Oedipus‘ gradual discovery of his patricide and incest with his mother, Iocaste (recall Nero’s rumoured incest with his mother, Agrippina the Younger, another link with Trevor’s Oedipal feelings), as contrasted with Tiresiaswish not to tell Oedipus the painful truth (this was Bion‘s elaboration–K–of the psychoanalytic truth of the Oedipus complex).

Emotionally shattered and physically scarred Trevor looks at himself in the mirror, seeing not only the reflection of his battered body (from having let himself be hit by the car outside the DMV), but also grinning Ivan. This is Lacan‘s mirror, in which he’s alienated from himself, the awkward, fragmented real Trevor as contrasted with Ivan, who is no longer seen as an evil projection, or as the Rejecting Object of Trevor’s Anti-libidinal Ego, but as Trevor’s ideal-I, the cocky, carefree narcissist he wishes he could still be.

Free of any guilt, Ivan can compel Trevor to turn himself in to the cops. Ivan is thus both his ideal-I and his morally judging superego. Trevor now knows who he is; he also knows who he once was–the guilt-free, cocky, grinning man now projected onto Ivan. Trevor can no longer pretend he’s the good guy, and that everyone else–especially Ivan–is bad.

Ivan is the good double of the bad original–Trevor…the KILLER.

When Trevor has, at last, come to grips with what he has done, and accepts his guilt, he can finally sleep, as he does at the end of the film. Accepting his guilt comes from his finally being able to process his emotional experiences, taking the agitating elements from the outside world–what Bion called beta elements–and using alpha function (the processing of those emotional experiences) to turn the beta elements into alpha elements, or thoughts that can be used in dreams, waking thoughts, etc. Trevor’s hitherto inability and unwillingness to do this processing (-K) is what’s caused his psychosis. [Click here for a thorough explanation of Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts.]

In his book, Learning From Experience, Bion explains: “If the patient cannot transform his emotional experience into alpha elements, he cannot dream. Alpha-function transforms sense impressions into alpha-elements which resemble, and may in fact be identical with, the visual images with which we are familiar in dreams, namely, the elements that Freud regards as yielding their latent content when the analyst has interpreted them. Freud showed that one of the functions of a dream is to preserve sleep. Failure of alpha-function means the patient cannot dream and therefore cannot sleep. As alpha-function makes the sense impressions of the emotional experience available for conscious and dream-thought the patient who cannot dream cannot go to sleep and cannot wake up. Hence the peculiar condition seen clinically when the psychotic patient behaves as if he were in precisely this state.” (Bion, page 7)

Hence, Trevor cannot sleep and dream, and he cannot wake up from the nightmare that is his psychosis. It is only when he sees his fantasies and projections for what they really are that he can finally sleep, and thus escape his waking nightmare.

Analysis of “Él”

Él is a 1953 Mexican film directed by Luis Buñuel and based on the novel, Pensamientos, by Mercedes Pinto. Él is ‘him’ in Spanish; in the US, though, the title of the film is This Strange Passion.

The film stars Arturo de Córdova as the insanely jealous Francisco Galván de Montemayor, a wealthy, middle-aged bourgeois who falls in love with young Gloria Vilalta (Delia Garcés), steals her away from her fiancé, Raul Conde (Luis Beristáin), and marries her, only to be paranoid that other men are trying to seduce her and steal her from him.

The film begins in church during a foot-washing ceremony, at which both Francisco and Gloria are present. Francisco watches as Padre Velasco (Carlos Martinez Baena) washes and kisses the feet of a fair-haired boy. Francisco’s eyes wander over to the high-heel-clad feet of Gloria, and his eyes move up to see her pretty face, one expressing discomfort at his gaze.

His gaze at her feet and/or at her high heels, as seen here and in later scenes, suggests that he has a foot fetish. (He is seen putting her shoes away in a hotel during their honeymoon; at dinner at home in a later scene, he looks at her feet under the table. Soon after both instances of contemplating her feet/shoes, he flies into wild jealous rages.)

A Catholic foot-washing ceremony is meant to be a humble imitation of Christ’s washing the feet of his disciples (John 13:14-17). Francisco’s fetishizing of Gloria’s feet, however, doesn’t inspire him to be her humble servant; instead, his fetishizing leads to his possessiveness. He treats her feet, and therefore all of her, as a commodity to be jealously guarded, just as a traditional patriarchal husband invidiously watches over his wife.

The source of his foot fetish can be found when connected with another preoccupation of his: his wish to reclaim land and property once owned by his grandfather–land, where feet and shoes come into contact. This land was his family’s land, and he wants it back. His jealous possessiveness of Gloria can thus be linked to his jealous possessiveness of his family’s land and property; and in this way, she can be linked symbolically to his family.

Right after being upset with his lawyer for not being helpful enough in his suit to reclaim his land, prudish Francisco gets upset with his servant, Pablo (Manuel Dondé), for being involved in an indiscreet sexual encounter with a pretty young maid in Francisco’s employ, Martha, whom he demands that Pablo dismiss immediately. The quick juxtaposition of these two sources of Francisco’s frustration suggest a close connection between them in his unconscious: the possession of his family’s land and property; and the sexual possession of one of his female employees. Combine these with his wish to have Gloria all to himself, and you might be able to guess where I’m going with this.

When he calms down, he lies on his bed and looks up at a picture of the Virgin Mary. He tells Pablo to straighten it. She, as the Mother of God, is his maternal ideal, and he’d never want her looking bad in any way. The juxtaposition of this with what immediately preceded also links it symbolically with those earlier concerns.

We never learn anything substantial about Francisco’s family apart from his grandfather’s land and property. All we know is that Francisco is obsessed with getting his hands on it, as he wants to get his hands on Gloria. People (even family) and things are just possessions to him; nobody but he can have them. He wants them so badly that he’s willing to take them from others…but how dare they try to take them from him!

He sees Gloria at the church again, and appropriately, we hear the fugue section of J.S. Bach‘s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor playing on the organ. The word fugue literally comes from Latin words meaning “to flee” (fugere) and “to chase” (fugare). So we have a fitting soundtrack–with counterpoint following after, or chasing, the original, fleeing melody–for Francisco’s chasing after fleeing Gloria.

When he learns that Raul, an engineer, is engaged to Gloria, Francisco immediately begins scheming to take her from his friend. He invites the couple to a dinner party at his home, with such guests as the padre, a kind of good father substitute for Francisco. Raul and Gloria will come with her mother, who will insist on coming; Francisco says he’ll court the mother, Doña Esperanza Vilalta (played by Aurora Walker; the English subtitles of my DVD actually say, “make love with the mother”). After marrying Gloria, he’ll have her mother as both his mother-in-law and as his symbolic good mother, too, as we’ll see later.

At the dinner table, Francisco speaks of his idea of falling in love. To him, this passion is “nurtured from infancy” [!]; as the years go by, one grows up and sees many women pass by, but that one woman destined to be his will be found, and his love will shoot straight at her like an arrow. She must be his, willing or no.

Thus begins Gloria’s victimization.

Up until Francisco’s taking of her away from Raul, the latter man has had no moustache, as Francisco has (and a moustache is often seen as a symbol of manliness). Raul seems to have given her up without much of a fight…which is rather odd. Now, no longer having her, Raul has a moustache, and he continues to have one throughout the film, as do all the men Francisco is afraid will take her away from him. Now-moustachioed Raul is seen at a construction site, the machines and vehicles working on the land.

Buñuel’s films typically have surrealist elements, which means there’s a sense of the unconscious mind influencing the visuals and the story. One unconscious association humanity’s had in its mind for centuries is the notion that the land is our Mother Earth. The unconscious represses any desires deemed forbidden, but those desires are never eliminated–they reappear in new forms, though.

Raul and his construction workers, digging into the earth with their shovels, trucks, bulldozers, and cranes, are symbolically penetrating Gaea…they “make love with the mother.” He, with his moustache now, looks more like a man, a father.

Francisco, so much older than Gloria, has chosen a woman so much younger out of a reaction formation against choosing a woman of, say, her mother’s age, an age I suspect he’d unconsciously much prefer. His paranoia of other men taking Gloria away from him is really him projecting his own guilt over having taken her away from Raul.

When he takes her by train to Guanajuato for their honeymoon, Francisco is already demonstrating his possessiveness, that of her and of the land he wants back. They look over the city where his family’s property is; he says he likes looking at it from on high. It’s as if doing so makes him feel superior to it and the people living there. He wouldn’t humbly serve the land, as Jesus would humbly wash the feet of those walking on it: he’d subjugate and dominate it, even if he no longer has any legal right to it. He’d similarly possess Gloria.

As all of his fits of jealous rage go on, Gloria is desperate for help. Since Francisco has a spotless reputation (a narcissistic False Self all too often believed by enablers to be the true one), no one believes her when she complains of his abuse. Not even her own mother believes her.

Indeed, while he unjustly accuses Gloria of being a “tramp,” he has a pleasant relationship with her mother. The two women are split objects in his mind: the former is a bad object, the latter, a good object. Similarly are the men in Francisco’s life split into absolute good and bad objects–the padre is good, and all the young men (Raul, Ricardo [played by Rafael Banquelis], the lawyer Gloria dances with), with their moustaches and slicked back, black hair, are bad objects.

When Gloria tries to get help from the padre, not only is he as unsympathetic to her plight as her mother is, he also reveals an eye-opening secret about Francisco: prior to his marriage to Gloria, he has never had sexual relations with a woman.

She is shocked to hear this: surely a man of his age–handsome, wealthy, and charming (if only superficially so, which should be enough for him to get laid)–has lain with a woman at least a few times! Her mother, at that dinner table before he seduces Gloria, has said it should be easy for him to find a woman; her mother can’t imagine a single girl resisting him. (Now, imagining her mother thinking so highly of him is a wish-fulfillment. So much of this story is really just a dramatization of Francisco’s unconscious.) What could have been stopping him from having sex for all of these years?

As noted above, he has said, at the dinner table before seducing Gloria, that his love is something that has been “nurtured from infancy.” His love is what Lacan called the objet petit a, the unfulfillable object-cause of his desire. Now, what is that object-cause?

This desire, having been “nurtured from infancy,” is something Lacan traced back to the mother’s breast, a Kleinian part-object. In other words, Francisco’s “strange passion” is derived from an unresolved, but repressed, Oedipus complex.

Dear Reader, if you’ve read enough of my analyses, you’re probably getting sick and tired of me harping on about all that Freudian hooey; but consider when Buñuel made this film–in the early 50s, when notions of a man unconsciously having a thing for his mother was still in vogue, so this kind of interpretation, as dated as it is now, is nonetheless appropriate for a film of the time. Besides, I do believe I’ve provided a reasonable amount of evidence so far…and more evidence, especially persuasive evidence–I believe–will be revealed towards the end of the movie.

So to recap, Gloria and her mother respectively represent transferences of the bad mother and good mother, these being internal objects in Francisco’s mind; and the padre is a transference of the good father internal object, while every moustachioed young man that Francisco is jealous of represents his bad father internal object.

I suspect that the reason of Francisco’s seeing Gloria, as love at first sight, is that she physically resembles his mother when she was a young woman. Gloria’s mother would resemble his mother as an older woman, and all those young men with moustaches and slicked-back hair resemble his father as a young man. This will make more sense when we come to the end of the film.

What’s curious is that, during the entirety of his marriage to Gloria, he never gets her pregnant. In fact, one suspects they’ve never once had sex. Part of his sexual prudishness seems to be sexual dysfunction. Small wonder he shoots her with a pistol full of blanks: the gun is an obvious phallic symbol whose ejaculations are ineffectual. He is sexually inadequate, and he knows it: he cannot be the Lacanian phallus for his symbolic mother. This is why he’s so paranoid that she’s seeing other men, the symbolic bad fathers of his psyche. That whacking of the stick against the posts of the handrail on the stairs fittingly suggests the symbolism of a guilty teenage boy’s masturbating; the only way he can have sex is with himself.

I consider the Oedipus complex to be the root of his problems because, as Don Carveth argues, it is a universal narcissistic trauma. Francisco wants to have Mother (in the symbolic, transferred forms of Gloria and her mother) all to himself: he wants her as a narcissistic mirror reflecting his entire world all back to himself, because he wants everything to be about him.

This narcissism is important in how it links with his bourgeois wish to reclaim his grandfather’s old land and property. The bourgeoisie are narcissistic by nature, imagining themselves entitled to all the land, property, and means of production they steal and hog to themselves, never sharing it with the global proletariat. Even when his lawyers tell him he has no way to prove he has a legal right to that land, Francisco throws temper tantrums and childishly fancies he has documentary proof that he actually lacks.

Many people mistake capitalism as being, in its essence, about markets. To be sure, the market is extremely important as a generator of profits for the accumulation of capital, but capitalism’s essence is about ownership of private property–factories, office buildings, apartment buildings, farmland, foreign lands gained by imperialist conquest…land. Just as Francisco’s possessiveness of Gloria and his grandfather’s old properties and land are interrelated, so are the capitalist’s possessiveness of private property and the patriarchal husband’s jealous clinging to his wife interrelated. And the psychological root of this jealous possessiveness is the child’s narcissistic Oedipal relationship with his or her desired parent, whom he or she doesn’t wish to share.

If we follow the symbolism of the film as I’ve interpreted it, we can see all three of these strands–ownership of land, possessiveness of one’s wife, and the narcissistic Oedipal relationship with the mother–played out in the scene when Francisco takes Gloria up to the belfry and they look down on the people walking in the streets of the city. Just as he has earlier expressed his contempt for the common “morons” one sees in the cinema or at the race track, he, from the belfry, looks down on those people below as if he were God judging them from the heavens. She calls him “self-centred,” which of course the narcissistic man is.

He thinks it’s “marvellous” to be up with Gloria in the belfry, where we see a huge bell and its clapper above their heads. A comparison I’ve made elsewhere, in my analysis of Belle de Jour (another Buñuel film), is that a bell symbolizes the vagina, and the clapper the hymen. So his ideal is to be above human mediocrity, with his wife as immaculate a virgin as Mary. As I said above, the Madonna is his maternal ideal, and he wants Gloria to embody this ideal; hence, she must be as chaste as he, and he must jealously guard her virtue from other men. She would be the perfect symbolic mother of his repressed, narcissistic Oedipal fantasies, and he would be lord over her life and over the land, which is our Mother Earth. Hence the connection between capitalism, the traditional patriarchal family, and narcissistic, Oedipally-minded child.

So afraid is Francisco of his wife getting any phallus other than his own, he attempts one night to infibulate her. If he succeeds, though, he won’t be able to penetrate her any better than any other man will. This would prove his sexual impotence, since if he can’t have her, he doesn’t want even the possibility of another man having her.

She wakes and screams, and it is only natural that she leaves him the next day, running off with Raul. In a panic, Francisco goes after her. He has several hallucinations, each increasing in intensity: he imagines a maid laughing at him; he thinks he sees Raul on a street corner buying a newspaper; he sees Gloria in a car putting on lipstick; and he thinks he sees her and Raul entering the church of the film’s beginning.

He goes in and finds them at their pew; but when he’s about to confront them, the young man and woman are actually two different people. Then, after hearing the cough of an old man walking behind him, Francisco imagines all the churchgoers laughing at him…even the altar boy and the padre!

This last man, who hitherto has been Francisco’s chaste, paternal ideal, is now no better than all the ‘bad fathers.’ With neither symbolic parent to be his ideal parental imago (i.e., both have traumatically disappointed him), and with his grandiose self (his narcissistic False Self exposed as such) abased and humiliated, the structure of his bipolar self has been destroyed, he undergoes psychological fragmentation, and he goes mad. He attacks the priest, is subdued by the churchgoers, and will be taken away…eventually to be put in a monastery.

Raul and Gloria, now married and with a fair-haired son of about 8-10 years old (who looks rather like the boy whose feet the padre washes at the film’s beginning), visit the monastery years later and ask about Francisco. We learn that their boy’s name is also Francisco! Why would Gloria want to name her son after a man who has caused her so much suffering? Why would Raul, who loves her in a way her former husband has never ben able to, be so insensitive to her as to want to name the boy after her former tormentor?

To me, the only logical answer to why the boy has this name is to regard the whole story as a particularly subtle use of surrealism on Buñuel’s part. As I see it, this boy is the real Francisco (and his resemblance to the boy whose feet are washed by the priest at the film’s beginning suggests a narcissistic wish-fulfillment to have his symbolic good father be subservient to him), and the older version of him is an unconscious wish-fulfillment, a dream of him having the age, manly moustache, and financial success necessary to win his mother away from his father.

The head monk asks them if the boy is their son, to which Raul gives no answer. The Wikipedia article for Él interprets his silence as implying that he may not be the father: I dispute this, for I see no reason to think Gloria has had the boy by any other man, especially by impotent Francisco. Raul’s silence probably comes from the tension he must feel from his son’s still-unresolved Oedipal attachment to Gloria (normally, a boy of his age should be going through the latency period).

(With regards to her name, I’ll mention in passing that, with the entrance of Iocaste in Stravinsky‘s 1927 opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex, the men’s chorus sing “Gloria, gloria, gloria!” at the end of Act One.)

Finally, we see old Francisco as a monk, after the family has left the monastery. He no longer has his moustache: he’s lost his manliness, a symbolic castration. In giving up his symbolic mother, Gloria, and adhering to the nom, or Non! du père, Francisco is now the personification of the moralistic superego. He must remain chaste for the rest of his life.

Will he be happy doing so? He claims he’s found true peace, but the frown on his face gives us doubts. Repressed desires always resurface in one form or another. His zig-zagging walk down that path to the dark doorway, an implied inability to stay on ‘the straight path,’ reinforces our doubts.

Analysis of “Joker”

I: Introduction

Joker is a 2019 supervillain origin story film directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. Though based on the DC comic book character, this film takes many liberties with the story material by creating a background for the Joker that has hitherto been kept deliberately mysterious.

The notion of him starting out as a failed comedian comes from Batman: The Killing Joke, but other elements come from two Martin Scorsese films starring Robert De NiroTaxi Driver and The King of Comedy. This origin story nonetheless can be reconciled with the comic book canon somewhat in that, given how the story is told from the Joker’s point of view, and given his psychotic penchant for mixing fantasy with reality, he is an unreliable narrator; so it hardly matters if events in the movie contradict those of the comic books.

Phoenix’s performance deservedly won him the Best Actor Oscar. For her plaintive, brooding cello soundtrack, Hildur Guðnadóttir won the Best Original Score. The film itself has also been praised (with nominations for such Oscar categories as Best Picture and Best Director), in spite of such controversies as the baseless fear that its sympathetic portrayal of a mentally-ill loner, who shoots people, would inspire incel murders. Actually, the film–despite Phillips’s denial of having intended any political message–is clearly presenting a drama of class war.

II: Quotes

“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” –Arthur Fleck/Joker

[written in notebook] “I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.” –Arthur

[written in notebook] “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” –Arthur

“You don’t listen, do you? You just ask the same questions every week. ‘How’s your job?’ ‘Are you having negative thoughts?’ All I have are negative thoughts.” –Arthur, to his therapist

“For my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do. People are starting to notice.” –Arthur

“I know it seems strange, I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, I don’t know why everyone is so rude, I don’t know why you are; I don’t want anything from you. Maybe a little warmth, maybe a hug, ‘Dad,’ maybe just a bit of common fucking decency!” –Arthur, to Thomas Wayne

“I haven’t been happy one minute of my entire fucking life.” –Arthur

“You know what’s funny? You know what really makes me laugh? I used to think that my life was a tragedy…but now I realize…it’s a fucking comedy.” –Arthur, to his mother before killing her

“When you bring me out, can you introduce me as Joker?” –Arthur, to Murray Franklin

Murray Franklin: Okay, I- I think …I might understand it. You…did this to start a movement? To become a-a symbol?
Joker: Come on, Mur-ray. Do I look like the kind of clown that could start a movement? I killed those guys because they were awful. Everybody is awful these days. It’s enough to make anyone crazy.
Murray: Alright. So that’s it, you’re crazy. That’s your defense for killing three young men?
Joker: No. They couldn’t carry a tune to save their lives. [the crowd boos and jeers] (growing frustrated) Ugh, why is everybody so upset about these guys?! If it was me dying on the sidewalk, you’d walk right over me! I pass you every day, and you don’t notice me! But these guys… What, because Thomas Wayne went and cried about them on TV?!
Franklin: You have a problem with Thomas Wayne?
Joker: Yes, I do! Have you seen what it’s like out there, Mur-ray? Do you ever actually leave the studio? Everybody just yells and screams at each other. Nobody’s civil anymore! Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy. You think men like Thomas Wayne ever think what it’s like to be someone like me?! To be somebody but themselves?! They don’t. They think we’ll all just sit there and take it like good little boys! That we won’t werewolf and go wild!!

You’re awful, Murray.” –Arthur, coldly

Joker: How about another joke, Mur-ray?
Franklin: No, I think we’ve had enough of your jokes.
Joker: What do you get…
Franklin: I don’t think so.
Joker: …When you cross…
Franklin: I think we’re done here now, that’s it.
Joker: …A mentally-ill loner with a SOCIETY THAT ABANDONS HIM AND TREATS HIM LIKE TRASH?!?!
Murray Franklin: Call the police, Gene!
Joker: I’ll tell you what you get!
Franklin: Call the police.
JokerYOU GET WHAT YOU FUCKING DESERVE!!!! [pulls out his gun and shoots Murray in the head, instantly killing him]

[Joker, in a police car, is laughing and chuckling at the chaos being spread to Gotham City]
Cop 1: Stop laughing, you freak. This isn’t funny.
Cop 2: Yeah, the whole fucking city’s on fire because of what you did.
Joker: I know… Isn’t it beautiful?

[Arthur is laughing loudly during a psychiatric examination at Arkham Asylum. He soon settles down, but still laughs]
Psychiatrist: What’s so funny?
Arthur[laughing and chuckling some more] I was just thinking…just thinking of a joke. [shot of a young Bruce Wayne standing over the bodies of his dead parents as the camera pulls back and Arthur’s laughter is heard]
Psychiatrist: You wanna tell it to me?
Arthur[softly whispers] You wouldn’t get it.

III: Mirrors

The story is set in 1981, as the film’s use of the old Warner Bros. logo of the time suggests. We hear the news on the radio describing a garbagemen’s strike in Gotham City, resulting in pileups of garbage bags all over town. Just as M.A.S.H., set during the Korean War, was meant as an allegory of the Vietnam War, so can Joker, set in early 80s Gotham, be seen as an allegory for our neoliberal time (in fact, because of the general strike in France, garbage is piling up there, too). The earlier time in which the film is set is a mirror to our present time.

Already we see, in this garbagemen’s strike, an indication of class war: if the workers’ demands would simply be respected, the mess would be cleaned up. The filth in the city, and the fears of it leading to the spread of disease, shows how little the rich care about the poor. The pileup of filth is a mirror to the political and economic corruption of our world.

We see Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) putting on clown makeup in front of a mirror. He puts his fingers in his mouth, stretching it upwards and downwards to make smiles and a frown (and remember that a ‘smile is just a frown turned upside-down’).

What’s established in this scene are two themes: the psychoanalytic symbolism of mirrors, and the dialectical relationship of opposites. These themes can also be fused in the form of the self-other dialectic, in which we can see the self in the other, and vice versa. One thing mirrors its opposite.

Fleck’s mirror is Lacan‘s mirror: the man looking in the reflection is Arthur’s real, socially awkward self; the reflection is his ideal-I, the successful comedian he wishes he could be. In his attempts to be that great comedian, to smile and make others smile and laugh, he finds himself constantly failing…hence, frowning.

The idealized image in the mirror is a lie, for the very formation of an ego–as opposed to the awkward, fragmented self one really is, lacking a clear definition between oneself and the outside world of other people–is also a lie. Hence, Arthur is alienated from the ‘self’ he sees in the mirror; that ‘self’ is really someone other than himself.

Similarly, he idealizes other people, such as Murray Franklin (De Niro) on the TV, whom Fleck sees not only as his idol as a comedian, but also as a kind of father figure, since he doesn’t know his real father. Seeing Murray’s face on the TV is thus like looking into a metaphorical mirror for Arthur.

Indeed, there are a number of such metaphorical mirrors, or idealizations of other people seen as reflections of one’s narcissistic self. Apart from Murray, these ideals include Arthur’s mother Penny (Frances Conroy; his idealization of her is Oedipal), Thomas Wayne (played by Brett Cullen, Wayne is idealized by both Flecks, who imagine the billionaire to be Arthur’s father), and Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz), whose finger gunshot to her head is imitated…mirrored, by Arthur. Charlie Chaplin, the comic tramp that penniless [!] Arthur sees mirrored on the silver screen, is another ideal.

Those are the idealized reflections, but then there’s the real Arthur looking at the literal or symbolic mirror reflection. The real Arthur is coming apart; he is experiencing psychological fragmentation, and a narcissistic False Self, as dysfunctional as that may be, is an effective defence against fragmentation. Hence, Arthur’s transformation into the Joker.

IV: Opposites Attract

The Clown Prince of Crime (a perpetrator of it), as we see in this film, starts out as a victim of crime: he’s beaten up by the kids who’ve stolen and broken his sign over his face; he’s docked pay for the sign, whose theft and breaking weren’t his fault…not that his boss, agent Hoyt Vaughn, wants to listen (this is tantamount to wage theft); and he’s assaulted by the three Wayne employees on the train, making him snap and kill them.

The dialectical unity of opposites is best symbolized in Arthur’s involuntary laughing, a result of pseudobulbar affect. His pained laugh, which he–in his embarrassment–desperately tries to control, looks like a cross between laughing and weeping; the sad aspect is especially apparent when we see it typically happening whenever something bad happens to him. Smile, though your heart is aching…

All Arthur has ever wanted is recognition, an acknowledgement that he exists. To make a kid laugh on the bus, such a happiness is the mirrored reflection of a smile Arthur’s own wounded inner child yearns to be able to do, but for real, for a change.

Lacan said, “Man’s desire is the desire of the Other,” that is, we feel desire in terms of other people. We desire what we imagine others desire, and we desire recognition from other people. Arthur imagines that, in making others laugh, he’s fulfilling their desires; and in doing so, he’s fulfilling his own desires by getting people’s recognition. Once again, we see the self defined in terms of the other.

While watching the Murray Franklin Show on TV with his mother, Arthur fantasizes that he’s sitting with the studio audience. This scene establishes the fact that not all we see and hear in this film is really happening. In fact, a lot more of it could be fantasy. Could all of it be fantasy?

Even if all of it is, the themes of class war and of alienation–social, worker, and inner alienation–are real enough to deserve examination. People like Arthur Fleck have existed and continue to exist; their problems of loneliness, mental illness, and exploitation by the ruling class countervail the Joker’s ‘fake’ origin story so many times over that the Arthur Fleck story might as well be 100% true.

I will argue that the Joker is Arthur’s False Self, his narcissistic defence against psychological fragmentation; on the other hand, the Joker (the only version of him that is ‘real’ to us, i.e., that we have seen in the comic books and in previous movies) could be imagining Arthur as a fake version of his past self in order to win people’s sympathy. Which version of him is real, and which is fantasy? Here we see how the opposites of fantasy and reality attract, as do those of the self and the other.

Arthur fantasizes that Murray would give up all his fame and wealth just to have Arthur for a son. As an aspiring comedian, Arthur wishes to identify with his idol, Murray, just as any son, upon the dissolution of his Oedipus complex, identifies with his father.

V: Comparisons With Other Films

Some interesting comparisons can be made between films in that De Niro is playing Murray; he also played Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy and Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Arthur is both the fantasizing, failed comedian counterpart of Pupkin and the journal-writing psychotic counterpart of Bickle. Similarly, Murray is the TV show host equivalent of Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) in The King of Comedy. In this use of De Niro, we see a further identification of Arthur with his TV-mirror reflection and father figure, Murray Franklin.

And since Arthur is an unreliable narrator, who may have killed fewer people than we see him kill (Does he kill Murray, or is that scene as much a fantasy as is his scene sitting with the studio audience? And what about the excessive number of shots fired from his gun on the three yuppies on and off the train?), Joker could be seen as the proletarian version of American Psycho. And this leads to an interesting inter-film coincidence: Christian Bale played both Patrick Bateman and Batman, the latter of whom would “complete” Heath Ledger’s Joker!

Fleck’s mother always calls him “Happy,” imagining that “he’d always been such a happy little boy”; but his ‘happiness,’ linked with his involuntary laughing and his failed attempts at comedy, is just a reaction formation against dealing with his profound sadness, a form of manic defence against depression. In this, we see the unity between the opposites of happiness and sadness, as when he–taking care of his mother–has seen his life as a tragedy, then–smothering her with the pillow in the hospital–sees his life as a comedy.

VI: The Love Gun

Randall, a clown colleague of Arthur’s, gives him a gun for his protection against any future attacks from punks like the teens at the film’s beginning. This pistol is a symbol of the Lacanian phallus, which is itself symbolic of the thing we lack, and therefore desire. Arthur’s lack, as mentioned above, is a feeling that he doesn’t exist (Lacan’s manque à être), which shifts into symbolic castration (manque á avoir, ‘lack of having’), the powerlessness he feels as a poor, struggling clown/comedian.

It’s around when he gets the gun that he begins to fantasize and obsess about Sophie. He dances in his living room holding the gun, imagining he’s talking to her and that she’s impressed with his dancing. His erotic pelvic moves emphasize the phallic nature of the gun, and when he accidentally shoots a hole in the wall, and his mother complains about the noise, it’s as if she’s caught her boy masturbating. Apologizing to her, he feels ashamed. Later, when he fantasizes about Sophie at his door, and she asks him about his having followed her, and hopes he’d “come in and rob” her in her apartment (obvious sexual symbolism), he playfully mentions the gun he has…more sexual and phallic symbolism.

When he performs for the hospital kids and the gun falls out of his pocket and onto the floor, we see another symbolic castration, his loss of power (he gets fired, and thus can no longer be the ‘happy’ clown he imagines his mom wants him to be…”to spread joy and laughter”). Ironically, it’s his dancing about that causes the gun to fall out. Actually, Arthur has missed his calling: he should be a dancer, not a comedian. Dancing is natural for him: he doesn’t even seem to need lessons.

He regains his power when killing the three men on the train with that ejaculating, phallic gun (a comparison I made in my Taxi Driver analysis, too). He escapes to a public washroom and does another of his therapeutic dances. Using the gun to kill his tormentors, projecting his pain onto them, is therapeutic and empowering, as is his dancing, perhaps the purest art form of all, since it involves the direct, instinctive movements of the body to express oneself (‘express,’ to press outward, to project outside what has been bottled up inside, to take what’s in the self and put it in the other).

VII: Thomas Wayne

Unlike the kind Thomas Wayne of Batman Begins, this one is an unsympathetic, Trumpish sort. Accordingly, his attitude towards the angry poor is offensive and condescending–he calls them “clowns,” yet he hypocritically claims that, if elected mayor of Gotham, he’ll help the poor, even though really doing so would be against his class interests as a billionaire.

Yet aptly-named Penny imagines Wayne will save Gotham, as many poor Americans believe their incumbent–who has cut (or at least proposed to cut) food stamps, taxes for the rich, and funding for healthcare and education, yet has also sought to boost military spending into the billions–actually cares for them. She idealizes Wayne, just as Arthur has idealized images of Murray, Sophie, and Wayne in his head, mirror images that don’t reflect the truth.

There’s more fantasizing when Arthur imagines Sophie at his door asking about his having followed her (something no woman in her right mind would be happy about); then he imagines himself dating her, with her enjoying his disastrous standup comedy routine, and her with him in the hospital with his mother. One wonders: have the fantasies increased now that he isn’t getting his medication? Is the rest of the movie especially unreliable?

This leads back to the discussion of class war: the cuts in funding that cause Arthur to lose both his therapy sessions and his medication. Problems like these underscore how a movie set in 1981 (before Reagan had really begun to force ‘small government,’ and ‘free market‘ capitalism on the US) is actually a parable for our much worse times. The cops accuse the Joker of causing the social unrest at the end of the film, instead of taking responsibility for protecting the capitalist system that has really caused the unrest.

VIII: Mommy and Daddy Issues

But what is the thing that makes Arthur totally lose it? Not so much these problems mentioned above, not even Murray humiliating him on TV, but that archaic, narcissistic trauma that–in all of its variations–is universal: his love/hate relationship with his parents.

Heinz Kohut‘s theory of the bipolar self posits that we all get our sense of self, as children going through primary narcissism, through the grandiose self on one side (which says, “I’m great, and I need you, Mom and Dad, to mirror my greatness back to me!”) and the idealized parental imago on the other (a mental internalization of one’s ‘godlike’ parents that says, “You, Mom and Dad, are the greatest, and I get my greatness from your love!”). Lacking this validation, a person is in danger of either pathological narcissism or fragmenting into a psychotic break with reality.

Such fragmenting, with only a narcissistic False Self as a defence against it, is exactly what’s happening to Arthur. When his mother plants the seed in his head that his rolling-stone papa is billionaire Thomas Wayne, he naturally wants to idealize the man as much as she does.

When Arthur meets young Bruce, the two facing each other with the gate of class difference separating them, I suspect that Arthur is fantasizing about touching the boy’s face and curling it up into a smile. No child would tolerate a stranger touching him like that without at least some resistance, especially a rich child raised to believe that the lower classes are ‘inferior.’

Arthur’s wish to make Bruce smile, as with the boy laughing and facing him on the bus, represents his own wish to smile by having happiness mirrored back to him. It’s his wish for recognition, just as he’d have Thomas acknowledge him as his son.

But as always, his wishes keep getting frustrated. In the public washroom with Thomas Wayne, Arthur sees both of them in the mirror reflection, himself juxtaposed with his idealized father, another kind of ideal-I. Not only does Wayne, however, deny that he’s his father, in an even more devastating blow, he claims that Penny adopted Arthur.

Arthur claims that Thomas resembles him (“Look at us,” he says. “I think you are.”): is this a fact, or is it wish-fulfillment? Thomas’s denial of paternity could easily be part of a cover-up to avoid publicizing a scandalous adultery with a former employee, complete with documents forged by the unscrupulous Dr. Benjamin Stoner. On the other hand, especially with regards to Arthur’s unreliable point of view presenting the story, we must also consider how far-fetched it is to believe that he and Bruce Wayne are half-brothers.

Arthur’s visit to Arkham State Hospital seems to confirm his worst fears: his mother’s medical documents seem to confirm that Penny adopted him as a child. What’s worse–and this seems to be real–he reads of her having allowed her then-boyfriend to abuse him when a boy. The physical abuse little Arthur suffered included blows to the head that must have caused his pseudobulbar affect; the ex-boyfriend also chained him to a radiator and left him deprived of food.

IX: Trauma Leads to Madness

Those who prefer leaving the Joker’s past a mystery, leaving it “multiple choice,” seem to be reinforcing, intentionally or not, the idea that criminal psychopaths are just “fucking crazies,” as Detective Mills calls them in Se7en. I prefer to go with the trauma model of mental disorders, and I believe that Arthur’s reading of his mother’s medical records has triggered repressed childhood memories, forgotten traumas. People aren’t just ‘born crazy,’ they are made to be mentally ill.

Erich Fromm, in Man for Himself, explains how, in a general sense, one becomes evil rather than is innately so: “If life’s tendency to grow, to be lived, is thwarted, the energy thus blocked undergoes a process of change and is transformed into life-destructive energy. Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life. Those individual and social conditions which make for the blocking of life-furthering energy produce destructiveness which in turn is the source from which the various manifestations of evil spring.” (Fromm, page 162, his emphasis)

Worse than having triggered the memory of Arthur’s repressed childhood traumas, regardless of whether or not the medical documents have been faked, the seed of doubt has been planted in his head: is Penny not his biological mother? Are both of his parents unknown? Did both parents abandon him when he was a child? Does nobody love him?

He has experienced traumatic disappointments on both poles of his personality (in Kohut’s sense): his grandiose self has been shattered with humiliations and rejections, and his parental idealizations have proven false to him.

He’s had a bad day.

Only transforming into the Joker will keep him from falling apart.

With both parents having abandoned and betrayed him, Arthur will perceive them as only bad internal objects in his mind. This is Melanie Klein‘s notion of the bad mother and bad father, causing him to experience what she called the paranoid-schizoid position, a splitting of internalized objects into absolute good and bad, and a paranoid fear that the bad objects will harm him. (Click here for a more thorough elucidation of psychoanalytic concepts.) There are no good objects for Arthur…only bad ones. Now, he will feel an urge to kill his parents, both biological and symbolic.

X: Metamorphosis

After smothering Penny (whose very name he hates) in the hospital, Arthur returns home; having learned (or, as I suspect, fantasized in his narcissistic imagination, leading to a fantasy of murderous revenge) that Murray wants him as a guest on the TV show, Arthur is seen looking in a mirror as he dyes his hair green. This is him constructing his False Self as the Joker, looking at his ideal-I in the Lacanian mirror and striving to live up to that ideal.

Murdering Randall helps further cement Arthur’s new identity as the Joker, so his transformation is complete. Hearing the music from, thankfully, only the largely instrumental section of Gary Glitter‘s “Rock and Roll” (speaking of sickos…and Glitter will get no royalties for the song’s inclusion in the soundtrack, so don’t worry about that), we see Arthur enter the elevator and leave his apartment all decked out in Joker garb and clown makeup.

In several scenes, we’ve seen sad Arthur climb that interminably high staircase up to his apartment as the evening sun is going down. I’m reminded of a passage from Milton‘s Paradise Lost: “Long is the way/And hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” (Book II, lines 432-433) Now as the Joker, though, he joyfully dances his way down the stairs. Instead of struggling his way up in search of heaven, he’s dancing down to hell.

Two cops chase him into a train filled with his followers, the anti-Wayne protestors in clown masks. These people, who regard him as a hero for killing the three Wayne employees, are each a mirror reflection of him, giving him the recognition he’s always craved. To help him escape from the cops, he even steals and dons a clown mask to mix in better with the crowded protestors, and to cause a fight among them to stop the cops from being able to continue their pursuit. His wearing of the mask reinforces the false nature of his Joker persona; he’s making himself mirror his fans.

XI: When Homicide Is Suicide

As I said above, I believe his appearance on the Murray Franklin Show is a fantasy, as much a fantasy as his first appearance in the studio audience. (At the very least, the producers of the show would have cut to commercial and gotten rid of him as soon as he began flaking out on live TV, long before he’d have had a chance to take out his gun.) In the first fantasy, Murray is Arthur’s symbolic good father, a transference from his unknown father onto Murray; in the second fantasy, Murray is the symbolic bad father who, like bad mother Penny, must be killed.

Note how, during his rant on the show, the Joker complains of how we must suffer and “take it like good little boys.” This sounds like a child suffering from an abusive father, authority figure…or Penny’s abusive ex-boyfriend, another substitute father for little Arthur. In his fantasy, he kills symbolic father Murray and gives a long kiss to the elderly woman sex therapist, Dr. Sally, who could be considered a symbolic mother transference (recall how he says he loves Dr. Sally). How Oedipal.

I’m guessing he fantasizes about killing Murray while actually still in his apartment, where he’s similarly fantasized about shooting himself, this suicide ideation being a recurring idea throughout the film. In imagining he’s shot Murray, he’s really shot that mirror image of his idealized self, his identification with the idealized parental imago that he now hates, and has replaced with his new ideal-I…the Joker. So this is yet another example of the self mirrored in the other, and vice versa.

XII: Destructive or Constructive Revolution?

He is delighted to see all the rioting and violence on the streets of Gotham, all those people in clown masks hating Wayne and the other rich of the city. Their anger mirrors his own, even though he insists he’s apolitical: recall his words to Murray, “I don’t believe in anything,” echoing the nihilism of the Germans in The Big Lebowski. Arthur finally has the recognition he’s craved; the rioters want what he wants–chaos and destruction. Accordingly, he does another dance, this time for his fans on the police car. He puts his fingers in his bloody mouth, pulls them upward, and unlike his frowning before the mirror at the beginning of the film, this time he makes a genuine, if gory, grin.

Now, we can sympathize with the anger of these people and their wish to destroy the current, corrupt social order. Revolution cannot, however, end with only violence; one must build a new world after the destruction of the old, and return to stability. The Joker and his clowns don’t want to rebuild.

It’s interesting how the Trotskyist Left Voice largely praises Joker for its insurrectionary message, while this Marxist-Leninist blog is critical of the film for its stopping at the violence and chaos. These two strands of socialism respectively advocate either violent, permanent, worldwide revolution, or the building up of socialism, be that building-up in several countries, or even just in one, if continued revolutions elsewhere aren’t possible for the time being.

Though the Joker imagines that a life of chaos is the only one for him, and that his current, laughing madman self is the real him, remember what I said above: his Joker persona is a narcissistic False Self that keeps him from psychologically falling apart. A rebuilding of society, on socialist principles, would restore the cut funding to social services, giving Arthur back his psychotherapy and medication. Socialism would also work to end the alienation he suffers.

XIII: Bruce Completes Arthur

It’s interesting how both Arthur and Bruce have lost their parents by the end of the film (be they Arthur’s actual or imagined parents), and in the loss of both people’s parents, both a supervillain and a superhero are being born. In this we see a mirroring of the Joker and Batman, of the one completing the other, the self-other dialectic…there’s a bit of one person in the other, and vice versa.

The one scene in the film not ‘narrated’ by Arthur (i.e., he isn’t in this one scene) is when Joe Chill shoots Thomas and Martha Wayne. Arthur, in Arkham, laughs about that moment, presumably having read about the murders in the newspapers and imagining a private joke. In contrast to the first scene of him laughing/weeping during a therapy session (also, just to reinforce the parallels, with a black female therapist [as was fantasized Sophie, in a way, a therapist for him], but now we’re in a white room instead of the dark room of the beginning), this time he’s really enjoying the laugh.

His therapist may not get the joke, but I think I do: he, in having inspired the clown protestors, is indirectly responsible for the murder of Bruce’s parents; because Chill, in the clown mask, is a metaphorical mirror of Arthur. This makes Arthur like young Jack Napier of the 1989 Batman film, to note yet another interesting coincidence between films. Traumatized Arthur knows young, traumatized Bruce will want revenge on him, just as he’s wanted revenge on the whole world.

Arthur=Joe=Jack=Joker=Bruce=Batman

It would be interesting to see a sequel to Joker, with Batman–the bourgeois superhero par excellence (Tony Stark ranking a close second)–fighting the permanently revolutionary Joker. What a complex, morally and politically ambiguous story that would be, where such dialectical opposites as hero and villain intermingle, as do the self and the other, happiness and sadness, and bourgeois and proletarian heroism and criminality.

If I, in my flight of ideas, have left you confused, should I explain further?

Nah.

You wouldn’t get it.

Analysis of ‘mother!’

I: Introduction

mother! is a 2017 psychological horror film written and directed by Darren Aronofsky (who also did Black Swan). It stars Jennifer Lawrence in the title role, with Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer. It is about a wife (mother) and husband (Him–Bardem) whose idyllic home is intruded on by increasing numbers of guests, whose outrageous behaviour drives the agitated wife into madness and despair, causing her to burn down the house that the guests are treating more and more disrespectfully.

The story is an allegory of how the human race is slowly destroying our ability to live on Earth. The house represents the Earth, mother is the goddess of the Earth, and Him (the only character whose name is capitalized) is God. The Biblical parallels continue with man (Harris) representing Adam, woman (Pfeiffer) representing Eve, their two adult sons representing Cain (Domhnall Gleeson) and Abel (Brian Gleeson), and the infant son of Him and mother representing the Christ child.

These two allegories resulted in a polarized reaction from audiences, some of whom praised the environmental message, while others found the Biblical parallels and violence offensive.

II: Quotes

“Baby?” —mother, after waking up (first line of the movie)

“I wanna make a Paradise.” —mother

“My wife *loves* having company.” —Him

mother: Stop, they’re ruining everything!

Him: These are just things. They can be replaced.

[to Mother] “The inspiration! Where have you been hiding?” [to revolutionaries] “Finish her.” –herald

“Make them go!” —mother, to Him

Him: I’m his father.

mother: And I’m his mother!

[to the followers of Him] “Murderers!” [to Him] “Murderer! It’s time to get the fuck…” [scratches his face as his followers gasp] “…out of my house!” —mother

mother: *What* are you?

Him: Me? I, am I. You? You were home.

mother: Where are you taking me?

Him: The beginning. [pause] It won’t hurt much longer.

mother: What hurts me the most is that I wasn’t enough.

Him: It’s not your fault. Nothing is ever enough. I couldn’t create if it was. And I have to. That’s what I do. That’s what I am. And now I must try it all again.

“Baby?” –next mother, after waking up (last line)

III: So Much Allegory and Symbolism

Since the ecological allegory has been discussed so many times before, I don’t have all that much to add to it. Instead, without denying the ecological interpretation, I’ll be doing a different one, since this movie is so rich in symbolism that many overlapping, intersecting, and even contradictory interpretations can coexist. And if you, Dear Reader, are familiar with my writing, you’ll know of my dialectical treatment of contradictions, making all interpretations valid, since any one interpretation can flow into the other, then back again.

Because the characters’ generic-sounding names will make the distinction between them difficult, I’ll usually be calling them by different names, those indicative of who the characters represent. Hence, mother is “Gaea,” Him is “Yahweh,” man is “Adam,” woman is “Eve,” the oldest son is “Cain,” the younger brother is “Abel,” and the baby is “Jesus.” This renaming will remind us of the original allegories, helping us see how those ones intersect with mine to uncover new meanings.

IV: In the Beginning

“Yahweh” smiles as he places a crystal object on a mantel, which causes his and “Gaea’s” home, previously burned down by his ex-wife, to be instantly and miraculously restored. “Gaea” wakes up in bed, noting that he isn’t lying beside her. She calls out, “Baby?”

What’s interesting about her saying this, referring to Him (the first and last word said in the whole film), is how it contrasts with their ages. “Yahweh” is old enough to be her father; “Adam” (who, incidentally, is just barely old enough to be the father of Him) later will mistakenly think she is “Yahweh’s” daughter.

Yahweh is a storm and sky-father god like Zeus and Uranus, the latter being Gaea‘s son and husband. Uranus was also castrated, which corresponds with “Yahweh’s” sexual impotence early in the film, a symbolic castration that prevents Him from getting “Gaea” pregnant.

This symbolic swapping of the ‘parent/child’ relationship introduces the theme of the dialectical unity of opposites in the film. Another example of this swapping can be seen in how, usually, the sky is a father god and the earth is a mother goddess; but in ancient Egyptian myth, Nut is the sky goddess and Geb is the earth god. Since, in Biblical myth, God will destroy all life on Earth when the apocalypse comes, and “Gaea,” having already spoken of preparing for the apocalypse, burns down the house at the end of the film, mother can thus be seen in this way as a sky mother goddess.

“Gaea” looks around the house for Him, reaching the front door, opening it, and looking out at the Edenic scenery surrounding the house. She’s wearing see-through bedclothes, with her nipples showing; this suggests Eve’s unashamed nakedness, which leads me to my next point about the swapping of opposites.

Since this married couple are the first man and woman we see in this Edenic setting, “Yahweh” and “Gaea” can also be seen to represent Adam and Eve, every bit as much as man and woman do. The creators swap roles with the created. This parallel between the two married couples continues when we see the sons of both violently killed. “Abel” is killed by jealous “Cain,” and “Jesus” is an Abel in his own right, killed by the Cains of the crowd of “Yahweh’s” fanatical followers; were they jealous of the love of Him toward his newborn baby, and in ingesting its mutilated body in a ghoulish variation on the Eucharist, are they hoping to be similarly loved…by being “Jesus”?

V: Hell is Other People

When “Gaea” is startled by Him, behind her at the front porch, we can see a foreshadowing of her anthropophobia, her fear and intense dislike of people. She would be only with Him and their future baby, not with anyone else.

Her anthropophobia leads to the central conflict of this movie, something sidestepped in the ecological interpretation. Her life with Him is Eden, a paradise…heaven; but as Jean-Paul Sartre observed, hell is other people. In this movie, Sartre’s dictum applies in both its correct and incorrect interpretations. The popular misconception of Sartre’s meaning is shown in how, the more that people intrude on “Gaea’s” life, the more hellish it is; but the correct meaning, the hell of never escaping from how others’ perceptions of us shape our self-concept, is present in the film, too.

People throughout the movie say disparaging or invalidating things to “Gaea,” and they give her dirty looks, all to depreciate her worth. They don’t listen to her or respect how she feels. This makes her dislike herself so much that she burns herself with the house and all the other people. The split external object becomes the introjected split internal object.

VI: The Other as a Mirror of the Self

Her growing dislike of herself is necessarily linked to her dislike of the others, because other people looking in our faces are metaphorical mirrors of ourselves. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the structural growth of the personality is relational with other people; there is a bit of the other in the self, and vice versa.

“Gaea” would rather remain in a one-on-one, dyadic relationship with Him than engage with society in general, because her interactions with Him–that is, she and “Yahweh” looking into each other’s eyes lovingly–are, metaphorically, a narcissistic mirroring of each other that she can’t replicate with the world.

She is stuck in the Imaginary Order with Him; “Yahweh” is her symbolic mirror, a (non-visual) kind of counterpart for her who reflects her narcissism back to her (and his narcissistic vanity, as we know, is off the charts!). Since he’s old enough to be her father, her relationship with Him can be seen as symbolically Oedipal.

VII: The Need for More People

This symbolic Oedipus complex can be seen in reverse, too, since “Gaea” calls out to her son/lover Uranus at the beginning and end of the film, saying, “Baby?”; but “Yahweh” wants to break free of the limitations of the dyadic relationship with her, since he can’t use language and write poetry while stuck in the Imaginary. He must enter the Symbolic Order‘s world of language, its shared signifiers, customs, and societal laws.

To do so, he must bring people into the house.

So, with this idea that characters’ roles can be reversed–the ‘parent/child’ relationship between “Gaea” and “Yahweh” (or Uranus), and the creator/created relationship between ‘the gods’ in the house and the “Adam” and “Eve” visitors–now we can see that the arrival of man not only symbolizes God creating Adam, but also that man represents Yahweh “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8), beginning the chain of events that will bring about the Fall, symbolized by the coming mayhem in the movie.

So “Adam,” whose stories inspire Him, is also in this context the Name of the Father (le nom, or Non! du père–recall that man is just old enough to be the father of “Yahweh”), whose nom gives “Yahweh” the words he needs to write again, but whose Non! forbids “Gaea” to keep “Yahweh” all to herself.

Lacanian psychoanalysis explains how the Name of the Father dissolves the Oedipus complex, taking boys out of the one-on-one relationship with Mother (and girls out of the dyadic relationship with Father) as symbolized with the ‘parent/child/marital relationship,’ if you will, of “Gaea” and “Yahweh”/”Uranus,” and thus freeing them of the constraints of the Imaginary to bring them into the social world of the Symbolic. [For a more thorough explanation of Lacanian and other psychoanalytic concepts, click here.]

VIII: Rejecting Society Leads to Madness

“Gaea,” however, doesn’t want to leave the dyadic, symbolically Oedipal world of the Imaginary. In her refusal to accept the Symbolic, its society, signifiers, and language, she expels, or forecloses, the fundamental signifier of the Name of the Father, and this Lacanian foreclosure will lead to her having a psychotic break with reality. Her psychosis explains the increasingly surreal, hallucinatory attacks on her house that we see later on in the film. We see them because, in seeing the film entirely from her perspective (camera shots show either her face, her point of view, or what’s seen over her shoulder), she hallucinates them.

Before any serious disruption of her peaceful life with Him by all those people has even begun, we see hints that she is already mentally disturbed. She notices a heart beating within the wall: it’s the heart, we eventually learn, of the previous “Gaea” who burned down the house at the beginning of the film. Her identification with her predecessor in the wall suggests a connection between mother! and Charlotte Perkins Gilman‘s “Yellow Wallpaper,” a first-person-narrated short story about a Victorian-era woman slowly going mad.

Environmentalist and Biblical allegories aside, mother! shouldn’t be taken too much at face value. One should give serious consideration as to how much of what we see is just “Gaea’s” imagination running wild. After all, this isn’t the first of Aronofsky’s films to feature a woman going insane. “Gaea” may be upset about all of the damage being done to her house, but she’s also the one who burns it down to the ground.

Sometimes, in her growing social anxiety, “Gaea” drinks a yellow powder mixed in water, which gives at least some relief to the shakiness and nausea that result from her anthropophobia. I’m guessing that this medicine is, or at least represents, a kind of psychiatric drug that, while not outright eliminating her hallucinations, at least makes them manageable.

When she knows she’s finally pregnant, she seems to think she doesn’t need the drink anymore, so she flushes it down the toilet. As we soon learn, though, when all those people arrive to celebrate “Yahweh’s” new poem, her hallucinations fly out of control.

IX: Eve

Having “Adam” sleep in their home makes “Gaea” uneasy enough as it is, but the arrival of “Eve” makes her all the more agitated. It doesn’t take long for “Eve” to reveal herself as nosy, prying, and obnoxious.

Still, let’s reconsider woman‘s personality in light of what we know about “Gaea,” whose perspective is all we have telling the story. We sympathize with “Gaea” because all the events are given from her point of view, making her into the main victim; but the increasingly surreal nature of what we see through her eyes must be hallucinations and delusion, thus making her an unreliable narrator.

So, objectively speaking, is “Eve” really as irritating as “Gaea” perceives her to be? The same legitimate question can be asked of mother‘s perception of Him, “Adam,” “Cain,” “Abel,” and all the other intruders of her home. I’m not saying that “Gaea” is completely in the wrong, and that all the others are beyond reproach; it’s just that she must be exaggerating what’s wrong with them in her mind, as well as portraying herself as blameless.

X: Knowledge

So, with all these considerations in mind, we can now see “Eve” in a whole new light. Since the Biblical Eve was tempted by the serpent to eat of the Tree of Knowledge (“Good and Evil”tov wa-ra, being a merism reflecting everything from the best to the worst; therefore, it’s a tree of the knowledge of, potentially, everything), and she in turn tempted Adam with the forbidden fruit of the tree, we can see not only “Eve’s” nosiness, but also her giving “Gaea” the glass of lemonade (the forbidden fruit drink, if you will) as instances of her wanting to share knowledge and have knowledge shared with her.

Recall in this context the swapping of ‘parent/child,’ or ‘creator/created’ roles: “Eve” is old enough to be “Gaea’s” mother, just as “Yahweh” and “Adam” are old enough to be her father. With this mother/daughter roleplay in mind, we can see how “Eve” is like a mother to “Gaea,” seeking to give and receive knowledge (Wilfred Bion‘s notion of the K-link) by connecting socially with her ‘daughter,’ so to speak. “Gaea,” however, rejects such a communal exchanging of knowledge (-K) because she doesn’t like socializing.

“Gaea” says she’s uncomfortable talking to “Eve” about her relationship with Him, which on the surface seems like a perfectly reasonable objection, given “Eve’s” forward, prying questions; but how much of this questioning is truly inappropriate, and how much of it is hallucinated, a product of “Gaea’s” paranoid imagination?

According to Bion’s expansion of Kleinian object relations theory (again, click here for more info on Bion‘s, Klein‘s, and other psychoanalytic concepts if you’re unfamiliar with them), a baby develops an ability to think by learning how to process emotional experiences with its mother, who (through maternal reverie) processes the agitating external stimuli (beta elements) first, then sends them back to her baby in a tolerable form (alpha elements). The baby thus gradually grows in K, learns how to process and relate to the external world for itself, and grows to be a mentally healthy person.

But if–either through bad parenting, or through one’s aggravated refusal to accommodate external excitations–one won’t accept this indispensable need to grow in K through linking with society (a problem explained, in Lacanian terms, as foreclosure–see above), external stimuli are projected outwards with split-off pieces of one’s personality; and these pieces become what Bion called bizarre objects, hallucinatory projections of one’s psychotic inner state. This degenerative process explains what’s happening to “Gaea”: the hostility and violence she sees all around her is a projection of her own misanthropy.

XI: The Fall

“Eve’s” meddling in the private affairs of the house extends to “Adam” when they enter “Yahweh’s” room and accidentally cause his crystal to fall from the mantel and break. He is so upset that he yells, “Quiet!” at the chattering couple. Since this crystal, we later learn, was in the heart of the previous “Gaea,” we realize that “Yahweh,” being as upset as he is about the broken crystal, must have really loved her. She was more than someone he was merely using; which is not to say he never mistreated her (or that he isn’t mistreating the current “Gaea”), but that he isn’t as wicked as he seems. In spite of his obvious flaws, “Yahweh” sincerely loves the current “Gaea,” too, as he will love future “Gaeas.”

She opens a door and, to her embarrassment, stumbles upon “Adam” and “Eve” making love. Since they are her symbolic parents, seeing them this way represents the childhood trauma that Freud called the primal scene. Later, “Gaea” returns to tell them they have to leave, but uncooperative “Eve” opens the door to reveal herself in her bra; like Biblical Eve, she is “naked…and…not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25)

XII: The Downward Spiral

So far, we have seen a slipping-away from “Gaea’s” paradise, which–understood in the terminology of Hindu cosmology–would be called the Satya Yuga, a Golden Age from which would begin a decline to progressively corrupt and wicked ages, ending in the Kali Yuga, in which–according to Hindu thinking–our sinful world is now, close to total destruction and a cyclical rebirth to a returned Golden Age.

I would describe this cyclical decline, from Edenic paradise to fiery Armageddon, in the symbolism of the ouroboros, as I’ve done many times before. The serpent’s biting head is the Satya Yuga, its bitten tail is the Kali Yuga, and “Gaea” and “Yahweh” are, as of this point in the movie, just behind the serpent’s head, at the end of the Satya Yuga. They will continue to slide down the length of the ouroboros’ slippery circular continuum of a body, till they get to that bitten tail…then to the biting head again, at the very end.

XIII: Brotherly Hate

The shit really hits the fan when “Cain” and “Abel” barge into the house, fighting over what “Cain” believes is “Adam’s” unfair will favouring “Abel” over him. “Cain” hysterically shouts that “Adam” and “Eve” don’t love him. The brothers fight, and we all know who kills whom.

This sibling rivalry and jealousy parallels the jealousy “Gaea” feels whenever “Yahweh” neglects her in favour of their guests. As I’ve said above, “Yahweh”–about twenty years older than her–can be seen as a symbolic father of hers. Her jealousy of the guests can thus be seen as Oedipal. She wants Him all to herself, and doesn’t want to share. “Cain” feels the same way about “Adam” (as Biblical Cain felt about God and His favouring of Abel’s sacrifice over his), and he is so upset about what he perceives is a favouring of his younger brother that he kills him. “Gaea,” at the end of the film, will kill all the “Abels” in the house.

The Oedipal Eden is the dyadic parent/child relationship: one child and his or her opposite-sex parent, or, in the case of the negative Oedipus complex, one child and his or her same-sex parent. The point is that one wants to live in an ideal world of oneself with one idealized other as a mirror of one’s own narcissism, this other being an extension of oneself in the Imaginary Order.

“Yahweh,” however, wants the radical alterity of the Other, or a society of many other people in the Symbolic Order. So he leaves the house with “Adam,” “Eve,” and the corpse of “Abel,” while “Cain” leaves the area alone with a bloodied forehead.

“Gaea” is traumatized from having witnessed the murder, and she’s terrified of being alone in the house, without Him. On the surface, it appears that “Yahweh” is being insensitive to her by leaving her alone; she later accuses Him of having “abandoned” her. But without “Cain” around to help carry the body (he would be too ashamed even to show his face), “Yahweh” feels obligated to help. He is being negligent to her, to be sure, but she is exaggerating his negligence in her mind.

With her alone in the house that night, there is a moment of relative calm. “Cain” briefly returns, frightening her (after all, he “did the first murder”–Hamlet, Act V, Scene i). “Yahweh” returns, and things seem better for the moment.

XIV: The Treta Yuga

The second quarter of the movie begins, representative of the Treta Yuga, a decline from the Satya Yuga. These Yugas may not be paralleled point for point with their four counterparts in the film, but neither are the Biblical parallels. That things are clearly changing for the worse, quarter by quarter, until there begins a repeat of the cycle at the end (as a previous cycle ended at the very beginning of the movie), is justification enough to compare the four quarters of mother! to the Yugas.

A kind of funeral gathering is held in the house for grieving “Adam” and “Eve.” “Yahweh” tries to comfort them with a poetic speech, saying that, in a way, one never really dies. He says, “there’s a voice crying out to be heard, loud and strong. Just listen.” [The guests, especially “Adam,” weep out loud.] “Do you hear that? Do you hear that? That is the sound of life. That is the sound of humanity. That is your son’s voice.” He means that their weeping is “Abel’s” weeping…thus, he is still alive.

The growing number of guests entering the house makes “Gaea” extremely uncomfortable. A young man and woman plan to use “Gaea’s” and “Yahweh’s” bedroom to have sex, reminding us of when the sons of God lay with the daughters of men. “Gaea” kicks the lovers out of her room.

“Gaea” has her yellow-powder drink, and tells some other guests not to occupy the upstairs to chat. The man and woman who were going to have sex in her bed are now painting the walls of the first floor of the house; “Gaea” tells them to stop. A man tries to pick her up, and calls her “an arrogant cunt” when she rejects him. She begs guests not to sit on the unstable kitchen counter by the sink.

How much of the above is really happening and how much is hallucination, is hard to say (her yellow drink seems less effective; perhaps, because of overuse, she’s building a tolerance to it?). Presumably the more outrageous things that happen are more her imagination than reality. In any case, the sink breaks down because those sitting on the counter won’t respect her wishes; the spraying of water everywhere symbolizes the Great Flood. “Gaea” can’t take the guests anymore, and screams at all of them to leave the house.

She argues with “Yahweh” over how he’s been neglecting her in being over-accommodating to the guests. He insists he needs them to help Him write, as I’ve explained above with the Lacanian interpretation. She taunts Him over his impotence; this symbolic castration is their shared manque (recall, in this connection, how she, as Gaea, is symbolic mother to Him as her lover, Uranus). Her taunt drives Him to grab her, and they finally have sex.

Thus ends the Treta Yuga, and we have another moment of temporary calm. She soon discovers that she is pregnant, with no need of any tests: she just knows, and she’s right. “Gaea,” the earth mother goddess has become the Mother of God; for with “Yahweh” as the baby’s father, her intuitive prescience of her pregnancy suggests an Immaculate Conception, a coming miraculous birth.

XV: The New Testament–New Words, New Desires

So, with “Gaea” as Mary, we begin the Dvapara Yuga, or the New Testament, as it were. And the New Testament is symbolized by the new poem that “Yahweh” writes; and since their baby symbolizes Jesus, “Yahweh” can now be seen as God the Father. He has an explosion of inspiration: the words just flow from his pen.

Since there isn’t the limitation of a two-person relationship anymore, that of the mutually mirroring world of the Imaginary, but now a three-person relationship (that three being representative of all of society’s people in general, the many-peopled Other instead of the two-person other), “Yahweh” can exploit the language of the Symbolic. He can finally write.

Now, the signifier (i.e., the word) takes precedence over the signified (the meaning) because one cannot express meaning without something visual or auditory to represent it (think of looking up an obscure word in the dictionary, only to find it defined by other obscure words that now have to be looked up, too!). The chain of signifiers is like a long surface of cracked ice over a flowing river of signifieds; meanings (and potential future meanings) flow under that chain of signifiers that we’re compelled to follow. This following is expressive of human desire, because we always want more…we’re never satisfied.

The urge to keep that meaning flowing, from signification to new signification, is the basis of the idolatry of the many followers of “Yahweh.” A kind of priest representing Him blesses them, saying, “His words are yours.” In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with Him, and the Word was Him. Accordingly, “Yahweh” blesses his followers with a mark, a brown smudge on their heads, that mark being a kind of signifier.

XVI: The Beginning of the End

With idolatry comes zealous loyalty to Him, hence the religious wars that are symbolized by the fighting, violence, and destruction we see when the next group of guests comes. Before they come, “Gaea” reads the new poem and weeps, knowing the tragedy that is prophesied; when the writing ends, the signifier chain of desire ends, with nothing more to fulfill it, and that’s the end of the world. Before even reading the poem, she has already said that she’ll prepare for the Apocalypse…and recall her flushing the yellow powder down the toilet, the only thing that will keep her hallucinations under control.

Her embrace of fatalism shows that something much larger than “Yahweh” merely manipulating “Gaea” is happening. He must do what he’s doing, or else he can’t write. She must have a baby, or she won’t be mother; also, she must allow herself to lose her mind, for such is the drama of history as set in the poem. Creation must be for there to be destruction, and vice versa; the same goes for life and death. All opposites are dialectically linked.

Marx once said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” As we see our world dying from the ravages of imperialist war and global warming, do we want to sit back and be fatalists, or do we want to do something about it?

Since “Yahweh” is a poet, a writer of verses with a large, fanatical following, we can see Him not so much as representing God, but as representing the manipulative religious authorities who pretend, with their pretty writing, to have the moral answers to all our spiritual problems.

XVII: If I May Digress for a Moment…

Similarly, “Gaea” doesn’t so much represent our mother Earth (that would be the house and surrounding trees and grass, which she burns to a crisp at the end) as she does the liberal Hollywood establishment that preaches about the dangers of climate change, but does little, if anything, about it. These green capitalists don’t have the answers.

I’m sure that Greta Thunberg is a sweet girl with a good heart and the best of intentions; but the green capitalists are leading her by the nose. The greatest pollutant threatening our ecology is imperialist war…all those bombs being dropped. The green capitalists have nothing to say about this problem, because they need to continue generating profits to build, for example, electric cars using the lithium they can steal from Bolivia.

The liberal rails away about how insane the business leaders are when they pollute the air, water, and land. A radical Marxist analysis, however, recognizes the diabolical logic, the evil intentions, behind these businessmen’s schemes. Knowing this logic leads to a real answer to our problems, that will to change history instead of merely interpreting it: not with the violence of war, but of socialist revolution.

XVIII: Gaea’s Baby, Gaea’s Madness

Back to the movie. “Gaea’s” pregnancy, her preparations for the birth, and her growing paranoia about the new flood of guests to come into her house remind us of Rosemary Woodhouse and her nosy neighbours, the Castevets, who drive her to near madness with their conspiracy over her baby. Recall how the heartbeat of the previous “Gaea” through the wall, as well as the ‘bleeding’ yonic mark on the wooden floor, agitates her, suggesting the growing madness of the woman in The Yellow Wallpaper. “Gaea” is having a psychotic breakdown. We sympathize with her, but we mustn’t rely on her perception of events.

When I say we she’s an unreliable narrator, am I saying that the environmental allegory is invalid? Am I agreeing with the right-wing climate change deniers? Of course not. I’m simply saying that the bourgeois liberal reaction to the problem is hopelessly wrong-headed: in fact, her burning down of the house at the end implies that even Aronofsky knows that the liberal reaction is wrong. This is why, in spite of its wrong-headed nihilism, I still consider mother! to be a great film. As I’ve argued in a number of my other film analyses, there is an undercurrent of truth to be discovered in these films…if one looks carefully enough behind the bourgeois Hollywood covering.

XIX: Narcissism

Narcissism expresses itself in a number of ways throughout this film, not just in the overt way in which we see “Yahweh” basking in the adulation of his fans, while generally neglecting “Gaea.” It’s also expressed in the group narcissism of his fans, who idealize and identify with Him. He displays the grandiose self, while they have done a transference, making Him, “Yahweh” as God the Father, into their symbolic idealized parental imago.

Then there’s the third manifestation of narcissism: the timid, covert form exhibited by “Gaea” herself. She wants “Yahweh” to mirror her narcissism back to her in a dyadic relationship; when she gives birth to “Jesus,” she’ll want to replace Him with the child. As Robert Graves once said, “Woman worships the male infant, not the grown man: it is evidence of her deity, of man’s dependence on her for life.” (Graves, page 110)

Covert narcissists often make themselves out to be victims, and this self-pity is much of the basis for “Gaea’s” hallucinatory exaggerating and catastrophizing of the presence of “all these people.” To be fair to her, “Yahweh” is ego-tripping and focusing on his fans at her expense…to an extent. Similarly, at least some of the guests are probably doing some inappropriate things…again, to an extent. But I am convinced that her paranoid imagination is making up the rest of the problems.

XX: Hallucinations and Trauma

Allegory aside, are we really supposed to take seriously the idea of police and army raids on the house, with gunfire, explosions, tear gas, and flames everywhere? Are we expected to believe that a religious cult will grow around a popular poem? “Gaea” is hallucinating!

Speaking of religion, I suspect that the real reason she is seeing and hearing all these Biblical references is that she, as a child or teenager, was sexually abused by Catholic priests, maybe even gang-raped by them, in the manner described in Sade‘s Justine. This would provide the traumatic basis of her social anxiety. After all, the environmentalist allegory is about the rape of the Earth.

All those people pouring through the doors–front, back, and sides–and breaking through the windows symbolizes a gang rape of the house she identifies with, multiple penetrations of the vagina, mouth, and anus. Her hallucinating of such aggressive entries suggests a reliving of PTSD trauma.

XXI: I Am Not What I Am

She identifies with the house, but she isn’t the house. This méconnaissance is symbolically an example of the self-alienation felt in the mirror stage (i.e., the house walls and bleeding floors, where she senses the presence, the heartbeat, of the previous “Gaea,” are a metaphor for her reflection in a mirror, her self-perception through externality), the disparity between the ideal-I that she is facing and her imperfect self facing the ideal.

“Yahweh,” of course, has his méconnaissance, his narcissistic ideal-I, too, as the God-like poet, versus his real, imperfect, vain self, whose neglect of his wife is precipitating her growing madness. He does show some caring for her, though, even if it is woefully inadequate. He helps her find a place alone and safe, his boarded-up study, where she can go into labour, and she does, ending the Dvapara Yuga. We have another moment of calm.

She holds and guards baby “Jesus” like the Madonna. Now that she has her son, he can fulfill her need for a one-on-one, mirrored relationship. As an extension of herself, “Jesus” is all-important to her…”Yahweh,” not so much now. In fact, “Yahweh” is becoming inimical to her, especially since he wants to show “Jesus” to all his loyal followers, whom she so intensely fears and hates.

In their arguing over whether or not he can take the baby and show it to his followers, his appeal to her as the baby’s father is easily rebuffed by her far more sacred status as his mother, so “Yahweh” must respect this…at least while she’s awake. His taking of “Jesus” from her arms while she sleeps, and taking him out of the study to show to his cult thus begins the most horrifying Yuga of them all: the Kali Yuga, named after the demon, not the consort of Siva (who is also known as the Divine Mother, and the Mother of the Universe)…though the mother goddess’s burning down of the house is certainly in keeping with Siva‘s and Kali’s destructiveness.

XXII: Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?

“Gaea” wakes up and frantically races after “Yahweh,” demanding to have “Jesus” back. The hallucinatory nature of this scene is obvious in how absurd it is to imagine a religious cult passing around a baby over their heads, the way fans at a rock concert would carry a rock star after he did a stage dive.

Probably what has really happened is that “Yahweh” wanted to show their baby to some guests, a perfectly reasonable thing that any proud new father would want to do; but “Gaea’s” anthropophobia forbids it, and so she hallucinates the horrific scene that we see. Perhaps, in reality, a guest has been clumsy with the baby, dropping him, his death caused by his head having hit the hard floor; but instead, “Gaea” hallucinates an act of cannibalism, a gory parody of Holy Communion…and she explodes.

After she attacks a few of “Yahweh’s” followers, she’s hit on the head by the priest (who has echoed the words of the eulogy “Yahweh” gave for “Abel”: “a voice still cries out to be heard,…” etc., thus further paralleling his death with that of “Jesus”). Then the crowd of fanatical “Yahweh” worshippers beat on “Gaea” in such an obscene way, tearing at her clothing and exposing her breasts, that it can be symbolically associated with a gang rape.

Again, I see this attack as another hallucination, a reliving of the gang-rape trauma I speculate as the basis of her fear and hatred of large groups of people. That the priest hits her with the first blow reinforces my speculation that priests were her gang-rapists, hence the association of Biblical concepts with the rape-like attacks on her house/Earth.

“Yahweh” intervenes and stops her attackers. I believe he is feeling sincere, though feebly expressed, love for her in his tears, apologies, and angry demand, “What are you doing?”. His Christian wish for her to forgive them for the–as I speculate–accidental killing of “Jesus” pushes her over the edge, given how she has hallucinated about the cannibalistic eating of their baby. She sees Him now as being as evil as all of them: she projects her psychosis onto all of them.

XXIII: Apocalypse

After burning down the house, as he carries her, she says that what hurts her the most is how she can’t be enough for Him. Such is Lacanian desire, to have the recognition of others: one wants what one imagines others must want, out of a wish to be acknowledged by them. Desire is of the Other. This is true of “Yahweh,” too: he, wanting their recognition, desires what his readers desire, so he gives to them as best he can, giving “Adam” and “Eve” accommodations, helping carry “Abel’s” body, and eulogizing him.

This desiring what others desire, recognition, something ultimately unfulfillable, is linked to Sartre’s dictum, “hell is other people.” We cannot fulfill our desire in fulfilling theirs, we won’t get the recognition we want, and so their judgement of our inadequacies is our hell, our fiery inferno, for we can’t escape judging ourselves based on their judgements.

Desire is the fire that Buddhists blow out with nirvana. Our endless quest to satisfy that unfulfillable desire, however, spreads the fire that ultimately destroys everything.

“Yahweh” removing the crystal from her heart–which I believe is a continuation of her hallucinating, even to the point of being a wish-fulfilling dream (i.e., she wants to die, and the green capitalism that she personifies leads to more destruction, not less)–is the ultimate evil of the ending of the Kali Yuga. “Yahweh” at this moment is like those capitalists who tear up the Earth to enrich themselves with her natural resources.

His toothy grin, seen when he puts the new crystal on the mantel, looks wicked in the extreme, given the context of what just preceded. But this is the beginning of the next Satya Yuga, the superlatively joyful beginning of a new Golden Age: what else would “Yahweh” be doing but smiling?

The restoration of the house, and the appearance of a new “Gaea,” waking and calling out “Baby?” is really the same woman reliving the trauma all over again, what Freud called “the compulsion to repeat” what is painful, a manifestation of the self-destructive death drive. She doesn’t look like the previous “Gaea” because she is alienated from herself, with her heart buried in that wall.

XXIV: Alienation and Capitalism

She is alienated from herself, just as she is alienated from humanity, hence her fear and hate of all those around her. This alienation is something most, if not all, of us share, because the real root of the problem of ecocide is the same as that of alienation: capitalism.

Those liberals who think we can solve the problem of climate change merely by ‘reforming’ capitalism are fooling themselves, and they are doing so at everyone’s–and the planet’s–peril. War is the greatest polluter of them all; the green capitalists ignore this. When Thunberg meets and greets Obama, whose administration was responsible for bombing seven countries in 2016, that should tell you something. Trump has been even worse.

War is big business, making profits for Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, etc. If you want to solve climate change, end all these wars. Defund the Pentagon. The powers-that-be, of course, won’t let the people do that, which is why the US can never get even a moderate progressive to have a shot at being elected president. We can’t legislate the super-rich out of their wealth. Only revolution will stop them from destroying the planet.

Conservatives, of course, ignore the ecological problem entirely, imagining that all the fuss is just part of an agenda to bring more ‘intrusive government’ into our lives, while they cheerfully and hypocritically support right-wing governments that do plenty of intruding into people’s lives. It doesn’t occur to the climate change deniers (assuming they aren’t outright lying) that the real political agenda is to avoid paying taxes and taking responsibility for the mess that their endless quest for profits has caused.

XV: Conclusion

At the same time, though, we’ll never solve the ecological crisis in a spirit of misanthropy. “Gaea” is no more in the right, when she rejects people and pushes them away, than “Yahweh” is, in his narcissistic addiction to being worshipped by his fans, all the while ignoring her emotional needs.

We must acknowledge a mixture of good and bad in both “Gaea” and “Yahweh,” to see them both as basically well-intentioned, but also as seriously flawed; not to see one as all-good and the other as all-bad, which is the essence of splitting, an inhibiting of healthy object relationships that is the cause of alienation. First, we must mend our relationships with others, having a healthy sense of ambivalence in people (that ability to see both good and bad in everyone); then we can all rise up in solidarity and defeat the capitalist class, who always put profits over people and the planet.

Only then can we save our home from the fire.

Analysis of ‘Venus In Furs’

Venus In Furs is a novella written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and published in 1870. Because the semi-autobiographical story is about a young man, Severin von Kusiemski, who persuades a beautiful woman, Wanda von Dunajew (her real-life counterpart having been Sacher-Masoch’s mistress, Baroness Fanny Pistor), to dominate, whip, humiliate, and enslave him, we derive the word masochism from its author…thanks to Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his seminal text, Psychopathia Sexualis.

Though the novella was originally meant to be part of an unfinished cycle of stories called The Testament of Cain, Venus In Furs is by far Sacher-Masoch’s most famous work, and it is one of the few of his writings to be translated into English.

Here are some quotes:

“Is there any greater cruelty for the lover than the beloved woman’s infidelity?” –narrator of framing story (page 4)

‘”And as a rule it is the man who feels the woman’s foot,” cried Madam Venus with exuberant scorn…’ (page 5)

“Yes, I am cruel–since you take so much pleasure in that word–and am I not entitled to be cruel? Man desires, woman is desired. That is woman’s entire but decisive advantage.” –‘Madame Venus,’ the talking statue in the narrator’s dream (pages 5-6)

“Woman’s power lies in Man’s passion, and she knows how to make use of it if man isn’t careful. His only choice is to be woman’s tyrant or slave.” –Severin, to the narrator (page 10)

‘…my beloved was made of stone…a stone statue of Venus…This Venus was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.’ –Severin (page 12)

‘Enough: this Venus was beautiful, and I loved her as passionately, as morbidly and profoundly, as insanely as a man can love only a woman who responds to his love with an eternally consistent, eternally calm stone smile. Yes, I literally worshiped her.’ –Severin, of his Venus statue (page 12)

“Nature knows of no permanence in the male-female relationship.” –Wanda (page 19)

‘My love was like a profound, a bottomless abyss, into which I kept sinking deeper and deeper, from which nothing could save me.’ –Severin (page 27)

‘Cold shivers ran down my spine. I looked at her: she stood before me, so solid and self-assured, and her eyes had a cold glint.’ –Severin, of Wanda (page 28)

“…the greatest passions…arise from opposites. We are such opposites, almost hostile to each other. That explains this love of mine, which is part hatred, part fear. In such a relationship, only one person can be the hammer, the other the anvil. I want to be the anvil. I can’t be happy if I look down on my beloved. I want to be able to worship a woman, and I can do so only if she is cruel to me.” –Severin, to Wanda (page 29)

“…sensuality now became a sort of culture in my imagination, and I swore not to squander its holy sensations on an ordinary creature but to save them for an ideal woman–if possible, the Goddess of Love herself.” –Severin (page 32)

“In my mind I always pictured a beautiful female ideal…” –Severin (page 33)

“So a woman wearing fur,” cried Wanda, “is nothing but a big cat…?” (page 35)

“I saw sensuality as sacred, indeed the only sacredness. I saw woman and her beauty as divine since her calling is the most important task of existence: the propagation of the species.” –Severin (page 36)

“Yes–you’ve aroused my most cherished fantasy.” –Severin, to Wanda (page 37)

‘”I’m afraid I’ve already found my ideal!” I cried and pressed my hot face into her lap.’ –Severin, to Wanda (page 37)

“You’ve corrupted my imagination…” –Wanda, to Severin

“Women are neither as good as their admirers and defenders would have it nor as bad as their enemies make them out to be.” –Wanda (page 47)

‘Wanda…was so kind, so intimate, so full of grace.’ –Severin (page 48)

“A woman’s infidelity is certainly a painful stimulus, the supreme voluptuousness.” –Severin, to Wanda (page 49)

“You may always address me as ‘Mistress,’ do you understand?” –Wanda, to Severin (page 60)

‘…from time to time I heard our Mistress enjoying herself, surrounded by admirers…’ –Severin (page 77)

‘Venus in Furs was jealous of her slave. She tore the whip from its nail and struck me across the face. Next she summoned the black maidservants, and had them tie me up and drag me down to the cellar, where they threw me into a dark, dank subterranean vault–a bona fide dungeon cell.’ –Severin (page 84)

‘I felt myself starting to hate that woman.’ –Severin, of Wanda (page 85)

‘…I saw that she was wearing only the fur, and I was terrified–I don’t know why–as terrified as a condemned man who knows he is heading toward the scaffold, yet starts to tremble the moment he sees it.’ –Severin, of half-naked Wanda (page 89)

‘…Wanda threw off her fur coat in a single moment and stood before me like the Goddess in the Tribuna.

‘At that instant, she looked so chaste, so holy in her uncloaked beauty that I knelt before her as I had knelt before the Goddess, and I pressed my lips devoutly to her foot.’ –Severin (page 90)

‘He was a handsome man, by God. No, more: he was a man such as I had never seen in the flesh. He stands in the Belvedere, hewn in marble, with the same slender and yet iron muscles, the same face, the same rippling curls.’ –Severin, of Alexis Papadopolis, his rival for Wanda’s love (page 96)

‘What I felt was fear–a fear of losing the woman whom I loved almost fanatically; and this fear was so violent, so crushing that I suddenly burst out sobbing like a child.’ –Severin (page 101)

“You know what I am,” she retorted nastily. “I’m a woman of stone, Venus in Furs, your ideal–just kneel and worship me.” –Wanda, to Severin (page 103)

“The moral is that I was an ass.” –Severin, speaking to the narrator (page 119)

“The moral is that woman, as Nature has created her and as she is currently reared by man, is his enemy and can be only his slave or his despot, but never his companion. She will be able to become his companion only when she has the same rights as he, when she is his equal in education and work.” –Severin (page 119)

The story begins with a framing device involving the original narrator telling Severin about a dream he’s had of conversing with a living statue of Venus, who has a huge fur wrapped around her marble body (page 3).

This notion of being infatuated with the statues of Venus is a motif recurring throughout the novella, for a man’s willful enslavement to a woman is based on his pagan worship of her (as he sees it) divine beauty.

This beauty is carved into immovable stone: cold, inflexible, hard, and therefore cruel. The immovability of the stone also suggests permanence; combine this unmoving, unchanging permanence with beauty, we have ourselves an ideal.

The notion of ideal feminine beauty is also a recurring theme in the novella. Recall Goethe‘s words: “The Eternal Feminine draws us on high.” Beauty on the outside is seen as a symbol of beauty on the inside…regardless of how unrealistic such ideals are.

Another classic work of art–a painting–has inspired Severin: Titian‘s Venus with Mirror, the goddess’s lower body wrapped in fur, apart from which she is naked. Both Severin and the narrator fetishize her in the fur.

In his paper, “Fetishism,” Freud pointed out that the fur fetish is based on desire for a woman’s pubic hair, a desire traced back to boys’ Oedipal desire for their mother, and their horror, upon seeing her genitals, at realizing she has no phallus. Camille Paglia, in Sexual Personae, believes that Venus In Furs supports Freud’s claim (Paglia, pages 258, 436).

As Freud himself observed: “…it is as though the last impression before the uncanny and traumatic one is retained as a fetish. Thus the foot or shoe owes its preference as a fetish–or a part of it–to the circumstances that the inquisitive boy peered at the woman’s genitals from below, from her legs up; fur and velvet–as has long been suspected–are a fixation of the sight of the pubic hair, which should have been followed by the longed-for sight of the female member; pieces of underclothing, which are so often chosen as a fetish, crystallize the moment of undressing, the last moment in which the woman could still be regarded as phallic.” (Freud, pages 354-355)

If Freud’s explanation seems far-fetched, consider Jacques Lacan‘s more metaphorical version. The mother’s lack of a phallus is, for Lacan, connected with the dissolution of the Oedipus complex and the father’s prohibition against a boy’s having of his mother; the boy cannot be the phallus that his mother desires, because his father won’t allow it. Hence, his father has symbolically castrated him. From this lack–manque–comes one’s desire.

Since a boy can’t have his mother, he must look elsewhere to gratify his unfulfillable desire, the objet petit a, a substitute for the forbidden mother that, in this story, Severin and the narrator can attempt to replace with the fur fetish and the Venus ideal. [For a more thorough explanation of such psychoanalytic concepts as those of Lacan, look here.]

Freud’s thoughts on fetishism seem to anticipate Lacan’s ideas about manque and the objet petit a in this passage: “In the conflict between the weight of the unwelcome perception and the force of his counter-wish, a compromise has been reached, as is only possible under the dominance of the unconscious laws of thought–the primary processes. Yes, in his mind the woman has got a penis, in spite of everything; but this penis is no longer the same as it was before. Something else has taken its place, has been appointed its substitute, as it were, and now inherits the interest which was formerly directed to its predecessor…We can now see what the fetish achieves and what it is that maintains it. It remains a token of triumph over the threat of castration and a protection against it.” (Freud, page 354)

That Titian’s painting has the fur covering Venus’ lower half further supports the symbolic association of the fur with her pubic hair. Cupid, Venus’ son, holds her mirror: the Goddess of Love and Beauty is the Mother.

Now we can see the origin of Severin’s desire to be dominated by a beautiful woman: he has an unresolved Oedipus complex, transferred onto Wanda. She symbolizes his mother, who in his unconscious has been split into Melanie Klein‘s “good mother”–his idealized parental imago whose beauty he desires to enjoy (hence, the furs)–and the “bad mother” who punishes him and is cruel to him.

Freud noted how a spanking can give erotic pleasure to a child: “Ever since Jean Jacques Rousseau‘s Confessions, it has been well known to all educationists that the painful stimulation of the skin of the buttocks is one of the erotogenic roots of the passive instinct of cruelty (masochism).” (Freud, page 111)

Severin, as a boy, must have enjoyed getting swats on his little buttocks from the hand of his pretty mama. Little is said in the novella about his relationship with his mother; the lack of any mention of his (as I suspect) shameful desires for her can easily be attributed to repression. Instead, Severin freely admits to desiring his beautiful but violent aunt–a clear displacing of his Oedipal desires from his mother to his aunt! (pages 32-34)

To return to the beginning of the novella, the narrator is woken from his dream by a hand “as brown as bronze” (page 6), suggesting another hard, cold statue, this time one of a man, the narrator’s “Cossack,” who stands “at his full height of almost six feet.” (page 6)

The Cossack tells the narrator that he must hurry and meet up with Severin, and that “it’s a cryin’ shame” (page 6) that the narrator is asleep when he must be going. This scene is symbolic of the father making a boy give up on his Oedipal dream of having Mother (symbolized by the statue of Venus in the dream). The “bronze” statue of the Cossack represents the father bringing the narrator (symbolic of a boy experiencing the Oedipus complex) into the world of reality.

Severin’s story, of himself also leaving his dreams (page 117) and coming into reality, will help the narrator understand the need to wake up, too; for the narrator is an obvious double of Severin. In fact, both men can be seen to represent the universal Oedipal desirer, the common male masochist. Severin’s story is written in a manuscript called Confessions of a Suprasensual Man. (page 10)

Speaking of writing, it seems prophetic that the narrator has a book by Hegel lying next to him as he sleeps (page 7); in the explanatory notes at the end of my Penguin Classics English translation of Venus In Furs (page 125), it is justifiably assumed that the passage of Hegel that the narrator has been reading before dozing off is the master/slave dialectic section of The Phenomenology of Spirit. In this dialectic, the slave gradually comes to free himself of his master, as Severin will of Wanda, and–one hopes–the narrator will of his slavish devotion to Venus in furs, too.

Before Severin meets Wanda, he–just like the narrator–has been idolizing a stone statue of Venus; only instead of it being in his dreams, Severin’s is in a meadow, in a garden in the small wilderness where his house is. Because of this ideal, he has had very little interest in Wanda…but she will soon embody that ideal for him, in the flesh.

There are numerous passages in the novella that suggest that Severin’s love for Wanda is at least comparable to a boy’s Oedipal love for his mother. To give one example: after kissing her foot, which causes her to run away, leaving her slipper in his hand–because she feels he is “getting more and more indecent,” he returns it to her the next day and stands “in the corner like a child awaiting its punishment.” (page 24)

Another example, suggestive of his relationship with Wanda as being like that of a mother and her little boy, is on page 82: “She started caressing me, cuddling me, kissing me like a child.” Yet another example, symbolically suggestive of a boy’s Oedipal jealousy, is on page 101: “What I felt was fear–a fear of losing the woman whom I loved almost fanatically; and this fear was so violent, so crushing that I suddenly burst out sobbing like a child.”

He remembers having his idolatrous fetishes from as early as the cradle; he “can’t remember ever not having them.” His mother told him he was “suprasensual” from those earliest years, “suprasensual” being his word for describing his desires. (page 30)

I’ve already mentioned his aunt, to whom–I believe–he made his first transference of his repressed Oedipal desires for his mother. Countess Sobol “was a beautiful, majestic woman with a charming smile; but [Severin] hated her, for the family regarded her as a Messalina.” (page 32) This love/hate is the splitting of the mother into her good and bad aspects, but displaced onto Severin’s aunt.

Severin describes his aunt beating him with a switch while wearing “her fur-lined kazabaika.” After the beating, he “was forced to kneel down, thank her for the punishment, and kiss her hand.

“Now just look at the suprasensual fool! The switch held by the beautiful, voluptuous woman, who looked like an angry monarch in her fur jacket, first aroused my desire for women, and from then on my aunt seemed like the most attractive woman on God’s earth.” (page 32)

Since Severin is telling the story, and since he’s clearly addled by his strange passions, it’s easy to believe that he’s an unreliable narrator. (His having been “healed” of the sickness of his masochism at the end of the novella is also unconvincing, especially given how Sacher-Masoch himself, on whom Severin and the narrator are based, carried on with his acting-out of his female domination fantasies years after the publication of Venus In Furs, to the irritation of his wife at the time!) When he admits he incestuously desires his aunt, this could easily be a cover-up for a much more forbidden desire…to have, and be punished by, his mother!

Severin explains his fur fetish to Wanda by speaking of “the bewitching beneficial influence that cats exert on highly sensitive and intelligent people.” (page 35) Yes, Wanda, “a woman wearing fur…is nothing but a big cat.”

Sacher-Masoch uses the word Katzen, in italics in the original German. Now, Katze innocently just means cat, the -n being the plural ending. But consider the context behind the usage of the word in this “erotic” conversation. (page 35)

In English, “pussy” has been used to mean a woman’s genitals as early as the 1870s, and probably earlier. In French, chatte, the feminine for chat, has had the same meaning, so the European association between the feline and the vagina has existed for some time.

Furthermore, Katzen sounds dangerously close to tzchen, the German word for kitten, or…pussy! Given the strict censorship of any lewd ideas back in the prudish late 19th century (Recall the scandal surrounding Oscar Wilde’s Salome, in which the title character would baiser John the Baptist’s mouth!), one should find it easy to believe that Sacher-Masoch was using Katzen as a euphemism for the yoni.

So, in all of this, we see further support for Freud’s idea that furs and velvet are associated with a woman’s pubic hair. If by Katze, Sacher-Masoch had innocently meant cat, what would make Severin’s conversation with Wanda such an “erotic treatise”?

Almost immediately after this discussion of furs and Katzen, Severin mentions his reason for worshipping woman’s divine beauty: “her calling is…the propagation of the species.” (page 36) Human life emerges from female genitals, our uncanny sight of origin (a seeming wound where a phallus might have been, if only in unconscious phantasy). Woman is a goddess because she is a mother, the Giver of Life. Severin’s sexual passions, and his pagan devotions, are at their unconscious root, Oedipal.

He wants to be “the slave of a woman, a beautiful woman,” one who ties him up and whips him, and who kicks him “when she belongs to another man.” (page 37) How similar such a woman is to the Oedipally desired mother who punishes her naughty son with spankings, and who belongs to another man…the boy’s father. Having found his ideal in Wanda, Severin presses his “hot face into her lap” (page 37), an area of her body where he often brings his face (pages 44, 50, 112), where–were her clothes to be removed–her pubic hair would be found.

She tells him he is “mistaken” to “believe that everything lurking in [his] imagination is in [her] nature too” (page 38), but he won’t listen. For such opposites as those of love and hate are what give us our greatest passions (page 29).

His experience of Wanda, as mentioned above, is a transferred splitting of the Oedipally desired mother into absolute good and bad. He likes these extremes because of the arrest in his childhood sexual development, as we saw with his aunt. He won’t learn or grow out of these fixations, what Wilfred Bion would have called -K, a refusal to know; and for this reason, Severin will suffer terribly as the story goes on.

Wanda herself comments on his refusal to know her, to grow in knowledge (-K): “Don’t you know me yet, don’t you even want to know me?” she asks him (page 28). For Bion, another important element in the Oedipus myth is the urge to gain knowledge (K) at all costs, as the Theban king wishes to do in learning the identity of Laius‘ killer; yet Tiresias understands the danger of revealing this identity, and so in his reluctance to tell Oedipus, represents -K.

Severin’s refusal to grow in knowledge (-K) is linked to his repressed, unresolved Oedipus complex, transferred first onto his aunt, then onto Wanda. His growth in knowledge would involve a reintegration of the split good and bad aspects of his mother, a movement from the paranoid-schizoid position (PS) to the depressive position (D).

In the fetishizing of his feminine ideal, Severin stays split: he idolizes the good mother, displaced onto Wanda’s beauty when in the furs; and he suffers the cruelty of the bad mother, displaced onto Wanda when she whips, kicks, enslaves, and–worst of all–cheats on him.

She warns him of the danger of arousing her narcissism by worshipping her and allowing himself to be unconditionally enslaved by her; but he won’t listen (-K, reversible perspective). She would have him integrate the absolute good and bad of femininity: “Women are neither as good as their admirers and defenders would have it nor as bad as their enemies make them out to be…The best woman sinks momentarily into filth, the worst woman rises unexpectedly to great good deeds, putting her despisers to shame. No woman is so good or so evil as not to be capable at any moment of both the most diabolical and most divine, both the foulest and the purest thoughts, feelings, actions.” (page 47)

Still, Severin won’t listen, for he prefers those extreme opposites that arouse passion (page 29), his split state of PS, over the sane moderation of D. He wants to stay in thrall to his ideal imagining of her, which he “both reviled and worshiped.” (page 105)

Now, she agrees to his absurd fantasy of enslaving him while wearing furs, though secretly she plans to cure him of his desires by pushing his fantasy too far. In living out his fantasy of being dominated by a beautiful woman, Severin is experiencing what Lacan called jouissance, a transgressive overindulgence in pleasure, a surfeiting that leads to pain.

In jouissance, one willingly endures this pain as a kind of extension of the transgressive pleasure. This is a shifting past the biting head of the ouroboros (extreme pleasure) to experience the bitten tail (extreme pain). In other posts, I’ve written of the dialectical relationship between opposites as symbolized by the ouroboros’ head and tail, with the coiled length of its body representing every intermediate point on a circular continuum between those extreme opposites.

While Severin thinks Wanda is indulging his jouissance in going past the biting head over to the bitten tail, she’s actually taking him in the opposite direction. She’s taking him along the coiled length of the serpent, further and further away from the biting head of pleasure, and closer and closer to the bitten tail of pain…unbearable pain, unbearable even for him.

By being enslaved by his “Venus in furs,” with Wanda as the replacement for his mother, Severin is using Wanda as his objet petit a, the unattainable object-cause of his desire. He can’t have Mother, in her desirable aspect (i.e., the good mother, who like the Virgin Mary, is “full of grace”–page 48), or in her domineering aspect (the bad mother); so he has Wanda. But Wanda as a symbolic mother introduces a torture that even masochistic Severin can’t accept: the male rival as symbolic father.

In the BDSM community, consensual limits–as to how much pain, erotic humiliation, etc., is given and received–are strictly respected (through safewords, etc.). No such restraint is seen in Sacher-Masoch’s novella or in the Marquis de Sade‘s pornographic novels, in which victims (including children!) are not only tied up and whipped, but also raped, tortured, and murdered–the wealthy, powerful criminals responsible getting away scot-free.

Severin wants to experience the jealous fear of Wanda cuckolding him, but only within a reasonable limit–just the fear of it (page 49). She carries things way beyond his masochistic fantasies, though, in particular with a Greek named Alexis Papadopolis. (page 97)

Normally, the mother/infant relationship involves the mother soothing the baby’s fears, anxieties, and frustrations by absorbing and containing them in what Bion called maternal reverie, then sending those feelings back to the child in a form tolerable to it. This exchange of energy back and forth, through projective identification, is how a baby grows in K.

What Wanda, as Severin’s symbolic mother, is doing, however, is a negative version of this container/contained relationship (the mother, as container, being a symbolic yoni, and the baby’s contained anxieties being a symbolic phallus), so that instead of soothing Severin’s anguish, she is turning it into a nameless dread, driving him mad with jealousy.

In a nightmare, he dreams she has turned into “a huge polar bear drilling her claws into [his] body.” (page 68) He awakens to “hear her diabolical laughter.” This is an example of the negative container/contained relationship: in his dream, it is he who must contain her hostility, symbolized by her phallic claws digging yonic wounds into his skin. When he wakes in terror, she won’t contain his fear; instead, she laughs at it, making him feel worse.

The persecutory anxiety of his PS continues when he dreams of being condemned to death for having “murdered Wanda in a raging fit of jealousy.” (page 80) He is about to be beheaded, but instead of feeling the blade of an ax go beyond touching the back of his neck, he feels a slap. Wanda has woken him up with the slap, and she demands her fur.

She is free to make him feel jealous all she wants, but he is forbidden to treat her the same way. When he looks too long at Haydée, one of Wanda’s African female servants, he is put in “a bona fide dungeon cell.” (page 84)

Freud’s theory about the fur fetish as a covering of the female genitals, the shocking sight of a missing phallus [Freud, page 352: “the fetish is a substitute for the woman’s (the mother’s) penis that the little boy once believed in and–for reasons familiar to us–does not want to give up.”], seems apparent when Wanda is nude before Severin, except for the fur she’s wearing (page 89). He narrates, “I saw that she was wearing only the fur, and I was terrified–I don’t know why…”

He doesn’t know why he’s afraid (one would think he’d simply be aroused) because the root of his desire is a repressed wish to have his mother; but her lack of a phallus, as Lacan observed, is associated with Severin’s having been forbidden to have her, a forbidding from the Name of the Father…and the name of Severin’s symbolic father is Papadopolis.

Severin is afraid to know Wanda’s beauty (-K), so when she throws off her fur coat and stands before him in her glorious nakedness, he doesn’t think about his “Goddess” lustfully, but instead kneels before her, for “she looked so chaste, so holy in her uncloaked beauty” (page 90). Like the Virgin Mary, Wanda is “so full of grace.” (page 48) He would rather have a reaction formation to her, seeing the pure, good mother, than lust after the naked, whorish, bad (symbolic) mother.

Still, she arouses his jealousy with a number of male admirers, including a poor young painter (pages 91-95), and finally, the Greek! (pages 96-97) Severin finds Papadopolis especially threatening, for he knows he cannot compete with him to win Wanda’s love.

Severin feels “seized with that dreadful mortal terror, an inkling that this man could capture her, fascinate her, subjugate her.” Severin feels “inadequate next to his savage virility…envious, jealous.” (page 99) This is the same Oedipal jealousy a little boy feels when he knows only Daddy can have Mommy.

Severin wants to run away from Wanda…but he can’t.

Ultimately, she has him tied up, but Papadopolis is to whip him! (pages 114-117) Since Wanda and the Greek are Severin’s symbolic mother and father, the whipping symbolizes a re-experiencing of the childhood, Oedipal trauma of a boy being punished by his father for wanting his mother. The pain is too much for Severin; in his indignant rage, he demands to be untied. (page 115)

This descent into greater and greater suffering is like moving along the coiled length of the ouroboros’ body to reach the bitten tail of the most excruciating pain, then to reach a state of clarity, to understand the need to give up his Oedipal jouissance, to realize his objet petit a will never be fulfilled. It’s like “awakening from a dream.” (page 117)

After escaping from this ordeal, Severin goes home to help his old and ill father. Along with an unrealized wish to join the army, we can see in this father/son reunion a symbolized identification with the father, which is precisely what happens to a boy after the dissolution of the Oedipus complex.

Wanda, one day long after, writes a letter to Severin, explaining how the excesses of her cruelty were meant to cure him of his strange passion, to send him past the bitten tail of pain and over to the biting head of self-mastery, a return to peace of mind.

Severin, however, is not truly cured; he’s just switched from masochist to sadist. Now, he dominates women instead of submitting to them (page 9). As Freud, reversing Severin’s process, once said, “A sadist is always at the same time a masochist…” (Freud, page 73)

Severin’s submission to, and idolatry of, Wanda has really just been a reaction formation against his wish to rule over women. The Oedipus complex, properly understood, is a narcissistic trauma: a child’s love of his mother is a selfish wish to have her all to himself, never to share her. She, as his ideal, is a mirror reflecting his narcissism back to him as he experiences the Imaginary Order. In worshipping Wanda, Severin has merely been projecting his excessive self-love (disguised as self-abasement in his reaction formation with her) onto her.

Women are wise to resist men who want to worship them. Sacher-Masoch’s wife learned this the hard way. True equality of the sexes will come when men stop deifying women, which dialectically resolves into misogyny, a shift from the ouroboros’ biting head of worshipping women to the bitten tail of despising them. The apotheosis of Woman as Mother, as Giver of Life, easily shifts over to the notion that “a woman’s place is in the home.” Women should be seen as neither goddesses nor slaves, but as human beings.

Severin himself acknowledges that woman “will be able to become [man’s] companion only when she has the same rights as he, when she is his equal in education and work.” (page 119) Still, he bosses around “a pretty, buxom blonde…bringing [him and the narrator] cold meat and eggs for [their] tea.” (page 9) This is Bion’s -K and reversible perspective: Severin can understand the basic principle of supporting equality, but the specific premises–that one must do what one can to promote equality in one’s day-to-day life–are rejected.

Severin is thus still trapped in the duality of the paranoid-schizoid position (PS). He can bear dialectical opposites, Hegel’s thesis and negation, but not the sublation of those opposites, the ambivalent feeling of the depressive position (D). He is by no means cured.

Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Venus In Furs, Penguin Classics, London, 1870

Sigmund Freud, 7. On Sexuality, The Pelican Freud Library, Penguin Books, London, 1987

Wilfred Bion, Elements of Psychoanalysis, Karnac, London, 1963

Glossary of Psychoanalytic Terms

Introductory Remarks

Whenever I write up something here and I make reference to psychoanalytic terminology, I find myself hitting a wall, so to speak. Many of these concepts are obscure and not well-known to the public, and so I have to explain what they mean…every time I use them, and that meticulous repetition can be tedious.

To explain the terms, I typically add links to various online sources: Wikipedia, Encyclopedia.com–the Free Encyclopedia, etc. The problem with these sources is, what is said in the articles for each psychoanalytic concept is so convoluted, so verbose, and in so roundabout a way, that I feel my readers must be all the more frustrated…as am I.

So I’ve decided, in this blog post, to explain all those concepts myself, in as accessible and down-to-earth a language as I can make it. In future posts, whenever I find myself using a lot of these terms, I’ll add a link to this post, so my readers can have quick and easy explanations of these often abstruse ideas.

When it comes to classical Freudian psychoanalysis, my readers can go here for all the basic concepts, like free association, dream interpretation, parapraxis, the stages of psychosexual development, the id, ego, and superego, the life and death drives, etc. It’s all explained there.

There is much, however, that came after Freud, and it isn’t all that well known to the general public; so I’ll have to go over each concept, one by one, here. I hope this helps.

Glossary

Alpha elements are thoughts, emotional experiences, feelings, etc., that have been processed and converted from beta elements (see below). Alpha elements exist in a form acceptable to the mind, unlike beta elements, and can be used in dreams, waking thoughts, etc. Wilfred Bion devised these terms (see entry below).

Alpha function is what is used to convert unacceptable and unpleasant beta elements into alpha elements. Since a baby doesn’t yet have the developed mental apparatus for doing this converting and processing of agitating external stimuli (beta elements), its mother, usually and traditionally, will do this converting for it until the child can do the alpha function for itself. Again, this concept comes from Wilfred Bion.

Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object–Originally called the “internal saboteur,” this part of WRD Fairbairn’s endopsychic structure corresponds vaguely with Freud’s harsh, judgemental superego. Put in other terms, it can be called the “anti-wanting-I” (as Lavinia Gomez calls it, p. 63), and it refers to that part of the personality that rejects people (this subsidiary ego is connected with what Fairbairn called the Rejecting Object); it is angry, and it doesn’t want relationships. It’s “anti-libidinal,” because for Fairbairn, libido isn’t about seeking pleasure simply to satisfy drives and neutralize psychological tension, as it was for Freud; instead, Fairbairnian libido is about seeking relationships with other people (objects–see below), in friendship and love.

Attacks on linking occur when the normal building up of knowledge through object relations (i.e., links with other people) is stifled by an unwillingness to link, to learn. Wilfred Bion was concerned with the development of knowledge (what he called the K link, see below) through a sharing and trading, back and forth, of emotional experiences in the form of projective identification (see below), especially between mother and baby.

Through this process of sharing feelings, external stimuli (beta elements–see below) are transformed by alpha function into alpha elements (see above), which can now be used as thoughts to learn by and remember. Originally, a mother does this sharing with her baby, to help it build up a thinking apparatus so it later can do the thought processing for itself.

However, sometimes traumatic experiences, personal biases, prejudices, etc., can close one’s mind to new experiences, and this impedes the ability to do linking, hence “attacks on linking.” Taken to an extreme, these attacks on linking, through -K (a refusal to know–see below) can lead to psychosis, as Bion observed.

Beta elements are external stimuli that haven’t yet been processed into thoughts, or alpha elements (see above). If they are too upsetting to the receiver, as they pretty much always are for a baby, they are ejected and passed on psychically to other people, if possible, through projective identification (see below).

This is why the mother is so crucial to a baby, who isn’t yet capable of processing these agitating stimulations; she becomes a container (see below) for the baby’s beta elements, and for all the baby’s anxieties, fears, and frustration that stem from its inability to process the beta elements. She does alpha function (see above) for the baby through a process called maternal reverie (see below), transforming the upsetting emotional experiences into acceptable ones (alpha elements), and returns them to the baby, soothing and pacifying it.

I imagine beta elements with the metaphor of insects: mosquitoes, ants, horseflies, cockroaches, etc., that come at us, stinging or biting us, or crawling up and down our skin, irritating us. When either our mother uses alpha function for us as babies, or when we learn to do it for ourselves, the ‘insects’ vanish–they have become alpha elements, thoughts we can now deal with and use for learning and growing.

A beta screen is built up when there are excesses of unprocessed beta elements that have been ejected because the receiver of them finds them too troubling or traumatizing to deal with. Perhaps one cannot rid oneself of them by giving them to other people through projective identification (see below). In any case, too much of a beta screen can lead to psychosis, and to bizarre objects (see below), which are hallucinatory projections of one’s inner psychotic state.

Wilfred R. Bion was a British psychoanalyst born in India. Having dealt with psychotics for many years of his career, and having been a member of the object relations school (he was a follower specifically of Melanie Klein, whose notion of projective identification he developed considerably), Bion was concerned with the development of knowledge (K, see below) as conceived as a link between the subject (oneself) and objects (other people, or internalized representations of them in the subject’s mind–see below).

He developed a theory of thinking that originates with what he called “thoughts without a thinker,” and which grows over time, through projective identification (see below) with one’s mother until one can process one’s own thoughts through alpha function (see above) and thus be one’s own thinker of them, unlike a baby…or a psychotic, for that matter.

The bipolar self is a concept devised by Heinz Kohut (see below) for explaining how people can have a healthy, stable sense of self. He discussed it in his book, The Restoration of the Self. The two poles giving this stability are the idealized parental imago (see below) and the grandiose self (see below). If one pole is compromised, a person will rely heavily on the other pole. If both poles are compromised, though, one may develop pathological levels of narcissism as a defence against fragmentation (see below).

Bizarre Objects are what Bion called hallucinatory projections of fragments of a psychotic’s personality. When beta elements (see above) aren’t being processed and converted into alpha elements (see above) useful for thought, an accumulation of them creates a beta screen (see above), blocking out new experience and inhibiting the growth of knowledge (K-see below).

The psychotic’s personality fragments and splits off hated parts of himself, then he attempts to project those pieces outward. In his hallucinatory state, he begins to imagine that those split-off parts of himself have engulfed the objects surrounding him, for example, a phonograph.

As Bion describes it with a few examples here (page 48), if the split-off projection is preoccupied with seeing, the psychotic thinks the phonograph is watching him; if the projected fragment is preoccupied with hearing, the phonograph seems to be listening to him as much as he hears its recorded music. The phonograph is a bizarre object.

The central ego, linked to the ideal object, is one of the three subject/object configurations of WRD Fairbairn’s endopsychic structure. This configuration corresponds roughly to Freud’s notion of the ego.

In a healthy person, the central ego is predominant, because the ideal object represents real people in the external world with whom we should have relationships, as opposed to the fantasied relations that the two split-off, subsidiary egos and their corresponding objects (libidinal ego/exciting object–see below, and anti-libidinal ego/rejecting object–see above) have. As with Freud’s ego, Fairbairn’s central ego is connected with reality.

For Fairbairn, libidinal need is object-need (i.e., the need to form relationships with other people, as opposed to the superficial, empty pleasure-seeking found in Freud’s id and represented in Fairbairn’s libidinal ego/exciting object), so the “ideal object” is a real person to be friends with or to fall in love with.

The capacity for concern is DW Winnicott’s term for when an infant comes to an ambivalent understanding of its parents’ combined goodness and badness. It learns that there is a difference between “me” (the infant) and “not-me” (its mother), who has a life and needs of her own; so it must learn to be responsible. The term “capacity for concern” is Winnicott’s rough equivalent to Melanie Klein’s notion of the depressive position (see below), when a child repents of his or her hostile feelings towards the bad mother/father and seeks reparation (see below) with his or her parents.

A contact barrier is formed between the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind as a result of healthy alpha function (see above). Alpha elements (see above), or processed thoughts made from external stimuli (beta elements–see above), can cross the contact barrier and be used in dreams or in waking thoughts.

When alpha function is impaired, and beta elements are ejected rather than processed for thought, instead of constructing a contact barrier, what ends up being constructed is a beta screen (see above), which–taken to extremes–can lead to psychosis and the projection to bizarre objects (see above). This is another of Wilfred Bion’s concepts.

Container/contained, represented by the feminine Venus symbol and the masculine Mars symbol respectively (therefore making them yonic and phallic symbols), is Bion’s extension of Melanie Klein’s concept of projective identification (see below). It is applied mainly to either the relationship between the mother (container) and infant’s agitation (contained), or to that of the therapist (container) and the patient (contained).

This relationship is how the K link (see below) develops. A baby is assailed with beta elements (see above), and its mother must use alpha function (see above) to process the beta elements and convert them into thoughts, or into an emotional experience the baby can tolerate (alpha elements–see above), because the baby hasn’t yet developed the thinking apparatus needed to deal with agitating external stimuli. A baby therefore needs its mother to do its thinking for it.

Hence, the mother is a container of the baby’s projected agitation, fears, anxieties, anger, frustration, etc. (the contained). Through maternal reverie (see below), the mother soothes her baby and transforms its irritation into something it will find emotionally acceptable. The baby projects its stressful feelings, which result from external excitations (beta elements) it can’t understand or deal with; Mother introjects and contains those feelings, then transforms them into feelings the baby can handle; and finally, she sends these tolerable versions of the feelings back to the baby.

The depressive position is one of Melanie Klein’s concepts. It’s a mental state that comes into being after the splitting (see below) into absolute good and absolute bad of the paranoid-schizoid position (see below). During the first few months of life, a baby is content when the mother’s breast presents itself for feeding. This part-object is called the “good breast”; but when the breast doesn’t present itself to the baby when it wishes to feed, it’s the “bad breast.”

In its frustration over the unavailability of the “bad breast,” the baby engages in sadistic phantasy (see below), vengefully wanting to bite, devour, and destroy the breast. The baby doesn’t yet understand that the available, satisfying “good breast” and the unavailable, frustrating “bad breast” are both part of the same, good and bad mother. These breasts are perceived as separate, black-and-white opposite, part-objects. This splitting is the “schizoid” part of the paranoid-schizoid position.

Later, after much hate has been given by the baby to the “bad breast,” it begins to realize that the mother is one whole object, with both good and bad breasts–or more accurately, with both good and bad aspects in the same person. The baby now feels guilt and remorse for its former hate, and it fears retaliation from the “bad mother” (this being the “paranoid” part of the paranoid-schizoid position), but more importantly, it fears losing the “good mother,” who is now seen as connected with the bad. The baby now enters the depressive position, feels ambivalence towards good and bad Mother, and seeks reparation (see below) with her. Integration of the good and bad aspects of Mother, Father, or anyone, leads to mental health.

Envy, in the Kleinian sense, is something a baby feels towards its mother. It wishes, through unconscious phantasy (see below), to spoil all goodness within her. Wilfred Bion elaborated on Kleinian envy when he discussed why -K (see below), a stubborn refusal to grow in knowledge, should exist (Bion, page 96), as summarized below.

The infant splits off and projects fear into the breast with envy and hate. The breast in K would contain and soothe the baby’s fears through maternal reverie (see below); but in -K, the breast seems enviously to remove what’s good and valuable, and the baby’s fear grows into a nameless dread, a fear of annihilation (see below).

WRD Fairbairn was a Scottish psychoanalyst and a contributor to the object relations school. He broke away from Freud in many ways, especially with respect to drive theory as a basis for libido. For Fairbairn, people are primarily driven by an urge to have relationships with other people, so mere pleasure-seeking represents a breakdown of object-seeking libido (e.g., people turning to drugs, drinking, porn, and promiscuity, out of a failure to have real human relationships–see Fairbairn, pages 139-140).

Fairbairn accordingly replaced Freud’s id, ego, and superego with, respectively, the libidinal ego/exciting object (see below), the central ego/ideal object (see above), and the anti-libidinal ego/rejecting object (see above). Note how each of the three egos is connected with an object, since for Fairbairn, the primary goal of the subject, or self, is to link with objects (other people–see below). Failure to do so leads to either the pleasure-seeking discussed above, or to a rejecting, misanthropic attitude, or to some combination of the two.

Foreclosure, or forclusion in the original French, is Jacques Lacan’s word for the subject’s refusal to leave the dyadic, one-on-one Oedipal relationship of the Imaginary (see below) in order to enter the broader world of society’s shared signifiers, language, culture, customs, and laws as embodied in the Symbolic Order (see below). Lacan claimed that staying in this antisocial, narcissistic state can lead to psychosis.

Thus, forclusion is comparable to Bion’s notions of accumulated beta elements and the beta screen (see above), as well as -K (see below) leading to the projection of fragments of the self into bizarre objects (see above).

Fragmentation is a psychological falling-apart of the personality, a lapsing into a psychotic break with reality as a result of extreme, unprocessed trauma. Hated external stimuli (beta elements–see above) are ejected from the self; rejected parts of the self are split off and projected outwards, leaving a reduced, impoverished self that can no longer distinguish fantasy from reality.

Heinz Kohut was especially concerned with this problem and its relationship with narcissism, as is Otto Kernberg, though their approaches to the problem differed in a number of ways. Both recognized that pathological levels of narcissism are often a defence against fragmentation, generally in the form of constructing a false self, a mask to hide the true self (see below).

Good and bad breasts and/or parents are the result of splitting (see below) when an infant experiences the paranoid-schizoid position (PS–see below). A baby, during the first few months of its life, understands its mother to be only a part-object, the breast, rather than a complete person. When the baby wants milk and the breast appears, this is the “good breast.” When it doesn’t appear, it’s the “bad breast,” against which the baby feels anger, frustration, and vengeful sadism–biting the nipple, etc.

Later, when the baby realizes its mother is a whole person, having both available and unavailable breasts, it can feel ambivalence towards her coexisting good and bad aspects. It is now in the depressive position (D–see above), but it may engage in splitting again and return to PS at any time if she, or its father, behaves in frustrating or withholding ways; for one can oscillate between PS and D throughout one’s life.

A good enough mother (or father), in DW Winnicott’s use of the expression, is as good as a parent needs to be in order to provide small, tolerable levels of frustration to a child to help it learn how to adapt to the external world and do reality testing.

The grandiose self is one of the narcissistic aspects of what Heinz Kohut called the bipolar self (see above), the other pole being the idealized parental imago (see below). Both poles are necessary to form psychological stability.

A child’s grandiose self would say, “I am great, and I need you to validate that greatness for me; I am perfect, and I need you to confirm it,” or to mirror the grandiosity. When such validation is rarely or never given from parents who fail to be empathic, the child will try to compensate by over-relying on parental idealization for his needed stability. If the idealizing pole (“You, Mom and Dad, are my ideal mirrors of greatness! You are perfect, and I am a part of you!”) also fails, one may resort to pathological levels of narcissism to prevent a psychological falling-apart (see fragmentation, above).

A holding environment is what DW Winnicott recommended as a healthy environment in which a baby can grow and thrive with its mother. The idea is to create a facilitating environment that is attuned to one’s maturational needs. The idea is extrapolated from the mother/infant relationship to that of the therapist and patient. The emphasis is on empathy, imagination, and love between caregiver and infant. It can be compared, in some ways, to Bion’s theory of container/contained (see above) in both parent/infant and therapist/patient relationships.

A good enough mother (see above) facilitates the child’s transition to autonomy through the holding environment, allowing the baby to be completely unconscious of its need for a separate individual. Failure to provide holding can result in the child’s developing of a false self; successful holding results in the child’s cultivation of a true self (see below).

The idealized parental imago is Heinz Kohut’s term for one of the two narcissistic configurations of the bipolar self (see above). This pole is about idealizing one’s mother or father as a self-object (see below), and using this parent as an internalized object (see below) within the mind to give a child psychological stability. This pole would say, “You, Mom and/or Dad, are my heroes, my role models! Please, never fail me or disappoint me in embodying the perfection I see in you!” The other narcissistic configuration is the grandiose self (see above).

The idealizing transference is what Kohut used in therapy to repair a narcissistic patient’s damaged idealized parental imago (see above). The therapist (e.g., Kohut) would take on the role of the parent in this transference (see below).

Identification is the taking on of the character traits of someone else in order to emulate him or her. Typically, the term is used to refer to a child adopting his or her same-sex parent’s personality traits as part of the dissolution of the Oedipus complex. For example, a boy fearing punishment from his father (i.e., castration anxiety), because of his wish to take his mother from his rival father, results in him identifying with his father and renouncing his Oedipal desires.

The Imaginary is one of three orders that Jacques Lacan devised to describe differing mental states. The Imaginary is an early state associated with a child’s dyadic, Oedipal relationship with Mother, whose face (metaphorically, a mirror) reflects the child’s narcissism (i.e., his grandiose self–see above) back to him.

The Imaginary also involves a literal mirror reflection, in how a child establishes his ego through seeing and recognizing his reflection for the first time in the mirror stage (see below). Here, one is preoccupied with images: that of oneself in the specular image, and that of the Oedipally desired mother, who looks lovingly back at one, just like a mirror reflection.

Internalization and introjection are terms referring to the taking into the mind of external stimuli or objects, and incorporating them in one’s personality. The external elements, especially when they are one’s conception of other people (objects–see below), thus become internal objects, which live in one’s mind like ghosts haunting a house, and thus influence how one sees the world.

Jouissance, or “enjoyment” in the original French, is a term Jacques Lacan used to describe a transgressive overindulgence in pleasure, a desire that ultimately can never be fully satisfied, since one always wants a little more than can be given. Jouissance can be felt in a child’s enjoyment of his mutually reflective relationship with his Oedipally desired mother; but when Father forbids this dyadic relationship to continue as such, the boy must find replacements for her, which are never fully enough to sate his objet petit a (see below).

In jouissance, pleasure and pain are often intermingled, given the extremes to which one may go to experience something ‘beyond the pleasure principle.’ Indeed, the surfeit of pleasure felt in jouissance was something that Lacan compared to Marx’s concept of surplus value, for this is an excess of pleasure leading to pain, or what I would call passing from the biting head of the ouroboros to its dialectical opposite, the bitten tail. As the Buddhists have always understood, the fire of desire causes the fire of pain.

K/H/L links are part of Wilfred Bion’s terminology for how a subject relates to objects (see below); they refer, respectively, to knowledge, hate, and love, with knowledge being by far the most important, since Bion as a therapist was mainly concerned with how knowledge is accumulated as a means of ensuring mental health.

As Bion himself stated: “I prefer three factors I regard as intrinsic to the link between objects considered to be in relationship with each other. An emotional experience cannot be conceived of in isolation from a relationship. The basic relationships that I postulate are (1) X loves Y; (2) X hates Y; and (3) X knows Y. These links will be expressed by the signs L, H and K.” (Bion, pages 42-43)

In this formulation, X is the subject, or self, and Y is the object, typically another person. What this means is that in “x K y,” where x represents the infant and y the mother, the emotional experience between them results in the infant growing in knowledge, starting with a healthy container/contained relationship (see above) between the two, through mutual love between them (x K y, because x L y).

If the mother/infant relationship is stifled or strained, perhaps because of, or resulting in, x H y, the consequence is -K, or a rejection of knowledge, a refusal to grow and learn. For Bion, knowledge is not something one has, but is rather something one gradually accumulates through linking with others. “As I propose to use it it does not convey a sense of finality, that is to say, a meaning that x is in possession of a piece of knowledge called y but rather that x is in the state of getting to know y and y is in a state of getting to be known by x.” (Bion, page 47)

Furthermore, -L is not H: it is a lack of love. -H is not L, or liking: it’s a lack of hate (Bion, page 52). -K, a denial of knowledge and an aptitude for misunderstanding, can lead to psychosis if taken to extremes, but in other circumstances can be superior to K. Sometimes not knowing, in the form of exchanging emotional experiences through projective identification (see below) is better, if that emotional exchange is too painful to bear, as in the case of abusive relationships.

At other times, the emotional exchange between people is beneficial, even crucial, for growing in knowledge. To illustrate the point with an example from my personal life, I did most of my learning of music in relative social isolation: I would have learned and grown as a musician much better if I’d sung and played guitar in more bands.

Melanie Klein was an Austrian-British psychoanalyst and one of the founders of object relations theory. She did pioneering work with children, giving them toys and observing their playing to determine the nature of their psychological state. There was, however, controversy between her and Anna Freud over how to treat children.

Klein developed the theory behind splitting (see below) and integration, especially as observed in children, and she devised such concepts as the paranoid-schizoid position (see below), the depressive position (see above), and the good and bad breast (see above). Her work had a great influence on such later psychoanalysts as DW Winnicott and Wilfred Bion (see entries).

Heinz Kohut was an Austrian-American psychoanalyst; he conceived self psychology. His focus was on treating narcissistic patients, who, until his and Otto Kernberg‘s work with them, had been considered largely untreatable; there has, however, been controversy between him and Kernberg over how to treat narcissistic patients.

In Analysis of the Self, Kohut wrote about how to treat narcissistic patients, which involves transferences of the grandiose self (see above) and the idealized parental imago (see above). In The Restoration of the Self, Kohut wrote about what he called the bipolar self (see above). Parents, as a child’s self-objects (see below), are supposed to help the child achieve a healthy sense of self by nurturing the grandiose self through empathic mirroring, and by being role models for him or her (idealization).

If the parents, through a lack of empathy, fail as self-objects for the child, he or she is in danger of fragmentation (see above) or of developing pathological levels of narcissism. To develop healthy, restrained narcissism, a child must be let down in tolerable amounts (optimal frustration), little by little, so that he or she gradually learns that the world doesn’t revolve around him or her.

Jacques Lacan was a French psychoanalyst, one of the most influential since Freud. He is known for having incorporated into psychoanalytic theory such diverse influences as poststructuralism, Hegelian philosophy, the anthropological work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Ferdinand de Saussure‘s work in semiotics. Critics have thus accused Lacan of having an impenetrable, unreadable writing style, and of reducing almost everything to language.

His work constituted a “return to Freud,” through his emphasis on such things as the talking cure (“The unconscious is structured like a language.”), and through his metaphorical reinterpretation of the Oedipus complex. He conceived of three orders, the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real (see entries), linking them together in a Borromean Knot.

The libidinal ego, connected to the exciting object, is one of the three configurations of WRD Fairbairn’s endo-psychic structure. It corresponds roughly with Freud’s id. It is a subsidiary ego, along with the anti-libidinal ego/rejecting object configuration (see above), as against the central ego/ideal object (see above).

Because of splitting (see below) as a result of faulty object relationships, the libidinal ego seeks out connection through pleasure-seeking; thus, this split-off, subsidiary ego links with an exciting object (celebrities to idolize, porn, prostitutes, etc.) instead of seeking out relationships with people in the real world.

The manic defence has been discussed by such object relations theorists as Melanie Klein and DW Winnicott (see entries). It is a defence against feelings of guilt, sadness, and depression through pleasure-seeking and indulgence in feelings of excitement and elation (or mania).

Though it isn’t strictly a part of bipolar disorder (which used to be called manic depression), the manic defence can be seen as related to it, in the sense that one swings to, and tries to stay with, the manic pole in order to avoid suffering the depressive pole.

Manque, French for “lack” or a “want” of something, is a Lacanian term to describe the feeling of not having a desired thing, such as the feeling of a lack of existence. It can also be related to Lacan’s metaphorical interpretation of penis envy, in the sense of lacking the phallus as a signifier.

The mirror stage is what Jacques Lacan called the first time a small child sees and recognizes his or her reflection in a mirror. This milestone in a child’s development, helping him or her to establish a sense of ego, initiates him or her into the Imaginary Order (see above).

One sees oneself in the mirror, but one is not the specular image. The child sees a whole, unified image in the reflection, but he or she feels him- or herself, all awkward and clumsy, to have a fragmented body. Hence, there’s a sense of alienation from oneself, an estrangement between the ideal-I of the specular image (an ideal one strives to approximate as close as one can, throughout life) and the flawed, real person looking at the mirror reflection.

Maternal reverie is the capacity a mother has to introject her baby’s anxieties, fears, and frustrations (the baby’s contained), and to process them while soothing her baby, or to be a container for those feelings (see above). After processing the baby’s agitation, she transforms those negative feelings into ones the baby can tolerate, and sends them back to it. This process of being a thinker for her baby, done through the passing back and forth of emotional experiences with projective identification (see below), is how a baby develops an ability to do the containing, or the processing of external stimuli (beta elements–see above), and thus thinking for itself.

The mirror transference is part of Heinz Kohut’s therapy for narcissistic patients. The therapist acts as a mirror for the patient’s grandiose self, indulging his narcissism in a way that his parents failed to do when he was a child. Over time, the therapist will let the patient down little by little, in bearable amounts (optimal frustration) so that through transmuting internalization, the patient can develop a cohesive sense of self without the need of his formerly pathological levels of narcissism.

There are three forms of this transference, each involving different degrees of regression and the nature of the point of fixation. They are the merging transference (or fusion, a total immersing of the therapist into the psyche of the patient), the twin-ship/alter-ego transference (in which the therapist is felt to be like the patient–see below), and the mirror transference properly speaking (in which the therapist is felt to be in service of the patient’s needs).

Because of this whole absorption of the therapist into the patient’s identity in the merging transference, the therapist must have a considerable amount of patience and forbearance to endure this giving of himself over to indulge his patient.

A nameless dread is Bion’s term for the fears of annihilation that one may feel if overwhelmed by agitating beta elements (see above) and/or a lack of containment from one’s mother or therapist. Normally, a mother’s capacity for maternal reverie (see above) is used to soothe a baby’s anxieties by being a container for them (the contained–see above). If the baby’s agitation isn’t thus processed and sent back to it in a tolerable form, that agitation, fear, and anxiety worsen, threatening mental illness. The same danger can arise if a therapist fails to be a container of his or her patient’s unease.

The Name of the Father, or nom du père in the original French (punning on Non! du père) is a concept Jacques Lacan devised for describing how a child transitions away from the Oedipal, narcissistic, dyadic relationship with his mother in the Imaginary, and enters the Symbolic Order of society’s shared signifiers (see entries). The name, or nom, suggests the father introducing the signifiers, language, and law to his child. The non! is the father’s prohibition against his child’s desire to have Mother all to himself.

O is what Wilfred Bion called “the deep and formless infinite,” or Ultimate Reality; it’s what Western religion would call “God,” what Eastern religion might call “Brahman,” or “the Tao,” and what I would describe metaphorically as the infinite ocean. O is thus a mystical concept Bion believed is experienced only by abandoning memory, desire, and understanding. One arrives at it through intuition, a looking inwards, not through sensory experience.

Since O is the ineffable, a truth not adequately expressed in words, and because it has both blissful and, paradoxically, traumatic sides (whichever side one experiences depends on one’s openness to it and one’s spiritual maturity), it can be compared in many ways to Lacan’s Real (see below).

An object is anyone or anything in relation to the subject, or self. Usually in the context of psychoanalysis, an object is another person when related to the subject. Thus, objects can be actual people in the external world, or they are internalized representations of such people in the subject’s mind (internal objects–see above), thus subjected to such mental distortions as according to the subject’s disposition.

Object relations theory is about how the personality develops as a result of the subject’s relationship with objects (see above). The personality will take on the traits and disposition it has based on one’s relationship with one’s parents or primary caregivers when a child. So, someone with a friendly, loving disposition probably got this from loving parents, while someone with a harsh disposition probably got his attitude from harsh, abusive parents.

Object relations involves the introjection of traits from others, resulting in internalized objects of those people in one’s mind (see above). These objects live in one’s head like ghosts in a haunted house, influencing the way one thinks, feels, and experiences the world around us.

Important object relations theorists include Melanie Klein, WRD Fairbairn, DW Winnicott, John Bowlby, Wilfred Bion, Michael Balint, and Harry Guntrip.

The objet petit a is Jacques Lacan’s expression for the unattainable object-cause of desire. One strives to find it, to experience jouissance through it (see above), but one can never fully experience it to satisfaction. The petit a is “little a” in French, the a standing for autre, “other.” There is the autre of the mirrored, dyadic relationship with the mother, as well as the projection of the ego into the specular image, in the Imaginary (see above); but after the dissolution of the Oedipus complex due to the Name of the Father (see above), one replaces that autre with the Autre of society (“The unconscious is the discourse of the Other.”). The wish to find gratification of that original petit a continues, never satisfied, throughout life, in failed attempts to replace it with a transference to someone or something else.

The Oedipus complex needs to be dealt with here in a post-Freud context, because in order for it to be convincingly understood as a universal, narcissistic childhood trauma, we must go beyond the limitations of the classical Freudian concept of incestuous desire for the opposite-sex parent, and the murderous phantasies directed against the same-sex parent.

To expand the concept and show its universality, we must consider a number of its variations. First, there’s the negative Oedipus complex, which is an inverse version describing a love of the same-sex parent and a hate of the opposite-sex, rival parent. Then there’s little girls’ pre-Oedipal love of their mothers prior to the castration complex, which is supposed to make them switch to loving their fathers.

On top of all this, Melanie Klein’s description of splitting (see below) the parents into good and bad mothers and fathers (see above) complicates matters, so loving one parent and hating the other isn’t a uniform, unchanging feeling. Though the depressive position (see above) allows for reparation (see below), integration, and ambivalence for one’s parents, the bad parent’s integration with the otherwise Oedipally-desired one, and the integration of the good parent with the otherwise hated rival one, mean we must qualify all this Oedipal love and hate and give it nuance.

Finally, there’s Lacan’s metaphorical interpretation of the Oedipus complex. A child is in a dyadic, one-on-one relationship with the Oedipally-desired parent, represented here metonymically–for simplicity’s sake–as a little boy with his mother. He sits on her lap, and they look in each other’s eyes lovingly as they cuddle; he is surfeited in his jouissance (see above) with her. His narcissism is mirrored back to him in her loving eyes: this is him in the Imaginary (see above), and she is the autre, his objet petit a.

She is his idealized parental imago (see above), complementing and mirroring his grandiose self (see above), to use Heinz Kohut’s terminology. The boy lives with her as if no one else existed, like Norman Bates and his mother between the death of his father and her meeting the man who would inflame his jealousy to the point of poisoning them both with strychnine.

Speaking of men who ruin the boy’s Edenic relationship with Mommy, he soon realizes that she is in a sexual relationship with Daddy, who won’t allow him to stay in that one-on-one relationship with her. This prohibition is the Name of the Father (nom du père, or Non! du père–see above), an opposition to the boy’s narcissistic wishes, an opposition that he is too little to be able to overcome.

The threat of castration, manque (“lack“–see above), is a metaphoric one that forces the child out of the Edenic jouissance of the Imaginary and into the Symbolic Order (see below), from the autre to the Autre (other/Other–see below) of the larger social world, its language, shared signifiers, culture, customs, and laws. Here, the phallus is a signifier of what is lost in the Imaginary, and of entry into the Symbolic, all at the cost of the lost jouissance. Paradise is lost. One must now search in vain for the objet petit a in an attempt to replace the lost Oedipally-desired parent.

So the Oedipus complex, understood in this more nuanced, metaphoric sense, is a universal, narcissistic childhood trauma. One must give up that desired parent, as a mirrored extension of one’s grandiose self, in order to function in society. If one fails, or refuses, to do so, this foreclosure (see above), this refusal of the K-link (see above), can lead to mental illness, as seen in Norman Bates.

Omnipotence is an infantile mental state in which a child imagines him- or herself capable of anything through wishful thinking. He or she thinks this way before reality testing causes disillusion. As DW Winnicott explained, a good enough parent (see above) will indulge the infant’s omnipotence up to a point–i.e., a mother provides her breast quickly enough so the baby will imagine it has made the breast appear by his or her own power–then the parent will disillusion the infant little by little, in tolerable amounts, until the child can accept reality as it is.

Lacan’s notions of other and Other (autre and Autre in the original French) address how other people are experienced by the subject. The autre is another person as experienced as a mirrored reflection or extension of oneself in the Imaginary (see above). Typically, this other is the infant’s mother in the dyadic, narcissistic, one-on-one relationship.

The Other, on the other hand, indicates radical alterity. Such another person is not assimilable with the self, but is another subject in his or her own right. This sense of otherness results from the Name of the Father‘s prohibition (see above) of the child’s Oedipal indulgence, requiring the child to enter the Symbolic (see below) and accept the unconscious world of signifiers, societally-shared symbols, culture, and law. (“The unconscious is the discourse of the Other.”)

The paranoid-schizoid position (PS) is Melanie Klein’s expression for a baby’s experience of splitting (see below) its mother into good and bad breast part-objects, then a good and bad mother whole object (see above entries). When the baby is frustrated from the unavailable “bad breast,” it projects rage and sadism onto that breast (e.g., biting the nipple).

But what goes on without also goes on within, so a mother split into good and bad results in the baby’s internal world being split into good and bad, too. Furthermore, the baby fears reprisals from the mother whom it has injured in phantasy (paranoid anxiety). It also fears how its splitting may have annihilated the good mother (i.e., when she is absent for an indefinite period of time).

Several months later, the baby comes to realize that the good and bad aspects are part of the same mother, and the depressive anxiety of the depressive position (see above) drives it to seek reparation (see below) with its mother.

Phantasy (deliberately spelled this way) refers to unconscious imaginings one has in order to deal with the frustrations of the external world. One usually thinks of an infant’s violent phantasies directed against the “bad mother.”

Projective identification is Melanie Klein’s extension of regular psychological projection. With projection, one merely imagines one’s own personality traits, good or bad, to be seen in other people; but projective identification takes this idea one step further, in actually manipulating others to manifest those traits in the real world, not just in one’s imagination.

Wilfred Bion took Klein’s concept even further than that, using it to explain how a baby acquires the ability to think “thoughts [originally] without a thinker” and to process emotional experiences by trading these feelings (the contained) back and forth with its mother (the container–see above), whose capacity for maternal reverie (see above) uses alpha function (see above) to process the baby’s beta elements for it (see above) and turn them into alpha elements (see above).

Lacan’s Real is what cannot be symbolized, expressed, or processed through language (i.e., the network of differential, interrelated signifiers of the Symbolic–see below). The Real Order is undifferentiated; “it is without fissure.” The inability to process or verbalize experience in the Real is what gives it its traumatic quality. The Imaginary (see above) is a narcissistic world of reflected images (the mirror, Mother smiling back at her baby, etc.); the Symbolic is the social world of shared language, culture, custom, and law; and the Real is what one has no way of relating anything to–it’s the thing-in-itself, thoughts without a thinker, in many ways, like Bion’s O (see above).

Reparation is a Kleinian term for a baby’s reconciling with its mother (as an internalized object–see above) after realizing she encapsulates both good and bad aspects. In the paranoid-schizoid position (PS–see above), the baby split Mother into good and bad, because sometimes she was frustratingly unavailable (e.g., not providing the breast); accordingly, the baby in its rage attacked Mother in unconscious phantasy (see above). But now, through its fear of losing her as a complete internal object including both good and bad, it wants to make amends with her, as it were, in its mind.

A selected fact is what Wilfred Bion called any idea that one could use to link a patient’s ideas together in the process of psychotherapy. The patient, because of his attacks on linking (see above), has made a psychotic break with reality. In science, the notion of a selected fact, as used by Henri Poincaré, is to give coherence to a group of scattered data, and therefore to give order to the world’s complexity; whereas Bion’s use of the term is to give order and coherence to a patient’s scattered thoughts, to bring the patient from the paranoid-schizoid to the depressive position (see above).

A self-object is the self’s use of and relationship with an object (see above) for the purpose of establishing psychological stability or structure. The earliest and most basic self-objects are those an infant has with its parents, hence the idealized parental imago (see above). The analyst will be an important self-object for his or her patient in the narcissistic transference. Other possible self-objects can be one’s allegiance to a political ideology, to one’s nation, one’s admired writers, artists, etc.

Heinz Kohut coined this expression, using it as a key element in self psychology.

Splitting, or black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking, is a defence mechanism one uses to deal with the frustrating aspects of people and the external world. Splitting happens when one cannot reconcile the good and bad sides of people and things. Splitting the object also involves a splitting of the self.

Object relations theorists like Melanie Klein and WRD Fairbairn (see above entries) developed our understanding of splitting with Klein’s notion of the paranoid-schizoid position (PS–see above) and Fairbairn’s notion of splitting the Central Ego/Ideal Object (see above), resulting in two subsidiary egos, the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object, and the Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object (see above entries).

The Symbolic is one of Jacques Lacan’s three orders, along with the Imaginary and the Real (see above entries). One enters the Symbolic when the Name of the Father (see above) causes the dissolution of the Oedipus complex (see above) and its dyadic mother/infant relationship, bringing one into society and its shared symbols, language, culture, customs, and law. Engagement with the Symbolic Order is essential for mental health, freeing one from the narcissistic Imaginary Order. Failure or refusal to enter the Symbolic, what Lacan called foreclosure (see above), leads to psychosis.

Transference is the shifting of feelings from a relationship with one person (typically one from childhood, as with a parent) to one with another person (often, as in a patient with his or her therapist). These can be such feelings as love or hate. Freud found the transference useful as a crucial part of the treatment; for him, it wasn’t a resistance, but was rather the very work needed to be done.

Since transference in a therapeutic context involves the feelings the patient has for the analyst (e.g., the doctor reminding the patient of his or her Mom or Dad), countertransference refers to the analyst’s feelings about the analysand; it can give the therapist valuable insights into what the patient is trying to elicit in him or her.

A transitional object is what DW Winnicott called a comfort object (like a teddy bear, a doll, or Linus’s blanket), used to help a child make the transition–from having Mother as an extension of him- or herself–to recognizing the difference between “me” and “not-me,” to accepting that Mother cannot always be there for the child, that she and the child are separate entities. Thus, being disillusioned about not having omnipotence (see above) is bearable for the child.

The True Self and False Self are what DW Winnicott called different personality states of a healthy or unhealthy sort. For Winnicott, the False Self is a defensive façade causing one to lack the spontaneity, energy, and vitality of the True Self; accordingly, the False Self leaves one feeling dead and empty.

Elsewhere, the False Self is often used to describe the façade of excellence that a narcissist presents of himself to the world, in an attempt to impress others and thus trick the narcissist into thinking his False Self is his True Self.

The twin-ship/alter-ego transference is a narcissistic transference that Heinz Kohut used in his therapy for patients with a narcissistic personality disorder. It involves establishing a sense of similarity between the analyst and analysand, seeing the one as a “twin” or “alter ego” of the other; this likeness is without the sense of the analyst’s ego feeling engulfed and absorbed into that of the analysand, as felt in the merging transference (see mirror transference above).

Donald Woods Winnicott was a British psychoanalyst, and an important theorist in the object relations school (see above). He started as a paediatrician in the 1930s, but then came under the influence of Melanie Klein (see entry above). He helped develop such concepts of hers as the manic defence (see above), and he came up with a number of his own original ideas, such as the transitional object (see above) and transitional phenomena, the “me” vs. “not-me” relationship between an infant and its mother, and the True Self/False Self (see above).

Winnicott hosted a popular BBC radio program from the 194os to the mid-1960s, giving advice to mothers on how to raise healthy children. His concept of the “good enough mother” (see above) was a reaction against the excessive tendency he saw at the time to seek psychotherapeutic help for problem children.

Conclusion

Anyway, that’s all for now. As I learn more about psychoanalysis, I’ll make changes to this wherever I’ve said anything inaccurate. Remember that I’m no trained expert in the field; I’m just somebody who reads a lot. If anyone out there knows better about these topics and feels I could do with a better explanation here or there, pointing out my mistakes kindly in the comments will be appreciated. Thanks!

Further Reading

Melanie Klein, Love, Guilt, and Reparation and Other Works 1921-1945, The Free Press, New York, 1975

Melanie Klein, Envy and Gratitude and Other Works, 1945-1963, The Free Press, New York, 1975

W. Ronald D. Fairbairn, Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, Routledge, London, 1952

D.W. Winnicott, Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis: Collected Papers, Brunner-Routledge, London, 1992

D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality, Routledge Classics, New York, 1971

D.W. Winnicott, Holding and Interpretation, Grove Press, New York, 1972

Lavinia Gomez, An Introduction to Object Relations, Free Association Books, London, 1997

Sean Homer, Jacques Lacan, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, London, 2005

Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Approach to the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1971

Heinz Kohut, The Restoration of the Self, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1977

Stephen A. Mitchell and Margaret J. Black, Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought, Basic Books, New York, 1996

Wilfred R. Bion, Learning From Experience, Maresfield Library, London, 1962

Wilfred R. Bion, Elements of Psychoanalysis, Karnac Books, London, 1963

Narcissistic Envy and Jealousy

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

The development of pathological narcissism can in some ways be connected to the irresolution of the Oedipus complex, for as Don Carveth has noted, this complex is a narcissistic trauma. Still, we must first clarify what the Oedipus complex really is; a brief explanation of other psychoanalytic concepts helpful in understanding narcissism (a more detailed exploration can be found here, if what’s written below is frustratingly obscure) will be made below, too, before I get into a discussion of how my family conflicts can be seen as an example of narcissism based on Oedipal envy and jealousy.

The best way to understand the Oedipus complex is in a metaphoric sense–far more than just Freud‘s literal, primitive conception of wanting to remove the rival, same-sex parent and wanting to possess the opposite-sex one (or, in the case of the negative Oedipus complex, children loving the same-sex parent and hating the opposite-sex one). The desire for the one parent doesn’t have to be sexual, incestuous; and the hostility to the other parent doesn’t have to involve murderous phantasies. The child simply doesn’t wish to share the desired parent with a rival; he wants that parent all to himself.

Furthermore, as I’ve touched on elsewhere, the desire and hostility don’t each have to be reserved for only one parent or the other; a child typically has a love/hate relationship with both parents, based on his or her acceptance of what Melanie Klein called the “good” and “bad” mother and father aspects of both parents, understood when the child has developed a sense of ambivalence for them, derived from the depressive position, a resolution of the black-and-white splitting from the earlier paranoid-schizoid position.

Anyway, the Oedipal situation is best understood as a narcissistic relationship we all, as little children or infants, had with an idealized parent and the rival other parent, who annoys the child by drawing Mother’s attention away from him or her. Usually the ideal parent is the mother, idolized by little boys and girls–these latter kids during the pre-Oedipal phase–because the mother usually has more access to, and (unfortunately, due to sex roles and the patriarchal family) responsibility for, the babies than the father has.

This narcissistic period occurs in what Jacques Lacan called the Imaginary Order, sparked by the mirror stage, when an infant sees his or her mirror reflection for the first time, then conceives him- or herself as a coherent, unified being (as opposed to the spastic, fragmentary body the infant otherwise perceives himself to have). The reflected image is an idealized self–just as the mother’s smiling face, which the baby sees as a metaphorical mirror reflection of itself, is the face of an idealized person the child imagines to be an extension of itself, rather than an independent being in her own right, with her own needs and desires.

The notion of the mother as an extension of the baby is intensified since, as Wilfred Bion observed (and expressed with his idiosyncratic terminology), the baby needs the mother to provide her ability to think for it and process its outer stimuli (beta elements), because the baby doesn’t yet have a developed thinking apparatus. The mother is a container, holding all the upsetting, frightening external stimuli for the baby (the contained) in a state of maternal reverie, then transforming the baby’s pain, anxiety, etc. into a pacifying form it can accept (alpha elements), and returning it to the baby.

This, according to Bion, is how Knowledge (K) develops for the infant, a transferring of energy back and forth, from infant to mother and back again (container/contained), via projective identification; acquiring knowledge, however, may be desired or feared. (Bion observed this of Tiresias in the Oedipus myth, when the blind prophet was reluctant to tell King Oedipus that he was responsible for his father‘s death, and that he had married and committed incest with his mother. Read more here, pages 45-49.)

A narcissistic mother, already lacking in empathy, may not be all that willing to help her babies grow in knowledge through reverie and Bion’s notion of containment, thus causing the babies’ anxieties not to be processed and soothed, but rather to be turned into a nameless dread; the frustrated baby thus, in self-defence, limits its acquiring of knowledge (-K) from what it perceives to be the “bad mother.” The narcissistic mother would rather have her children dependent on her than be independent in knowledge.

This building-up of knowledge exclusively through the mother (or, by extension, the infant’s Oedipally-desired, male or female primary caregiver), can thus be a bad thing if this desired caregiver is the baby’s more-or-less only window to the world, barring the intervention of a third party (Father, or by extension, the rest of society) to round out and give nuance to the child’s experience of the world. The child thus never matures or fully leaves Lacan‘s narcissistic Imaginary Order to enter the Symbolic Order, to acquire fluency in the language and shared symbols of society, and thus fit into society.

In a similar vein, Heinz Kohut wrote about how the infantile narcissistic state is composed of two poles: 1) the idealized parental imago, an image of the loved parent (what Kohut called a self-object to satisfy narcissistic needs, or to validate and affirm the ego’s narcissistic self-image), which is introjected and felt to be an internal object inside the child’s mind; and 2) the boastful grandiose self, which can be related to Lacan’s narcissistic ideal-I from the mirror stage. If these two poles’ effectiveness in building psychological structure for the child are compromised (e.g., because of an unresolved Oedipal conflict), he or she could develop pathologically narcissistic traits as an adult.

Since the mirror doesn’t have to be a literal one (i.e., the infant–looking at his mother’s loving face [see Homer, page 24]–can see a symbolic mirror reflecting both his ideal, grandiose self and his idealized parent, an extension of himself via projective and introjective identification [container/contained]), we can see how Freud, Lacan, Bion, and Kohut can be fused. This is the self/other dialectic, the human personality as understood in a relational sense with other people, the psychic bridges between us all.

So, the Oedipal relationship with (usually) the mother is one of mirroring narcissism back to the child and of giving narcissistic idolatry to the desired parent. The problem for the child is that this two-way, mirroring relationship can’t last forever. As the child gets older, he or she must come to accept that the prized parent has desires for someone else (the other parent, a boyfriend/girlfriend, etc.). The parent can’t belong exclusively to the child, and this traumatizing disappointment must be gotten over.

Most of us can get over this, to at least a reasonable extent, hence our infantile, childhood narcissism is let down tolerably, bit by bit (optimal frustration), and reduced to socially acceptable levels by the time we reach adulthood. Some people, on the other hand, because of some arrest in their childhood development, never sufficiently resolve this Oedipal trauma; these people grow up with pathological levels of narcissism, and throughout their lives need people to mirror their grandiosity back to them in the form of narcissistic supply.

I believe my mother suffered such unresolved traumas when she was a child, having been born in England two years before the Blitz, which–even if the bombings hadn’t happened in the city or town she, as an infant, had been in at the time–at least would have exposed her to a great level of parental stress in her immediate environment.

More significantly for her, though, would have been the death–several years later–of her father, to whom she’d have had a great Oedipal attachment, him being her metaphorical mirror when she was a little girl in the 1940s. Finally, her move with her widowed mother to Canada, by the 1950s, would have ripped her away from the–to her–idyllic, Edenic world of her origins, and put her in a strange new world she’d have found difficult to adjust to at such a tender, young age.

Because of these disruptions in her childhood development, she would have needed to fill in the voids where empathic mirroring was supposed to be. I believe she would eventually use my dad, my siblings, and me to fill in those voids, either to mirror her grandiose self back to her (i.e., my sister, J., her golden child, her idealized self), or to have people onto whom she could project the hated parts of herself (me–the scapegoat, or identified patient–and her nephews, L. and G., and eventually S., too, as I’ve explained in previous posts). To an extent, even my dad got scapegoated (whenever he displeased or disappointed her, which was frequent); so when he took me under his wing when I was a kid, the rest of the family blackballed me all the worse.

If Dad and I were mirroring each other, Mom was getting all that much less of a mirroring from me, causing her narcissistic injury. Narcissists are known for their wish to hog all the attention to themselves, so anyone taking any of that coveted attention away is seen as a rival to be envied. A key personality trait of people with NPD is envy: envy of others as well as a perception that others envy them, something easily interpreted as projected envy.

I believe that my mother’s envy of Dad’s ‘usurping,’ if you will, of some of that attention was part of her motive to fan the flames of jealousy that my brothers, R. and F., felt when Dad seemed to favour me over them. Their jealousy would have been a manifestation of their unresolved negative Oedipal feelings toward Dad; the same would apply to my sister, J., in her Oedipally-inspired jealousy. The Oedipal situation is all about narcissism, family rivalry, competition for love, and therefore, jealousy.

Jealousy differs slightly from envy, in that the former involves a fear of losing someone’s love to another person (this was my siblings’ problem); whereas envy involves irritation over one person having some kind of advantage, something or someone the envier lacks, thus making the envious one want to hurt the object of his envy (Mom’s problem).

I believe Mom envied the attention I gave to Dad, so she set up two camps in the family: those who were ‘loyal’ to her (my three siblings), and those who were ‘disloyal,’ Dad and me; this division into camps was the basis of much of the needless conflict in our family. While much of my father’s grumpy, authoritarian nastiness was due to his excess adherence to conservative values (his slavery to tradition), I believe a lot of his adversarial nature came from his bitterness in having married a narcissist, all while lacking the psychological vocabulary to give expression to his frustrations (one of Dad’s many bigotries was his hate of psychiatry, which he believed spawned many social ills).

So, by pushing R., F., and J. to focus their attention on Mom, to mirror her grandiosity back to her, and by punishing them if ever they failed to do so, Mom was causing my siblings to have–at least to a significant extent–an insufficiently resolved Oedipal conflict, a conflict she exploited to her advantage. They idolized her, felt a guarded hostility to Dad (criticism of him was allowed to a point; criticism of Mom was taboo, with rare exceptions), and tormented me for daring to do what they’d been forbidden to do: to have roughly equal proportions of affection and hostility for both parents.

I’m not saying R., F., and J. felt only negative feelings for Dad: a certain, circumscribed amount of affection for him was seen by Mom as not only acceptable, but appropriate and expected (after all, we had to maintain the public image of being a ‘good, loving family’). A similarly limited love was doled out to me by all of them, ‘as appropriate.’ J., as the golden child, was especially obligated ‘to love’ me.

The conflict that my mother promoted was also meant to stay within certain ‘acceptable’ limits. Mom was at least partly responsible for having failed to resolve the mid-1970s conflict between Dad and teen R. over the relative triviality of his bad grades at school. I speculate that she may have, in fact, helped escalate the conflict leading to teen R.’s leaving home; it’s all described in more detail here–scroll down about a third to halfway into it; read there also about his ranting to me, years later, of Dad supposedly loving J. and me more for having gotten better grades in school…Oedipal jealousy. Mom thus had to be careful not to let family fights escalate into physical violence, or into any of us, still underage at the time, running away from home.

Hence, Mom tolerated anyone verbally abusing me, but drew the line at physical violence (i.e., when she knew F. had perpetrated it); also, Mom’s use of the autism lie on me (read about that here) could have been partially motivated by a wish to ensure I’d be too scared to run away from home, she having implied that I was ‘too mentally incompetent’ to be able to take care of myself.

The family was fond of scorning me as some kind of overgrown child. But if I’m right about this repressed, unconscious Oedipus factor as the basis for so much of my conflict with Mom and my siblings, as well as their conflicts with each other and with Dad (all those unresolved Mommy and Daddy issues), we now can see who in my family, deep down, were the truly childish ones.

R., F., and J. were in a perpetual competition to see who was the ‘worthiest’ of Mom’s love, never realizing that conditional love isn’t love at all. They based their (and my) worth on how much of Mom’s love we had ‘earned’ (in earlier posts–some of which are among the links given above–I gave many examples of my siblings implying they’d ‘earned’ a love I hadn’t). Their sense of emotional stability, self-confidence, and ability to function normally in the world was based on the comfortable, flattering illusion of that love. I saw through the family’s bullshit, and they shame me for daring to have that Tiresias-like insight, Bion’s K, which they are probably still too afraid to uncover.

Wilfred R. Bion, Learning From Experience, Maresfield Library, London, 1962

Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Approach to the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1971

Sean Homer, Jacques Lacan, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, London, 2005

Analysis of ‘Black Swan’

Black Swan is a 2010 psychological thriller directed by Darren Aronofsky and written by Mark Heyman, John McLaughlin, and Andres Heinz, based on an original story by Heinz. It stars Natalie Portman in an Oscar-winning performance as ballerina Nina Sayers, with Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, and Winona Ryder.

The story, with its overarching themes of duality, dualism, and the dialectical relationship between opposites, is strongly influenced by Dostoyevsky‘s novella, The Double. Nina’s double is her dialectical opposite, Lily (Kunis); and just as the protagonist in Dostoyevsky’s story is paranoid about his double’s attempts to take over his life, so does Nina have persecutory anxiety about Lily supposedly scheming to take the role of Swan Queen away from her.

Here are some quotes from the film:

Nina (Portman): I came to ask for the part.

Thomas (Cassel): The truth is when I look at you all I see is the white swan. Yes, you’re beautiful, fearful, and fragile. Ideal casting. But the black swan? It’s a hard fucking job to dance both.

Nina: I can dance the black swan, too.

Thomas: Really? In four years, every time you dance I see you obsessed getting each and every move perfectly right, but I never see you lose yourself. Ever! All that discipline for what?

Nina[whispers] I just want to be perfect.

Thomas: What?

Nina: I want to be perfect.

Thomas[scoffs] Perfection is not just about control. It’s also about letting go. Surprise yourself so you can surprise the audience. Transcendence! Very few have it in them.

Nina: I think I do have it in me.
************

Nina: Beth! I’m so sorry to hear you’re leaving the company.

Beth (Ryder): What did you do to get this role? [about Thomas] He always said you were such a frigid little girl. What did you do to change his mind? Did you suck his cock?

Nina: Not all of us have to.

Beth[chuckles] You fucking whore! You’re a fucking little whore!

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

Thomas: You could be brilliant, but you’re a coward.

Nina: I’m sorry.

Thomas[yelling] Now stop saying that! That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Stop being so fucking weak!

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

“That was me seducing you. It needs to be the other way around.” –Thomas, to Nina

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


Lily (Kunis): [about Beth] I can’t believe he calls her that. It’s so gross.

Nina: I think it’s sweet.

Lily: Little princess? He probably calls every girl that.

Nina: No way! That’s just for Beth.

Lily: I bet he’ll be calling you little princess any day now.

Nina: I don’t know about that.

Lily: Sure he will. You just got to let him lick your pussy.

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

Erica (Hershey): What happened to my sweet girl?

Nina: She’s gone!

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

Nina: You put something in my drink.

Lily: Yeah.

Nina: And then you just took off in the morning?

Lily: In the morning?

Nina: Yeah, you slept over.

Lily: Um, no. Unless your name is Tom and you got a dick.

Nina: But we…

Lily: But we what, Nina? [pauses] Wait, did you have some sort of lezzy wet dream about me?

Nina[whispers] Stop it.

Lily: Oh my God. Oh my God! You did! You fantasized about me!

Nina: Shut up!

Lily[gasps] Was I good?

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

Erica: This role’s destroying you. [Nina violently pushes Erica aside]

Erica: No! Please! You’re not well!

Nina[yelling] Let go of me!

Erica: You can’t handle this!

Nina: I can’t? I’m the Swan Queen, you’re the one who never left the corps!

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

“I felt it. Perfect. It was perfect.” –Nina

One visual cue to take note of throughout the film is the preponderance of blacks, whites, and greys, in clothing especially, but also in interior designs. Black and white have the traditional symbolism of, respectively, evil and good, sin and innocence, etc. Grey, as a mixture of black and white, can thus be seen as an integration, or a sublation, of the black and white thesis/antithesis.

Nina, the “sweet girl,” wears mostly white clothes, as well as her lightest of light pink coat and light-grey track pants. As she gradually loses her innocence over the course of the film, she’ll be wearing darker, greyer clothing until she’s fully transformed into the Black Swan, the evil twin, as it were, of the White Swan. Appropriately, at the beginning of the film, she dreams of dancing as the White Swan; that she’s being eyed predatorily by Rothbart, the evil owl-like sorcerer, already shows her repressed sexuality, for deep down in her unconscious, she wants to be seduced.

Nina’s mother, Erica, is always in black, except for an outfit that’s a combination of black and dark grey, worn once in the middle of the film–black enough. We’ll see the significance of these black clothes on Erica later.

Erica seems to be a generally good mother, though she is in many ways frustrating for Nina, too. Erica’s overprotectiveness and lack of respect for her daughter’s privacy force Nina to take on an exclusively “sweet girl” persona…a white swan. With Erica’s domineering overprotectiveness comes a repression and disavowal of Nina’s sexuality.

This disavowal of her sexuality comes in the form of projection. Nina tends to see people in black clothes, sometimes young women with Nina’s hallucinated face superimposed on them, as in one example in the subway station. The sexual brazenness she sees in some of these black-clothed people (Lily, and in particular, a lecherous old man on the subway making obscene gestures at her) is really a sexuality inside herself that she doesn’t want to accept. She’s the white swan “sweet girl,” so she projects that sexuality onto others through her hallucinations. An important question here is: where do we draw the line between what she actually sees and what she hallucinates? (I suspect that she hallucinates a lot more often than the times she obviously does.)

Thomas, the artistic director of her ballet company, wants to do a production of Swan Lake in which the same dancer will play both the white and black swans. This would be a challenge for any dancer, but it is especially so for Nina, who will have to integrate her white side with her disavowed, forbidden black side. She will have to discover some very dark shadows inside herself.

Naturally, as she does this uncovering, this integrating of white and black, she’ll experience conflict and resistance. Part of her must do this integrating to be worthy of dancing the part, and part of her will be terrified of discovering the dark sexuality hidden inside herself, a sexuality her mother forbids her to express, as we’ll soon see. Projecting that sexuality onto others, certain black-clothed others in particular, will achieve this purpose…for a while…

Thomas, as an agent of this integration of black and white, accordingly wears combinations of black, grey, and white. He makes demands on Nina to open up sexually, to loosen up on her meticulous, perfectionistic ballet technique in order to dance more freely as the uninhibited Black Swan. She mustn’t be all Apollonian discipline; she must also be Dionysian passion and fire. Nina can’t adjust at first, though her doppelgänger Lily, with her pornographic mouth and frank sexuality, can do it naturally, effortlessly. Lily usually wears black clothes; she even has a tattoo of black wings on her back.

Look at the two girls’ four-letter names, Nina and Lily. They have paralleled repeats of consonants, ls and ns, letters close to each other in the alphabetic sequence; both names’ second letter is an i, and both names end with an a or a y, two vowels at almost opposite ends of each other in the alphabet. Lily only seems to be Nina’s polar opposite, but she’s actually her dialectical opposite, for in the sublation of contraries, there is a unity. Nina does have Lily’s wild sexuality: it’s just repressed and disavowed, for reasons I’ll speculate about later.

Nina’s unwillingness to learn how to dance the Black Swan with the free sexuality that Thomas wants represents what Wilfred Bion called -K, a negation of the desire to gain knowledge (K) by linking between oneself and others (Bion, p. 47ff.). All those external stimuli that arouse sexual feelings are rejected by Nina, like Bion‘s beta elements: raw, external sensory data that aren’t processed in the mind or turned into thoughts.

Many consider this film an allegory of the agony one feels in the search to attain artistic perfection. Nina certainly is striving, to the point of self-destructiveness (as her predecessor, Beth, has), to be the perfect ballerina; but her quest isn’t so much about dancing perfectly as it is about becoming someone else–actually, being her True Self (in DW Winnicott‘s sense of the term).

Black Swan is Nina’s journey towards self-knowledge, and this journey is terrifying for her because it means revealing feelings she is ashamed of–her repressed sexuality, which is, to at least a great degree, lesbian.

Recall “how pink! So pretty” that grapefruit half is that Nina’s mom serves her for breakfast at the beginning of the film. At this early point in the story, only the unconscious mind of that “sweet girl” would be able to see the vulva symbolism of the pink inside of the grapefruit.

When Thomas awakens her sexuality with that hard kiss he gives her in his office (which she rejects by biting him), then later he invites her to his home at night for a drink–and he talks about sex with her–we assume he is being the stereotypical male lecher trying to take advantage of a pretty young woman, offering her career advancement in exchange for a sexual favour. Actually, though, he doesn’t take her to bed. He’d have her masturbate in her home instead.

This awakening to self-knowledge (Bion’s K) is, so to speak, the ‘Biblical kind of knowing,’ and Nina is conflicted about it. She tries masturbating the next morning, but she sees her mother sleeping in a chair by her bed. This would seem to be yet another example of her mother not respecting her boundaries and invading her privacy. I suspect, however, that this is actually another of Nina’s many hallucinations, a convenient excuse to stop exploring her sexuality, for Erica would never approve of it.

It’s interesting that we never learn of Nina’s father–he’s not mentioned even once, at any time in the film. There’s a good possibility that Erica has raised Nina all the way, or almost all the way, from infancy; perhaps a man got Erica pregnant and abandoned her, forcing her to give up on her dreams of being a ballerina herself, and causing her to be overprotective of Nina for fear of her being seduced, knocked up, and thrown over in the same way. Recall Erica’s warning to Nina about Thomas and his “reputation” with women: “I just don’t want you to make the same mistake I did.” Whatever the cause of her repressions of Nina, Erica has been, essentially, Nina’s one conduit to knowledge of the world, having stifled the growth of Nina’s sexuality.

Bion’s theory of thinking and learning is based on developments of Melanie Klein‘s notion of projective identification, which involves projecting feelings and ideas into another to the point of making the other feel and think those feelings and thoughts. A baby isn’t able to think and process external sensory stimuli (Bion’s ‘beta elements’) for himself, so he must expel and project the distressing ones, pushing them into his mother, who as a “good enough mother” can contain them, process them in maternal reverie, and return them to her baby in a form acceptable to him, pacifying him. Erica, I suspect, didn’t sufficiently contain baby Nina’s anxieties and frustrations, which, instead of being pacified, became a “nameless dread“; hence, her current pathologies.

Object relations theorists like Klein wrote of how we all make internalized objects of our early caregivers, i.e., our parents. These internal objects reside in our minds like ghosts in, so to speak, the haunted houses of our heads; they are homunculi in us. In fatherless Nina’s case, there is only one foundational object introjected into her mind: Erica.

Sometimes, Erica is the good mother, caring for Nina and protecting her (or at least trying to) from external dangers (sexually predatory men) and internal ones (Nina’s scratching and self-injuries). Of course, Erica carries that protection way too far, and far too often, making her into the bad mother.

Since Black Swan is a movie about duality, it’s important to note this good/bad mother duality in Erica, which Nina has internalized. Erica’s repression of Nina’s sexuality, infantilizing her (Nina, on two occasions, calls Erica “Mommy”), is another big part of the bad mother that frustrates Nina.

This frustration results in the defence mechanism of splitting into absolute good (white swan) and absolute bad (black swan). Thomas’s insistence that Nina dance both black and white swans necessitates an integration that threatens her ego defences, causing her psychotic break with reality.

Nina would resist this knowing (-K) of the integration of white and black; she’d rather be all-white, so all impulses and excitations (beta elements) luring her towards the black (which she nonetheless must accept if she’s to succeed in Thomas’s production) are frightening things she must eject from herself and project onto others (i.e., Lily).

The problem is that if Nina keeps rejecting these beta elements over time, never processing these taboo thoughts or allowing them to settle in her mind as alpha elements, the rejected beta elements will accumulate and become what Bion called bizarre objects, hallucinatory projections of herself (e.g., those talking pictures in Erica’s room). If Nina doesn’t accept her dark side, she’ll go mad.

I’ve mentioned Nina’s lesbian tendencies; recall the gossiping dancers who note her staring at Veronica. Then there’s Nina’s obsession with black-clothed Lily, and that notorious sex scene in which Lily performs cunnilingus on Nina. She’s not only hallucinated the entire lovemaking, but also superimposed her own face on lip-smacking Lily’s. Nina is constantly projecting her inner dark side.

According to classical psychoanalytic theory, children go through an Oedipal phase, usually loving and desiring the opposite-sex parent and hating the same-sex parent, wishing to remove this latter one out of jealousy. These children normally outgrow this phase and develop heterosexual feelings for people outside the family. Some people have a negative Oedipus complex, a homosexual version; again, in the best of circumstances, they’ll outgrow it and have gay relationships outside the family.

In Nina’s case, however, a father with whom she can pass through an Oedipal phase is out of the question. She is in no Oedipal love triangle, only a dyad. All she has is her mother–the good mother who serves her a “pink” and “pretty,” vulva-like grapefruit, and the black-clothed bad mother who disapproves of her ever being involved with boys.

Some bloggers have speculated that Erica has sexually abused Nina, thus causing her pathologies. It’s an interesting, even compelling, theory; but just as Freud downplayed and modified his seduction theory to accommodate what he considered to be the much more universal Oedipus complex, so must I respectfully disagree with those bloggers.

Though Erica’s relationship with Nina is inappropriately close, the daughter clearly being an extension of her mother’s will, I don’t see sufficient evidence of even implied sexual abuse. Furthermore, such a theory doesn’t harmonize with the symbolism of Nina as the “sweet girl,” the innocent, virginal white swan. The trauma of child sexual abuse is centred around a forceful robbing of the child’s innocence. On the contrary with Nina, it’s her innocence that Erica is so preoccupied with preserving.

I argue, instead, that Nina’s psychopathology is based on a combination of sexual repression (from Erica the bad mother) and an unresolved, repressed negative Oedipus complex (Erica the all-too-good mother). The dialectical relationship between these polar opposites is like the biting head and bitten tail of the ouroboros that I’ve used so many times before to represent the unity of opposites, how one phases into the other.

Bion elaborated on the Oedipus myth by focusing on how reluctant Tiresias was to tell the incestuous, patricidal Theban king that it was he who killed his father Laius (Bion, p. 45ff.). This reluctance to impart or acquire knowledge (-K) is seen in Nina’s not wanting to come to terms with her unconscious Oedipal feelings for her mother.

One way of avoiding those feelings, as we’ve seen, is through projection, that is, to project the internalized object of Nina’s mother onto Lily. In the lesbian sex scene fantasy, Nina has an acceptable sexual substitute for Erica in Lily; Nina has displaced her desire onto an object outside her family. Another way for Nina to disavow her negative Oedipus complex is through reaction formation, i.e., through being hostile to her mother (even physically hurting her), to mask her unconscious desire for her.

Indeed, the juxtaposition of Nina’s barring Erica’s entry into her bedroom with her imagined lovemaking with Lily represents the basic schizoid position (p. 8ff.) that WRD Fairbairn wrote about. In Nina’s relationship with Erica on the one hand, and with Lily on the other, we see Fairbairn‘s Anti-libidinal Ego (Nina) and Rejecting Object (Erica), and the Libidinal Ego (Nina) and the Exciting Object (Lily). What we don’t see is the Central Ego (Nina) with the Ideal Object (anyone), this last object being ‘ideal’ because a real person in the external world is ideally who one should have a relationship with.

Lily, the Exciting Object of Nina’s libidinal desires, isn’t in the room; she’s only an internalized object in Nina’s mind. Even her mother, as the despised, unwanted object rejected by Nina’s ‘anti-libidinal’ feelings, isn’t wholly the bad mother that Nina imagines her to be: Erica’s only partly a bad mother, but also partly a good mother. Nina must come to grips with this duality.

Nonetheless, in order to prevent herself from knowing (-K) about her Oedipal desires, Nina must imagine Erica to be all bad, and must reject her even when she’s trying to do good (i.e., help Nina when she’s obviously going mad, and stop her self-injuries). Hence, Nina’s schizoid position–or as Klein called it, the paranoid-schizoid position. In Nina’s splitting of the internal object into absolute bad (this is Lily now, for Nina imagines her to be trying to steal her role as Swan Queen) and absolute good (Erica, the good side of whom is ignored, physically attacked, and treated derisively: “I’m the Swan Queen! You’re the one who never left the corps!”), she is about to get very paranoid.

Though Nina has struggled to avoid the integration of white and black, and thus to know herself (-K), she has also, in her quest to perfect the role of Swan Queen, been forced to approach that self-knowledge (K). Nonetheless, just as Oedipus’ quest for knowledge of the truth destroyed him (as Tiresias warned him it would), so is Nina’s quest destroying her. After all, who would want to have conscious knowledge that he or she had incestuous desires for his or her mother?

In her drive to attain perfection, her ballerina ideal, Nina sees herself in the mirror and hallucinates that her reflection is moving in ways that she herself is not. This is Lacan‘s mirror, in which one’s clumsy self, unable to match the perceived perfection in the reflection, is alienated from that graceful image.

On the one hand, Nina is alienated from herself when she sees her reflection, but when she faces other people–as if they were her mirror reflection–she often sees herself (as a result of projective and introjective identification). These hallucinations make this normally graceful ballerina as clumsy as those psychologically fragmented infants seeing themselves in Lacan’s mirror for the first time.

Nina thus in a larger sense has many doppelgängers: her main one is Lily, of course, but there are also the pairs of Nina/Erica, Nina/Beth, Nina/Veronica, and ultimately, Nina White/Nina Black. The film expresses the universal idea that the self, or subject, is seen in the other, or object, and vice versa. Lacan’s mirror reflects the self/other dialectic.

Though Nina’s white and black sides are integrating, she’s still conflicted about it, and she’s still resisting the integration. She projects her black onto Lily and Erica, and she projects in the forms of vomiting into toilets, self-injury, and pulling a hallucinated black feather out of her back.

Though Erica is as annoyingly overprotective as always, she–as the good mother–is justified in trying to intervene when she can see that Nina is clearly going insane. In her bedroom, after slamming the door on Erica’s fingers, Nina hallucinates that her legs have transformed into those of a swan’s, bending backwards. Though symbolically this could be seen as a positive, in that she’s transforming into the Black Swan and thus mastering the role, it also represents, apart from her obvious psychotic break with reality, a fear of never being able to dance again (i.e., broken legs).

Her suffering from the paranoid-schizoid position is at its peak when she rushes over to the ballet company to ensure that she, and not (she imagines) usurping Lily, will perform as the Swan Queen.

During her performance as the White Swan, she hallucinates seeing her own face on one of the heads of the corps de ballet, giving her a jolt and causing her male dancing partner to drop her onstage. Weeping as she returns to her dressing room, she hallucinates seeing Lily get ready to play the Black Swan, when of course she’s really seeing a projection of her black half. Thinking she’s stabbed Lily with a piece of broken glass from a mirror, she’s actually stabbed herself in the gut with it.

She goes back onstage as the Black Swan, fully transformed. No longer is she in conflict about it; she fully accepts and embraces her dark side. She even hallucinates seeing her arms turn into black wings, and she grins at the transformation. Never does she notice her stab wound; nor does the audience, who loves her performance.

She goes offstage and kisses Thomas hard on the mouth, as if she were Lily. Finally, she is seducing him, instead of the other way around. He, just old enough to be her father, provides her with a symbolic positive Oedipal object, awakening her hitherto repressed heterosexual side, which was also awakened earlier in the dance club scene, with those young men, “Tom and Jerry.”

Back in her change room, Nina must become the White Swan again; not just for the sake of the ballet, but because she can be neither only black, nor only white. Lily…dressed in an all white ballet outfit!…appears at her door to congratulate her on her superb dancing. Nina realizes she never stabbed Lily.

Pulling out a shard of mirror glass from her bleeding gut, Nina weeps. Her persecutor has never been Lily, nor has she even been Erica in her bad mother mode. Nina’s persecutor has been herself the whole time, as the bad internal object of her mother.

Fully integrated now, Nina no longer sees people in terms of all good or all bad, for she understands how illusory her projections are. Lily is in white, but still brazenly sexual and using four-letter words, for she never was “all black.” Nina has merely imagined her to be that way…as she has imagined her mother to be.

Nina weeps copious tears as she prepares to go back onstage as the White Swan (presumably having bandaged her stomach as best she can), for she has switched from the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive position. By stabbing herself, Nina was trying to stab the bad mother object inside herself, something projected onto Lily. Now she fears having killed her internal mother object, which means also killing herself. Thus sobbing Nina feels depressive, rather than persecutory, anxiety.

Back onstage, she has a sorrowful face as she dances in the finale, as brilliantly as always. Red is visible on her belly, the blood gushing out of a vulva-like wound suggesting the symbolic breaking of her hymen, her loss of virginity and innocence.

Is her mother–the good mother–watching her in the audience, tearfully moved by her performance, or is Nina just imagining her there, as part of her depressive wish for reparation with Erica? Either way, though she needs to be rushed to hospital, she is perfect…not just from a great performance, but perfect in that she’s complete–not half a woman, but both white and black.

Analysis of ‘Pink Floyd–The Wall’

Pink Floyd–The Wall is a 1982 film directed by Alan Parker and written by Roger Waters, with music from Pink Floyd‘s 1979 album, The Wall. It stars Bob Geldof in the role of Pink, an alienated rock star (modelled after Waters) who isolates himself from the world with a metaphorical wall built around him.

Indeed, the film is intensely metaphorical and semi-autobiographical (of Waters), with numerous surreal animated sequences done by Gerald Scarfe. It deals with themes of alienation, madness, and ultimately, fascism. It has little dialogue, with the song lyrics largely filling in the verbal narration.

The film was generally well-received (now having cult status), in spite of problems with production and its creators’ dissatisfaction with what resulted.

Here is a link to all the lyrics from the album.

The film begins in a hotel hallway, one side of it, with its wall and row of doors, being prominent. A maid is going from room to room with a vacuum cleaner. A song is heard about Christmas, and a little boy for whom the holiday is no different from any other, for Santa Claus forgot him. This is an indirect reference to Pink, who is then seen in his room, watching TV alone, remembering his dead father. She’d like to clean his room, and she knocks on his door, but he ignores her.

Her attempts to open the door agitate him, making him think of the hell of having people around him, watching him. We then see images of running British soldiers fighting in WWII, juxtaposed with a running crowd of Pink’s fans at one of his concerts who are violently apprehended by cops for their unruliness, then with Pink’s fantasy of himself as a fascist leader at a rally with his crowd of followers, actually his fans at his concert. The sequence of images ends with the killing of his father in the war.

This juxtaposition is significant in how it identifies and equates these three groups. Soldiers, as patriots, are fans of their country, fans (that is, fanatics) to the point of being willing to kill for the fatherland. Fans of a rock star idolize him to the point of stampeding in a concert venue (the kind of thing that can lead to such tragic accidents as the trampling-to-death of eleven Who fans at a Cincinnati concert in 1979, the same year The Wall was released as an album) and being willing to believe or do whatever the rock star wants. Fascists are a kind of military rock star, if you will: charming, hypnotizing, and manipulating their followers to do whatever the leader wants them to do, as Hitler demonstrated.

Pink’s estrangement from the world is rooted in several childhood traumas: his bullying teachers, his over-protective mother, and most importantly, the death of his father as a soldier in WWII, before Pink was even at an age to have known him.

These three sources of trauma all involve, in one sense or another, Pink’s relationship with authority, how that authority has dominated his life. How his mother and the teachers have oppressed him is obvious; how his dead father has done so requires further explanation.

While Pink’s father’s death in WWII is autobiographical, in how Waters’s father also died as a soldier in that war, the death of Pink’s father can also be symbolic of the death of God the Father. Note that Waters, unlike his late father, is an atheist. Thus Pink’s father can be seen on one level as symbolic of Church authority, its validity dead to both Pink and Waters, yet still weighing down on them.

On the other hand, the literal death of Pink’s (and Waters’s) father is still troubling the rock star decades later. This goes way beyond mere mourning: this is melancholia, which leads to a discussion of Freud‘s reflections on the matter in Mourning and Melancholia.

As Freud conceptualized it, mourning and melancholia share almost all of the same traits, except that only in melancholia is there also a profound self-hate. Freud theorized that this self-hate results from ambivalent feelings towards the lost loved one, a mix of unconscious hate and hostility with the expected love for him or her, if not a pure, though repressed, hostility. The lost loved one has been internalized, introjected into the mourning subject (the self), and is now an internal object; so any hate or hostility felt for the object (the other person) is now felt for the self, who reproaches himself for having ‘willed’ the death of the loved one.

Freud explains: “If one listens patiently to a melancholic’s many and various self-accusations, one cannot in the end avoid the impression that often the most violent of them are hardly at all applicable to the patient himself, but that with insignificant modifications they do fit someone else, someone whom the patient loves or has loved or should love. Every time one examines the facts this conjecture is confirmed. So we find the key to the clinical picture: we perceive that the self-reproaches are reproaches against a loved object which have been shifted away from it on to the patient’s own ego.” (Freud, pages 256-257)

Freud’s insights here became part of the origin of object relations theory, as further developed by Melanie Klein, DW Winnicott, WRD Fairbairn, Wilfred R Bion, and others. The point I’m making about Pink (and Waters, presumably) is that he feels as though the ghost of his father is still inside him, tormenting and oppressing him.

Pink feels as though his father abandoned him by dying when he was a baby:

Daddy’s flown across the ocean
Leaving just a memory
A snapshot in the family album
Daddy, what else did you leave for me?
Daddy, what d’ya leave behind for me?
All in all, it was just a brick in the wall
All in all, it was all just bricks in the wall

This has led to feelings of hostility towards his father–as well as a longing for him. Thus, Pink’s hostility is redirected back at him, oppressing him, because he has internalized his father.

Freud explains: “…identification is a preliminary stage of object-choice, that it is the first way–and one that is expressed in an ambivalent fashion–in which the ego picks out an object. The ego wants to incorporate this object into itself, and, in accordance with the oral or cannibalistic phase of libidinal development in which it is, it wants to do so by devouring it. […]

“Melancholia, therefore, borrows some of its features from mourning, and the others from the process of regression from narcissistic object-choice to narcissism. It is on the one hand, like mourning, a reaction to the real loss of a loved object; but over and above this, it is marked by a determinant which is absent in normal mourning or which, if it is present, transforms the latter into pathological mourning. The loss of a love-object is an excellent opportunity for the ambivalence in love-relationships to make itself effective and come into the open. Where there is a disposition to obsessional neurosis the conflict due to ambivalence gives a pathological cast to mourning and forces it to express itself in the form of self-reproaches to the effect that the mourner himself is to blame for the loss of the loved object, i.e. that he has willed it.” (Freud, pages 258-260)

We see a visual manifestation of Pink’s identifying with his father in the scene when he, about ten years old, goes through his father’s old things, puts on his dad’s uniform (which, of course, is far too big to fit), then sees himself in the mirror. The image alternates between seeing the boy’s reflection and seeing his father in the uniform.

This is Lacan‘s mirror: young Pink looks awkward in his father’s uniform, and the image of his father, alternating with that of himself, in the reflection represents the alienation of oneself from the reflected image. His father looks perfect, even ideal, as a war hero, in the uniform; but that uniform is awkwardly too big on the boy. His father is his ideal-I, but his imperfect approximation to that ideal means he is alienated from his ideal and from himself.

Since I’ve argued that his dead father symbolizes dead God, too, then we see atheist Pink (a stand-in for atheist Waters) as alienated from God the Father, particularly in the scene with him (about the age of six) and his mother in church. Only she prays; he shows no interest in religious matters. He does, however, play with a toy fighter airplane, thus showing his wish to be a warrior like his father (though it was a fighter plane that killed his father, so the boy’s playing with the toy plane could also be seen as an unconscious wish to do away with his father, a reflection of that ambivalence of love and hostility). Once again, Pink is alienated from an ideal Father, though trying to identify with his real father (from whom he is also alienated).

The next authoritarian source of his traumas is his school life. One teacher in particular is abusive, giving bad kids canings and humiliating Pink by reading one of the boy’s poems aloud in class. The poem in question is the song lyric from ‘Money.’

Money, get back
I’m all right Jack keep your hands off of my stack […]

New car, caviar, four star daydream
Think I’ll buy me a football team

The teacher calls the boy’s writing “absolute rubbish,” and demands that he focus on his lesson. Since ‘Money‘ is a critique of capitalism, and the teacher is invalidating the poem, we see in this scene how capitalism stifles creativity. (I’ve briefly discussed this stifling in other analyses.)

The abusive teacher shouldn’t be seen as just a tyrannical entity unto himself, though, for he has a domineering wife he has to put up with every day at home. People receive abuse, then pass it on to others. Pink himself does this, in his emotional neglect of his wife, driving her into the arms of another man; in his terrifying of the groupie by busting up his hotel room in a manic rage; and finally, in his fantasy as a fascist who inspires violence in his followers.

After Pink’s humiliation in the classroom, he daydreams about the suffering of his oppressed classmates, who are all seen marching–looking like automatons and wearing grotesque masks of school conformity–towards a meat grinder (the shadows of which ominously show the fascist hammers to be seen later, an indication of what excessive conformity can lead to) spewing out shit-shaped meat. Ultimately, Pink fantasizes about a student revolution, involving the teacher getting his comeuppance.

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey, teachers, leave them kids alone
All in all it’s just another brick in the wall
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall

The surreal nature of this scene, as with all the cartoon sequences, shows how all of this is Pink’s unconscious phantasy. Indeed, this whole film is about the turbulent, conflicted world of the unconscious.

What’s interesting, given the teacher’s henpecked attitude towards his wife, is how he could be seen as a substitute father for Pink. As a violent, bullying authoritarian, the teacher certainly embodies the stereotype of the conservative father; as such a substitute father, the teacher would thus be a disappointing, alienating one, disillusioning Pink from his ideal father and–through his identification with his father–driving him towards his own authoritarian, fascist fantasies. The teacher’s submission to his wife also parallels Pink’s own submission to his mother, suggesting an equating of one woman with the other.

This observation leads us to the third source of Pink’s traumas, that of his over-protective mother. She is oversolicitous about him getting sick, fretting in a conversation with the doctor. We see the boy climb in bed with her, indicating his unresolved Oedipal relationship with her.

Mama’s gonna make all your nightmares come true.
Mama’s gonna put all her fears into you.
Mama’s gonna keep you right here under her wing.
She won’t let you fly, but she might let you sing.
Mama’s gonna keep baby cozy and warm.
Ooh baby, ooh baby, ooh baby,
Of course mama’s gonna help build the wall.

Mother do you think she’s good enough, for me?
Mother do you think she’s dangerous, to me?
Mother will she tear your little boy apart?
Ooh ah,
Mother will she break my heart? Hush now baby, baby don’t you cry.
Mama’s gonna check out all your girlfriends for you.
Mama won’t let anyone dirty get through.
Mama’s gonna wait up until you get in.
Mama will always find out where you’ve been.

Because of this Oedipal relationship, Pink will find it difficult to have intimate relationships with women, for no woman could ever replace Mama. Small wonder his marriage is a disaster, as is his picking up of the groupie. He shows hardly any sexual interest in women at all. One wonders: is Pink a virgin?

Though Pink is emotionally neglectful of his wife, a residual part of him still wants to connect with her, hence the number of long-distance calls he makes to her from hotels or pay phones while he’s on tour. Nonetheless, his attempts to connect with her are too little, too late. She’s already in bed with another man, and Pink knows.

Through his constant melancholia, he already hates himself (really an introjection of the bad father object he’s angry with for having abandoned him by dying in the war, as explained above). Since being cuckolded has always been a crushing source of shame for men, Pink finds his wife’s being with another man to be an unbearable intensifying of his self-hate.

This is not “just another brick in the wall”: this is many scores of bricks. Hence, the cartoon sequence with the all-enveloping wall, a screaming head emerging from the bricks.

This wall represents what Fairbairn called the Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object configuration that all of us have as a part of our personalities, though people like Pink have it far worse than the average person. According to Fairbairnian psychoanalysis, the libido seeks objects (i.e., other people to have relationships with); but after experiencing disappointments in relationships, or the kind of trauma Pink has endured, the ego splits into three parts–the original, Central Ego that seeks real bonds with other people (the Ideal Object), the Libidinal Ego that seeks pleasure (the Exciting Object), and the Anti-libidinal Ego that builds metaphorical walls (keeping the Rejecting Object away).

Because of his wife’s infidelity, Pink’s Anti-libidinal Ego is going into overdrive, rejecting all contact with anyone. Furthermore, as a surreal part-animation sequence shows, he is also experiencing persecutory anxiety, as if his wife is vengefully attacking him for neglecting her…and, even, abusing her…

How could you go?
When you know how I need you
To beat to a pulp on a Saturday night

Still, small residual amounts of the other two thirds of his fragmented psyche remain. What’s left of his Central Ego later asks, “Is there anybody out there?” to any possible manifestations of the Ideal Object. His Libidinal Ego, as moribund as it is, also seeks out the Exciting Object in the form of a groupie.

This pleasure-seeking is a manic defence aimed at getting him to forget his pain. The attempt fails miserably, of course, because pleasure-seeking results from a failure to build relationships with others, as Fairbairn noted: “…from the point of view of object-relationship psychology, explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour…Explicit pleasure-seeking has as its essential aim the relieving of the tension of libidinal need for the mere sake of relieving this tension. Such a process does, of course, occur commonly enough; but, since libidinal need is object-need, simple tension-relieving implies some failure of object-relationships.” (Fairbairn, p. 139-140).

Freud also noted how manic pleasure-seeking is an attempt, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding, to deal with grief: “…the content of mania is no different from that of melancholia, that both disorders are wrestling with the same ‘complex’, but that probably in melancholia the ego has succumbed to the complex whereas in mania it has mastered it or pushed it aside. Our second pointer is afforded by the observation that all states such as joy, exultation or triumph, which give us the normal model for mania, depend on the same economic conditions.” (Freud, page 263)

That this attempt at pleasure-seeking with a groupie is doomed from the start is seen in the fantasy visuals of a group of girls arriving and seducing security guards, symbols of Pink’s super-ego, in turn an internalizing of his domineering, moralizing, overprotective mother. Pink’s Libidinal Ego (Fairbairn’s approximation to Freud’s id) fantasizes that the Exciting Object (the groupies), by seducing the super-ego/security guards, will free his libido to enjoy the girls, which of course will never happen, because…Mama. The song, ‘Young Lust,’ with the lyrics, “Ooh, I need a dirty woman/Ooh, I need a dirty girl,” is so obviously non-Pink Floyd in nature (the song is actually a parody of arena rock) that it can be understood as a sarcastic attitude of celibate Pink.

The surreal animation sequence, of copulating/cannibalistic flowers, is a far more accurate representation of Pink’s attitude towards sex. A phallic flower, symbolizing Pink, is hesitant before entering a yonic flower, representing his wife, or any female partner. When intercourse is achieved, the ‘female’ flower devours the ‘male’ with her ‘vagina dentata.’ Next, we see the creation of the wall with its screaming head. The animation ends with a hammer (having formed from a raised fist, the kind symbolic of socialism), then we see a store window broken with the same, portentous kind of hammer, reminding us of when the Nazis attacked Jewish stores.

Alienation and self-hate can, and often do, lead to fascism. What’s more, fascism tends to lead people astray from socialism, hence the fist morphing into a hammer.

Self-hate also leads to a rejection of humanity, of neediness of anyone or anything, because the hate, unbearable as it is, gets projected outwards:

I don’t need no arms around me
And I don’t need no drugs to calm me
I have seen the writing on the wall
Don’t think I need anything at all
No! Don’t think I’ll need anything at all

Thus, he’s rejected the groupie, despite her attempts to contain his tormented, loner self by sucking on his fingers, to take in his pain and hold it, as a mother would her baby’s anxieties in a state of maternal reverie. Still, he won’t be contained, so he flips out, terrifying her and smashing everything in the hotel room, a projection of his self-hate.

Run to the bedroom
In the suitcase on the left
You’ll find my favourite axe
Don’t look so frightened
This is just a passing phase
One of my bad days
Would you like to watch TV?
Or get between the sheets?

Later, he arranges all of his smashed property into some kind of work of art (the only substantial example of creativity we ever see him engage in) on the floor. Broken records and guitars, cigarettes, and other things are spread out on the carpet in rectangular shapes and straight lines.

Then he goes into the washroom to shave. His looking at himself in the mirror parallels when he, as a boy, looked at his reflection in his father’s uniform. His reflection, in Lacan’s mirror, represents an idealized, coherent, unified person that the man looking at it–being a fragmented, awkward man who’s falling apart inside–would like to measure up to.

To attain the mirrored ideal this time, though, instead of adding to his imperfect self (i.e., wearing his dad’s uniform), Pink feels he must remove unwanted, disliked things from himself (shaving his chest and eyebrows, cutting himself many times). His self-hate is growing: all that shaved hair represents the ugliness in himself that he hates; also, his self-hate expresses itself through his self-injury with the razors.

This removal of unwanted hair reminds us of how women suffer to be beautiful, shaving their legs, armpits, pubic hair, and (in the case of such medieval/Renaissance fashions as those typified by the Mona Lisa) even eyebrows. Pink’s self-hate is women’s everyday self-hate, introjected from society; his very name makes us think of the stereotypical girls’ colour.

Pink is back watching his TV, like all of us zombies staring at the idiot box, or these days, at our phones, tablets, and laptops. His unconscious wanders about in a dreamlike state: we see young Pink wandering about the fields of WWII, seeing the bloody bodies of the soldiers; evidently, he’s still looking for his dad.

Young Pink here represents Fairbairn’s Central Ego, seeking the Ideal Object of his father. He goes through a military hospital, finding present-day Pink (representing the Anti-libidinal Ego) going mad, and he sees adult Pink watching TV in the field, with those ominous hammers among the tall grasses and bushes.

Pink’s manager (played by Bob Hoskins) breaks through the hotel door with a group of men, all of them needing Pink to get ready to perform at a concert that night. Shocked at the sight of Pink in his mentally broken-down state, they give him a shot of something to bring him back so he can do the show. We hear the song ‘Comfortably Numb.’

As the song is playing, Pink goes through a series of memories of everything that has traumatized him, including a time when young Pink found a huge rat in a field and wanted to take care of it at home. Naturally, his mother would never have a rat in her house; but this being one of the few times Pink has ever connected with another living thing, he is deeply hurt by his mother’s rejection of it.

The assonance of the line “I have become comfortably numb” expresses the ‘pleasure’ of feeling immune to any emotions, since they can only cause pain for Pink. Emotional numbness is a common avoidance symptom of PTSD sufferers.

As David Gilmour‘s second guitar solo is playing and Pink is carried from the hotel to a car taking him to the show, he hallucinates that his body is melting and decomposing. This symbolizes his psychological fragmentation, his disintegration, his falling apart. The imagery of worms, which eat away at corpses, add to this sense of Pink’s self-destruction.

In the car on the way to the concert, Pink finds the one and only way to protect himself from fragmentation: to take on the narcissistic False Self of posing as a fascist.

Narcissistic defences against fragmentation are far from the only reasons Pink has for fantasizing about fascism. Recall that one of his main problems is self-hate, which he tries to project outwards. Hatred for “any queers” out there, anyone who “looks Jewish,” every “coon,” and anyone “smoking a joint” is an obvious projection of his self-hate, as is the case with any Nazi.

But there’s a deeper thing going on in Pink’s unconscious: recall that hostility to his father, introjected and now an internal object, thus becoming self-hate. Instead of facing his taboo hate against a father he feels abandoned him by dying fighting fascism, he fantasizes that he is his father’s ideological foe. (Obviously, his father’s death wasn’t really an abandoning of him, but we aren’t concerned with physical reality here, only with Pink’s mental and emotional representation of reality.) In Pink’s mind, it’s better to be a fascist than not to “honour thy father and thy mother,” a Biblical morality no doubt reinforced throughout his childhood by his domineering mother.

Then there’s the relationship between fascism and capitalism. Roger Waters, as a rock star whose left-wing father fought fascism, has always had ambivalent feelings about his wealth, and Pink represents him in this autobiographical film. Waters’s writing of ‘Money’ represents this ambivalence, for though the love of “money, so they say, is the root of all evil today,” Waters (and therefore, Pink too, no doubt) naturally likes the luxuries capitalism provides those in the upper classes. Waters and Pink have wrestled with the guilt of this craving for lucre, for–Dengists aside–socialists tend to frown on the personal accumulation of wealth and capital.

Along with Waters’s/Pink’s ambivalence towards capitalism is fascism’s unholy alliance with the profit motive. Consider Big Business’s financing of Hitler in their hopes that the Nazis would crush the Soviet Union (something Churchill also hoped for, especially after the Nazi defeat, and Pink’s father fought under Winston’s leadership). Consider MI5’s paying of Mussolini to keep Italy fighting in the imperialist First World War, and capitalists’ glee that his fascists crushed the socialists in Italy back in the early 1920s.

Finally, the cult of personality that fascist leaders use to hypnotize the masses is not all that far removed from the hero worship that rock fans engage in, and that rock stars use for their financial gain and narcissistic supply. For all of the above reasons, we shouldn’t be too surprised to see an ‘anti-establishment’ rock star embracing far-right thinking.

Now, Pink’s projection outward of self-hate, inciting his fans to attack ethnic and racial minorities in England, can’t be expected to last long, since identifying with some of the world’s most despised people is hardly a cure for self-hate. So, a vision of those marching hammers is enough to make Pink scream, “Stop!”

We next see Pink reading in a toilet cubicle of a public washroom, of all places, sitting next to a toilet. His self-esteem is so low, he’s literally on a level with shit. One of those security guards, who as I mentioned above in their encounter with the groupies, represent Pink’s super-ego, opens the door to the toilet cubicle to find him there.

Recall that the adult Pink represents his Anti-libidinal Ego, which Fairbairn devised to replace, and therefore make approximately equivalent to, Freud’s super-ego. Fairbairn originally called the Anti-libidinal Ego the Internal Saboteur, and it’s easy to see how Pink has sabotaged his whole inner emotional life. Furthermore, the overly judgemental, moralistic super-ego is essentially an inner critic, tearing down one’s self-esteem, often requiring one to build a protective wall around oneself, as the Anti-libidinal Ego does by rejecting people and pushing them away. Thus, in Pink we see a fusion of Freud’s and Fairbairn’s concepts of aspects of the human personality.

Fittingly, when the door to the toilet stall is opened, we don’t see Pink reading beside the toilet anymore, but instead we see the beginning of an animated sequence, with the enveloping wall, guarded by the hammers, and a doll-like figure lying against the wall. Here is Pink at his most vulnerable, and his cruel super-ego is about to judge him.

He is accused of daring to show feelings (Egad!), and he is judged, in turn, by that abusive old schoolteacher (who in turn is abused by his puppet-master wife in a kind of S and M fantasy), Pink’s wife (who calls him a “little shit”), and his mother. These three are all internalized bad objects who–having been repressed before–have now returned to torment him.

The conclusion that Pink has gone mad is expressed in a predictably judgemental way, using slang euphemisms and lacking any compassion:

Crazy
Toys in the attic, I am crazy
Truly gone fishing
They must have taken my marbles away
(Crazy, toys in the attic, he is crazy)

The judge declares his wish to defecate, he’s so disgusted with Pink’s inadequacies. The final judgement? “Tear down the wall!” Now, tearing down the wall is a necessary condition in helping Pink, but it’s far from being a sufficient condition, for the wall’s removal alone won’t reunite him with humanity–it will only expose him to humanity’s judgements. And in his fragile emotional state, such judgements would be disastrous for him, causing him either to succumb to fragmentation, or simply to build another wall.

Ultimately, the true source of his trauma–his ambivalent, love-hate attitude towards his father, the root of his melancholia–has not been processed or healed. This healing must occur, though. His unconscious hostility to his father–for not being there with him when he grew up–was never brought up to his conscious mind. Without that processing and healing, he’ll never be able to rejoin humanity.

So, what should we make of the ending? The three children in this scene can be seen as aspects of Pink’s inner child. The girl’s collecting of milk bottles suggests a wish to return to being nurtured by his mother; the dark-haired boy’s emptying of the Molotov cocktail could represent a wish to end all hostility. But the blond-haired boy, collecting bricks and putting them in a toy truck, seems to represent a wish to use them to rebuild the wall.

The message of Pink Floyd–The Wall, as I see it, is about the relationship between internal and external pathologies. We start with childhood traumas, in this case, Pink’s mourning and melancholia over his lost father, then his domineering, over-protective mother, his abusive schoolteachers, and finally, his explosive reaction to his wife’s infidelity. From here we go from his inner world to the outer world.

As a rock star, Pink enjoys the luxurious lifestyle of the rich, a product of capitalism, which also, by the way, reinforces alienation, a social estrangement Pink is already suffering. This combination of rejecting people, but enjoying material objects–like the smashed-up ones he makes into a work of art on the carpet of his hotel room, or the buildings, cars, stereos, and TVs seen as part of the wall in one of the animation sequences–exacerbates the inner problem by making it into a social one. When this problem comes to a head, we can find ourselves faced with a rise in fascism.

Shall we buy a new guitar
Shall we drive a more powerful car
Shall we work straight through the night
Shall we get into fights
Leave the lights on
Drop bombs

Look at our world today: the number of Pinks out there is disturbing. Alienated people, from broken or abusive families, stare at TVs instead of connecting with others; people who worship rock stars, celebrities, and authoritarian demagogues, blindly following them instead of thinking for themselves. These idolized narcissists, typically members of the capitalist class, feed on our insecurities, separating us and making us fight with each other when we should unite. We need to tear down the walls, but if we don’t heal our old wounds, those bricks will just get collected and used to build new walls.

Sigmund Freud, 11. On Metapsychology, the Theory of Psychoanalysis: Beyond the Pleasure Principle, The Ego and the Id and Other Works, Pelican Books, Middlesex, England, 1984

W. Ronald D. Fairbairn, Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, Routledge, London, 1952