Analysis of ‘True Romance’

True Romance is a 1993 romantic crime thriller written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Tony Scott. It stars Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette, and has an ensemble cast with Dennis Hopper, Michael Rapaport, Brad Pitt, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, Val Kilmer, Saul Rubinek, James Gandolfini, Chris Penn, Tom Sizemore, Bronson Pinchot, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Though the film got positive reviews for its dialogue and characters, it did poorly at the box office. Still, its positive critical reception helped it gain a cult following, and now it’s considered one of Scott’s best films, as well as one of the best American films of the 1990s.

Here are some quotes:

“I had to come all the way from the highways and byways of Tallahassee, Florida to Motor City, Detroit to find my true love. If you gave me a million years to ponder, I would never have guessed that true romance and Detroit would ever go together. And to this day, the events that followed all seem like a distant dream. But the dream was real and was to change our lives forever. I kept asking Clarence why our world seemed to be collapsing and everything seemed so shitty. And he’d say, ‘That’s the way it goes, but don’t forget, it goes the other way too.’ That’s the way romance is. Usually, that’s the way it goes. But every once in awhile, it goes the other way too.” –Alabama, voiceover

“In Jailhouse Rock he was everything rockabilly’s about. I mean, he is rockabilly. Mean, surly, nasty, rude. In that movie he couldn’t give a fuck about nothing except rockin’ and rollin’, living fast, dying young and leaving a good-looking corpse.” –Clarence, on Elvis

“I always said, if I had to fuck a guy… I mean had to, if my life depended on it… I’d fuck Elvis.” –Clarence

“Please shut up! I’m trying to come clean, okay? I’ve been a call-girl for exactly four days and you’re my third customer. I want you to know that I’m not damaged goods. I’m not what they call Florida white trash. I’m a good person and when it comes to relationships, I’m one-hundred percent, I’m one hundred percent… monogamous.” –Alabama

“I eat the pussy, I eat the butt, I eat every motherfuckin’ thang.” –Big Don

Drexl Spivey: No thanks? What does that mean? Means you ate before you came down here? All full. Is that it? Naw, I don’t think so. I think you’re too scared to be eatin’. Now, see we’re sittin’ down here, ready to negotiate, and you’ve already given up your shit. I’m still a mystery to you. But I know exactly where your white ass is comin’ from. See, if I asked you if you wanted some dinner and you grabbed an egg roll and started to chow down, I’d say to myself, “This motherfucker’s carryin’ on like he ain’t got a care in the world. Who knows? Maybe he don’t. Maybe this fool’s such a bad motherfucker, he don’t got to worry about nothin’, he just sit down, eat my Chinese, watch my TV.” See? You ain’t even sat down yet. On that TV there, since you been in the room, is a woman with her breasteses hangin’ out, and you ain’t even bothered to look. You just been clockin’ me. Now, I know I’m pretty, but I ain’t as pretty as a couple of titties.
Clarence Worley: I’m not eatin’ ’cause I’m not hungry. I’m not sittin’ ’cause I’m not stayin’. I’m not lookin’ at the movie ’cause I saw it seven years ago. It’s “The Mack” with Max Julien, Carol Speed, and Richard Pryor. I’m not scared of you. I just don’t like you. In that envelope is some payoff money. Alabama’s moving on to some greener pastures. We’re not negotiatin’. I don’t like to barter. I don’t like to dicker. I never have fun in Tijuana. That price is non-negotiable. What’s in that envelope is for my peace of mind. My peace of mind is worth that much. Not one penny more, not one penny more.

Clifford: You know, I read a lot. Especially about things in, uh, about history. I find that shit fascinating. Here’s a fact, I don’t know whether you know or not, Sicilians … were spawned by niggers.
Coccotti: Come again? [laughs]
Clifford: It’s a fact. You see, Sicilians have black blood pumpin’ through their hearts. If you don’t believe me, you can look it up. Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, you see, the Moors conquered Sicily. And the Moors are niggers.
Coccotti: Yes…
Clifford: So you see, way back then, uh, Sicilians were like, uh, wops from Northern Italy. Ah, they all had blonde hair and blue eyes, but, uh, well, then the Moors moved in there, and uh, well, they changed the whole country. They did so much fuckin’ with Sicilian women, huh? That they changed the whole bloodline forever. That’s why blonde hair and blue eyes became black hair and dark skin. You know, it’s absolutely amazing to me to think that to this day, hundreds of years later, that, uh, that Sicilians still carry that nigger gene. Now this…[Coccotti laughs]
Clifford: No, I’m, no, I’m quoting… history. It’s written. It’s a fact, it’s written.
Coccotti[laughing] I love this guy. This guy.
Clifford: Your ancestors are niggers. Uh-huh. Hey. Yeah. And, and your great-great-great-great grandmother fucked a nigger, ho, ho, yeah, and she had a half-nigger kid… now, if that’s a fact, tell me, am I lying? ‘Cause you, you’re part eggplant. [All laughing]

“Do I look like a beautiful blond with big tits and an ass that tastes like French vanilla ice-cream?” –Clarence, to Elliot Blitzer

“Now the first time you kill somebody, that’s the hardest. I don’t give a shit if you’re fuckin’ Wyatt Earp or Jack the Ripper. Remember that guy in Texas? The guy up in that fuckin’ tower that killed all them people? I’ll bet you green money that first little black dot he took a bead on, that was the bitch of the bunch. First one is tough, no fuckin’ foolin’. The second one… the second one ain’t no fuckin’ Mardi Gras either, but it’s better than the first one ’cause you still feel the same thing, y’know… except it’s more diluted, y’know it’s… it’s better. I threw up on the first one, you believe that? Then the third one… the third one is easy, you level right off. It’s no problem. Now… shit… now I do it just to watch their fuckin’ expression change.” –Virgil, to Alabama after beating her

“If there’s one thing this last week has taught me, it’s better to have a gun and not need it than to need a gun and not have it.” –Clarence

Cody Nicholson[to Elliot] You just made it big time.
Nicky Dimes: You’re no longer an extra…
Cody Nicholson: …or a bit player…
Nicky Dimes: …or a supporting actor…
Cody Nicholson: …you’re a fucking star. You are a fucking star. And you are going to be playing your one-man show for the next two fucking years for a captive audience. And listen to this, you get out in a few years and meet some old lady, get married, and you’ll be so understanding to your wife’s needs because you’ll know what it feels like to be a woman.
Nicky Dimes: Of course, you’ll only want to fuck her in the ass because that pussy wont be tight enough anymore.
Cody Nicholson: Good one detective, right you fucking faggot?

While the title of the film is rather bland (inspired by the titles of such romance comics as True Stories of Romance), it nonetheless introduces a crucial theme running throughout the story: the dialectical tension between reality and fantasy, and how the latter is an attempt to escape from the former, but one which ultimately fails. I’m using the word romance here to mean more than just “love stories,” or “fiction about idealized or sentimental love,” but “a feeling or quality of mystery, excitement, and remoteness from everyday life.” It’s an escape from the world of the true.

During the credits, we see visuals of a freezing cold winter in Detroit, with a group of homeless black men huddling around a fire. This is the kind of harsh reality one wishes one could escape from, for example, running away to sunny Los Angeles; but even in a warm, pleasant California environment, harsh reality inevitably follows.

That’s the way it goes, but don’t forget, it goes the other way, too.

Clarence Worley (Slater) begins the movie by chatting (with a woman in a bar he hopes to take to the movies for his birthday) about his idol, Elvis. In fact, Elvis is such a hero to him that he sometimes has conversations in his head with the King as his, as it were, imaginary friend and mentor (played by Kilmer). Clarence speaks of Elvis in Jailhouse Rock as “rockin’ and rollin’, living fast, dying young and leaving a good-looking corpse.”

(Actually, Elvis’s character, Vince Everett, doesn’t die at the end of Jailhouse Rock. What’s more, anyone who knows about the real Elvis knows that he, overweight, did anything but die leaving a good-looking corpse. He was on the toilet, then fell off and lay on the floor in his own vomit. The King fell off the throne and died, but I digress…)

We see in these representations of Elvis the stark contrast between what’s true and what’s romance. (Speaking of romance, Clarence even has suppressed homosexual feelings about Elvis.) Capitalism sells us all kinds of commodities–in the forms of rock stars, movies, prostitutes, comic books, drugs, etc.–as a way to escape into a world of fantasy…but reality always catches up to us in the end.

The girl Clarence asks out to the movies isn’t interested in seeing a triple feature of Sonny Chiba martial arts movies, so he goes alone; but Alabama (Arquette), a beautiful call girl whom Clarence’s boss has hired so he can get laid on his birthday, comes to the theatre and sits with him. ‘Romance’ has returned.

With her, Clarence spends what he feels is the best time he’s ever had with a woman. She is giving him his fantasy: not just in bed, but also in (often) pretending to have the same interests that he has (liking The Partridge Family is part of the act, and I doubt that she’s anywhere near as interested in the first Spider Man comic as he is, either.)

His romance (i.e., of the perfect, beautiful girl), however, is a true nightmare for her. Even though (or especially because) she likes him, she feels the shame of being forced into prostitution by Drexl Spivey (Oldman). She is a human commodity being sold for Drexl’s profit; small wonder she insists on being called a “call girl” instead of a “whore.”

The enjoyment Clarence has had with her has grown into a full-blown urge to rescue her from her life of exploitation. We go back from the true harshness of the capitalist exploitation of women to the romance of saving her from that life; she even says that his killing of Drexl is “so romantic.”

In “A Special Type of Choice of Object Made by Men,” Freud describes how a man may fall in love with, and thus wish to rescue, a prostitute; the very idea that other men have had her adds to his excitement because in his unconscious he is reminded of his Oedipal feelings for his mother, who he must accept is in a sexual relationship with his father. Clarence’s haunting wish to kill Drexl–even though he can easily just forget about the pimp, since Alabama is safe in Clarence’s home–can be seen as an unconscious transference from Clarence’s father to the pimp.

This transference would make Drexl into a mental representation, for Clarence, of the ‘bad father.’ Clarence obsesses in a fury about killing the pimp. When he confronts Drexl–who upon learning that Alabama is now Clarence’s wife, says this makes the two men “practically related”–Clarence is infuriated all the more. His killing of Drexl (part of the transferred Oedipal fantasy), which upsets his real, estranged father, Clifford (Hopper), causes more psychological conflict for Clarence; but when his father understands just what an awful man Drexl was, and he can accept his son’s killing of him, Clifford can now be fully the ‘good father.’ Clarence’s mentor, ‘Elvis,’ incidentally can be seen as a transferred mental representation of the ‘good father,’ one of the many romantic illusions in Clarence’s mind.

Drexl himself lives in a world of romantic illusions. A ‘wigger,’ he claims that his mother was Apache (Tarantino, pages 51, 65). Big Don (Jackson) and Floyd, two men who are actually black, and whom Drexl will kill and steal a suitcase of cocaine from, chat with Drexl, debating over whether or not it’s manly to perform cunnilingus. Floyd refuses to accept the modern truth that if a man wants to get oral, he should be willing to give oral, too. An extended version of the scene was filmed; the lines can be found on pages 7-11 of Tarantino’s original screenplay.

Drexl imitates blacks, yet he bosses them around (i.e., Marty), and he kills them (Floyd and Big Don). This is like when such musicians as Elvis (arguably) and Led Zeppelin steal the music of black bluesmen and make millions off of it. The white person who appropriates the cultures of people of colour; the man who expects women to service him without him needing to reciprocate–these people are in a fantasy world of romance. They need to be brought back into the world of the true.

Clarence, after killing Drexl, accidentally takes the suitcase of cocaine instead of one with Alabama’s clothes. With this valuable commodity, the two young lovers hope to prosper through a get-rich-quick scheme of selling it cheap to any Hollywood producers that Clarence’s friend, aspiring actor Dick Ritchie (Rapaport) might know.

Having commodities as exchange values in order to get rich is what capitalism is all about. The high that cocaine gives you, the temporary feeling of great confidence, is a romantic escape from the depressing truth of the world, a manic defence–against sadness–that’s in its own way as desirable as the pleasure gained from worshipping movie and rock stars, escaping into the fantasy world of comic books and Hollywood movies, and enjoying prostitutes. Capitalism sells fantasy, and denies us the truth. In True Romance, the suitcase of cocaine, as a coveted commodity, is the film’s MacGuffin.

The reality of capitalism, however, in its legal and illegal forms, is competition over who gets to have and sell the commodities. Hence, Drexl’s demand to “bring [Alabama’s] dumb ass back” to him and into his control. Hence also, the Italian-American mafia’s demand to get their stolen narcotics back.

As I’ve argued in a number of blog posts, the mafia as criminal businesses can easily symbolize capitalism and its exploitation of people. As with any Tarantino script, there is a preoccupation, on at least some level, with racism, which to a great extent is one of the many things capitalists use to divide the working class.

Apart from Tarantino’s fetishization of the word “nigger,” True Romance exploits a number of racial and ethnic stereotypes. The mafia is Italian-American, the blacks whom Drexl kills and steals cocaine from are ‘players‘ who objectify women, Asians are either into martial arts (Chiba) or are violently bloody Hong Kong mafia (i.e., the scene of a movie shown on TV with Chow Yun-fat and another man shooting each other), and the movie producer, Lee Donowitz (Rubinek), who buys the cocaine, is Jewish. [In Tarantino’s screenplay, Italian mafioso Lenny (played by Victor Argo) asks fellow mafioso Marvin, “What’s the Jew-boy’s name?” to which Marvin replies, “Donowitz, he said.” (Tarantino, page 118.) Indeed, Scott’s movie toned down a lot of Tarantino’s use of racial slurs.] Stereotypes are false beliefs about people, often used to flatter oneself at the expense of the stereotyped, and thus are an escape from what’s true.

Speaking of racism, Clarence’s father, Clifford, uses the Sicilian ethnic pride of the Italian-American mafia to get them to kill him quickly; this way, he won’t live to tell their boss, Vincent Coccotti (Walken) where Clarence and Alabama have gone with the cocaine. Saying that “Sicilians were spawned by niggers” is meant to enrage Coccotti into shooting Clifford in the head instead of slowly torturing him into betraying his son. (Actually, though, the notion that the Moors were sub-Saharan black Africans [an idea influenced by such things as modern productions of Othello?], rather than swarthy North African Berbers, is more romance than “history” from Clifford.)

Clarence contacts Dick by payphone, quoting the Big Bopper‘s “Hello, baby!” This is yet another example of Clarence’s preoccupation with popular culture as an escape from the real world. In his hope to sell the cocaine and make a ton of money, we see a contrast with the Big Bopper saying “I ain’t got no money, honey!” This is an ironic contrast between the romance of getting rich quickly and the truth of being poor, as spoken by a rock star, of all people.

Dick’s dreams of being “a successful actor” are similarly a romantic fantasy, especially given how awful his TJ Hooker audition is. Dick’s roommate, stoner Floyd (Pitt) smokes bowls to escape the truth of his wasted life. In fact, Floyd likes to imagine that he can beat up Virgil the mafia man (Gandolfini), so far detached is he from reality. Virgil, in turn, has a male chauvinism that blinds him to the truth that Alabama’s fight reaction, to the trauma of a beating, is strong enough to kill him.

In Tarantino’s original script, after having killed Virgil, Alabama is reciting a version of St. Francis’s prayer while hitting dead Virgil’s head with his phallic shotgun (Tarantino, page 91). The prayer seems self-indulgent at first, but it is another example of the theme of contrast between idealized fantasy (e.g., unconditional Christian love) vs. reality (the need to kill a killer).

Shotgun-wielding Alabama in this scene is the strong phallic woman, the phallus in turn being a symbol of power, the lack of which gives rise to desire. In the capitalist world of haves and have-nots, there is plenty of lack to be desired, and the romantic fantasy world of pleasure generated by the commodities of drugs, prostitutes, and pop culture (Hollywood movies, Animal Crackers, burgers, etc.) is an attempt to fill that lack.

Sissy Elliot Blitzer (Pinchot), who can’t even go on a roller coaster without throwing up, and who is bullied by Donowitz, tries to escape his pathetic life by enjoying some of the cocaine while driving fast with a girl named Kandi. The truth of the world soon comes to ruin his romance in the form of a policeman stopping him for speeding…then seeing cocaine all over his face.

Two cops modelled after Starsky and Hutch (Tarantino, page 95), respectively Officers Cody Nicholson (Sizemore) and Nicky Dimes (Penn), put the pressure on arrested Elliot, who breaks down and tells them about the drug deal between Clarence and Donowitz.

As I argued in my analysis of Reservoir Dogs, cops represent the extent to which the state intervenes in capitalism. As such, there’s a hazy distinction between them and the mafia as far as personifications of capitalism are concerned. They’re as inclined to murder and abuse others as any mafioso would. All that matters is getting ahead…realizing the American Dream…

Nicholson’s and Dimes’s interest in busting Donowitz et al for the drug deal isn’t in stopping ‘the bad guys’: it’s in furthering their careers. Ruining the lives of Alabama and Clarence (the latter being someone Nicholson twice admits to liking because he’s “wild” and “crazy”) makes no difference to these cops: they just want the collar, that is, credit for the bust.

When Clarence, Alabama, Dick, and Elliot are in the hotel elevator, and Clarence points his gun at Elliot’s face, sissy Elliot wishes someone would take him away from this true, cruel world, would come to his rescue and take him to a safe, ideal world of romance, then “everything would be all right.” Instead, it’s Clarence’s threats that are not true.

When they all go into Donowitz’s hotel room, they meet Monty and Boris, the movie producer’s bodyguards, both armed with Uzis. Combine this fact with Donowitz’s involvement in drug dealing, and we see how the Hollywood business empire is a mafia unto itself (consider all the allegations of sexual misconduct, including pedophilia, against celebrities, to see my point). Liberal Hollywood is as capitalist and exploitative as any other modern business or institution.

Again, instead of facing this dark reality, Clarence would rather focus on talking about Vietnam war movies: Coming Home in a Bodybag, produced by Donowitz, is one of Clarence’s favourites. He tells Donowitz that he knows Vietnam veterans who have endorsed the film; Donowitz says “veterans of that bullshit war” praising his movie “makes the whole thing worthwhile.”

Here we have the typical Hollywood bourgeois liberal, paying lip service to acknowledging the horrors of capitalist imperialism while making millions from the war movies he produces. As Donowitz says to Clarence earlier, during the conversation on his car phone: “I am on this earth to make good movies. Nothing more, and nothing…well, maybe less.”

Clarence convinces Donowitz to buy the cocaine, and the bust finally happens. The Italian-American mafia, after having learned where the hotel is from stoner Floyd (who, having just smoked a bowl, must be having the paranoia high of the century from seeing all those guns pointed at him!), kick in the door to the hotel room, and now three groups of trigger-happy men–cops, Donowitz’s bodyguards, and the mafia–are in a Mexican standoff.

In sharp contrast to this true tension, Clarence is in the bathroom taking a piss and having another imaginary conversation with ‘Elvis,’ that is, he’s experiencing another of his romantic escapes from reality. When he comes out, though, reality will hit him in the head…or rather, scrape against it.

Officer Dimes demonstrates something we all know too well: cops are just as inclined to murder as anyone else; he deliberately shoots and kills Boris in revenge for killing Nicholson. Dimes also shoots at Clarence, making Alabama shoot the cop in revenge.

When the shooting is over, the only survivors are Dick, Alabama, and Clarence…though in Tarantino’s original script, the bullet that grazes Clarence‘s eyes kills him, too (Tarantino, page 128). Before dying, he says he can’t see because of the blood in his eyes: this is how Mr. Brown, played by Tarantino, dies in Reservoir Dogs; for when he wrote the script for True Romance, he identified with Clarence (page x). Scott liked Clarence too much to let him die, though, so he arranged for a happy, romantic ending instead.

Now, Tarantino’s unhappy ending focuses on the true, rather than the romance, which is why I agree with him that his ending is better. Our fantasies are always interrupted by harsh reality, in how, for example, capitalism sells us fantasies to make us think we’re escaping a reality we cannot escape.

In the original ending, Alabama, despairing over Clarence’s death, leaves the hotel with Donowitz’s money and drives away in Clarence’s car (pages 132-133). She stops at one point, breaks down and cries, then puts his pistol in her mouth (page 133); but she decides instead to live after reading the napkin on which is written, “You’re so cool.” Then she gets out of the car, takes the briefcase of money, and walks away from the car forever (page 134).

Reality is harsh, but not hopeless.

Quentin Tarantino, True Romance, London, Faber and Faber, 1996

Analysis of ‘Jojo Rabbit’

Jojo Rabbit is a 2019 comedy-satire-drama written and directed by Taika Waititi (based on Christine Leunens‘s 2008 book Caging Skies), and starring Roman Griffin Davis in the title role, Waititi, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, and Thomasin McKenzie. Jojo is a ten-year-old German boy indoctrinated by Nazi ideology, hoping to join the Deutsches Jungvolk (DJ) in the Hitler Youth, and having an imaginary friend, a fanciful, buffoonish Hitler (played by Waititi).

The film got almost universal acclaim, especially for the performances, direction, screenplay, visual style, musical score, and production values. It was chosen by the National Board of Review and the American Film Institute as one of the ten best films of the year.

Here are some quotes:

Jojo Betzler: Adolph…I don’t think I can do this.
Adolf Hitler: What? Of course you can. Sure, you’re a little bit scrawny and a bit unpopular and you can’t tie your shoelaces even though you’re 10 years old, but you’re still the bestest, most loyal little Nazi I’ve ever met. Not to mention the fact you’re really good looking. So you’re gonna get out there and you’re gonna have a great time, okay?
Jojo Betzler: Okay.
Adolf Hitler: That’s the spirit, okay. [Adolf turns Jojo around] Heil me, man.
Jojo Betzler: Heil Hitler.

Captain Klenzendorf: Today you boys will be involved in such activities as marching, bayonet drills, grenade throwing, trench digging, map reading, gas defence, camouflage, ambush techniques, war games, firing guns and blowing stuff up. [boys cheer] The girls will practice important womanly duties such as dressing wounds, making beds and learning how to get pregnant.
Fraulein Rahm: I had eighteen kids for Germany. Such a great year to be a girl!

‘Let them say whatever they want. People used to say a lot of nasty things about me. “Oh, this guy’s a lunatic!” “Oh, look at that psycho! He’s gonna get us all killed!”‘ –Hitler

[Rosie and Jojo come upon six people hanging from a gallows in the town square] Jojo Betzler: What did they do?
Rosie: What they could.

Elsa Korr: You know what I am.
Jojo Betzler: No.
Elsa Korr: Yes. Say it. Say it!
Jojo Betzler: A Jew?
Elsa Korr: Gesundheit.

“There are no weak Jews. I am descended from those who wrestle angels and kill giants. We were chosen by God. You were chosen by a pathetic little man who can’t even grow a full moustache.” –Elsa

Jojo Betzler: I said to draw where Jews live. This is just a stupid picture of my head.
Elsa Korr: Yeah, that’s where we live.

Rosie: You’re growing up too fast. Ten-year-olds shouldn’t be celebrating war and talking politics. You should be climbing trees and then falling out of those trees.
Jojo Betzler: But the Führer says when we win, it is us, young boys who will rule the world.
Rosie: Pfft! The Reich is dying. We’re going to lose the war and then what are you going to do, hmm? Life is a gift. We must celebrate it. We have to dance to show God we are grateful to be alive.
Jojo Betzler: Well, I won’t dance. Dancing is for people who don’t have a job.
Rosie: Dancing is for people who are free. It’s an escape from all this.

“You and your friends may have heard a rumor that Hitler only has one ball. This is nonsense. He has four.” –Deertz, to Jojo

“You two seem to be getting on well!” –Hitler, to Jojo, annoyed that the boy is starting to like Elsa

“She doesn’t seem like a bad person.” –Jojo, defending his friendship with Elsa to ‘Hitler’

“You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a ten-year-old kid who likes swastikas and likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.” –Elsa

“Fuck off, Hitler!” –Jojo [then kicks him out the window]

Johannes “Jojo” (which incidentally, with German pronunciation, would sound like ‘yo-yo‘) is a lonely little boy without his father and sister; he just wants to fit in. The problem is that he lives in one of the most exclusionary societies in history–Nazi Germany.

Having so few people in his real life to connect with, Jojo has to split his ego, along with the objects of the real world that his ego would connect with, into a pair of opposites: one of this pair libidinously linking with an idealized, exciting object of his fantasies (his imaginary friend in Hitler); and the other, an anti-libidinal ego linking with a hated, rejecting object–the conception of Jews that he’s been indoctrinated into believing is what real Jews are.

Counteracting this splitting in his mind is the ironic casting for ‘Hitler’ (Waititi is part Maori, part Jew) and the Jewish girl, Elsa Korr (McKenzie, a non-Jew, is a New Zealander of English and Scottish descent). The implication in this casting, it seems, is to make a plea for tolerance and inclusion.

To help relate a story set in the mid-1940s to our time, in which fascism is again rising (and, of course, to enhance the comedic effect), the characters speak with German accents, but also use contemporary English colloquialisms. Adding to the irony is how Jojo’s hero, Hitler, is a cartoonish clown who smokes (the real Hitler would have already permanently given up smoking decades before the time of this movie). Jojo thus has an odd way of portraying his idealizations in his mind.

Since Hitler was idealized as the hero of an indoctrinated nation, he was rather like the rock star of his time, idolized by a German public as blind to his faults as a rock star’s teenage fans are to his or hers. Accordingly, as Jojo is going through the streets of his town proudly doing his “Heil Hitler” Nazi salute, we hear the Beatles singing their German version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which is “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand” (“Come, Give Me Your Hand”). Footage is seen of young German women screaming in ecstasy at the sight of Hitler, just as teenage girls in the 1960s would have at the sight of the Fab Four (I discussed the comparison of the idolatry of fascism with that of rock stars in my analysis of Pink Floyd: the Wall).

Because of his indoctrination, Jojo has built up a False Self of being a ruthless killer of all enemies of the Third Reich. With the DJ knife he’s been given, a symbolic phallus, he fantasizes about stabbing his enemies with it.

When this killer instinct of his is put to the test, though, his hidden True Self, a gentle boy who’d never want to harm a defenceless animal, emerges in his inability to kill a rabbit. From this, he earns the nickname of “Jojo Rabbit,” and he runs away from the Nazi youths who mock him. It doesn’t matter that he’s an “Aryan”: even he cannot fit in with the Nazi club.

It’s fitting that, earlier, we hear Tom Waits‘s song “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” during the training activities of the Deutsches Jungvolk: these are people whose thinking is completely distorted by politically immature thinking. Few white supremacists ever want to outgrow their collectively narcissistic ideology.

Desperate to prove his ‘worthiness’ as a brave Nazi, Jojo lets his imaginary friend inspire him to grab a Stielhandgranate and throw it without proper training. He is badly injured and scarred as a result of the inevitable accident, and is now bad-mouthed as ‘ugly’ by his fellow Nazis.

Only the love of his mother, Rosie (Johansson), can soothe him, though his Nazi indoctrination makes him none too appreciative of her anti-Naziism. These feelings of hers are especially evident when he learns she’s been hiding a Jewish teen in their house!

Before he discovers her, he has been wandering about lonely in his house, visiting the bedroom of his dead sister, Inge. The juxtaposition of being in her room with finding her old classmate, Elsa, immediately after establishes the beginnings of a transference of his feelings for the former girl onto the latter, though he’ll have to overcome his antisemitic prejudices first.

Another association of Inge with Elsa comes later, when the latter pretends to be the former in order not to be caught by the Gestapo inspecting the house. This tense scene strengthens Jojo’s transference of his sister onto Elsa, and we can see the empathic fear he has for the Jewish girl’s life.

His realization that she’s “a Jew,” followed by her saying “Gesundheit,” is–apart from being one of the best jokes in the film–full of resonant meaning. “Achoo!”–the expulsion of germs from the nose in a sneeze–is symbolically a projection of what’s sick inside a Nazi onto a Jew, the disease of antisemitism as a projected self-hate.

Similarly, Jojo’s unmitigated terror at having found her hiding in his home is a projection of the fear he causes a Jew to feel from having been found by a Nazi. Her hiding place is symbolic of the unconscious, for all of his absurd beliefs about Jews are just that–all in his head (as Elsa points out to him in her “Dummkopf” drawing of him), with no basis in external reality, everything bad in himself repressed, split-off, and projected outside.

When Elsa takes Jojo’s DJ knife, then later another knife he’s got from the kitchen in an apparent need to defend himself from her, these are symbolic castrations. Furthermore, when he blusters about his supposed Aryan superiority, she quickly overpowers him and puts him in his place. When he mentions his bizarre beliefs about Jews, she has no choice but to call him an idiot.

Nonetheless, the only way she can cure him of his belief in antisemitic canards is, temporarily, to humour him by going along with his nonsense. In this sense, she is playing the role of psychotherapist for him, taking in the agitation of his prejudices, containing them, then returning them to him in a detoxified form…or, at least, in progressively less toxic forms.

Wishing to write a book about Jews, he asks her to tell him all about her “race.” She repeats back to him a number of the absurd canards he already believes, while also adding false ideas to make fun of his beliefs (feeding her well will kill her, apparently), or to turn the tables on him and get him to realize who the real monsters are around him (Jews are like Nazis, only human).

His unconscious transference of dead Inge onto Elsa will help him in his ‘psychotherapy.’ Since, if he reports Elsa to the Gestapo, not only will she be taken away, but also he and Rosie will be, for having protected her, he must realize that this Jew is connected to his family intimately. He’ll thus have to give up his belief that Jews and “Aryans” are irreconcilably different.

His mother has been trying to find the real Jojo buried deep down under his Nazi False Self, but she has been failing where Elsa will ultimately succeed. This is partly because Rosie focuses on being cheerful and optimistic, whereas Elsa faces the dark, painful root of Jojo’s problem: his loss of family, his loss of connection with real people.

The boy has lost his father, missing in action and secretly working with the anti-Nazi resistance in Italy, as his mother is doing in their German town. Inge is dead, and his mother will be hanged as an enemy of the Nazi state. Because of his Hitler/imaginary friend, Jojo doesn’t sufficiently appreciate his actual friend, Yorki (played by Archie Yates).

Rosie would dance in gleeful anticipation of the imminent Nazi loss of the war, but setting this example for Jojo won’t cure him of his indoctrination. We can dance when we’re free…but Jojo hasn’t freed his mind yet.

He’ll be mentally freed when he can integrate the split parts of his mind (to use the terminology of WRD Fairbairn, these parts of his mind are: his Libidinal Ego, linked with the Exciting Object–‘Hitler’; and his Anti-libidinal Ego, linked with the Rejecting Object–‘the Jew’), to allow him to relate his True Self (or in Fairbairn’s terminology, Jojo’s Central Ego) with real people in the external world (the Ideal Object–for Jojo, this is exemplified in Elsa and Yorki).

His frustration with his mother, over her refusal to conform with his Nazi ideals, makes her, in his mind, what Melanie Klein called the ‘bad mother,’ intensifying his splitting into what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position. Rosie’s execution will cause Jojo to mourn that ‘bad mother,’ and to wish to reintegrate her good and bad sides in his mind, to experience the depressive position.

His interactions with Elsa will help him lay the foundations for such an integration. In his attempt to brag about the ‘superiority’ of German ‘Aryan’ culture, he can only bring up the names of classical composers such as Bach, Mozart, Brahms, and Beethoven (as for Germans other than musicians, I suppose Goethe slipped Jojo’s mind), whereas Elsa can mention talented, famous Jews in a wide variety of areas, including science (Einstein), poetry (Rilke had a Jewish mother), magicians (Houdini), artists (Modigliani), and even religious founders (Moses and Jesus).

One of the major things that makes Jojo change his mind about Elsa is when she mentions her fiancé, Nathan (who Jojo eventually learns has died of tuberculosis); but when Jojo forges a letter claiming that Nathan wants to dump her, Jojo hears her softly weeping in her hiding place. The sound of her sobs makes him feel something one would never expect a Nazi to feel: compassion for a Jew. Therefore, he quickly fakes another letter, claiming Nathan doesn’t want to leave her.

This moment in the film proves my point about what Jojo needs to be cured of his Nazi indoctrination: relationships. He’s lost most of his family relationships (while Rosie’s still alive), so he’s replaced them with his imaginary Hitler-friend, and he desperately wants to join the Deutsches Jungvolk. But when they reject him, and when Elsa opens his mind, he finds himself more and more ready to reject ‘Hitler.’ Think of all those neo-Nazi skinheads, and how much of their anger and hate comes from an aggravation of social alienation.

At first, ‘Hitler’ is merely a bumbling fool (and, come to think of it now, so was the real Hitler). Some have criticized Jojo Rabbit for its ‘inaptly’ comic portrayal of Hitler, but recall the words of a German Protestant whose antisemitic writings made him, ironically, among the Nazis’ favourite reading, Martin Luther: “I often laugh at Satan, and there is nothing that makes him so angry as when I attack him to his face, and tell him that through God I am more than a match for him.” Later, when Jojo grows more independent in his thinking, we see, more vividly, his imaginary friend’s dark side.

When the Gestapo does an inspection of his house, Jojo is worried that Elsa–him having fully achieved a transference of Inge onto her (who is impersonating his sister at the time) in his mind–will be arrested. Yet they presumably have instead found something incriminating on Rosie (i.e., her “Free Germany” messages), for she is executed soon after.

Just before he finds her hanging, Jojo has been following a bright blue butterfly fluttering before him. In other words, he has been just beginning to appreciate life and its beauty before experiencing the trauma of seeing her distinctive shoes hanging, just below eye level, before him.

As a last, symbolic gesture of love for her, he does for her what she has done so many times before for him: he ties her shoelaces. Shots of eye-like windows of the houses, surrounding him and the hanged at the gallows in the town square, suggest that he should be careful of who’s watching him show love to an executed enemy of the Third Reich.

Captain Klenzendorf (or ‘Captain K’–played by Rockwell), during the Gestapo’s inspection of Jojo’s house, has lied to protect Elsa in going along with her impersonation of Inge. Deertz gets Jojo’s DJ knife back from her and puts it down to look at Jojo’s book on Jews; then Captain K picks it up and returns it to him. (Since it’s understood that the captain is a closet gay Nazi in a relationship with his second-in-command, Finkel [Alfie Allen], we can see how he’d naturally sympathize with other “Untermenschen” like Elsa).

In his grief and rage over his mother’s execution, Jojo, with the few remaining crumbs of Nazi in him, wants to stab Elsa with his knife, blaming her in his mind for Rosie’s death. Elsa stops the blade from going deep inside her, but it does cut in a little bit. She’s allowed the tip to poke a tiny hole in her upper right chest, by her shoulder.

Her receiving of the blade symbolizes her once again curing him of his Nazi mentality by containing his rage (the contained symbolized by his knife, her body symbolizing the container; see above for links explaining Bion‘s theory of containment; see also this link for his and other psychoanalytic concepts). She must allow him his moment of rage before she can detoxify it. Note the feminine symbol for the container, a yonic symbolism in her wound, and the masculine symbol for the contained, his phallic knife.

Jojo loves Elsa and calls her his “girlfriend,” hence the sexual symbolism of their container/contained relationship. His conflict over this love versus his residual antisemitism accounts for the violence of this containing of his knife (a negative containment). The conflict is also expressed in the growing jealousy that his Hitler/imaginary friend feels…while lying in Jojo’s bed!

Since the Nazis know they are losing the war, Captain K has to prepare a defence against the invading Americans from the West and the Russians from the East. It’s interesting how the Russians are described and portrayed in the harshest way (in this bourgeois liberal Hollywood film), and are never called Soviets. “They’re worse than anyone,” Yorki tells Jojo. (!)

The American soldiers drive around the captured German town showing off their flag, thus being portrayed as liberators in the film; while the Soviets are seen as just a bunch of ruthless executioners, not only of all the bad Nazis, but also of our finally openly gay Captain K in his colourful, flamboyant uniform. Now, anyone who has properly read history knows it was mainly the Soviets who saved Europe from fascism, having sacrificed so many more Russian lives than the sacrificed lives of their Western counterparts. Also, it was the Americans and West Germans who gave jobs to many ex-Nazis to help them fight the USSR during the Cold War.

The tension between East Berlin and the ex-Nazis working with NATO in West Berlin, among other causes, led to the building of the Berlin Wall, or Anti-fascist Protection Wall, as the East Germans called it. Such is the needed correction to all the capitalist propaganda of the Wall as an instrument of “oppression”: it was more about keeping the fascists out (and preventing the danger of World War III) than about keeping people in.

As Jojo walks about his town and sees the death and destruction all around him, he realizes that war isn’t the glorious thing he’s been indoctrinated to believe it is. He also learns from Yorki, one of his few true friends whose indoctrination is also waning, that Hitler has not only shot himself in the head in despair over losing the war, but that he’s also responsible for the atrocities the SS has committed and kept hidden from the public eye.

And so, when Jojo sees his Hitler/imaginary friend one last time, ‘Hitler’ has a bloody wound in his left temple, and he is in a particularly grouchy mood. Jojo, no longer sympathetic to him, tells him to “fuck off,” and kicks him out the window.

Because of his choice to give up his Nazi ideology and save Elsa, and because she has so bravely endured through this whole ordeal, both of them are heroes…”für einen Tag,” and I’d say for many more days after that. They are now free to dance and celebrate life, as Rosie would have wanted them to, hence we hear the German version of David Bowie‘s “Heroes.”

Now, Germany may have been split in two at the end of the war, but Jojo’s splitting has been cured. He is reintegrated and able to see people as each a mix of good and bad. He can see Elsa as a human being, and not just as “a Jew.” Having revived his ability to have relationships with real, and not imaginary, friends, he no longer needs a fascist demagogue to be his hero; nor does he need to fit in with others in a superficial, cultish way. He can be his own hero, and win…”für immer und immer.”

Revolution 2.0

With April 22nd of this year having marked the 150th anniversary of the birthday of Vladimir Lenin, and May 5th being the 202nd anniversary of Marx‘s birth; as well as it now being a few years over a century since the Russian Revolution, a century since the Red Army was defending that revolution during the civil war, and since International Workers’ Day went by several days ago, I find it useful to reflect on the current state of political affairs. We are seeing not only the usual immiseration of the world under neoliberal capitalism; we are–according to the predictions of many–about to experience a global financial meltdown, the destruction of the entire economic system, plunging millions into poverty (according to such sources as Oxfam), or those already impoverished into even worse poverty.

This looks like the kind of thing Marx predicted in Capital, Vol. III, the final self-destruction of the capitalist mode of production, its crumbling under its own contradictions. Here’s the important question, though: are we leftists going to seize the day and bring about a socialist revolution?

I’m not suggesting doing such a thing would be anywhere near easy, what with the militarized police and the general brainwashing of the public against not only Marxism-Leninism, but against anything even remotely like socialism, that is, the popular ‘big government, free stuff’ Sanders-speak. The difficulty of fighting for communism, however, doesn’t detract in the slightest from the urgency of the situation.

Along with the exacerbation of the plight of the poor, in the form of lockdowns preventing many workers–already living from paycheque to paycheque–from being able to pay for basic necessities, there is the outrage of yet another bailing out of the banks and other big financial institutions; and there’s been another huge transfer of wealth upward to oligarchs like Bezos.

Predictions have been made that the lockdowns–due to all this coronavirus hysteria–will throw millions out of work, meaning people won’t be able to pay rent, so many of them could be thrown out onto the street, causing a huge rise in the lumpenproletariat. Since many Americans’ health insurance coverage is tied to their jobs, this mass unemployment will also mean massive healthcare loss.

The coronavirus–a real disease, one that gets some people sick, kills some others (mostly the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions), and has little or no effect on most other people–has been convenient for the ruling class, and for many reasons. It can be used as a media distraction from imperialist aggression in the Middle East, the economic collapse, and the upward transfer of wealth (including furlough schemes). The West can scapegoat China with it. Lockdowns can be advantageous in stifling protesting, particularly in places like France. “Social distancing” can prevent us from coming together, organizing, and protesting.

On the other hand, as for those whose lives really are threatened by COVID-19, we have seen the inadequacy of the American healthcare system laid bare, to say nothing of the incompetence of the Trump administration and their pathetic response to the crisis. The US saw an opportunity to elect someone who promised to provide universal healthcare, but Sanders–as he was in 2016–was just a sheepdog used to lure voters over to the DNC, a point proven by his having dropped out of the race again and his supporting Biden. Now, Biden’s brain, remember, is turning into mashed potatoes; and even if it weren’t, judging by his political record, one finds it difficult to determine who is more right-wing, him or Trump.

Of course, even if Sanders were on the level, his reforms would be far from adequate; and even if he could legislate the corporate oligarchs out of their wealth (something they’ll never allow him to do, of course), he is at best a mere social democrat, one of those ‘leftists’ who have never shown any principled opposition to imperialism, Zionism, etc. Sanders has distanced himself from the Venezuelan “dictator,” Maduro…who, incidentally, has had free and fair elections, not that you’d know about that, thanks to the lies in the mainstream media.

The social-democratic faults of the Second International are why I take a hard line in pushing for socialism, that is, along Third International lines. At first glance, my position on this may seem extreme, but we are living in a world in which Biden and Macron are seen as moderate!

When a train is rushing towards a cliff where the bridge is out, we don’t take the ‘moderate’ position of sitting at our seats, thinking, “Well, at least we aren’t rushing to the front of the train and falling off the cliff first, as the right-wingers are.” We rush to the back of the train and jump off, instead.

Let me elaborate on my train analogy. Our current political situation is the train rushing towards the cliff where the bridge-tracks are broken. Income inequality continues to worsen. US imperialism is continuing its bellicosity against China, Iran, Russia, Venezuela, etc. Even when the COVID-19 crisis dies down, it is possible that world governments may use fears of future viruses and flus to justify suspensions of democracy. Cash is getting increasingly replaced with digitized forms of money, something that, essentially, will benefit only the ruling class. There’s the continued ecocide, threatening everyone’s survival. That train is getting really close to the cliff.

Leaders like Trump, Bolsonaro, Bojo, and the fascists currently running Bolivia are running to the front of the train. Biden, I’d say, is walking in that direction…maybe doing a light jog. Turdeau [sic], the prime minister of my country, as well as our average mainstream politicians, are staying at their seats. People like Sanders are moving to the back seats and sitting down there. They’re all going off the cliff with the train; there’s no substantive difference among any of them.

So, who’s running to the back of the train and jumping off? The true anti-imperialists, that’s who! The Marxist-Leninists, whom I call ‘tankies‘ with the utmost affection. I speak well of them because, in spite of the difficulties they had in the 20th century, they set the example we need to follow. They not only achieved successful revolutions, they also built socialism, demonstrating that another world is possible, proving that there is no TINA.

Such socialist states as the USSR, Cuba, and China under Mao established universal free healthcare, equal rights for women, free education up to the university level, affordable housing, and full employment. They also aided Third World countries in their struggle for liberation from imperialism and colonialism. These achievements greatly overshadow the problems that occurred in such periods as the 1930s Soviet Union, the bad start of the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution.

Stalin‘s leadership, which led to the defeat of fascism, alone has earned him the honour of being called a hero. He didn’t drop out of the sky; I don’t see him in terms of a cult of personality; he did a few things I wish he hadn’t; but for us to have a successful second revolution, we’ll have to do all we can to clear Stalin‘s name of such bourgeois slanders as ‘totalitarian dictator’ and ‘genocidal maniac.’

What’s more, the economic growth China has enjoyed since Deng took over, raising the country from Third World status to the second largest economy in the world, proves the superiority of state-planned economies to the anarchy of the “free market.” Accordingly, the socialist states’ response to COVID-19 has been vastly superior overall to that of the West. All attempts by imperialism to stifle China’s rise must be opposed, regardless of how one may feel about the country’s use of the market. One must prioritize primary over secondary contradictions, realizing that the US/NATO ‘alternative’ to China is totally unacceptable; so those ‘leftists’ who gripe about how actually-existing socialism falls short of their lofty ideals should know what they can do with their sour grapes.

Though most of the socialist states of the 20th century tragically succumbed to capitalism in the 1990s, we can learn from their mistakes and try again in this century. We have to, and quickly…for that racing train is getting ever closer to the cliff.

I am in no way qualified to map out a plan as to how to accomplish this feat. I’m just one blogger among many throwing his feelings onto a computer screen. But we do have to do more than just complain about the sorry state of affairs today on social media, as so many of us do.

We must get organized. I, unfortunately, live on a small East Asian island among China-bashers who have no revolutionary potential at all. Don’t get me wrong: Taiwanese are nice people, and I like them very much (I wouldn’t have chosen to live here for over twenty years if I disliked them!), but they are also–I’m sorry to say–far too quiescent towards the imperial agenda, and adoring of traditionalist authority, to take up the mantle. I won’t be raising up a movement of revolutionaries here any time soon. I can only reach out to you, Dear Reader, here online.

A revolution must be planned way beyond just impromptu general strikes. We must be careful not to bungle this, if we really decide to do it. Hegel wrote of history repeating itself. Marx wrote of history repeating its tragic self as farce the second time around (e.g., the tragedy of 20th century communism…yet, what of 21st century socialism?). Normally, I prefer Marxian materialism to Hegelian idealism, but when it comes to Revolution 2.0, I hope we get the Hegelian reprise, a non-farcical one.

“I Can’t Breathe,” a Poem by a Friend

A friend of mine, Clelia Albano, wrote this poem in memory of Eric Garner, who was murdered by a police officer in Staten Island, New York City in 2014. It is meant in solidarity to all victims of police brutality, and it is a plea for justice.

[I would like to update this post with a reference to the murder of George Floyd, who was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis in a manner similar to the murder of Garner. Now this poem can be considered a tribute to both victims.]

Here are the verses, each given with vivid photos in the above link. The italics are mine, meant to distinguish her writing from mine.

I CAN’T BREATHE (in memory of Eric Garner)

At my birth with my first breath
uncorrupted by words
I was like the others.

Electronic appendices of
mankind
did amplify middling thinking
while I grew up.

Suddenly I found myself on a
road
where other appendices made
me
swallow tarmac.

A stain to remove,
a breath, the last,
to strangle.

And yet I am alive.

…and now, for my analysis of the poem.

Life begins and ends with breath, and since Garner was held in a chokehold, repeating the words “I can’t breathe!” eleven times while lying face down on the sidewalk, it is appropriate to emphasize the link between living and breathing.

In the innocence of infancy and early childhood, one is “uncorrupted by words,” which are representative of our introduction into society, for connection with others is through language. Lacan pointed out how we enter the Symbolic Order through language, culture, societal customs, and laws. Normally, this entrance into society is healthy; but in a world laden with racism against blacks, words, customs, and laws corrupt us.

To make matters worse, “electronic appendices of mankind” (which, to me, sound suspiciously like those of social media, which tend to aggravate social alienation rather than mitigate it) “amplify middling thinking,” that is, make us all mediocre–they stunt our development.

There are even worse appendices, though: in particular, the long arm of the law, which can be, and as in Garner’s case, often is, lethal. Being made to “swallow tarmac” is a powerful image expressing the violence of his murder.

The racist cops made him into “a stain to remove,” rather than the living, breathing human being that he really was…not that they’d have ever noticed or cared.

They may have strangled the last breath out of him, but he’s still alive, in all of us, in our memory and love of him, as we stand in solidarity with him and other victims of police brutality.

Sour Grapes

A number of years back, when I wrote this blog piece (scroll down to Part III–The Sins of State Socialism), it was at a time when I was only beginning to learn about socialism (at the age of fifty as of this post, I’ve been a late bloomer on the left). I considered myself an anarcho-communist at the time, and I knew very little about Stalin, Trotsky, Mao, etc., beyond what the usual imperialist propaganda tells us.

Accordingly, I made the naïve assumption, as given in Part III of the above-linked blog post, that the “somewhat more democratic nature” [barf] of Trotskyism and the Fourth International is preferable to Stalin and the Third International. I also naïvely assumed that Socialism in One Country is alien to the internationalist spirit of communism, and that Permanent Revolution is what socialists should be prioritizing.

It didn’t take me too long to see the error in my thinking. (As I’ve already pointed out a number of times in other posts, consider my more recent ones to be accurate reflections of my beliefs–not so much my older ones; I haven’t deleted or updated the erroneous older ideas because firstly, I sometimes like to look back and compare old ideas to new, to see how my thinking has changed over the years, and secondly, because I’m simply too lazy to bother revising all that old writing.)

Even with this change of heart, though, I chose to read The Revolution Betrayed in order to get a chance to see Trotsky’s side of the story. I recently finished reading it, and I must say that I am not impressed. I’ll give my reasons for this.

Crucial to understanding how wrongheaded is Trotsky’s perspective is to see how dated the arguments are. The book was published in 1937, and barely a decade later, one could see how justified Stalin’s decisions were…provided one doesn’t rely on such spurious sources as Robert Conquest and The Black Book of Communism.

If Trotsky had won the power struggle over Lenin’s succession in the late 1920s, and if he had applied his interpretation of permanent revolution–as opposed to fortifying the Soviet Union (socialism in one country)–the Nazi invasion, which occurred no later than the year after he was assassinated, would have been a success, and all that the communists had fought for would have been in vain. Recall also Lenin’s own words in “On the Slogan for a United States of Europe”: “Uneven economic and political development is an absolute law of capitalism. Hence, the victory of socialism is possible first in several or even in one capitalist country alone.” (Tucker, p. 203) Evidently, socialism in one country isn’t so anti-Marxist as it would seem.

Speaking of anti-Marxism, Trotsky, in spite of his pretensions as a socialist, was less interested in the good of socialism than he was in acquiring power for its own sake. The man was known for his stubbornness and arrogance (if not outright narcissism) and his opportunism (of which he hypocritically accuses the ‘present communist “leaders”‘ on page 232 of his book), having jumped ship and joined the Bolsheviks just before they took over the Russian government in October/November 1917. In contrast, Stalin–despite his undeserved reputation as a ‘power-hungry, genocidal maniac’–asked to resign from his position as General Secretary no less than four times.

Trotsky didn’t lose the power struggle to Stalin out of a lesser lust for power; he lost because he lost. He lost because the Russian people knew they needed to build up a strong defence for the nation, especially with the growing Nazi threat. The lack of successful communist revolutions outside the USSR at the time reinforced an understanding of that reality.

When reading through The Revolution Betrayed, I find it next to impossible to verify whether or not Trotsky’s sources are reliable (no footnotes). He’d been exiled from the USSR for about eight years, and so he wouldn’t have had first-hand access to any information on the goings-on of Soviet government, industry, agriculture, the status of women, etc. Yet he wrote as if he knew of all of these things in minute detail. How could he have known what he’d claimed so confidently to have known? Needless to say, he didn’t have the kind of access to information that we have in today’s online world.

Of course, he had his sympathizers and followers in the Soviet Union sending him his source material and statistics…but who were these people? The USSR was honeycombed with traitors in the 1930s, including pro-fascist ones who were working hard to pave the way for the Nazi invasion. The Holodomor hoax was being circulated at the time, Yagoda and Yezhov were up their mischief, all of which the bourgeois media blames on Stalin, among other schemes and forms of sabotage.

It’s been said many times, many ways, and by many people: Trotsky was a liar. His followers, those providing him with his dubious source material, were and are liars. This kind of propagandizing was picked up by such various anti-Soviet propagandists as Robert Conquest, Nikita Khrushchev (in his ‘secret speech‘), anarchists like Emma Goldman, George Orwell (recall his sympathetic portrayal of Snowball in Animal Farm), Noam Chomsky, etc. Despite having ‘leftist’ credentials, Trotskyism has been a darling of the political right for 80-90 years; capitalists have been able to use these anti-Soviet polemics to legitimize their critiques by saying, ‘See? Even leftists admit that Stalin was awful!’

So, what was Trotsky’s motive in writing smear campaign after smear campaign against the USSR? As I see it, sour grapes. When losing the succession to Stalin, a man he foolishly underestimated, egotistical Trotsky must have experienced narcissistic injury on a level comparable to Hillary’s humiliating loss to the Donald in 2016. And in a manner comparable to the DNC’s baseless Russiagate fabrications, Trotsky began inventing stories about the corrupt bureaucracy, oppression of the Russian people, and the subversion of Soviet democracy. Narcissists try to destroy what they envy by characterizing the good that they envy in someone as being rotten; this imagined rottenness, however, is just a projection coming from the narcissists themselves.

Stalin, with his many more years of experience as a Bolshevik, and therefore greater dedication to their cause, was the obvious choice over Trotsky. The Bolsheviks, moreover, believed in the peasants, as did Mao: Trotsky didn’t believe in them, thus alienating them from him. Stalin’s prioritizing of protecting the Soviet Union against future invasions (a fear keenly felt less than a decade after the Russian Civil War of 1918-1922), as against Trotsky’s quixotic dreams of revolution after revolution after revolution (which hadn’t succeeded in the 1920s), was simply common sense.

Had Trotsky been a socialist worth his salt, he’d have gracefully accepted defeat, wished Stalin the best of luck as the new leader and supported him in any and every way he could, and respected the people’s wish to focus on building socialism in the USSR and making people’s lives better, as over the exhausting efforts of perpetuating revolutions worldwide, with little interest in protecting their already successful one. In other words, Trotsky didn’t care about worker solidarity…he only cared about his wounded ego.

Trotsky characterized the Gulag as “concentration camps” on, for example, page 213 (twice); incidentally, the CIA itself acknowledged that the Gulag, from which 20-40% of prisoners were released in any given year, was nothing like the Nazi death camps. Trotsky also used Mussolini’s term “totalitarian” several times in his book (for example, on page 210) to describe Stalin’s government (which was much more democratic than is assumed). Such characterizations of the USSR reek of propaganda, yet millions of readers uncritically read Trotsky’s work, thinking they’re getting an accurate assessment of the 1930s Soviet Union.

Now, there are ways of frankly discussing the errors and problems of the time without advocating an overthrow of the Soviet government (as Trotsky does, for example, on pages 214-219; check out this quote from page 217–“the bureaucracy can be removed only by a revolutionary force…To prepare this and stand at the head of the masses in a favorable historic situation–that is the task of the Soviet section of the Fourth International.”)…but overthrow was what he wanted; that was the point. He didn’t want to advance socialism; he wanted power.

And what of spreading revolution beyond socialism in one country? Did that not happen from the end of World War II? The Eastern Bloc was established; four years later, Mao took China; ten years after that, there was the Cuban Revolution (and Che took his inspiration from Stalin, not from Trotsky), and the USSR was supporting Third World liberation movements all over the place. There’s your permanent revolution, Leon: it’s just a matter of waiting for the right time to come, as Lenin discussed in his paper, ‘The Symptoms of a Revolutionary Situation” (Tucker, pages 275-277)

Though Trotsky complained in his book about the problems in the Soviet Union of the 1930s (probably more imagined than real), since his assassination, we know of the glorious successes that Stalin achieved by the time of his death in 1953: the defeat of fascism (due mostly to his leadership), the transformation of Russia from a backward, agrarian society into an industrialized, nuclear-armed superpower, affordable housing for all, collectivized agriculture ending the famines, full employment, free healthcare and education, equal rights for women, and huge economic growth. I’ll bet you couldn’t have outdone Stalin, Leon, had you succeeded Lenin.

So, that’s my assessment of Trotsky. In sum, apart from his contributions to the Red Army’s defeat of the White Army during the Russian Civil War, there isn’t much to say in his favour. Anything good in his Marxist writings is–to my knowledge, for what that’s worth–excelled in the writings of his predecessors, Marx, Engels, and Lenin, so I suggest reading those instead, Dear Reader.

As for Trotskyists, I’d say they are, at best, inferior Marxists who may be well-intentioned, but who’d do better by reading more of the three authors I recommended above, as well as Stalin and Mao. At their worst, though, Trotskyists are dangerous, lying counterrevolutionaries. Contributors on Trot websites like the WSWS and Left Voice (who may or may not be actual Trotskyists) may sometimes write informative articles, provided they don’t add claptrap like, “…as Leon Trotsky once said,” “Join the Fourth International!”, or drone on about the ‘evils’ of “Stalinism.” Readers of Trot rags must be able to discern between fact and agitprop.

While I don’t like violence, I must acknowledge that the assassination of Trotsky was necessary. The USSR in 1940 was in a precarious position with the looming Nazi threat, and Trotsky’s polemics and lies were just adding to the danger against the Russian people. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 shows how real that danger was.

As Stalin himself once said, “What would happen if capital succeeded in smashing the Republic of Soviets? There would set in an era of the blackest reaction in all the capitalist and colonial countries, the working class and the oppressed peoples would be seized by the throat, the positions of international communism would be lost.”

As we know from the metastasizing of neoliberalism since the dissolution of the USSR, we can see how prophetic Stalin was being; and from this growing catastrophe, we can see how wrong Trotsky was to oppose Stalin. After all, neocons evolved from Trots; accordingly, “permanent revolution” has evolved into permanent war.

Beware of those who pretend to be leftists. Not all friends are comrades.

Leon Trotsky (translated by Max Eastman), The Revolution Betrayed, Dover Publications, New York, 1937

Robert C. Tucker, The Lenin Anthology, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1975

On Ideological Theory vs. Practice

There’s this irritating refrain we leftists hear from time to time, coming from those on the right side of the aisle, so to speak. Whenever critiques of capitalism are made, a response often heard from the right-wing libertarian crowd is that what is being criticized isn’t ‘real capitalism.’ Instead, the problems of the world (and of the US in particular) are being caused by ‘corporatism,’ or ‘crony capitalism.’ Only the ‘free market’ is ‘real capitalism.’

I have already debunked this nonsense in previous posts, on many occasions, so the reader can go to those if he or she is interested; I don’t wish to go through the annoyance of rehashing those arguments in detail here. The point is, as far as this post is concerned, that there is a huge difference between the ‘free market’ in theory and how it works out in practice.

Of course, the right-winger will retort by saying, ‘Well, what about communism and socialism, you hypocrite? Those ideas all sound good on paper, but when put into practice, one hundred million people were murdered by power-hungry dictators! Everybody knows that socialism has been a failure everywhere it’s been tried!’

Oh, sure. Do you know what else? Iraq really possessed WMDs, Gaddafi really oppressed his people and thus had to be removed, Assad really bombed, killed, and gassed his own people, Russia hacked the 2016 US election, and Iran‘s bellicosity must be stopped through an invasion.

Really, all of the above is true! I know because the mainstream media told me. They know the facts because the CIA, that paragon of truth-telling, has been enlightening the West ever since the days of the Cold War.

But seriously, all sarcasm aside, there are many leftists, many of them anarchists or other left-libertarians, who argue in a manner paralleling right-libertarians and their twaddle about ‘real capitalism,’ that the USSR, Maoist China, Ho Chi Minh‘s Vietnam, the DPRK, Cuba, and the Eastern Bloc did not, and still do not, practice ‘real communism,’ and for the same reason as that of the right-libertarians–that these Marxist-Leninist states were just that…states. (I used to think that way, too.)

The right-wing libertarians’ idealized abstraction, which they call “free market” capitalism, involves a belief that, without the corrupting influence of the state, capitalists will have a ‘level playing field’ allowing them to compete fairly. (As I’ve stated above, I have refuted these arguments elsewhere.) The idealized abstraction of the left-wing libertarians (or anarchists), on the other hand, involves a belief that a socialist revolution can be more or less immediately followed by full communism: no class distinctions, no centralized state authority, and money is replaced by a gift economy.

More moderately left-wing libertarians would allow for the temporary existence of a state, the dictatorship of the proletariat, which would wither away once all signs of capitalist counter-revolution have been thwarted. No classes, no state, no money.

I have tended towards this more moderate version, though I have in recent years grown even more patient than that. The reason for this need of patience is that thwarting counterrevolution is easier said than done: look at the lessons of the twentieth century to see my meaning.

Ultimately, the achievement of the goal, the idealized abstraction of communist society, should be understood as a process, a gradual flowing ever closer towards the ideal, rather than an immediately achieved utopian stasis.

The objection will still be raised: “But the socialists never achieved anything but tyranny and murder!” Now, I must give such readers a history lesson, free of bourgeois propaganda and lies. (Again, a full debunking of the whole communist death count thing is beyond the scope of this article, so click here for that. For the short explanation, here it is: blame Yezhov and famines, not Stalin or Mao. Furthermore, consider the capitalist death count.)

Remember what Russia was like before the revolution of late 1917. The tsar and capitalists were holding the industrial proletariat and peasants down under a feudalist and bourgeois boot. The provisional government following the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II improved things a bit, but the people were still stuck in an unpopular war the provisional government didn’t want to get out of. Lenin, however, got them out of it.

The USSR enshrined equal rights for women in their constitution early into its existence, allowing equal rights in education, employment, access to high-ranking positions in the government, and paid maternity leave. All of these rights had been established by the 1930s, light years ahead of such improvements in the capitalist West.

Improvements were made to aim at affordable housing for everyone. Granted, these homes weren’t exactly palatial, but so what? Even the worst quality homes were much better than the epidemic of homelessness seen today in such cities as San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Dublin, or Toronto, often with people living in tents.

Full employment was provided, as well as free education up to the university level (sure beats student debt, doesn’t it?), and free healthcare. With such benefits as these, it’s easy to see why majorities of not only Russians, but also other east European countries look back at their socialist pasts with smiles, and generally tend to regret the switch back to capitalism.

Benefits similar to these given to citizens of the USSR were also given to people in all the other socialist states, benefits that already, and all by themselves, justify the left-wing revolutions that occurred, even without the withering away of the state that those in the libertarian camp (right and left) so fetishize. But what was so impressive about the USSR doesn’t stop there.

Returning to my point above about what Russia was like before the revolution of over a hundred years ago, the Bolsheviks inherited a largely agrarian society, with mostly peasant farmers living off the land, at the mercy of Mother Nature. If there were bad harvests (which often happened), people would starve.

The implementation of Stalin’s three Five Year Plans in the 1930s changed all that. Rapid industrialization (in large part to prepare for a Nazi invasion), collectivization of agriculture (to end the exploitive rule of the grain-hoarding, wealthy, land-owning kulaks), which included getting the mechanized farming equipment needed to end the famines (which, by the way, makes nonsense of the absurd Holodomor hoax), and the acquisition of nuclear weapons (in defence against the American nuclear threat) all brought Russia from being a backward nation to a modern nuclear superpower in a matter of not much more than two decades! Impressive.

Next, we need to remember who the real heroes of WWII were: not so much the late-arriving US and Britain, as mainstream history books would have you believe, but Stalin’s Red Army. Their commitment to justice is what saved the world from fascism, not the mere inter-imperialist conflict of Hitler and Mussolini on one side, and FDR and Churchill on the other.

Jump ahead almost two decades later, and we have even more impressive Soviet feats: the first man in space, the first woman in space, and even the first dog to orbit the Earth. Also, the Soviets did the first spacewalk. So, what is all this nonsense about socialism ‘not working‘? Actually, when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense to believe that when people cooperate, work together, and help each other, they will achieve a lot more than all those mutually alienated people competing with each other under capitalism.

This leads me to my next point: right-wing libertarians like to believe that an unregulated market–somehow, by the magical waving of an invisible hand–regulates itself and makes life good; and therefore a state-planned economy lacks the rich growth and innovation of the “free market.” Again, the USSR’s history debunks this claim.

As I said above, the Soviet Union went from being a backward agrarian society to a fully industrialized, nuclear superpower in a matter of a few decades. The Western capitalist countries went through this process much more slowly (i.e., starting from the Industrial Revolution). When the Soviet Union began industrializing around 1928, Western countries like the US and UK were already fully industrialized, so it isn’t fair to compare the USSR’s development to that of the USA. A comparison of the USSR to most of the rest of the non-Anglo-American, non-European world would be more apropos.

Over those few decades between the late 1920s and the early 1950s, the USSR shot ahead of the Third World. Though behind the West economically, the USSR was catching up. The West was feeling threatened, especially with the loss of face the US felt when the Soviets beat them into space. Indeed, the US took a few leaves from the Soviet book and started using more government-funded forms of technological innovation (e.g., NASA, DARPA) and social welfare–though in a capitalist context, of course–to save face and resist the threat of communist revolution in the West.

Economic growth was slowing down in the USSR during the Brezhnev years, but it was still happening. There were fears that, if left unchecked, the USSR would soon overtake the West economically. So by the 1980s, the Carter/Reagan administrations’ strategy was, through the arms race, the Soviet-Afghan War, etc., to drain the Soviet economy.

It worked. The USSR was forced into focusing its budget on the military when they’d have much preferred to continue building socialism. The USSR didn’t “collapse” in late 1991; it was dissolved, thanks to schemers inside and outside the Soviet Union.

Here’s the thing: if socialism ‘doesn’t work,’ why did the West (and why does it, vis-à-vis Cuba, Venezuela, and the DPRK, continue to) put so much effort into draining the socialist states of their lifeblood through economic sanctions, sabotage, etc.? Why not just be a little patient and let these ‘failed’ economic systems self-destruct of their own accord, over a presumably short time?

Despite the crippling sanctions and economic embargoes, the DPRK and Cuba are, within reason, still surviving…and that’s all the way from the wholesale destruction wrought by US imperialism during the Korean War, and from such things as the over six hundred attempts on Fidel Castro’s life, to the present. If the “free market” is so superior to state planning, how did China go from being a Third World country to the second largest economy in the world in a mere four decades?

So we see here that, even though the ideal of communist society–a classless, stateless society without money–was never attained, the progress made towards that ideal in the building of socialism is proof enough that it’s worth striving for. The practice of developing the socialist mode of production, and the benefits obtained, justify the effort even if the theoretical end wasn’t attained.

As for the failures and difficulties that inevitably were a part of this process, many, if not most, of these problems can be blamed on imperialism. The capitalist class has been ruthless in its attempts to thwart the development of socialism, right from the Paris Commune up to the present day. Such things as the Russian Civil War of 1917-1922, properly understood as an invasion by several capitalist countries to help the Russian bourgeoisie restore their rule, put pressures on Lenin’s government that forced the Bolsheviks to become authoritarian.

Similar pressures were exerted on Maoist China, the Eastern Bloc, and the other socialist states, necessitating authoritarian rule, the aggravation of class struggle under socialism. And who was–and still is–doing the pressuring? All those forces that regard the ‘freedom’ of capitalism as their ideal. If, according to right-libertarian thinking, the US isn’t–and has scarcely, if ever been–‘truly capitalist,’ then why were they so adamant about stopping the spread of communism during the Cold War?

Let’s now look at how the abstract ideal of the “free market,” though never perfectly attained, of course (because it never can be–even some right-wingers admit this!), has nonetheless been approached, step by step, in the process including tax cuts for the rich, union-busting, deregulation, and cuts to social programs and welfare.

The oil crisis of 1973 caused many at the time to believe that Keynesian economics–a form of capitalism with intensive government interventions whenever there were economic crises–had run its course. Economists like Milton Friedman argued for minimal state involvement in the economy, as had Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, etc. Pinochet‘s government, which in 1973 forced “free market” capitalism on Chile, by the way, was portrayed in right-wing media as having brought about prosperity for the country, when in fact only the ruling class was doing well.

This kind of ‘prosperity’ encouraged the market fundamentalists to apply their dogmas to Western countries, in which the ruling classes were growing weary of paying high taxes and having regulations limit their profits. The stage was set for Reagan, Thatcher, et al, who busted unions and cut taxes for the rich. The process of gradually moving towards a “free market” had begun.

Reagan, of course, claimed ‘government is the problem,’ though even more obviously he did not shrink it. He deregulated and cut the rich’s taxes, to be sure, but his increase of defence spending only bloated the US government. This bloating, all the same, doesn’t disprove the existence of capitalism in the US, for this was the bloating of the bourgeois state. Note that in capitalism, there is deregulating and re-regulating, depending on the convenience of the capitalist. (And incidentally, in the US, there is private property; in the US, businesses produce commodities for profit; ergo, the US is a capitalist country…even if it isn’t the kind of capitalism the right-libertarians prefer.)

Right-wing libertarians have this absurd notion that the state per se is socialist, when in fact the state has been used by people of all political persuasions to further their agendas: fascists, “free market” capitalists (yes, them too!), social democrats, conservatives, liberals, and actual socialists.

Americans have been so indoctrinated by bourgeois propaganda that they think that all of the Orwellian things we’ve seen plaguing the US (the media as propaganda arm of the government, the state helping the rich get richer and leaving the poor to get poorer, the endless wars, the militarized police, surveillance, etc.) is the result of “communists” infiltrating the US. Oh, would that it were true!

What right-wing libertarians don’t understand is that capitalism is not the utopia they think it is. It’s an inherently contradictory, unstable economic system, given to financial crises about every ten years (indeed, we’re due for another one any time now, I contemplate with a due sense of exhaustion and dread).

Though the USSR’s economy stagnated during the Brezhnev years, their economy had soldiered on through the 1930s, just as the capitalist world was mired in the Great Depression. Similarly, as we in the West reeled for years after the 2008 global financial crisis, only ever so slowly crawling out of it, China–with its state-planned economy–bounced back and has continued to grow into the powerhouse it is today.

In sum: the ideological theory of socialism was meant to lead to a communist society that never materialized; still, in practice, the building of socialism in the twentieth century had successes that, outside imperialist interference, outweighed its problems, and therefore, socialism in practice was justified.

As for the ideological theory of the “free market,” that stateless capitalist utopia has never been, and will never be; while in practice, what is properly called neoliberalism has very much happened, and the appalling income inequality, imperialist wars, and all the other attendant miseries have shown how bankrupt that right-wing ideology is.

So, the left’s solution to current problems is, “More socialism!”, which, if carried far enough, might one day actually lead to the withering away of the state. Their ‘solution,’ on the other hand, is, “More free market!”, which will, if carried far enough, lead to the withering away of our Earth as we know it.

I wonder if it’s ever occurred to the free marketeers that their invisible hand isn’t seen because it isn’t there.

Analysis of ‘Casablanca’

Casablanca is a 1942 drama film/love story directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid, and featuring Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, Dooley Wilson, and Sydney Greenstreet. Based on the play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s (which was written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison), the movie is considered one of the greatest of all time.

Here are some famous quotes:

“Round up the usual suspects.” –Captain Renault (Rains)

“Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By‘.” –Ilsa Lund (Bergman) [Often misquoted as “Play it again, Sam.”]

“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.” –Rick Blaine (Bogart), to Ilsa

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” –Rick, of Ilsa

“I stick my neck out for nobody.” –Rick (said several times)

“I have no conviction, if that’s what you mean.  I blow with the wind, and the prevailing wind happens to be from Vichy.” –Renault

“My dear Rick, when will you realize that in this world today, isolationism is no longer a practical policy?” –Signor Ferrari (Greenstreet)

“If we stop breathing, we’ll die. If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die.” –Victor Laszlo (Henreid)

“We’ll always have Paris.” –Rick, to Ilsa

“Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.” –Rick

“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” –Rick

Refugees hope to escape Nazi-occupied, war-torn Europe and get to the US through politically-neutral Lisbon. Most can’t get there directly, so instead they go from Paris to Marseille, then to Oran, Algeria, then finally to Casablanca, in French Morocco.

Casablanca is a hellhole to these refugees. They find it virtually impossible to scrounge up the money to buy the coveted exit visas to Lisbon. It’s as though Dante‘s sign at the entrance to the Inferno were moved to Casablanca’s entrance.

Casablanca thus symbolizes the snare of poverty most of the world can’t escape, especially those in the Third World. Some, like Ugarte (Lorre), are so desperate to escape that they’ll resort to murder to get the money they need to pay for a visa.

Captain Renault is an appropriate prefect of police in Vichy-controlled Casablanca, for he’s unabashedly corrupt, often taking advantage of pretty young women desperate for a visa. He represents Vichy France, who were Nazi collaborators during World War II.

Richard “Rick” Blaine is the American owner of a night club called “Rick’s Café Americain.” He’s cynical and cold, refusing to drink with customers. The casino’s games are fixed to ensure that Renault, who never pays for his drinks, always wins. Thus, between Rick’s alienating of others and Renault’s control over Rick’s business, we see the two men personifying state capitalism.

Rick has some redeeming qualities, though. We learn that he ran guns to Ethiopia during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, and fought on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War. He’ll redeem himself again, as will even Renault (well…sort of), at the end of the film. So Rick, as a capitalist, is more of a liberal one, loosely comparable with Orwell, who also fought against fascism in Spain, then grew disillusioned with the left.

The idealized hero of the film, though, is Victor Laszlo, the Czechoslovakian leader of an underground resistance against the Nazis. That resistance was historically connected with the Soviet Union, incidentally…not that a bourgeois Hollywood movie would ever admit to such an association, of course. Laszlo, dressed in an off-white suit, has a saintly, if dully stoic, aura about him; his unending, virtuous fight against fascism makes him seem other-worldly, almost…too good to be true. That scar on his forehead seems to be his only fault, physical or otherwise.

Since Rick has his good, idealistic side, how has he become so embittered and cynical? Back in Paris, he had a love affair with the beautiful Ilsa Lund (Bergman), not knowing she was Laszlo’s wife! The husband had been in a concentration camp, and she thought he’d died trying to escape, so she had an affair with Rick. When she learned Laszlo was alive, she left Rick without an explanation, for fear he’d follow her and endanger himself in the flight from the occupying Nazis. Rick thus got on a train to Marseille with Sam (Wilson), with an unused ticket for Ilsa, and with a broken heart.

Ilsa thus represents the beauty of that ideal both Laszlo and Rick have fought for; because she left Rick, he’s lost his idealism and become a politically neutral, cynical man who ‘sticks his neck out for nobody.’

Many who, in their youth, fight passionately for an ideal, such as freedom from fascism, equality, socialism, etc., later grow cynical and bitter because they fail to understand that fighting for such ideals involves sacrificing one’s selfish desires for the greater good. This is what has happened to Rick, and this self-centredness is what he must overcome. Indeed, sacrifice is the main theme of the film.

One such a sacrifice occurs among the minor characters, when a young Bulgarian woman (played by Joy Page) who, it is implied (defying the strict censorship of the Production Code of the 1940s), has slept with Renault behind her husband’s back in hopes of getting a visa in return. She, with guilty tears in her eyes as she asks Rick for help, has sacrificed her loyalty to her husband, and to Church morality, for freedom.

Rick’s late intervention to fight fascism and make the ultimate sacrifice (something Laszlo’s been doing from the beginning) makes him the film’s personification of the US, which stayed out of World War II until the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. People in the West knew for years what a problem Hitler was, but did little to check his growing power; for the West was hoping the Nazis would succeed in invading and crushing the USSR. Incidentally, the USSR’s sacrifice (between 25 and 30 million Soviet Russians died) in defeating fascism is given short shrift in Western history.

Laszlo, at one point in the film, knowing of Rick’s love for Ilsa, is even willing to let the American use the letters of transit to take his wife to the US, since her safety is all-important to him. This is the length to which Laszlo will go to sacrifice all that he has to ensure the safety of his wife, the lovely personification of the ideal of freedom.

But in the end, it is Rick who makes the sacrifice, insisting that Renault write Laszlo’s and Lund’s names on the letters of transit. Rick sacrifices his enjoyment of the ideal so others can be free. Even unscrupulous Renault joins Rick in the end to join the struggle of the Free French in Brazzaville.

Now, what must be emphasized is that this fight for liberty must be understood in its proper bourgeois context. The film was released in a rush to capitalize on the Allied invasion of North Africa, to stir up American patriotism. And the Western powers’ real motives for fighting the Nazis weren’t as noble as they may have seemed.

As it says in the ‘Writers Without Money’ critique of the film, “Indeed, early in the war, Churchill and Roosevelt seemed more concerned with retrieving France’s and Britain’s old colonial empire in North Africa than about liberating western Europe from the Nazis.” This is how we should think about Renault’s joining the Free French; it’s not much of a redemption for him. Both Rick and Renault, as personifications of their respective countries, are mainly concerned with their nations’ class/power interests.

Consider Rick’s and Ilsa’s relationship with Sam, the only black character in the movie, and one clearly in a subordinate position. Rick claims that Sam gets 25% of the profits, and Rick makes Signor Ferrari promise to continue giving Sam the 25% when Rick leaves Casablanca (…and will he keep the promise, I wonder? After all, Ferrari understands Sam gets only 10%!); but given how Sam’s popularity as a piano man, singer, and bandleader is practically the lifeblood of the success of Rick’s Café Americain (as against Rick’s coldness to customers), shouldn’t he get 50%, if not much more? If Rick and Sam are such good friends, shouldn’t they be co-owners of the night club? Rick personifies the US in more ways than one.

During Sam’s singing of the song “Shine,” when he sings, “because my hair is curly,” he strokes his hair with a grin, as if glad to internalize the racism of the time. Later, when Ferrari hopes to have Sam work for him, even willing to pay Sam twice the salary Rick pays him, Sam says he doesn’t have the time even to spend Rick’s salary…oh, really? Why not use the money to get an exit visa and go back to the US? It’s almost as if…he is owned…by Rick. Of course, Ferrari wouldn’t mind owning Sam himself.

How deferential Sam is to Rick, Ilsa, and all the other white characters makes one think of the Jim Crow years, which is oddly out of place in North Africa, where there were not only anti-fascist, but also the beginning of anti-colonial, rumblings at the time. Surely expatriate Sam has noticed how the African times, they are a-changin’, but he never gives an opinion about something that should give him high hopes. But maybe that’s just the point.

On top of all of this is how Ilsa, much younger than Sam, refers to him as “the boy who’s playing the piano,” when she knew him personally back when they were with Rick in Paris. So as a personification of that ideal of freedom, Ilsa is only a conventional, bourgeois, and white liberal form, the kind that 1940s Hollywood would have cherished.

Similarly, as mentioned above, her husband, Laszlo, is only dully virtuous; he lacks the revolutionary fervour of the Red Army, who did the majority of the work in ridding Europe of Nazis. Laszlo’s singing of La Marseillaise, as impassioned as it is, hardly compensates for his ‘nice guys finish last’ kind of blandness.

Thus, both Laszlo and Lund represent bourgeois ideals of sex roles in the fight for liberty: him, dull protective Christian stoicism; her, passive, timid beauty…and this was at a time when armed women had fought fascists during the Spanish Civil War a mere three to six years before the making of Casablanca.

And so, Casablanca the city is truly a prison for all living in it. Those film noir shadows–as well as the window blinds, whose shadows showing on characters’ faces look like prison bars–are symbolic examples of indications that, in spite of, or rather, because of, the bourgeois nature of this Hollywood production, the true political problems of the time creep out in the form of Freudian slips, as it were, and expose themselves.

Many on the left will condemn this film as intolerably reactionary, and so the near-universal praise Casablanca has garnered over the years is in many ways just the bourgeois establishment giving itself a pat on the back. Imagine, on the other hand, a socialist Casablanca, with an unapologetically leftist Laszlo, and a militarily-trained Ilsa who won’t stop at just pointing a pistol at someone in her way. Imagine a Sam with dignity. Imagine an anti-fascist struggle willing to go further, and also defeat Franco, the right-wing government in ‘neutralLisbon, and the Nazis on the Eastern Front, actually aiding the Soviets!

Well, we can’t expect much from Hollywood, especially not in the 1940s, even though Curtiz would soon direct the pro-Stalin Mission To Moscow. When you think about it, though, the Casablanca we have is politically appropriate, not for the ‘liberty’ it espouses, but ironically for the sham liberty it actually presents.

I’d say it’s useful to see a movie that pretends to be all liberal and freedom-loving, yet a movie that is also clumsy enough to let the cat out of the bag often enough for attentive viewers to notice the con game being played on them. This is useful because that’s the liberal con game played before us every day in the West.

“The freedom of the Americas” is never seen because it never really existed; the US is a country founded not on liberty, but on slavery, discrimination, class antagonism, and the genocide of the aboriginals; it thus can only make a myth out of liberty, a ‘liberty’ that put Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II. The building of socialism in the USSR, on the other hand, is never seen because the bourgeoisie would never want us to see it.

Sam is said to get 25% of the profits, but probably only gets 10%, if that. The wife of a freedom fighter is only the ‘behind-every-great-man-is-a-great-woman’ kind of wife. The escape route to the US is ‘neutral’ Lisbon, where there’s actually a fascist government. Sexually predatory Renault has a most charming exterior. Ferrari, who has no qualms about buying slaves, seems an affable enough chap. All looks well on the outside.

My point is that it’s important to see the mask before we can remove it. The political faults of Casablanca are its very virtues, for in order to correct those faults, we must be able to find them…faults one will always try to hide.

Like Rick, we are heartbroken to see our ideals so compromised, as they inevitably will be in the world we see around us. A movie like Casablanca is like Ilsa in how beautifully packaged its message of liberty is; yet it disappoints us, as she does Rick. Still, in our disappointment, if we are willing to sacrifice our selfish wants, we can revive our hopes and fight for our ideals…as long as we watch our backs, with snakes like Renault following us.

Analysis of Aeschylus’ ‘Persians’

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

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

Here are some of Will‘s translated lines:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evil empire, indeed.

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

Analysis of ‘Caligula’

Introduction

Caligula is an erotic historical drama film made in 1979, based on the rise and fall of Gaius Caesar, and starring Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud, Helen Mirren, Teresa Ann Savoy, Paolo Bonacelli, Guido Mannari (his English dub voice done by Patrick Allen), and John Steiner. It was produced by Bob Guccione for Penthouse magazine, in an attempt to fuse a feature film narrative, with high production values, with the explicit, unsimulated sex scenes of pornographic films.

Gore Vidal produced a screenplay for the film, for which Tinto Brass was the original director, but both of them disowned the film after constant fighting and a falling out. Guccione added hardcore pornographic content, which with the violence of many scenes resulted in a film that created a storm of controversy on its release. Accordingly, the uncut movie was, and still is, banned in many countries.

Here are some quotes from the film:

“I have existed from the morning of the world and I shall exist until the last star falls from the night. Although I have taken the form of Gaius Caligula, I am all men as I am no man, and therefore I am a god.” –Caligula (McDowell)

Caligula: Tell me, how is the emperor?

Nerva (Gielgud): Old, like me.

Caligula: I mean, how is his mood?

Nerva: Like the weather.

Caligula: The weather is good today!

Nerva: Changeable.

*********

Caligula: You are a god, lord.

Tiberius (O’Toole): No I’m not, not even when I am dead.

Caligula: Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar, they are gods.

Tiberius: So say the senate, and so the people prefer to believe. Such myths are useful.

*********

Nerva: For a man to choose the hour of his own death is the closest he will ever come to tricking fate, and fate decrees that when you die, Macro will kill me.

Tiberius: I’ll arrest him and have him executed.

Nerva: You can’t. He controls you. [Looks at Caligula] Anyway, even with Macro dead, how could I go on living with this reptile?

*********

“If only all Rome had just one neck!” –Caligula

“You see how I have exhausted myself to make your wedding holy. My blessings to you both.” –Caligula, after raping Livia and fisting her groom, Proculus

“As if there ever could be an antidote against Caesar!” –Caligula, after having Gemellus arrested for treason (because the boy’s breath smelled of medicine…a poison antidote?)

*********

Caesonia (Mirren): They hate you now.

Caligula: Let them hate me, so long as they fear me.

Caesonia: They are senators and consuls. They are important men.

Caligula: So important that they approve all I do? They must be mad. I don’t know what else to do to provoke them.

Despite Caligula now being a cult classic, as well as the performances of McDowell, O’Toole, Gielgud, and Mirren being praised, it always has been critically derided…which leads me to my next point…

Why Analyze Caligula, of all Films?

Normally, I write up film or literary analyses of classics, or works otherwise considered ‘great’ in some sense. Now, I’m about to analyze something of the (dialectical?) opposite: a film widely considered among the worst ever made.

Why? Have I, like the Gaius Caesar of legend and rumour, flipped my lid? Am I ascribing immortal, divine status to a film generally deemed a monstrous travesty, like the man the movie’s about? I’ll answer the last two questions in reverse order: no, and I certainly hope not.

As for the first question, here is my answer. There’s something about the movie, in spite of (or rather, because of) its many flaws, that makes it a perfect representation of today’s political world.

I’m going beyond the obvious theme of the corruption of power, as well as beyond a rationalization that the pornographic aspects of the film symbolize the obscenity of all this political corruption. My point is that this movie is a sensationalization of the crueller moments of history for the sake of titillation, the same way much of the reporting of current events is meant more to entertain than to inform. These shocks are a distraction from the real evil of class antagonisms, past and present.

You’ve heard of ‘fake news.’ Now, let’s read about fake history.

An Ahistorical Historical Drama

Any serious historian knows that Tiberius and Caligula, as bad and hated as they were during and immediately following their reigns, were nonetheless nowhere near as depraved, perverted, or mad as they are portrayed in the writings of Tacitus and Suetonius, the latter’s Twelve Caesars especially being, in my opinion at least, little more than glorified gossip. So when Guccione (in the documentary ‘Making of Caligula‘) tried to justify the excesses in his film as necessary to give an “historically accurate” portrayal of the wickedness of these two emperors, you know he was being as ignorant as he was being pretentious.

Now, this Penthouse production was of course not the first one to take Tacitus and Suetonius at their word. The author of I, Claudius, Robert Graves, was known for his scholarly but mischievous renderings of historical events; when he wrote the historical novel (and its sequel, Claudius the God), while he tried his best to remain true to the narrative of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio, he also felt free to invent wherever the historical record was doubtful. The dramatically superb (though low-budget) BBC miniseries of 1976 that was based on his books sometimes played fast and loose with the history in ways that went beyond even Graves’s own indulgences (compare Graves, page 342, to the end of this I, Claudius episode).

Let’s now consider the excesses that Caligula and Tiberius have been accused of. First, the notion that Caligula committed incest with his sisters, especially Drusilla, is highly doubtful. Roman historians often slandered the emperors they hated with claims of sexual perversity or madness.

Young Gaius grew up watching his family members taken from him, one by one: his father, Germanicus, died when Caligula was a boy; his mother, Agrippina, was banished by Tiberius to the island of Pandateria, where she starved herself to death (G.P. Baker, page 277); his brother, Nero, was also banished (to Ponza), and his brother, Drusus, was imprisoned for treason and left there to starve to death, reduced to chewing the stuffing of his bed (Baker, page 276). Gaius’ sisters were all he had left of his immediate family–it’s only natural that he’d have been more than usually close to them, but in the normal, loving sense. Anything beyond such closeness is gossip.

“With his brothers and parents dead, and without a compatible wife, it might be expected that Caligula would have looked for affection from his three sisters. The enormous favours that he heaped on them at the beginning of his reign had a political purpose, but they also suggest considerable affection within the family. It was doubtless this affection that led to the stories of incest with all three sisters. Such reports are to be treated with scepticism. Suetonius claims that Caligula was actually caught with Drusilla when they were staying at Antonia‘s house, but admits that the story was hearsay. Neither Seneca nor Philo, contemporaries of Caligula who both adopt a highly moral tone, make any mention of incest. Also when Tacitus deals with Agrippina‘s incestuous designs on her son, the emperor Nero, he makes no hint of any improper relationship with her brother–although the context was certainly appropriate–and attributes her moral corruption to her association with Lepidus. The charge of incest has been traditionally levelled against despots, from antiquity to Napoleon.” (Barrett, page 85)

Tiberius was accused of being a lecherous old goat of a man, yielding to such vices as child molestation. Again, it’s mere rumour, with Suetonius giving all kinds of salacious details (Suetonius, ‘Tiberius’ 43-45). The fact is, old Tiberius lived out the remainder of his years on the isle of Capri, unmarried (Augustus forced him to divorce his beloved Vipsania to marry Julia [Baker, page 51], from whom he later separated [page 66]) and alone, brooding over his son Drusus‘ murder by two-faced Sejanus (Baker, pages 268-269), among the few people whom Tiberius had once trusted; the emperor even called Sejanus “the partner of my labours” (Tacitus, pages 157-197). He should have been in Rome, managing the affairs of state: what was the old man doing on Capri? Behaving as some lechers do with underage girls in Thailand and Cambodia today?

Was Caligula’s claim to be a god evidence of madness? A man speaking of himself in such a way today would have been such proof, but not so much a king or emperor in the ancient pagan world. It was a fairly common practice to deify ‘good’ emperors, even to have temples dedicated to them when they were alive. (See Barrett, Chapter 9, ‘Divine Honours,’ pages 140-153; in particular, “Among the Romans the distinction between man and god was not a sharp one. While this blurring is usually associated with the phenomenon of emperor worship in the Imperial age, its origins go back to the republic.”–page 140)

What of his making his horse, Incitatus, a senator? Again, a mere legend. If he did so, he may have meant it as one of his many insults to the senate, not out of a mad belief that his horse had a senator’s abilities.

And Caligula’s occasional cross-dressing? Did that indicate madness? Apart from how offensive such a judgement is today in light of the experience of the transgender community, Barrett notes, “Caligula certainly did have a predilection for dressing up, as Alexander, as a triumphator, even as a woman. To dress up as a god was a natural progression. Suetonius mentions his dressing up as gods or goddesses in the general context, not of his religious ideas, but of his exotic costumes, and Dio notes that dressing up as Jupiter was a front adopted to seduce numerous women. Such behaviour was not unique to Caligula.” (Barrett, page 146) Furthermore, Josephus claimed that Caligula’s apparent devotion to the goddess Isis involved dressing up in women’s clothing and a wig…to perform as a priest of Isis (Barrett, page 220).

Then there was Caligula’s bizarre invasion of Britain, apparently to collect seashells. Again, Barrett notes, “This episode has provided much grist for the scholarly mill. Most scholars assume that a real invasion was planned, but cancelled at the last minute. [One scholar suggested]…that the Britons united in the face of attack, while…[another scholar claimed, perhaps] the soldiers were simply afraid to undertake the crossing of the Channel, and that the emperor ordered them to pick up the shells as a form of humiliation, which, to say the least, would have been a courageous gesture on Caligula’s part.” (Barrett, page 135)

Anyway, to make a long story short (if it’s not too late), the corruption in power in ancient imperial Rome wasn’t all that much more shocking than it is today: the rich and powerful oppress and exploit the poor. As Marx said in The Communist Manifesto, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

In today’s world, that class contradiction is between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the oppression being in the form of wage slavery. In the ancient world, class conflict was between masters and their slaves. Though the forms of class war have changed over the centuries, the basic material conditions remain the same: the land-owning rich get away with the enslavement, rape, and murder of the poor. This contradiction must be seen beyond the veil of sensationalism seen in Caligula.

The Beginning of the Movie

It’s ironic that such a sinful film should begin with a quote from The Gospel According to Mark, 8:36: “…what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

We see Caligula and Drusilla (Savoy) openly displaying their incestuous love out in the country, near a shepherd and his sheep. Apart from what I said above, about the dubiousness of the classical sources on this brother/sister relationship, given the particularly strong taboo against incest in the ancient world (consider the Oedipus story, for example), we should find it most unlikely that they would risk revealing their forbidden love to anyone they know fortuitously passing by the scene.

Mixed in with some original music composed by ‘Paul Clemente’ is an excerpt from the Adagio love theme of Spartacus and Phrygia, from Aram Khachaturian‘s Spartacus ballet. This theme is used repeatedly, at sporadic moments, throughout the film. Also featured is the “Montagues and Capulets” (or, alternatively, the “Dance of the Knights“) theme (during the credits), from Sergei Prokofiev‘s Romeo and Juliet ballet.

In all likelihood, these famous themes (from two of the most famous of the Soviet composers, incidentally) were chosen only for the emotional force of the music, and without any thought for their programmatic content. Indeed, that programmatic content seems diametrically (or dialectically?) opposed to the content of the movie’s story. Still, I find it irresistible to find some kind of connection–however consciously unintended, however dialectically antithetical–between the music and the movie.

The Spartacus ballet is about the lawful love between its title character, the once King of Thrace, and his once queen, Phrygia, who have been conquered and enslaved by Crassus. Antithetically, there’s the taboo love between Caligula and Drusilla, he originally being a prince fearful for his life–because of Tiberius’ caprices–then ascending to absolute power. Finally, while at the end of the ballet, Spartacus dies (having tried to free the slaves) and Phrygia mourns him, Drusilla dies and Caligula mourns her (but rather than try to free the slaves, he just insults and offends the other men in power until they get sick of him and kill him).

The “Montagues and Capulets” theme is meant to dramatize the tension and hatred between the two feuding families in Romeo and Juliet, as well as that hate between Caligula and the Roman senate. If, Dear Reader, you’ll indulge and forgive my deforming of the Bard’s immortal opening verses, you’ll see how one can relate the thematic content of the greatest love story with, arguably, one of the most outrageously depicted (if not simply one of the worst) love stories.

“Two classes, both alike in dignity,/In fairest Roma where we lay our scene…” By classes, here I refer to the conflict between the imperial family (i.e., the Julio-Claudian dynasty) and the senatorial class.

Another reading (and another butchering of the Bard, if again you’ll pardon me, Dear Reader) could be, “Two classes, both unlike in dignity,/In fairest Roma where we lay our scene…” By classes, I now refer to the conflict between the masters (i.e., imperial family, consuls, senate, patricians, plebs) and their slaves. This second conflict, often bobbing up to the surface from the hidden depths, is the one I urge you to pay more attention to.

Classes Unlike in Dignity

Just as I argued in my Analysis of The Omen, the violence in Caligula (as well as the sex) can be seen to symbolize the material contradictions between master and slave in the ancient world, contradictions as apparent as those between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat today. The slaves in the film, typically naked, are exploited in sexual situations, beaten, or subjected to other forms of sadism. Caligula is like Salò (in which Paolo Bonacelli also appeared) in this respect, except for the problem of the clashing visions of feuding Guccione, Vidal, and Brass, among so many other obvious issues.

Nakedness for the slaves represents their vulnerability and utter lack of possessions. I recall Act IV, Scene vii of Hamlet, when the Danish prince has returned, surprisingly, from a boat trip to England, and in a letter to his uncle Claudius, Hamlet says he’s “naked.” He doesn’t mean he isn’t wearing any clothes; he means he hurried off the boat without belongings or means, for a pirate ship has attacked his boat, and the pirates are holding him for ransom. (See Crystal and Crystal, page 292)

When Caligula arrives in Capri, we see a row of male slaves with hammers breaking rocks into smaller pieces–these men are all naked. At first glance, we’d assume that seeing all these musclemen frontally nude is just one of many examples of the film’s soft-core, indulgent titillation; but consider what I said above about naked slaves.

This observation is especially true of the naked slaves Tiberius uses as his “speaking statues,” who “do more than speak…they do.” What they “do” is engage in all the acts of debauchery that the classical sources spuriously accuse the emperor of indulging in.

Then, there are Tiberius’ “fishies,” the naked swimmers–with shaved pubes–in his large swimming pool; his “minnows,” as Suetonius claimed the emperor called them, are supposed to be the children he molested. Again, as history, there’s no reason to believe this sexual abuse was true of Tiberius in particular; but in a world where masters could do anything they wanted with their slaves–including getting sexual favours from them and getting away scot-free without even an investigation to be then acquitted of–there is merit in using the myth of Tiberius the pervert in a metaphorical sense.

Classes Alike in Dignity

As the emperor–covered in welts, sores, and scabs from all of the sexually transmitted diseases he’s said to have been covered in (another obvious symbol of his moral corruption–Howard, page 57)–talks with Caligula and corrupts his mind with a tour of his speaking, screwing statues, he warns the prince of the wickedness of the senate. Recall the many treason trials in which Tiberius had men executed on trumped-up charges from Sejanus; this is where the emperor got his cynicism about Roman politics.

Of course, slaves weren’t the only sufferers of the whims of those at the top. Wrongly-convicted senators suffered, as did soldiers (in the film, consider loyal Proculus, or the misfortunes of Roman virtue; also consider the guard Tiberius kills for being suspected of drinking wine while on duty).

Finally, even the men at the top suffer. In the movie, Macro strangles Tiberius in his bed (other versions have the emperor smothered with a pillow by Macro [<<<John Rhys-Davies] or Caligula [<<<John McEnery…at 36:00). Caligula was assassinated in a conspiracy led by Cassius Chaerea (Bonacelli), Claudius was fed poisoned mushrooms by Agrippina, and Nero committed suicide when he fell from power.

The fall from power of those at the top reminds us of Hegel‘s master/slave dialectic. Caligula, with Macro’s help, rose against his master to become the new master, as Spartacus attempted to do. Caligula’s constant provocations of the senate and army represent the power struggle between them and his family, ultimately leading them to kill him, as Spartacus was killed.

My point is that, in spite of the emperor’s ‘absolute’ power, there’s always a dialectical tension between the ruler and the ruled, the latter struggling to be free of the former, and the former struggling to be free of the danger of assassination. Hence, once Caligula becomes emperor, he must be rid of Macro, then Gemellus…even if they don’t actually pose a threat to him, for always is the emperor paranoid.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’. —King Henry IV

(Incidentally, the film’s depiction of Macro decapitated by a kind of giant lawnmower, so to speak, is more fake history: Macro, having been falsely promised the governorship of Egypt, committed suicide after falling out of favour with Caligula. See Graves, page 341.)

Drusilla’s Death, Caligula’s Despair

With Drusilla’s death ends Caligula’s own will to live, so everything he does after his mourning of her is to provoke the wrath of the senate, the army, and the Praetorian Guard in so blatant a way that it must be the expression of a death wish comparable to that of CamusCaligula (“Les hommes meurent et ils ne sont pas heureux.“–Men die and they aren’t happy. [Act I, Scene iv]). His wife, Caesonia (Mirren), warns him not to provoke those powerful men, but her words fall on deaf ears…or rather urge him further.

Devastated by his loss, he disappears from the sight of the Roman nobility, as does the Caligula of Camus’ play (Act I, Scenes i-ii). He wanders among the common people in a blue robe, looking as if he were one of them.

He watches a group of actors putting on a show, standing on a triangle representing the social classes of Rome: the slaves, the people, the army, tribunes, senate, and emperor. None of this display offends Caligula, because he of course benefits from the hierarchy; but when an actress portraying Drusilla mockingly sings of her wish to make love with Caligula, the grieving emperor is infuriated. He shoves the actors off the triangle, making them fall to the ground.

His mingling with the poor, including sharing a jail cell with them (where he meets the ‘giant’ [Osiride Pevarello]), suggests his sympathy for them, but it shouldn’t. As emperor, Caligula only feels antipathy for the other powerful men of Rome, as Tiberius did. Beware of politicians who, however hated they may be by the establishment, only pretend to care for the people.

Fatal Provocations

When Caligula returns and appears before the senate, he begins his fatal string of provocations by declaring himself to be a living god and requiring the unanimous support of the senate, annoying Longinus (Steiner) and Chaerea. His next insult is to make cuckolds of the senators by making whores of their wives.

The soundtrack of the Imperial Bordello, again with naked slaves dancing about, includes an amusingly ironic use of an excerpt from, of all pieces, Prokofiev’s Cinderella ballet! At the moment in the music when the clock strikes midnight, and Cinderella must go home, in the movie we approach the money shot!

I can’t help thinking this choice of music was a private joke of the film’s producers. Hearing music programmatically representing the ending of the traditional girl’s fantasy is juxtaposed with seeing the ending of the prurient man’s fantasy: one of the many ways the ruling class divides us is to promote male and female fantasies that are diametrically opposed to each other.

And just as the slaves and senators’ wives are degraded, so were the Penthouse Pets in the pornographic scenes in the movie. Consider the sad fate of “Anneka Di Lorenzo” (playing Messalina) to see my point. Consider also how Proculus (and the actor who plays him) is degraded: cuckolded before his eyes, then fisted, on his wedding day (in Howard’s novelization, Caligula sodomizes Proculus [pages 154-155]); stripped frontally naked before laughing Messalina and Agrippina (Lori Wagner), then stabbed to death slowly and sadistically; then after he passes out, he’s pissed on and emasculated.

Caligula’s provocations continue with the ‘invasion’ of Britain; he has his soldiers run naked (i.e., he degrades them to slave-like status) into some water and make war…with papyrus. Later, at a banquet, he displays the spoils of his ‘conquest’ of Britain: oysters and pearls placed in naked slave-women’s genitalia are presented by slave men carrying the women.

Caesonia warns Caligula that the “important men” of Rome now hate him; he replies, “Let them hate me–so long as they fear me.” In a provocation comparable to that of Camus‘ Caligula, he confiscates “the entire estates of all those who have failed Rome.”

He then discusses, with Longinus and Chaerea, a conspiracy against him that he’s heard of; he and Caesonia laugh when he brings it up. Caligula finds the notion of a plot against his life amusing because he no longer cares whether he lives or dies. Life is painful, absurd, and meaningless, because happiness–even as lord of the whole world–is impossible to attain. Camus’ Caligula is cruel to everyone for the same reason: even emperors are Spartacus-slaves in life, liberated only by death.

Caesonia still fears for him, and when she sees a bird flying about their bed one night, she screams at the omen–while Caligula looks at it and gives a slight smirk. He’s glad his death is coming soon, for he can then join Drusilla in Tartarus…a happy hell for them, since at least they’ll be able to suffer together.

Finally, Chaerea assassinates the emperor, who defiantly says, “I…live” as Chaerea’s sword cuts into him. He falls down dead, as do Caesonia and their daughter when the latter has her brains dashed on the steps. In death, Caligula is finally happy, as were Cleobis and Biton (Herodotus’ Histories, 1.31), and as Tiberius claimed was the soldier he killed for drinking wine while on duty.

The idea that Longinus and Chaerea choose Claudius (Giancarlo Badessi) to be the next emperor is more fake history, for it was the Praetorian Guard who chose to make him Caesar (as the last man living in the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Claudius as emperor was the only way to avert civil war). Claudius would have Chaerea executed for the killing of not only Caligula, but also Caesonia and the child.

In any case, we see–in replacing Caligula with Claudius–the unchanging reality of the contradiction of master vs. slave. Even if Tiberius and Caligula weren’t the depraved madmen/perverts that Suetonius claims they were, they were still masters oppressing their slaves, as ‘virtuous’ Claudius would also be: this latter evil is the one we should be paying attention to…but we don’t.

Conclusion

My original curiosity in this film (as I suspect is the case with many, if not most, other viewers) came in spite of–or rather, because of–its bad reputation. I had a morbid fascination with the thought…just how bad is this movie? How outrageous is it? How shocking? How disturbing? How revulsive? I sure learned how much. (Furthermore, I’d be dishonest if I were to claim that I had no interest in the sexual content in the movie, having written much erotic fiction myself.)

Having already been familiar with other dramatizations of imperial Rome under the Julio-Claudians (the I, Claudius and A.D.–Anno Domini TV miniseries), as well as writings on that period of history (Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio, and Robert Graves’s Claudius novels), I assumed the depravity of the emperors was true. Then, after reading such writers as G.P. Baker and Anthony A. Barrett, I learned otherwise.

Therefore, I have concluded that if we’re to take a serious look at the wickedness of imperial Rome (and, by extension, of the ancient world in general), the best way to look at it is in the class antagonisms of the time…just as we should focus on the class antagonisms of today. The masters’ brutal exploitation of their slaves is what should be focused on, not dubious reports of sexual perversity or madness in individual emperors.

However virtuous Augustus, Claudius, or Marcus Aurelius may have been in the eyes of their fellow nobiles, and however vile Tiberius, Gaius Caligula, Nero, or Domitian may have been in the ruling class’s opinion, what the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ emperors had in common is far more important than what was different between the two groups.

History would have been kinder to Tiberius–who had been an excellent general, and never wanted to be emperor–had he died around AD 23, for that was before the treason trials. Caligula, far from being the ‘anarchist’ that McDowell portrayed him as, actually strengthened and enlarged the personal power of the emperor, as opposed to the power of such men as those of the senate, directing much attention to construction projects and beginning the building of two aqueducts in Rome.

What must be emphasized is that the ‘bad’ emperors were vilified for injuries to the senate and other powerful men in Rome; both ‘bad’ and ‘good’ emperors kept the practice of slavery going unabated, with at best, only minor reforms to address the issue of the slaves’ oppression. We must learn to ignore the sensationalist narratives, the fake history, and focus on the banal evil that really happened, just as we should turn our heads away from the sensationalist fake news of today (i.e., what naughty things did Trump say last week?) and focus on the real wickedness committed all the time, year after year, regardless of who’s the leader or which political party is in power…a harsh reality that is largely ignored by the mainstream media.

We rightly condemn the Nazis for the roughly 11,000,000 people they murdered, but wrongly forget King Leopold II of Belgium, whose regime was responsible for the killing of up to ten or fifteen million black Congolese. We remember the former killers, because their victims were white; we forget the latter killers, because their victims were black. Similarly, we remember the wickedness of Tiberius and Caligula because their victims were fellow members of the upper classes; we forget the wickedness of all emperors and the other upper classes because their victims were slaves.

The sensationalism of Caligula is tasteless in the extreme, but in a way, appropriately so; for it reminds us of how unhelpful sensationalism and fake news are in understanding the true, everyday, unchanging reality of oppression in the world.

William Howard, “Gore Vidal’s Caligula”, Warner Books, New York, 1979

Robert Graves, I, Claudius, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1934

Albert Camus, Caligula, suivi de Le malentendu, Editions Gallimard, Paris, 1958

Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, Penguin Classics, London, this translation 1956

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Penguin Classics, London, translation first published 1957

G.P. Baker, Tiberius Caesar, Emperor of Rome, Cooper Square Press, New York, 1929

Anthony A. Barrett, Caligula, The Corruption of Power, Yale University Press, London, 1989