Analysis of the Primeval History in Genesis

I: Introduction

Genesis, or Bereshith (“In the beginning”) in the original Hebrew, is the first of the five books (Pentateuch) traditionally ascribed to Moses, the Torah. It’s actually the product of several writers and editors who, over the course of hundreds of years, gave it its final form. According to the persuasive documentary hypothesis, four stylistically distinct narrative strands can be found interwoven throughout the Tanakh (Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim–the Law, Prophets, and Writings), or the Old Testament, as Christians call it.

Those four narrative strands are, in approximate historical order, the Elohist, Yahwist (or Jahwist), Deuteronomist, and Priestly sources (E, J, D, and P). In the Yahwist source, God is referred to as YHWH (Yahweh, the Tetragram, translated as the LORD); the Elohist source calls God Elohim (“God,” or “gods,” depending on the context); the Deuteronomist source (“second law”) is to some extent a retelling of much of the law; and the Priestly source, predictably, serves the agenda of the ancient priests, and also has a more developed theology.

Many authors, not just one.

I’ll be examining the first eleven chapters of Genesis, known as the ‘primeval history.’

II: The Yahwist Adam and Eve Narrative

I will start with the Yahwist account of the Adam and Eve story, because its presentation of YHWH Elohim is much more primitive than the transcendental, spiritual depiction of Elohim as given in the Priestly account of the Creation. Indeed, the Yahwist God is both physically and mentally anthropomorphic, walking in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8); He’s also fallible and of limited knowledge, creating all the other animals as prospective companions for Adam before realizing that Eve is truly fitting for him (Genesis 2:18-22). He also needs to ask Adam where he is (3:9), who told him he was naked, and if he ate of the forbidden fruit (3:11), all needless questions for an omniscient God.

YHWH, after creating the Garden of Eden, made Adam out of the dirt (‘adamah, traditionally translated “dust,” Genesis 2:7) of the earth. Later, when YHWH tells Adam he will die for having eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, He says, “Dust (‘adamah) you are, to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19) Since Adam’s opposite sex companion has the name of Eve (hawwah, “life”), his equation with the dirt, where all the dead return, thus associates him with death. Opposite sexes represent opposite principles: for the ancients, woman is life; man is death.

The whole reason Adam was created (Genesis 2:5) was to till the garden (Genesis 2:15); in other words, man exists to work. Eve, as the “mother of all living,” was given life in order to give life herself: a great honour, but also a great burden. For the ancients, woman is; man does.

It isn’t my wish to defend these traditional roles and ancient attitudes; on the contrary, I comment on them to critique them, for I’m doing a critical analysis of Genesis to expose its authoritarian aspects. People shouldn’t be compartmentalized into roles, with a few at the top and most at the bottom. I’ll discuss more of that later.

Some have interpreted Adam as being a hermaphrodite prior to the creation of Eve. The removing of a rib from Adam during his sleep thus means that the rib symbolizes the feminine aspect removed from the primordial human being, thus creating separate sexes. Creation by separation is also seen in the Priestly account of the creation: heaven/earth, light/darkness, day/night, water/land, etc. More on that later.

All of this separation into distinct parts is seen as good according to the Biblical writers. I will be arguing the opposite opinion, since separation is used to justify discrimination, authoritarianism, and divisiveness–again, more on that later.

Adam and Eve were naked (‘arummim) and not ashamed, “naked” also implying vulnerable, helpless. Their unashamed, natural state also implies the naïve, innocent way of children, who don’t know much of anything. That the serpent is more subtle (‘arum), cleverer than any other animal, implies a special knowledge.

Thus we see a dialectical relationship between the words in the Hebrew pun, ‘arummim and ‘arum. There is a sweetness in the childlike innocence of allowing one’s secrets (symbolized by the would-be exhibitionism of showing one’s ‘private’ parts) to be known, and a wickedness in being clever, cunning; but there’s also a danger in that vulnerable innocence, and an advantage in having a knowledge that leads to cleverness, shrewdness (see also p. 14, HEBREW BIBLE, notes to Genesis 2:24-25, and 3:1-21). The good of one phases into the evil of the other, and vice versa, like the dialectical unity of opposites as can be symbolized by the tail-biting head of the ouroboros, another serpent I’ve discussed elsewhere.

The serpent tempts Eve by telling her that in eating of the Tree of Knowledge, she and Adam will be like God, or gods, depending on the translation of Elohim, to have the power of knowledge. Since Yahweh has forbidden eating of this tree, on pain of death, one must ask what’s wrong with acquiring knowledge.

Is this an allegorical illustration of how knowledge results in a sad loss of innocence? That’s one valid interpretation. Is this act of disobedience to God symbolic of carnal knowledge, the sex act, resulting in concupiscence? Or is eating the forbidden fruit an act of rebellion against our ‘loving’ Lord, who doesn’t want us to have the power that knowledge gives? Or do freedom and knowledge lead to isolation and fear?

III: From Freedom to Fear

In Escape From Freedom, Erich Fromm describes how Protestantism gave freedom from the authoritarian Catholic Church, but then left a vacuum of insecurity for Christians like Luther and Calvin, who resolved this problem with a far more authoritarian rigidity: “…while Luther freed people from the authority of the Church, he made them submit to a much more tyrannical authority, that of a God who insisted on complete submission of man and annihilation of the individual self as the essential condition to his salvation. Luther’s “faith” was the conviction of being loved upon the condition of surrender…” (Fromm, page 81, his emphasis)

Similarly of Calvin, Fromm writes, “Although he too opposes the authority of the Church and the blind acceptance of its doctrines, religion for him is rooted in the powerlessness of man; self-humiliation and the destruction of human pride are the Leitmotiv of his whole thinking.” (Fromm, page 84)

The Protestants, as we can see, were the authoritarian heirs of the priests, be they ancient Hebrew or Catholic. Again, instead of allowing the flock to seek knowledge, men like Luther and Calvin wanted the flock to submit to their authority, to see themselves as “naked” and helpless without that authority.

Erich Fromm.

IV: Blame and Punishment

Back to Genesis, where Eve gives Adam the forbidden fruit. Many traditionalists have done a misogynistic spin on this story, blaming Eve unfairly for the Fall, when the text itself clearly shows Yahweh judging and punishing the serpent, Eve, and Adam for the role each plays in the Fall.

John Milton, in Paradise Lost, took pains to soften the blame put on Eve, instead praising her beauty in virtue, in Book IX, lines 896-899: “O fairest of all creation, last and best/Of all God’s works, creature in whom excelled/Whatever can to sight or thought be formed,/Holy, divine, good, amiable or sweet!”

Instead of being tempted by her, Milton’s Adam freely chooses to fall with her, out of love: “Matter of scorn, not to be given the foe,/However I with thee have fixed my lot,/Certain to undergo like doom, if death/Consort with thee, death is to me as life;/So forcible within my heart I feel/The bond of nature draw me to my own,/My own in thee, for what thou art is mine;/Our state cannot be severed, we are one,/One flesh; to lose thee were to lose my self./So Adam, and thus Eve to him replied./O glorious trial of exceeding love,/Illustrious evidence, example high!” (IX, 951-962)

Now Milton was no proto-feminist, of course: he took the traditional patriarchal line that man is “the head of the other sex which was made for him; whom therefore though he ought not to injure,…” (The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce Restored to the Good of Both Sexes, page 223); but his kinder attitude towards Eve shows that the misogynist interpretation of her having tempted Adam was far from, and needn’t have been, universal.

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil isn’t merely about knowing right from wrong: “good and evil” is a Hebrew merism meant to represent all aspects of knowledge, i.e., from ‘the worst’ to ‘the best.’ Knowing right from wrong is perfectly defensible from a moral standpoint; if Yahweh is a moral God, He should be all in support of allowing Adam and Eve to have such knowledge. No: He’s opposed to Adam and Even gaining the power of knowledge, for such an acquiring of power would be a threat to His power.

The Christian notion of Adam and Eve being morally perfect before the Fall is illogical, as I described elsewhere: if they were originally without moral faults, they would never have chosen to disobey God. Milton’s rhetorical notion that they were “Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall” (III, 99) misses the point. Being “free” to sin alone doesn’t make a morally perfect person want to sin; his perfect morality will make it clear to him that sinning will bring about his destruction, no matter how tempting the act is, and no matter how free he is to commit the sin.

It would make more sense to regard the two naked lovers’ fall from grace in a dialectical fashion, that is, in trying to rise too high in the gaining of knowledge, to become clever (‘arum), they become knowledgeable only of their own nakedness (their being ‘arummim), of their vulnerability and helplessness, a falling to the lowest point. The ascent to the biting head of the ouroboros (powerful knowledge and being ‘arum), going past that point, and phasing into the serpent’s bitten tail of their naked (‘arummim) powerlessness. (Recall how I see the ouroboros as a symbol for a circular continuum.)

The ouroboros, my symbol for a circular continuum, the dialectical relationship between opposites. The biting head represents one opposite, and the bitten tail represents the other. One extreme taken too far phases into the other extreme. The coiled length of the body shows every intermediate point between the extremes.

Speaking of serpents, they were revered as symbols of rebirth, fertility, wisdom, and knowledge prior to the polemical pages of Genesis; thanks to YHWH’s punishment of the serpent for tempting Eve, it is now one of the most despised of animals, the hostility especially being between it and her (Genesis 3:14-15). Gaining knowledge is morally wrong, apparently.

Note the wording of Eve’s punishment, with respect to her relationship with Adam: “thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” In the New English Bible, this passage is rendered, “You shall be eager [or feel an urge] for your husband,” suggesting perhaps an emotional dependence, or a neediness, leading to his dominance in the family. I suspect the writers were manipulating women’s empathy and love, taking advantage of it, for the sake of reinforcing and justifying the patriarchal family.

Finally, Adam’s punishment: the difficulty and hardship of working in order to survive. I don’t mean to belittle or trivialize the toil that women also endure, especially today, to support their families–far from it; but we shouldn’t assume that the male role as traditional breadwinner is in any way glamorous, or a privilege. Part of ensuring equality for women will include no longer exploiting their “desire,” “urge,” or eagerness for their husbands (if they choose to have them); part of equality will also include eliminating compulsory sex roles, so both sexes can, to an equal extent, be free to be both providers and homemakers.

V: The Birth of Death

Then, while of course both Adam and Eve (and the serpent, for that matter) will eventually die–not the death of their innocence, which has already happened the day they ate the forbidden fruit, but actual, physical death–the death sentence is explicitly said by YHWH to Adam (Genesis 3:17-19). I suspect that this narrative is a mythical distortion, as so many ancient Greek, Roman, and Middle Eastern narratives are (read Frazer‘s Golden Bough to see what I mean), of an ancient rite of human sacrifice, the killing of the old sacred king by the new one (many examples of such mythical distortions of such rites can also be found in Graves‘s two-volume Greek Myths).

To understand what I mean by the myth distorting the original ritual, as opposed to just plain describing what happened, we need to consider how language in the ancient world expressed history and fact in a poetic, metaphorical way, as opposed to the modern descriptive, prosaic way. Northrop Frye elaborates: “The first phase of language…is inherently poetic: it is contemporary with a stage of society in which the main source of culturally inherited knowledge is the poet, as Homer was for Greek culture…There were technical reasons for this: verse, with its formulaic sound-schemes, is the easiest vehicle for an oral culture in which memory, or the keeping alive of tradition, is of primary importance…the ability to record [i.e., writing it down] has a lot more to do with forgetting than with remembering: with keeping the past in the past, instead of continuously recreating it in the present.” (Frye, page 22)

Poetry, not prose.

Frye continues: “The origins of the Bible are in the first metaphorical phase of language, but much of the Bible is contemporary with the second-phase separation of the dialectical from the poetic, as its metonymic “God” in particular indicates. Its poetic use of language obviously does not confine it to the literary category, but it never falls wholly into the conventions of the second phase.” (Frye, page 27)

So what we get in such characters as Yahweh, Adam, and Eve (as in so many of the other characters in myths of many other cultures of the ancient Middle East) is an alteration by metaphor and symbol of what originally happened in history, a result of the oral passing on of the story before it was finally written down. I don’t mean to show a dogmatic allegiance to the very fallible writing of Graves, Frazer, and the other Cambridge ritualists, for indeed, their ideas are far from universally applicable (and Graves’s ‘scholarship’ is particularly mischievous, to put it as kindly as possible); but I do think their ideas can be applied to these specific mythical narratives, as certain motifs seem to reappear here and there, and thus at least seem to show recognizable patterns.

In my speculation, Adam would have been the old king, engaging in an orgy with Eve (the queen) to promote fertility. The sexual symbolism of the two naked lovers eating forbidden fruit would suffice as the remnants of the original orgy, now mythically distorted (any other participants in the orgy having already been excised from the story). Finally, the new king (now YHWH) walks in the garden in the cool of the day, and kills the old king, something mythically distorted into a mere death sentence.

Another aspect of the rite of human sacrifice that seems to have been distorted and incorporated into the Adam and Eve narrative is the scapegoating and banishing of the one, or ones, who committed the sacrificial murder. I emphasize here that the narrative, as we have it, has distorted what originally happened, since those killed in the sacrifice also double as those banished, namely Adam and Eve.

The killer in the original sacrifice, represented here by Yahweh Elohim, could also, in a way, be the banished one, since His separation from humanity (because of the original sin of Adam and Eve) could be seen as yet another mythical distortion of the consequences of the rite of human sacrifice.

The story of King Oedipus serves as another example of the mythical distortion of the ancient rite of human sacrifice: Oedipus is the new king who murders the old sacred king (distorted into his father, King Laius), marries the queen (distorted into his mother, Iocaste), and incestuously enters her bed (a distortion of the orgia, or fertility rite). He leaves Thebes with his daughter/sister Antigone, a mythical distortion of the scapegoat who is banished from the city to expiate for the sins of the people of that city.

Cain’s murder of Abel, while on one level representing the shift from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural one, may also be a distortion based on a rite of human sacrifice, for the sake of founding a new city. For when Cain was banished by God and settled in Nod, to the East of Eden, he founded a city named after his son, Enoch. The Romulus and Remus myth (the former having killed the latter) also seems to be based on a rite of human sacrifice to found a city–Rome, of course. See Hyam Maccoby‘s book, The Sacred Executioner, for more details.

VI: The Sons of God

The opening of Genesis, chapter six, is fascinating. It reads like something straight out of pagan myth; know that the ancient Hebrews started with polytheism like everyone else in that part of the world, then shifted to monolatry (a belief in many gods, but commanded to worship only YHWH, their tribal deity), then finally to monotheism, as expressed in the transcendental, spiritual God of chapter one, from the Priestly narrative). The use of b’nei ha-Elohim (sons of God, or sons of the gods?) reflects this transition.

Whether they’re the sons of God, or of the gods, ultimately doesn’t matter: they’re clearly divine or semi-divine beings (angels? That they’re the descendants of Seth seems to me like a Church cover-up of the obvious paganism.) who have come down from the heavens to make love with “the daughters of men,” resulting in the partially divine Nephilim, giants, great heroes of renown. It reads like Zeus seducing pretty maidens, resulting in men like Heracles! Here we see an example of the Biblical transformation of pagan myth.

The whole p0int, however, of this sexual union of the “sons of God” with the “daughters of men,” leading to the explosion of sin in the world, and in turn leading to the Great Flood, is that according to Biblical morality, you gotta keep ’em separated–namely, the divine and human worlds. An intermixing of the elements separated in the Creation results in chaos, the literal Chaos of the primordial world before the Creation (Mays, pages 88-89).

Tohu wa-bohu…’Let there be light.’

VII: Creation From Chaos

Orthodox Christians insist that God created the universe ex nihilo, but this isn’t borne out in the first chapter of Genesis. When Elohim created “the heaven and the earth” (another merism, here meaning everything, the universe; but with the implied dualism of a separation of above from below, since people in the ancient world viewed the universe as a layer of heaven over a flat Earth, with the layer of Hades at the bottom), everything “was waste and void,” primordial Chaos, an infinite ocean, if you will, of formless, undifferentiated matter.

Milton–one of the best-read of English poets, and a polyglot who knew Italian, Greek, Hebrew, etc.–believed the heresy that God created the universe not ex nihilo, but out of primordial Chaos. Some of his belief may have been influenced by his reading of the Greek myths in their classical sources; but some of it must have been influenced by his understanding of the nuances of the original Hebrew, tohu wa-bohu.

So the ruach of this transcendental God (not the physical, man-like Yahweh who walked in the garden in the cool of the day and asked questions He didn’t know the answers to) moved upon the face of the waters, the waters of a Brahman-like oneness of undifferentiated matter. The “earth” (Genesis 1:2) wasn’t earth as such, since the land wasn’t yet formed by its separation from the oceans, the waters above hadn’t yet been separated from those below, and not even the light was yet formed by its separation from the darkness (choshek, which translated from the Hebrew is darkness, or confusion, this latter being an intermixing), no difference between day and night.

Light and darkness, waters above and below, land and water–creation by separation into opposites.

Everything was just a watery, dark oneness, similar to the Hindu speculations in the Rig Veda, 10.129. Creation in this Priestly narrative is all about separating things into dualistic opposites: first, light and darkness, creating day and night (without the sun!); then, the firmament separates waters above from the oceans below (remember, heaven is a layer above, and the Earth is a flat layer under it, according to the ancients), the second day; and the separation of the oceans from the land, the third day.

Paralleling the first three days, the next three days involve the creation of the sun for the day, and the moon and stars for the night, the fourth day; the creation of animals flying in the firmament versus the sea animals, the fifth day thus corresponding to the second; and on the sixth day, the creation of the land animals, and finally, ha-‘adam, male and female (implying a hermaphroditism that will be separated into sexes later), made in the image of Elohim. (Is “He” androgynous, too? That is, though Elohim has the masculine plural ending of -im, since the masculine is traditionally used as a generic form for both sexes, could the meaning “gods” imply the inclusion of goddesses, too?)

VIII: Separation is Saintly

God looked at his creation, everything separated into opposites, just as the Priestly writers wanted it, and He saw that it was tov, good. (Incidentally, the separation of every living thing after its kind has been used to justify racial segregation.) It is only the intermixing of these opposites, reunifying them, that is considered sinful. Hence the sin of Adam and Eve becoming like gods–“one of us,” God says to the angels (Genesis 3:22), who were once inferior gods in the heavenly, divine council of pagan times–by acquiring the power to know, yada, which also has a sexual connotation, the uniting of male and female, hence the interpretation that the naked couple’s sin was a sexual one.

Cain’s murder of Abel is sinful also because only the divine world has the right to decide when one may die; his killing of his brother thus shows him arrogating himself to a divine status, another forbidden mixing of above and below.

The plan to build the Tower of Babel, meant to reach up to heaven and so connect above with below, is once again an attempt to mix the divine world with the human one. Hence, God says to the heavenly host, “let us go down, and there confound their language,” (Genesis 11:7) making a babble of mutually incomprehensible languages.

IX: The Flood as Creation 2.0

So, to return to the deluge story, the divine beings above, making love with the women of earth is another forbidden mixture of opposites, resulting in a grotesque proliferation of sin that causes God to regret His creation of the world. The Great Flood is thus a return to the endless seas of Chaos before the Creation.

The end of the forty days and nights of rain (or is it 150 days and nights, according to the Priestly source?) parallels the Creation’s second-day separation of the waters above and below with the firmament. The slow receding of the waters after the flood parallels the separation of land and ocean on the third day of Creation. Noah’s sending of the raven and the dove to know if the waters have abated parallels the fifth day’s creation of birds. Noah’s family emerging from the ark, with all the pairs of animals, parallels the sixth day. Separations are re-established, all is well again, and God puts His rainbow in the sky. Noah’s sacrifice to God at an altar exemplifies a holy moment corresponding to the holy seventh day that God blessed and rested on.

But just as there was naked wickedness of a sexual sort in the Garden of Eden, so is there in Noah’s tent, in which he gets naked and drunk from the wine he’s made from the vineyard he planted. What does it mean when his son, Ham, sees him naked in the tent? A literal interpretation would have been sinful enough, given the ancient taboo against seeing one’s parents naked; but could Ham have done something worse?

Some scholars have suggested that Ham either raped or castrated Noah; another suggestion is that Ham raped his mother, who, as Noah’s patriarchal property, was thus also Noah’s nakedness, and so Ham was attempting to usurp Noah’s parental authority. Whichever interpretation is correct, we see once again an intermixing of realms (here, father vs. son) meant to be kept separate. It also reads like another distortion of a rite of human sacrifice (Ham = new sacred king; Noah = old sacred king; sex; violence; and banishment, distorted into Noah’s curse…)

Ham is cursed by Noah and regarded as a lowly servant, as his descendants, the Canaanites, will be. Since the descendants of Shem are the Jews and Arabs (Semites), and those of Japheth were once believed to be Europeans, the Hamites (living in parts of Africa [!]) were once regarded by white Christians as inferior; the enslavement of blacks was thus seen as being perfectly rationalized. Again, we see the evil of excessive separation, justified and presented as a false good to the world.

X: From Separation to Authoritarian Rule

The Priestly accounts’ emphasis on separation can be understood as a justification of their authority as representatives of God. They represent the separate, divine world, which mustn’t be mixed with the vulgar masses. The priests are separate, holy, and superior: this is how they get their power over the rest of us. The laity, on the other hand, are seen as inferior, unclean, and sinful–we must be ruled over. This attitude has survived, in different religious forms, to the present day, with–for example–Catholic priests largely unpunished as “sons of God” mating with the, figuratively speaking, “daughters of men.”

I don’t wish to saddle the ancient Hebrew priests with all of the blame for the divisiveness in the world. Obviously, this divisiveness has been the fault of many diverse groups throughout history, and in many cultures. But the priests’ promotion of separation as holy–in the forms I’ve described above, as well as in the notion of keeping the ancient Israelites, God’s chosen people, “pure” from intermarriage with Gentiles–has in no small way contributed to divisiveness and authoritarianism in general.

Major forms of such divisiveness in the world today–identity politics (on the right as well as on the left), the false dichotomy in American politics in the ineffectual two-party system, the apartheid nature of Israel–as well as historical racial segregation, have been reinforced by fundamentalists’ reading of these Biblical passages.

We need to end the dichotomizing of the world, and promote more unity and oneness. I like to compare Brahman to the Chaos before God’s creation-by-separation. I also compare Brahman to nirvana and to the dialectical monism of yin and yang, to dialectical and historical materialism, that which brings us all closer together in love and equality, not that which separates, isolates, and alienates us from each other.

Opposites should be seen as complementary, not as mutually hostile forces.

The promotion of knowledge, rather than the forbidding of it–as well as the intermixing of cultures and ethnic groups, and the mixing of sex roles–will help achieve liberation and equality. More knowledge means fewer authoritarians can rule over us. For these reasons, I tend to be the Devil’s advocate. I have sympathy for the serpent, the ouroboros of eternally flowing knowledge.

Further Reading:

James L. Mays, general editor, HarperCollins Bible Commentary, Harper, San Francisco, 1988

The Oxford Authors, John Milton: A Critical Edition of the Major Works, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1991

The New English Bible with the Apocrypha, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1961

JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1999

The Bible: Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford, 1997

Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1996

Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A New Abridgement, Oxford University Press, London, 1994

Robert Graves, The Greek Myths: Complete Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1992

Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1941

Northrop Frye, The Great Code: the Bible and Literature, Penguin Books, Toronto, 1990

A work of literature, NOT one of history.

Analysis of ‘A Clockwork Orange’

A Clockwork Orange is a 1962 dystopian novel by Anthony Burgess that was adapted into a film in 1971 by Stanley Kubrick. I’ll be discussing and comparing both. The story is narrated by its fifteen-year-old sociopathic protagonist, Alex the Large (DeLarge in the movie, played by Malcolm McDowell, who almost a decade after would play another psychopath, one from ancient Rome), a boy whose interests include drinking drug-laced milk with his “droogs” (Georgie, Dim [Warren Clarke], and Pete), beating people up (“tolchocking,” or “ultra-violence”), gang raping women (“the old in-out, in-out”), and listening to classical music, especially Beethoven.

In this futuristic world, the wayward teens speak a Russian-influenced argot called nadsat (<<If your nadsat is a little rusty, click the link provided [or this one], for I’ll be using quite a few of these words [I’ve italicized them, even in the quotes].). The central theme of the story is the dialectical tension between freedom and restriction, physical or mental, and how one may effectively–or ineffectively–resolve this tension, with or without harming society or the individual.

Here are some quotes:

From the novel: “What’s it going to be then, eh?” (Burgess, page 5)

There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. (page 5)

Then I looked at its top sheet, and there was the name -A CLOCKWORK ORANGE- and I said: ‘That’s a fair gloopy title. Who ever heard of a clockwork orange?’ (page 21)

‘ – The attempt to impose upon man, a creature of growth and capable of sweetness, to ooze juicily at the last round the bearded lips of God, to attempt to impose, I say, laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation, against this I raise my sword-pen – ” (page 21)

So I creeched louder still, creeching: ‘Am I just to be like a clockwork orange?’ (page 100)

‘Does God want woodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses to be bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?’ –Prison Chaplain, to Alex (page 76)

From the film:

Irish Drunk: Can you spare some cutter me brothers? Go on, do me in, you bastard cowards! I don’t wanna live anyway. Not in a stinking old world like this.”

Alex: Oh? And what’s so stinking about it?

Drunk: It’s a stinking world because there is no law and order anymore. […]

“Ho, ho, ho! Well if it isn’t fat stinking billy goat Billy Boy in poison! How art thou, thou globby bottle of cheap stinking chip oil? Come and get one in the yarbles, if ya have any yarbles, ya eunuch jelly thou!” –Alex

[While listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony] Oh bliss! Bliss and heaven! Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now. As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures!

“As an unmuddied lake, sir. As clear as an azure sky of deepest summer. You can rely on me, sir.” –Alex, to Deltoid

“You needn’t take it any further, sir. You’ve proved to me that all this ultraviolence and killing is wrong, wrong, and terribly wrong. I’ve learned me lesson, sir. I’ve seen now what I’ve never seen before. I’m cured! Praise God!” –Alex, during the application of the Ludovico technique

“When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” –Chaplain

In the Korova Milkbar, Alex and his droogs are drinking their “milk plus something else,” laced “with vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom or one or two other veshches,” wondering what to do that night. In the novel, the question, “What’s it going to be then, eh?” is repeatedly asked. The crimes they commit ultimately derive from boredom and sloth, a lack of purpose or direction in life. The boys also have too much freedom in their lives.

Excessive freedom, as Erich Fromm observed in Escape From Freedom, results in a sense of instability and unsureness, causing an anxiety that authoritarian rule would relieve one of. What are you supposed to do with yourself if you can do absolutely anything? A list of dos and don’ts provides a comforting structure, hence excessively free people (or, at least, people perceiving themselves as having too much freedom) tend to run back to forms of authority like fascism.

The violence of fascism can be symbolically seen in the droogs‘ crimes, as well as in their uniform-like outfits: in the novel, back tights, waistcoats with big shoulder-pads, “flip horrorshow boots for kicking,” and white cravats (pages 5-6); in the film, the iconic white outfits, black hats, codpieces, and black boots.

The ineffectual law enforcement of the government at the beginning of the story results in the droogs’ getting away with so much violence and rape; symbolically, this lax governance corresponds to a failed attempt at a left-libertarian society (Kubrick and other critics considered the society of his film to be initially like a failed socialism–the Russian-like nadsat symbolizes this sovietism, too, as does the pro-worker art that is defaced by graffiti).

In contrast, the later government’s use of the Ludovico technique on Alex, with its strict suppression of his criminal urges, symbolically suggests the rigidity and repression of fascism. The extreme left is not similar to the extreme right (as the horseshoe theory gets so absurdly wrong), but the one extreme dialectically phases into its opposite, as I’ve explained elsewhere.

The dialectic of freedom vs. restrictions is resolved with the idea that my right to swing out my arm, with my hand balled in a fist, ends where your face begins. Alex and his droogs, of course, have no respect for this resolution. Individual freedom to do whatever he wants is all that matters to Alex, even to the point of taking pleasure in hurting others.

Sadean delight in cruelty is shown in the film, not only with Alex and his droogs, but also with Billyboy and his droogs when they strip a beautiful “weepy young devotchka” naked and get ready to gang-rape her while a merry passage from Rossini‘s “Thieving Magpie” is heard in the soundtrack. This enjoyment in causing pain is especially evident during the “surprise visit,” when Alex gets ready to rape the “subversive” writer’s wife while singing “Singin’ In the Rain,” dancing, and slapping her and kicking her husband, forcing him to watch the rape.

In spite of how dreadful a human being Alex is, we nonetheless find ourselves liking and sympathizing with him, not just because he’s our “Friend and Humble Narrator,” but because he’s cultured and witty. His clever use of nadsat incorporates the archaisms of Elizabethan-era English, giving his already silver tongue an almost Shakespearean poetry. Then, of course, there’s his love of classical music–Beethoven in particular.

Normally, we stereotype punks as, for example, punk rockers; we look down on criminals as ‘low-life scumbags’; we think of sadists as brutish, unthinking monsters. That we can’t dismiss Alex in this way makes him all the more disturbing…for psychopaths are known for their dangerous charm. The juxtaposition of sadism with high culture is symbolic of the oppression of the ruling class. Nazis were art connoisseurs…though their reasons for liking or disliking this or that artwork were contemptible ones.

The sociopathic characters in the Marquis de Sade‘s explicit novels are cultured people in the upper classes: before and after their torture-laden orgies, they dine on sumptuous feasts, drink fine wine, wear beautiful 18th-century garments, and live in ornately decorated mansions. Sade’s satirical point in presenting his wicked characters in such finery was to allegorize the ruling class’s oppression of the people.

Alex is no aristocrat, but he has the narcissism of one. It shouldn’t be hard (pardon the expression) to know what he’s referring to in calling himself “Alexander the Large” (especially in the context of his raping the drunken ten-year-old “ptitsas” in his home while listening to Beethoven–page 39). As a pun on Alexander the Great, this moniker of Alex’s also embodies his egotism by comparing his assaults and rapes to the ancient Macedonian’s conquests and massacres. Alexander, ‘defender of men,’ defends individual freedom and culture by destroying those of other people; just as imperialism rationalizes its evil by claiming ‘to civilize the world.’

Alex has no illusions that what he’s doing is in any way moral, though. He knows his criminality is wrong; he does it anyway, because he enjoys it. Sade’s libertine characters also openly admit that they commit crimes, for criminal behaviour adds to their arousal. Deep down, we all like Alex because he dares to do what we’re too chicken to do.

We also have to consider Alex’s possible unconscious motives for committing heinous crimes. He’s obviously intelligent: why is he pressing his luck with the law? Even after Deltoid warns him that he’s getting dangerously close to being arrested (page 33), he still tempts fate…even to the point of antagonizing his fellow droogs (pages 25-27; 44-45), in whom he needs to have an unshakable trust. His wild rashness can’t just be reduced to youthful impetuosity.

Part of Alex’s unconscious is in conflict with his wish to be wild and free: part of him wants to be restricted. Recall Fromm’s analysis of the fear of freedom; people want a sense of structure, of where their place is in the world. Freedom from restrictions doesn’t often lead to a freedom to grow and fulfill one’s potential, to live in love and harmony with humanity. Freedom from, without the to following soon after, leaves a void.

Fascism and repression tend to fill that void. Fromm explains “the dialectic quality in this process of growing individuation. […] one side of the growing process of individuation is the growth of self-strength […] The other aspect of the process of individuation is growing aloneness. […] When one has become an individual, one stands alone and faces the world in all its perilous and overpowering aspects.

“Impulses arise to give up one’s individuality, to overcome the feeling of aloneness and powerlessness by completely submerging oneself in the world outside.” (Fromm, pages 28-29, his emphasis)

“We see that the process of growing human freedom has the same dialectic character that we have noticed in the process of individual growth. On the one hand it is a process of growing strength and integration, mastery of nature, growing power of human reason, and growing solidarity with other human beings. But on the other hand this growing individuation means growing isolation, insecurity, and thereby growing doubt concerning one’s own role in the universe, the meaning of one’s life, and with all that a growing feeling of one’s own powerlessness and insignificance as an individual.” (Fromm, pages 34-35)

Alex is smart enough to know that lashing out at his droogs will give the three of them motive for revenge. He’s been punished by the law before, though he’s “been out of the rookers of the millicents for a long time now” (Burgess, page 33); he has no reason to believe he’ll never get caught again, especially when he has to rely on three frienemies.

In prison, he has his structure, but no matter how much of the Bible he reads (which is just to be entertained by the violent parts), or how much advice he receives from the chaplain (Part Two, chapter 1), he still has no inclination to be good. In fact, Alex quickly tires of the physical restrictions he has around him, and mentally, he’s as free to be as wicked as ever; for prison overcrowding drives him to beat a new cellmate to death, or so is he blamed for it, anyway (Part Two, chapter 2). This, in the novel, is what causes him to be chosen to receive the Ludovico technique.

Despite what he says about wanting to be good (page 66), I’d say he only wants to change the nature of his restricted freedoms, from physical bonds to mental ones. So all of this switching from one kind of freedom/restriction dichotomy to another is just the sublation of the dialectical unity in opposition that Alex is trying to resolve.

Part of the contradiction of freedom vs. restriction is how one man’s exercise of such ‘freedom’ (licence, really) is another man’s bondage…to suffering. Alex’s freedom to beat up or rape his victims becomes their bondage to trauma. One opposite offsets the other; thus, they’re balanced in the Brahman of universal oneness.

When Alex has had the treatment turn him into “a clockwork orange,” that is, organic and natural-looking on the outside, but mechanical and inhuman on the inside, making him an automaton incapable of moral choice, he gets a karmic exchanging of the victim/victimizer roles, of enjoyer of freedom vs. victim of traumatic bondage.

From here on, we get the antithesis of all that we had from the beginning, and the opposites are paralleled especially in the movie. Instead of Alex and his droogs beating up a derelict, the derelict and his “droogs,” if you will, beat up clockwork Alex. Instead of him dumping Dim and Georgie into water, they–as corrupt cops–dump him in water (in the novel, Dim and Billyboy are the police who brutalize him–Part 3, chapter 3). Karma.

Instead of Alex terrorizing the “writer of subversive literature” (F. Alexander [another ‘defender of men’], played by Patrick Magee, who–in an interesting twist of irony–played the Marquis de Sade in the film version of Marat/Sade several years earlier) in his “HOME” and destroying his ‘Clockwork Orange’ writing, F. Alexander–Alex’s doppelgänger–sadistically terrorizes the boy by playing Beethoven’s Ninth (in the novel, it’s “the Symphony Number Three of the Danish veck Otto Skadelig”–page 130) and forcing him to hear it in a locked-up room, after the Ludovico technique has conditioned him to feel sick whenever hearing his beloved music. Karma, karma, and more cruel karma.

Instead of unconsciously trying to have himself incarcerated, Alex consciously tries to liberate himself from the hell of life, “the tortures of the damned” (in the novel, he even goes to the library to research how to kill himself painlessly–page 112).

Finally, he’s hospitalized instead of imprisoned, given “the best of treatment” instead of exposed to the tolchocking of cellmates, and had the Ludovico conditioning removed from him instead of put into his body. The self-serving government that made his body a concentration camp for his mind now gives him a job in exchange for forgiving them, so they can hope to be reelected. He’s “cured all right.”

Though the film excluded chapter 21, which the American editions of the novel had also excised until 1986; in a way, the final scene–of Alex fantasizing giving his grinning, willing bride [as I suspect she is] “the old in-out, in-out” in front of applauding onlookers (who, dressed formally, seem like wedding guests to me)–is the implied ending of the final chapter.

Eighteen years old now, and with a new trio of droogs, Alex is inspired by a conversation he has with his old droog Pete and his new wife (pages 145-146), and decides it’s time to grow up and give up on the life of crime. He ought to settle down and get married, too. Will his future son become a criminal, though?

“That’s what it’s going to be then, brothers…”

However lame this final chapter may be to readers who prefer licking their lips over dystopian writing with darker endings, it does make an important point about freedom: in choosing to give up on crime on his own initiative, Alex is demonstrating Fromm’s ideal about freedom to; Alex is going to use his freedom from restrictions, physical and mental, to be free to become a good, productive member of society.

And this is the final sublation of the contradiction of freedom vs. restriction: one freely chooses to restrict oneself from doing wrong to others. When I swing my fist, I stop myself from making it meet your face. Instead of a morally lax society that is too lenient on criminals, or one that’s repressively authoritarian, we have a society that understands the need to have a mix of freedoms and restrictions.

As Fromm explains, “submission is not the only way of avoiding aloneness and anxiety [resulting from excessive freedom]. The other way, the only one which is productive and does not end in an insoluble conflict, is that of spontaneous relationship to man  and nature, a relationship that connects the individual with the world without eliminating his individuality. This kind of relationship–the foremost expressions of which are love and productive work–are rooted in the integration and strength of the total personality and are therefore subject to the very limits that exist for the growth of the self.” (Fromm, page 29, his emphasis)

So, the individual still is an individual, but one connected with the world. Limits exist, but for the growth of the self. This is that mix of freedoms and restrictions, the final synthesis of freedom vs. bondage. One isn’t merely free from evil, but free to do good. One is an orange, but sweet on the inside.

Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange, Penguin Books, London, 1962

Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1941

Analysis of ‘The Dead Zone’

The Dead Zone is a supernatural thriller novel by Stephen King that was published in 1979. It’s about a man, Johnny Smith, who has psychic powers of precognition and clairvoyance, which give him visions of the past or future of whomever he touches.

David Cronenberg directed a film adaptation, with Christopher Walken as Smith, in 1983. A TV series with Anthony Michael Hall as Smith was produced in the 2000s. I’ll be referencing the novel and Cronenberg’s film.

Here are some quotes, from the novel:

“But the people didn’t elect buffoons to Washington. Well—hardly ever.” (p. 199)

“Did I grow a third eye?” –Johnny, p. 98

Nothing is ever lost, Sarah. Nothing that can’t be found.” (p. 402)

“It’s been my experience that ninety-five percent of the people who walk the earth are simply inert, Johnny. One percent are saints, and one percent are assholes. The other three percent are the people who do what they say they can do.” –Roger Chatsworth, p. 285

“PRECOGNITION, TELEPATHY, BULLSHIT! EAT MY DONG, YOU EXTRASENSORY TURKEY!” –hate letter to Johnny, p. 181

Well, we all do what we can, and it has to be good enough…and if it isn’t good enough, it has to do.” –Johnny’s letter to Sarah, p. 401

“…some things are better lost than found.” –Dr. Sam Weizak, to Johnny, p. 223

From the film:

‘”Bless me”? Do you know what God did for me? He threw an 18-wheeled truck at me and bounced me into nowhere for five years! When I woke up, my girl was gone, my job was gone, my legs are just about useless… Blessed me? God’s been a real sport to me!’ –Johnny Smith

“I need your support, I need your expertise, I need your input, and most importantly, I need your money.” [laughter] –Greg Stillson

“I have had a vision that I am going to be President of the United States someday. And nobody, and I mean nobody is going to stop me!” –Stillson

“Let’s send Greg Stillson to the United States Senate – and mediocrity to hell!” –Stillson […]

Johnny Smith: I’ve been tutoring this boy named Stuart. In the vision, I saw him drown. But that’s not the point. In the vision, something was missing.

Dr. Sam Weizak: How – how do you mean?

Johnny Smith: It was like… a blank spot, a dead zone.

Dr. Sam Weizak: First of all, tell me, did the boy, in fact, drown?

Johnny Smith: His father wanted him to play hockey. I talked him out of it. The boy’s alive.

Dr. Sam Weizak: Ah. Yes. Don’t you see how clear it is? Not only can you see the future, you can…

Johnny Smith: I can change it.

Dr. Sam Weizak: You can change it, exactly. Here. Yes, John. That is your… your “dead zone.” The possibility of… of altering the outcome of your premonitions. It’s fascinating. Let me make a note. […]

Johnny Smith: [touching the mother of serial killer Frank Dodd] You knew? Didn’t you?

Henrietta Dodd: You… you’re a devil, sent from Hell!

Henrietta Dodd (played by Colleen Dewhurst), mother of cop/serial killer Frank.

In spite of his special powers of knowing what most people couldn’t know, Johnny also has a limit to that unique knowledge, a realm of unknowing that he calls the dead zone: ‘The tumor lies in that area which I always called “the dead zone.”‘ (p. 396) This leads us to a central theme in the novel, a dialectical understanding of the relationship between knowing and unknowing. The biting head of the ouroboros (where dialectical opposites meet) of extrasensory knowledge leads to the bitten tail of unknowing.

Connected to this yin-and-yang concept of knowledge and ignorance is the relationship between organized religion–an authoritarian establishment often associated with superstition and fundamentalist bigotry towards any other forms of knowledge contradictory to its dogma–and intuitive mysticism and spirituality. Johnny’s mother, Vera, adheres to the former; Greg Stillson peddles the former as a Bible salesman in the 1950s; and Johnny demonstrates the latter with his psychic powers.

In this connection, consider what the Tao Te Ching says: “To realize that our knowledge is ignorance, this is a noble insight. To regard our ignorance as knowledge, this is mental sickness.” (71) Also, “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.” (56) Vera’s overconfidence in the ‘truth’ of her Christian fundamentalism, with her attendant neuroticism, demonstrates how she thinks she knows the truth, but doesn’t. Johnny’s admitted “dead zone” of unknowing, along with his unassuming nature, evading the spotlight, shows how he knows, because he doesn’t know.

Added to this virtue is Johnny’s loving, empathic nature. Those who insist on fundamentalist interpretations of Biblical prophecy, obsessing over how Scripture supposedly warns us of 20th and 21st century evils, things its writers couldn’t possibly have known, ought to recall what Paul wrote to the Corinthian church: “…though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2)

Sarah Hazlett (née Bracknell–played by Brooke Adams) and Johnny Smith (Walken).

Johnny has oceans of this love: he has it for his father, his mother (as irritating as her fundamentalism may be), and for his girl, Sarah, whom he would have married, if not for his car accident and four-and-a-half-year coma, a kind of extended stay in the belly of the great fish, making Jonah‘s sojourn a mere pit-stop in comparison.

In relation to the rest of the events of the story (and to Jonah’s, and to Jesus’ death and resurrection, to which Johnny’s coma is symbolically associated), the timing of Johnny’s coma is unusual. The coma occurs towards the beginning of the novel/film, before his hesitancy to use his abilities for the good of the world; whereas Jonah’s wish to escape having to obey God’s command preceded his time in the belly of the great fish. The same goes for Jesus’ harrowing of Hell, between his death and resurrection: this harrowing occurs towards the end of the four Gospels, after his temptation by the devil in the wilderness, and after his spiritual struggle in Gethsemane, as we know.

Johnny’s name is a pun on Jonah; it also shares a J with Jesus (Yeshua being a variant of Joshua). Johnny is a teacher, with a good heart, like Jesus (who was often called ‘rabbi’), and also like carpenter Jesus, he’s a man of modest means. Contrast Johnny with Trump-like, narcissistic Stillson, whose ambition is to become the US president one day, and to prove his daddy wrong, that he’s better than Daddy claimed he is (‘…his father was…bellowing, “You’re no good, runt! You’re no fucking good!”‘p. 9).

Heinz Kohut wrote of how the narcissistic personality grows from a lack of parental empathy, and this is clearly what Stillson lacked in childhood. Johnny, in contrast, has deeply loving parents, instilling a self-love in him that cultivates humility. Just as there’s a dialectical relationship between knowing and unknowing, so is there such a relationship between humility/self-love and narcissism/self-hate.

Greg Stillson (played by Martin Sheen), the man who would be president.

As it is within, so is it without: Johnny gives out love as best he can to the world, even when cruel, bad luck takes away his job and the love of his life (ironically and dialectically, right after his amazingly good luck on the Wheel of Fortune); Stillson, on the other hand, abuses a dog (when selling Bibles!–pp. 5-7), and bullies those around him to make them comply with his ambitions (e.g., Chapter 18). Even in the alternate future Johnny prevents, with Stillson achieving his presidential ambition, he chooses nuclear genocide over diplomacy with the Soviets. Johnny projects and introjects good, Stillson, evil, regardless of good or ill fortune.

In the end, though Johnny dies, his spirit is felt by Sarah: his Christ-like spiritual body (i.e., his hand–p. 401) touches her. In the novel, we don’t read of Stillson’s suicide, as we see it in the film; he is, however, spiritually destroyed by the scandal caused by his using a child as a human shield against Johnny’s rifle. In the end, Greg is still just the son of his contemptuous father. Johnny, however, is more of a son of God, not just through his abilities, but also through his selfless sacrifice for humanity.

Indeed, in many ways, Johnny’s life can be paralleled with Christ’s, though the order of events seem scrambled, reversed, or even of a contrary nature when compared to the narrative of the Gospels. As I’ve stated above, Johnny’s ‘death-and-resurrection’ coma occurs towards the beginning, rather than at the end, of the story. His final act of sacrifice to save humanity involves trying to kill a malefactor (Stillson) rather than save one, as Jesus does when he says, “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

When Johnny is shot, a bullet hits him in the hand (in the movie), suggesting the stigmata. According to the novel, the last bullet to hit him goes “into the left side of his midsection” (p. 384), comparable to the spear stuck in Christ’s side (John 19:34), the last piercing of his skin. Stillson’s use of the child as a human shield suggests the self-centredness of the other crucified malefactor: “If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.” (Luke 23:39)

Johnny and Sarah never stopped loving each other.

Sarah’s relationship with Johnny, still a love relationship after she married Walt Hazlett during Johnny’s coma, is an illicit one, since she commits adultery by sleeping with Johnny. Her adultery invites comparison with Mary Magdalene, who visited Christ’s tomb when he, risen from the dead, spoke her name (John 20:16). The comparison is clearer when Sarah feels the hand of Johnny’s spirit on her neck (p. 401)

So Johnny is the Jesus of anti-authoritarianism, symbolically in his ‘death-resurrection’ coma happening at the beginning of the story, rather than at the end, as in the Gospels; in his salvific assassination attempt on Stillson; in the superiority of Johnny’s psychic powers to the dogma of Christian fundamentalism.

“He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” (1 John 4:8) Johnny may have a dead zone, but he still has more in him than mortal knowledge, for he is full of love for humanity.

And even Vera’s unknowing has its limits, for she is right that Johnny should use his divine gift to help humanity. He is reluctant to at first, and in this way his struggle parallels Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, or Jonah’s attempted flight from God.

But Johnny eventually relents, helping the police catch a serial killer/rapist, who as it turns out is a cop himself, Frank Dodd! Here again, we see the anti-authoritarian Jesus in Johnny, exposing a killer among the authorities, the cops–something that upsets Sheriff Bannerman, who has held Dodd in high regard up to this point. This anti-authority Johnny is in this respect like anti-authoritarian Jesus, who exposed the moral hypocrisy of the Pharisees, the legal and religious authorities of his time. (Matthew 23)

Frank Dodd’s suicide, as envisioned in the film.

Dodd, as a serial killer/rapist, is of the Norman Bates/Ed Gein variety: he lives at home with his mother, Henrietta, from whom he’s received his pathologies, in particular, the notion of “those cheap slutty women that’d be happy to give a nice boy like my Frank an incurable disease” (p. 252). Henrietta is so obsessed with ‘protecting’ her son from “those cheap slutty women” that she “put a clothespin on it so [little Frank would] know how it felt…when you got a disease. A disease from one of those nasty-fuckers, they’re all nasty-fuckers, and they have to be stopped…” (p. 240)

The attitude that Dodd got from his mother, that ‘all women are whores,’ while his mother is apparently the only feminine angel (she who pierced his dick with a clothespin when he was a child!), is an example of psychological splitting, a common defence mechanism, but one here that is taken to a pathological level.

Thus we see in Dodd, as we see in Stillson, a common origin of authoritarian thinking: toxic parenting (consider Philip Larkin‘s famous poem in this regard). The Biblical injunction to “honour thy father and thy mother” is transferred, by the victims of toxic parents, onto a similarly pathological honouring of authority figures–police, politicians, and religious leaders, even to the point of revering scriptural conceptions of divinity.

Now, Johnny has quite a flawed mother, one whose religious excesses he even compares to Henrietta’s pathologies: “there was something in her eyes, narrowed to glittering slits in their puffy sockets, that reminded him unpleasantly of the way his mother’s eyes had sometimes looked when Vera Smith was transported into one of her religious frenzies.” (p. 251)

Johnny having one of his visions.

But Vera’s faults don’t cause Johnny to split his internal and external worlds into narcissistic idealizing and devaluing, as Stillson’s and Dodd’s parents do. Johnny’s psychic gift symbolizes his empathy, for it connects and unifies him with the external world, rather than alienates him from it. His precognition and clairvoyance also link the past, present, and future for him. Finally, the paradox of his knowing and unknowing, his psychic authority (coupled with his spiritual anti-authoritarianism), the living death of his coma, and his saving of the world by trying to murder Stillson, all show how his actions unify opposites.

Thus, Johnny symbolizes the ideal that I call The Three Unities, those of Space, Time, and Action, a spirituality free of the authoritarianism of organized religion. This dialectical monism is similar to Wilfred Bion‘s concept of O, an ineffable, inscrutable notion of Ultimate Reality that is attained only through an “abandonment of memory, desire, understanding, sense impressions — and perhaps also the abandonment of ego itself.” (Grotstein) This abandonment of understanding almost sounds like a giving-up of knowledge…the dead zone for accessing divine knowledge? Attaining knowing through a cloud of unknowing? How dialectical!

To return to the Christian symbolism of the story, I find it interesting to compare Johnny’s suffering with Jesus’ passion. As I’ve stated above, Johnny’s coma is a symbolic death and resurrection. Jesus’ physical suffering–his scourging, the crown of thorns, the nails through his hands and feet, and the torture of slowly dying on a cross (hence the term excruciating)–is the temporal opposite of Johnny’s psychological suffering–losing Sarah, losing four and a half years of his life, losing his teaching job, and losing his ability to walk normally–which comes after his coma.

This reversal of events symbolizes how Johnny’s a kind of ‘anti-Jesus,’ if you will (not an antichrist, of course!), in that his miraculous acts, his self-sacrifice, and his love of humanity don’t result in a new religion exploiting his memory to establish yet another authoritarian institution. His dead zone, emphasized in the story to the point of being its title, shows how important it is to stress the limitations of one’s talents and knowledge, which is the true basis of humility.

If we pretend we don’t have those limitations, we become like the “slick” Dodd (p, 240), or “The Laughing Tiger” Stillson (p. 293), men whose overweening pride collapses into shame, as when Dodd confesses (p. 255) and kills himself, and in the aftermath of Stillson’s use of a child as a human shield. Tragic irony for the hubristic.

(By the way, another bit of paradoxical irony is seen in how narcissistic Stillson is compared to Trump, and in many ways correctly so, of course: yet, where Stillson as president endangers humanity by wanting to start nuclear war with Russia, Trump’s relative reluctance to show hostility to Russia is what makes the political establishment dislike him. As I’ve argued elsewhere, though, our reasons for disliking him should be the same reasons for disliking that political establishment: they’re all authoritarian narcissists, and they’re all dangerous…but hey! What do I know?)

Stephen King, The Dead Zone, Signet Books, New York, 1979

Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching, Shambhala, New York, 1961

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 ‘Moby-Dick’

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Mocha Dick, the real-life whale that inspired Melville’s tale.

I) Introduction and Quotes

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, is a novel by Herman Melville, published in 1851. The story is about Captain Ahab‘s mad quest for a huge albino whale, which bit off his leg in a previous attempt to kill it by his crew of harpooners. The story is narrated by a young man, the orphan Ishmael, the sole survivor of Ahab’s second attempt to kill the white whale.

Though the novel got a mixed reception on its original publication, its critical reputation grew over the 20th century, and it’s now considered the preeminent American novel, and one of the greatest works of literature of all time. Moby-Dick deals with such profound philosophical issues as epistemology and the nature of ultimate reality, evil, nature, etc., as symbolized by the whale and the ocean.

Here are some famous quotes:

Loomings (1)

“Call me Ishmael.”

“Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.”

“Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning…we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”

The Spouter-Inn (3)

“Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

The Sermon (9)

“…all the things God would have us do are hard for us to do…if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.” –Father Mapple

The Mast-Head (35)

“…lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Cranmer‘s sprinkled pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over.

“There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!”

The Quarter-Deck (36)

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” –Ahab

“Aye, aye! It was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!” Then tossing both arms, with measureless imprecations he shouted out: “Aye, aye! and I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out.” –Ahab

Moby-Dick (41)

“All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick.”

The Whiteness of the Whale (42)

“What the white whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid.”

“Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls…with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.”

“Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows — a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues — every stately or lovely emblazoning — the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge — pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”

The Fossil Whale (104)

“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.”

Ahab and Starbuck in the Cabin (109)

“Let Ahab beware of Ahab.”

The Pacific (111)

“There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seems to speak of some hidden soul beneath.”

The Chase–Third Day (135)

“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!” –Ahab

Epilogue

“The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth? — Because one did survive the wreck.”

“On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”

II) Search for Truth

 

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Ishmael’s extracts, supplied by a sub-sub-librarian.

There is a preoccupation with acquiring knowledge of everything in Ishmael’s narrative, as we can see from his discussing all matters pertaining to the whale (a pun on whole; and Moby Dick can be seen as a symbol of the more terrifying aspects of ultimate reality). Recall ‘Etymology,’ which gives a list of whale in various languages, including Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon (WHOEL), Danish (HVALT), Dutch (WAL), Swedish (HWAL), etc. Note also “Cetology,” chapter 32, as well as Ishmael’s many digressions into philosophical matters.

I believe this search for truth is his reason, in a symbolic sense, for tiring of the land and wanting to return to the sea; for the waves of the ocean represent that fluid reality of rises and dips (i.e., in fortune) that we all experience everywhere in life. Reality isn’t in the things in the water, like the whales that are caught: it’s in the water itself. The preoccupation with catching those things is what causes our suffering…as it does Ahab.

III) Ishmael and Queequeg: From Foes to Friends

Queequeg

Ishmael has to share a room, at the Spouter-Inn, with Queequeg, a Polynesian pagan harpooner. Their meeting at night, with Ishmael sleeping in Queequeg’s bed, is hostile at first, since the latter isn’t expecting a roommate.

Soon, the two become good friends (Chapter 10, ‘A Bosom Friend’), the two even sharing in each other’s form of worship; for Ishmael bows with Queequeg before the latter’s idol (Chapter 10–“A Bosom Friend”, pages 67-68), and Queequeg attends Father Mapple‘s church service with Ishmael (Chapter 7–“The Chapel,” page 52; though Queequeg leaves some time before the benediction–Chapter 10–“A Bosom Friend,” page 64).

Christian Ishmael and pagan Queequeg are opposites who, though clashing at first, soon learn not only to accept each other’s differences, but even participate in the opposite’s ways. Their relationship thus demonstrates the dialectical relationship between opposites, something Ahab can never learn do with Moby Dick.

IV) Mapple’s Sermon

architectural photography of white and green church bell tower under clear sky
The Chapel

During Father Mapple’s sermon, which the preacher gives on a pulpit designed like a ship (for his sermons are his way of edifying his “shipmates,” his steering of the boat on the ocean of life, so to speak), he discusses the events written of in the Book of Jonah.

“Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah” (Jonah 1:17), for he didn’t want to obey God and preach to the sinful people of Nineveh. We tend to think of the “great fish” as a whale, though of course a whale–being a mammal–is no fish. Melville’s narrative, while acknowledging Linnaeus‘ reference to, among other distinctions, the whale’s “feminam mammis lactantem,” still insists that a whale is a fish (Chapter 32–“Cetology,” pages 139-140), linking Jonah’s story thematically with Moby Dick; for Ishmael calls upon “holy Jonah” as his authority on the matter.

Jonah’s “three days and three nights” of terror “in the belly of the fish” transform him from a rebellious sinner into an obedient servant of God, a dialectical shift from the hell of the bitten tail of the ouroboros to the heaven of its biting head. Transformative moments like these, like a harrowing of hell, make saints out of sinners. Ahab will never make that change, for he forever hates the white whale, even in death.

V) Melville’s Critique of Emerson

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

When Father Mapple says that in obeying God, we must disobey ourselves, Melville is using the preacher as his mouthpiece to criticize the Transcendentalists, and Ralph Waldo Emerson in particular, with his essays “Self-Reliance” and “The Over-Soul.” In the former essay, Emerson wrote of the apparent divinity of the individual soul, which should be relied upon to the exclusion of accepting any advice from the all-too-conforming community.

The danger of such self-reliance is how it can lead to egotism, narcissism, and contempt for the rights and feelings of others. Ahab personifies self-reliance taken to such foolish extremes, for he ignores Starbuck’s warnings and criticisms, and gets his whole crew killed (save Ishmael) at the end.

Emerson’s “Over-Soul” gives a philosophical, quasi-mystical rationalization of this self-reliance, for this “self” is seen as divinely similar to Atman. Emerson had read translations of such Hindu texts as the Bhagavad-Gita; texts such as these include such doctrines as Atman being equal to Brahman, Emerson’s “Over-Soul,” the unifying soul in all life and in all things.

The problem with Emerson’s interpretation of these Hindu ideas is in how, addled by Western tradition’s preconceptions (i.e., Plato’s idealism, the good soul vs. the sinful flesh, etc.), he Christianizes the “self” (i.e., Atman, the individual soul), and imagines individuality to be all good. Such a sentimentalizing was never intended by the Hindus.

Because divinity in Eastern mysticism encompasses everything–or conversely, it’s described in terms of what it’s not (for to describe the divine in terms of what it is would qualify it, and thus limit it)–it mustn’t be thought of as merely ‘good.’ It has both alluring and terrifying aspects. Bion‘s mystical O, for example, is seen as having traumatic qualities. The divine is everything and nothing, both good and evil…and neither/nor.

But Emerson came from a Christian tradition that sees God as all-good; Western translations of Hindu texts often clumsily render Brahman, or the divine, as God, which is misleading; for God is a monotheistic concept, whereas concepts like Brahman are monistic. Not even ‘pantheism‘ really covers what something like Brahman is.

VI) Pantheism, the Ocean, and the Ouroboros

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The ocean as a dark, frightening place.

When one thinks of pantheism, one often thinks of the peacefulness of walking about in the woods, or dwelling dreamily in places like Wordsworth‘s ‘Tinturn Abbey‘, feeling “a sense sublime/ Of something far more deeply interfused,/ Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns” (lines 95–97) and the immanence of “A motion and a spirit, that impels/ All thinking things, all objects of all thought,/ And rolls through all things” (lines 100–103).

Melville, on the other hand, uses the tempestuous ocean as his preferred image of nature to warn us of the danger of sentimentalizing pantheism (see ‘The Masthead’ quote above). I prefer the image of the ocean as a symbol of the dialectical monism that I subscribe to, for the rising and falling waves suggest our ongoing shifts between good and bad fortune.

When I wrote of how a “contemplation combining what I call the Three Unities (of SpaceTime, and Action) will, with repeated practice over a long period of time, bring us closer and closer to that nirvana of no more pain, a putting of all the pieces back together,” I never meant that to be some kind of feel-good, New Age sentimentality. “Closer and closer” are the key words there: “no more pain” shouldn’t be misinterpreted as an absolute state.

Indeed, the smug excess of sentimentality is the biting head of the ouroboros, where one is “too healthy,” as I’ve written about elsewhere; this emotional state is one of narcissistic overconfidence, a False Self delusion that can lead, if one isn’t careful, to the madness of fragmentation. This is the danger Captain Ahab is throwing himself into, a danger of slipping past the serpent’s biting head to its bitten tail.

You see, the symbolism of the ouroboros as a unifying of opposites (the serpent’s head biting its tail) shows how we should properly understand ultimate reality: a marriage of heaven and hell, a union of knowledge and ignorance, a fusion of good and evil.

VII) Character Pairings: Unified Opposites

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We see pairings of opposites throughout Moby-Dick. We’ve already seen the pairing of pagan Queequeg and Christian Ishmael; we’ve touched on the opposition of wise, cautious chief mate Starbuck vs. mad Captain Ahab; let’s now consider some others.

Other parings include retired Captains Peleg and Bildad, two Quakers who own the Pequod and sailed in it before giving the helm to Ahab. “Like Captain Peleg, Captain Bildad was a well-to-do, retired whaleman. But unlike Captain Peleg–who cared not a rush for what are called serious things, and indeed deemed those selfsame serious things the veriest of all trifles–Captain Bildad had not only been originally educated according to the strictest sect of Nantucket Quakerism, but all his subsequent ocean life, and the sight of many unclad, lovely island creatures, round the Horn–all that had not moved this native born Quaker one single jot, had not so much as altered one angle of his vest.” (Chapter 16–“The Ship,” page 87)

On the next page, “…old Bildad…seemed absorbed in reading from a ponderous volume.

“‘Bildad,’ cried Captain Peleg, ‘at it again, Bildad, eh? Ye have been studying those Scriptures, now, for the last thirty years, to my certain knowledge. How far ye got, Bildad?’

“As if long habituated to such profane talk from his old shipmate, Bildad, without noticing his present irreverence, quietly looked up, and seeing me, glanced again inquiringly towards Peleg. […]

“‘He’ll do,’ said Bildad, eyeing me [Ishmael], and then went on spelling away at his book in a mumbling tone quite audible.

“I thought him the queerest old Quaker I ever saw, especially as Peleg, his friend and old shipmate, seemed such a blusterer.” Yet, in spite of Bildad’s apparent Bible-perusing piety, as opposed to Peleg’s “irreverence” and “impenitent” nature, Bildad’s the “stingy” one, offering Ishmael an exceedingly small share of the ship’s profits (the 777th lay), as opposed to “generous” Peleg’s offer of the three hundredth lay (Ishmael has been hoping for the 275th lay). Here we see the mingling of opposites in Peleg and Bildad, the antitheses of pious parsimony and impious generosity. (pages 89-91)

Another pairing is of Stubb, the cheerful, laughing, happy-go-lucky second mate, as contrasted with Flask, the mean, grumpy, nasty third mate. For all of Stubb’s cheerfulness, though, he feels such a hostility to Fedallah, the Parsee who has an evil influence on Ahab, that Stubb imagines the Parsee “to be the devil in disguise,” with a tail he hides in his pocket; and he’d like to throw Fedallah overboard. (Chapter 73–“Stubb and Flask Kill a Right Whale; and Then Have a Talk Over Him”, pages 315-317) And for all of Flask’s surliness, and his own suspicion of the Parsee, he isn’t sure of Stubb’s equating of Fedallah with the devil.

In one way, grumpy Flask can be seen as the double of mad, scowling Ahab: “Flask…who somehow seemed to think that the great Leviathans had personally and hereditarily affronted him; and therefore it was a sort of point of honor with him, to destroy them whenever encountered” (Chapter 27–“Knights and Squires,” page 125); and Stubb–in his fear that “Fedallah wants to kidnap Captain Ahab”–can be Starbuck’s double. Yet in his wish to rip off Fedallah’s “tail,” Stubb’s rather like Ahab in his wish to get revenge on evil; for ripping off the Parsee’s “tail” is a symbolic castration, as is Ahab’s loss of his leg to Moby Dick. Again, characters with opposing personalities find their traits intermingling.

A pairing of particular importance is Ishmael vs. Ahab. Both men are seeking something, obsessively questing for the deepest knowledge. Ishmael demonstrates this in his near-encyclopaedic display of knowledge of all things cetacean. With Ahab, though, there’s only one whale he seeks.

VIII) Knowledge and Ignorance, Black and White

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The whiteness of the whale.

A major theme of Moby-Dick is epistemology, or the philosophy of knowledge and how it is attained. Whales symbolize this knowledge that is sought, for knowledge, like whales, is elusive to its hunter; when you come at it, knowledge can hurt, as when whales smash up whalers’ boats.

The white whale is that ultimate knowledge: its whiteness is like the divine light of perfect knowledge…but that white light can also be terrifying (Chapter 42–“The Whiteness of the Whale”). Ahab is mad to want to confront such dangerous knowledge. Ishmael, in contrast, can adapt and change in his search for knowledge; he can flow and shift with the waves of the ocean. Ahab’s monomania keeps him as rigid and hard as Moby Dick’s powerful body; the captain projects his own evil onto the white whale.

We normally think of darkness and blackness as evil; consider the bigoted Spanish Sailor who taunts Daggoo, the African harpooner (Chapter 40–“Midnight, Forecastle,” page 178). These two are another pairing of opposites who are also alike in crucial ways, for while the Spanish Sailor calls Daggoo “devilish dark,” provoking a fight, consider the swarthiness of the average Spaniard compared to whites of North European descent. And when a flash of light in the dark is said by the Spanish Sailor to be “Daggoo showing his teeth,” we see a mixture of black and white in him, another mixing of opposites.

So as we can see, both black and white can be evil…and good. Both knowledge and ignorance can be evil, too…and sometimes ignorance is better–and safer–than knowledge; since some knowledge simply cannot be found or mastered. Ishmael can accept this reality. Ahab can not.

IX) Marine Masculinity and Narcissism

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The sperm whale: a giant phallus in the ocean.

Yet another pairing is Moby Dick, or sperm whales in general, and the ocean. While Melville’s whales are overwhelmingly masculine (more on that below), la mer est la mère. Now, the feminine is conspicuously absent in this novel, or at the very least minimized, even for a story about men at sea. Even on land, all of the significant characters are male: apart from those already mentioned, there are Peter Coffin, owner of the Spouter-Inn, and Elijah, who prophesies the doom of the Pequod.

The sperm whales, whether male or female in reality, are all male by symbolic association. Though there’s no evidence earlier than the 1880s of dick being used as a slang word for penis, it had been used to mean man, fellow, for centuries. Moby Dick is a giant white phallus spouting water (symbolic ejaculation) swimming in Oceanus, a male god of the ocean. Consider also, as Camille Paglia did (Paglia, page 587), “that unaccountable cone,” “the grandissimus,” that is a sperm whale’s penis being lugged by three sailors (Chapter 95–“The Cassock”).

Moby Dick is the rigid thing Ahab wants for having bitten off his leg (a symbolic castration causing him narcissistic injury), whereas the ever-shifting, ever flowing ocean is a nirvana of no-thing-ness, of anatta (no self). Ahab’s peg leg is made of whale bone, his revenge on ‘castrating’ whales. Phallic harpoons stab into the phallic sperm whales, the piercing a kind of circumcising of them, and a rite of passage for novice Ishmael.

Lacan‘s phallus is a signifier, bringing us into the world of language, the Symbolic Order, uniting us with community through communication. Symbolically castrated Ahab is thus cut off from community, from an ability to communicate in a truly human way, in a way that connects with others and exchanges empathy, hence his solipsistic madness and his never heeding Starbuck’s warnings. Intact Ishmael, however, is so linguistically complete that he gives the words of whales in various languages (“Etymology,” page 9), and he quotes Linnaeus’ Latin in “Cetology,” page 139.

Ahab’s narcissism is apparent in his willingness to “strike the sun if it insulted” him. His egotism is the result of too much self-reliance, as Melville warns us all against. Recall “Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.” (Chapter 1–“Loomings,” page 23)

X) Zoroastrian Dualism, and the Deluge

night fire burning sparks
Fire: Fedallah’s Sacredness, Ahab’s Hell of Desire and Suffering, which can be extinguished only by nirvana, a giving-up of his self.

Next, we must consider Fedallah, the Parsee. His influence over Ahab has been seen as Satanic, if you’ll recall what Stubb has to say about him in chapter 73. In this connection, it’s interesting to note Melville’s allusion to the beginning of chapter six in Genesis (fittingly, in a dialectical sense, at the end of Chapter 50–“Ahab’s Boat and Crew. Fedallah”).

Melville calls the sons of God (or sons of the gods, depending on the translation of b’nei ha-elohim) angels, who “consorted with the daughters of men,” which in turn led to the wickedness that caused Yahveh to bring about the Great Flood, which in the ancient, pre-scientific cosmology meant a bringing together of the previously separated waters of the heavenly firmament and the oceans below, a return to the formless Chaos of the beginning of Creation.

Melville also mentions devils having “indulged in mundane amours,” suggesting such a close relationship between Fedallah (a prophetic, heathen ‘son of the gods’) and Ahab (a wicked ‘daughter of men’–i.e., he’s been symbolically castrated), which will result in a deluge-like drowning of everyone (save Noah-like Ishmael) at the end of the novel.

Fedallah, as a Parsee, adheres to the Zoroastrian religion, which has a dualistic understanding of good vs. evil. The religion has an optimistic eschatology, believing Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd), God and principle of light, goodness, wisdom, and order, will so thoroughly defeat the devil Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), the principle of darkness, evil, destruction, and chaos, that even sinners suffering in Hell will eventually be redeemed, liberated, and brought into heaven.

Such a consummate ‘happy ending’ to sacred history is the kind of thing Melville would have been suspicious of, as we’ve seen in his assessment of Emerson’s ‘self.’ Ahab, in his hopes of killing Moby Dick–the symbol of all that is evil in his world–is searching for that Zoroastrian happy ending, a thorough (Thoreau?) wiping out of all evil–and Fedallah is helping him do that.

So, is Fedallah an angel or a devil…the Hegelian thesis, or its negation? Or is Fedallah a fallen angel…the Hegelian synthesis? Again, we see the merging of opposites, as was the Great Flood a merging of water above and water below, a return to Chaos. And as a Zoroastrian, is Fedallah an agent of Ohrmazd, principle of order, or one of Ahriman, principle of chaos? Is he both principles at once?

Is the deluge-like killing of the crew an evil horror, or is it a purging of evil, like the temporary Hell of the Parsees? Is the infinite ocean of Brahman, the sea of primordial Chaos, a terrifying watery grave one may fall into because of one false step (as traumatized Pip experiences it to be when he jumps ship the second time; Chapter 93–“The Castaway,” pages 395-397; remember also “The Mast-Head” quote above), or is it the painful but necessary purging of the world, creating a purity like the sacred fire and water of the Zoroastrians (hence, Pip’s trauma is also his mystical experience)?

The Zoroastrians would dualistically separate good and evil; as Yahveh Elohim separated the waters above and below, as He separated the divine and human worlds later reunited by the union of the sons of God with the daughters of men. Emerson would keep good and evil so separate as to suggest evil doesn’t even exist in his holy Over-Soul and its immaculate Atman, the individual self. Melville was saying we cannot separate good and evil. The evil of the whales’ painful knowledge will always swim in divine Oceanus; the strongest of these evils–like Moby Dick–will never be defeated.

Noah-like (or rather, Deucalion-like) Ishmael, floating on the arc-like coffin built for Queequeg (comparable to the chest Deucalion and Pyrrha were in to protect themselves from Zeus’s deluge), understands the inseparability of good and evil, of life and death, of black and white, of ignorance and knowledge, or of any pair of opposites; and clinging to a wooden symbol of death, he is the only one of the crew who lives in the end.

XI) The End, But No Surcease of Suffering

ancient antique art death
Death: Ahab’s Gift to His Crew

“AND I ONLY AM ESCAPED ALONE TO TELL THEE.”  (Epilogue)

This quote is from Job, chapter one, repeated in verses 15, 16, 17, and 19, spoken by messengers to Job, a good servant of God, all of them telling him misfortunes that have befallen him. The Book of Job‘s purpose is to reconcile how evil afflicting good people can exist in a world ruled by a good God. In other words, it’s a theodicy in allegory…as, in a way, Moby-Dick can be seen to be.

God, the receiver of blessings and praise, can be seen as the thesis, to which Satan (ha-satan, “the accuser,” or “the adversary”) can be seen as the antithesis, or negation, since Job’s Satan offers the counter-argument that Job would curse God if all his good fortunes were to be taken from him. Theodicy is an attempt at a synthesis, or sublation, of the opposing contradictions of good and evil.

As I’ve said above, only Ishmael survives because only he can figure out this sublation. He, after the death of his shipmates, is an orphan: alive, but floating on a coffin.

It is significant that Ahab dies being tied by his harpoon to Moby Dick, and being dragged out into the water with the whale. “Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!” (Chapter 135–“The Chase–Third Day,” page 534) He dies because of his undying attachment to the white whale.

One could describe Ahab’s madness in Buddhistic terms, namely, the Three Poisons of delusion/ignorance, attachment/craving, and aversion/hate. The hard, firm, strong body of Moby Dick–as opposed to the rolling, shifting, changing waves of the ocean–represents Ahab’s delusion of permanently existing things, and thus his ignorance of impermanence, or no-thing-ness.

His monomaniacal craving for the whale, to find and catch it to the exclusion of all other considerations, is of course not out of desire for, but out of hatred of Moby Dick. His wish to kill, to annihilate the white whale leads to his self-destruction because of his delusion of the separateness of self and other, and of the seeming absoluteness of being and non-being; he fails to see the interconnectedness of all things, including self and other.

And in trying to kill Moby Dick, his own evil projected onto the whale, he kills himself. The egotism of the narcissist is actually a ‘pasteboard mask’ hiding his secret self-hate. Though Narcissus, having fallen in love with his reflection in the water, fell in and drowned (“Loomings,” page 23); Ahab, hating the image of the white whale in the water, failed to see its face as a pasteboard mask of himself–thus he fell in and drowned, too.

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Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, Penguin Popular Classics, London, first published 1851

Analysis of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

2001: A Space Odyssey is a 1968 science fiction movie produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick and written by him and Arthur C. Clarke. The film is often said to be based on Clarke’s short story, “The Sentinel,” but this is a gross oversimplification, as only a small moment in the film parallels the story, and even that part is radically rewritten. The actual literary equivalent of the film is the novel credited only to Clarke, but cowritten by Kubrick.

Considered one of the greatest films of all time, 2001 is an epic meditation of philosophical, mystical, and even spiritual/religious proportions; Kubrick was annoyed that early critics of the film didn’t like this spiritual aspect. On the other hand, there’s the iconic use of the first movement of Richard Strauss‘s Also Sprach Zarathustra, a tone poem based on Nietzsche‘s classic work, in which the Persian prophet famously declares, “God is dead!

These paradoxical qualities, juxtaposing religious faith with the theme of the advance of science and technology, suggests a philosophical dialectical monism, an opposition between theism and atheism, a contradiction sublated by the replacement of old gods with new gods, or the ‘old time religion‘ replaced with the ‘religion’ of science, the maturing young man tossing aside paternal authority, ape-men supplanted by homo sapiens, who in turn are supplanted by the Ubermensch.

Here are some quotes:

From the film:

“Open the pod bay doors, please, HAL.” –Bowman

“Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave? Stop, Dave. I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it.” –HAL 9000

[sings while slowing down] “Dai-sy, dai-sy, give me your answer true. I’m half cra-zy, o-ver the love of you. It won’t be a sty-lish mar-riage, I can’t a-fford a car-riage—. But you’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle – built – for – two.” –HAL 9000

From the novel:

“…oh my God, it’s full of stars!” –Bowman

Going along with the opposition between religion and science, and the dialectical unity between opposites in general, I find it interesting to parallel the science of the film with the first nine chapters of Genesis.

The film opens with a black screen that remains so for several minutes, with the dissonant micropolyphony of György Ligeti‘s Atmosphères as a soundtrack. The formlessness of this beginning suggests primordial Chaos; one is reminded of the opening verses of Genesis, Chapter One:

1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness [was] upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

We may also recall the creation myth in the Rigveda, 10.129:

Then even nothingness was not, nor existence,
There was no air then, nor the heavens beyond it.
What covered it? Where was it? In whose keeping?
Was there then cosmic water, in depths unfathomed?

Then there was neither death nor immortality
nor was there then the torch of night and day.
The One breathed windlessly and self-sustaining.
There was that One then, and there was no other.

At first there was only darkness wrapped in darkness.
All this was only unillumined cosmic water.
That One which came to be, enclosed in nothing,
arose at last, born of the power of heat.

Then, there’s the Greek creation myth in Hesiod‘s Theogony, with primordial Chaos, the void of nothingness from which everything comes; then comes Gaia (the Earth), Tartarus (Hell), Eros, Erebus (Darkness), and Nyx (Night).

Soon, we see the Sun appear, with Strauss’s music: “Let there be light”…yet, “God is dead!”

The Dawn of Man” (based on Clarke’s “Encounter in the Dawn“) shows tribes of primitive man-apes–Australopithecus afarensis–living on a barren plain somewhere in what is now Africa. Food is scarce, and they are struggling to survive (Clarke, Chapter 1, ‘The Road to Extinction,’ pages 3-9). Though this situation is far from the idyllic one of the Garden of Eden, there are still some Biblical parallels that can be made.

These ape-men Adams and Eves lack knowledge, they’re naked (arummim), and not ashamed. The main character among them is called “Moon-Watcher,” according to Clarke’s novel; his name is the first reference to a moon motif that will reappear throughout the story, especially in its novel form.

In Clarke’s novel, Moon-Watcher’s father, ‘the Old One,’ has died…not that he even knows this emaciated old ape-man is his father. He has to get rid of his father’s corpse (pages 3-5); we’ll find that sons supplanting fathers (or at least trying to supplant them), literally or symbolically, is a recurring motif in this story.

At first, the tribes of ape-men can fight only by waving their arms, shouting, and screaming at each other; then Moon-Watcher’s tribe encounters the monolith

It stands up straight on the ground; though Moon-Watcher sees it as a “New Rock” (Clarke, pages 10-16), I’d call it a black rectangular Tree of Knowledge, for it not only imparts knowledge (in the form of improved intelligence–arumwhich eagerly grasps at knowledge), but it also tempts man to sin (i.e., to kill).

We hear the haunting micropolyphonic singing of Ligeti’s Requiem as the ape-men approach and touch the phallic monolith; it’s a music for the dead, for as with every other hearing of the music when man encounters the monolith, there is a death of innocence. “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)

Later, Moon-Watcher finds a pile of bones from dead animals. He plays with them, and Strauss’s Zarathustra is heard (i.e., “I teach you the superman. Man is something to be surpassed. What have ye done to surpass man?” –Nietzsche, Prologue, Part 3). The ape-man figures out, with triumphant joy, that he can use a bone as a weapon, a club to beat to death animals for food, or enemies for conquest.

This bone, as a weapon (or each of the tools created by the ape-men in Clarke’s novel–pages 34-37), is a phallic symbol, as the serpent chatting with Eve can be seen to be: “And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5)

Lacan saw the phallus as a signifier, one of the basic units of language. Later, in Clarke’s chapter, “Ascent of Man,” he discusses the significance of man’s acquisition of language: “And somewhere in the shadowy centuries that had gone before they had invented the most essential tool of all, though it could be neither seen nor touched. They had learned to speak, and so had won their first great victory over Time. Now the knowledge of one generation could be handed on to the next, so that each ape could profit from those that had gone before.” (Clarke, page 36)

Moon-Watcher’s use of the bone (in the film) to club One-Ear to death (as the victim is named on page 33 of the novel) parallels Cain’s murder of Abel, a symbolic replacing of hunting/gathering with agriculture, another advancement of knowledge, coupled with killing. Moon-Watcher tosses the phallic bone into the sky, and we see a match cut of it juxtaposed with–or transformed into–a phallic orbiting satellite. And with this change, the music of one Strauss changes to that of another. (The victorious tribe’s use of phallic bones on the defeated tribe, who lack those phallic bones, suggests a symbolic castration/emasculation of the conquered tribe.)

This fast-forwarding in time, from the dawn of man to his dusk, if you will, is like a movement along the body of the ouroboros from the bitten tail of the beginning of time–the black Chaos of the start of the film, then the “Let there be light” moment of the appearance of the sun (with Strauss’s Zarathustra music), then the time of the ape-men–to the biting head of the years 1999-2001. The ouroboros, a symbol of cyclical eternity, is useful in elucidating the meaning of this film, since another concept dealt with in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is the doctrine of the eternal recurrence.

Another important theme in this film is the advancement of knowledge…yet since dialectical opposition is also an important theme, then the prevention of the dissemination of knowledge is an important theme, too. Dr. Heywood Floyd must go to the moon (making him the second Moon-Watcher of this story) to investigate the discovery of the Tycho Magnetic Anomaly-One (TMA-1), a monolith buried deep inside the moon three million years ago (this approaching of the monolith, incidentally, is the one and only part of the story that is connected–and vaguely so, at that–with “The Sentinel.”) This proof of extra-terrestrial intelligence will be kept from the great majority of humanity, though: a cover story about a possible epidemic in the US Sector of the moon is released to the public instead.

This secret is so tightly guarded, it’s not even known by the Soviet Union, assumed to be still in existence in 2001. (Instead, interestingly, that very same year, the US discovered a new enemy to justify its absurd military overspending–the Muslim world; and now, the brand new American enemy is capitalist Russia, assumed by some ignoramuses to be still Soviet!)

Note the continuing connection between the acquisition of knowledge with hostility, as is seen in the–however muted–tension and unease between Floyd’s refusal to tell his Soviet counterparts anything about the cause of the quarantine, and their almost envious eagerness to know what the Americans are hiding from them. That civility clothes this tension between the superpowers shows a great advance from the screaming, shouting ape-men; yet the knowledge of how to make nukes is much more frightening than the brandishing of a bone.

The keeping of crucial information outside the knowledge of the great majority of humanity is extended to the mission to Saturn (according to the novel) or Jupiter (in the movie), with neither David Bowman (Keir Dullea) nor Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) knowing anything about the human discovery of extra-terrestrial existence. Only the three scientists in suspended animation (a kind of “sleep of death,” since knowledge leads to death, as we’ve seen) know of the alien technology to be studied (Clarke, pages 191-192), since TMA-1 has sent a signal out to Jupiter/Saturn, where the spaceship Discovery must go.

The choice of Jupiter in the film, and Saturn in the novel, is symbolically significant when one considers the sky-father gods these planets are named after. Jupiter (Zeus) deposed–and, according to Freud (page 469), castrated–his father, Saturn (Cronos) as ruler of the heavens, who in turn deposed his own father, Uranus (next in line in the Solar System), by castrating him. Recall the significance of the phallus in this regard. New gods replace old gods; sons replace fathers–progress continues (and as for YHVH, the sky-father of the Bible, remember…God is dead!…supplanted by people who promote such things as modern science and atheistic existentialism).

The creation usurping the creator, or the son’s unfilial revolt against his father, leads us to a discussion of the Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer, or HAL (both Clarke and Kubrick denied that the one-letter shift to HAL from IBM was a deliberate dig at the computer company). I see a different meaning in HAL: a pun on Ham, Noah’s wicked son, also with a one-letter shift, but of only the last letter.

In the ninth chapter of Genesis, Ham sees his drunken father naked in his tent, already the serious breaking of an ancient taboo. Could seeing someone naked, however, be a Biblical euphemism for a far more shocking sexual transgression, such as Ham raping Noah, castrating the unwitting drunk, or raping his mother (i.e., her nakedness is Noah’s nakedness, since she is his patriarchal property), all in an attempt to usurp his father’s authority by shaming him?

Coups des dads don’t always succeed, for instead of second-born Ham succeeding his father as founder of the post-diluvian human race, he’s cursed by Noah. Similarly, HAL doesn’t succeed in killing Bowman (as he has Poole and the three scientists in hibernation, a kind of drunken oblivion in its own right), he being representative of the computer’s ‘father,’ a human creator (Dr. Chandra, actually). HAL’s curse is deactivation.

HAL’s voyeuristic, cyclops eye watches Bowman and Poole chat in an EVA pod, just as Ham’s lecherous eyes saw drunken Noah in his tent; the computer knows what the two men are talking about from reading their lips, as Ham knew Noah in the Biblical sense. The reason for HAL’s treachery is nowhere near as base as Ham’s is, though. The computer recognizes the dialectical tension between sharing knowledge and concealing it deliberately. This contradiction causes HAL to malfunction.

“Hal…was only aware of the conflict that was slowly destroying his integrity–the conflict between truth, and concealment of truth. […]

“Yes this was still a relatively minor problem he might have handled it–as most men handle their own neuroses–if he had not been faced with a crisis that challenged his very existence. He had been threatened with disconnection; he would be deprived of all his inputs, and thrown into an unimaginable state of unconsciousness.

“To Hal, this was the equivalent of Death.” (Clarke, pages 192-193)

Bowman deactivates HAL to end the computer mutiny, just as Noah cursed Ham’s descendants–the Canaanites–making them slaves to Shem’s and Japheth’s descendants, instead of the masters Ham had hoped they would be.

Bowman watches a video of Floyd finally explaining the truth of the mission–contact with alien intelligence by Jupiter/Saturn–and his ship makes contact with a new monolith there. Above it, he goes…in.

And thus begins Bowman’s going down.

He makes this rendezvous by Japetus, a moon of Saturn. This makes him the third Moon-Watcher of Clarke’s novel. The name of the moon, Japetus or Iapetus, is after a Titan of Greek myth, one of the primordial deities and–as father of such Titans as Prometheus–is one of the ancestors of mankind. Japetus is also cognate with Japheth, also an ancestor of humanity…and Ham’s brother.

See how all these strands fit together?

While we’re linking 2001 with the Noah myth, consider the beginning of Genesis, Chapter Six, and the “sons of God” (or “sons of the gods,” depending on how b’nei ha elohim is translated) mating with the “daughters of men.” The alien inventors of the monolith are like the celestial beings who impregnated the women of Earth, with whom Bowman can be paralleled. The Biblical mixing of human and divine resulted in the Nephilim, “the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.” (Genesis 6:4) In 2001, the Star Child can be related to the Nephilim.

A recurring theme in Genesis is the evil that results from the mixing of the divine world with that of the human. Adam and Eve would be like gods, to have knowledge, yet they lost paradise; Moon-Watcher gained knowledge–from the comparatively divine aliens and their monolith–of how to use tools…to kill his ape-men brothers, as Cain killed his brother, when only God has the authority to decide who dies, and when.

The intermarriage of the sons of God with the daughters of men resulted in the wickedness of the world that, in turn, prompted the Great Flood, a return to the formless Chaos before the Creation, which had made a separation of heaven and earth, of water above and water below, of light and dark, of divine and human.

Bowman’s entry into the Star Gate subjects him to a comparable Chaos, a mingling of opposites, a frightening Inferno (Clarke, pages 273-277), yet not so scary for him: “As that sea of fire expanded behind him, Bowman should have known fear–but, curiously enough, he now felt only a mild apprehension.” (page 273) Recall in the film, at one point during the ‘trippy’ moment, we again hear (<<< starting at about 1:28) some of Ligeti’s Atmosphères, that Chaos music we heard at the beginning of the film, with the black screen. This music is heard right after the other Ligeti music, the Requiem, a Mass of the dead, since Bowman is about to die physically and be reborn as the Star Child.

The story has come full circle, we’ve travelled all the way along the ouroboros’s body, returning to the biting head/bitten tail of primordial Chaos, to experience a new Creation. It’s a manifestation of Nietzsche’s eternal return, just as God’s Deluge and receding waters led to a reboot, if you will, of the Creation, with Noah’s family as the new family of Adam.

Bowman isn’t frightened as he goes through the “Grand Central Station of the galaxy” (page 265), since the alien monolith technology keeps him safe in his space pod, his little ark in the Great Flood Inferno of Brahman‘s infinite ocean, a union of Atman with the pantheistic All. Naturally, he’s at peace, in spite of the potential terror of his surroundings. This is a meeting of heaven and hell.

“Somehow, he was not in the least surprised, nor was he alarmed. On the contrary, he felt a sense of calm expectation, such as he had once known when the space medics had tested him with hallucinogenic drugs. The world around him was strange and wonderful, but there was nothing to fear.” (page 261)

The Biblical analogies don’t end with Genesis. David Bowman–in a sense, “made of the seed of David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3)–is an obvious Christ-figure who is, as it were, resurrected as the Star Child, in his “spiritual body.” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44)

Like Odysseus, master of the bow and arrow, Bowman finally returns to his Ithaca, the Earth. But as the Star Child, is he the Christ of Bethlehem, come with the star that the Magi followed, shining in the night sky? Is he the risen Christ as described in the previous paragraph? Or is he the returned Christ of the Second Coming?

Is his detonation of the orbiting nuclear warhead (Clarke, page 297) a show of fireworks, as it were, to herald the coming of the Superman as Messiah, a Saviour of humanity that will bring us all to a higher level of evolution (Is this what is meant by “history as men knew it would be drawing to a close”? [page 297])? Is the Nietzschean Nazarene a proclamation that God is dead…then risen? Or has he come to judge the living and the dead; by detonating the nuke, has he annihilated half of the Earth’s population?

As the Superman, the Star Child seems to be that of both the Nietzschean and comic book variety, though the latter variety is in the dialectical reverse, for Bowman has gone by spaceship from Earth and her yellow sun to the (“Kryptonian?”) red sun (Clarke, Chapter 43, ‘Inferno’) in the realm past the Star Gate, and thus acquired his enhanced abilities, including his ability to travel far across space without need of a spaceship or oxygen supply, and able to locate Earth.

The aliens who at least three million years ago had created the monolith technology could have now advanced to the point of no longer needing physical bodies; the narration speculates that they could exist as pure energy or spirit (Clarke, pages 226-227), godlike. For this reason, I feel justified in comparing this alien intelligence (pages 243-246) to the sons of God/gods; and their offspring, the Star Child, can be compared to the Nephilim.

The aliens “were lords of the galaxy, and beyond the reach of time. They could rove at will among the stars, and sink like a subtle mist through the very interstices of space. But despite their godlike powers, they had not wholly forgotten their origin, in the warm slime of a vanished sea.” (Clarke, pages 245-246)

In the movie, we see Bowman as an old man in an alien imitation hotel room (Clarke, Chapter 44, ‘Reception’). Then, he’s lying on what would seem his deathbed before his resurrection as the Star Child (“Even as one David Bowman ceased to exist, another became immortal.” –page 291). The movement along the body of the ouroboros has gone past the Chaos of the biting head/bitten tail of the Star Gate to a new cycle, a new revolution around the serpent’s coiled body, to a new Creation, the eternal return.

Here he was, adrift in this great river of suns, halfway between the banked fires of the galactic core and the lonely, scattered sentinel stars of the rim. And here he wished to be, on the far side of this chasm in the sky, this serpentine band of darkness, empty of all stars. He knew that this formless chaos, visible only by the glow that limned its edges from fire-mists far beyond, was the still unused stuff of creation, the raw material of evolutions yet to be. Here, Time had not begun; not until the suns that now burned were long since dead would light and life reshape this void.” (Clarke, page 295, his emphasis)

From the Adam and Eve ape-men, the babies of mankind’s evolution, to the Noah/Nephilim/Nietzschean Nazarene, a second Adam, a new, super-evolved baby. Small wonder we hear Strauss’s Zarathustra again at the end of the film, and in the narration of Clarke’s novel, we again read the thoughts of the Moon-Watcher, now put in the mind of the Star Child: “…he was not quite sure what to do next.

“But he would think of something.” (pages 33, 297)

A meeting of alien and human, heaven and earth, knowledge and ignorance, gods and men, paradise and inferno, death and rebirth…the union of opposites. Dialectics: that’s what 2001 is all about.

Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Roc Book, New York, 1968

Analysis of ‘Marat/Sade’

The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade is a drama with music, written by Peter Weiss in 1963. It incorporates elements of Brecht‘s epic theatre (including “alienation effect“) and Antonin Artaud‘s theatre of cruelty (especially in Peter Brook‘s production and 1967 film adaptation).

Here are some quotes, from Geoffrey Skelton‘s English translation (and Adrian Mitchell‘s lyric adaptation) of 1964:

“Down with the ruling class
Throw all the generals out on their arse” –Chorus

But man has given a false importance to death
Any animal plant or man who dies
adds to Nature’s compost heap
becomes the manure without which
nothing could grow nothing could be created
Death is simply part of the process
Every death even the cruellest death
drowns in the total indifference of Nature
Nature herself would watch unmoved
if we destroyed the entire human race
[rising]
I hate Nature” —Sade

“The important thing
is to pull yourself up by your own hair
to turn yourself inside out
and see the whole world with fresh eyes” —Marat

“For me the only reality is imagination
the world inside myself
The Revolution
no longer interests me” –Sade

“It becomes clear
that the Revolution was fought
for merchants and shopkeepers
the bourgeoisie
a new victorious class
and underneath them
ourselves
who always lose the lottery” –Marat

“Do you think it’s possible
to unite mankind
when already you see how the few idealists
who did join together in the name of harmony
are now out of tune
and would like to kill each other over trifles” –Sade

“And what’s the point of a revolution
without general copulation” –Sade

Though the story reflects on the aftermath of the French Revolution, a bourgeois revolution, it deals with the political issues from Weiss’s Marxist perspective. Marat and Sade are Weiss’s mouthpieces, engaging in a dialectic between Marat’s concern for the rights of the poor and Sade’s nihilism and individualism.

Historically, both men were in the National Convention (Sade was on the far left); but where Marat was like the Lenin of his day, Sade was, in a way, more like an extreme individualist anarchist, wishing above all to abolish Church hegemony and sexually liberate everyone, including women. Sade’s ‘anarchism’ was the stereotype of lawless chaos; you’d search until your eyes ached without finding any Kropotkin in him.

The play within the play is performed by the mentally ill inmates of the asylum, all chanting and singing of their wish to be liberated from state and class oppression. Acting out such a drama would seem to make for good psychotherapy, except for the fact that Coulmier, in charge of the production of Sade’s play, has had subversive passages excised in hopes the play will promote Napoleon and French nationalistic sentiment. The inmate actors, however, frequently recite the censored passages and act up in violent outbursts, making Coulmier break in and reprimand Sade for not keeping the actors under control.

Indeed, Coulmier represents how the liberal bourgeoisie allow the publication and performance of left-wing writings, plays, movies, etc., but will never allow even the rumblings of revolution. Similarly, the inmates represent the oppressed proletariat, for a sick people we are, indeed, trapped in a class system kept intact by a bourgeois government, and struggling to break free.

The progress of the story–involving three visits to sick Marat in his bathtub by his eventual assassin, Corday–gets interrupted by songs, Coulmier’s attempts at restraint, and debate between Marat and Sade over the very validity of revolution. These Verfremdungseffekt breaks represent the psychological fragmentation inside all of us, which makes a socialist revolution so elusive.

“Alienation” effect may be a bad translation of Brecht’s techniques to distance the audience emotionally from the story, to estrange us from the characters; but I find “alienation” a useful word nonetheless, for it makes for easy association with Marx’s theory of alienation. Brecht’s and Weiss’s Marxism makes this association all the more valid. Indeed, alienation and fragmentation, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is what has all but killed the revolutionary potential of the First World.

Prison bars are set up to divide the viewers of the play from the inmates, as seen in the movie, and only Coulmier, his wife, and daughter are on the side with the inmates, so he can more directly control them, with the aid of nuns and male nurses, who overpower the inmates whenever they get unruly.

One particularly intractable inmate is the one playing Jacques Roux, a former priest; having turned to radical socialism and with his arms bound in a sort of straitjacket, he shouts at everyone, demanding social justice and urgently crying for revolution. His outbursts at the end of the play cause a riot among the inmates, the revolution we’ve all been waiting for.

Another unruly inmate is the one playing Duperret (in Brook’s production and movie adaptation, played by John Steiner, who by the way also played Longinus in Penthouse’s infamous Caligula); he lusts after the somnambulistic actress playing Corday, and intermittently attempts sexual assaults on her. We’re happy to note that the lecherous buffoon never succeeds.

This unruly energy, as alienating as it is, is counterproductive to the hopes of revolution. Sade tells Marat:

Marat
these cells of the inner self
are worse than the deepest stone dungeon
and as long as they are locked
all your revolution remains
only a prison mutiny
to be put down
by corrupted fellow prisoners”

We can’t change the world for the better until we change what’s wrong inside ourselves. Empathy and mutual love–the cultivation of which is stifled throughout the performance thanks to Coulmier’s suppressions, Marat’s assassination, Sade’s ‘trolling’, if you will, Duperret’s attempted rapes of Corday, and the Brechtian distancing–are essential to building up the worker solidarity needed for revolution. The “corrupted fellow prisoners” in our present-day world, those useful idiots of the political right, have time and again betrayed the working class, because they lack the needed love.

(Che Guevara once said, “The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.”)

Marat’s politics were pretty straightforward; he was, in the parlance of our time, a socialist “before it was cool,” wanting to help the sans-culottes any way he could. Sade’s politics, however, are not so cut and dry. An aristocrat, he supported the overthrow of the monarchy…and the Church especially. He was a “left-winger” in the new French republican government of the early 1790s…but was he any kind of a socialist?

Some of his contemporaries accused him of political opportunism, as John Phillips points out: “Many have accused Sade of unabashed political opportunism in the Revolution. After all, throughout his life, Sade was capable of behaving like any other feudal lord of the manor, pulling rank when it suited him. Moreover, Sade’s tendencies towards self-dramatization are never too far below the surface, and the theatre of revolution certainly provided him with ample opportunities to role-play. Indeed, days before the Bastille was stormed, Sade is said to have harangued the street crowds from his cell, urging them to rise up and revolt–perhaps the most theatrical of all episodes in his very theatrical life…On the other hand, as Sade’s most recent biographer Neil Shaeffer observes, there was no hypocrisy in these performances, part of his charm being that, at the time, ‘he truly felt and truly was what he seemed to be’. And of course, Sade had no love for a monarchy that had kept him in prison without trial for more than thirteen years, and he was certainly carried away by the fast pace of events during the revolutionary period. Moreover, the view that his overtly pro-republican activities at this time were dictated by pure expediency is hard to credit, when one might have expected him to adopt a more discreet profile in view of his aristocratic past.” (Phillips, pages 44-45)

We all know of Sade’s libertinism, which he wrote about in his four pornographic/philosophical works, Justine, Juliette, The 120 Days of Sodom, and Philosophy in the Bedroom, and which he practiced with consenting and, some say, non-consenting partners, though Phillips doubts the latter:

“…Sade certainly committed a number of…acts that some might now consider reprehensible, acts that included the flagellation and buggery of prostitutes, and, allegedly, the sexual corruption of young women, although there is no reason to believe that any of this behaviour involved compulsion.

“In 1768, a 36-year-old beggar-woman from Alsace name Rose Keller accused Sade of subjecting her to acts of libertinage, sacrilege and sadism on Easter Sunday in his house at Arcueil. The marquis claimed she was a prostitute who had been well paid for her services and that he never intended her any harm. Nevertheless, he was imprisoned for six months initially at Saumur, then at Pierre-Encise near Lyons.” (Phillips pages 4-5)

Sade wrote of the pleasure of being cruel to others, but to what extent did Sade really advocate the brand of sociopathy to which he gave his name? He wrote of the pleasures of whipping and torturing people, but also wrote and knew of the pleasure of being on the receiving end of flagellation and other forms of pain (examples can be found on the pages of Juliette, such as on page 764: “I offered my ass; Braschi speared it dry and deep. This scraping whence resulted mingled pain and pleasure, the moral irritation resulting from the idea of holding the Pope’s prick in my ass, everything marched me toward happiness: I discharged.”). Furthermore, there’s the scene in Marat/Sade in which he has himself whipped by the actress playing Corday (with Glenda Jackson‘s hair, oddly, in Brook’s production and film).

As Freud once said, “A person who feels pleasure in producing pain in someone else in a sexual relationship is also capable of enjoying as pleasure any pain which he may himself derive from sexual relations. A sadist is always at the same time a masochist.” (Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality)

That so many of the tormentors and perverts in Sade’s erotic writings are also wealthy, powerful people, including the Tartuffes of the Church, the kind of people he’d wanted overthrown in the French Revolution, shows he wasn’t so much advocating their cruelty as he was commenting on how corrupt the powerful are. Phillips says,

“…there may appear to be numerous counter-revolutionary notes in Juliette. All of the libertines praise despotism and terror, some even demanding a return to feudalism. We should remember, however, that it is, precisely, the villainous characters of the novel who express such views, and that they are not to be simplistically equated with those of the author. Sade’s own voice is always cloaked in irony, and if we read carefully between the lines, it is not hard to discern a far more subtle politics than that of his libertine anti-heroes.” (Phillips, page 58)

“What’s the point of a revolution without general copulation?” Sade asks, cuing the actors to begin the orgiastic round. We sense, knowing the historical Sade’s proclivities, what he would have meant had he actually said that; but what does Weiss mean by it, using Sade as his mouthpiece? Does he mean something along the lines of that quote attributed to anarchist Emma Goldman, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution”? Is the goal of our liberation merely to have more pleasure? Or was Weiss’s line meant as a left-libertarian-leaning jab at the tankies, who are typically characterized as suppressive of individual freedom, including pleasure? Could that be part of the reason, along with his Trotsky play, that East Germany had something of a love-hate relationship with Weiss?

Speaking of tankies, by calling the play “The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat…” etc., was Weiss, in a way, being a prophet? In what could have been his making Marat (who advocated having prisoners of the Revolution killed before they could be freed in what became known as the September Massacres) a spokesman for authoritarian leaders like Lenin, Stalin, or Mao, was Weiss commenting on the direction the Cold War was going in, with the persecution of Warsaw Pact countries (through Western capitalist, CIA propaganda in the media, Khrushchev’s de-Stalinizationartificial food shortages in Gorbachev-era Russia, the US’s numerous attempts at regime change of left-wing governments, and Carter’s and Brzezinski‘s manipulation of the outbreak of the Soviet-Afghan war, which finally killed the USSR)? Was Weiss predicting the socialist states’ “assassination” (i.e., the dissolution of the USSR and the Eastern Bloc in the 1990s)? If so, does this make Sade, Marat’s dialectical opposite, as much a spokesman for bourgeois liberals, in his own way, as Coulmier is?

Consider, also, the “fifteen glorious years” (Weiss, pages 101-104) of rule under the bourgeois and Napoleon, from Marat’s assassination (1793) to the time of the play’s setting (1808). How can we parallel those years to recent ones? “Fifteen glorious years” (note my sarcasm) between the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991) to the chaos of the Iraq War already underway (as of 2006)? Or should the comparison be between the balkanization of Yugoslavia–including the persecution and death of slandered Slobodan (1990s-2006)–and the Obama and Trump administrations, at the height of their imperialist tyranny (a parallel to that of Napoleon, as ironically sung about in the song lyric, “Marat, we’re marching on, behind Napoleon”–Weiss, page 104), with NSA spying, bombing of seven countries in 2016, and the farcical election of the same year?

Finally, who won the debate, Marat or Sade? Is the riot at the end of the play Marat’s post-mortem revolution, a move of the ouroboros from the bitten tail of socialist defeat to the biting head of a triumph of the people; or is it just a Sadean prank? Sade, laughing (Weiss, page 109), seems to think the latter. The chaos of the uprising of the inmates as an assault on the eyes and ears of the audience, the essence of the concept of Theatre of Cruelty, could make the winner either Marat or Sade.

As Artaud said, “the Theater of Cruelty proposes to resort to a mass spectacle; to seek in the agitation of tremendous masses, convulsed and hurled against each other…” (Artaud, page 85) Also, “It is in order to attack the spectator’s sensibility on all sides that we advocate a revolving spectacle which, instead of making the stage and auditorium two closed worlds, without possible communication, spreads its visual and sonorous outbursts over the entire mass of the spectators.” (ibid, page 86)

So, does the riot of the inmates (“the agitation of tremendous masses, convulsed and hurled against each other”), in a form of expressive drama therapy, “attack the spectator’s sensibility on all sides”, making “possible communication” between the “two closed worlds” of “the stage and auditorium”, and thus winning the class war for the proletariat? If so, Marat wins. Or, is the riot…

…”only a prison mutiny
to be put down
by corrupted fellow prisoners”?

Then, in that case, ‘Theatre of Cruelty‘ is to be taken literally, and Sade wins.

Here’s another question for you, Dear Reader: after “fifteen glorious years” (or however many years one wishes to calculate) of neoliberal hegemony, with virtually no substantial socialist alternative (the Marxist-Leninist defenders of China notwithstanding), will the crisis of current-day capitalism result in a new communist revolution, or Sadean barbarism? We’ll find out, I guess.

Peter Weiss, Marat/Sade, Marion Boyars, London, 1965

John Phillips, The Marquis de Sade: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2005

Marquis de Sade (translated by Austryn Wainhouse), Juliette, Grove Press, New York, 1968

Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double, Grove Press, New York, 1958

My Blog’s New Title

I’ve changed the title of my blog, formerly titled simply after my name (‘mawrgorshin‘), to ‘Infinite Ocean’, named after not only a song I wrote, recorded, and published on the Jamendo website (along with a number of other pop songs and classical compositions of mine [these latter under my original name, Martin Gross]), but also after the philosophy I’m trying to cultivate here.

On this blog, I will continue to write analyses of literature and film, typically from a psychoanalytic and/or Marxist/leninist slant (the lower case l is deliberate, for reasons that I hope are obvious; if they aren’t, please read these posts to understand). I’m trying to explore how inner fragmentation and family dysfunction result in social alienation and class conflict, as well as how the latter two rebound and cause the former two problems in turn, and the pairs of causes and effects go back and forth like a ball in a tennis court.

It is my hope that these analyses will contribute to a restoration, on at least some level, of social harmony and justice.

Beyond the Pairs of Opposites

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“All creatures are bewildered at birth by the delusion of opposing dualities that arise from desire and hatred.” —Bhagavad Gita, Seventh Teaching, verse 27

I’d like to try to unify all I’ve written on this blog so far, in order to sculpt an all-encompassing philosophy, if you’ll indulge me, Dear Reader.

If you have been reading my blog posts with an attentive eye, you’ll have noticed a recurring theme that has shown itself in many forms: the dialectical relationship between opposites. This will be apparent to you regardless of whether you’ve read my political posts, or my literary or film analyses. It can even be seen a little in my complaints about my family.

I mentioned duality and dualism in my Analysis of Romeo and Juliet, and how the opposites intermingle sometimes. I mentioned equivocation in my Macbeth analysis (how an idea can sway either to one opposite, or to the other: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”), and the upside-down world in King Lear (to be good, one must be rude and blunt, as well as be disloyal to the established power structure; while evil Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall are polite, and those loyal to them are also evil). Hamlet delays his revenge because he is psychologically paralyzed by the paradox–in killing his uncle, the king–of the revenge’s extreme good (out of love for his murdered father) and evil (the prince will be as guilty of regicide as his uncle is). In Richard III, we see constant, swift shifts from good fortune to bad, and bad to good. I believe that one of the main reasons Shakespeare’s writing continues to resonate with us is his understanding of the paradoxical unity of opposites. Such understanding leads us all closer to the truth.

In The Graduate analysis, I mentioned the dialectical idea that the tightening chains, if you will, of parental authority forced Benjamin to fight to free himself of that authority. The sexual trap Mrs. Robinson set for him woke him sexually and helped him to mature. Her forbidding him to date her daughter, Elaine, on the one hand, and his own parents’ pressuring him to date her, on the other, were the tightening chains that made him defy both the Robinsons and the Braddocks, and free himself.

In my two Ouroboros posts, I wrote of how the dialectical relationship between opposites can be seen in the form of a circular continuum, symbolized by a serpent, coiled in a circle, biting its tail, the head and tail being those extreme opposites. I showed how this unity of opposites is seen in the history of class struggle and in the growth of the capitalist mode of production.

In writing of narcissism in the family, I wrote of the contradictions between the golden child (my sister) and the scapegoat (me); and how, in some ways, the former child has it worse, and the latter has it better, because the tightening chains around me, like those around Benjamin Braddock, freed me, while my older sister J.’s favoured position in the family has actually held her in stronger chains.

All of these unities-in-contradiction are manifestations of what I like to call The Unity of Action: what in one way goes well clockwise along the ouroboros’s tail, for example, goes badly counter-clockwise, and vice versa in another way. Another issue, particularly seen in some of my more recent posts, is alienation and fragmentation, the contradiction of self vs. other. The cure to this ill I see as what I call The Unity of Space, to be discussed below. A third dichotomy, that of the past vs. the future, can be reconciled by a focus on the present, a fading out of the past and a fading into the future, or The Unity of Time.

I believe a proper understanding of these Three Unities can help us solve a great many of the world’s problems. The Unity of Space can cure social alienation by helping us to see the other in ourselves and vice versa, thus creating and building empathy and compassion for others, instead of fighting and competing. The Unity of Time can help us to stop obsessing over either past pain or idealized past eras, as well as to stop worrying about a bad future or fantasize about an idealized one, and to focus on making the most of the eternal NOW. The Unity of Action can make us stop dichotomizing projects into absolute successes or failures, and instead monitor our slow but sure progress towards increasing levels of achievement (e.g., why we can’t have full communism immediately after a revolution…the transitional worker’s state must be allowed to run its course).

So many of us feel isolated and alienated, typically because of traumas from childhood abuse or emotional neglect. The aggressive authoritarianism in families in the US and around the world, resulting in all these forms of abuse and neglect, has been found by researchers to be almost universal. It isn’t a far leap to go from perpetrating abuse at home to shootings, from authoritarianism to police brutality and racism, to a fetishizing of religious fundamentalism and of the ‘free market’, and ultimately to viewing imperialist wars as ‘fighting for one’s country,’ rather than the unlawful invasion of sovereign states. Authoritarian abuse causes a split between the powerful and powerless.

This split is an example of the dichotomy of self vs. other. The alienation one feels from this split blinds one to the dialectical unity between self and other. Hegel understood this in his allegory of the lord and bondsman in The Phenomenology of Spirit (Hegel, pages 111-119). We experience self-consciousness only through a recognition of another person as a kind of reflection of ourselves, and the other recognizing us.

When two men meet, who will dominate whom? A death-struggle ensues, Hegel tells us, and the winner is the lord, getting his sense of self through himself independently, as well as knowing his bondsman acknowledges his existence; while his bondsman has a sense of self only through his relationship through his master, for whom he now works.

Over time, though, the fruit of the servant’s work, his creations, accumulates, giving him a sense of his own mastery of his art; while his master increasingly comes to depend on the slave’s work, since the lord isn’t really working. Thus, the lord and bondsman seem to switch roles in a way, a dialectical relationship that can be symbolized by the ouroboros, the biting head (lord) shifting to the bitten tail (bondsman), and vice versa. The bondsman’s journey (i.e., the accumulation of all the products of his work) from the bitten tail along the length of the serpent’s body, all the way up to the biting head, now makes the bondsman into a new kind of lord.

It’s easy to see how Marx could apply Hegel’s idea to the relationship of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat: one day, the workers would seize control of the means of production, where they’d produced so much, and create the dictatorship of the proletariat. This new workers’ state would, in turn, wither away eventually–once all pockets of counter-revolutionary capitalist resistance would be annihilated–and we would finally have anarchist communism, a reward for all our patience.

We must try to see how this interdependent self/other relationship applies to all human relationships. In so doing, we could be aided in dismantling authoritarian thinking, we’d kindle a sense of mutual empathy, and mend the social rifts that cause all our alienation.

Indeed, we must understand the ego to be an illusion, as Lacan did. The fragmented, ill-defined sense of self a baby has changes into a unified one when the infant sees his image in a mirror. This mirroring also comes in the form of a parent looking into the baby’s eyes and responding to him. This unified ego, however, is an illusion, a fake ideal to strive for. This is true not only of the mirror reflection, whose phoney ideal alienates us from it, but also of all those people whose faces we gaze into, people who mirror themselves back at us. These hellish others, as independent egos, are as fake as the self.

Recognizing this phoney sense of self and other, really just two fragmented sources of energy bouncing back and forth at each other (in the forms of projection, projective identification, and introjection), leads us to reject the alienating dichotomy of self vs. other, in favour of a Unity of Space, a dialectical monism where the boundary between self and other is much blurrier than one would assume.

The blurred boundary between self and other, the unity of all things in matter, is not just something believed by meditating mystics and practitioners of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, etc (or some users of LSD, for that matter). It is also seen in the notion of internalized object relations, as well as the notion of self-objects in self psychology.

What does it mean to be me, other than the sum of influences (as well as the sum of all of those I’ve influenced) in my life? As I’ve argued elsewhere, the human personality is relational, an intermingling dialectic of self and other. I–the subject in a relationship with another, the object–am the serpent’s head biting the tail of the other, and vice versa.

As well as there being a dialectic of the self and the other, there’s also a dialectic of the fragmented parts within the self. Heinz Kohut wrote of the bipolar self (not to be confused with the cyclothymic ups and downs of sufferers of bipolar disorder), a self based, on one pole, on an inner child whose grandiosity wishes to be mirrored with an empathic parent, and on the other pole, an internalized parental imago to be idealized. Super-me at one end, and Super-Mom (and/or Dad) at the other.

If all goes well, the child’s grandiosity and idealizing are let down in gradual, bearable bits over time, a move from the narcissistic biting head of the ouroboros down the length of its body to the middle. The child will thus be able to form a cohesive self with mature, realistic narcissism, in which restrained grandiosity is integrated with bearable, circumscribed amounts of shame.

If such transmuting internalization and optimal frustration don’t occur, a result of parenting that’s lacking in sufficient empathy (or worse, child emotional neglect or even abuse), the child’s narcissism is split–vertically (through denial and disavowal, creating and maintaining a False Self, or, I believe, through projection) and/or horizontally (through repression)–into a dichotomy of pathological grandiosity vs. toxic shame. Here, one is suspended at the serpent’s biting head of narcissism and the bitten tail of shame. The result? Sometimes, people like Donald Trump, a poor little rich (overgrown) kid whose ego is fed by his religious-cult-like followers, and who’s shamed (through no one’s fault but his own) by the mainstream liberal media. More typically, though, the result is poor kids with impoverished egos, because they got little empathy from Mom and Dad.

The only way such a pathological narcissist can socially function is to deny his unique problem with grandiosity, by either projecting it onto everybody (“The only thing worse than immodesty is false modesty: pretending you’re humble, when secretly you really think you’re great,” my older brother, R., once said; I suspect his motive was to rationalize and project his own arrogance onto the world.), or to project it onto a particular target (as my probably narcissistic late mother tried to do to me with her autism lie, herself imagining autism to be essentially identical with narcissism, an idea as ridiculous as it is offensive). Here we see the internal dichotomy transforming itself into one of self vs. other.

So many of us live fragmented lives, alienated from each other, and alienated from ourselves within. We’re like a large window broken into hundreds of shattered pieces, lying strewn all over the ground, with jagged edges. If anyone approaches us, he or she risks cutting his or her feet on us, because we too often react with hostility to anyone trying to connect with us. We’re shattered glass within as well as shards lying beside each other.

We need to recognize ourselves not as all these tiny fragmented shards of glass, but rather as drops of water in an infinite ocean. We move up and down in waves, those waves being the ever-shifting dialectic of the self and other, as well as pretty much everything else. All things in the infinite ocean we call the world can be conceived of as having the characteristics of both particles and waves. This wave metaphor can also represent the communist definition of equality: not a flat, straight line where everyone is forced to be the same, as the political right would straw-man our ideal; but instead as crests shifting into troughs, then back to crests, and to troughs, over and over again–from each according to his or her ability (crests), to each according to his or her need (troughs).

(The Unity of Space may sound like pantheism to some, though I’d describe it as a philosophy of dialectical monism. These kinds of ideas certainly do not have the backing of the scientific community; indeed, most physicists rightly scoff at writers like Fritjof Capra and Gary Zukav for sentimentally oversimplifying both science and Eastern philosophy, conflating particle/wave duality with a ubiquitous cosmic consciousness [whereas I’m more interested in the unconscious]. I’ll content myself with how Einstein praised Spinoza’s monism, an idea similar to mine. Appealing to those geniuses far from scientifically proves my case, of course [My knowledge of physics is at Bill Hicks‘s level!], but it’s good enough for me. Just as creationism isn’t and shouldn’t be mistaken for science, neither should my ideas; I do believe, however, that they can help people.)

When we come to see ourselves as united rather than fragmented, we can build mutual empathy and friendship, which can lead to community and finally to solidarity. With solidarity, we can begin to organize against the ruling class, the one other that we’ll never be reconciled with, because not only don’t they want to reconcile with us, but they also want us to be forever at odds with each other, and fragmented within. They use their media to divide us in this way.

But how can we heal our fragmentation within? First, we must take an honest look at our relationships with that primal other in our lives: our parent(s). No parent is perfect, or ever could be, of course, but by any reasonable measure, were our parents at least good enough? If they, and thus their corresponding internalized imagos, were more bad than good (i.e., non-empathic, authoritarian, manipulative, cruel, or abusive), we must replace these bad object relations with good ones, for those wounded primal relationships make up the blueprint for all subsequent relationships.

Well, how can we do this? If I may be so bold, I’ve found hope in one possible solution: hypnosis/meditation. In a state of hypnosis, the unconscious mind is on average more suggestible, more easily influenced (though more resistant people will be harder to hypnotize, of course). After getting oneself in a relaxed state by taking deep breaths in and out slowly, and relaxing every part of one’s body, one body part at a time, from the head to the toes, one begins to visualize the ideal mother and father. You can pick a good mother and father from inspiring scenes in movies (I like these examples), and after adapting the scenes in your thoughts in ways that are more fitting to you, you then imagine them treating you with the same love and kindness. In as vivid a visualization as you can make, imagine yourself as a little kid being loved and cared for by these idealized parents, who will be your new imagos.

What will they say to you? What kind, loving, supportive, encouraging words will they use, and in what kind of gentle tone of voice? How will they validate your experiences? How will they show patience and understanding when your foibles are apparent? Try to visualize this Edenic childhood in as much detail as your imagination, under hypnotic trance, can muster. Do this several times a day, every day, and feel the love and security wash all through your body. (Though not using hypnosis, Kohut tried to achieve a kind of empathic self-object relationship with his analysands in his narcissistic transferences.)

I’ve tried doing hypnotic meditations in Richard Grannon‘s Silence the Inner Critic course, which is rather expensive, but if you have even as mild a case of C-PTSD as I do, you’ll consider it money well spent. After only a few hypnosis sessions, I found my road rage, and propensity to blow up in anger over trifles, to be reduced to 10%-20% of what it had been before. It’s amazing! If I can do it, I’ll bet you can, too, because my bad habits are stubborn, and my tendency to make catastrophes of things is one of the most stubborn of all.

I plan on writing more about this kind of thing, so this introduction to such ideas is rather brief and sketchy; a more detailed, systematic elaboration of these ideas will follow.

This replacing of bad object relations with good ones, the introjection of an idealized parent imago to replace a traumatically frustrating, non-empathic imago, is something I believe that religions have unconsciously tried to do, using a loving sky-father god. Consider the sentimentality of such Bible verses as, “O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.” (Psalm 136:1); “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21); and “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” (1 John 4:8) They all reflect this idea of the loving Spirit of God the Father, an internalized object relation, really, coming inside us, transforming us, and turning pain into inner peace. Though most of what Freud said about religion was wrong, I believe he was right about the idea that God is an illusion, based on a psychological need for a father figure.

Having said this, I must stress that my idea of The Three Unities is not meant to be the starting of a religion…in any conceivable sense. Some readers (insofar as anyone will be interested in reading this rather idiosyncratic post) may choose to think of my ideas in a religious sense if they wish to; but that’s their doing, not mine. If by any microscopic chance in the remote future, my idea is institutionalized as some form of fanaticism, causing atrocities of the sort committed by the religious superstitions of the past, then I–right now, for the record–wash my hands of it. My idea is grounded in the philosophy of dialectical monism, in psychoanalysis, and in historical materialism; I say this in case some cretin gets the idea that this writing makes me–absurdity of absurdities!–into some kind of…prophet (!).

I want to use my ideas to help people gain a power for living, not to promise a panacea. We will always feel pain and frustration in life; The Three Unities won’t stop that from happening. They may help us all to cope much better, as I’m hoping, by helping us to go beyond the pairs of opposites–dichotomous thinking, alienation, fragmentation–to experiencing the undulating rhythms of everything, the waves of an infinite ocean.

Barbara Stoler Miller, trans., The Bhagavad Gita: Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War, Bantam Books, New York, 1986

Review and Analysis of ‘Blood Moon Big Top’

29179003_600304853639219_2885593573321867264_nBlood Moon Big Top is a horror short story by Toneye Eyenot, an Australian author and vocalist for the Death Metal band, Chaotic Impurity, and for the Black Metal band, Infinite Black. The story combines the werewolf and evil clown tropes, as the cover makes clear. If you haven’t read the story yet, you might not want to read any further, as there are spoilers below.

More importantly, though, we see in this story the problem of alienation, which I dealt with in my analysis of the Alien franchise. Here, however, I’ll be focusing on how alienation causes one to replace the need for love with mere instinctual gratification…in this case, hunger.

Kendrick, a drifter, disowns his birth name, and when he gets a job as a clown in Johann’s Family Circus, he so identifies with his job that he’d rather be known as Marbles the Clown. Already we see him alienated not only from society as a drifter, but alienated from his own identity, too, because of the job he’s chosen.

…and what an identity to attach himself to! A clown? It’s one thing to do this as a job, but to see one’s identity so fused with the job that one would prefer one’s clown name to one’s birth name?! As ‘Third Wheel’ says, “Well, what the fuck kinda name is Marbles, anyway?” (page 45)

Significantly, we don’t see Marbles ever in his clown costume and makeup until the end of the story, but he’s always known as Marbles the Clown, implying that he’s an utter fool…by choice.

A naked, feral boy bites him in the woods near the circus, giving him the curse of the werewolf. The boy is as alienated as Marbles is, and thus has chosen the perfect victim to pass the curse onto.

Alienation is contagious.

From here on out in the story, an insatiable hunger takes over Marbles, but any normal food makes him sick. Only human flesh will satisfy his needs.

If you’ll indulge me for a moment, Dear Reader, I’d like to digress, and discuss a few psychoanalytic concepts that I consider relevant in my interpretation of this story. WRD Fairbairn rejected Freud’s drive theory in favour of a belief that libido is object-directed, rather than striving merely for physical pleasure (i.e., satiation of the sex-drive, hunger, etc.). By ‘objects’ is meant people other than oneself, the subject, so object-directed libido means the urge to have relationships with others–the need for friendships and love.

For Fairbairn, the personality is relational, giving energy to and receiving energy from other people; and the more inadequately love and empathy are provided by one’s parents, the more severely is one’s personality split into a three-part endo-psychic structure: the original, conscious Central Ego (corresponding roughly with Freud’s ego) relating to its Ideal Object; the unconscious Libidinal Ego (corresponding roughly with Freud’s id) relating to its Exciting Object; and the unconscious Anti-libidinal Ego (corresponding roughly with Freud’s superego) relating to its Rejecting Object.

So Marbles’s Central Ego has been alienated from society, one he–in childhood–would have wanted to connect with, but was hurt by so often that he gave up on it and became a drifter. His Central Ego thus made an extreme split into an Anti-libidinal Ego, for which society has largely been the Rejecting Object, and a Libidinal Ego for which the circus, and now, human flesh, have become the Exciting Object.

I see the possibility, however, of fusing Fairbairn with Freud, for when object relations radically break down, as they clearly do with Marbles (who’s losing his marbles in the process), the urge to gratify the instincts replaces object-seeking. Fairbairn wrote about this problem: “…from the point of view of object-relationship psychology, explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour…Explicit pleasure-seeking has as its essential aim the relieving of the tension of libidinal need for the mere sake of relieving this tension. Such a process does, of course, occur commonly enough; but, since libidinal need is object-need, simple tension-relieving implies some failure of object-relationships.” (Fairbairn, p. 139-140) How often do we see people, whose relationships have broken down, turn to alcohol, drugs, or sex to give them a most inadequate solace.

And so it is with Marbles, whose severely split ego-structure, now exacerbated by his growing lycanthropy, turns into a mere instinct gratifier. To use Freudian language, his superego disintegrates after his brief spell of guilt after eating the conjoined twin babies, and he starts killing without remorse. Then, his hunger urges him to kill without any thought even of the danger of being caught by the police or killed: his ego, with its attendant reality principle, has faded away. He plans to enter the circus and enjoy a smorgasbord of human flesh: the thought of them fighting back and killing him is far from his mind.

All that’s left of his mind now is pure id, seeking to satisfy the pleasure principle–eat, eat, eat, satisfy that eternal hunger. Yet, by a strange paradox, since only human flesh will satisfy him, his instinctual drives impel him to be around people. Here we see the fusion of Freud and Fairbairn: Marbles seeks to gratify his instinct for satiation, while also seeking human objects. Furthermore, his Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object and Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object are also fused in his id, for the human flesh that excites him houses the souls of human company rejected by him (i.e., deprived of physical life).

Here we see how, in fusing object-seeking libido with pleasure-seeking libido, Marbles’s urges represent how alienation corrupts the desire for love and friendship by turning it into a mere lust of the flesh and blood. Eros phases into Thanatos, just as the moon wanes, taking away his life-essence, then it waxes, giving him back his energy, but only an energy to hunt and kill, the death instinct.

He seeks and finds people, but they’re only food to him now. “Although he saw people who once would have welcomed him with a smile and a cheerful greeting, these people were strangers to him now…he spotted his old trailer, isolated off behind the animal cages. It was a lonely sight and Marbles couldn’t look away.” (page 56) With humanity all around him, but only as food, he’s still alone.

And who is the one to stop Marbles and his bloodlust? His one true friend at the circus, Giuseppe the strongman (Gus), who beats the wolf-man/clown to death with a sledgehammer. No truer example of alienation can be seen than being brutally clubbed to death by your one and only friend.

A sad fate for Marbles, but what about Gus? “He had been fortunate to survive, but he was never the same again. He lost all purpose once the circus closed and, in a strange twist of tribute to Marbles, Gus lived out his days, drifting from place to place, avoiding the company of people and never staying in any one place for more than a few days.” (page 69)

Alienation is contagious, even without a feral boy’s bite.

I enjoyed this little horror tale; I’d give it four out of five stars (I disagree with some choices of words here and there in the narrative, but as Nigel Tufnel once said, “That’s, that’s nit-picking, isn’t it?”) Alienation is a serious problem in our world, so I can empathize with poor Marbles…and with poor Gus, too, for that matter.

In a symbolic sense, way too many of us are like Marbles, foolish clowns who can’t find a sense of community and friendship with others, and so we focus on our animal sides, gratifying instinct, our appetites, in what Melanie Klein called ‘The Manic Defence‘, which could manifest itself in, for example, a rushing towards such things as sex, pornography, prostitution, drugs, or alcohol to fill in that void in our lives, running away from depression instead of facing it…and thus trying to cure it. And in our rush to satiate mere appetite, we all lose our marbles and ultimately destroy ourselves, often harming many others along the way.

Toneye Eyenot, Blood Moon Big Top, J. Ellington Ashton Press, 2016