Analysis of ‘The Birds’

The Birds is a 1963 natural horror film produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock and written by Evan Hunter, based on the horror short story by Daphne du Maurier. The film stars Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor, and costars Jessica Tandy, Veronica Cartwright, and Suzanne Pleshette.

The film is so completely different from the short story that the only two things they have in common are the title and the premise of birds violently attacking people, the attacks being interrupted by pauses, rests of several hours each. Everything else–the setting, characters, and the incidents–are completely reworked to the point of the film being an utterly different story from du Maurier’s version.

In 2016, The Birds was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in its National Film Registry.

Here are some quotes:

Melanie: Have you ever seen so many seagulls? What do you suppose it is?
Mrs. MacGruder: Well, there must be a storm at sea. That can drive them inland, you know.

Mitch[deliberately mistaking Melanie for a sales clerk] I wonder if you could help me?
Melanie: Just what is it you’re looking for, sir?
Mitch: Lovebirds.
Melanie: Lovebirds, sir?
Mitch: Yes, I understand there are different varieties. Is that true?
Melanie: Oh yes, there are.
Mitch: Well, these are for my sister, for her birthday, see, and uh, as she’s only going to be eleven, I, I wouldn’t want a pair of birds that were too demonstrative.
Melanie: I understand completely.
Mitch: At the same time, I wouldn’t want them to be too aloof either.
Melanie: No, of course not.
Mitch: Do you happen to have a pair of birds that are just friendly?

Mitch: Doesn’t this make you feel awful… having all these poor little innocent creatures caged up like this?
Melanie: Well, we can’t just let them fly around the shop, you know.

Mitch: We met in court… I’ll rephrase it. I saw you in court… Don’t you remember one of your practical jokes that resulted in the smashing of a plate-glass window?
Melanie: I didn’t break that window. What are you, a policeman?
Mitch: No, but your little prank did. The judge should have put you behind bars. I merely believe in the law, Miss Daniels… I just thought you might like to know what it’s like to be on the other end of a gag. What do ya think of that?
Melanie: I think you’re a louse.
Mitch: I am.

Mitch: Well, small world…How do you know Annie?
Melanie: We went to school together – college…
Mitch: So you came up to see Annie, huh?
Melanie: Yes.
Mitch: I think you came up to see me.
Melanie: Now why would I want to see you of all people?
Mitch: I don’t know. You must have gone to a lot of trouble to find out who I was and where I lived.
Melanie: No, it was no trouble at all. I simply called my father’s newspaper. Besides, I was coming up anyway. I’ve already told you that.
Mitch: You really like me, huh?
Melanie: I loathe you. You have no manners, you’re arrogant, and conceited, and I wrote you a letter about it, in fact. But I tore it up.

“I’m neither poor nor innocent.” –Melanie

Annie[after birds attack the children at a party] That makes three times.
Melanie: Mitch, this isn’t usual, is it? The gull when I was in the boat yesterday. The one at Annie’s last night, and now…
Mitch: Last night? What do you mean?
Melanie: A gull smashed into Annie’s front door. Mitch – what’s happening?

“I wish I were a stronger person. I lost my husband four years ago, you know. It’s terrible how you, you depend on someone else for strength and then suddenly all the strength is gone and you’re alone. I’d love to be able to relax sometime.” –Lydia

“Oh Daddy, there were hundreds of them… Just now, not fifteen minutes ago… at the school… the birds didn’t attack until the children were outside the school… crows, I think… Oh, I don’t know, Daddy, is there a difference between crows and blackbirds?… I think these were crows, hundreds of them… Yes, they attacked the children. Attacked them!” –Melanie, on the phone

“Birds have been on this planet, Miss Daniels, since Archaeopteryx, a hundred and forty million years ago. Doesn’t it seem odd that they’d wait all that time to start a…a war against humanity.” –Mrs. Bundy

“It’s the end of the world.” –drunk

“I think we’re in real trouble. I don’t know how this started or why, but I know it’s here and we’d be crazy to ignore it… The bird war, the bird attack, plague – call it what you like. They’re amassing out there someplace and they’ll be back. You can count on it.” –Mitch

“Look at the gas, that man’s lighting a cigar!” –Melanie, as she sees a man lighting his cigar as gasoline is leaking around him

“Why are they doing this? Why are they doing this? They said when you got here, the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil. EVIL!” –mother in diner, to Melanie

Cathy: Mitch, can I bring the lovebirds in here?
Lydia: No!
Cathy: But Mom, they’re in a cage!
Lydia: They’re birds, aren’t they?
Mitch: Let’s leave them in the kitchen, huh, honey?

Cathy: Mitch, why are they doing this, the birds?
Mitch: We don’t know, honey.
Cathy: Why are they trying to kill people?
Mitch: I wish I could say.
Cathy: I-I’m sick, Melanie.

There is no apparent reason for birds of all kinds to be suddenly swooping down on and attacking people, pecking and clawing at them. I find the best way to find meaning in these attacks is to see them as symbolic of something else…a different attacker from the skies.

To determine what, or who, this other attacker could be, I recommend a reading of du Maurier’s short story. Hints can be found in such things as the different setting. In her story, the bird attacks occur not in California, but in England; they also occur not in the early 1960s, but just after WWII.

When one considers the destruction Nazi Germany’s bombings of England caused, as well as the trauma they caused the survivors, we can see how du Maurier’s The Birds can be seen as a near pun on the Blitz, and therefore also be symbolic of it.

So the birds, in her story and–by extension–Hitchcock’s film, can be seen to symbolize bomber planes. Nat Hocken, the farmer and protagonist of the short story, believes it’s the colder weather that’s making the birds so aggressive. Later on in the story, a farmer claims it’s “the Russians” who have somehow incited the birds to attack by poisoning them (page 9 from the above link). Mrs. Trigg, the wife of his boss, wonders if the cold weather is coming from Russia (page 4).

Given that du Maurier’s story takes place shortly after the end of the Second World War, and therefore at the beginning of the Cold War, we can now see what the colder weather and reference to Russians are hinting at: the attacking birds represent a paranoid fear of a Soviet invasion.

A few bird attacks on Nat, a WWII veteran, would trigger PTSD responses in him, making him fantasize about bird attacks happening all over England, symbolic of airstrikes. Since the story is essentially–though not exclusively–from his point of view (even though it isn’t a first-person narration), we can easily view the story as a hallucinatory fantasy in his mind.

With these insights from the short story, we can gain an understanding of what’s going on in the film. Hitchcock spoke of how the birds are getting revenge on man for taking nature for granted; instead of birds being caged, they force people to cage themselves in houses, restaurants, telephone booths, etc.

The changing of the setting to California (in the coastal town of Bodega Bay, about an hour-and-25-minute drive from San Francisco) is instructive in this regard of birds’ revenge on man. If their attacks symbolize aerial bombardments (kamikaze-like in the short story, with birds dying upon hitting the ground), we could see this revenge as symbolizing that of those countries the US had so far bombed: Japan and North Korea; also, there was the US-supported coup in Guatemala in 1954, which included air bombings of Guatemala City and the threat of a US invasion. The birds’ attacks thus can be said to symbolize a fear of other nations bombing the US in revenge for having been bombed.

This theme of revenge first appears right at about the beginning of the movie, when Mitch Brenner (Taylor) enters a pet store where birds are sold on the second floor, and pretends that he thinks Melanie Daniels (Hedren)–who has played a practical joke leading to a broken window and a legal case that he, a lawyer, knows of–works in the store. He plays this trick on her in retaliation for her practical joke, which caused such annoyance to those affected by it.

He asks her about buying a pair of lovebirds as a gift for his younger sister, eleven-year-old Cathy Brenner (Cartwright). Annoyed at the comeuppance she’s received, yet also finding him attractive, Melanie wants to spite Mitch by, on the one hand, delivering a pair of green lovebirds to his home personally, and on the other, writing a note to him that she hopes the birds would “help [his] personality”…though she tears up the letter.

It’s interesting in this connection to note that, for pretty much the remainder of the film, she is dressed in a distinctive green outfit. A green ‘bird’ is giving Mitch green birds. This ‘bird’ also played a practical joke resulting in a broken window, just like the many broken windows caused by the bird attacks, which have begun since her arrival, in that green outfit, in Bodega Bay. Indeed, a hysterical mother in a diner blames Melanie for bringing the bird attacks to the town.

So we shift from lovebirds to violent ones, suggesting a dialectical relationship between love and hostility. This dialectical tension is sublated in how Mitch and Melanie are themselves two lovebirds who, in spite of how annoyed they are with each other at first, are attracted to each other.

Film critic and historian Andrew Sarris noted how complacent and self-absorbed the main characters are: Mitch, Melanie, Annie, and Lydia. Such self-absorption and egotism suggest the effects of alienation in a capitalist society, one about to be attacked in symbolic revenge for the attacks of imperialism on other countries. One manifestation of contradiction in dialectics is that of attack vs. counterattack, or revenge; another such manifestation is action vs. passivity, or resting. In the short story, Nat speculates that the birds attack at high tide (thesis), and at low tide (antithesis), the birds rest (page 12 of the above link).

The first major bird attack and the climactic last one are on Melanie (the bird nips at Mitch’s fingers and ankle at the very end are so brief as not to count for much). This is her karma–birds attacking a bird, the dialectic of attack vs. counterattack.

Another thing to remember about Melanie is that she is a bourgeois. Her father owns a newspaper, and she drives into Bodega Bay wearing a luxurious fur coat over that green outfit. So as the deliverer of the green lovebirds to Mitch and Cathy, Melanie–as an embodiment of capitalism and a personification of the birds–is symbolically bringing the avian aerial bombardment on the town. This linking of capitalism with aerial bombing is brought to you courtesy of imperialism. The hysterical mother in the diner is right to blame Melanie for all the mayhem.

The US bombed Japan and North Korea. Due to racist immigration policies, only limited numbers of Asians had been allowed to live in California by the time of the filming of The Birds. Melanie tells Mitch her family is sponsoring a Korean boy, but her charity won’t come near to compensating for the imperialist destruction she personifies, or the racism of the government that supports her class interests: those bird attacks are symbolic of, in part, an Asian, avian revenge.

This 1963 film came out at the height of the Cold War, just a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world came inches close to nuclear war. During the previous decade, there had been the McCarthyist Red Scare, the fear of which I dealt with in my analysis of The Manchurian Candidate.

The bird attacks can thus be seen to represent a repressed fear of a communist invasion, a revenge bombing for all the American imperialist bombings and coups that went on between the end of WWII and the early 60s. Now, what is repressed will return to consciousness, though in a new, unrecognizable form: thus, bomber planes resurface in the conscious mind in the form of birds.

This is the fear of a socialist revenge on capitalism, a repressed fear, since bourgeois Hitchcock would never have seen it as such in his own film; he’d instead speak of caged birds getting revenge on man, their cagers and polluters of the air. Recall the amateur orinthologist, Mrs. Bundy (played by Ethel Griffies), speaking of how peaceful birds usually are, and that it’s man who makes life unliveable for all. Those who have a historical materialist understanding of the world can easily translate “man” as ‘the capitalist.’

Now, just as capitalism (personified here in rich bitch Melanie Daniels) destroys everything around it (symbolized in her arrival in Bodega Bay with the lovebirds, followed soon after by the bird attacks), so will capitalism ultimately crumble under its own contradictions, as Marx predicted in Capital, Vol. 3, in his discussion of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (in the film, symbolized by the birds attacking Melanie, ‘the bird,’ at the end, almost killing her).

Another issue capitalism raises is alienation, shown symbolically in the film through the love/hate relationship of not only Mitch and Melanie, but also that of him and his mother (Tandy), who sabotaged his relationship with Annie Hayworth (Pleshette), his previous girlfriend. On top of this is Melanie’s estrangement from her mother, who ran off with another man.

To get back to Lydia, who disapproves also of her son’s budding relationship with Melanie and tries to sabotage it by telling him of a scandal involving Melanie falling naked into a fountain, his mother fears his commitment to a woman will result in him abandoning his mother. Mitch’s father died several years before the beginning of the film, so Lydia is afraid of having to carry on life alone.

This fear of loneliness, coupled with difficulties forming healthy relationships, is often a consequence of alienation under capitalism. Dialectically speaking, this clinging love of Lydia’s, which spoils Mitch’s love life, is another sublation of the film’s theme of the love/hate opposition, which is symbolized by the green lovebirds and Melanie in her green outfit on the one hand, and the attacking birds on the other.

One interesting contrast between the short story and the film is how, in the former, the first of the bird attacks happens on page two of the link provided above, but in the latter, we must wait about fifty minutes until a group of birds attacks children at Cathy’s birthday party. Prior to that attack, there’s only the one gull that hits Melanie on the head, the one that crashes into Annie’s front door, and the ominous hovering and resting of birds on several occasions throughout the film.

Because all that matters to imperialists is the controlling of other countries, the ruling class gives not a second of thought to how their bombs not only kill people, but also traumatize and disrupt the lives of the survivors. The lengthy process of developing the main characters, prior to the birds’ first major attacks, humanizes them for us in a way that the East Asian or, more recently, Middle Eastern victims of bombings are never humanized.

We see the traumatized reaction of Lydia when she sees her neighbour’s eyeless corpse, and we sympathize with her. We rarely contemplate the trauma of the surviving Japanese after the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We imagine North Koreans to be neurotically servile to the ruling Kim family; we never consider how the North Koreans’ collective trauma, after the US bombed their whole country, drove them to look up to the strength of the Kims to ensure that such a bombing will never happen again.

We see the terror of the children attacked by the birds at Cathy’s party, then later as they run from their school. We seldom consider, for example, the Yemeni children killed in a school bus after being hit by an airstrike. The only way many of us in the West can contemplate such horrors is if they’re inflicted on us, but with the bombs replaced with birds. Recall how, in the diner scene, the bird attacks are sometimes referred to as a “war” being waged against man.

Speaking of the diner scene, a tense discussion of the bird attacks there brings up responses as varied as the denials of Mrs. Bundy, the hysterics of the mother of two children, and a drunk Irishman proclaiming doomsday. His insistence on it being “the end of the world” makes me think of Biblical allusions other than his to Ezekiel, though.

Recall how this all more or less started not only with Melanie’s buying a pair of lovebirds, but also, just before her entrance into the pet store, hearing a boy on the sidewalk whistling at her, all while we hear the cawing of a huge flock of black birds in the sky; the boy’s and birds’ sounds are similar enough to suggest that the whistling may not have been from him, but may have actually been one of the birds screeching. It’s as if the birds were the ones making the pass at her.

These associations symbolically suggest the sons of God in Genesis 6:1-4, who are sometimes identified as angels (i.e., winged ones!), looking down from heaven onto the daughters of men (e.g., Melanie) and wishing to mate with them. This unnatural love union led to the sinfulness of the world that led, in turn, to the Great Flood, another ending of the world. Here again we see the birds’ dialectical linking of love and violence. (Recall also how Nat, from the short story, theorized that the birds’ attacks coincided with the high tide, a rising of water that can be associated with the Flood.)

Another way the bird attacks suggest “the end of the world” is how they symbolize avenging angels, coming down to earth with Christ’s return and bringing about Armageddon (Matthew 16:27).

To return to the airstrike symbolism, a closer linking of the birds with bomber planes is suggested when–after a bird attacks a man at a gas station and causes him to drop the fuel dispenser of a gas pump, spilling gasoline all over the ground–a man parks his car by the spillage and, unaware of the gas, lights a cigar. His dropping of a match causes an explosion, killing him and causing a huge fire in the area. Bird-bombers, as it were, have caused explosions and a fire, however indirectly.

The disruption of people’s lives continues when we learn that Annie, Mitch’s original flame, has been killed by the birds, her corpse lying out by the stairs in front of her porch and traumatizing poor Cathy, who looks on from inside Annie’s house. We rarely think, however, of how bombings cause the same kind of suffering in those countries victimized by imperialism.

The self-absorption and narcissism we have seen in the main characters, especially in Melanie, have abated now that the terror of the birds has forced everyone to work together, help each other, and sympathize with each other. Since bourgeois Melanie–bringer of the lovebirds and, symbolically, the bird attacks–represents capitalism, her subsequent helpfulness should be seen to represent how capitalism sometimes tries to make accommodations to appease the working class, as was seen in the welfare state from 1945-1973. Nonetheless, accommodations to the labour aristocracy of the First World are never good enough to compensate for the wrongs done to the Third World.

Holed up in the Brenners’ house, Mitch, Melanie, Lydia, and Cathy are safe for the moment. Cathy would like to bring her lovebirds into the living room, but Lydia won’t tolerate even those birds, as harmless as they are in their cage. These two birds are the dialectical opposite of the violent ones, though, so there’s no need to fear them.

No one knows why the birds are trying to kill people; neither, I imagine, do many of the poor people in the humble, provincial villages of the Third World understand why drones fly over them and kill innocent civilians there. Especially ignorant of the reasons for this violence against them are their children…just like Cathy.

More bird attacks come, even after Mitch’s efforts to board up the windows. Melanie goes up to the attic, and she experiences the climactic bird attack. Just as she’s learned “what it’s like to be on the other end of a gag,” now she learns what it’s like to experience an extreme, life-threatening bird attack, just as eyeless Dan, Lydia’s neighbour, and Annie have. Luckily, though, she barely survives.

Imperialists sometimes treat their bombing atrocities as if they were as trivial as practical jokes, the way Hillary Clinton cackled at the brutal murder of Muammar Gaddafi. Sooner or later, though, all empires fall, as the American one is expected to do within the next ten to fifteen years or so. Just as birds attack Melanie, so will the ‘practical joker’ US/NATO one day get their comeuppance, perhaps in the form of a bombing.

If and when that happens, it truly will be the end of the world…the world of capitalism, that is, since many have speculated that the latest economic collapse could very well be the self-destruction of capitalism that Marx predicted, symbolized in the film by the near-fatal attack of birds on the green-suited bird.

After the attack on her, the birds are at rest. Now would be a good chance to get Melanie to a hospital in San Francisco; Mitch and the others would be putting themselves at great risk of being exposed in their car to another bird attack, but Melanie’s injuries are so severe that her life depends on getting her to a doctor.

As Mitch gets the car ready for Melanie, Lydia, and Cathy, he hears a radio newscast mentioning the possibility of involving the military. Naturally: the bird attacks symbolize a foreign aerial invasion. Indeed, as Melanie, Lydia, and Cathy get into the car, we see the tense enveloping of the area with resting birds. The sight of so many birds suggests the occupation of a foreign army…or air force. In this symbolic sense, Americans can get an inkling of what other countries must feel when they have US military bases in them.

So the ending of the film is an ambiguous one: how much longer will the bird attacks continue? The short story’s ending seems more pessimistic, as we find Nat smoking a cigarette–like a man condemned to a firing squad–as he awaits the next bird attack. He seems resigned to his fate. Many victims of US imperialism must feel the same resignation when confronted with endless air strikes.

The hope that Mitch et al must feel, as they drive Melanie to a San Francisco hospital, would symbolically reflect the Western hope of reviving from a vulnerability that other countries have felt, courtesy of the US/NATO alliance. As we witness the geopolitical shift from a unipolar world to a multipolar one, Westerners may find their hopes dwindling.

Jason Morton’s New Poem

Here’s another poem by my friend, Jason Morton, whose work I’ve written about before. As before, I’ve put his words in italics to distinguish them from mine; after the text will be my analysis.

Absolution a myth
Created by man
To make me into what I never was
A sinner a winner
A child like wonder
Bursting stars in my eyes
Only pain can penetrate the lies
As deliverance has fallen short
Like an angel who is a forgotten
Figure in my mind and my eyes
Listen to the wind
And sift through the lies

Am I worthy to be redeemed?

Here we find the poet struggling with feelings of shame, guilt, and low self-esteem, brought on by such demeaning authority figures as those symbolized by the Church.

There’s the hope of absolution, though it’s a hope never realized. Ostensibly, it’s meant to make one a better person, but what it really does is try to make one into what one never was: an obedient follower.

“A sinner” is supposedly redeemed and made into “a winner” and “a child like wonder” reminding one of Matthew 18:3: “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

Note how childlike is split into two separate words, indicating how far one really is from being the sweet, innocent, childlike ideal that religious authoritarianism claims it wants for us, but is really a kind of code word for obedience and conformity.

“Bursting stars in my eyes” suggests a blinding by the celestial light, the poet’s eyes exploding, being destroyed by the authority that would see for him. Learning the truth of this abusive authority is inevitably painful, hence “only pain can penetrate the lies.”

“Deliverance has fallen short” because the promises of redemption made by the authority are never kept. This having “fallen short” is like a new Fall of Man, a second falling from grace.

He feels “like an angel who is a forgotten/Figure in [his] mind and [his] eyes.” Would this forgotten angel be Lucifer, the one who used to be a great angel, but is now so disgraced as to be the Devil, his former goodness no longer remembered? Is the poet’s shame so extreme? Has the authoritarian structure harmed him that badly?

An interesting moment of ambiguity comes at the end of this last quote. “And my eyes” could end the passage about the forgotten angel, or his eyes could–in a surreal sense–“listen to the wind/And sift through the lies.” Perhaps this means that he hears a wind, the breath-like ruach, which he can’t see, because the Spirit of God is only believed to be there; it’s actually nonexistent.

In spite of the obvious unreality of the authoritarian narrative, be it literally religious or otherwise symbolic of some other kind (i.e., the authority of family, politics, etc.), he still feels the trauma of unworthiness that the narrative has imposed on him. Hence, “Am I worthy to be redeemed?”

I think he’s worthy enough not to need redemption. The question is, can those who so shamed him ever be worthy of redemption?

I have my doubts about that.

Analysis of ‘Deliverance’

Deliverance is the 1970 debut novel by American poet James Dickey. It was made into a 1972 film by director John Boorman, starring Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox.

Four middle-aged men–landlord/outdoorsman Lewis Medlock (Reynolds), graphic artist Ed Gentry (Voight), salesman Bobby Trippe (Beatty), and soft drink company executive Drew Ballinger (Cox)–spend a weekend canoeing up the fictional Cahulawassee River in the northwest Georgia wilderness…only their imagined fun-filled weekend turns into a nightmarish fight to survive.

Deliverance is considered one of the best English-language novels of the 20th century, and Boorman’s film adaptation–with a screenplay by Dickey–has also been highly praised, earning three Academy Award nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Film Editing) and five Golden Globe Award nominations (Best Motion Picture–Drama, Best Director, Best Actor [Voight], Best Original Song, and Best Screenplay).

Here are some quotes from the film:

“Sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything…A couple more months, she’ll all be gone…from Aintry on up. One big dead lake.” –Lewis

Griner: Canoe trip?
Lewis: That’s right, a canoe trip.
Griner: What the hell you wanna go fuck around with that river for?
Lewis: Because it’s there.
Griner: It’s there all right. You get in there and can’t get out, you’re gonna wish it wasn’t.

Lewis: The first explorers saw this country, saw it just like us.
Drew: I can imagine how they felt.
Bobby[about the rapids] Yeah, we beat it, didn’t we? Did we beat that?
Lewis: You don’t beat it. You never beat the river, chubby.

Lewis: Machines are gonna fail and the system’s gonna fail…then, survival. Who has the ability to survive? That’s the game – survive.
Ed: Well, the system’s done all right by me.
Lewis: Oh yeah. You gotta nice job, you gotta a nice house, a nice wife, a nice kid.
Ed: You make that sound rather shitty, Lewis.
Lewis: Why do you go on these trips with me, Ed?
Ed: I like my life, Lewis.
Lewis: Yeah, but why do you go on these trips with me?
Ed: You know, sometimes I wonder about that.

Bobby: It’s true Lewis, what you said. There’s something in the woods and the water that we have lost in the city.
Lewis: We didn’t lose it. We sold it.
Bobby: Well, I’ll say one thing for the system. System did produce the air mattress, or as is better known among we camping types, the instant broad.

Mountain Man: What’s the matter, boy? I bet you can squeal. I bet you can squeal like a pig. Let’s squeal. Squeal now. Squeal. [Bobby’s ear is pulled]
Bobby: Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee!
Mountain Man: Squeal. Squeal louder. Louder. Louder, louder. Louder! Louder! Louder! Get down now, boy. There, get them britches down. That’s that. You can do better than that, boy. You can do better than that. Come on, squeal. Squeal.

Mountain Man: Whatcha wanna do with him?
Toothless Man[grinning] He got a real pretty mouth, ain’t he?
Mountain Man: That’s the truth.
Toothless Man[to Ed] You’re gonna do some prayin’ for me, boy. And you better pray good.

Lewis: We killed a man, Drew. Shot him in the back – a mountain man, a cracker. It gives us somethin’ to consider.
Drew: All right, consider it, we’re listenin’.
Lewis: Shit, all these people are related. I’d be god-damned if I’m gonna come back up here and stand trial with this man’s aunt and his uncle, maybe his momma and his daddy sittin’ in the jury box. What do you think, Bobby? [Bobby rushes at the corpse, but is restrained] How about you, Ed?
Ed: I don’t know. I really don’t know.
Drew: Now you listen, Lewis. I don’t know what you got in mind, but if you try to conceal this body, you’re settin’ yourself up for a murder charge. Now that much law I do know! This ain’t one of your fuckin’ games. You killed somebody. There he is!
Lewis: I see him, Drew. That’s right, I killed somebody. But you’re wrong if you don’t see this as a game…Dammit, we can get out of this thing without any questions asked. We get connected up with that body and the law, this thing gonna be hangin’ over us the rest of our lives. We gotta get rid of that guy!…Anywhere, everywhere, nowhere.
Drew: How do you know that other guy hasn’t already gone for the police?
Lewis: And what in the hell is he gonna tell ’em, Drew, what he did to Bobby?
Drew: Now why couldn’t he go get some other mountain men? Now why isn’t he gonna do that? You look around you, Lewis. He could be out there anywhere, watchin’ us right now. We ain’t gonna be so god-damned hard to follow draggin’ a corpse.
Lewis: You let me worry about that, Drew. You let me take care of that. You know what’s gonna be here? Right here? A lake – as far as you can see hundreds of feet deep. Hundreds of feet deep. Did you ever look out over a lake, think about something buried underneath it? Buried underneath it. Man, that’s about as buried as you can get.
Drew: Well, I am tellin’ you, Lewis, I don’t want any part of it.
Lewis: Well, you are part of it!
Drew: IT IS A MATTER OF THE LAW!
Lewis: The law? Ha! The law?! What law?! Where’s the law, Drew? Huh? You believe in democracy, don’t ya?
Drew: Yes, I do.
Lewis: Well then, we’ll take a vote. I’ll stand by it and so will you.

Ed: What are we gonna do, Lewis? You’re the guy with the answers. What the hell do we do now?
Lewis: Now you get to play the game.

“Drew was a good husband to his wife Linda and you were a wonderful father to your boys, Drew – Jimmie and Billie Ray. And if we come through this, I promise to do all I can for ’em. He was the best of us.” –Ed

Sheriff: Don’t ever do nothin’ like this again. Don’t come back up here.
Bobby: You don’t have to worry about that, Sheriff.
Sheriff: I’d kinda like to see this town die peaceful.

The film begins with voiceovers of Lewis and the other three men discussing their plan to go canoeing up the Cahulawassee River while they still have the chance (i.e., before it gets dammed up), with visuals of the construction workers beginning work on the dam. The novel, however, begins not only with Ed, as narrator, and the other three discussing their weekend plans, but also with his experience as the co-owner of a graphic art business/advertising agency, Emerson-Gentry.

He describes a photography session with a model wearing nothing but panties with the brand name of “Kitt’n Britches.” She is made to hold a cat; he gets turned on watching her holding one of her breasts in her hand while posing for the photo shoot. This scene gives us a sense of how he, as the co-owner of this business, is a capitalist exploiter enjoying his job ogling a pretty, seminude model. He isn’t completely comfortable with treating her like an object, though.

Indeed, one gets a sense that Ed is a sensitive liberal, with mixed feelings about the shoot: “I sat on the edge of a table and undid my tie. Inside the bright hardship of the lights was a peculiar blue, wholly painful, unmistakably man-made, unblinkable thing that I hated. It reminded me of prisons and interrogations, and that thought jumped straight at me. That was one side of it, all right, and the other was pornography. I thought of those films you see at fraternity parties and in officers’ clubs where you realize with terror that when the girl drops the towel the camera is not going to drop with it discreetly, as in old Hollywood films, following the bare feet until they hide behind a screen but is going to stay and when the towel falls, move in; that it is going to destroy someone’s womanhood by raping her secrecy; that there is going to be nothing left.” (pages 20-21)

All the same, towards the end of the novel, after he has returned from the ordeal of the canoeing trip, Ed–a married man with a son–takes the model out to dinner a couple of times (page 277).

His dishonesty to his wife, Martha, combined with his having lied to the Aintry cops about the deaths on and near the river, gives off the impression that Ed is an unreliable narrator (I’m not alone in this opinion: check Germane Jackson’s comment at the bottom of this link.). There is a sense that this story is much more wish-fulfillment on Ed’s part than a straightforward narrative. He wants to portray himself as a rugged hero, his nightmarish battle with nature a proving of his manhood.

This last point leads to one of the main themes of the novel: masculinity and its fragility. Lewis is Ed’s ideal of manhood, metaphorically a mirror to his narcissism. Now, while Drew’s loyalty to the law (his last name, Ballinger, sounds like a pun on barrister) suggests to Ed a sense of moral virtue (Drew is later deemed “the best of [them],” after his death), he hasn’t the manly strength Ed admires so much in Lewis. This lack of manliness is especially apparent in Bobby, the one who gets raped by the mountain man. Bobby’s surname, Trippe, is apt, for it suggests his awkwardness and ineffectuality.

Even Lewis’s supposed masculine perfection is compromised, however, when he breaks his leg, forcing Ed to be the hero. In this predicament we see Ed’s wish-fulfillment of having a chance to be like Lewis: his arduous climbing up the cliff and killing the toothless man (or so he thinks) are like a rite of passage for him. Without this test of manhood, Ed’s just a mild-mannered “city boy.” His surname, Gentry, suggests this softness.

Ed’s admiration for Lewis borders on, if it doesn’t lapse into, the homoerotic, with a passage in which Ed describes Lewis’s muscular, naked body with awe: “Lewis…was waist deep with water crumpling and flopping at his belly. I looked at him, for I have never seen him with his clothes off.
“Everything he had done for himself for years paid off as he stood there in his tracks, in the water. I could tell by the way he glanced at me; the payoff was in my eyes. I had never seen such a male body in my life, even in the pictures in the weight-lifting magazines, for most of those fellows are short, and Lewis was about an even six feet. I’d say he weighed about 190. The muscles were bound up in him smoothly, and when he moved, the veins in the moving part would surface. If you looked at him that way, he seems made out of well-matched red-brown chunks wrapped in blue wire. You could even see the veins in his gut, and I knew I could not even begin to conceive how many sit-ups and leg-raises–and how much dieting–had gone into bringing them into view.” (pages 102-103)

Since Ed’s wish-fulfilling narrative is unreliable, we can see the rape of Bobby as, in part, the projection of an unconscious wish on Ed’s part to be done by Lewis. Recall also that the arrow Lewis shoots into the back of the mountain man has not only saved Ed from having to perform fellatio on the toothless man, but also avenges Bobby’s rape, since Lewis’s phallic arrow rapes, if you will, the mountain man.

One’s sense of masculinity is assured in our society by winning in competitions of one sort or another. This competitiveness ranges everywhere from Ed’s life-and-death struggle to kill the toothless man to Drew’s innocuous duet with Lonnie on the guitar and banjo, respectively.

In the novel, the two musicians begin by playing “Wildwood Flower” (pages 59-60). In the film, of course, it’s the famous–and aptly named–“Duelling Banjos.” They smile at each other as they play, while all the other men around, local and visitor alike, enjoy the impromptu performance. One of the locals even dances to the tune; but when the competing musicians finish, and Drew wants to shake hands with Lonnie, the latter coldly turns his head away.

Part of the sense of competition is a belief in the supposed superiority of oneself over one’s rival. Accordingly, the four visitors tend to have a condescending attitude to the impoverished locals, who in return are gruff with them. Since I consider Ed to be an unreliable narrator (In Voight’s portrayal of him in the film, as well), his encounters of the inbred among the locals could be his imagination, another way for him to see himself as superior to those around him…except for Lewis.

Ed muses, “There is always something wrong with people in the country…In the comparatively few times I had ever been in the rural South, I had been struck by the number of missing fingers. Offhand, I had counted around twenty, at least. There had also been several people with some form of crippling or twisting illness, and some blind or one-eyed. No adequate medical treatment, maybe. But there was something else. You’d think that farming was a healthy life, with fresh air and fresh food and plenty of exercise, but I never saw a farmer who didn’t have something wrong with him, and most of the time obviously wrong; I never saw one who was physically powerful, either. Certainly there were none like Lewis.” (pages 55-56)

These four visitors are men with money, generally owners of businesses and private property, thus making them at least petite bourgeois; their social status contrasts them with the poor, working-class locals in this rural area near the river. To the locals, it will feel as if the four men are intruding on their territory, comparable to Western imperialists coming into and taking over the Third World. After all, competition over who gets to control land, resources, and the means of production is what capitalism is all about; and between the building of the dam (page 123) and these four intruders, the rural locals have a lot to be annoyed about.

The four men imagine they aren’t doing anything wrong because they don’t know what it’s like to live on a barely subsistence level: the rural locals do know that experience, and they resent richer people coming into their area and thinking they can do whatever they please there.

Since Ed is telling the story, he is going to portray himself and his three friends in the best possible light, and portray the locals in the most unflattering way possible, too. For this reason, we should take his narration with a generous grain of salt, and seriously consider what possible details he’s leaving out: the goodness of the locals, and the wrongs that he and his friends have quite possibly, if not probably, done to the locals.

Part of how Ed’s narration is distorting the facts is how he’s projecting his and his friends’ faults and wrongdoing onto the rural people and their setting. In the film, while the four men are camping at night, Lewis suddenly wanders off because he thinks he’s heard something (i.e., is somebody stalking them?). In the novel, Ed thinks he hears a man howling before going to sleep in his tent. Then he dreams about the model in the Kitt’n Britches panties being clawed in the buttocks by the cat. Then he wakes up, turns on a flashlight, and sees an owl with its talons on the tent…is this meant to be an omen, or just him projecting his own ill will onto his environment? By his own admission, “There was nothing, after all, so dangerous about an owl.” (pages 86-88)

Ed shares such fears with us in order to make himself and his friends into the victims, to conceal the fact that they’re actually the victimizers, covering up their murders of the mountain man and toothless man while trying to win the reader’s sympathy.

Interspersed sporadically throughout the novel, oblique and metaphorical references to war and imperialist concepts can be found by the careful reader. Examples include Ed calling his employees his “captives” and his “prisoners” (page 17); there’s the above-mentioned reference to “prisons and interrogations” and to porno films watched in “officers’ clubs” (page 20); when he and Lewis drive off from Ed’s home to go on the canoeing trip, he speaks of himself and his friend as seeming like “advance commandos of some invading force” (page 35); when he reaches the wilderness and gets out of the car, he looks in the rear window and sees himself as a “guerrilla, hunter” (page 69); when the four men have pitched their tents, Ed feels “a good deal better,” for they have “colonized the place” (page 83); he and his friends would “found [a] kingdom” (page 103); according to Lewis, the locals consider anyone outside the rural area to be unwanted “furriners” (pages 123-124); Ed confesses, “I was a killer” (page 173); later, he muses how “It was strange to be a murderer” (page 232); he speaks of the river “finding a way to serve” him, including collages he’s made, one of which hangs in an employee’s cubicle, “full of sinuous forms threading among the headlines of war” (page 276); finally, Lewis makes a reference to “Those gooks” (page 278).

All of these quotes taken together suggest that this 1970 novel, taking place mostly in the wilderness and involving the killing of two local men, as well as the apparent shooting of Drew, could be seen as an allegory of the American whitewashing of such imperialist wars as those of Korea and Vietnam. The above-mentioned quotes can also be seen as Freudian slips, meaning that Ed has repressed possible traumatic war experiences, making them resurface in the unrecognizable form of a weekend canoeing…except the quotes give away what’s really happened.

In this reimagined scenario, Lewis as the outdoorsman, survivalist, and Ed’s macho ideal, is the squad commander, barking orders at Bobby in their shared canoe. Ed is second-in-command, a former officer in one or two wars, I suspect (hence his reference above to “officers’ clubs” watching porno films), as Lewis was. Bobby and Drew are the weaker, less-experienced NCOs.

The Georgia wilderness symbolizes the jungles of Vietnam and wilderness of pre-industrialized Korea. The river can symbolize either a path our four ‘troops’ are walking on; or the Mekong, once controlled by the French; or it could be a river like the Nung River that Captain Willard (played by Martin Sheen) would go on in Apocalypse Now; or it could be compared to the river that Marlow‘s steamboat goes on in Heart of Darkness. The weekend canoe trip, then, is symbolically an imperialist intrusion into an impoverished land whose people would free themselves from colonialism, if only they could.

Ed doesn’t tell the story anywhere near like my interpretation, though, because he’d rather portray himself and his friends as the victims, and depict the two men they have murdered as the victimizers. Western propaganda similarly portrayed North Korea and North Vietnam as the communist aggressors, and the American military as the heroes attempting to bring ‘freedom and democracy’ to the Koreans and Vietnamese. We’ve all heard these lies before, as with the Gulf of Tonkin incident and endless propaganda against the DPRK.

Hollywood has made movie after movie about the suffering of American soldiers in Vietnam, while giving short shrift to the suffering of the Vietnamese; also, they tend to make the Americans into the heroes and stereotype the Vietnamese as villains, prostitutes, backward peasant farmers, etc., though some films are better, or worse, than others in this regard. Similarly, though M.A.S.H. vilified Koreans far less, their experience is no less marginalized or stereotyped in the movie and TV show. This misrepresentation and marginalizing can be seen to be paralleled in Ed’s negative portrayal of the locals, and in his unreliable narration of the rape and sniper passages in the novel and film.

Anyone who has done the research knows that the US escalated the Vietnam war, rationalizing American military aggression with the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident, then committed such atrocities as the My Lai massacre, napalm attacks scarring such locals as Phan Thị Kim Phúc, as well as the troops’ widespread raping of Vietnamese women. The rape of Bobby and the near-sexual assault of Ed, apart from being the homoerotic projections I described above regarding Ed’s feelings about Lewis, can also be seen as projections of Ed’s own guilt, symbolic of the guilt of American soldiers in such places as Korea and Vietnam.

For here is the core of Ed’s trauma, as I see it: it isn’t so much what the rural locals (in my allegory, the North Koreans and the Vietcong) may have done to him, but the guilt of what he and those with him did to them. The only way he can cope with his guilt is to repress the memories, to transform them into an unrecognizable fake memory (his and Lewis’s crimes reimagined as acts of self-defence), and to project his own guilt onto the locals (i.e., those inhabiting the Georgian wilderness symbolizing the Koreans and the Vietnamese as victims of US imperialism, as I’d have it.)

And instead of being a villain who murdered locals, Ed can fancy himself and Lewis as heroes, avenging a rape, and climbing a steep cliff and saving his friends from the toothless sniper…if that’s even the man Ed has killed!

Ed’s ogling of the Kitt’n Britches model during the photo shoot, and especially his dream of the cat clawing at her ass, can be seen as symbolic of rapes and prostitution in Korea and Vietnam, censored by his superego to make them less anxiety-provoking. The fact that he thinks of her on several occasions while in the Georgian wilderness, which as I mentioned above is symbolic of the jungles of Vietnam, even further solidifies the symbolic link between her and the sexual exploitation of Korean and Vietnamese women and girls by US troops.

By now, Dear Reader, you may be skeptical of my imposing of US imperialism onto this story. There is, after all, not a shred of proof anywhere in the novel or the film that Ed, Lewis, Bobby, and Drew are vets of the Korean or Vietnam wars. But consider the alternative. The novel was published in 1970; the film came out in 1972. The story takes place more or less in the present (i.e., at that time), or maybe a year or two before. There is no indication of it happening at a far earlier time, so we can only assume it takes place some time between 1970 and 1972.

In the novel, the four men are middle-aged. In the film, though, they are considerably younger, between 33 and 36, going by the actors’ ages at the time (Voight’s having been 33), or perhaps a few years older. Some of the motivation for having younger actors may have been because moviegoers prefer to sympathize with younger, better-looking people; but Ned Beatty’s character doesn’t need to be younger, and nor does Ronny Cox’s. Burt Reynolds’s character is 38 or 39 years of age (page 6), only a few years older than Reynolds was at the time. If we imagine the film’s characters to be in their late 30s, then all four of them may have been drafted into the Korean War, twenty years earlier.

My point about the novel as allegorical of a whitewashed imperialist war experience isn’t dependent on whether or not these four men actually served in the Korean or Vietnam wars, but their involvement in them isn’t to be ruled out, either, just because it isn’t mentioned in the novel. Lewis, at the age of 18 or 19, would have been drafted into the Korean War in 1950, ’51, or ’52; and Ed (in his late 40s in the novel), Bobby, and Drew must have been drafted, at ages between their late 20s and 30, in 1950, because in that year, all men between 18-and-a-half and 35 would have had to sign up.

The men may also have joined voluntarily for service in the Vietnam War (at least two thirds of those who served were volunteers). They’re too straight (15b definition) and bourgeois to be the draft card burning type (their higher socio-economic status, education, and ages in the mid-Sixties would have presumably made them officers). For men of their age, the patriotic American, anti-commie type would have been standard enough of an attitude to make them likely to have volunteered.

Even though it’s never mentioned, I’d say they must have done tours of duty in Korea. Though they were too old to have been drafted into serving in Vietnam, they would have been the right age for Korea. At least Ed would have served in Korea, since Lewis (his macho ideal), Bobby, and Drew may be figments of Ed’s imagination, transformations in his unconscious mind of old army buddies. If Lewis isn’t an imaginary character, his rugged, outdoorsman, macho personality would likely have made him want to sign up for Vietnam.

Ed’s never mentioning having done any service in the Korean War, then–apart from it having been too distant a memory to preoccupy him consciously–can easily be attributed to repression, while those indirect and metaphorical references to war, colonialism, and imperialism can be seen as fragments of Korean (or possibly also Vietnam) War memories slipping out. Given the year that the story is set in, and that the four men were young enough and sufficiently able-bodied in the early 50s to have served in Korea, I’d say that, if anything, it’s harder to believe that they haven’t served than that they have.

The trauma of Ed’s guilt and his fight to survive the ambushes of the wartime enemy are enough to force him to bury the pain in his unconscious and to have it reappear in a much less painful form–a weekend canoe trip gone horribly wrong, with him killing only one man instead of many Koreans (and possibly Vietnamese), with his and Lewis’s two killings remembered as acts in self-defence, as “justifiable homicide” rather than as a string of wartime atrocities.

And instead of Ed witnessing–and allowing–the multiple rapes and prostitution of Korean (and possibly also Vietnamese) women, his unconscious transforms these into one rape of one of his buddies and an attempted sexual assault on himself, a projection of his guilt turning the victimizers into the victims.

And instead of Ed and his fellow officers (Lewis, Bobby, and Drew, by chance?) raping and/or enjoying the sexual services of a number of Korean (and maybe Vietnamese) prostitutes, Ed can imagine it was really just him ogling a model wearing nothing but panties (recall the mountain man in the film saying to Bobby, “Them panties, take ’em off,” and “get them britches down”) during a photo session that reminds him of being in an officers’ club watching a porno (page 20); then later, he dates her behind his wife’s back.

Instead of being guilty of terrible crimes, it turns out that Ed was just a little naughty. That’s not so bad, is it? This is his “deliverance” from a much more terrible trauma. Even when he makes love to his wife, Martha, he fantasizes about the model and her “gold eye” (page 28). Fantasizing about making love to her, instead of raping her, is his “deliverance” from guilt, for “it promised other things, another life.”

Ed’s difficult climb up the cliff is described in sexual language: “…I would begin to try to inch upward again, moving with the most intimate motions of my body, motions I had never dared use with Martha, or with any other human woman. Fear and a kind of enormous moon-blazing sexuality lifted me, millimeter by millimeter. And yet I held madly to the human. I looked for a slice of gold like the model’s in the river: some kind of freckle, something lovable, in the huge serpent-shape of light.” (page 176)

Later, Ed says, “It was painful, but I was going. I was crawling, but it was no longer necessary to make love to the cliff, to fuck it for an extra inch or two in the moonlight…If I was discreet, I could offer it a kick or two, even, and get away with it.” (page 177) This aggressively sexual language, once again with a reference to the model (previous paragraph), is another example of the symbolically imperialistic rape of the land the visitors have imposed on the locals.

Yet Ed is mostly preoccupied with describing the difficulty of the climb, especially for a man with aches and pains all over his body, as for example, here: “My feet slanted painfully in one direction or another. Guided by what kind of guesswork I could not say, I kept scrambling and stumbling upward like a creature born on the cliff and coming home. Often a hand or foot would slide and then catch on something I knew, without knowing, would be there, and I would go on up. There was nothing it could do against me, in the end; there was nothing it could do that I could not match, and, in the twinkling of some kind of eye-beat. I was going.” (page 177) His description of his battle with nature is thus more of him twisting things around and making himself the victim, and his surroundings the victimizer of sorts. It’s also him glorifying himself as a conquering hero, overcoming the cliff, and worthy of Lewis’s admiration.

When Ed shoots his arrow into the hunter he believes to be the toothless man, he falls from the tree he’s been hiding in and stabs another arrow into his side (pages 192-193). His aim of the arrow is shaky in the extreme, as you can see in Voight’s aim in the movie; his aim was just as shaky as when he shot at and missed the deer (page 97). This shakiness is to give us a sense of the “I kill’d not thee with half so good a will,” that Ed is somehow an unwilling murderer, to win our sympathy.

Ed describes himself as coming to be at one with the man he’s about to kill: “I had thought so long and hard about him that to this day I still believe I felt, in the moonlight, our minds fuse. It was not that I felt myself turning evil, but that an enormous physical indifference, as vast as the whole abyss of light at my feet, came to me; an indifference not only to the other man’s body scrambling and kicking on the ground with an arrow through it, but also to mine. If Lewis had not shot his companion, he and I would have made a kind of love, painful and terrifying to me, in some dreadful way pleasurable to him, but we would have been together in the flesh, there on the floor of the woods, and it was strange to think of it.” (page 180).

Ed stabbing himself with the second arrow when hitting the man with the first reinforces this sense of oneness with his victim. Later, Ed gets mad at Bobby, and says in the narration: “I ought to take this rifle and shoot the hell out of you, Bobby, you incompetent asshole, you soft city country-club man,” (page 201) this urge to point the gun at Bobby being once again Ed’s identification with the toothless man. Since, right or wrong, he imagines his victim to be the toothless man who was about to make him suck his cock, Ed is again projecting his own violent attitude onto his victim. As with Lewis shooting an arrow into Bobby’s rapist, Ed is raping his victim with his own phallic arrow.

As with the mountain man put in the ground (which will later be under water once the dam has been built–page 275), this new victim has to be buried in the water. These two burials symbolize guilt repressed into the unconscious. That repressed guilt, however, resurfaces in an unrecognized form; in the first of these cases, it’s the rapids that throw the men out of their canoes, destroying one of them and breaking Lewis’s leg. In the second case, recall the very end of the film.

Lewis insists that Drew has been shot. Ed isn’t so sure of this, especially when he finds Drew’s body and sees the bloody injury on his head. Is it the grazing of a bullet, or is it from his head having cracked against a rock? (page 217) He says he’s never seen a gunshot wound; maybe as an officer, he was behind a desk the whole time in Korea, or maybe he wasn’t all that close to the enemy he was shooting at…or maybe he’s lying again.

Since Drew was outvoted in the decision to bury the mountain man, he may have fallen out of his canoe not from having been shot, but from emotional exhaustion at having done something his conscience could not bear. Certainly that’s how it looks when we see Cox’s face before he falls out of the canoe in the movie; we don’t see his body jerk from having been shot.

If Drew hasn’t been shot, then Lewis’s insistence that he has–coupled with Ed’s determination to kill a hunter who, possibly if not probably, isn’t the toothless man–is yet another example of these men projecting their guilt outwards; the same way American imperialists in Korea and Vietnam were projecting their quest for world dominance onto those ‘commie reds.’

Lewis’s preoccupation with survivalism fits well in the context of my allegory, since he imagines all of civilization crumbling, necessitating man’s survival in the wild; the succumbing of civilization to nature here symbolizes the the capitalist West succumbing to communism. Cold War fears were like that back then. “Machines are gonna fail and the system’s gonna fail…then, survival. Who has the ability to survive? That’s the game – survive,” Lewis says in the film. As we know, though, it is nature that succumbs to civilization when the dam is built…and we all know who won the Cold War.

As Ed, Bobby, and Lewis are coming out of the wilderness and approaching a populated area, Ed must construct a plausible story and make sure that Bobby’s and Lewis’s accounts of it don’t contradict each other’s or Ed’s. As he says of his and Lewis’s crimes to Bobby, “we’ve got to make it unhappen.” (page 210)

This lying is, of course, necessary to avoid getting charged with murder by the local sheriff (in the film, played by Dickey), whose deputy, Queen, already suspects Ed of wrongdoing. Similarly, the US has avoided being held responsible for its war crimes by whitewashing history and portraying itself as “exceptional” and ‘defending the free world.’

Now, lying to the police about the supposed innocence of him and his friends isn’t enough to ease Ed’s mind; to assuage his conscience, he must alter the whole narrative and make himself and his friends seem as innocent as possible. This is why I believe he is an unreliable narrator.

He cannot deny that he and Lewis have committed deliberate murders; to claim to have killed men they haven’t would go against the tendencious bias of the narrative. So instead of denying murderous intent, they must rationalize the murders as acts of self-defence.

Though in the film, Ed has “got a real pretty mouth,” according to the toothless man, who happens to be ogling then 33-year-old, handsome Jon Voight, in the novel, Ed is supposed to be in his late forties, at an age far less likely to have “a real pretty mouth.” Similarly, the mountain man would have to have more than unusually perverted tastes to want to sodomize an obese, middle-aged man who “squeal[s] like a pig.”

When people are proven liars, anything they say is suspect; everything they say after having been found out as liars is doubted until strong evidence is provided that they’re telling the truth. It would be far more believable to imagine the mountain man and toothless man wanting to beat up and/or kill Ed and Bobby (for their insulting remarks about making whiskey–page 109) than it is to believe they’d want to rape them.

To be sure, it’s far from impossible to believe Ed’s and Bobby’s attackers really rape them; it just isn’t all that likely, and given Ed’s propensity to lie, that makes sexual assault all the less likely. What’s more, since he and Bobby look down on the locals as inbred ‘white trash,’ the way racist US troops looked down on East Asians as filthy, uncivilized ‘gooks,’ Ed’s portraying of them as loathsome rapist perverts is a perfect way to scorn and vilify the mountain man and toothless man, thus making it easier to kill them.

Here’s another point: of what relevance to the main narrative on the river is Ed’s preoccupation with a model wearing nothing but pretty panties? With so many references to her while in the wilderness, what’s the point of her involvement in the story other than to reinforce our sense of Ed’s sexual obsessions, manifested also in his description of Lewis’s body and in his ‘making love’ with the cliff? This is why I suspect that the rape of Bobby and near sexual assault on Ed are just projections of Ed’s own aggressive sexual feelings.

One of the tag lines of the film is, “What did happen on the Cahulawassee River?” I’d say that that’s a good question. We, the readers, and we who saw the movie, don’t really know what happened: we only know Ed’s version of the story. We know he killed a man, one who may well not have been his attacker. We know Lewis killed a man. We have reasonable doubts as to whether or not these homicides were justified.

Ed has to change their story when he learns that the cops have found the busted canoe, or parts of it, further back down the river from where Ed and Bobby have claimed that it crashed (page 245). This means more lying.

Ed claims that his fascination with the half-naked model is because of a “gold-glowing mote” in her eye (page 22), rather than with the contents of her Kitt’n Britches. We’re supposed to buy this. He takes her out to dinner a few times (page 277), then loses interest in her (Remember, he’s a married man with a son.). Really? He never took her to bed? He’s clearly trying to make his lust seem as harmless as possible. The connotations of his surname, Gentry, seem to have less to do with him (a capitalist) being a gentleman than they do with the notion of gentry as an upper social class.

Indeed, the fragile masculine ego, with its incessant need to compete with and outdo other men–in sex, in fighting, and in skillfulness in general–is bound up with competitive capitalism and class conflict, especially in its modern, late stage, imperialist form. This is partially why I link the Korean and Vietnam Wars to this novel. War is the ultimate struggle of man against man, and of man against nature, as seen in Deliverance.

By the end of the novel, the dam is up, and the river is now Lake Cahula (page 277). Drew and the men he and Lewis have killed are “going deeper and deeper, piling fathoms and hundreds of tons of pressure and darkness on themselves, falling farther and farther out of sight, farther and farther from any influence on the living.” (page 275) Ed can sleep better now. The bodies are further and further buried under the water, symbol of the unconscious.

Yet as I said above, whatever gets repressed always resurfaces. Dickey ends his novel peacefully, with Ed’s loss of interest in the model (an interest that was tied up with the river [!]), with him still practicing archery with Lewis, with Bobby moving to Hawaii, and with real estate people and college-age kids showing an interest in the Cahula Lake area as a place to live (page 278).

The film, however, ends with Ed waking up from a nightmare in which the hand of the toothless man surfaces from the water, a clear return of the repressed. In the novel, Ed can’t sleep because he’s looking out his bedroom window, wondering if a car is going to arrive on his driveway with a warrant for his arrest (page 273).

Even in the novel’s peaceful ending, the careful reader can sense a continued intrusiveness on the Cahula Lake area. Real estate people want to seize the area for private property. Young high school grads are thinking of living there. Lewis, in discussing Zen and archery, says, “Those gooks are right.” (page 278), an oblique reference, in my opinion, to the imperialists’ racist attitude to the people of the East Asian countries they’ve bombed, napalmed, and raped.

Our memories of the atrocities committed in the Korean and Vietnam wars are similarly fading into oblivion, thanks to whitewashing and repression. But it all comes back, however indirectly, in new forms…as it has over the years in continuing threats to the DPRK and China. We’ll just have to wait and hope for a deliverance from those threats.

James Dickey, Deliverance, New York, Delta Trade Paperbacks, 1970

Analysis of ‘Pet Sematary’

Pet Sematary is a 1983 supernatural horror novel by Stephen King, the one he considered his scariest (King, page ix) because of a real-life situation in which his toddler son ran off to a road and almost got hit by a truck (page xi). It has been made into two film adaptations, the 1989 one starring Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, Blaze Berdahl, and Fred Gwynne; and the 2019 version starring Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, and John Lithgow.

Here are some quotes from the 1989 film, the screenplay written by Stephen King:

“But he’s not God’s cat, he’s my cat… let God get His own if He wants one… not mine.” –Ellie Creed, afraid of her cat, Church, dying on the road in front of the Creed’s home

“The barrier was not meant to be crossed. The ground is sour.” –the ghost of Victor Pascow

“The soil of a man’s heart is stonier, Louis. A man grows what he can, and he tends it. ‘Cause what you buy, is what you own. And what you own… always comes home to you.” –Jud Crandall

Louis: Has anyone ever buried a person up there?
Jud: Christ on His Throne, NO! Whoever would!?

“Today is thanksgiving day for cats, but only if they came back from the dead.” –Louis Creed

“I knew this would happen. I told her when you were first married you’d have all the grief you can stand and more, I said. Now look at this. I hope you rot in hell! Where were you when he was playing in the road? You stinkin’ shit! You killer of children!” –Irwin Goldman, at Gage’s funeral, to Louis…then punches Louis

Louis: I’ll bite, Jud. What’s the bottom of the truth?
Jud: That, sometimes, dead is better. The person that you put up there ain’t the person that comes back. It might look like that person, but it ain’t that person, because whatever lives on the ground beyond the Pet Sematary ain’t human at all.

Rachel: It’s okay, Ellie! You just had a bad dream.
Ellie: It wasn’t a dream, it was Paxcow! Paxcow says daddy is going to do something really bad!
Rachel: Who is this Paxcow?
Ellie: He’s a ghost, a good ghost! He was sent to warn us!

“Rachel, is that you? I’ve been waiting for you, Rachel. And now I’m going to twist your back like mine, so you’ll never get out of bed again… Never get out of bed again…NEVER GET OUT OF BED AGAIN!” –Zelda Goldman

“I’m coming for you, Rachel… And this time, I’ll get you… Gage and I will both get you, for letting us die…” –Zelda, who then cackles

“Darling.” –reanimated Rachel, to Louis

The deliberately misspelled title is derived from an actual pet cemetery whose sign had the same misspelling, made by a child (page x). In the story, as in the real pet cemetery (it’s safe to assume), a number of the grave markers of the children’s dead pets have other misspellings; these all give a sense of the innocence of children who must learn to come to grips with loss.

I see another possible interpretation of the “Sematary” spelling, that it is a pun on seminary, or a school of theology. To study God is to study life’s meaning, as well as the mystery of death, the afterlife, and how to cope with suffering and loss. In this connection, recall the surname of the protagonist, Creed (the Christian belief system), and the name of their cat, Winston Churchill, usually shortened to Church. Pets are churches that, through their deaths, teach children about loss.

There are two cemeteries in the story, the good one (the Pet Sematary) and the bad one (the Micmac burial ground). The good one helps children deal with their grief and to learn to accept loss; but the bad one, which resurrects the dead and transforms them into demonic versions of their former selves (because the ground is inhabited by a Wendigo, an evil spirit of the First Nations tribes of the area), is for those who cannot accept the loss of loved ones.

So, the Pet Sematary is a kind of seminary, if you will, teaching children how to process the grief they feel after losing their beloved pets. The children can imagine that their pets are going from there to ‘dog [cat, hamster, etc.] heaven.’ The misspellings on the sign and grave markers, as I said above, show us the sweet naïveté of these children in their contemplation of God-like things; for as Jesus says in Matthew 18:3, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

The Pet Sematary is in a forest at the end of a long path from behind the house that the Creed family has just moved into. The religious often speak of following the right path to salvation, and the wrong path to damnation. There’s the path to the Pet Sematary (“It’s a safe path…You keep on the path and all’s well.” –page 39), and there’s also that road in front of the Creeds’ new house, where the Orinco trucks dangerously speed by, often killing people’s pets, thus filling up the Pet Sematary.

The inevitability of these trucks going by, something that happens regularly, is symbolic of the unescapable reality of death. Each truck is a juggernaut–not the actual Jagannath of the Hindus–but the apocryphal interpretation that Western observers made of it centuries ago: the idea that the chariot carrying the Hindu idol went non-stop down the road, and ecstatic worshippers threw themselves on the road to be crushed under the wheels of the chariot, in a rite of human sacrifice.

The name of the company printed on the trucks, Orinco (almost an anagram of the Cianbro truck King saw almost hit his little boy–page xi), sounds like a pun on Orinoco, the South American river whose name is derived from a term meaning “a place to paddle,” or a navigable place. Well, the road is good for Orinco trucks to drive on, since nothing can stop those juggernauts…nothing can stop death. The trucks are one with this road of death, a kind of via dolorosa.

So, the path to the Pet Sematary is a way to get to (pet) heaven, and the road the Orinco trucks drive on is a kind of highway to hell…or at least to Sheol. Then there’s the way beyond the Pet Sematary, the deadfall leading up to the Micmac burying ground, an evil sublation of the thesis–the Pet Sematary leading to eternal life for pets–and the negation of that thesis–the Orinco truck road to death. The Micmac burial ground is a place of living death.

That the Pet Sematary and the evil land of the Wendigo, leading to the Micmac burying ground, are closer together than the former is to the road suggests my ouroboros symbolism for the dialectical relationship between opposites (see these posts to understand my meaning)–the closeness between the Pet Sematary’s heavenly Godliness, if you will, and the devilish hell of the Micmac burial ground.

When Jud Crandall (played by Gwynne in the 1989 film, and by Lithgow in the 2019 one) takes Louis (Midkiff, 1989; Clarke, 2019) past the Pet Sematary and up the deadfall–“the barrier [that] was not made to be broken,” page 161–there’s a further trek of “Three miles or more” (page 164) to the burial ground, but before long one senses a hellish, demonic presence among the eerie animal sounds one hears (pages 166-169)…the Wendigo. They may be a while before getting to the burial ground, but they’re already in a kind of hell…Little God Swamp, or Dead Man’s Bog.

The dangerous climb up the unstable branches of the deadfall represents that meeting place where the teeth of the ouroboros bites its tail (symbolizing the meeting of the opposites of life and death, of heaven and hell), that meeting of opposites where, paradoxically, too much careful and nervous climbing leads to falls and injury, whereas climbing that is “done quick and sure” (page 161), never looking down, results in a miraculously safe and successful ascent.

That barrier is not made to be broken because it is so easy to break. Victor Pascow himself–a jogger hit by a car and killed before Louis can save him (page 89)–breaks the barrier to warn Louis never to break it, in thanks to the doctor for at least trying to save his life.

Jud advises Louis to have Church fixed (pages 23-24) because fixed cats “don’t tend to wander as much,” and therefore the risk of him running across that treacherous road, and getting crushed under the wheels of one of those Orinco trucks, will be lessened. The castrating of the cat, though, does nothing to prevent him from suffering the very fate Louis has tried to prevent. His daughter, Ellie (Berdahl in the 1989 film; Jeté Laurence in the 2019 film), loves Church so much that she will be heartbroken to learn he’s dead.

All of this leads us to a discussion of desire and the inability to fulfill it. Lacan considered the phallus to be the most important of the signifiers, since its lack (through symbolic castration) leads to desire, which can never be fulfilled. For Church, desire means the wish to roam and run about freely, whether fixed or not, whether the fulfillment of that desire is or isn’t excessive, transgressive, or dangerous (i.e., the racing across the road as symbolic of jouissance).

For humans, desire is symbolically expressed in being the phallus for the Oedipally-desired mother, though we can apply Lacan’s idea more generally–that of desire as ‘the desire of the Other’ (i.e., wanting to fulfill the desires of other people, wanting others’ recognition)–to the desires of the Creed family and Jud. Louis fixes Church in the hopes of keeping him safe, for Ellie’s sake; but when Church is killed, Jud has Louis take the corpse to the burial ground for her sake, too.

Louis, whose father died when he was three and who never knew a grandfather (page 3), has had strained relationships with father figures, particularly with his father-in-law, Irwin Goldman (played by Michael Lombard in the 1989 film). Irwin actually took out his chequebook and offered Louis a sum of money so he wouldn’t marry Rachel (page 146)!

If we see Louis’s love for her as a transference of Oedipal love for his mother, then his hostility to Irwin can be seen as a transference of Oedipal hate toward the father who left this world before Louis could even get a chance to know him. And Irwin’s disapproval of Louis marrying Rachel can thus be seen as a symbolic Non! du père, in turn resulting in Lacan’s notion of the Oedipally-based manque.

Louis has an even better reason to hate Rachel’s parents when he learns that they made her, as a little girl, take care of her sick older sister, Zelda, whose spinal meningitis made her so deformed and ugly that the sight of her traumatized little Rachel…especially when she found Zelda dead in her bed!

But in Jud, “the man who should have been his father,” Louis has found a good father figure, someone onto whom he can transfer positive Oedipal feelings (page 10). So when Jud, influenced by the Wendigo of the Micmac burying ground, has Louis bury Church there, Louis goes along with it, against his better judgement. After all, Daddy knows best, doesn’t he?

Lack gives rise to desire: Church’s castration, meant to keep him safe from the trucks, drives him to run across the road, to the point of him getting killed by a truck after all; “Cats lived violent lives and often died bloody deaths…Cats were the gangsters of the animal world, living outside the law and often dying there.” (pages 52, 53) The Creeds’ lack of a cat drives Jud, feeling compassion for Ellie, to have Louis bury the cat in the burial ground, though Jud knows it’s a foolish and dangerous thing to do. And Louis, lacking Gage after he is killed by an Orinco truck, is driven to exhume his son’s corpse and–with all the pain and exhausting work it involves–to rebury him in the burial ground. Then he’ll do the same with Rachel after demon-Gage kills her.

All four of these lacks lead to desires, which are excessive wants. The barrier that isn’t made to be broken is, symbolically, the barrier to jouissance, the forbidden fulfillment of excessive desire. We all have basic, biological needs, and as we learn language, social customs, culture, etc., in entering the Symbolic Order, we use language to make demands; but demands, especially the demand for love, are never expressed completely through the limitations of language, so some of that need and demand is never fully satisfied.

The residual lack gives rise to desire, an excess that’s never fulfilled. This remainder, incapable of being symbolized in language, is in the realm of the Real Order, a traumatic world symbolized by the frightening, inarticulate animal cries in the land of the Wendigo and the Micmac burial ground…”the real cemetery.”

The Buddhists teach us that suffering is caused by desire, attachment to things in a universe where all things are impermanent. The reality of death is an impermanence too painful for Louis Creed to bear, so his lack of Gage and, at the end of the novel, Rachel, drives him to feel a desire so excessive as to want to use the burial ground to raise them from the dead.

One cannot have the originally desired object–the Oedipally-desired parent, a universal, narcissistic desire, since, as a child looking up into the eyes of that parent, he or she is looking in a metaphorical mirror of him- or herself, a manifestation of the Imaginary Order–so one spends the rest of one’s life searching for a replacement of that object, the objet petit a. This replacement can never be a perfect substitute for the original, so desire is never fulfilled.

The demonic replacements of Church, Gage, and Rachel can be seen to represent the objet petit a, for they, of course, can never replace the originals…though Louis does all he can to have them replace his lost loved ones. When Jud’s wife, Norma, dies, he wisely accepts her death and never even considers burying her in the Micmac burial ground; but its demonic influence drives him to desire to have Church buried there, for Ellie’s sake, since desire is of the other, to wish to fulfill what one believes others want. Similarly, Louis reburies Gage there in part out of a wish to fulfill what he at least imagines is what Rachel would want…to have her little boy back (“She cried his name and held her arms out.” –page 527).

So, the forbidden fulfillment of excessive desires, jouissance, symbolized by the demonic resurrecting of Church, Gage, and Rachel, is another example of the dialectical relationship between opposites–pleasure/pain, bliss/suffering, heaven/hell, life/death–as I would represent with the head of the ouroboros biting its tail. In passing into jouissance‘s indulging in transgressive pleasure, one goes past pleasure and suffers pain; whereas in the Pet Sematary, one learns to accept loss.

Young Jud originally buried his dog, Spot, in the Micmac burial ground (page 181); then, when he saw what trouble the resurrected dog was, he came to his senses, killed it, and buried it in the Pet Sematary (page 45). The problem is that the desires kindled by the Micmac burial ground are addictive, like a drug–hence, Jud’s ill-advised taking of Louis there with dead Church.

One always wants more, that ‘surplus value,’ or the plus-de-jouir that Lacan wrote about. When animals are brought back, their demonic nature is usually not so bad as it is with resurrected humans (“…because Hanratty had gone bad, did that mean that all animals went bad? No. Hanratty the bull did not prove the general case; Hanratty was in fact the exception to the general case.” –page 390); again, as with the animals buried in the Pet Sematary, they act as a kind of warning to us not to play around with life and death, especially not with human beings.

There is our attachment to what we can’t keep, what we love; and there’s what we wish we never had, what we hate, yet what we must have at least sometimes in our lives. The Buddhists speak of the Three Poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion. Greed represents all those things and people we want in excess, because we want to keep them, but must one day let go of them–still, we won’t want to let go of them: hence the resurrecting of Church, Gage, and Rachel.

Hatred represents what we wish would be gone, but must have, hence Rachel’s trauma in dealing with Zelda, and her shame at feeling glad her sick sister finally died…but the painful memories live on, haunting her, for she can’t get rid of Zelda until she’s properly processed her pain. Hatred is also in Irwin’s refusal to accept Louis as a son-in-law.

Delusion is the false belief that things can be permanent, hence Louis’s reburying of Church, Gage, and Rachel. Even though he sees how evil resurrected Gage is, Louis still fools himself with the belief that resurrected Rachel will be better, because apparently he waited too long with Gage. “Something got into him because I waited too long. But it will be different with Rachel…” (page 556)

So, the message of the novel is that we can’t force our desires onto the world…but we can’t help doing so, even though doing so will only make our suffering worse. We know this, but still do it. “Sometimes, dead is better”…but we refuse to accept it.

The sweetness and innocence of children and animals, as expressed in the Pet Sematary–that seminary, if you will, that teaches us to have the misspelling simplicity of a child entering the kingdom of heaven–turns rotten, into Oz the Gweat and Tewwible (pages 510-511, 513ff), if we try to bend the world to our will. The Wendigo makes all the difference.

As we already know, the Micmac burial ground is a demonic double of the Pet Sematary, with their spirals (pages 386-387, 498) and graves curling like the coiled, serpentine body of the ouroboros; the land of the murderous, greedy, cannibalistic Wendigo that so frightens Louis on his way to rebury Gage, is right where the serpent’s teeth bite into its tail, the abyss where heaven and hell meet.

It’s so easy for the sweet and innocent to phase into their opposite, the Gweat and Tewwible.

Stephen King, Pet Sematary, New York, Pocket Books, 1983

A New Poem by Jason Morton

Here’s a short poem by my friend, Jason Morton, whose work I’ve looked at before. As always, his writing is given in italics to distinguish it from mine.

I dream in grays
Slip away into yesterday’s
That have no meaning
Straining my heart to find a day that will cleanse me of my sickness and help me feel whole
All I’ve ever wanted was to feel as if I had a soul
Things darken and fall apart
Every dream a broken heart
Singing songs or requims
Requires dreams to live off of
And I hold onto a small hope that meaning will be found one day
And the sky will be blue not gray.

And now, for my analysis.

One tends to think of dreams as wish-fulfillments, but the poet only dreams of sad things, “in grays.” This is so because the poet finds little, if anything, to hope for. In those dreams, he will “Slip away into yesterday’s/That have no meaning.” The apostrophe is deliberate, indicating a pun on the plural for yesterdays and its possessive. Of course, we see no noun to go with yesterday’s, and so I speculate that the intended word was nothings, or many instances of emptiness. We don’t see the word, the absence of which ironically emphasizes its meaning.

And this leads us to how those nothings “have no meaning.” The poet’s world is one of nihilistic emptiness. He wishes that “a day [would come] that will cleanse [him] of [his] sickness.” He wishes he could “feel as if [he] had a soul,” and this leads to some indirect religious allusions.

“Things darken and fall apart” is an obvious reference to the third line of WB Yeats‘s poem, “The Second Coming,” which is full of religious imagery referring to the end of the world. It would be useful to take a brief look at the context of that poem in order to see how it links to Morton’s.

Yeats’s poem was written just after the end of WWI. The destructiveness of the First World War led to much of the modern despair and apocalyptic fears that were expressed in the arts of the time. Added to this trouble was the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, to which Yeats’s poem is also connected (his wife caught the virus). It is interesting to point this out in connection with what Morton says in his poem about wanting “a day that will cleanse [him] of [his] sickness”; in turn, we can associate that flu pandemic (albeit with due caution) with the current fears of the coronavirus, which in turn can be a metaphor for the despair and apocalyptic fear the poet may be feeling, feelings many of us share.

My point is that his poem encapsulates the fear and despair many feel these days by using echoes from such work as Yeats’s. In today’s world, we often feel a comparable apocalyptic fear in the form of the environmental destruction caused by climate change; added to this is the fact that war is the number one polluter of the world, as seen in all these imperialist wars going on now. They had their huge war just over a century ago, and we have our many wars now.

The conveniences of upper middle class living give little comfort. “Every dream a broken heart” reminds me of the Roxy Music song, “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” in which a man’s love for an “inflatable doll” is a manic defence against the emptiness and loneliness he feels.

“Singing songs or requims [sic]/Requires dreams to live off of” continues this quest for a manic defence against sadness, a defence in the form of sex (hence the pun on requiem, requires, and ‘re-quim,’ if you will, an addictive, compulsive repeat of the search for quims, or addictions to porn and prostitutes in a wish to avoid dealing with sadness).

Requiems that require “dreams to live off of” reminds me of Requiem for a Dream, a novel about the destructiveness of drug addiction, yet another manic defence against sadness. All of these allusions–the end of the world, the destructiveness of war, pandemics, sex addictions as an attempt to alleviate loneliness, and drug addiction to cope with sadness–these are powerful images that Morton uses to depict the dark modern reality of despair, a true pandemic in our world.

I, too, hope that “meaning will be found one day,” and that the poet’s “sky will be blue” again, as it may one day be for all of us sufferers.

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

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

Pointy Sticks

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

And now, for my analysis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Lolita’

Lolita is a 1955 novel by Vladimir Nabokov. It was made into two movie adaptations, the first one (1962) directed by Stanley Kubrick and with a screenplay by Nabokov (of which “only ragged odds and ends” were used in the film [Nabokov, page xii]; in spite of his having been credited with writing the screenplay, it was actually rewritten by Kubrick and James B. Harris). The second adaptation (1997) was directed by Adrian Lyne and written by Stephen Schiff. There have also been stage and musical adaptations of the novel, as well as an opera.

I’ll be basing this analysis on the novel, Nabokov’s screenplay (his “vivacious variant” of the book [Nabokov, page xxiii]), and the two movies. Though the story is controversial for its depiction of a middle-aged man’s sexual obsession with a 12-year-old girl, “not a single obscene term is to be found in the whole work; indeed, the robust philistine who is conditioned by modern conventions into accepting without qualms a lavish array of four-letter words in a banal novel, will be quite shocked by their absence here” (Nabokov, page 4).

Here are some quotes:

Lolita

I have no intention to glorify H.H.. No doubt, he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity that betrays supreme misery perhaps, but is not conducive to attractiveness. He is ponderously capricious. Many of his casual opinions on the people and scenery of this country are ludicrous. A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman. But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author!
As a case history, 
Lolita will become, no doubt, a classic in psychiatric circles. As a work of art, it transcends its expiatory aspects; and still more important to us than scientific significance and literary worth, is the ethical impact the book should have on the serious reader; for in this poignant personal study there lurks a general lesson; the wayward child, the egotistic mother, the panting maniac — these are not only vivid characters in a unique story: they warn us of dangerous trends; they point out potent evils. Lolita should make all of us — parents, social workers, educators — apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world. –Foreword, by Dr. John Ray, Jr., PhD.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. –Part One, Chapter 1, opening lines

You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs—the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate—the deadly little demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power. –Part One, Chapter 5

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory, over which, if you can still stand my style (I am writing under observation), the sun of my infancy had set… –Part One, Chapter 2

All at once we were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other… –Part One, Chapter 3, of Humbert and Annabel

Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets.” –Part One, Chapter 5

When I was a child and she was a child, my little Annabel was no nymphet to me; I was her equal, a faunlet in my own right, on that same enchanted island of time… –Part One, Chapter 5

Oh, my Lolita, I have only words to play with! –Part One, Chapter 8

Lolita, when she chose, could be a most exasperating brat. I was not really quite prepared for her fits of disorganized boredom, intense and vehement griping, her sprawling, droopy, dopey-eyed style, and what is called goofing off — a kind of diffused clowning which she thought was tough in a boyish hoodlum way. Mentally, I found her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl. Sweet hot jazz, square dancing, gooey fudge sundaes, musicals, movie magazines and so forth — these were the obvious items in her list of beloved things. The Lord knows how many nickels I fed to the gorgeous music boxes that came with every meal we had. –Part Two, Chapter 1

The following decision I make with all the legal impact and support of a signed testament: I wish this memoir to be published only when Lolita is no longer alive.
Thus, neither of us is alive when the reader opens this book. But while the blood still throbs through my writing hand, you are still as much part of blessed matter as I am, and I can still talk to you from here to Alaska. Be true to your Dick. Do not let other fellows touch you. Do not talk to strangers. I hope you will love your baby. I hope it will be a boy. That husband of yours, I hope, will always treat you well, because otherwise my specter shall come at him, like black smoke, like a demented giant, and pull him apart nerve by nerve. And do not pity C. Q. One had to choose between him and H.H., and one wanted H.H. to exist at least a couple of months longer, so as to have him make you live in the minds of later generations. I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita. –Part Two, Chapter 36

Lolita: a Screenplay

The CAMERA also locates the drug addict’s implementa on a bedside chair, and with a shudder withdraws. –Prologue, page 1, in Quilty’s home

“My mother was an Englishwoman. Her death preceded that of my father by two decades: she was killed by a bolt of lightning during a picnic on my fourth birthday, high in the Maritime Alps.” –Humbert’s voice, Prologue, page 4

“I loved her more tenderly than Tristan adored Isolde, more hotly than Petrarca desired his Laura, more romantically than Poe loved little Virginia.” –Humbert’s voice, speaking of Annabel, Prologue, page 6

QUILTY: Say, didn’t you have a little girl? Let me see. With a lovely name. A lovely lilting lyrical name–
CHARLOTTE: Lolita. Diminutive of Dolores.
QUILTY: Ah, of course: Dolores. The tears and the roses.
CHARLOTTE: She’s dancing down there. And tomorrow she’ll be having a cavity filled by your uncle.
QUILTY: I know; he’s a wicked old man.
MISS ADAMS: Mr. Quilty, I’m afraid I must tear you away. There’s somebody come from Parkington to fetch you.
QUILTY: They can wait. I want to watch Dolores dance. –Act One, pages 57-58

CHARLOTTE: Shall we take these candles with us and sit for a while on the piazza? Or do you want to go to bed and nurse that tooth?
HUMBERT: Tooth. –Act One, page 69

HUMBERT: Other commentators, commentators of the Freudian school of thought. No. Commentators of the Freudian prison of thought. Hm. Commentators of the Freudian nursery-school of thought, have maintained that Edgar Poe married the child Virginia Clemm merely to keep her mother near him. He–I quote–had found in his mother-in-law Mrs. Clemm the maternal image he had been seeking all his life. What piffle! Listen now to the passion and despair breathing in the letter he addresses to Virginia’s mother on August 29, 1835, when he feared that his thirteen-year-old little sweetheart would be taken away to be educated in another home. “I am blinded with tears while writing this letter….My last, my last, my only hold on life is cruelly torn away….My agony is more than I can bear….for love like mine can never be gotten over….It is useless to disguise the truth….that I shall never behold her again….” –Act One, pages 70-71

HUMBERT: Where exactly did he take you when you gave me the slip?
LOLITA: Yes, that was awfully mean, I must admit that. He took me to a dude ranch near Elphinstone. Duk-Duk Ranch. Silly name.
HUMBERT: Where exactly? What highway?
LOLITA: No highway–a dirt road up a small mountain. Anyway–that ranch does not exist any more. Pity, because it was really something. I mean you can’t imagine how utterly lush it was, that ranch, I mean it had everything, but everything, even an indoor waterfall. You know when Cue and I first came the others had us actually go through a coronation ceremony.
HUMBERT: The others? Who were they?
LOLITA: Oh, just a bunch of wild kids, and a couple of fat old nudists. And at first everything was just perfect. I was there like a princess, and Cue was to take me to Hollywood, and make a big star of me, and all that. But somehow nothing came of it. And, instead, I was supposed to cooperate with the others in making filthy movies while Cue was gadding about the Lord knows where. Well, when he came back I told him I wanted him and not that crowd of perverts, and we had a fight, and he kicked me out, and that’s all.
HUMBERT: You could have come back to me. –Act Three, pages 207-208

Lolita (1962)

Humbert: Are you Quilty?
Quilty: No, I’m Spartacus. Have you come to free the slaves or somethin’?

Humbert: Do you recall a girl called Dolores Haze?
Quilty: I remember the one guy, he didn’t have a hand. He had a bat instead of a hand. He’s…
Humbert[Bangs on the table loudly with the paddle] Lolita?!
Quilty: Lo-li-tah. Yeah, yeah. I remember that name, all right. Maybe she made some telephone calls. Who cares? [Humbert draws a gun] Hey, you’re a sort of bad loser, Captain. I never found a guy who pulled a gun on me when he lost a game. Didn’t anyone ever tell ya? It’s not really who wins, it’s how you play, like the champs. Listen, I don’t think I want to play anymore. Gee, I’m just dyin’ for a drink. I’m just dyin’ to have a drinkie.
Humbert: You’re dying anyway, Quilty. Quilty, I want you to concentrate – you’re going to die. Try to understand what is happening to you.

Charlotte: My yellow roses. My – daughter….I could offer you a comfortable home, a sunny garden, a congenial atmosphere, my cherry pies.
[Humbert decides to rent the room]
Charlotte: What was the decisive factor? Uh, my garden?
Humbert: I think it was your cherry pies!

“Mind if I dance with your girl? We could, um, sort of swap partners.” –John Farlow, to Humbert, about Charlotte, with whom he leaves to dance

“Did you know that you’ve had the most remarkable effect on her. Did you know that?…she’s begun to radiate a certain glow. When you get to know me better, you’ll find I’m extremely broad-minded…In fact, John and I, we’re both broad-minded.” –Jean Farlow, to Humbert

What drives me insane is the twofold nature of this nymphet, a veteran nymphet perhaps, this mixture in my Lolita of tender, dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity. I know it is madness to keep this journal, but it gives me a strange thrill to do so. And only a loving wife could decipher my microscopic script. –Humbert, voiceover

Lolita: Hi!
Charlotte: Darling, did you come back for something?
Lolita: Mona’s party turned out to be sorta a drag. So I thought I’d come back and see what you two were doing.
Humbert: We had a wonderful evening. Your mother created a magnificent spread.

The wedding was a quiet affair. And when called upon to enjoy my promotion from lodger to lover, did I experience only bitterness and distaste? No. Mr. Humbert confesses to a certain titillation of his vanity, to some faint tenderness, even to a pattern of remorse, daintily running along the steel of his conspiratorial dagger. –Humbert, voiceover

Charlotte: Oh Hum, hum-baby, you know, I love the way you smell. You do arouse the pagan in me. Hum, you just touch me, and I-I go as limp as a noodle. It scares me.
Humbert: Yes, I know the feeling.

You must now forget Ramsdale and push our lot and poor Lolita and poor Humbert, and accompany us to Beardsley College where my lectureship in French poetry is in its second semester. Six months have passed and Lolita is attending an excellent school where it is my hope that she will be persuaded to read other things than comic books and movie romances. –Humbert, voiceover

I cannot tell you the exact day when I first knew with utter certainty that a strange car was following us. Queer how I misinterpreted the designation of doom. –Humbert, voiceover

Humbert: What happened to this Oriental-minded genius?
Lolita: Look, don’t make fun of me. I don’t have to tell you a blasted thing.
Humbert: I am not making fun of you. I am merely trying to find out what happened. When you left the hospital, where did he take you?
Lolita: To New Mexico…to a dude ranch near Santa Fe. The only problem with it was, he had such a bunch of weird friends staying there…painters, nudists, writers, weight lifters. But I figured I could take anything for a couple of weeks because I loved him and he was on his way to Hollywood to write one of those spectaculars, and he promised to get me a studio contract. But it never turned out that way and instead, he wanted me to cooperate with the others making some kind of a, you know, an art movie.
Humbert: An art movie?…And you did it?
Lolita: No, I didn’t do it. And so he kicked me out.
Humbert: You could have come back to me.

Lolita (1997)

I looked and looked at her, and I knew, as clearly as I know that I will die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth. She was only the dead-leaf echo of the nymphet from long ago – but I loved her, this Lolita, pale and polluted and big with another man’s child. She could fade and wither – I didn’t care. I would still go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of her face. –Humbert, voiceover

What I heard then was the melody of children at play, nothing but that. And I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that chorus. –Humbert, voiceover, last lines

Since “Humbert Humbert” (James Mason in Kubrick’s film, and Jeremy Irons in Lyne’s film) is the guilty narrator of Nabokov’s novel, we should be careful with all the information he provides. As an unreliable narrator, he will try to present himself in as sympathetic a light as possible. We should always bear in mind the assessment of him given by his psychiatrist, Dr. John Ray Jr.: “he is a shining example of moral leprosy.” (Nabokov, page 5)

This making of Humbert as a sympathetic character is extended into the two movies, which have the suave, urbane, and debonair Mason and Irons portraying him. What’s more, the films tone down his hebephilia, making only occasional references to his taste for “nymphets” in general, contrasting with his ogling of girls other than Dolores Haze, and his propositioning of an underage prostitute, as given in Nabokov’s novel and screenplay (Nabokov, pages 16-17, 21-23; screenplay, pages 8-9).

He tries to charm us with his “fancy prose style,” showing false modesty when asking if we “can still stand [his] style,” with its puns, French passages, excessive assonance, and its mellifluous, poetic rhapsodizing. We shouldn’t let ourselves be taken in by his erudition: this man is a creep.

He tells us of a childhood romance he had with “Annabel Leigh,” whose name is almost identical to that of the girl (and I do mean girl!) in Edgar Allan Poe‘s famous poem, a girl believed by many scholars to have been Poe’s 13-year-old bride. This love of Humbert’s youth is meant to make his obsession with 9- to 14-year-old girls seem almost legitimate, the tragic result of a childhood trauma (Annabel died of typhus); but her seeming derivation from Poe’s poem gives us the impression that Humbert has made her up.

He’s a child molester. Period.

He murders Clare Quilty (portrayed by Peter Sellers in Kubrick’s film, and by Frank Langella in Lyne’s) for having taken Dolores away from him. Humbert claims, in his narrative, that Quilty (a pun on guilty) is every bit the pedophile pervert he is, even given to enjoying and producing pornography (as well as doing drugs); but since Humbert is the narrator, should we believe his vilifying of the playwright? Is Humbert not just projecting his own sinfulness onto Quilty?

For all we know, Quilty may have innocently worked to rescue Dolores (played by Sue Lyon in Kubrick’s film, and by Dominique Swain in Lyne’s) from her sexual abuser, and Humbert the madman simply murdered his would-be doppelgänger out of a wish to get revenge. Then he tried to justify his murder by blackening the name of his victim. This speculation is a distinct possibility.

Nabokov leaves the murder of Quilty to the climactic near-end of the novel (Part Two, Chapter 35), while mentioning only that Humbert is a murderer…of whom?…at the beginning. Nabokov’s screenplay begins with Humbert confronting Quilty in his home, and neither man says a word, then Humbert shoots Quilty (page 2). At the beginning of Kubrick’s film, we see the confrontation with dialogue (though censored–i.e., no reference to “erector sets” is heard [note the pun]) taken from the novel’s climax; then we see an abbreviated repeat of the scene at the end. Lyne’s film begins with Humbert having already killed Quilty: he’s driving his car, swaying left and right, with despair on his face while the police are pursuing him; and this scene is an abbreviation of the pursuit at the end.

I’d say, ironically, that Nabokov’s screenplay version of the killing is the weakest one (because, without the dialogue, what’s the point?), while Kubrick’s rewritten version is the strongest, because emotionally it’s the most powerful: for the rest of the film, we slowly discover why Humbert has killed Quilty. It gives Humbert all that undeserved sympathy, since his narration is so unreliable; but as I observed in my analyses of Falling Down and Reservoir Dogs, this provoking of false sympathy in us, the audience/readers, is a moral test of our ability to know with whom we should sympathize.

At the beginning of Nabokov’s novel, a detail is put in, as if in passing: Humbert’s “very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning)” [Nabokov, page 10] back when he was three. In the screenplay, her death occurs on the boy’s fourth birthday, with a dramatic screen direction depicting her death, including this sight: “Her graceful specter floats up above the black cliffs holding a parasol and blowing kisses to her husband and child who stand below, looking up, hand in hand.” (Nabokov, page 4)

Apart from the low likelihood of being struck by lightning in a given year, or in one’s whole life, as well as our being given Humbert’s unreliable narration, this death is too absurd to be taken seriously. I do suspect, however, that his beautiful mother did die when he was a child, and when the boy was going through an unresolved Oedipal fixation (Freudians often consider such perversions as pedophilia to have their root in an unresolved Oedipus complex). I also suspect that it was she, and not his likely-fictional Annabel, who died of typhus in Corfu.

This unresolved Oedipal trauma would have been repressed to the point of his mother being the vaguest of memory traces in his mind (“save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory” —page 10). His subsequent desires for nymphets–so young, and therefore with their whole lives ahead of them, far less likely to die on him–can be seen as a reaction formation–a dialectical shift from the far older to the far younger–against his unconscious wish to possess his mother, or any possible adult transference of her. Hence, his revulsion to any “dull adult woman” (Nabokov, page 10). His predictable disparaging of psychoanalysis can also be easily explained away as a form of resistance.

None of this is to deny that Humbert has tried to have normal sexual relations with women, assuming he isn’t lying about his ex-wife, Valeria [pages 25-29], or Rita, the alcoholic he’s involved with after Dolores runs off with Quilty [pages 258-263]. Even if these attempts at having a normal sex life are true, though, they don’t last long. Humbert is a perv.

Nabokov’s Humbert is more honest about his perviness (though dishonest about so many other things) than that of Kubrick or Lyne. When Humbert arrives in Ramsdale, he originally tries to get a lodging in the McCoos’ house, where he’d be teaching French to the family nymphet…as well as indulging in all things “Humbertish” (Chapter 10, page 35). But the house burns down, so he goes to the Haze home instead.

He predictably finds Charlotte Haze repulsive, but when he sees her 12-year-old daughter sunbathing in the backyard (“beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!” —page 40), he claims that he’s seen his Annabel reincarnated (page 15)…though I’d say he’s incarnated his mother in her.

The fact that Humbert would rather refer to Dolores as “Lolita” than by her real name is significant. In changing her name, in characterizing her as the giggling, sexually precocious child that the name “Lolita” is now associated with, as opposed to acknowledging her real name, Dolores (meaning “dolorous,” or sorrowful, as one would expect a traumatized victim of child sexual abuse to be), he is creating a false image of her, an idealized one to contrast with who she really is.

What must be emphasized here is that, from Humbert’s narration, we know virtually nothing about Dolores Haze; “Lolita” is a fantasy concocted in his mind. The novel’s first and last word is “Lolita” (and that includes even the Foreword by Dr. John Ray). The real girl is virtually nowhere to be found in the story.

The giggling, sassy little sex kitten, his fantasized version of her, with her “lovely lyrical lilting name,” (so expressive of the gleeful naughtiness he imagines her to have) is really just a projection of his own wickedness. Humbert writes of a boy at camp, Charlie, having already “debauched” her (Chapters 31 and 32, page 135; also, page 133), of how she tempts Humbert to kiss her in the car on the ride from camp to The Enchanted Hunters hotel (pages 112-113, Chapter 27), and of her having seduced him in the hotel (pages 132-134, Chapter 29). All of these are attempts by him to mitigate his guilt. She ‘wanted it,’ so he wasn’t all that much of a rapist/child molester. The actual, weeping Dolores is nowhere in these pages.

As his fantasized image of the perfect “nymphet,” she, as “Lolita,” is what WRD Fairbairn would have called the Exciting Object of Humbert’s Libidinal Ego (part of Fairbairn’s endopsychic personality structure, which he used to replace Freud’s id). She mirrors back to Humbert what he projects out to her of his own sinfulness.

Normal, mentally healthy people have predominantly what Fairbairn called the Ideal Object interacting with the Central Ego (replacing Freud’s ego); this object is “ideal” because it’s made up of real relationships that one should have with other people, as opposed to the fantasized object relations we all too often have in our minds. Dolores Haze would be an Ideal Object for Humbert’s Central Ego, were he to be a normal stepfather who had no sexual interest in her at all, but only healthy, paternal affection. Instead, there’s only her as a Dolores of the mind: “Lolita.”

As I’ve argued above, “Lolita” and all other “nymphets” are just transferences of his long-lost mother, transformed by reaction formation from that older object to the younger ones that he wishes to possess. Now understood as a kind of inverse Oedipal fixation, or of a mother/son relationship metamorphosed into a daughter/father one, we can see not only his obsession with “Lolita” as his ultimately unattainable objet petit a (i.e., a sought-out replacement for his Oedipally-desired mother), but we can also see why he has such a servile attitude towards her. He’s a slave to her power the way a little boy is because he fears losing Mommy’s love.

There is a third part to Fairbairn’s endopsychic personality structure, and Clare Quilty embodies this part: it is the Anti-libidinal Ego (formerly called the Internal Saboteur), which links with the Rejecting Object. It corresponds only roughly with Freud’s superego, but Quilty can be seen to represent both Freud’s and Fairbairn’s corresponding concepts.

Since Humbert’s narration is unreliable, his depiction of Quilty is as dubious as is his of Dolores. We know little of Quilty, except that he is a playwright and that Humbert has murdered him. Just as “Lolita” represents everything fun, sassy, and sexy in Humbert’s lewd imagination (the Exciting Object), so does “Cue” represent everything repellent in Humbert, everything he hates about himself (the Rejecting Object).

At the same time, though Humbert projects all of his hebephile perversions onto Quilty, his nemesis also embodies his guilty conscience, his superego. His conversation with then-unknown Quilty, with the latter’s taunts (“Where the devil did you get her?” and “You lie–she’s not.”–Chapter 28, page 127; and, of course, Quilty later following Humbert’s car) shows the inner critic of Humbert’s superego plainly personified. The same goes for Peter Sellers’s nerdy cop improvisation with James Mason in the corresponding scene in Kubrick’s movie.

So, both “Lolita” and “Cue” represent opposing tendencies in Humbert’s mind. In turn, these two opposing tendencies have their representations in the novel (and therefore in Lyne’s film too, since it’s far more faithful to the novel than Kubrick’s is) and in Kubrick’s film respectively. Consider how Kubrick’s version greatly expands Quilty’s role; and where, as film critic Greg Jenkins noted, the film begins and ends with the word “Quilty,” just as the novel begins and ends with “Lolita.”

Humbert, at his core, is narcissistic, as is clear in his ostentatious writing style. Since, as I’ve speculated above, his hebephilia can be seen as a dialectical turning upside-down of his unconscious, unresolved Oedipus complex, which in turn is a universal narcissistic trauma (i.e., one wishes to hog Mother all to oneself), one can see how sassy “Lolita” is a mirror reflection of his narcissism.

Similarly, Quilty, being overtly narcissistic himself, is a mirror reflection of those dark qualities that Humbert wishes to disavow and project onto others. Recall how, in Lyne’s film, we see Humbert who, having confronted Quilty at gunpoint in his home, is weeping in horror at the plainly confessed lasciviousness of his would-be doppelgänger. But Quilty’s sin is Humbert’s own.

The whole novel is a journey through Humbert’s mind, with “Lolita” and “Cue” as opposing, yet dialectically akin, internal objects floating around in his head like ghosts haunting a house. The naughtiness of the spouse-swapping Farlows and Mr. Swine in Kubrick’s film are just more of such projections of Humbert’s filthy mind.

Now, Nabokov was known for disavowing any allegorical intent with Lolita (“On a Book Entitled Lolita,” page 314), but I’ll give two reasons why I doubt that we should take his words at face value. First of all, he could have made such disavowals in order to prevent any one scholar’s interpretation, however convincing it may be, to be deemed the ‘definitive’ interpretation; in other words, Nabokov’s denial may have been meant to encourage a maximum of possible interpretations.

Second, even if he really meant that he hated allegorizing, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have unconsciously intended one. Certainly, Martin Amis saw in Lolita an allegory of a ‘Soviet rape,’ if you will, of Russia; and Nabokov, a classical liberal, hated communism. (For my part, I find Amis’s use of Robert Conquest‘s work in his research to be dubious in itself, to put it mildly, but I digress…) So anyway, I’d like to try a few allegories of my own.

One allegory we can see in Humbert’s seduction of Dolores (as opposed to his projection of “Lolita” supposedly seducing him; or, a reversal from Freud’s female Oedipus complex back to his seduction theory) is that of the European colonizing North and South America, with the colonizers rationalizing their conquest by claiming an intent ‘to civilize’ the natives. I’m reminded of John Donne‘s poem, Elegy XIX: To his Mistress Going to Bed: “Licence my roving hands, and let them go,/Before, behind, between, above, below./O my America! my new-found-land,/My kingdom, safeliest when with one man man’d.” (lines 25-28)

The innocent natives being plundered is symbolized by Humbert’s sexual abuse of Dolores; the converting of those natives to Christianity can be seen as symbolized by Humbert’s attempts to introduce her to culture (e.g., his buying her such books as Browning‘s Dramatic Works, The History of Dancing, The Russian Ballet, and The Theatre Guild Anthology so she’ll have something to read while in hospital [page 242]). Similarly, the white man (Humbert, the “white widowed male”) taking possession of and enslaving black Americans (represented here by Dolores) is another reasonable allegory, since Nabokov was vocal in his opposition to the mistreatment of African Americans.

Humbert’s relationship with Dolores, as symbolic of that of the European and American, is also seen in his comments on American pop culture, as opposed to European high culture. As heard in Kubrick’s film, Humbert speaks disapprovingly of Dolores’s taste for “comic books and movie romances.” He complains of her “eerie vulgarity,” a reflection of the stereotypically cultured European as against the equally stereotypical philistine American, and which can in turn be seen as symbolic of the ‘civilized’ white attitude to the ‘uncivilized’ ways of the natives.

Another allegory of Humbert’s desire for nymphets, especially evident in Kubrick’s film, is the yearning of the older characters (Humbert and Quilty) for a return to youth, as personified in “Lolita.” We see this in Kubrick’s film whenever Charlotte, the Farlows, etc., refer to each other as “kids” or “other young marrieds.” Then there’s that elderly spectator or two, envious of the smooth style of dancing Quilty and Vivian Darkbloom (later, Charlotte), trying to bop along to the music and appear as hip as they can.

But to return to one of my earlier speculations, towards the end of the novel, we find Humbert looking at pregnant Mrs. Dolores Schiller, and finding himself all the more in love with her. At seventeen years old, she’s too old to be a nymphet! As a mother-to-be, she is triggering his repressed Oedipal fixation.

“…I looked and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else. She was only the faint violet whiff and dead leaf echo of the nymphet I had rolled myself upon with such cries in the past…but thank God it was not that echo alone that I worshiped…I insist the world know how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child, but still gray-eyed, still sooty-lashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita, still mine…” (Part Two, Chapter 29, pages 277-278)

His loving of her, older and with another man’s baby, reminds one of a little boy’s Oedipal jealousy over his father’s having of his love-object, jealous of how she will be preoccupied with taking care of his younger sibling-to-be; because the Oedipus complex is a selfish, narcissistic trauma, and his seeing his “Lolita” in this way is bringing back those feelings that have been buried deep down in his psyche. This element, hidden among all the lies of this unreliable narrator, is the core truth of his whole narrative.

Finally, we must confront the “dangerous trends,” the “potent evils,” that Dr. John Ray warns us about in the Foreword. There have been attempts by some in the media recently to normalize pedophile desires; there has also been the growing problem of sexualizing little girls. These are, needless to say, dangerous encouragements to more child sexual abuse. Then there were Epstein‘s escapades, most of the perpetrators of which still seem largely unpunished. For these reasons, we shouldn’t let Humbert’s honeyed words charm us. We should heed Ray’s words instead.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita, Vintage International, New York, 1955

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita: a Screenplay, Vintage International, New York, 1961

‘Experiment,’ a Poem by Jason Morton

Here is another poem by my friend, Jason Morton, whose work I’ve written about a number of times before. Again, as before, I’m putting his poem in italics to distinguish his writing from mine:

Shattered symmetry
Breaking every side I thought i held
No longer one
I can’t see through my broken eyes
Everything I once held true
Is no longer real or harmonised
Every lip every kiss
Every touch and every finger tip
Don’t!
Touch!
Me!
I can’t shatter anymore than this
It is so visual
And the high
Is residual
Where Lucifer claims me
I fall where my blood Cascades
And puddles beneath me
In a moment I am but a breath away
From transparency….

And now, for my analysis.

The title ‘Experiment’ may seem at odds with the content of the poem, but when you consider the etymological origin of the word–it comes from the Latin experimentum (‘a test, a trial,’), which in turn comes from experiri, ‘to try, test,’ from ex, ‘out of’ and peritus (‘experienced, tested’), from the root per-, ‘to try, risk’–we can see a plausible relationship between title and poem. The poet has tried things, tested them, had experiences, and has had disastrous results.

The trauma and pain of life’s experiences, tests, and trials has resulted in psychological fragmentation for the poet. Everything has broken apart for him: he is “No longer one.” Normally, the danger of fragmentation is averted by caregivers, lovers, and friends, who empathically mirror and validate one’s feelings and experiences; but in the case of the poet, these would-be empathic mirrors, or what Heinz Kohut called self-objects, have failed him.

So he “can’t see through [his] broken eyes,” which are broken mirrors reflecting those shattered ones that failed to empathize and validate his feelings. Fragmentation can lead to a lost sense of reality. Nothing is “harmonised”; all is discord for him. In the second line, we see a deliberate use of a lower-case i, which symbolically expresses this sense of a broken self.

Those body parts and actions that normally express love and empathy, “Every lip every kiss/Every touch and every finger tip,” he is deprived of them, so he rejects any subsequent attempt to show affection for fear that such attempts are fake. They seem deceptions meant to betray his trust once again. Hence, “Don’t!/Touch!/Me!” Even these three words are broken apart, each given its own, separate line, divided with the exclamation marks of violent shouting.

After being rejected from the outside world, after experiencing frustrations from out there, one tends to respond with the defence mechanism of splitting, of breaking up objects (both internal and external) into black-and-white opposites of absolute good and bad, then expelling the bad halves to protect oneself from the pain. When taken to extremes, this splitting, this rejecting of so many parts of oneself, can result in one feeling as if he has little of himself left, hence the danger of fragmentation. Hence, the poet “can’t shatter anymore than this”.

There is a fleeting pleasure in rejecting, the relief of not having anyone around to hurt oneself, if only for the moment. Thus, “the high/Is residual”. The kind of pain typically felt is the trauma personified by “Lucifer,” the devilish inner critic, Freud‘s overbearing superego. Lucifer (‘light-bringer’), was a beautiful angel before he was cast out of heaven and thenceforth known as Satan. His goodness turned into overweening pride; thus Lucifer is a perfect metaphor for the self-righteous, cruel inner critic.

This inner critic “claims” the poet, making him “fall where [his] blood Cascades/And puddles beneath [him]”. Capitalized ‘Cascades’ suggests (if only unconsciously, like a parapraxis in typing) the many waterfalls in the world, in turn suggesting a huge outpouring of blood, so great is the poet’s pain and loss from so much splitting and projecting of unwanted objects.

“In a moment [he is] but a breath away/From transparency….” Since he “can’t shatter anymore than this,” his fragmentation is approaching disintegration. He is almost transparent because he is about to vanish. Pain and trauma can lead to the extremes of psychotic panic. These problems indicate how imperative it is not to trivialize psychological trauma. Mental illness is on the rise, and for many reasons, including some that I’ve complained about in many blog posts.

Let’s hope the poet can bring the pieces back together, and soon.

‘Time,’ a Poem by Jason Morton

Here’s another poem by Jason Morton, whose work I’ve analyzed before. I’ve put the text in italics to distinguish it from my own writing.

Time

Everything
Is nothing
It’s the truth of time
Where songs are sung by the dead
And then are transformed into lullabies
Nothing
Is everything
It’s sad to say this is true
Where hearts were giving in surrender
And I once cared for you
Now I let go
Never will i trust again
And i reach the end
Soul divine
In a matter of perspective
I perceive the threat of time.

And now, for my analysis.

“Everything/Is nothing” can be interpreted to mean that everything in life is inherently worthless; but I tend to see it dialectically, as Hegel did in his Science of Logic. He used ‘being,’ ‘nothing,’ and ‘becoming’ to represent an example of what is popularly labelled ‘thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.’

The point is that time, like everything, is in constant movement, and so things constantly arise and pass away. Everything becomes nothing, then nothing becomes new things, or a new set of everything, so “Nothing/Is everything.” So we move from everything to nothing, then back again, in cycles. What is so painful about time is seeing the people and things we love die off. Also, new pains emerge from nothingness.

Chronos, the personification of time, which consumes everything, changing it into nothing, has sometimes been equated with Cronus, or Saturn, who in Greek myth devoured his children. This eating of children can be associated with the ravages of destructive time.

Life is painful because those things we want to have last forever, cannot. “Songs are sung by the dead/And then are transformed into lullabies”: these are the dreams we have of what we’ve lost coming back to us in a wish-fulfillment. But when we wake up, we see our dreams were illusions, “Where hearts were giving in surrender.”

Note how when the writer “let[s] go,” the first-person I changes to lower-case i. This is deliberate: “Never will i trust again/And i reach the end.” Lower-case i here can be see to represent a standing human figure, but with the head separate from the body, indicating a fragmented soul. He’ll never again trust the love of one who has betrayed him, be that a former lover, or the God he’s lost faith in.

“Soul divine” thus could be an ironic reference to a Christian belief now abandoned, or to the divine beauty of a lost love, or it could be a reference to mythical Saturn, in whom one “perceive[s] the threat of time.” After all, nothing kills more slowly, more softly, more painfully, than time.

Another Poem by Clelia Albano

My Facebook friend, poet Clelia Albano, whose other work I have written about, has recently written a poem inspired by the work of poet Stefan Markovski, whose work, Promised Land, can be found here (and which has also been raved about by Albano in the comments).

Here is the text (again, I’m putting it in italics to distinguish it from my own writing):

Inspired by Stefan Markovski

And the poet descends down
into the chthonic realm
to meet his
Eurydice – inspiration –
and as he finds the words by extracting them
from the magmatic earth
surrounded by shadows,
like a miner he breathes dust.
Chewed and kneaded with
his divine saliva,
Orpheus brings them back to light
after he had madly turned his
head back for looking at the source
of what he creates, and he
embeds them in his chant and caresses them
with his fingers as he would caress
his beloved whose lament “heu”
feeds his blood.

And now, for my analysis.

In her tribute to Markovski, she compares his search for poetic inspiration to Orpheus in his search to rescue his beloved Eurydice from the Underworld. Albano is imagining Orpheus’ lover to be his Muse, just as Markovski is, in turn, Albano’s male Muse.

The search for poetic inspiration is a painful one: it doesn’t just come to the writer as a fluke. The writer must work hard at his or her craft, and in the process of doing this work, then the ideas come. The Muse helps those who help themselves.

Apart from the pain Orpheus feels in his desperate yearning to get his Eurydice back–understood here as symbolic of the poet’s painful search to retrieve inspiration–we see in Albano’s poem a comparison of the poet to a miner: “he finds the words by extracting them/from the magmatic earth/surrounded by shadows,/like a miner he breathes dust.”

One “descends down/into the chthonic realm.” On first glance, the word down seems superfluous, but when one considers the additional meaning for down, that is, ‘sad,’ we can see its use as justified. Also, “chthonic” adds to the dark sense of dread of being in the Underworld (“magmatic earth/surrounded by shadows”), since searching for inspiration can be a kind of Hell for a poet.

There is a vivid sense of the unpleasantness of the endeavour to find inspiration in how Albano says “like a miner he breathes dust./Chewed and kneaded with his divine saliva.” The use of the word dust, by the way, is also noted in her review of Markovski’s book of poems (link above). In it, she says, “his poems are populated by angels, wings, the Moon and the Sun, rain, wind, dust, ashes, powder, war and peace.” (My emphasis) So we see here how she was inspired by his writing to the point of using his imagery in her own poem, using it to express the discomfort of extracting that very inspiration. (I love, by the way, the melodious assonance in “divine saliva.”)

The poet “brings…back to light” his (or her) sources of inspiration, though in his madness he looks back at his Muse, Eurydice, dooming her to return to Hell. The pain in never getting that coveted inspiration back is the cross the poet must always bear.

He caresses those pieces of inspiration as an expression of the love he feels for them. That caressing is meant to soothe the pain of his doomed love, whose heu “feeds his blood.” This Latin expression of lament is an allusion to Book IV of Virgil‘s Georgics (line 498), in which Eurydice tells Orpheus of how his mad looking back at her has doomed her, and their love.

I’m sure all writers out there (me included, of course) can relate to Albano’s painful search for the right words to express one’s inner feelings. The excess of pain that Markovski has felt in producing his fine poetry is something she has noted and appreciated…and fortunately for us, her readers, been inspired by.