Analysis of ‘The Wizard of Oz’

I: Introduction

The Wizard of Oz is a 1939 children’s fantasy musical movie produced by MGM and written by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf, based on the 1900 children’s fantasy story, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum. The film stars Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, and Margaret Hamilton; it costars Frank Morgan and Billie Burke.

Considered one of the greatest films of all time, The Wizard of Oz features Garland’s immortal performance of “Over the Rainbow,” which one the Oscar for Best Original Song, and the film is characterized by its use of Technicolor (in Oz), which contrasts sharply with the black-and-white beginning and ending (in Kansas).

A link to famous quotes from the film can be found here. Here’s a link to a PDF of Baum’s book. I’ll be comparing the film with the book throughout. [NOTE: whenever I cite or quote from Baum or cite other PDFs here, I’m using the page numbers from the ‘paper’ copied in the PDFs, not the PDF page numberings.]

II: Preliminary Remarks

What is particularly interesting about the film and Baum’s book is how one can find political allegories in it, even though Baum never indicated any allegorical intent in his story; he insisted that it was meant just to entertain children. Still, a number of attempts have been made over the years to find an allegory in it.

One well-known allegory is that of historian Henry Littlefield, who saw in such things as Dorothy‘s silver shoes a symbol of bimetallism and the freeing of silver from what was felt by some in the US in the 1890s as the tyranny of the gold standard. Certainly this was the feeling of William Jennings Bryan, who famously spoke of the issue in his rousing “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 DNC. According to this allegory, the Cowardly Lion is supposed to be a satiric take on Bryan, since Baum didn’t sympathize with his position; though I see at best a tenuous connection between the character and the politician, and this is after reading Baum’s book, Littlefield’s allegory, and Bryan’s speech from beginning to end.

Indeed, though Littlefield’s allegory has its supporters, it’s far from universally accepted. While I agree that the Scarecrow represents the American farmer, or perhaps more generally peasant farmers (as does the sickle), and the Tin Woodman represents the industrial proletariat (as does the hammer), having the Lion represent Bryan seems wildly inconsistent in relation to the previous two. Surely the Lion should represent something properly paralleling them (more on that later).

In any case, however one judges the validity of Littlefield’s allegory, surely people today, as well as those who saw the film’s premiere in 1939, will find the bimetallist allegory not something they can identify with. People in the late thirties surely were more concerned with the Great Depression and the rise of fascism than they were with ‘freeing silver.’ And I think people today are more worried about the current economic crisis and resurgence of fascism than they are with bimetallism.

So, what can the film and book mean for us today, regardless of whether or not Baum and the film’s screenwriters consciously intended such a meaning? I’d like to propose such an allegory.

I see The Wizard of Oz, in its book and movie forms, as an allegory of class struggle. In fact, the bimetallism allegory, especially as advocated by Bryan in his “Cross of Gold” speech, dovetails with my interpretation beautifully (though not in the ironic, satirical sense in which Littlefield imagines Baum’s meaning), because for Bryan, the freeing of silver coinage was for the benefit of American farmers (i.e., helping them pay off their debts), and for the good of the common man. Bryan was known for his sympathy for the common worker, and in his speech, he spoke of the wage-earner as being “as much a businessman as his employer.”

Now, Baum vigorously supported the suffragette movement, and he was pro-worker, as seen in the sympathetic portrayal of the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, and in his vivid description of the plight of Uncle Henry and Auntie Em in their harsh farming life at the beginning of the story, representative of the harsh life of American farmers that Baum saw all around him in the Midwest in the late 19th century. One despicable thing about Baum, though, is how he advocated, in two editorials, the extermination of the Native Americans; but apart from this one egregious blot on him, Baum could be deemed to have been sufficiently progressive for his time to justify my interpretation of his story.

III: Grey Kansas

The filming of Kansas in sepia-toned black and white is appropriate, given Baum’s description of the farm of Dorothy Gale (Garland) as predominantly grey. Baum’s story introduces the cyclone almost immediately after a brief description of the dull, grey, and difficult farm life, and how such difficulties have dulled even the original beauty of her Auntie Em (played by Clara Blandick), and made her Uncle Henry (played by Charley Grapewin) never laugh, as Auntie Em never smiled.

The film, however, expands the opening Kansas sequence to include characters who are doubles of many of those we later see in Oz: Miss Almira Gulch/the Wicked Witch of the West (Hamilton), Hunk/the Scarecrow (Bolger), Hickory/the Tin Woodman (Haley), Zeke/the Cowardly Lion (Lahr), and Professor Marvel/Gatekeeper/Carriage Driver/Guard/Wizard of Oz (Morgan).

The fact that the three farmhands–three workers in the employ of Dorothy’s aunt and uncle–are doubles of her three “comrades” (Baum’s word) reinforce my interpretation that these three all represent members of the working poor…including the Lion.

Dorothy complains to her aunt and uncle about Miss Gulch wanting to take away her dog, Toto (played by Terry), and have him killed. Her aunt and uncle, too busy and stressed with their work on the farm, don’t have time to deal with her problems. When she tries to talk about Miss Gulch and Toto with the three farmhands, they have little time to listen, either. In this poor communication, due to the urgency of work, we see an example of alienation, which divides not only workers, but also families.

As so many of us do in the capitalist world, Dorothy dreams of the possibility of a better world, one “Over the Rainbow.” The lyrics of the song were written by socialist Yip Harburg, who got blacklisted even though he was no member of a communist party.

When mean Miss Gulch comes to the farm and demands to have Toto, having the law behind her, we learn also that she owns quite a stretch of land (Auntie Em says Gulch owns “half the county”). Her ownership of private property thus makes her a capitalist; since she’s a double of the Wicked Witch of the West, Gulch thus reinforces the witch’s tyranny over the Winkies as symbolic of capitalist imperialism, something by extension seen in the witch’s sister (according to the film), the Wicked Witch of the East, and her imperialist oppression of the Munchkins.

Gulch takes Toto away in a basket on her bicycle, but the dog jumps out and returns to Dorothy. To protect Toto, she feels she must run away. She meets Professor Marvel, a fortune teller who has apparently been to all kinds of wonderful places in the world; she’d love to accompany him on his travels.

He uses his crystal ball to make her believe that her Auntie Em is heartbroken over her running away, so she decides to go back. She manages to get back home by the time the cyclone comes. The cyclone represents the turbulent winds of revolution, which tear up the old order to make way for a new one. Back in the house and carried up in the eye of the cyclone, Dorothy is knocked unconscious and begins to dream.

IV: Landing in Oz

Since dreams are, as Freud noted, a royal road (a yellow-brick one, by chance?) to an understanding of the unconscious, we can see her experience of the Land of Oz as, on one level, symbolic of the experience of the world as felt by the unconscious mind, which tends to mishmash things together (for example, Melanie Klein, in The Psychoanalysis of Children, wrote of how a baby’s unconscious will think of milk, urine, and other liquids as identical). Hence, Miss Gulch is the Wicked Witch of the West, and the three farmhands are the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion.

Oz, too, is of course a fantastical version of the real world Dorothy and Toto have come from. It may be bright, colourful, and beautiful, but Oz is far from utopian…at least in Baum’s first Oz book. The Munchkins and Winkies are enslaved and oppressed by the wicked witches, and “the wonderful wizard of Oz” is no less a phoney than your average politician.

When Dorothy steps out of her house and into the colourful Land of Oz, she may have a feeling she’s not in Kansas anymore, but her going “over the rainbow” hasn’t landed her in an ideal world. Her house’s having dropped on and killed the Wicked Witch of the East, freeing the Munchkins and giving them cause to celebrate through the song “Ding-Dong, the Witch is Dead,” is only the beginning of the revolutionary change needed to liberate all of Oz. Crushing the old, oppressive institutions isn’t enough; one has to build new ones.

Who does the Wicked Witch of the East represent? Baum, having published his story in 1900, obviously never intended her to represent the evils of Eastern feudalism in, say, tsarist Russia or pre-republican China, which weren’t to end until one to two decades afterward. But the 1939 film was made long after those revolutionary changes, and in any case, we today can think of her as, on one level, symbolizing such old forms of tyranny if we wish, since such a retrospective interpretation will resonate far better with our generations than a preoccupation with free silver.

Art isn’t mathematics, in which an equation has only one correct answer and an infinitude of wrong answers. Meaning in art and literature is much more fluid, allowing a multiplicity of possible interpretations, however idiosyncratic some of them may be. When interpreting the meaning of a film, a book, a poem, or a myth, insisting on only one ‘correct’ meaning ruins the enjoyment of that art form, because such an insistence ossifies that art form. If the ‘correct’ interpretation has been established, why interpret that work of art any further? Just stick with Littlefield et al, and inquire no further. Now, if you like those old opinions of what Baum’s book means, you’re entitled to your opinion, and that’s fine. But please allow others to look at it in other ways if they wish; as long as a reasonable case can be made to support one’s interpretation, however eccentric it may be, it can be deemed ‘correct’ enough.

V: The Witches

As for the witches–who represent heads of state, or in the case of the wicked ones, represent colonizers and imperial rulers of the lands of others–Baum doesn’t develop them much in this first Oz book. We briefly see the Good Witch of the North among the Munchkins, the Wicked Witch of the West is encountered only when Dorothy et al enter the land of the Winkies, and Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, is seen only towards the end of the story.

To unify the story more in the film version, the Good Witch of the North (Burke) is a composite of the northern and southern witches; hence, she’s Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. And the Wicked Witch of the West is introduced in the land of the Munchkins, being the sister of the dead Witch of the East; we see much more of her in the film, too, since she’s the central villain.

Since the Glinda of the film combines the witches of the north and south, we naturally see more of her, too. An interesting theory about the film Glinda suggests she isn’t as good as she seems to be. Why doesn’t she simply tell Dorothy she can go home with the now-ruby slippers? At the end of the film, she says that Dorothy wouldn’t have believed her if she’d told her at the beginning, and that the little girl must learn for her self that she’s always had the power to use them to take her home…only Dorothy doesn’t learn it for herself. Glinda tells her at the end just as much as she could have told her earlier, and why would Dorothy believe her any more now than at the beginning?

It could be that Glinda’s all-too-saccharine, grinning goodness, bordering on–if not lapsing into–artificiality, is actually a cunning disguise meant to manipulate Dorothy into destroying the Wicked Witch of the West and getting rid of the Wizard of Oz. Since the Witch of the East is already killed, and the film’s Glinda is both the northern and southern witches, the success of her cunning plan would leave her the only one to rule all of Oz.

VI: Oz in Ounces

The only reason Oz seems to be such a sweet and beautiful place is because it is seen as such through the innocent eyes of a naïve little girl. But a world ruled by imperialistic witches, where people have a preoccupation with precious materials like gold (symbolized by the yellow brick road; then there’s the golden cap that commands the Winged Monkeys), silver and/or rubies (Dorothy’s shoes), and emeralds, is obviously a world symbolic of capitalism. Indeed, “Oz” has been interpreted to mean ounces (i.e., oz. of gold or silver).

To many Americans, whose political naïveté is comparable to ingenue Dorothy, “capitalism is freedom” (please refer to my many a debunking of the myth of the “free market”). Dorothy’s silver/ruby slippers taking her back to dreary, grey Kansas can be seen to reflect the disillusion one has when one wakes up from the slumber of the “American dream,” that if one works hard enough, one can become a millionaire, instead of realizing that one tends to stay in one’s social class of birth. Though she’s genuinely happy to be with her family again (which is ultimately what matters), her loss of the shoes during the trip back is symbolic of how the dream of striking it rich is an illusion.

So Dorothy, wearing silver or ruby slippers and travelling down a yellow brick road (yellow being symbolic of gold, as I mentioned above) towards the Emerald City can be seen to represent the dreams of the petite bourgeoisie of finding wealth and financial success. If, in my interpretation, the death of the Wicked Witch of the East represents the end of feudalism (i.e., such upheavals as the French Revolution, a western revolution, but east enough relative to the US), then the appearance of the Witch of the West among the Munchkins, with her coveting of now-Dorothy’s ruby slippers, can represent the advent of capitalism, and the imperialism that has grown from it.

Dorothy’s travels down the yellow brick road, crossing farmlands with lots of rich crops and food (Baum, chapter 3, page 33), are a sharp contrast with the grey farmland of Kansas and the struggles Henry and Em are having, a major issue with late 19th century American farmers. Still, this abundance of food is only one part of Oz; later on, Dorothy will find it difficult to find food (Baum, chapter 4, page 44; chapter 5, pages 54 and 61; chapter 7, page 75). Baum’s Oz is a kind of Spenserian bower of bliss, where what initially seems pleasurable is hiding potent evils to be discovered soon enough. The film’s use of studio sets and matte paintings are useful in reinforcing the sense of unreality in Oz.

VII: The Scarecrow and the Tin Man

Soon, Dorothy meets the Scarecrow, and learns that because his head is stuffed with straw, he must be lacking a brain. In Baum’s story, he says he doesn’t know anything (chapter 3, page 38)…but how does he know that he doesn’t know anything? He has a brain…he just doesn’t realize that he has one.

He represents the rural, uneducated farmer; I’d expand that by saying he also represents peasants. Such people are often perceived to be the ‘country bumpkin.’ Half of the problem of how to improve the lives of these impoverished people is to get them to see how capable they really are, something the ruling class doesn’t want them to see. They need confidence in their abilities.

Mao Zedong had great faith in the Chinese peasants, and he gave them the confidence they needed to help him fight the Japanese imperialists during their protracted war in the 1930s. When the CPC took control of China, they went through some rough moments, to be sure (though nowhere near as bad as the right-wing propagandists have portrayed those problems); but now China has grown from a Third World country to an economic rival of the US…all in a mere forty years.

The Scarecrow will go with Dorothy to ask the Wizard of Oz, who represents the consummate politician who is all talk and promises that are rarely kept, for a brain. The two continue down the yellow brick road and into a forest where they find the Tin Woodman, all rusted from head to foot after a rainfall. They use his oilcan to oil his joints so he can move again. We learn he hasn’t got a heart…though he’s sensitive enough to have three.

His body is made of tin, as we learn from Baum’s book (chapter 5, page 59), because the Witch of the East cursed his axe. Whenever he swung it to chop wood, he’d chop off a body part, which the local tinsmith would replace with one of tin; but none of these replaced body parts, now comprising all of him, would include a heart, or so the Tin Man imagines.

He represents the industrial worker, especially that of the eastern United States of the late 19th century, since it’s the Witch of the East, here representing the ruling class of the American east, who has cursed him with endless workplace injuries and a sense of dehumanization, resulting in his belief that he has lost his heart. He’ll join the others on their trip to see the wizard.

VIII: The Cowardly Lion

Deeper into the forest, into a darker and scarier part of it, they run into the Lion, who attacks the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman. When the Lion tries to attack Toto, Dorothy slaps him and shames him for his bullying. The Lion weeps like a baby, and we learn that he, apparently, lacks courage…though how could a cowardly lion have the guts to attack two men, one of them holding an axe?

As those of us familiar with the usual allegorizing of this story know, the Cowardly Lion is supposed to represent William Jennings Bryan. I must respectfully disagree with this interpretation, as I see the connection between the two to be far too vague to be convincing. Littlefield (pages 53-54), whose use of the story material is rather selective, bases much of his interpretation on this passage (chapter 6, page 66): “With one blow of his paw he sent the Scarecrow spinning over and over to the edge of the road, and then he struck at the Tin Woodman with his sharp claws. But, to the Lion’s surprise, he could make no impression on the tin, although the Woodman fell over in the road and lay still.”

The Lion’s claws’ failure to make an impression on the Woodman’s tin, according to Littlefield, represents Bryan’s failure (i.e., his 1896 loss to McKinley) to make an impression on the industrial labourers of the eastern US, whom the Tin Man represents in Littlefield’s allegory (i.e., the Witch of the East’s curse on him, or the workers of the East pressured into voting for McKinley and the gold standard by their bosses). Now, I can see how the above quote can represent Bryan’s failure to gain the votes of eastern workers…but must it represent this?

Furthermore, aspects of this passage, among others, can be seen to run counter to Littlefield’s interpretation. The Lion attacks the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman: did Bryan attack farmers and industrial labourers during the 1896 election campaign? What’s more, did Bryan mistakenly believe himself to be a coward? Many pro-imperialists might have mistaken Bryan’s pacifism and anti-imperialism for cowardice, but that doesn’t necessitate his own confusion of his virtues with being craven.

Later in Baum‘s story, on the way to visit the Good Witch of the South, Dorothy, Toto, and her three comrades enter a forest where the Lion has to rescue the local animals from a giant, spider-like monster (chapter 21, page 239). As a reward for killing the monster, the Lion is made King of the Forest, which Littlefield interprets as Bryan ruling over “lesser politicians” (page 58–lesser, that is, in relation to the greater kingdoms of the Emerald City, ruled by the Scarecrow after the wizard leaves, and of the Winkies, ruled by the Tin Woodman after the killing of the Witch of the West).

Bryan lost three presidential elections, twice to McKinley in 1896 and 1900, and once to Taft in 1908; eventually, Bryan would be Secretary of State to Wilson in 1912, from which he, as a pacifist and anti-imperialist, would resign in 1915 in protest against the prospect of American involvement in WWI. Who were these “lesser politicians” that never-elected Bryan ruled over? Are the animals the Lion is ruling over “lesser” just because they’re animals? The people of the Emerald City and the Winkies are ruled over by men (of sorts, anyway); the animals are ruled over by an animal. Proportionally speaking, there are no ‘greater’ or ‘lesser’ politicians. If the Lion, based on Littlefield’s reasoning, is Bryan, is the Scarecrow, ruler of ‘greater’ politicians, McKinley?

My point is that we can accept Littlefield’s interpretation if we want to; but we are by no means compelled to. If you want to find a work of literature with a character indubitably representing Bryan, look no further than Inherit the Wind (i.e., Matthew Harrison Brady), which is an explicitly fictionalized account of the Scopes monkey trial.

IX: An Alternative Interpretation of the Lion

I just find it out of place that three clearly paralleled characters don’t have equally paralleled symbolisms. The Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion: the first two represent different sections of the working class, while the third apparently doesn’t represent workers, but rather a politician. To be sure, Bryan championed the working class, but originally trained as a lawyer, he wasn’t one of them.

I find it more fitting to see the Lion, as lacking in confidence in his abilities as the other two, as also representing workers. Now, the Scarecrow represents the farmers and peasants, and the Tin Woodman represents the industrial proletariat: which workers, then, would the Lion represent?

I see the Lion as, dialectically, a synthesis, or sublation, of the former two. The Scarecrow lacks a brain (supposedly), and the Tin Woodman lacks a heart (supposedly). The two have a brief debate (chapter 5, page 61) over which organ is more valuable: the brain (reason) and the heart (emotions) are often seen as dialectical opposites (thesis and antithesis). Courage requires both brains and a heart.

Having the heart to run into danger without the brains to determine if it’s wise to face that danger doesn’t make one brave–it makes one stupid and reckless. Having the brains to recognize a danger without the heart to face it doesn’t make one a coward–it makes one wise and cautious. Sometimes people are too afraid to face danger because they have acquired the freeze trauma response.

Lacking both the brains and the heart to face dangers could be interpreted as cowardice in the sense that one has neither the heart to be brave nor the brains (i.e., the common sense) to tell the difference between dangers worth facing and those not worth facing. The lack of brains factor could also be interpreted as a lacking of the mental willpower needed to control one’s fear, since such a control is what courage is all about.

More important than any of the above, however, is the fact that, of course, none of these three characters lacks the virtue he thinks he lacks. The Scarecrow simply lacks confidence in his intellectual abilities; the Tin Woodman lacks confidence in his sensitivity and ability to be kind and loving; and the Lion lacks confidence in his…confidence!

After all, cowardice at its core is caused by a lack of self-confidence; and this is why the Lion is best understood as a combination of the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman. He embodies being scared when he doesn’t need to be. Like the other two, his real lack is that of confidence, hence as an embodiment of the lack of self-confidence, the Lion is the synthesis of the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman. And since all three of them, in my interpretation, represent the urban and rural working class, their central problem is their lack of self-confidence; having this confidence is what they need to overthrow the bourgeoisie.

The Lion also combines other aspects of the first two. Like the Scarecrow, he’s supposed to be scary, but feels he can’t be. Like the Tin Woodman with his sharp axe, the Lion has sharp claws and teeth.

His attacking of the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman makes sense in a way that Littlefield’s allegorizing of him doesn’t: as a symbol of another worker, the Lion attacks the other two symbols of workers because of a problem that’s common in the capitalist world–worker alienation leading to a lack of solidarity. Soon enough, though, the Lion will become a friend to Dorothy et al, and their new solidarity will lead to their ultimately getting what they want…the same way worker solidarity will lead to the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie.

X: The Poppy Field and the Emerald City

They get out of the forest, and in the film, they can see the Emerald City (fittingly, a matte painting that as such emphasizes the city’s illusory, fake nature) in the distance. A field of poppies, the scent of which puts the smeller to sleep, lies in their way.

They all run through the field, only to find Dorothy, Toto, and the Lion falling asleep. Now, the Emerald City can be seen to represent America, “the land of opportunity,” or by extension, the First World, as opposed to the forest they’ve just come out of, which in its scarcity of food for Dorothy and Toto, can be seen to symbolize the Third World.

Seeing the Emerald City, and believing that, being there, one can realize one’s hopes and aspirations, is to dream the American dream: one has to be asleep to believe it, as George Carlin once said. Hence, the poppies. Such frustrated hopes would have been as true of late 19th century American farmers as they are of most of us today.

If one wishes to make one’s allegory of Baum’s story specific to late 19th century America, one needn’t be preoccupied solely with the gold vs. silver controversies of the 1890s. One need simply consider the wealth inequality of the Gilded Age: an outer patina of economic prosperity (the Emerald City) hiding abject poverty (the want of food in the forest for Dorothy and Toto).

In Baum’s story, Dorothy et al must wear glasses to protect their eyes from the blinding gleam of the ubiquitous emeralds of the city (chapter 11, page 121). We later learn that the glasses make them see green and emeralds everywhere, when in fact there is none of either (chapter 15, pages 187-188). These glasses are the reverse of those worn by Nada (Roddy Piper) in They Live. Instead of revealing that our normal lives are a capitalist illusion, the green glasses provide that illusion.

The illusion of shiny, green emeralds is symbolic of American greenbacks, the illusion of money as an exchange-value for other commodities. The Wizard of Oz, representing the politician whose promises are never kept, and who represents the interests of capital, has fittingly had the Emerald City built for him to hide in, protected from the witches, protected from his own people, and protected from reality.

XI: The Wizard

In the film, we see Dorothy et al merrily prettied up to see the wizard; this beautifying is symbolic of how all of us in society must falsify our appearance to be ‘presentable,’ just as the wizard falsifies his own image. Frank Morgan plays not only the wizard, but the gatekeeper, the guard, and the carriage driver: it’s as if we were already aware that the wizard is no wizard, but is just an ordinary man.

The merry song of Dorothy et al getting prettied up, then being interrupted by the threat of the Wicked Witch of the West, who represents Western capitalism, indicates perfectly how the Gilded Age, as symbolized by the Emerald City, is at first all deceptively merry, then the ugly truth displays itself…in a form equally green (i.e., the witch’s skin), the ugly side of money.

When Dorothy et al finally meet the wizard, he presents phoney images of himself to trick them into thinking he’s far more powerful than he really is, just as all politicians deceive the people into thinking they are far more capable that they really are. In Baum’s story, Dorothy sees a huge head (chapter 11, page 127); the Scarecrow sees a beautiful woman (page 130); the Tin Woodman sees a terrible beast (page 132); and the Lion sees a ball of fire, which, when he gets too close, singes his whiskers (page 134). This last apparition, and the Lion’s reaction to it, are again related to Bryan by Littlefield (pages 54-55) in a way that, to my eyes, isn’t backed up with any evidence.

In the film, all of them see the wizard together, and the apparition is essentially a combination of what Baum has Dorothy and the Lion see. In any case, as we all find out at the end, these apparitions are all fake, and the real “wizard” is just a “humbug”…just as your average politician is.

XII: Killing the Witch

The Wicked Witch of the West’s enslavement of the Winkies and of the Winged Monkeys, just as is the case with the Witch of the East’s former enslavement of the Munchkins, can be seen to represent class conflict in general, be it in the ancient form of master vs. slave, of feudal lord vs. serf, or of bourgeoisie vs. proletariat. Slavery is slavery, regardless of if it’s the explicit ancient form of slaves sold on a market, feudal servitude, or the wage slavery of today.

What we shouldn’t forget is that slavery never died: it’s alive and well, and existing in many forms in the Third World. Many impoverished families find themselves in debt, and the only way out of that debt is to perform years of servitude to their creditors. There are literal slave markets in Libya, which used to be a prosperous country under Gaddafi’s benevolent dictatorship before the NATO intervention and his brutal murder.

To relate Baum’s story more directly with the political issues of the US in the late 19th century, one can consider how, though the black American slaves were freed, a clause in the 13th constitutional amendment has allowed for the continued enslavement of the incarcerated; and with the prison-industrial-complex of today, in which corporations can make prisoners toil away for long hours and for next to nothing in money, we can see how slavery in its more or less pure form still exists in the US.

As Dorothy et al are on their way to the witch’s castle, the witch commands her flying monkeys to fetch Dorothy and Toto. The contemporary use of the term ‘flying monkeys‘ has deep resonance when retrospectively used on the Winged Monkeys of Baum’s story and the 1939 film. The notion of blindly obedient servants to an evil master can vividly describe the American military, slaves of Western imperialism.

In Baum’s story, this symbolic servitude to capitalist imperialism is made even more explicit in the use of a golden cap (chapter 12, page 146), which is worn to command the monkeys three times. The witch has used it to have the monkeys help her enslave the Winkies, and she’s used it to drive away the wizard from the West; now she wants to use it to get Dorothy so she can get her hands on those shoes. Like the monkeys, we’re all slaves to wealth and power, be it in the form of the gold standard or other forms.

When the witch has Dorothy in her clutches, it’s only natural that the hag covets the silver/ruby slippers. This covetousness is representative of the greed of capitalists, who–no matter how rich and powerful they may already be–they always want more.

In Baum’s story, the witch makes Dorothy her slave and has the Lion her captive (chapter 12, pages 149-150). In the film, the Lion is with the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman; looking at the witch’s castle, the Scarecrow has a plan. How can he have a plan without a brain? The Tin Woodman can’t bear to think of captive Dorothy’s suffering; how can he feel that way without a heart? The Lion goes in with the other two to rescue her: how can he do that without courage? As I mentioned above, their only real lack is self-confidence, something they can acquire through solidarity and mutual aid.

When the witch corners all of them, the witch threatens the Scarecrow with fire, symbolic of her evil passions, and so, something that needs to be quenched, extinguished. The Scarecrow, being representative of the rational element of Dorothy’s group (despite his belief that he lacks brains), is the opposite of the witch’s fiery passions…and thus, he’s afraid of “a lighted match.” Similarly, the water that quenches fire, and is thus symbolic of the extinguishment of the passions, and of a oneness with everything, is an opposing force that the witch fears. (Water may rust the Tin Man, but at least he can be oiled back to normal.)

Dorothy’s splashing of water on the witch–be it to extinguish the flame on the Scarecrow’s arm, as in the film, or to express her outrage to the witch for taking one of her silver shoes, as in Baum’s story (chapter 12, pages 153-154)–kills the witch by melting her because her evil is based on egoistic individualism, a defining symptom of capitalism, as opposed to the formlessness of water, a symbol often used to express the non-egoistic unity of the cosmos. The witch’s death by melting is thus symbolic of a death of the ego.

XIII: The Humbug of Oz

Dorothy’s second killing, however unintended, of a witch represents another revolutionary victory of the poor peasant farmers (recall that she’s from a family of farmers) and urban workers against the ruling class, be they slaveowners, feudal lords, or capitalists. She and her comrades now imagine they can return to the wizard and get what they wish of him.

His procrastinating on fulfilling his part of the bargain, a typical problem with politicians, angers Dorothy et al. Then Toto exposes where the wizard is hiding, and we see that the wizard is a bald little man (in Baum’s story, chapter 15, page 183), or an old man, played by Frank Morgan, as he played other men in the Emerald City. The wizard, like most politicians, is a fake…just an ordinary man, like any other.

He has no real powers, only a talent at creating clever illusions. We all know about this illusory quality of politicians, but we keep believing in them and hoping for the best of them all the same. Hence, when the wizard puts bran in the Scarecrow’s head (chapter 16, page 196), gives the Tin Woodman a heart “made entirely of silk and stuffed with sawdust” (page 197), and gives the Lion a drink (pages 198-199) that supposedly will fill him with courage, all three believe they’ve really been given what they need, though they’ve always had what they wanted from the start. The same goes for when, in the film, the Scarecrow gets a diploma, the Tin Woodman a testimonial in the shape of a heart, and the Lion, a medal for heroism.

As for Dorothy, the wizard says he’ll take her to Kansas himself, though he’s from Omaha (chapter 15, page 186), and he hasn’t “the faintest notion which way [Kansas] lies.” (chapter 17, page 204) He entrusts the rule of the Emerald City to the Scarecrow by virtue of his great brain (chapter 17, page 206); in the film, the wizard has the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion rule together in his stead, whereas in Baum’s story, the Tin Woodman will rule over the Winkies now that they’re freed of the witch, and as we know, the Lion will rule over that forest.

Either way, the new rule of Dorothy’s three comrades over these sections of Oz–since all three, in my allegory, in turn represent the peasant farmers and industrial workers–represents the dictatorship of the proletariat, now that the oppressive rule of the wicked witches and fraudulent rule of the wizard are over. The notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat was already known in the late 19th century through the writings of Marx and Engels, as well as through the example of the short-lived Paris Commune.

Now, if the above speculation about the film’s Glinda is true–that is, that she is secretly trying to dominate all of Oz by removing the other witches and the wizard–then the worker rule symbolized by the triumvirate of the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion will have the same challenge, symbolically speaking, that the socialist states of the 20th century had in dealing with reactionaries and capitalist encirclement.

XIV: No Place Like Home

But with the mishap of Toto running off to chase a cat, and the wizard’s balloon taking off without her, Dorothy thinks she’s lost her last hope of getting back to Kansas. Then Glinda comes (or, as in the book, Dorothy goes to Glinda) to tell her she’s always had the power, in those shoes, to go home herself, as her comrades have always had what they’ve thought they lacked.

In a sense, Dorothy’s discovery is like that of the Buddhist prodigal son, who returns home to do menial labour for years, only to learn he’d already had his father’s love and forgiveness from the beginning, but would never have believed it had he been told before. We the people are also fooled into thinking we need some charismatic leader to guide us to what we need, when we have the power to get what we want ourselves…we just need to band together, as Dorothy and her comrades have done.

The spirit of working together, mutual aid, and solidarity will help us defeat the wicked witches of the ruling class, not reliance on the fraudulent wizardry of politicians. We already have the basic building blocks to organize a revolution: we have the brains, the heart, and the courage, though we may not believe we do. We just need the self-confidence and camaraderie to pull it off.

So when Dorothy gets home–whether it’s her running to her Auntie Em in stocking feet, as in Baum’s story (chapter 24, page 261), or it’s her waking up to see her aunt, uncle, the three farmhands, and Professor Marvel, as in the film–she may no longer have the valuable shoes, but she has the love of all those around her. Together, they all can bring about the revolutionary change needed to end the harshness of their rural life, a real revolution to parallel the wish-fulfillment revolution of Dorothy’s Oz-dream…a true homecoming, to a better life that they’ve deserved from the beginning.

Analysis of ‘The Maltese Falcon’

The Maltese Falcon is a 1930 detective novel written by Dashiell Hammett and adapted into film in 1931, 1936 (a comedic version called Satan Met a Lady), the by-far most famous one in 1941, a film noir directed by John Huston, and a 1975 spoof sequel of the 1941 version called The Black Bird. The Huston film, which I’ll be discussing with the novel, starred Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, with Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Lee Patrick, and Elisha Cook Jr.; it is also considered one of the greatest films of all time.

The 1941 film is largely a faithful adaptation, minus the novel‘s swearing (most of it Sam Spade‘s) and other scenes deemed inappropriate by the prudish Production Code, as well as other scenes that are rather superfluous as far as pacing and plot development are concerned. Apart from these differences, Hammett’s depiction of private detective Sam Spade is larger in build than that of Bogart (Spade in the novel is also blond), and the scene of Spade with the DA happens later in the novel than it does in the film.

A link to quotes from Huston’s film can be found here.

The search for the coveted Maltese falcon, a statuette of a bird of gold covered in valuable jewels, then covered in black enamel to hide its enormous worth, is symbolic of what Lacan called the objet petit a, the unattainable object-cause of desire.

The beautiful and mysterious Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Astor)–desired by Spade (Bogart) and his partner-detective, Miles Archer (played by Jerome Cowan)–can be seen as a double of the black bird, another objet petit a, for she, too, is a kind of “black bird” (i.e., evil chick). The difference between these two birds is in how the pursuers of the statuette continue in desiring it no matter what obstacles are in the way, while Spade–who doesn’t trust O’Shaughnessy–must resist his desire of the femme fatale to keep her from ruining his life.

She’s been lying to Spade all the way from the beginning of the story. She even lies about her name when she meets him in his San Francisco office. She calls herself “Ruth Wonderly,” and claims that a man named Floyd Thursby has run away with her kid sister from New York, when actually, O’Shaughnessy was with Thursby in Hong Kong trying to get the Maltese falcon before its other pursuers can get their hands on it.

Her whole manner is that of the pouting covert narcissist, the one who plays the role of pitiful victim while secretly scheming to make saps out of her male colleagues. Hence, this beauty is a femme fatale.

There is a sense in this whole story that desire, be it the coveting of a valuable object or the lusting after a beautiful woman, leads to suffering, as the Buddhists understood. People have chased after the elusive falcon for centuries since pirates stole it while it was en route to King Charles V of Spain, only to be frustrated never to capture it decisively and keep it.

Similarly, O’Shaughnessy has played man after man for a fool with her charms–Thursby, Archer, and Spade–only to get them either killed or in danger of being incarcerated. The phoney name she calls herself, “Wonderly,” is reflective of her pathologically narcissistic grandiosity and False Self. She’d have Spade and Archer believe she’s wonderful, when actually she’s a con woman, out to swindle both men out of their lives to pursue her ends.

The love of riches drives those who want to possess the Maltese falcon. The addiction to female beauty drives Archer and Spade to want O’Shaughnessy. It’s clear from early on that Spade is a ladies’ man.

His wholesome but relatively plain receptionist, Effie Perine (Patrick), knows Spade will like O’Shaughnessy, for “she’s a knockout.” Later, we learn that Spade has been having an affair with Iva Archer (played by Gladys George), the soon-to-be widowed wife of Miles, who doesn’t mind looking away from her if he can have O’Shaughnessy.

When two cops, Detective Tom Polhaus (played by Ward Bond) and Lieutenant Dundy (played by Barton MacLane), who suspect that Spade may be responsible for the deaths of Thursby and Archer, hear Spade say he doesn’t know anything about women, Tom says, “Since when?” (In the novel, he says, “The hell you don’t.”–chapter two) Spade has a reputation as a womanizer, and Iva’s frequent visits to his office and elsewhere, her being eager to see him, only intensify the suspicions that he’s killed his partner, hence his wish to keep her away from him.

Soon, Spade comes into contact with Joel Cairo (Lorre), who happens, incidentally, to be the man referred to in the song, “The Friends of Mr. Cairo,” by Jon and Vangelis. Cairo is a stereotypically effeminate homosexual, something largely censored out of Lorre’s performance, for obvious reasons. In the novel, references are made to his use of chypre as a fragrance (in the film, it’s gardenia) and diamonds on a finger of his left hand. When Effie Perrine tells Spade that Cairo wants to meet him in chapter four, she says he’s “queer.” In chapter ten, Spade refers to him as “the fairy,” and O’Shaughnessy refers to a boy Cairo once “had in Constantinople,” the public exposure of his sexuality angering him, in chapter seven.

What’s significant about his effeminacy and extravagance, also seen to an extent in the novel’s characterization of portly Kasper Gutman (Greenstreet), is how their decadence is related to their search for the black bird. Their decadence is of a capitalistic sort, a lust after riches and class hegemony, an internationalizing of the “American dream” felt also in Levantine Cairo.

Their decadence is that of the mafia, too, since they use muscle and guns to get what they want. We see this in Gutman’s use of Wilmer Cook (Cook Jr.), a young man shadowing Spade, though the latter is by no means intimidated by the former. Similarly, Cairo pulls a gun on Spade, wanting to search his office for the falcon, though Spade manages to get his gun off of him.

As I’ve argued in previous posts, the mafia makes for a poetically resonant symbol of capitalism, its predatory seeking of wealth through questionable practices and use of violence. We see in the fierce quest for the falcon a symbol of the bourgeois search for an elevation to the highest levels of social class.

Cairo offers Spade $5,000 to help him find the black bird. Gutman offers a first payment of $10,000 to get it for him. Both men know, though, that the falcon is worth so much more as to make thousands of dollars seem like pennies in comparison. This disparity in worth is symbolic of the capitalist exploitation of labour, minimal payments to workers to extract a maximum of surplus value.

The second time Spade meets with Gutman, the latter tells the former the history of the Maltese falcon. The Knights Templar (in chapter thirteen of the novel, Gutman calls them “the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, later called the Knights of Rhodes and other things”) in 1530 wanted King Charles V of Spain to give them Malta; he would do so in exchange for the tribute of a falcon to be sent to him every year in acknowledgement that Malta was still under Spain. If ever the knights were to leave, Malta would revert to Spain.

The first falcon sent to the king wasn’t to be a real, living one, but a golden statuette encrusted with the finest jewels from head to foot. In general, the falcons were meant, essentially, to be a yearly payment of rent, as a matter of form, to the king for permission for the knights to live in Malta.

The king, as emperor of that part of the Mediterranean at the time, was thus one of the most powerful men of the area during the late feudal period of Europe. Since the knights had access, through their spoils from their conquests in such places as the Middle East, to the finest jewels, metals, silks, gems, ivories, etc., the golden falcon was among the most valuable commodities ever.

The boat meant to deliver the falcon from Malta to Spain was stopped by a pirate attack. The pirates stole the falcon, and it ended up being passed around from place to place around the world over the next several centuries, up until the time of this story. Over this passage of time, history witnessed the change from feudalism to capitalism, while the bird has retained its superlative worth.

And so the Maltese falcon can be seen to symbolize the greatest attainment of class power, that which takes its owner in flight to the highest of financial freedoms. To own it is to be like a king, an emperor, owning property and wealth beyond one’s wildest dreams. To own it is to be better than the capitalist ruling class; to own it is to be like a feudal lord.

Small wonder Gutman, with his gluttony for wealth and power, wants the black bird so badly. He, Cairo, and Wilmer will use any dirty trick they can think of to get it, including drugging the drink Gutman fills and refills for Spade while discussing the history of the falcon, then while he’s unconscious, they can search for the falcon without Spade getting in the way.

Gutman may speak to Spade with cordiality, but he’s no friend to the detective, just as a boss is no friend to his employees. These are relationships of power and subservience. The drugging of Spade, as well as the use of Wilmer to push Spade around (in spite of how ineffectual Wilmer turns out to be), and the pointing of guns at Spade show clearly how unequal Gutman regards Spade as a business partner.

And regardless of how much Gutman offers to pay Spade for getting the falcon–a beginning payment of $10,000, or the full offer of $25,000 or even a quarter of a million–all these payments are microscopic in comparison to the actual, gargantuan worth of the black bird. Hence, payment for Spade’s service of securing the bird is like a small wage paid by an employer gaining a huge profit out of the deal.

Since Wilmer is also in Gutman’s employ, his relationship with Spade is full of the usual tensions between competing labourers, with the attendant alienation. In the novel, Wilmer hates Spade so much that he says, twice in chapter ten, what isn’t actually in print (for reasons that will immediately prove obvious), but what must be inferred as, “Fuck you.”

This mutual alienation among Gutman’s associates intensifies at the climax, when Spade, always trying to bargain (as a trade unionist would) for a better deal, insists on Gutman giving up a fall guy for the murders of Thursby and Archer, in addition to his cut. Spade suggests Wilmer, who naturally resents it, even though he’s surely responsible for at least the deaths of Thursby and Captain Jacobi (played by Huston’s father Walter), who dies having delivered the falcon to Spade’s office with several bullets in him, after the boat he sailed from Hong Kong to San Francisco, La Paloma, was burned down by Gutman’s men.

Gutman is hesitant to give up Wilmer to the police, claiming the boy is like a son to him (when actually, he’s worried Wilmer will squeal on him). Spade then suggests Cairo as the fall guy, or perhaps O’Shaughnessy could be considered; as long as Spade is safe from the cops. These suggestions, and the angry reactions they get, further show the growth of mutual alienation going around, all because of the power of that black enamelled commodity.

Before this climactic scene in the novel is one with Gutman’s drugged daughter, Rhea, whom Spade accidentally meets in the Alexandria Hotel (chapter seventeen). The scene is fairly superfluous to the plot, but it does help give us a more vivid idea of how corrupt and ruthless mafia-man Gutman is…that he’d allow his own daughter to be in such a state.

Gutman, Cairo, O’Shaughnessy, Wilmer, and Spade are all waiting for Effie to deliver the bird to Spade’s apartment in the morning. Gutman has given Spade the $10,000 down payment in an envelope, which Spade has given to O’Shaughnessy to watch over. At one point, Gutman takes the envelope back for a moment and looks over the bills: he finds only $9,000.

Has O’Shaughnessy stolen the missing $1,000? In the novel (and in the pre-Production Code 1931 film version), Spade takes her into his bathroom and makes her strip to see if she has the money on her–she doesn’t. Gutman has taken it to see what Spade will do, then he gives it back.

This scene is interesting in how it parallels that of the falcon’s delivery, when Gutman scrapes at the black enamel covering to see the gold and jewels underneath. There are none–it’s a fake! Just as she has had her coverings removed to find nothing of monetary value, so has the black bird. It’s a fake…and so is she.

These scenes underscore my point towards the beginning of this analysis: both O’Shaughnessy and the Maltese falcon are ‘black birds,’ as it were. They both, on the surface, seem to be beautiful and of almost limitless value, yet when the illusions are cast aside, they’re not only of no worth, but are dangerous addictions.

Warren Farrell once said that “female beauty is the world’s most potent drug.” (Farrell, Berkeley mass market edition, October 1996, page 72) I don’t agree: money is far more addictive, though perhaps female beauty is a distant second. Hence, the two black birds of this story. It’s interesting, in this connection, to remember Tony Montana‘s words in Scarface: “you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the woman.”

We’ll note, however, that the real climax of the story isn’t the discovery that the falcon is a fake; it’s Spade telling O’Shaughnessy that he’s giving her up to the police for having shot Archer (Wilmer has sneaked out of the building while everyone’s eyes have been on the falcon, so he can no longer be the fall guy).

After Gutman and Cairo leave to resume their search for the bird, Spade bullies her into telling the truth that she shot Archer with Thursby’s gun. Since the police suspect Spade killed him to get Iva, he can’t let O’Shaughnessy’s beauty weaken his resolve to avoid being charged with murder.

It takes all of his emotional strength to look into her manipulatively teary eyes and tell her he “won’t play the sap” for her. Though he, a ladies’ man, is still enticed by her beauty and her claims that she loves him, he’s heard too many lies from her to think she’s any less a phoney than that lead bird she had shipped from Hong Kong.

The tension in Bogart‘s face vividly expresses Spade’s conflict. Still, he stays strong, and when Detective Polhaus and Lieutenant Dundy show up, Spade gives her to them. Polhaus asks about the bird, and Spade says it’s “the stuff that dreams are made of,” a reference to the illusory, theatrical magic in The Tempest. The theatrically presented dream of innumerable amounts of wealth is an illusion.

Indeed, though Spade can resist O’Shaughnessy’s charms as his objet petit a, neither Gutman nor Cairo can resist the lure of the Maltese falcon, their objet petit a, hence their plans to go to Istanbul to see if it’s there. Now, at the end of the novel, Wilmer shoots and kills Gutman; so Spade’s ability to resist his desires saves him, while Gutman’s inability to do so destroys him, as does Archer’s inability vis-à-vis O’Shaughnessy.

It is assumed that the reason Gutman et al received a fake falcon is because the sender, a Russian named Kemidov in Istanbul, cheated them when he found out its real worth, and that he has the real falcon, if not somebody else. But I wonder: is the whole story of the falcon actually a legend that Gutman all too credulously believes, simply because he wants to? In any case, the addiction to endless wealth never dies, though its attainment is surely only an enamelled dream for most of us.

Analysis of ‘The Third Man’

The Third Man is a 1949 British noir film directed by Carol Reed with a screenplay by Graham Greene, from a novella Greene wrote to flesh out the story, but which wasn’t originally meant to be published. The film stars Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, and Valli; it costars Wilfred Hyde-White, Paul Hörbiger, Ernst Deutsch, Erich Ponto, and Siegfried Breuer.

The film is noted for its superb cinematography, sometimes inviting comparisons with Citizen Kane (even to the point of making some think mistakenly that Orson Welles was involved with the writing and production), and for its distinctive music, all played on a zither by Anton Karas, its composer. It is regarded as one of the best films of all time.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

A recurring theme in The Third Man is the relationship between illusion and reality. The charming zither music gives us a sonic sense of how quaint Europe comes across to American visitors, as we see with Holly Martins (Cotten–“Rollo Martins” in the novella) when he gets off the train, having reached Vienna. Anticipating getting a new job from his old boyhood friend, Harry Lime (Welles), Martins is eager to reunite with him. That zither, however, gets plaintive and gives off a dissonant chromaticism whenever scenes get tense, a sonic shift from pleasant illusion to unpleasant reality.

Similarly, we see all the beautiful sculpture and architecture of Vienna, but it’s juxtaposed with the rubble of destroyed buildings, since this is postwar Vienna, divided into zones controlled by the US, the UK, France, and Soviet Russia. Cold War tensions are in the air. The illusory charms of Europe quickly give way to the reality of WWII horrors.

The illusory pleasantness of Vienna, as symbolically understood through the zither music, is further changed to unpleasant reality when Martins learns that Lime is dead, having been hit by a car…or so we understand. After attending the funeral with such people as Lime’s ex-lover, comedic stage actress Anna Schmidt (Valli), Major Calloway (Howard) of the British Royal Military Police, “Baron” Kurtz (Deutsch), and Dr. Winkel (Ponto), Martins goes with Calloway for drinks in a bar.

Illusions are further broken when Martins learns from Calloway that Lime was involved in one of the worst rackets in Vienna. Drunk Martins doesn’t like to hear Calloway say that his late friend has been responsible for people’s deaths, and that Lime’s own death is the “best thing that ever happened to him,” so Martins tries to punch Calloway, but instead is hit by Sergeant Paine (played by Bernard Lee), who works under Calloway.

Martins begins trying to find out what exactly has happened to Lime, and the first man he talks to about this is Kurtz, an associate of Lime’s who explains how, after Lime was hit by the car, two men carried him off the road (Kurtz and a Romanian named Popescu [Breuer]), Dr. Winkel arrived, and Lime died soon after that.

Martins hears the testimony of others, including Schmidt, who is reluctant to speak about Lime. Karl (Hörbinger), Lime’s porter, however, lets it slip that there was a third man who helped carry Lime’s body. These contradictory accounts make Martins suspicious of foul play, and cause us to see further rifts between illusion and reality.

This sense of suspicion and disorientation that is growing in Martins is symbolized by the extensive use of the Dutch angle in this film. The tilted view of events on the screen suggests not just his looking askance at what people are up to, but also our looking askance at it. What he, and we the audience, see is a distortion of reality, an illusion that alienates him and us, the new visitors of Vienna.

In the novella, Kurtz wears an obvious toupee, and when Martins visits him at his home (pages 2 and 8 of the link to the novella), he sees the toupee in a cupboard, and Kurtz is not bald. Martins surmises that the toupee has been part of a disguise, “useful…on the day of the accident,” another illusion furthering his suspicions of Kurtz.

Testimony about the late Lime that Martins hears, given from the multiple perspectives of Calloway, Kurtz, Schmidt, Dr. Winkel, and Popescu (an American named Cooler in the novella) suggests the influence of Citizen Kane. Indeed, we’ll eventually learn that Lime was…and is!…as unscrupulous and narcissistic a businessman as Kane was.

In the novella, when Martins talks with Dr. Winkel in his home about Lime (page 3), and Martins hears the doctor’s laconic answers, we read a description of the copious examples of religious art and icons the doctor owns. These include a crucifix with Christ’s arms above His head; Winkler explains that this rendering is meant to show how He died, in the Jansenists‘ view, only for the Elect–arms up high to indicate how high are those who merit salvation, as it were. This is representative of the narcissism of those involved in Lime’s racket: only they ‘deserve’ to live.

Karl has been murdered for his loose lips about the third man, and some suspect that Martins, one of the very last people to talk to the porter, is his killer. Those involved in Lime’s racket wish Martins would stop his investigating.

Martins is put in a car and hurriedly driven somewhere. We suspect, as he does, that the driver has been paid to have him killed. This fear soon turns out to be yet another illusion, for the driver is actually taking Martins to the gathering of a literary club, organized by Mr. Crabbin (Hyde-White), where Martins, a novelist himself, is expected to lecture on and answer questions about all things literary.

So Martins, as a writer, is also a creator of illusions. Having a novelist as his story’s protagonist seems to be Greene’s way of making a private commentary on his own illusion-making as a writer. Indeed, the careful reader of Greene’s novella will note that it is a first-person narrative given not by Martins, but by Calloway, who is oddly able to know many of Martins’s private actions and thoughts (Calloway’s having spies follow Martins everywhere, or to have Martins tell him all that’s happened, can’t possibly account for all of the exposition of Martins’s inner thoughts and motives).

Small wonder a writer of Greene’s calibre didn’t originally want the novella published; at the same time, the later publishing of so slightly-revised a narration gives us an interesting commentary on literary illusion-making as illusion.

The literary snobs in Crabbin’s gathering ask Martins, a writer of Westerns, about all kinds of high-brow concepts (stream of consciousness, how to categorize James Joyce‘s work, etc.). Martins’s idea of great writing is Zane Grey, much to the disappointment of Crabbin et al. The illusion that Martins is a writer of their lofty literary ideals has been shattered, since along with Grey as an influence, he cannot answer their questions to their satisfaction, and they leave.

In this scene, we also have an interesting comparison of the illusion-making of authors with that of the racketeers, in the form of Popescu asking Martins about his writing (menacingly implying that he should stop it if he wishes to be safe), with Martins’s bold, defiant answer that his ‘new book’ will be called “The Third Man,” a work based on fact (i.e., the crooked circumstances that have led to Lime’s death), not fiction (his supposedly accidental death on the road).

Popescu’s men then chase Martins out of the room. He goes up a spiral staircase, of which we get an upwards shot. It symbolically suggests Martins’s attempt to escape the hell of the Viennese racketeers (and the pretentious literary types) and up into the heaven of safety. Such heaven and hell symbolism will recur later. “Long is the way/And hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” (Milton, Book II, lines 432-433)

He hides from his pursuers in a dark room, in which he hears a whimpering voice. Assuming it’s somebody scared because of his entry, he says, “It’s all right,” then turns on the light and sees that the voice is coming from a parrot. This chiaroscuro shift from dark to light, or from concealment to revelation, paralleling the relationship between illusion and reality, is an important feature of the expressionist cinematography in this film, something aided well with the black-and-white photography (i.e., without distracting colour). This contrast of dark and light will feature again soon enough.

Martins’s pursuers chase him out of the building, and he goes down a hill of rubble and succeeds in hiding from them. The zither music is heavily chromatic in harmony, to add to the tension. In this hell of Vienna (whose shiny wet cobblestone streets parallel the water in the hellish sewers below–more on them later), one can’t hope just to escape up to heaven, but must confront its evil (i.e., descend into it…the sewers!) in order to defeat it.

Martins sees Calloway again, and indeed, he must confront that evil: Lime, his childhood friend, really has been involved in a despicable racket. An orderly named Harbin, who works for Lime, steals penicillin he finds (available only in military hospitals), then Lime sells it on the black market, diluting it so he and his men can maximize sales; in its diluted state, though, it cannot work as an effective treatment, so patients either get worse (gangrene, exacerbation of pregnant women’s problems when in childbirth, poor physical and mental health in children, etc.) or die.

Martins’s illusions about Lime have been utterly shattered: Calloway has provided proof that Lime, Martins’s good old friend, was…is…one of the vilest human beings out there. Martins gets drunk again, in a seedy area strewn with prostitutes, but his growing romantic interest in pretty Anna Schmidt means he buys her flowers and goes to see her.

In her apartment, they discuss what he’s learned about Lime. As they’re chatting, a camera moves in on some plants on her balcony; the shot then goes through the plants and out onto the streets below. A man dressed in black hides in the shadows of a doorway, where a cat goes over to his shoes: who is he?

Martins finishes his visit with Schmidt, realizing he hasn’t got a chance to replace Lime and be her man. His illusory hopes are dashed. (Speaking of illusions vs reality, she is an actress only doing comedies, yet she seems to have a permanent frown.) He leaves her apartment and goes out on the streets near where that man is hiding.

The cat’s meowing draws Martins’s attention, and he assumes the man is a spy tailing him. In his drunkenness, Martins shouts at him to come out and reveal himself. His shouting bothers a neighbour up above, who turns her apartment light on; the light shines out and is reflected in the man’s hiding place.

Martins sees guiltily smirking Lime.

Out of the darkness, and into the light; or, out of illusions and into reality. Lime faked his death!

Or, is this revelation just another illusion? Has Martins, in his inebriation, seen a ghost, or had a hallucination? A car shoots between the two men, and after it’s gone, Martins doesn’t see Lime in the shadows of that doorway anymore; that flash of light from the window has disappeared, too–we’ve gone from light back to dark, from reality back to illusion.

Martins hears Lime running down the street, though, and he chases him to a kiosk in the town square, where Lime unaccountably disappears. Martins summons Calloway, and they and Paine go to the kiosk, where Calloway puts two and two together: the kiosk has a secret doorway leading down to the sewers. That’s where Lime went!

The three men go down into the filthy, smelly place, an underground symbolic of hell, which is an appropriate place for our villain to be hiding. Lime’s racket, the selling of diluted (and therefore worthless) penicillin on the black market, is a lawlessness symbolic of the unregulated “free market.” Calloway’s police, combined with the American and French authorities of the Viennese zones, represent postwar, regulated capitalism. The Russians, of course, represent communism.

Because The Third Man is a post-WWII British film, it ideologically represents the centrist, liberal world view, as contrasted with the unregulated, right-wing libertarian capitalism of Lime’s racket on the one side, and the left-wing, Soviet position on the other. Both of these sides are portrayed as evil, due to the Cold War Western biases of the time, as well as the Keynesian, welfare capitalism of the Attlee era.

Accordingly, not only are Lime and his ilk the villains, but also the Russians, seeking to deport Schmidt for her forged immigration papers, are portrayed as politically repressive, when a closer examination of the political predicament of, for example, East Germany, would adequately explain why the communists were sometimes averse to their citizens defecting to the West, and averse to letting fascistic types enter the Soviet Bloc.

Calloway goes to the cemetery and has ‘Lime’s’ body dug up: sure enough, it isn’t Lime’s body, but that of Harbin. The darkness of the grave hid the illusion of Lime’s death, and Harbin’s body, brought up to the light, has revealed the truth.

Martins makes an arrangement to meet Lime at a Ferris wheel. There, Lime, still fittingly wearing a black coat and hat, discusses his racket with Martins, who is horrified at his friend’s unfeeling attitude towards his victims. In the Ferris wheel, they rise up to the top where they can talk in private.

That topmost point is Lime’s narcissistic heaven, where he can feel superior to, and look down at, all the people, those little “dots,” on the ground. He feels no compassion for his victims, and sees the erasure of many of those dots on the ground as expedient for the accumulation of profit, all tax-free.

In this way, it is so fitting that the post-war film takes place in Austria, of all places.

Lime feels little pity for Anna, either, knowing of her grief over his ‘death,’ and her prospects of being deported. Nonetheless, he keeps up the illusion of loving her by drawing a heart with Cupid’s arrow in it, rubbing his finger on the window of their carriage, and writing ‘Anna’ over it.

Just as it is heartbreaking for Martins to learn how low Lime has sunk (recall his refusal to accept the truth when he’s tried to hit Calloway near the beginning of the film), so does the defender of the “free market” experience cognitive dissonance when his illusions of it are shattered upon learning of its ill effects.

The narcissistic highs last only so long, and that topmost point of the Ferris wheel where Lime is standing must come back down. Still, he wants to fancy himself among the top men of the world; so when he and Martins return to the ground, he mentions–in Welles’s famous, improvised line–that the cruelties and violence of the Italy of the Borgias also produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance, while the more humane and democratic Switzerland merely produced the cuckoo clock.

Apparently, psychopathy and narcissism–rather than talent–are what create great things.

Having seen for himself in a hospital the effects on children of Lime’s diluted penicillin, Martins decides to help Calloway catch his old friend. Schmidt, however, doesn’t like knowing Martins plans to betray her former lover. Her sympathy for Lime, as over Martins and those who deserve justice for Lime’s crimes, symbolically suggests how the conditions that have given rise to racketeers like Lime will resurface in the future (see the end of this analysis)…and recall that Anna Schmidt is the sympathetic love interest of the film.

A trap is set for Lime to meet Martins in a café, but when Lime arrives and is warned by Schmidt, he runs off to the sewers again. Calloway and the police are there, though.

Trapped in that filthy underground that reeks of excrement, Lime is in his narcissistic hell, the hell of his True Self, which he hates, as opposed to the illusory heaven of his False Self, which we saw at the top of the Ferris wheel. No longer do we see the smug, smirking villain; now he is visibly scared. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. All he can do is hide in the darkness from which he can’t escape, hoping the shadows will give the illusion of his absence.

But his pursuers know he’s there: no blackness can deny the reality of his being there. He shoots and kills Paine, then Calloway shoots and wounds him, then Martins shoots him dead with Paine’s pistol. It’s with great sadness that Martins must kill his friend, but no reforms can end the capitalist evil that Lime’s racket represents; that end can only be violently forced.

Now, Lime is gone, and a second funeral is held for him; but for all we know, his racket could be continuing, if not by Kurtz, Winkel, and Popescu (who have been arrested), then by someone else. The regulatory force of the British, American, and French authorities can try all they will, but the economic system they defend still creates the want that leads to some racketeers committing such crimes…

…just as the Keynesian/welfare capitalism of 1945-1973 protected the backbone of a system that later would morph into the Lime-like neoliberalism of today, which has produced its own lethal medical frauds.

Along with these problems is the alienation this system creates, an alienation symbolized in Schmidt’s snubbing of Martins at the end of the movie; indeed, he tries to keep alive his illusion that she’ll return his love, and her walking past him replaces illusion with reality once again, with that plaintive zither playing in the background. Greene wanted the happy ending given in his novella, in which Martins and Schmidt walk together; but Reed’s sad ending worked so much better that even Greene had to acknowledge it.

This sad ending implies what needs to be said about all the political circumstances surrounding the story: getting rid of one or two bad apples (be they Lime or, in our day, Trump) isn’t enough to mend our emotional and social wounds; the entire system that causes such division–not just the lines dividing Vienna (or Cold War-era Berlin, for that matter) into zones…and we see a lot of lines, a lot of people divided and isolated, boxed into geometrical shapes, in this film!…but also the lines dividing us into classes–is what must be abolished.

Analysis of ‘Johnny Got His Gun’

Johnny Got His Gun is a 1938 anti-war novel written by Dalton Trumbo, published the following year, and adapted into a 1971 film, which was also written and directed by him (with an uncredited writing collaboration from Luis Buñuel). The film stars Timothy Bottoms, with co-stars Kathy FieldsMarsha HuntJason RobardsDonald Sutherland, and Diane Varsi.

The book was temporarily taken out of print several times, when such wars as WWII and the Korean War broke out; for the book’s anti-war sentiment was deemed inappropriate at those times. Having been a member of the Communist Party USA during WWII, Dalton agreed to the non-printing of his novel, as long as the Soviet Union remained allies with the US against the Nazis during the war. As for the far right, isolationists among them sent Trumbo letters asking for copies of the book while it had been out of print. He reported the letter-writers to the FBI, but it turns out the FBI was far more interested in him, a leftist, than in the rightist writers.

The novel tells the story through a third-person subjective, or limited, narration, meaning we get the story from the protagonist’s point of view, that of Joe Bonham (played by Bottoms in the film). This means that the perspective of the medical staff is given only in the film adaptation. Other differences between novel and film include the rearrangement of some scenes into a different order, and the inclusion of scenes in the film with Christ (Sutherland) generally having been written by Buñuel (assuming IMDb is trustworthy here), although the scene of Christ playing cards with Joe, the redhead, the Swede (played by David Soul), and the other soldiers is in the novel (Book II, Chapter 16), and around 27-30 minutes into the film.

The film was originally a modest success, but became a cult film after Metallica‘s video for their songOne,” which included scenes from the film, revived interest in it. In fact, Metallica bought the rights to the film so they could use scenes from it in their video without having to pay royalties on it.

Links to quotes from the film can be found here.

Joe Bonham, a young American soldier in WWI, has been severely injured from the blast of an artillery shell, rendering him limbless, eyeless, deaf, and without a nose, tongue, or teeth. To make matters worse, the army medical staff taking care of him, not knowing who he is (three minutes into the film), and mistakenly thinking he’s decerebrated from his injuries, assume that he feels no pain or pleasure, and that he has no memories or dreams; so they keep him alive for medical research.

Joe gradually comes to the horrifying realization that all that’s left of him are his torso, genitals, and mutilated head (from Chapter 3 onward), with only the sense of touch left to link himself with the world, and with his consciousness intact to realize the virtually hopeless state that is the remainder of his natural life. This is alienation in the extreme, as only war can cause it.

The medical staff are keeping him alive so they can study him, the rationalization being that such study can be a help to future injured soldiers. When he realizes fully what’s been done to him, he’d like to kill himself by cutting off his own breathing, but he can’t, because the staff have him breathing through tubes directly connected to his lungs (Chapter 5, pages 28-29).

So, the overarching theme of the story is loss, lack. Joe has lost not only all the body parts that can make him useful, help him to enjoy the company of other people, or give his life meaning; not only has he lost his will to live and his faith in God (especially by the end of the story); but he has lost the very ability to end his life.

Normally, desire is aroused by a stimulation of the senses, so we’d think that a lack of those senses might cause one to be able to resist the sensual temptations of the world and attain peace, nirvana; but Joe is someone used to the physical pleasures of the world, to the enjoyment of relationships with other people, so being deprived of all of that, all of a sudden, is something he cannot accept. His is a Lacanian lack giving rise to desire: a desire to be useful to others, to be recognized and acknowledged by others, to be wanted by others (e.g., his girlfriend, Kareen [Fields]).

How can he be worth anything to anybody (other than that impersonal medical staff who are exploiting him for their own purposes) in his mutilated state? As a quadruple amputee with his face blown off, he’s been symbolically castrated, though, ironically, his genitals are still intact (Joey’s got his gun), they being the symbol of desire par excellence. Instead of letting go of his desires, which would lead to nirvana, he has them all the more, trapping him in a symbolic samsara. His is a living death: note how the novel is divided into two books, called ‘The Dead,’ and ‘The Living.’ It’s as if he’s dying (despair), then living again (new hope), then dying again (frustrated hope), then living again (revived, if feeble, hopes), a symbolic reincarnation into a world of endless suffering, of hell.

His hell is the undifferentiated world of what Lacan called the Real. He cannot tell day from night, dream from waking life, or fantasy from reality (especially with all the sedatives he’s getting). He cannot measure time with any degree of accuracy, though he certainly tries very hard to.

Communication borders on impossible for him, except towards the end of the story, when a nurse uses her finger to spell “MERRY CHRISTMAS” on his bare chest (Chapter 17, page 86); and when he uses the Morse Code, tapping the back of his head on a pillow, to communicate with the army brass, only to have his wishes rejected. Therefore, his connection with the Symbolic Order, the therapeutic world of language, culture, and society, is a tenuous one.

The paradoxically terrifying/beatific world of the Real, or to use Bion‘s terminology, O, is one beyond the senses, a suspension of memory and desire. James S. Grotstein says, “A transformation in ‘O’ is attainable only by the disciplined abandonment of memory, desire, understanding, sense impressions — and perhaps also the abandonment of ego itself.” Such a place could be heavenly, like nirvana, if Joe could just let go of his ego and the world he’s lost; but of course, he’ll never do that, so he can only experience the hellish aspect of O, the Real, which is dialectically right next to the heavenly aspect (consider my use of the ouroboros, which symbolizes a circular continuum, the dialectical relationship between opposites [i.e., the serpent’s head biting its tail], to get at my meaning), depending on whether or not one clings to desire.

Trumbo’s novel begins with memories of sounds, like the sound of the telephone ringing. His hearing is the first thing he discovers he’s lost, and ironically, he has a ringing sound in his ears, reminding him of the telephone. Added to this, he remembers a sad phone call at work in the bakery: he must go home, for his father (Robards) has died. More of the theme of loss.

Other sounds Joe remembers are of music, his mother’s singing (beginning of Chapter 2) and piano playing (Chapter 1), something he’ll never get to enjoy again. In subsequent chapters, Joe remembers other sensory pleasures, like his mom’s home cooking (Chapter 2), a listing-off of various delicious foods (her baked bread, her canned peaches, cherries, raspberries, black berries, plums and apricots, her jams, jellies, preserves, and chilli sauces; the sandwiches of the hamburger man on Fifth and Main, etc.), all foods he’ll never get to taste again. He describes the aches and pains in his arms and legs, doing hard physical labour, in the hot sun, to the point of exhaustion (Chapter 4, pages 19-21).

He describes going to bed with Kareen (Chapter 3, page 15; and about nine minutes into the film), their one and only intimate time before he’s shipped off to fight the war, an indulgence her father allows, amazingly. All of these vivid sensual descriptions are here to underscore, for the reader, all that Joe has lost.

The film symbolically reflects the difference between what he had (and what he wishes he still had) and what he’s lost by showing his memories, dreams, and fantasies in colour (the dreams and fantasies being in saturated colour), and showing his current, hellish reality in the hospital in black and white. Indeed, all he has left are his memories and fantasies.

All these memories of his reinforce in our minds that Joe is a human being, with a heart and feelings, with dreams, hopes, and desires, like everyone else. He’s more than just a guinea pig for the medical staff to study and experiment on.

This understanding is the anti-war basis of the story: soldiers aren’t just pieces of meat (like the piece of meat that Joe has been reduced to) for the army and ruling class to use for their selfish purposes. Of course, these selfish purposes–the imperialist competition to control the lion’s share of the world’s land and resources–are cloaked behind rationalizations of keeping the world “safe for democracy.”

Now, what is meant here by “democracy” is not really the power of the people, but what is properly called the dictatorship or the bourgeoisie, or the rule of the rich. Boys like Joe are recruited to kill and die to protect and serve the interests of the capitalist class. This story’s setting during WWI is significant in how Lenin at the time wrote Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, a polemic against the war (understood as an inter-imperialist competition among the great powers of the time for land and resources), which was very unpopular in Russia. And as soon as the Bolsheviks took power, they worked to get Russia out of the war.

If only American communists could have been so successful.

The novel’s defiant, anti-war tone reaches its highest pitch at the ends of Books I and II, in which Joe speaks contemptuously of that old lie about the “fight for liberty.” As Joe says on page 49, “What the hell does liberty mean anyhow?” His response to the importance of liberty is “my life is important” (page 50). As for Joe’s defiance of the war machine and what it has done to him, hear Donald Sutherland’s reading of passages from the end of Book II (pages 103-104).

Now, since Joe has realized what a big mistake he made believing the bourgeois imperialist lie of ‘fighting for democracy,’ we should try to understand what originally drove him to buy into that lie. It was his love of his father and his wish to identify with him, to win his father’s love. Though his father cynically realizes that ‘defending democracy’ is really just about “young men killing each other,” Joe as a naïve little boy just goes along with the apparent virtue of such a fight. After all, as his father says, “Young men don’t have homes; that’s why they must go out and kill each other.” (Recall, in this connection, the fourth line in the bridge to the lyrics of the Black Sabbath song, “War Pigs,” which came out close to the same time as the film.)

Joe deems his father a failure who has nothing but his phallic fishing pole to give him distinction (not even Joe has distinction, apparently, as his father frankly tells him), but this is the only father little Joe has. Joe manages to lose that fishing pole one day when fishing not with his dad, but with his friend, Bill Harper (Chapter 9, and at about 1:16:30 into the film). The loss of the fishing pole is another symbolic castration. Joe’s memories of his father hugging him, and wanting to receive a hug from him, are–I believe–wish-fulfillments of Joe’s (the line separating his actual memories and how he wishes to remember his past is a hazy one). His father’s death, and the loss of the fishing pole, goad Joe–through guilt feelings–into being willing to do what “any man would give his only begotten son” for…kill and be killed for democracy.

This choice of words, “only begotten son,” is intriguing. It reminds one of John 3:16. Joe’s father would give his only begotten son to die for an ideal, freedom, which sounds like God the Father giving His only begotten Son to die for our sins, so sinners can live in an ideal world, heaven, which is freedom from sin and death.

This comparison leads us to the understanding that Joe, in the extremity of his suffering, is comparing himself, however obliquely, to Christ. He is suffering in an excruciating manner similar in a number of ways to how Jesus suffered. In his state of living death, Joe is harrowing Hell, so to speak, as Christ did.

The two books of Trumbo’s novel, recall, are named “The Dead” and “The Living.” The reverse order of these names suggests resurrection. On the other hand, Christ will return to judge the living and the dead (1 Peter 4:5). This understanding gives depth to Joe’s dreams and fantasies of conversing with Christ, for it gives meaning–and a sense of grandeur–to Joe’s suffering.

His dream of a rat biting into a wound behind a bandage on his side, or his chest (something he, at first, can’t tell from waking reality–Chapter 7, page 41; and 45 minutes into the film) suggests the spear in Christ’s side. The loss of Joe’s limbs is analogous to the stigmata in Christ’s hands and feet; recall how he believes the doctors have amputated his arms and legs–for example, he feels the pinching and pricking of sharp instruments when they remove the bandages from where his left arm would have been (Chapter 3, page 13). And the mutilation of Joe’s face parallels Christ’s crown of thorns, the digging of those thorns into His head.

The mutilation of Joe’s body, and the mental disorientation he feels as a result, symbolizes and literally means that he is in danger of suffering psychological fragmentation. Pathological narcissism–in Joe’s case, the covert kind in which one sees oneself as a grandiose victim–is an effective–if dysfunctional–defence against such fragmentation. In Joe’s case, this narcissism expresses itself by his comparing of his suffering to that of Christ.

In the film, when Joe is with Christ in one of his fantasies (46-50 minutes into the film)–when Christ is doing His carpenter work–and Joe is speaking about his fears of having the rat nightmare again, the two are looking in each other’s faces as if Joe were looking into a mirror…that is, the narcissistic mirroring of the self in the other. As a dream, the scene is a wish-fulfillment for Joe in which he hopes to find a solution to the rat nightmare problem, which of course Christ can’t solve, because Joe’s problems are material, not spiritual, ones: Joe has no mouth with which to yell himself back into consciousness, he has no eyes to open, and he has no limbs with which to knock the rat off of him. This must have been a scene that atheist Buñuel wrote, for Christ is no help to Joe, and He Himself acknowledges that no one really believes in Him.

Joe remembers his Christian Science preacher from childhood telling him that God is Spirit (35 minutes into the film), as is man in his true nature, which makes Christ vaguely comparable with Joe, who barely has a body anymore, and barely has any sensory contact with the physical world. Joe, like Christ on the Cross, feels “forsaken” (Chapter 20, page 101) by the medical staff, who refuse to grant him his request to be taken around in a glass box and presented as a kind of freakish icon to teach people about the horrors of war.

To be taken all over the US and displayed thus, as an anti-war icon, is comparable to Christian missionaries traveling the world and spreading the Word of the Gospel (Matthew 28:19). Joe’s message of saving lives, though, is the salvation of physical lives, not that of spiritual ones. “He had a vision of himself as a new kind of Christ as a man who carries within himself all the seeds of a new order of things. He was the new messiah of the battlefields saying to people as I am so shall you be.” (Chapter 20, page 103)

As we can see, this association of Joe with Jesus is far more apparent in the novel, especially towards the end, than in the film. And if he is like Christ, we can find Mary parallels, too.

First, when Joe realizes the extremity of his predicament, he feels as helpless as a baby in the womb (Chapter 7, page 37), and he–in his thoughts–calls out to his mother for help (Chapter 5, page 25). This association of limbless Joe with a baby in the womb can also be linked with his recollection of his mother’s telling of the Christmas story, with Joseph and pregnant Mary trying to find an inn in Bethlehem to spend the night (Chapter 17, pages 88-90).

Without his mother to know of his mental cries for help, Joe must rely on the care of the nurses, on whom he transfers his Oedipal feelings, which have resurfaced as a result of his regression to an infantile state, this being part of his coping mechanism.

Having transferred feelings of Oedipal love from his mother onto the nurses, Joe finds one nurse in particular–as noted especially in the film (Varsi)–whose tearful compassion for him is receptive to that love. Accordingly, she masturbates him (Chapter 14, page 72); about an hour and fifteen minutes into the film). Remember, though, the blurred line between his fantasy world (i.e., wish-fulfillment) and his reality. How much of her massaging is real, and how much is his imagination?

Since the Oedipal transference is sent to her, and since it is she who writes “MERRY CHRISTMAS” with her finger on his chest, this nurse can be seen as the Mary to his Jesus. The tears in her eyes over his suffering make her a kind of mater dolorosa, Our Lady of Compassion.

Now, these Christ and Mary parallels do not mean that Trumbo was trying to present a Christian “prince of peace” kind of anti-war story. Such symbolism only serves to express the gravity of Joe’s suffering through the use of familiar religious imagery. This is no story about “faith, hope, and charity“: on the contrary, it is about bottomless despair, which is especially apparent at the end of the film.

Joe’s pitying nurse would be an exterminating angel, were one of the doctors not to stop her from cutting off Joe’s air supply to euthanize him. The doctor, whose “stupidity” is bluntly noted by the chaplain in the film, would keep Joe alive in that hellish state so he can continue to be studied. For this is the whole point of war: the exploitation of young men to kill, to be killed, and to be otherwise used as a kind of commodity for the benefit of the powerful.

Unable to kill himself, unable to live in any meaningful way, unable to communicate and be listened to (i.e., to re-enter the social world of the Symbolic; our libido seeks other people’s company, as Fairbairn noted), and hovering between consciousness and unconsciousness because of the sedatives the doctors keep giving him, Joe is trapped in the undifferentiated void of the Real. If he could only let go of his attachment to his ego, that illusory self we all have from our contemplation of our mirror reflection, the Imaginary, then he might find peace.

But his was never a Buddhist or Hindu upbringing, of course: it was a Christian one, from which he derived his narcissistically amplified ego by identifying with Christ. And since even the religious systems of the Far East typically hold up the authoritarian and class basis of their respective societies, they would be of little help to him, anyway. His predicament is a material one, not a spiritual one. The eternal death of his Hell is not being able to choose when he can die.

He might see himself as Christ-like, as a fisher of men, but he lost his father’s fishing pole…just as he’s lost everything else. And just as Joe’s father is dead, so is God the Father dead…hence, there’s no Christ to wake Joe out of his nightmare.

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.