My poet friend, Jason Ryan Morton, has written a new poem with the first line, “Staring at a cloud,” which I’m using as a tentative title, for practical purposes as far as distinguishing this one from mymanypostsonhisotherpoems is concerned.
This one is a pleasant departure from so many of his other poems in that it is more positive and hopeful; not that there’s anything wrong with the others, of course, but I’m always in favour of variety. As usual, I’ll put his poem in italics to distinguish his writing from mine.
Staring at a cloud I watched the sun fold Into tiny pockets of light Like the third eye Of a blind man Came the wisdom of the age Focus on today Relax and play Let all the darkness slip away
Ware though my friend Where goes the end Peeking round the corner Will only make you bend But seek thyself Find the truth The only person who deserves your loyalty Is you Tis true in a way the day is born for you
Just staring at a cloud As the sun sang a sonnet Awaiting the moon for a kiss of purity Today and tonight belong only to me. The moon embraced me Wiped the tears from my face Tears of joy not tears of sorrow Kissed Luna goodnight in my prayers Awaiting another tomorrow
And now, for my analysis.
“Staring at a cloud” can be seen to represent a ruminating over past sorrows, or a grieving over trauma. Such contemplation of pain is a common theme throughout Morton’s poetry, as I’ve observed in my previous posts about it; but here, something surprising happens, and pleasantly so. He continues: “I watched the sun fold/Into tiny pockets of light.” Light has come to replace the darkness of the cloud. When grieving over trauma is completed, happiness can return.
The theme of the contrast of dark and light continues, though in a different form, when he says, “Like the third eye/Of a blind man.” The third eye, like that of Shiva, a mystical eye that gives a kind of illumination beyond that of physical sight, replaces the pitch-black, physical darkness a blind man can only see. Sometimes in our darkness and sorrow, a special kind of light and happiness arises.
The “wisdom of the age” is that of our age today, not the ages of times past; for he advises himself to “Focus on today/Relax and play”. Only in the here and now, the eternal NOW, or the Unity of Time as I described it here, can we experience true joy and happiness, then we can “Let all the darkness slip away”.
We get a few archaic expressions in the second verse, a link to the past that contrasts the first verse’s “Focus on today”. These include the use of “Ware” (an archaic form of aware), “thy,” and “Tis.” To focus on the present, one must also reconcile oneself with one’s painful past.
“Ware” makes a pun on “Where” in the following line; one is aware of what’s going on, yet unaware of such things as “the end.” There is a dialectical relationship between knowing and not knowing; to know the truth, one must accept one’s lack of knowing. Therefore, one shouldn’t go “Peeking round the corner”, which “Will only make you bend” (i.e., twist your mind and make you believe falsehoods, untruths).
Instead of trying to find knowledge from out there, one should “seek thyself” and “Find the truth”. We find the truth within, not through trying to gain the validation and approval of others. Don’t seek the light outside, which will often lead to darkness; find the light within.
The contrast of light and darkness continues with a refrain of “Just staring at a cloud/As the sun sang a sonnet,” this being my favourite line in the poem. One is reminded of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (lines 5 and 6 especially). The paradox of dark and light is given again in the switch from the sun to the moon, which he awaits “for a kiss of purity.” Again, the juxtaposition of light and dark is achieved with “Today and tonight belong only to me.”
We begin to see Morton’s leanings towards pagan mysticism and spirituality when he says, “The moon embraced me/Wiped the tears from my face.” Here, the personified moon is his goddess, even a lover, whose love causes him “Tears of joy not of sorrow,” for She has helped him heal from so much of his past pain. Therefore, in gratitude, he “Kissed Luna tonight in [his] prayers/Awaiting another tomorrow.”
I await another poem of this spiritually uplifting sort from my literary friend.
Lynne sighed softly at first, her eyes closed and her mouth wide open, as she felt Herman entering her in his usual slow, gentle manner. Then, suddenly, she felt a sharp, painful stabbing as he jerked the rest of the way in.
Her eyes came wide open. “Oww!” she yelped.
The look of pain and malice that she saw in his eyes was inexplicable. Herman was never this way in bed.
Well, that’s because he normally never felt the sensation of a strap-on dildo rammed up his ass.
Though invisible and ghostly, that dildo tore Herman’s anus apart as thoroughly as a physical one would when shoved in as aggressively as Megan the ghost had shoved it. And with a grunt of pain, he was forced, by that thrust, to thrust just as abruptly into Lynne as he’d received it.
The thrusting continued, though…for both him and Lynne. Indeed, in raping Herman, ghost-Megan was, as it were, raping Lynne by proxy.
Herman looked behind him to see what the hell was going on. He saw the Megan of those dreams he used to have. “Megan!” he gasped as he felt another ramming.
Her dishevelled hair, her pale, flaking skin, and her glowing red eyes, circled in black rings, were disturbing enough to see in themselves, but the malicious grin he saw was far worse.
That face being far too unbearable to look at, he looked back down at Lynne, meaning to apologize for hurting her; but instead of seeing his wife wincing in pain, he saw her laughing at him.
“That’s it, Megan!” he heard Lynne say. “Jam that strap-on deep in his ass! Ha! Ha!“
“Lynne?” he grunted in disbelief. “Unh! What are you…Uh!…saying?”
Only Lynne wasn’t laughing or saying any of that.
She was yelping in pain from the ramming she was getting from him, as well as seeing a malevolent grin on his face that was no more real than the malice he saw on her face. She said, “Honey, stop! Uhh! You’re hurting me! Oh!“
But he didn’t hear or see any of that, due to Megan’s manipulations. Both husband and wife were experiencing variations on the dreams they’d had for so long.
As the sodomizing of Herman continued, and as he continued hallucinating Lynne’s laughing at him, he was filling up with a feeling for her he’d never imagined he’d ever feel–hatred. Part of this hate came from the laughing Megan was making him see and hear from Lynne; part of that hate came from Megan entering his body and consciousness.
Yes, the ghost was shifting from sexual possession of him to outright demonic possession. Though he still saw Lynne laughing at him, she was really looking up in incredulous horror at the transformation of the man she loved into…some kind of…monster.
“Herman?” she sobbed, the tears in her vaginal walls getting excruciating, “What…are you…doing? Ah!“
Now he no longer felt the dildo stabbing his ass. With Megan fully controlling him now, he was laughing at Lynne as he continued raping her.
He no longer saw Lynne laughing at him. He saw her real face, her tears, her fear, and the pain in her eyes. He was so inundated with Megan’s hate, though, that he felt no pity for his wife. He just continued raping and laughing.
She struggled, trying to push him off, but he was too big and strong. She could only hope he’d climax and get off of her soon…but he didn’t.
“Herman!” she sobbed with pleading eyes he wouldn’t acknowledge. “Why? Ah!“
She gave him one strong shove, and though it didn’t get him off of her, it did reveal someone behind him, the one who would answer her question.
“Megan?” she gasped, now remembering her own dreams.
Indeed, now she saw the ghost laughing at her with Herman, just like in her dreams.
Megan’s a ghost? she wondered, still yelping in pain from Herman’s continued phallic stabbing. I don’t even believe in ghosts.
Suddenly, Herman pulled out. Before Lynne could even have time to feel a sense of relief, though, he flipped her over on all fours, then he aimed for her ass.
“Oh, God!” she screamed. “Please, Herman, no more!“
Then, the sight of Megan’s grinning ghost just a few centimetres away from her face explained it all: this wasn’t her husband doing this to her; Megan was possessing him, getting her revenge on Lynne for having Herman do this to Megan back in the girls’ changing room in the high school gym.
Lynne screamed as he penetrated her the same way Megan’s ghost-strap-on had penetrated him.
Did Lynne deserve this?
Wasn’t the shared guilt between her and Herman, and their committed love as atonement, sufficient redemption? Didn’t their commitment to their Catholic faith, all their attending Mass, redeem them for that one sin?
Not in Megan’s opinion.
Mercifully, he came after about a minute of sodomizing Lynne, then he pulled out and lay on the bed in exhaustion. He no longer had that malevolent grin; instead, his face showed unmistakeable shame and remorse…yet he knew there were no words that he could say to ease the pain he’d caused her.
For a second, she acknowledged his guilt and didn’t hate him for what he’d done, knowing Megan’s ghost had made him do it. But that second of forgiveness was only for that second.
For Megan’s ghost had left his body and entered Lynne’s.
Herman now looked into the hateful eyes of his wife, not sure if that hate was all hers or all Megan’s. If it was shared by both, how much of it was Lynne’s? If it was ninety-nine percent Lynne’s hate, he knew he deserved it, regardless of Megan’s possession of him. He simply couldn’t bear the thought that his own body had hurt the woman he loved.
She walked out of the bedroom like a naked automaton.
He lay on the bed waiting, panting, his heart pounding.
In two minutes, she returned with a large knife in her hand.
She grinned at him as she approached the bed. He smiled back.
He lay on his back, arms stretched out, ready and willing to receive the knife in his chest.
Megan’s ghost left Lynne.
She let out an ear-piercing wail as she looked at the blood coming out of Herman’s chest.
Lynne Hendricks and Herman Schubert got married almost immediately after graduation from high school. It seemed to most that this marriage was way too hasty, yet his and her parents saw, demonstrated every day in the couple’s sincere, enthusiastic love for each other, a true, bedrock commitment.
Besides, Lynne and Herman had no desire to have kids, so if it ever came to a divorce, there was no fear of custody battles complicating things.
They went to the same university, renting an apartment just a few blocks from the campus, and their commitment to each other extended to a commitment to focus on their studies; because without a wish to chase after sexual encounters with any other members of the opposite sex, neither of them had the temptation to party in bars.
This monogamous commitment of theirs, so unusual in kids in their late teens, was nonetheless explicable: the apparent suicide of Megan Fourier drove the two into such sexual guilt that their monogamy was meant as a kind of atonement.
Herman had been getting nightmares starting just a week after Megan’s disappearance. He dreamt of himself raping her, a vivid reliving of the actual event, of him raping Lynne, or of Megan with a strap-on raping him. He’d dream one of these variations at least once a week, if not almost every night.
As a Catholic, he went to confession and told the priest everything with his face soaked in tears. The priest advised him to turn himself in to the authorities, but Herman of course didn’t want to face that; so he decided never to have sexual relations with anyone other than Lynne, for the rest of his life. To him, such a sacrifice of so many potential partners, with his good looks making temptation easy, seemed an acceptable form of atonement.
Lynne had nightmares, too. She’d witness either the rape as it had happened to Megan, or she’d see Megan watching Herman rape her, or she’d see Megan with the strap-on raping her, with Herman watching and laughing. Her nightmares were less frequent than his, around once a month, but they were no less intense. When he proposed to her, she agreed that their giving up of sex with anyone else would be a sufficient punishment.
Of course, neither of them could have even imagined that it was Megan’s ghost that was visually narrating their every nightmare.
Lynne’s guilt increased upon taking a Women’s Studies course during her first year in university. Hearing the shocking rape statistics her professor quoted invariably triggered her memory of what she’d had Herman do to poor Megan. At the same time, though, the guilt motivated her to commit to her marriage all the more, resisting every pass handsome guys gave her on and off campus. Given her beauty, she got lots of those passes, almost every day, often several on any one day.
Lynne and Herman never changed their minds about not wanting to have kids, and their hard work studying paid off, with Herman getting into Law School, and Lynne getting a degree in psychology. Eventually, after their post-graduate work, he joined a successful law firm, and she became a psychotherapist, often listening with tears of compassion to her patients’ retelling of such traumas as child sexual abuse. His proudest court case, him as prosecutor, resulted in the conviction of a rapist.
Over the years, Herman and Lynne found that their nightmares about Megan were becoming fewer in frequency, until by the time they’d reached thirty years of age, they were no longer having them at all. During their thirties, therefore, their married life had become nothing less than a blissful one.
Indeed, they remained no less in love than they’d been as teens. With their successful work, they used their plentiful money to buy a beautiful house in a quiet neighbourhood in North York. Every year, they’d have vacations in such places as Florida or Europe. Life was good.
Megan the ghost had been monitoring their marital bliss the whole time.
She grew conflicted over whether or not to get revenge on them. First, she noticed how the simmering hate in herself and in Alexa and Tiffany was eating them up, hence Megan’s easing up on Herman’s and Lynne’s nightmares. Also, she sensed how her tormentors had grown repentant of what they’d done to her, making her less eager for revenge.
Still, seeing the boundless happiness of that couple irked her, for she remembered how she’d originally wanted Herman for herself.
She was especially irked to see their passion and joy when making love, which was every time they did it.
So one night, twenty years after her rape and her disappearance with Alexa and Tiffany, Megan decided to make her presence known to Lynne and Herman…in their bedroom.
It was just past ten PM. Lynne, still quite beautiful at 38, had just showered, perfumed herself, and prettied her face with makeup while Herman lay in bed waiting for her. It made no difference to him if she were eighteen or thirty-eight years old: she was still the sexiest, loveliest woman in the whole world.
She came out of the bathroom with only her bathrobe on. She went into the bedroom with a grin for Herman, who grinned back at her.
“Take the bathrobe off, honey,” he said. “Let me see you.”
“No,” she said bashfully.
“Oh, come on. I know how you look under it, and that’s why I wanna see. You have a beautiful body.”
“Don’t be shy. Give us a look.”
“C’mon, don’t be such a tease.”
“Oh, OK.” She undid and dropped the bathrobe at her feet. One hand covered her breasts, the other, her pubes.
“Lynne, what’s with the covering up?”
“Well, I’m not as young as I used to be.”
“What’s that got to do with anything? You’re still the hottest, sexiest woman in the world. Let’s see it all.”
“Oh, alright.” She moved her hands away in all timidity.
He grinned as his eyes feasted on her lovely flesh.
“What are you so shy about?” he asked. “Your body is as perfect as it’s always been. Now, get in bed with me. I’m as hard as a rock, and I’m gonna show you how much I like that body.”
Giggling, she got under the covers with him. He took off his underwear. They held each other and began kissing.
Megan scowled, burning with envy, as she watched them together, so happy.
So undeservedly happy.
It’s time I took away your happiness, she thought. Her spirit descended on Herman as he entered Lynne.
Some time after the achievement of her revenge, Alexa’s ghost reappeared before those of Megan and Tiffany. They looked at her apparition with mixed feelings.
Do you feel satisfied, now that you’ve destroyed Boyd and Denise? Tiffany asked.
Yes, Alexa said. Completely. She grinned gloatingly.
Are you sure about that? Megan asked.
Why would you doubt me? Alexa said. Of course I’m sure.
It’s just that…here in Hell, we burn, melt, and suffer, Megan said. Satisfaction seems so far away, so unattainable, even after receiving revenge, as I got on my father.
Achieving revenge is a satisfaction all in itself, Alexa assured Megan. Even in this hopeless place.
I suppose so, Megan said, looking away from Alexa.
Why do you have doubts? Tiffany asked. Don’t you want to get revenge on Lynne and Herman for raping you?
Oh, yes, of course I do, Megan said. Every second that those two are still alive, I burn in a rage. Their every heartbeat is an insult to me.
So, go after them while you still have the opportunity, Tiffany said. Make them suffer, as we suffer.
They have no right not to suffer, Megan acknowledged with a scowl and a snarl. I hate that they’re happy.
Then get them, Alexa said. Ruin them. Why do you hesitate about your revenge? What’s stopping you, Hamlet?
Oh, I don’t know, Megan said, still not wanting to look at Alexa. How much of our burning and melting is just our sentence here in Hell for suicide, though; and how much of it do you think could be because of how much we’ve let our hate and anger turn us into murderous monsters? Aren’t we turning into the very bullies that we despise?
I don’t care if I’ve become a monster, or a demon deserving to be in Hell, Alexa said with a frown of hate. We’re in Hell and suffering anyway; it makes no difference if we get revenge or not as far as our fate’s concerned. But it makes a lot of difference if we suffer here and let our bullies get away with what they did to us, or if we make them pay.
I agree, Tiffany said. I groan in agony as each day passes and I don’t get revenge on Fay and George for what they did to me. We’ve followed Furioso’s advice about waiting to get revenge later, after cooling off after killing our parents. I’ve waited long enough: I will definitely get Fay and George.
We’ll suffer either way, Megan, Alexa said. But we can make them suffer, too, and we’ll show our strength, our power. Aren’t you tired of being weak? Make Lynne and Herman weak instead. Enjoy it. I enjoyed making Boyd and Denise weak.
But you killed their children and spouses, too, Megan said. You killed innocent children, and really violently. They never did you any harm.
Oh, who cares about them? Alexa said with so cold a face, it was as if her burning and melting had stopped and reversed, making her almost into an ice sculpture instead.
You don’t have to harm anyone other than Lynne and Herman, Megan, Tiffany said. Just hurt those two alone, if the idea of hurting innocent people bothers you. It makes no difference to me. We’re in Hell: having a moral conscience here is rather pointless, don’t you think?
I guess you’re right, Megan said. But I’m getting only Lynne and Herman. No one else.
Do what you like, Tiffany said.
Furioso appeared before the three spirits.
Are you ready to face Lynne and Herman, Megan? he asked her.
Megan looked over at Alexa again and winced.
Yes, I guess so, she said with a sigh.
Megan and Furioso disappeared, off to find the two targets of her revenge.
Tiffany now looked at Alexa’s apparition and winced.
You have no regrets over how you got even with Boyd and Denise, do you? she asked Alexa.
None at all, Alexa said with a rigid tone in her voice, though her face and body were anything but rigid.
In fact, her apparition showed her skin melting and dripping down to her feet, like the wax of an almost used-up candle.
Denise put the Pepsi and Fanta bottles on the kitchen counter, then she opened a drawer to get some straws. As she put her hand in to get them, she heard a whisper from behind.
Startled, she spun around to find the speaker. Though the girl she saw looked ghost-like, the face was familiar enough. Denise gawked at that face in disbelief for several seconds, her jaw dropping.
“Alexa?” she whispered.
The ghost smirked.
Then it flew inside Denise’s body.
She gasped, then froze.
Her brain was now thinking thoughts that weren’t her own.
Thoughts that couldn’t be expelled from her mind.
The baseball bat in the hall closet. Get it. Get a knife out of the drawer, too.
After getting a steak knife out of another kitchen drawer and putting it in her back jeans pocket, then putting her shirt over the handle to hide it, Denise walked out of the kitchen and into the hall like an automaton, with absolutely no ability to stop herself. She approached that closet with helpless dread.
All the while, she could hear her son noisily playing with his Star Wars toys.
You hate that noise, don’t you? Alexa’s voice rasped in Denise’s ears. You know you want to stop it, and there’s only one way to do it.
Denise couldn’t say no. She couldn’t even think it, as hard as she tried to.
She opened the closet door and picked up the bat.
She closed the door and took the bat with her down the hall to the living room. She couldn’t believe she had no ability to stop, drop the bat, and just return to the kitchen to get the drinks.
But she knew exactly what she was meant to do with the bat.
She couldn’t stop herself. She couldn’t say no to Alexa’s ghost. She couldn’t think any thoughts of objection to the ghost’s plan.
Alexa had total control over her mind and body.
Denise remembered how she’d bullied Alexa back in high school, but she couldn’t muster an apology, as sincere as it would have been. She couldn’t even let a tear roll down her cheek, over what she was being forced to do to her boy.
As she approached little Jameson with the bat, his voice, still imitating light sabre sounds, grew louder and more obnoxious. Her possessed brain was making her hate her son’s noises.
Violence is the only way to deal with anything you don’t like, Alexa’s voice told her. You know that. You’ve known it your whole life. Oh, sure, you’ve tried to suppress your rage against the world, you’ve pretended to be a good, loving mother, but you know, deep down, that that’s not the real you, Denise. Swing that bat. Beat him to death with it. You know you want to.
She was standing right behind him now. He just kept on playing and making those noises. He didn’t know she was there with that bat. He’d even forgotten about the Pepsi.
She raised the bat high over her head.
That noise is really annoying, isn’t it? Alexa asked. Little dorks like him deserve to be beaten, don’t they?
Denise kept that bat over her head, but knew she wouldn’t be able to stop it from coming crashing down on his head. She also knew why the bat stayed up above her head for the moment, why it wouldn’t come down just yet.
She was being made to wait for him to see her.
The waiting was also cruel suspense.
There was nothing she could do to stop it. The alien intelligence controlling her mind wouldn’t let her scream out a warning; it wouldn’t let her weep; it wouldn’t let her feel any affection for little Jameson.
It forced her to feel only murderous rage.
Still making the loud light sabre noises, he finally looked behind, saw her legs, then looked up at her.
He barely had time to frown at the sight of the baseball bat in her hands.
After that first blow bashed the boy’s skull to bloody pieces, she brought the bat down again and again, with many more a clubbing of his bones and back to finish him off.
He just lay there on his front, a motionless, bloody mess.
…and finally, she regained control of her mind and body.
She fell to her knees and dropped the bat.
She screamed a deafening wail of grief that went unbroken for the next ten seconds. Then she took in a hoarse breath and screamed again, louder and longer.
“I didn’t do this!” she yelled. “Something else…made me do this! Who?!“
Alexa’s ghost reappeared before her, smiling.
“You!” Denise hissed. “You fucking bitch! You made me kill my son! What I did to you back in school was nowhere near as bad as this! I didn’t deserve this! He didn’t deserve this! I went to prison for my crimes! I reformed myself! I paid my dues!”
She picked up the bat and rose to her feet. She swung it at the gloomy apparition, hitting only her furniture as it swept through Alexa’s transparent spectral image. The ghost laughed at Denise’s futile attempt at revenge.
How does it feel to be the weak one, Denise? Alexa whispered. But as you can see, you still have your violent nature. All I did was reawaken it in you.
“I would never have been violent to Jameson!” Denise screamed, no longer swinging the bat in exhaustion. “You made me do that. I should have killed you back in high school.”
You did, Alexa said. You and that prick, Boyd, drove me to commit suicide. But I’m not finished with you yet.
Outside, Denise heard the door of their car shut. Her husband was about to walk through the front door.
One of the first things he’d see was little Jameson’s body in a pond of blood on the living room floor.
Before Denise could say or do anything, she felt Alexa fly back into her body. A cruel look on her face replaced the grief-stricken despair that had been on it just a few seconds before.
She picked up Jameson’s body and took it out of the living room.
Jack opened the front door and stepped in.
“Honey?” he called out as he walked down the hall to the living room. “I’m home. I’m really hungry. Could you please make me a…what the fuck?”
He saw that pool of red staining the living room carpet. He saw some broken things and dents in some of the furniture.
Was there a break-in? he wondered, trembling all over and stepping slowly and quietly into the living room. I thought I heard screaming as I drove in. Is the intruder…are the intruders…still here?
He walked over to the bloody baseball bat and picked it up.
He crept out of the living room and reached the entrance to the kitchen, listening for any sounds that might indicate an intruder. Any time his feet made the slightest creak, or if his breath was at all audible, he got mad at himself.
I must not give away my position, he thought.
No one was in the kitchen. He didn’t want to go in there for fear of his squeaking shoes telling the intruder…or intruders…where his was.
He went back across the living room and to the stairs leading up to the bedrooms. He noticed a few drops of blood here and there, suggesting where the intruder/intruders had gone.
He went up the stairs with painstaking slowness, careful not to make any noise, but slow also out of terrified reluctance to find out whose blood he’d seen on the living room carpet.
He reached the top of the stairs and looked around the hall leading to the bedrooms. No one was there, but a few drops of blood led the way to the bedrooms.
He crept over to his and Denise’s bedroom. He listened at the door. He heard the sound of something knocked over. He took a deep breath in and put his hand on the doorknob. He turned it ever so slowly and quietly.
He pushed the door open with the same slow, silent care. He saw mostly darkness and shadow, for the curtains were closed over the window. He heard a shuffling movement.
As soon as he flicked on the light switch, he felt something knock against his left leg, something that had leapt from the dresser drawer, knocking over a bottle of Denise’s skin moisturizer. It ran out of the room, scaring the shit out of him.
It was their cat.
“Jesus Christ, Snowball,” he whispered as their white cat continued running down the hall to the stairs. Then, remembering he had to be quiet, he put his finger to his lips. He looked down at the hall carpet. The drops of blood hadn’t stopped at their bedroom.
He continued his slow, quiet steps over to Jameson’s bedroom. He saw blood on the doorknob.
Oh, please, God, no! he thought as he opened the door, the bat in his other hand ready to swing.
This room was similarly dark and shadowy, the curtains also closed; but he could make out a short, small silhouette of a human being lying on the bed.
Please, let him be OK, he thought as he reached for the light switch. He turned it on.
Jameson’s body lay there, grotesque and disfigured from the beating he’d received, blood staining the bedsheets.
Jack’s eyes and mouth agape, he could produce no sound other than a hoarse gasp. He just stood there, frozen and stupefied.
Denise flew out from behind the opened door with that knife. She dug it deep in his gut.
The pain of the stab was nothing compared to the shock he felt from seeing the inexplicable malevolence in his wife’s eyes. He dropped the bat and fell to his knees.
“Denise…why?” he grunted as he looked up at her and her hateful expression.
He fell to her feet, surrounded in his blood.
She regained control of herself, then screamed at the top of her lungs again. “What am I supposed to do now, Alexa?”
You have the knife, the grinning ghost said. Use it on yourself.
A few days later, the local newspaper reported the double murder/suicide, Denise’s naked body found in the bathtub filled with bloody water, her wrists slashed.
How such a family, known all over their community to have been so happy and loving, could have ended so tragically seemed a mystery to all…until a little research dug up her criminal past. It was assumed that her old violent ways had never been fully extinguished.
The film’s non-linear storyline presents one set of events backwards and in colour, giving the audience a sense of the anterograde amnesia of its protagonist, Leonard Shelby (Pearce; in the short story, the character’s name is Earl). A black-and-white sequence of events in chronological order is presented in scenes that alternate with the reverse-order, colour scenes. The reverse scenes and chronological ones meet at the climax of the film, with the black and white switching to colour.
Memento was critically acclaimed for its non-linear structure and themes of memory, perception, and self-deception. It received Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing. It’s widely considered one of Nolan’s best films and one of the best films of the 2000s.
Here is a link to quotes from the film, here is a link to Jonathan Nolan’s short story, published in Esquire, and here‘s a link to him reading his story.
“Memento Mori” gives the reader the sense of Earl’s inability to form new memories differently from the film’s back-and-forth, reverse vs chronological order: the short story instead presents scenes with large gaps of time between them to disrupt continuity. And instead of the film’s use of “Teddy” (Pantoliano) and Natalie (Moss), who both help and manipulate Leonard, in the short story, the narration shifts back and forth from first to second to third person, leaving the reader to wonder if all three are the same person (my guess), or if someone else is actually helping Earl.
There’s a sense of depersonalization, of derealization, in Earl’s switching from I to you to he to us within the space, often, of just a few paragraphs. Given the extreme disorientation he feels from his condition, such a confusion of identity is perfectly plausible.
The short story directly and indirectly references Hamlet. Given the dominant theme of revenge for the murder of a loved one, such allusions are fitting. Apart from the “to be or not to be” quote, Earl also discusses how the passage of time can weaken one’s resolve for revenge, something Claudius discusses with Laertes in Act IV, Scene vii, lines 108-123:
I know love is begun by time, And that I see, in passages of proof, Time qualifies the spark and fire of it. There lives within the very flame of love A kind of wick or snuff that will abate it. And nothing is at a like goodness still. For goodness, growing to a pleurisy, Dies in his own too-much. That we would do, We should do when we would, for this “would” changes And hath abatements and delays as many As there are tongues, are hands, are accidents. And then this “should” is like a spendthrift sigh That hurts by easing.—But to the quick of th’ ulcer: Hamlet comes back. What would you undertake To show yourself in deed your father’s son More than in words?
After the contemplation of this need to act on revenge, Earl finds the motivation to do it. In the film, however, Leonard is, if anything, much too motivated for revenge, since he kills again, and again, and again. Leonard’s revenge truly “dies in his own too much.”
The short story begins with Earl waking up, looking up at a ceiling in an all-white room–a colour suggestive of innocence–in a mental institution. His innocence is that of one, in his oblivion, not knowing what’s happened to him. As his lacunae of lost memories are filled in through his notes and photos, the surroundings get darker: first, yellow, from having almost knocked over a lamp of incandescent light that floods the room with yellow, a symbol of jaundice, his bitterness over his predicament; then, he’s in a dark room where a tattoo artist is inking a message on his arm: I RAPED AND KILLED YOUR WIFE.
In contrast to the ‘innocent’ beginning of the short story, the film begins with Leonard already demonstrating his vengeful nastiness, shooting “Teddy” from the (as we later learn, mistaken) belief that he is his wife’s rapist and killer. A clue to who the real culprit is, however, can be gleaned from that tattoo just mentioned on Earl’s arm. Of course, Leonard’s changing of “I” to “John G.” simply demonstrates Leonard’s propensity for projection.
The movie’s beginning of the story with the film going backwards establishes the idea that the coloured parts are presented backwards, to help with audience comprehension. This retrograde motion also represents how what we perceive in the film is the other way around from what’s really happening.
Indeed, those characters we find trustworthy turn out to be untrustworthy, and–even more significantly–those we assume are bad turn out to be largely good. In this connection, the casting of Pantoliano–an actor we tend to see playing villains–is important in how this casting reinforces those prejudices in the audience, for later, we learn that he isn’t so bad after all.
Knowing that Leonard has written “DON’T BELIEVE HIS LIES” on the photo for “Teddy,” combined with his toothy grin (which hardly establishes trust), blinds us to the fact that “Teddy” is largely the only real friend Leonard has in the movie. He even openly admits that his real name isn’t “Teddy” but John G., for Gammell. His only dishonest moments are getting Leonard to kill some criminals for him, such as Jimmy Grantz (another “John” or “James G.”, played by Larry Holden), making Leonard think these guys are each the “John G.” he wants to get revenge on. “Teddy” just wants to get his hands on the money in the trunk of Jimmy’s car.
The fact is, undercover cop “Teddy” acts as a kind of psychoanalyst for Leonard, trying to get this forgetful fellow to engage in a bit of ‘know thyself.’ As we learn by the end of the movie, all of Leonard’s distrust of “Teddy” and “his lies” is really just an analysand‘s resistance.
Leonard’s search for his wife’s killer and rapist centres around finding a man named “John G.” or “James G.”, a name so ridiculously common that, convenient for forgetful Leonard, the anterograde amnesiac can keep searching for, killing, then searching for and killing again, and again, and again. One of my brothers is named John G. (in my posts about my family, I refer to him by the initial letter of his middle name, as I do for many of my family members): that’s just how common the name is, that my brother will remain essentially anonymous.
It isn’t just that Leonard forgets having gotten his revenge; it’s the very seeking of it, forever and ever, that satisfies him. The seeking is what gives his life meaning and purpose. Seeking revenge is Leonard’s objet petit a, the unattainable object-cause of desire, only this is not a desire of the sex drive of Eros, but one of Thanatos, the death drive.
The non-linear narrative, splitting up the continuity of the film into alternating colour scenes in reverse order and black-and-white scenes in chronological order, is symbolic of Leonard’s psychologically fragmented perception of the world and of himself. An investigation of what’s really happened to him, leading to the unified narrative at the end, puts the pieces of the puzzle together to reveal Leonard’s real problem.
The crucial element, in working out exactly what Leonard’s problem is, is in another man assumed to have anterograde amnesia: Samuel R. “Sammy” Jankis (played by Stephen Tobolowsky). Leonard’s job, originally, was investigating insurance claims, and Sammy, after being tested, is believed to have a psychological, rather than physical, reason not to be able to make new memories, according to Leonard.
As it turns out, though, “Teddy” in his all-too-blunt honesty tells Leonard that Sammy was simply a faker. Leonard’s ‘memories’ of Sammy repeatedly giving his wife insulin shots, one immediately after the other because she wants to test his memory, and leading to her death by overdose, are really projections of Leonard, after his diabetic wife’s rape and his knock on the head, giving her such a series of insulin shots, killing her.
This raises an important question: is Leonard the one whose inability to make new memories is for psychological, rather than physical, reasons? Has he, inspired by Sammy’s fakery, deluded himself into thinking that the knock he got on the head gave him anterograde amnesia? If so, why?
I’m guessing that he couldn’t bear to see his wife’s suffering, the pain on her face, after the rape. He couldn’t bear to remember her post-rape life, so Sammy inspired him to use his knock on the head, actually not strong enough to have caused brain damage, to give him an excuse to believe he can’t make new memories.
Added to this, his wife’s despair over what’s happened to both of them–from the intruders in their home–has made her suicidal. There’s the trauma of her rape, compounded by the fact that her husband is no longer the man he used to be. He, deep down in his unconscious, wants to put her out of her misery, too…and conveniently for him, he’ll ‘forget’ it. Of course, his repressed guilt that he’s his wife’s real killer drives his delusion of having anterograde amnesia even further.
For if his inability to make new memories is physical, we are left with a number of unanswered questions. He should remember nothing from when he got the hit on the head knocking him unconscious. How does he even know he has his “condition”? Every time a set of memories goes, he should feel as if he’s just woken up, with no idea of how he got from being knocked out in his bathroom after trying to stop his wife’s rapist, to wherever he is at the moment. He has no memory of anyone telling him he has anterograde amnesia.
Another thing: he speaks of how “everything fades” when the memory of a new moment vanishes from his mind. If he doesn’t remember any of these new memories, how does he know that they fade?
To go back to Jonathan Nolan’s short story, it also makes little sense how Earl, forgetting everything approximately every ten minutes, could ever get his revenge off the ground. Even with help, he’d have to spend every one of those ten minutes or so reviewing everything, and then how would he be able to use his, presumably, ever-so-few remaining seconds to advance his plot of revenge…only to have to write the new things all down, then have to spend more of that ever-so-little time reviewing more and more notes? Leonard would have comparable difficulties with his short periods of consciousness.
So, anterograde amnesia in this film should be understood as a metaphor for repression. Leonard isn’t really forgetting all these post-rape experiences: he’s simply pushing them deep down into his unconscious mind. As with all repressed material, though, the new experiences resurface in forms that are unrecognizable to him.
He speaks of a condition that he can’t possibly remember being told he has. He speaks of all new memories fading, when he shouldn’t even be able to remember the fading. What he calls ‘fading’ is really just the process of repression.
The unrecognizable form of his memory of giving his wife the all-too-quickly repeated insulin shots is his projection of that memory onto Sammy, when he has no way of knowing anything about Sammy supposedly giving the excessive shots to his wife.
Other little slips come out, suggesting that deep down, Leonard is remembering more than he lets on to. His angered, paranoid reaction to finding “Teddy” hanging out in the passenger’s seat of his car (Jimmy Grantz’s, actually) suggests that Leonard remembers how “Teddy” has reminded him of the uncomfortable truth that he killed his wife with the insulin, not her rapist, and that it wasn’t Sammy who overdosed his wife.
Leonard appears at Natalie’s house with a photo of Dodd. His asking her, angrily and full of suspicion, about who Dodd is suggests that he has a trace of the memory of her taunting him about how she’ll manipulate his inability to form new memories, of how she spoke abusively about what a “retard” he is, and about his “whore” of a wife, provoking him to hit her and put that cut on her lip.
In fact, when Natalie taunts him by saying his “whore” wife must have gotten a venereal disease from sexual contact with so many men behind his back, and that his getting the disease from her could have caused his anterograde amnesia, he finds this especially triggering. We can connect this trigger with his sticking of a phallic needle into his wife’s thigh, close to her own genitals; his giving her the excessive shots in this way, leading to her death, can be seen as a symbolic rape. This fact dovetails with that tattoo on Earl’s arm: he reads those words himself–I RAPED AND KILLED YOUR WIFE. Remember that Earl is both I and YOU.
Indeed, it’s interesting how, after Leonard kills Jimmy Grantz, he puts the body in the basement of the abandoned building, this basement being symbolic of Leonard’s unconscious; this placing the body there is symbolic of repression. Leonard also puts on Jimmy’s suit and takes his car, symbolically identifying himself with the man he imagines is his wife’s rapist and murderer. We see Leonard in that suit for the vast majority of the coloured sequences in the film, implying that he has been the real killer all along.
Leonard gets triggered when he hears dying Jimmy whisper Sammy’s name; it shouldn’t otherwise matter, since as “Teddy” points out, Leonard tells everybody about Sammy. The implication behind him telling everybody about Sammy is that it is a circuitous kind of confession of his own guilt in killing his wife.
There’s no reason to believe “Teddy” is lying about everything he reveals to Leonard about what really happened to him and his wife, she who survived the attack and therefore wasn’t killed by the intruder in their home. “Teddy” has nothing to gain by lying about any of that; in fact, the ugly truths he reveals, too painful for Leonard to face, ironically cause Leonard to write “DON’T BELIEVE HIS LIES” on his photo for “Teddy,” which in turn ultimately leads to Leonard killing “Teddy.” The fact is, Leonard is the real liar, and he’s projecting his mendacity onto “Teddy.”
The real reason none of his photos or notes can adequately replace his memory is that they’re static: they don’t flow with time, since reality is fluid, not static, so they lack the crucial context needed for their meaning to be correctly interpreted. This lack of context, nonetheless, is convenient for Leonard, since he doesn’t really want to remember, anyway. His notes and photos fool him into thinking he’s remembering what’s essential, but this of course is nonsense. He talks about “facts” being better than memory, but static facts without context are useless.
That ending of the film, when he consciously decides to forget the ugly truth that “Teddy” has told him, is representative of what his unconscious mind does after every so many minutes of each new, post-rape experience. He forgets new things not because he can’t remember them, but because he doesn’t want to. This last scene simply presents that unwillingness to remember–an unwillingness that pervades the whole film–in its most blatant, naked form.
To get back to Jonathan Nolan’s short story again, the narrator, just before the end, says something significant: “Time is an absurdity. an abstraction. The only thing that matters is this moment. This moment a million times over.” In the paragraph before this quote, he says, “Time is three things for most people [i.e., past, present, and future], but for you, for us, just one. A singularity. One moment. This moment.”
These passages remind me of how Buddhists speak of the eternal NOW as the only one time that has any real meaning or existence. The past and future are just mental constructs with no material validity. If we could just ground ourselves in the NOW, and not ruminate over our unhappy pasts or worry about our futures, we’d be happy–we’d have peace.
That Earl would speak of having only the present to live in, with no sense of moving time, always forgetting the (recent) past, he seems to be living a perverse version of this Buddhist wisdom. Of course, neither he nor Leonard will ever, or can ever, attain peace of mind.
Now, his past isn’t completely in a state of oblivion–he still remembers everything up until his wife’s rape, and as I’ve explained, it’s not that he’s forgetting everything after her rape, but rather he’s repressing the post-rape memories–and this lack of complete oblivion makes all the difference. These voids in his mind, from her rape onwards, are repressed traumas that make up the undifferentiated, inexpressible psychic world of what Lacan called the Real.
As I’ve arguedelsewhere, the Real–or Bion‘s O–can be traumatic or blissful, depending on one’s attitude towards it. The Buddhist experiences the oblivion of past and future, focusing on the present, as blissful because he lets of of his ego. Earl/Leonard, on the other hand, experiences this oblivion of the Real as traumatic because, apart from not completely forgetting the past, he’s still attached to his egoistic experience of the world.
After all, the whole point of attaining bliss, peace of mind, is to extinguish desire, craving, attachment; but Earl/Leonard is doing the opposite. Our forgetful protagonist not only desires revenge, but is perpetuating the seeking of that revenge by creating an unsolvable mystery… the ever-elusive identity of “John G.” His murderous objet petit a can never be extinguished, because it can never be attained.
In fact, the key to ending his trauma is precisely to remember it, to recall it in all of its excruciating brutality. Yet Earl/Leonard is really just an extreme version of all of us. None of us wants to remember what has hurt us, so we conveniently try to forget our traumas, or we only selectively remember them, cherry-picking what’s comfortable for us and discarding what isn’t.
Our therapists tell us we’ve got to feel the pain in order to heal it…but who wants to do that? Leonard certainly doesn’t want to; that’s why he burns those photos of himself (smiling upon achieving his revenge…or so he thought) and Jimmy. He burns them in the fire of a desire he never wishes to blow out, because Thanatos is his new life.
Denise Charlton, 38, had gone through quite a transformation over the years. Had she, at the age of eighteen, seen what kind of person she’d become twenty years later, she’d have never believed her eyes.
Still, the transformation did occur. It occurred out of sheer necessity. There was simply no way she could have sustained herself by continuing with her juvenile delinquency. Her violent ways had to stop.
It had all started with her abusive drunk of a father, an ongoing problem she’d known as far back as she could remember. As a little girl, she’d had to endure seeing that piece of shit get pissed and beat her mom; little Denise would get plenty of hits from him herself.
Now, when he attacked her, her trauma response wasn’t freeze, as was the case with her timid mother. She hated the way her mom was too afraid to fight back, so Denise was resolved never to deal with her dad in that way. Though the beatings she’d get were far worse than those her mother got, and though Denise always lost her fights with her old man, at least she made sure that bastard got a few dents on his own body, too.
Her fight response became her way of dealing with everybody. She was determined to let the whole world know she wasn’t going to take shit from anybody, and if anybody was stupid enough to give her shit about anything, she’d fuck him up good and proper.
Because of her attitude, she got into a lot of fights in the schoolyard…and no, she wasn’t afraid to fight boys, either. She’d fight with people at school, on the streets, and at any part-time job she ever-so-briefly had. She was a potential menace–Denise the Menace, everyone called her–to anyone who had the bad luck of crossing her path, and she was damned proud of that.
She started getting in trouble with the law, typically charged with assault and battery, at around the age of fifteen. Sometimes she’d get caught vandalizing–throwing rocks in windows, spray-painting rude words on buildings–or there was the occasional petty theft. But usually it was her and her gang of bad girls beating people up, out of sheer boredom.
Well, one night, months after the disappearance of Alexa, Megan, and Tiffany, Denise took her violent ways too far. That night, she and her gang assaulted a middle-aged woman and put her in the hospital. Denise was the ringleader, and the one who gave the woman the worst of the beatings, so she got the harshest punishment: five years imprisonment.
During her first year in prison, she stewed in a rage, angry at how unfair the world had always been to her. She got into plenty of fights with the other female convicts. But early into her second year, after a nasty fight that got her face bloodied and her ass in solitary confinement for a week, she found herself forced to rethink her life.
Though the preaching of the prison priest only made her roll her eyes, he did say one thing that made her reflect: “Anger is the enemy. Anger is a poison. If you don’t cure it, your hate will kill you one day.”
Indeed, she thought as she sat all alone in that room and sulked. Look at where my hatred and anger have led me. I have to stop fighting all the time. Maybe Mom was right to have been such a wimp.
She resolved, once she got out of solitary confinement, to make efforts to control her hostility to the world. Naturally, it was hard at first: she got into a few fights after getting out, but they were fewer, and she was pulling her punches for the first time.
After a few months, she was surprised with herself how rarely she was being even verbally abusive. The others in the prison were even more surprised, and after another year and a half of good behaviour on her part, she was considered for early release.
She had a parole hearing, and after making it clear how sincerely remorseful she was for not only having beaten up that woman, but also for all the hurt she’d needlessly caused others, she was released halfway through the fourth year of her sentence.
She found work–menial labour, but it was enough to get by. Her parole officer never had any complaints about her. She continued to be amazed at her transformation.
A few years later, she met a man, Jack Drew, a nice man, totally the opposite of her father. Jack was gentle, he never drank, and he managed to revive a belief in her mind that there actually are good people in the world. After two years of dating, they got married.
She was thirty when she gave birth to their son, Jameson. She lay in bed at the hospital, and when the nurse put the newborn baby in her arms, and her husband was standing by her, tears ran down her cheeks. She’d not only escaped the hell of hate and anger; she’d entered the world of love.
Notions of wanting to hurt people had become alien to her on this first gazing into her baby’s eyes. Now she felt only nurturing instincts, the drive to help, to give comfort, to remove hurt.
Again, she was amazed at how much she’d changed.
Years went by, and she was a dedicated mother. Taking care of little Jameson was a joy. Even when he was difficult, and outright annoying–which was not infrequent–her first instinct was almost always patience and kindness, rarely anger. He’d have to have been an extraordinary brat to make her as much as raise her voice.
So one morning, 38-year-old Denise was with her eight-year-old boy in the living room while Jack was at work. He was playing with his Star Wars action figures while she was watching TV.
He was imitating light sabre noises as he had Rey and Kylo Ren fighting. Really getting into it, he was also getting really loud.
“Keep it down, honey,” she said. “I can’t hear the TV over you.”
He kept at it at the same volume.
She sighed and said, “Fine.” She picked up the remote and turned up the volume. He made louder light sabre noises.
She sighed again, but before she could open her mouth to tell him to play quieter, a commercial came on. She decided to get a drink from the kitchen.
Before she got up, though, she looked over at Jameson. The sight of her cute little boy, so happy playing with his toys, disarmed her annoyance at his loudness. She got up and walked over to him.
“Look out!” she said playfully, her tickling fingers poised for attack. “The Emperor is going to zap you, Rey!”
She got her fingers on Jameson’s little belly and began tickling. He screamed and giggled, dropping his action figures.
“Stop!” he yelped. “Mom, stop!” He giggled and screamed some more.
She stopped, then gave him a big hug and a kiss on his chubby left cheek. “Want a Pepsi from the fridge?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said, nodding with enthusiasm.
“What’s the magic word?”
“OK, one Pepsi, coming right up.” She got up and went over to the kitchen. He returned to his loud light sabre noises.
She stood by the fridge, and as she opened the door, she looked back, with a smile, into the living room at her boy.
“I love you,” she whispered, then reached into the fridge for a Pepsi, and she got an orange Fanta for herself.
Someone else was gazing at her boy, and at her, but this person was frowning, not smiling. This person was invisible to Denise and Jameson, but were they to have seen this person, they’d have seen disheveled hair, pale skin, red eyes, and a tattered black dress.
Gesang der Jünglinge is also an early example of the use of spatial effects in music; it was originally meant to be played in five-channel sound, but this was reduced to four, then mixed to mono and later to stereo for commercial recording release. Similarly, it was originally meant to have seven sections, but it was truncated to six due to time constraints.
In 1954, Stockhausen wanted to compose a mass for electronic sounds and voices. He was hoping to have the piece played in the Cologne Cathedral, but his request for permission was refused on the grounds that having loudspeakers in a church would be inappropriate. So instead of composing the mass, Stockhausen created Gesang der Jünglinge.
II: Sound Continua and the Unity of Opposites
The three types of material used to make the electronic sounds are sine tones, impulses or “clicks” (i.e., short, staccato-like sounds), and filtered white noise. Paralleled to these electronically generated sounds are three kinds of sound made with the recorded voice of the boy soprano: vowels (corresponding with the sine tones), fricatives and sibilants (corresponding with the filtered noise), and plosives (corresponding with the impulses). Each of these goes on a continuum ranging from the purest or simplest to the most complex.
What’s particularly fascinating about Stockhausen’s meticulous manipulating of these sound continua (structured statistically) is how he managed to make seamless links between vocal and electronic sounds, as well as seamless links between, on the one hand, the electronic sounds–from sine tones to impulsions to filtered white noise–and, on the other hand, the vocal sounds–from vowels to fricatives/sibilants to plosive consonants.
Gesang der Jünglinge, therefore, demonstrates in musical form the unity between the opposing worlds of electronically generated sound and the sounds of the human voice (as recorded and manipulated in the manner of musique concrète). Added to this unity in diversity is Stockhausen’s total organization of all the other musical parameters, total serialism, which is an expansion of Arnold Schoenberg‘s twelve-tone technique (the serializing of the twelve semitones) to a formal ordering of such elements as frequencies, durations, timbres, etc. To hear such music, it might sound chaotic, but nothing could be more precisely organized; thus, through his use of total serialism, Stockhausen also achieved the paradoxical unity of “chaos” and order.
III: Catholic Mysticism
Now, a discussion of the unity of opposites as manifested in this composition can only meaningfully be approached through an acknowledging of Stockhausen’s sense of Catholic mysticism. This means addressing the text sung by young Protschka, which is derived from Song of the Three Children, verses 35-51, from the Apocrypha. In the Bible, the entire set of verses is meant to follow the Book of Daniel, chapter three, which tells the story of three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who are thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to bow to a giant, golden idol of King Nebuchadnezzar; God saves them from the flames, so they sing praises to Him.
Original text in German:
Preiset (Jubelt) den(m) Herrn, ihr Werke alle des Hernn— lobt ihn und über alles erhebt ihn in Ewigkeit.
Preiset den Herrn, ihr Engel des Herrn— preiset den Herrn, ihr Himmel droben.
Preiset den Herrn, ihr Wasser alle, die über den Himmeln sind— preiset den Herrn, ihr Scharen alle des Herrn.
Preiset den Herrn, Sonne und Mond— preiset den Herrn, des Himmels Sterne.
Preiset den Herrn, aller Regen und Tau— preiset den Herrn, alle Winde.
Preiset den Herrn, Feuer und Sommersglut— preiset den Herrn, Kälte und starrer Winter.
Preiset den Herrn, Tau und des Regens Fall— preiset den Herrn, Eis und Frost.
Preiset den Herrn, Reif und Schnee— preiset den Herrn, Nächte und Tage.
Preiset den Herrn, Licht und Dunkel— preiset den Herrn, Blitze und Wolken.
Original text in English:
O all ye works of the Lord— praise (exalt) ye the Lord above all forever.
O ye angels of the Lord, praise ye the Lord— O ye heavens, praise ye the Lord.
O all ye waters that are above heaven, praise ye the Lord— O all ye hosts of the Lord, praise ye the Lord.
O ye sun and moon, praise ye the Lord— O ye stars of heaven, praise ye the Lord.
O every shower and dew, praise ye the Lord— O all ye winds, praise ye the Lord.
O ye fire and summer’s heat, praise ye the Lord— O ye cold and hard winter, praise ye the Lord.
O ye dew and fall of rain, praise ye the Lord— O ye ice and frost, praise ye the Lord.
O ye hoar frost and snow, praise ye the Lord— O ye nights and days, praise ye the Lord.
O ye light and darkness, praise ye the Lord— O ye lightning and clouds, praise ye the Lord.
IV: Garbled Words
Now, you wouldn’t know that this text was being sung (apart from the obvious refrain, Preiset den Herrn, or “Praise the Lord,” which is heard at least once in all six sections of the piece) to hear how it’s presented in the recording, with neither the printed text in front of you nor fluency in German. These varying levels of comprehensibility vs incomprehensibility–seven, to be exact, which range from the one extreme to the other– are due to Stockhausen’s having cut up the text into such fragments as scrambled words, scrambled syllables, and even scrambled phonemes.
His clever use of such permutations of vocal sounds was the result of his study of phonetics with Werner Meyer-Eppler at the University of Bonn. The vocal sound permutations, recall, have been placed on continua paralleling analogous electronic sounds, to get that seamless sense of transition from the former kinds of sounds to the latter, and vice versa. So in the juxtaposition of fragmented words, syllables, and phonemes with these seamless transitions between vocal and electronic sounds, we have yet another instance of the unity of opposites in Gesang der Jünglinge, here a unity of brokenness and smoothness.
V: The Unity of Opposites in the Biblical Story
To explore further this idea of the unity of opposites, let’s recall the story. The three youths have angered the king by refusing to bow before his idol, so he has them thrown into the fiery furnace to be burned alive. Their faith in God, however, saves them, and so though they’re engulfed in the flames, they are completely unscathed. They emerge praising God in the manner shown in the text above.
What’s interesting about them being thrown into a fiery furnace is how the image immediately invites comparison to being thrown into hell, into the Lake of Fire (Revelation 19:20, 20:10, 20:14–15, and 21:8). Damnation by faith in God, or salvation by blaspheming, as it were, the Neo-Babylonian god-king? Deliverance from the flames while sitting among them? These paradoxes of heaven in hell, and of hell in heaven, are pregnant with meaning.
Connected with these paradoxes in the story is one manifested in the vocal harmony at one point in the first section of Gesang der Jünglinge. We hear the recordings of Protschka singing a dense chord of the word Ihn (“Him,” referring to God). This chord is sustained for a while, though some of the notes fade in and out, at the end with only two left in the interval of the tritone. Stockhausen would have known that the tritone is the diabolus in musica, the “devil in music,” and he therefore at least unconsciously had Ihn, for God, represented musically this way. Is God the Devil? I’m sure he never meant to blaspheme the object of his religious devotion, but my point is that, in this moment, Stockhausen the mystic was acknowledging, if only unconsciously, more spiritual paradoxes. Like heaven in hell, it’s more of the unity of opposites.
It shouldn’t be too shocking to speak of God having both good and evil sides. After all, Isaiah 45:7 says, “I form the light and create darkness: I make peace, and I create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” We can connect this verse with the last part of the text Stockhausen uses in Gesang der Jünglinge, which says, Preiset den Herrn, Licht und Dunkel, or “Praise the Lord, light and darkness.” In the text, the three youths sing of how everything God has created should praise Him. Such elements include the light and the dark…symbolically, good and evil.
VI: Resolving the Paradoxes
We must now try to make sense of these paradoxes, to sublate the dialectical contradictions of heaven and hell, God and Satan, salvation and damnation. To do this, we must be able to imagine the mental state of the three youths as they are being taken to the fiery furnace.
They may have righteousness and conviction of their belief in God, but none of this means that they’re going into the fiery furnace with smiles on their faces and relaxed heartbeats. We mustn’t assume they’re in a state of total blissful calm. They have faith in God…but is their faith sufficient to please Him? They have no way of being sure of this, and as Paul wrote, “he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” (Romans 14:23)
There’s always some doubt, even among the most faithful. Just as all of the sounds used in Gesang der Jünglinge are on continua, so are faith and doubt on a continuum. The three youths would have feared that any doubt in their minds, however small, might have been enough to cause God to abandon them in the flames. Contemplation of such a possibility must have been terrifying to them; such terror is part of the true test of faith.
This fear would have been their hell in the flames; and yet when they realized that God wasn’t letting the fire burn them, they’d experienced heaven in the metaphorical hell of the fiery furnace. Danna Nolan Fewell said, “we hoped for deliverance from the fire; we had not expected deliverance within the fire […] God doesn’t extinguish the fire but joins them in it.” (Danna Nolan Fewell) So in this moment, we have heaven in hell, salvation in damnation, and even God in Satan’s (metaphorical) dwelling. Recall that among the trio of singing youths is a fourth “like a son of God,” suggesting an angelic presence in that hellish dwelling.
VII: Stockhausen’s Suffering
Stockhausen was inspired by these Biblical texts because he found himself identifying with the three youths. Just as they suffered and prevailed, so had he, though of course in very different ways.
WWII under the Nazi regime was difficult for young Karlheinz in many ways. His mother, having suffered from mental health issues, was deemed a “useless eater” by the Nazis, and therefore forcibly euthanized by them through Aktion T4. Later, his father, as a soldier during the war, was killed. Perhaps most traumatic of all, as a youth during WWII young Karlheinz had to do work as a stretcher bearer in Bedburg; he found himself often in close contact with cadavers!
Apart from these trying experiences in the war, Stockhausen would later have to endure negative receptions of his experimental, and therefore challenging, music. Still, he grew from all of these difficulties and became a stronger man, in his estimation, because of them. In these ways, he could be said to have gone through his own fiery furnace, and since then his faith in God grew stronger, and he sang to God, in his own way, through not only Gesang der Jünglinge but also such other mystical musical works as his gargantuan opera cycle, Licht, of which a full performance requires no less than 29 hours.
VIII: Heaven in Hell
To get back to my point about the paradox of heaven in hell, one way we can interpret the meaning, or lack thereof, in Stockhausen’s cutting up of the text into fragments of words, syllables, and phonemes is to think of the resulting extents of incomprehensibility as showing the difficulty, or impossibility, of verbalizing a traumatic experience. As I said above, even though the three youths are physically unharmed, they are still terrified by the possibility of being so harmed.
This inability to put trauma into words is part of what Lacan was talking about in his conception of the Real. The psychology of the Real is an inexpressible experience of non-differentiation. Gesang der Jünglinge achieves, by means of those sound continua I described above, a fluid sense of unity, a sense of non-differentiation between vocal and electronic sound.
Now, as I’ve written elsewhere, the non-differentiated unity that Lacan called the Real is not necessarily all hellish and traumatic. Like Wilfred Bion‘s O, this unity can be a heavenly, blissful experience, depending on one’s attitude to it. The difference lies in whether or not one is capable of, or willing to accept, a giving up of one’s ego. The three youths, as I see it, could and would give up that attachment, and so they were saved.
Still, it was a terrifying experience for them, as Stockhausen’s experiences of WWII were for him, so even though the youths are singing God’s praises through the harmonized chorus of Protschka’s angelic, overdubbed voice, the voice of a child (recall Luke 18:17), the recent terror of the fire makes articulation of those praises next to impossible, save Preiset den Herrn.
IX: Heaven and Hell in the Music
Another way to sublate the thesis (heaven) with its negation (fiery furnace as metaphorical hell) is to consider a number of ascending and descending electronic motions in the piece, as well as combinations of such ascents and descents. Samuel Andreyev, in his analysis (link above in the introduction), mentions these at around 30:00-31:08 in his video.
These ascending/descending impulse complexes can be seen to symbolize movements up to heaven or descents to hell (literal or figurative). Section A of the piece, going from 0:00 to 1:10, begins with an ascending impulse complex, a swarm-like flurry of impulsions of varying pitches, but nonetheless moving in an upward path.
At the apex of this ascension, arriving at heaven, so to speak, we hear the angelic voice of the boy soprano singing jubelt (“exalt”), the two syllables sung in a descending perfect fourth. Immediately before this word, though, we hear two soft impulsions of an ascending tritone–again, the diabolus in musica juxtaposed with an angelic exalting of God.
Next comes a chorus of overdubs of the boy’s voice, quite unintelligible except for the word alles, and interrupted twice by electronic sounds. Then we hear jubelt Ihn (“exalt Him”), the syllables sung in an ascending minor third (or is it a microtone between that interval and a major second?) and a descending minor ninth. Section A ends with that dense chord in which the sustained Ihn is sung, as discussed above: such a complex chord with notes fading in and out, and ending with a soft fadeout of the aforementioned tritone. Ihn–God, that is–is a complex, mysterious being, requiring no less than an extremely complex mass of sound to represent Him.
Early in Section B, we clearly hear Preiset den Herrn (the singing of Herrn ending with a descending tritone…that diabolus again!). We can also make out the word Scharen (“hosts”). Preiset den Herrn is soon heard again, with the same notes as before…including that tritone, and bear in mind that obvious instances of repetition are rare in Gesang der Jünglinge.
X: Juxtaposed Opposites in the Text
Though it is uncertain if the apocryphal Biblical text, on which Stockhausen’s German translation is based, was originally composed in Hebrew or Aramaic, since what exists of it is only in Greek, Syriac, or Latin translations, it does nonetheless have the hallmarks of ancient Hebrew Biblical poetry, namely, its use of parallelism (e.g., the “praise ye the Lord” refrain; also, “sun and moon” with “stars of heaven,” “O every shower and dew” with “O all ye winds”; and parallels of opposition, such as “fire and summer’s heat” with “cold and hard winter,” “dew and fall of rain” with “ice and frost,” and “nights and days” with “light and darkness”). [See also Carmi, pages 58-59.]
These oppositions are of particular interest in how they support my interpretation of Gesang der Jünglinge as a musical, mystical unifying of opposites. Sometimes, such pairings of opposites can be deemed merisms, meant to express the idea of not only the two extremes, but also everything in between. Noteworthy Biblical examples of this are in the early chapters of Genesis (e.g., “God created the heaven and earth,” meaning He created the whole universe; or “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” meaning knowledge of everything, that is, from the best to the worst). It would thus be reasonable to assume that the text’s references to extreme winter and summer weather are merisms for all the seasons of the year, from hottest to coldest; and “light and darkness” includes all the tints and shades in between–unifying continua of opposites.
These unifying continua of opposites in the text are, of course, paralleled in those in the musical structure and in those ranging back and forth between vocal and electronic sound. For this reason, it’s logical to regard the pairs of opposites in the text as merisms.
XI: The Electronic Sounds as Fire
Now, if Protschka’s superimposed vocal recordings are meant to represent the three youths, then it’s reasonable to hear the electronic sounds as symbolic of the boys’ surroundings: remember that the four speakers playing the music surround the audience, making them feel as if they are with the three youths in the fiery furnace.
These surroundings that the electronic sounds represent include the metallic casing of the furnace (i.e., some of the electronic sounds suggest the resonant ringing of voices bouncing off the metal–see 2:28-2:32 of this recording for a brief example of what I mean). The resonance of the boys’ voices inside the furnace can also be heard through the use of reverb on Protschka’s voice from time to time. And, most importantly, the electronic sounds can represent the sound of the flames.
Now, the electronic sounds don’t generally imitate the crackling sound of fire; I’d say, instead, that they simply represent it. As for those ascending and descending impulse complexes, they do tend to have a bubbling sound, suggestive of boiling liquids, and therefore associative with scalding heat.
To bring out this association more clearly, recall how, in the middle of the piece (about 6:20-6:40 in this recording), Protschka’s voice, one voice alone, sings the disjointed syllables of Kälte und starer Winter (“cold and hard winter”), with largely no electronic accompaniment at all (especially from und onwards), suggesting the loneliness and desolation of winter. No heat.
XII: On the Unity of Opposites…Again
The opposites of Sonne und Mond (“sun and moon”) are heard clearly, as are those of aller Regen und Tau (“every shower and dew”). These are the opposite lights of nights and days (Nächte und Tage, heard later; and while the moon isn’t technically a light, back in Biblical times, it would have been regarded as a “lesser light“), and of great waters above (rain) and lesser waters below (dew).
We can also clearly hear the opposites of Feuer und Sommersglut (“fire and summer’s heat”), as against the above-mentioned Kälte und starer Winter. Tau und des Regens Fall (“dew and rainfall”), as opposing Eis und Frost (“ice and frost”), are also heard clearly; melted vs frozen water. I can make out Dunkel (“darkness”) but not Licht (“light”); still, in all of these opposites generally, we have plenty of their implied unity via juxtaposition.
Now, another point should be made about this unity of opposites, be it implied or explicit. Though Christianity is generally understood to be dualistic in nature (a more moderate dualism than that of Gnosticism or especially Manichaeism, but sufficiently so in a general sense), none of this precludes the possibility, at least, of unifying these dualities while remaining essentially Christian. Stockhausen’s Catholicism could allow this without him having to make any syncretist forays into, say, Eastern mysticism. There are the dualisms of God vs Satan, good vs evil, and the spirit vs the flesh, but as George K Haggett says in his blog post on Gesang der Jünglinge, “In Catholic theology, the soul–a person’s incorporeal essence–is not as dichotomized from the body as it might be in popular imagination.”
Recall that Christ came and died in the flesh; the more radically dualistic Gnostics and Manichaeans were the ones who could not accept His having been crucified, and so they followed an alternative tradition of someone else being substituted for Him on the Cross, a tradition that even appeared in the Koran (see also note 663 in Abdullah Yusuf Ali‘s translation). Furthermore, at Mass, one takes Communion, eating the transubstantiated body of Christ.
In the concluding paragraph of Haggett’s blog post, he says, “the body and the soul are a one-ness, the more-than-integrated sacred and profane; they are sanctified flesh and blood, both breathed into life and breathing through it.” Recall that God breathed a very physical breath into Adam, and he became a living soul. (Genesis 2:7)
XIII: Conclusion: What Can This Piece Mean for a Secular Audience?
The unity of body and soul can be extended to a unity of materialist and idealist dialectics, too. This leads our discussion in a new direction: the religious, spiritual meaning of Gesang der Jünglinge has been dealt with; but is there a way this piece of music can be relevant to a secular audience? I believe there is.
Now, before I go into my secular interpretation of the piece, it should be acknowledged that Stockhausen was essentially a liberal; he was no staunch leftist by any stretch of the imagination. His controversial remarks about 9/11 may have angered conservatives, but his quip that the attacks were “the greatest work of art that exists for the whole Cosmos” was misunderstood (as a work of art of Lucifer, he meant a great evil work of art). Still, his hostility to Nazi imperialism is enough, I think, to warrant the interpretation below; for even if he himself wasn’t an anti-imperialist in his life, this piece in itself can easily be seen as such.
If we consider Nebuchadnezzar and his idol as representative of imperialism, and the ancient Judaeans in the Babylonian captivity as being oppressed under that imperialism, then the three youths’ refusal to bow before the idol is an anti-imperialist, revolutionary act, rather like any country today that refuses to bow before US/NATO imperialism (e.g., Russia, China, Venezuela, Bolivia, etc.). Remember that the idol is golden, sixty cubits tall (Daniel 3:1); as such, it is a symbol not only of the imperialist authority of a king, but also of the wealth of the ruling class, be this class the ancient slave-masters of such civilizations as the Babylonian empire, or the subsequent feudal landlords of Europe, or the capitalist class of today.
Anyone who dares challenge the authority of imperial rule, be it past or present, will be put to the test, as the three young men are, and will suffer persecution. When they are put to this test, though, they must not lose their nerve. Though the three youths are afraid, as they’re tied up and thrown into the fiery furnace, they keep their faith in God, just as the anti-imperialist of today, regardless of his or her religious beliefs (or lack of them), must keep faith in the eventual achievement of the revolutionary cause.
Just as the religious may have doubts that God will intervene and save them, so do secular-minded revolutionaries have doubts that they’ll succeed in overthrowing the ruling class. When in doubt, they should recall Rosa Luxemburg‘s words: “Before a revolution happens, it is perceived as impossible; after it happens, it is seen as having been inevitable.”
So, just as the three youths sing their praises to God while surrounded in flames that don’t touch them, so were the Russian workers and peasants in 1917 thrilled to be rid of tsarist rule, and rid of continued involvement in WWI; so were the Cubans in 1959 rejoicing over having removed that butcher Batista from power; and so were the Vietnamese joyful over having ousted the French colonialists.
Of course, just as the rejoicing three boys continue to be surrounded in flames (and the Judaeans continue to be held in Babylonia), so did the RSFSR have to fight off the capitalist White Army during the Russian Civil War; so has Cuba had to endure the cruel US economic embargo; and so did the Vietnamese have to confront the US army. Still, all three prevailed in these struggles, and while times are particularly dark for anti-imperialism now, we can listen to Gesang der Jünglinge, and the recordings of that boy’s sweet, angelic voice, for inspiration as the flames of oppression draw closer.