Analysis of ‘Central Park in the Dark’ and ‘The Unanswered Question’

I: Introduction

Charles Ives‘s Two Contemplations (1908) are his Central Park in the Dark (1906) and The Unanswered Question (1908), though Central Park in the Dark has also been grouped with his Hallowe’en and The Pond in “Three Outdoor Scenes.” Central Park in the Dark and The Unanswered Question embody many of the avant-garde musical ideas that Ives famously toyed with, independently of the European experimentation that took place often in the years following the completion of these two compositions.

In fact, Ives’s own innovations had precedent in the curious musical experimentation of his father, George Ives, who was fascinated with the clash of harmony heard in, for example, the polytonal effect of two marching bands playing completely different pieces while passing each other on the street. Young Charles picked up on his father’s then-highly-unusual open-mindedness about the different possibilities of musical expression, and he incorporated these ideas in his own compositions.

Indeed, independently of Stravinsky and Darius Milhaud, Ives made use of polytonality and polyrhythms. Before Bartók, Ives composed agonizing dissonances. Before Henry Cowell, Ives used tone clusters. Without any cognizance of such pieces as, say, Schoenberg‘s 1906-7 Chamber Symphony No. 1, Ives used quartal and quintal harmony (in Central Park in the Dark, as we’ll see). Independently of Alois Hába, Ives composed music with quarter tones. And before Stockhausen, Ives experimented with spatial effects.

The first of these two pieces I’ll be looking at was originally called A Contemplation of Nothing Serious or Central Park in the Dark in “The Good Old Summer Time”. In contrast, the second of these was originally called A Contemplation of a Serious Matter or The Unanswered Perennial Question. Ives wrote detailed notes explaining the programmatic meaning of these pieces. As to whether either of these pieces deal with matters that are or aren’t serious, I’ll give my opinion on that later.

Both pieces are scored for chamber orchestra, allowing for at least some degree of variation in the instrumentation: for example, the two pianos in Central Park in the Dark can be a player piano and a grand piano; while in The Unanswered Question, the woodwind quartet can be all flutes, or two flutes, an oboe, and a clarinet. Both pieces have string sections, each playing a repeated progression representing “silence,” a kind of static music that hovers in the background, while the other instruments (in The Unanswered Question, the four woodwinds and a solo trumpet; in Central Park in the Dark, piccolo, flute, oboe, E-flat (B-flat) clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion, and the two pianos) play independently of the strings, and to a great extent at least, independently of each other, culminating in a huge chaos of dissonance.

So, though the two pieces are understood to be programmatically opposed to each other, there is actually much that is paralleled between them, suggesting (in my opinion, at least) that the opposition of “Serious” and “Nothing Serious” is a dialectical opposition.

Here is a link (with the score) to Central Park in the Dark, here is a link (also with the score) to The Unanswered Question, and here is a link to Samuel Andreyev‘s analysis of The Unanswered Question.

II: Central Park in the Dark

Ives’s programmatic notes for the piece are as follows:

“This piece purports to be a picture-in-sounds of the sounds of nature and of happenings that men would hear some thirty or so years ago (before the combustion engine and radio monopolized the earth and air), when sitting on a bench in Central Park on a hot summer night.”

and

“The strings represent the night sounds and silent darkness – interrupted by sounds from the Casino over the pond – of street singers coming up from the Circle singing, in spots, the tunes of those days – of some “night owls” from Healy’s whistling the latest of the Freshman March – the “occasional elevated”, a street parade, or a “break-down” in the distance – of newsboys crying “uxtries” – of pianolas having a ragtime war in the apartment house “over the garden wall”, a street car and a street band join in the chorus – a fire engine, a cab horse runs away, lands “over the fence and out”, the wayfarers shout – again the darkness is heard – an echo over the pond – and we walk home.”

As much as Ives’s notes insist that the story, if you will, of this piece is of something trifling and even pleasantly amusing, I can’t help hearing in that string arrangement, “the night sounds and silent darkness,” an eerie, foreboding quality, as if dangers are lurking in the dark. Indeed, that string arrangement is a brilliantly experimental progression using dissonant, non-triadic harmony.

The string progression is, for the most part, in parallel motion, with a number of notable exceptions, some of which I’ll point out. Both the cellos and contrabasses are playing a sustained A-flat for two bars before going up to a B-flat, then the cellos tend to follow the intervallic structures of the upper strings, often moving in parallel motion with them, while the contrabasses stick to B-flat for three bars, then go down to F-sharp for three bars, then to E-flat for the final two bars of the cycle before going back to A-flat.

The first and second violins and the violas play, for the first two bars, stacks of pairs of augmented triads, starting at the bottom with a stack of D and F-sharp and B-flat, and on top of it, E, G-sharp, and C. All of these notes together, along with the A-flats in the cellos and contrabasses (enharmonic with the G-sharp), make up the whole-tone scale.

These violins and violas move up and down by minor thirds in parallel motion over the course of these first two bars, thus returning to the notes I mentioned in the previous paragraph before switching from augmented triads to stacks of perfect fourths, going from the third measure to the end of the fifth measure.

The cellos join the violins and violas in making these stacks of perfect fourths, going mostly in parallel motion until the sixth measure, when the intervals change to eerily dissonant stacks of tritones, starting with a stack of G-flat and C-natural (cellos), G and C-sharp (violas), and G-sharp and D-natural (second violins), with the first violins playing a high A. Each pair of tritones is also a minor ninth apart from the one above or below it, creating especially sharp discords.

These tritones of second violins, violas, and cellos move mostly in parallel motion, culminating in a chromatic ascension topped with the first violins of F-sharp, G, G-sharp, and A-natural that resolves to stacks of perfect fifths in the ninth bar, starting with a stack of E-flat (contrabasses), B-flat (cellos), F (violas), C-natural and G-natural (second violins), and D-natural and that A in the first violins that was tied over from the previous bar.

The perfect fifth stacks continue for the ninth and tenth bars, in mostly parallel motion without the contrabasses, which sustain the E-flat. The very last high note of the first violin pairing, a D-flat, isn’t a perfect fifth from the note under it, a B, because this D-flat must flow comfortably by a half-step to the C of the first high note of the first violins, to return us to the beginning of the cycle, with the augmented triad stacks.

So what we get in this progression in the strings is generally an expansion of intervals from augmented triads (i.e., major thirds), to perfect fourths, to tritones, and to perfect fifths, then back to the augmented triads to begin the cycle all over again. These strings–which, recall, “represent the night sounds and silent darkness,” notated ppp–in their cyclical expansion of intervals and mostly parallel motion, represent a sense of sameness underneath all the surface changes about to be heard in the woodwinds, pianos, brass, and percussion.

Just as with the stasis of the strings in The Unanswered Question, these strings would seem to represent a spiritual mystery incomprehensible to the senses, or to the noisy, dissonant winds and other instruments that fight for dominance at repeated points in the rest of the piece.

The first of these other instruments is a B-flat clarinet playing a piano melody that seems to be in G-flat major, though if that’s true, we never hear the tonic, and an A-natural, heard when the clarinet decrescendos to pianissimo, would be outside of the G-flat major scale. Therefore, if this clarinet tune is understood to be tonal, its tonality is unclear.

The same uncertainty of tonality is heard in the tune that the next woodwind, a flute, plays–coming after a second tune on the clarinet that is almost the same as the first tune, though it ends differently. As the second clarinet tune ends, the flute begins with quarter notes in C, then B, A, and B again in a quintuplet. The flute tune would seem to be in C major, but again, accidentals make its tonality unsure. The same is true of the next woodwind melody, one played pianissimo on the oboe.

What is sure about all three woodwinds, as well as the lyrical solo violin and bouncy piano parts to appear after a statement of the string progression alone (from the last bar of the perfect fourth stacks onward), is that these added parts are, for the most part, melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically independent of the strings. As we know, Ives liked having clashing, independent instrumental parts heard simultaneously.

In traditional music, the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic reconciliation of all the different instrumental parts is meant to give coherence and unity to a composition, a sense that all of the parts are conforming to and ‘obeying,’ as it were, the rules to give a piece a single direction to be followed, a collective of tones moving to the beat and tonality of, so to speak, one master. The music of Ives, however, defies this insistence on musical conformity and uniformity, preferring to allow each part to go its own way.

In this ‘going one’s own way,’ we can perceive a kind of individualist philosophy underlying the musical experimentation of Ives. If we understand the woodwinds, brass, pianos, and percussion of Central Park in the Dark (as well as the trumpet and woodwind quartet of The Unanswered Question) to be representative of people, then their clashing independence can be heard to be telling us that we should welcome differences of opinion and habit, rather than frown on them.

Vive la différence! Ives seems to be saying.

On the other hand, the soft string parts of both pieces seem to represent that mystical, subatomic unity underneath all the differences that our senses perceive. To use Hindu concepts as metaphors for my purpose, the string progressions are Brahman, while the clashing, independent woodwind, brass, piano, and percussion parts represent the sensory illusion of Māyā.

To attain spiritual peace, Ives seems to be saying through his music, we must stop trying to force everything around us to follow any one, dominant way of doing things. We must just let things be as they are and tolerate them, like the man sitting in Central Park that summer night, listening to all those clashing, conflicting sounds, accepting the fact that contradiction is a universal reality.

[Now, speaking of contradiction, in case any of the readers of my political posts thinks I’m contradicting myself here, realize that the dominant way of doing things that we today are being forced to follow is that of capitalism/imperialism, which when completely wiped off the face of the Earth will result in the withering away of the state, because the class differences that necessitate the existence of a state (to protect the dominant class’s interests) will be eliminated. The slavish obeying of bosses, worker alienation, and addiction to wealth, social status, and material things are far more destructive to individual freedom than socialism could ever be.]

As with The Unanswered Question, in Central Park in the Dark the independent parts pop up and disappear on and off throughout the work. In both works, the instrumental groups are also to be separated spatially (in the case of The Unanswered Question, the strings are to be “off stage,” if possible, away from the trumpet and woodwinds). These spatial separations reinforce the idea that the music each group plays is to be understood as coming from different worlds (i.e., Brahman vs. illusory Māyā, nirvana vs. samsāra).

Approaching the climax of Central Park in the Dark, we hear ragtime piano tunes, flute, and oboe. We also hear the B-flat clarinet quoting Hello! Ma Baby, which will be heard again on the trumpet (One may recall that old Warner Bros. cartoon with the singing and dancing frog). Apparently, the Washington Post March is also played by the marching band group, though I can’t locate it, buried in the chaos and cacophony of everyone playing together. The climax ends with a huge, dissonant swell in the brass and woodwinds, all playing trills in fff.

We return to hearing just the soft string progression. The clarinet comes in softly soon after (piano), then the flute, both of them playing pianissimo together, then we hear the lyrical solo violin part. The winds and solo violin stop, allowing the string progression to play alone again, from the chromatic ascension at the end of the tritone-stack section to that of the perfect fifths stacks.

The piece ends with just the beginning augmented triad stack of (top to bottom) C, G-sharp, E, and B-flat, F-sharp, D. These whole notes decrescendo from pppp to silence.

III: The Unanswered Question

Now, Central Park in the Dark is supposed to be “a contemplation of nothing serious”; whereas The Unanswered Question is supposed to be “a contemplation of a serious matter.” Recall above, though, how I treated that ‘non-serious’ contemplation as actually being the one that is truly edifying in a spiritual, philosophical sense: we should welcome differences of opinion, and note that these contradictory elements are just the illusion of Māyā, deceptions of the senses that cloak the mystical, unifying reality that the strings represent.

I would argue, on the other hand, that the futility of answering “the perennial question of existence” proves how absurd the very pondering of that question is, let alone trying to answer it. Therefore, such a futile pondering is a truly trivial matter. If the question can’t be answered, why waste one’s time asking it? Put away such distractions, and as Camus would later teach us, accept the absurdity and meaninglessness of life. Like Sisyphus, be happy while rolling the stone uphill, as pointless and fruitless as the labour is. Be like the fellow in Central Park at night, hearing the conflicting musical parts: don’t try to make sense of the senseless, and just sit there, receive it all, and be.

Such an understanding is the dialectical unity of the serious vs. non-serious in these two Ives works. Instead of seeing them as opposites of each other, we should see them as paradoxical parallels of each other. Hence, both have ‘silent’ strings looming in the background (or offstage), with conflicting, independent parts clashing with each other and with the strings, these independent parts appearing, disappearing, and reappearing throughout both pieces.

The musical parallels thus reflect the philosophical parallels I described above.

The strings, which open The Unanswered Question playing a G-major chord, ppp and con sordino, represent “the silence of the Druids–who Know, See and Hear Nothing,” according to the text Ives wrote to explain the meaning of the work. The Druids never recorded their knowledge in written form; we know of it only through the writings of others. I can’t say for sure what Ives meant by the Druids ‘knowing, seeing, and hearing nothing,’ but perhaps the point is that even the Druids, for all their wisdom, had the humility to admit to themselves that in that wisdom, “all is vanity,” hence their refusal to write it down.

So the ever-so-softly played, muted strings represent the ‘silent’ Druids’ reticence, their wise reluctance to describe the ineffable reality of life, a reality too fluid to be captured in the ossification of words, words that would distort our perception of that reality too much to be effective. Each string part is also spaced widely apart from the others, giving them all a hovering, ethereal effect. As Ives further describes the strings, they are “like the eternal music of the spheres“; or as I described them (and those of Central Park in the Dark) above, they represent Brahman, nirvana.

The string progression, to simplify, goes from a G-major chord to a B-minor chord, then to a C-major chord (at first, with a suspension second [D] before the second violins do a retardation to the third [E]). Then we have an A-minor chord, which ultimately resolves back to G-major. This, essentially, is the string progression for the whole piece (with some variations later): I, III, VI (a six-four chord), IV, I (with an added 6th), II, I. Note the conspicuous lack of a dominant (V) chord–e.g., no D-dominant seventh chord. The lack of a V chord reinforces the progression’s sense of stasis, which is fitting, since the strings represent that sense of the eternal–unchanging, unaffected by impermanence of the material world.

Still, there are fools among us who aspire to wisdom, to intellectual preeminence, and must ask the question: “What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? What is God’s plan for us?” This question is represented by the trumpet (or English horn, or oboe, or clarinet, according to the score). The tune it plays is without a discernible tonal centre: B-flat, C-sharp, E-natural, E-flat, and C-natural (this last note alternating with B-natural in each reiteration of the tune). Actually, they’re (pretty much) all notes from the octatonic scale.

This lack of a tonal centre is fitting, given the absurdity of trying to receive an understanding of the infinite complexity of life through a straightforward answer, given presumably in the form of a brief sentence. The question itself is pointless, since it can’t be answered.

There are folks out there who aspire to such a stratospheric level of wisdom. Yet as it says in the Tao Te Ching, 56, “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.” And as Touchstone observed in As You Like It, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” (V, i)

Speaking of such talkative fools, the woodwinds (as I said above, either four flutes, or two flutes, an oboe, and a clarinet) attempt an answer to the perennial question. We shouldn’t be surprised to hear how dissonant and atonal their answer is, for after all, which two people will have the same, or even harmonious, answers to such an absurd question? They can only fight with each other for dominance, as religions have done throughout history.

The first of these woodwind answers, marked adagio and piano, is a tentative, cautious, timid attempt, yet ultimately failing. We have mostly tied, held notes, rather than a flurry of them. With each successive attempt, though, the notes are played a bit faster, a bit louder, and with slightly shorter rhythmic values.

Indeed, as the piece carries on, these woodwind answers get more and more frustrated and desperate to get it right, though of course always getting it wrong. By the time of the final attempt at an answer, the woodwinds are frantic, marked molto agitato, con fuoco–a flurry of frenetic notes that botch the answer so badly, they end in a piercing tone cluster.

In the end, the woodwinds give up. The trumpet asks the question one last time, without getting another attempt at an answer. The piece concludes with just the strings holding the G-major chord in whole notes tied over several bars, in a decrescendo to ppp, then to pppp.

IV: Conclusion

So, as we can see, which contemplation is “a serious matter,” and which is “nothing serious,” is at the least a matter of opinion, and at the most the dialectical reverse of each other. Is sitting in a park listening to conflicting tunes “nothing serious,” and is wanting an answer to the meaning of life “a serious matter,” or is it the other way around?

You know my answer; and just for the sake of clarity, my articles on The Three Unities aren’t an attempt to answer “the perennial question,” or to provide life with meaning. Rather, they’re an attempt to provide a sense of organization to the cosmos. Nonetheless, these attempts of mine, too, are more than likely horribly wrong–just more flatulent flutes being dissonant windbags, blowing out fetid, intellectual nonsense.

In sum: don’t take life too seriously. We aren’t getting out of it alive, anyway.

What Might Save Us

Back in the 1980s, Sting wrote a song called “Russians.” Though powerful artistically and melodically (even incorporating a theme from Prokofiev‘s Lieutenant Kijé), the song was a typical liberal perspective on the Cold War of the time, taking a ‘neutral’ stance as far as political left and right are concerned, the kind of stance that only helped ensure that the right won by the 1990s.

The song ends with the line “what might save us, me and you/is if the Russians love their children too.” What might save us from MAD is something one would naturally assume that we all do, but do ‘them Russkies’ also do it? I’m not sure if Sting meant his words to be taken at face value, or if he was being ironic; but with all the Russophobia and anti-Putin hysteria going on since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many in the West seem to be doubting that the Russians love their children, among other things deemed natural for most of humanity.

It doesn’t seem to occur to these Russophobes that it’s actually the Western ruling classes that don’t seem to love their children…not those beyond their own immediate families, anyway. Consider all the billions that have gone into military spending and into prolonging the Ukrainian war with Russia, billions that could end homelessness in the US and feed American schoolchildren at lunchtime.

Sanctions against Russia largely haven’t harmed the country, which is now trading in rubles, as China is slowly trading in the yuan in foreign markets. The sanctions have backfired on the West, raising gas prices, causing food shortages, and hurting low-income families who were already struggling before the global economic meltdown of 2020, which was of course exacerbated by the pandemic.

Trading in other currencies is causing the petrodollar to go down in value. If this continues much more, it could crush the already-ailing American economy beyond repair. What we’re witnessing could be that final collapse of capitalism.

Now, in my post, The End of the World?, I was being extremely pessimistic, as the title indicates. I’m a little less pessimistic now, though, provided things continue on the trajectory on which I see them going; it’ll still be terribly painful, and there may still be no good end to the world’s troubles, but there is a faint hope that a nuclear WWIII between the West on the one side, and Russia and China on the other, could at least be prevented.

What might save us is the complete self-destruction of the United States and its war machine.

Allow me to clarify what I mean by the above, provocative statement. No, I’m not advocating a genocide of the American people. I’m referring rather to the ending of the warmongering, imperialist, white settler colonial state, replacing it with a federation of socialist entities, allowing full civil rights for people of all colours, but also owned and governed by the aboriginals, as I discussed here. Such a transformation of American society would be excruciating, a phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes kind of thing, but it would be a necessary, growing pain, a death/rebirth. Recall what Gramsci once said: “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.”

Granted, I would hate to imagine the suffering of ordinary Americans from such an economic and civilizational collapse, but the reduction of the petrodollar to next to nothing could be the one thing that just might also cripple the ruling class and its ability to continue promoting wars for the defence contractors. Will the collapse of the petrodollar be extreme enough to reduce the value of the capitalist class’s billions to insignificance, an insignificance sufficient to nullify their ability to buy their way out of their problems, to pay for their protection?

I have no way of being able to answer my question with an assured affirmative, but if the masses of poor Americans suffer (and they already are, and will doubtless continue to for far too long a time), I hope the ruling class gets a good scathing, too. Another thing the aggravated suffering of the poor could (and should) provoke is revolution.

Rainer Shea has written a number of articles on how American leftists can organize, train, and protect their groups against infiltration by opportunists, wreckers, agent provocateurs, and anyone with an adventurist, gang mentality, as an anticipation of the civilizational collapse. Shea also wrote an article that made a reference to a rich man’s worries about not being able to pay his security men when, because of the anticipated economic and civilizational collapse, money will no longer have value. Hence, my speculation that the collapse of the petrodollar could wipe out the spending power of even the ruling class.

This collapse of the American economy, if it’s as extreme as I imagine it could be, would have a ripple effect on all the other countries of the world. Canada, with the US as our number one trading partner, will suffer. Europe is already suffering, not being able, due to the sanctions on Russia, to buy their ever-so-needed Russian oil, unless in rubles. The desperation all of this will cause could very well trigger revolutions in these areas and elsewhere, too.

Russia, in contrast, is doing well, at least for now. The ruble has gone up in value. In response to all of the Western businesses that have left the country, Russia has, for example, simply replaced McDonald’s with “Vkusno i tochka.” Elsewhere, China is considering buying Saudi oil in the yuan, which would be more bad news for the US dollar.

Far from slowly bleeding Russia dry, as had happened to the Soviet Union during the American proxy war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, this new US/NATO proxy war in Ukraine is losing badly to the Russians (despite all the propaganda that Ukraine is winning), to the point of Ukrainians no longer being willing to fight. China is watching this debacle, not needing to do a thing: they’re calmly waiting for the self-destruction of the US to unfold.

If this American collapse happens, the failed Ukrainian proxy war just might deter the US from provoking a similarly disastrous Taiwanese proxy war with China. Taiwan could then peacefully rejoin China and benefit from the latter’s socialism. As a resident of the island, I’d no longer worry about my home being torn apart as a war zone; sensible Taiwanese would accept joining with China, as war is hardly a reasonable alternative. Xi Jinping could move China further leftward, eliminating the billionaire status of the country’s wealthiest and reduce its income inequality, a process that newly-joined Taiwan could enjoy, too.

A US as economically, and thus politically, crippled as I’m imagining it could become might have an even farther-reaching ripple effect. Latin American countries might be able to elect left-wing governments without fear of the kind of CIA coups of the Operation Condor years. US war criminals might no longer have the wealth to avoid being tried in the International Criminal Court. Without the wealth and influence of his persecutors, Assange might get freed. Leftists worldwide would be encouraged to pursue revolutionary change.

Now, I’m probably dreaming just a little too much here, and my predictions of the collapse of the petrodollar are probably wildly exaggerated, based on my own wish-fulfillment for the capitalist system to lose. After all, the economic experts are assuring everyone in the West that the petrodollar won’t be all that badly affected by all these recent upsets. I suspect, however, that these experts are reassuring everyone less because of what they objectively know than out of a wish-fulfillment of their own. They don’t want to see the West lose.

We must remember what a huge deficit the US has already had for many years: it’s a ticking time bomb that’s only grown larger and larger. Sooner or later, that debt–now in the trillions!–is going to have to be paid, and it will be a lot harder to pay if the value of the petrodollar plummets. Add to this all the grievances of an impoverished American people, many of whom have no jobs, who have crumbling infrastructure and increasingly trigger-happy desperation.

A major thing that will stop a communist revolution in the US is a probable takeover by fascists and their sympathizers–socialism, or barbarism. This is why American leftists must train hard when everything comes to a head…which will be sooner than we think.

To get back to Sting’s song, though, he recently re-recorded it with a cellist as a comment on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Predictably, he meant it as a liberal defence of Ukraine and a judgement on Putin, sympathizing with the “peaceful, unthreatening” Ukrainians.

It saddens me that a man as erudite, intelligent, and talented as Sting is could be so horribly wrong about a conflict that actually started in 2014, when a violent coup d’état replaced the democratically-elected Viktor Yanukovych with a government and military including neo-Nazis, who had been killing ethnic Russians in the Donbass region for the eight years between the coup and the current war. This is a problem that the mainstream media acknowledged before the war, but is now either denying, downplaying, or rationalizing. (I go into these issues much more in these articles, so you can read about them there, as I don’t feel like going into it in detail here.)

I’m sure there’s a large peaceful, unthreatening portion of the Ukrainian population that opposes these neo-Nazis, but it’s apparent that far too many of another portion of Ukrainians do support them. In any case, Sting’s well-intended, but misguided support for them (his area of expertise is music, not politics) reminds me of what Stalin once said of similarly liberal-minded people: “Social-democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism.”

To conclude, I’ll tie in Sting’s song with what I’ve been saying in the middle of this post, ending it by altering the last line of his song: What might save us, me and you, is if the richest lose their money, too.

Analysis of ‘Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima’

I: Introduction

Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (or to the Victims…whichever–in Polish, it’s Tren Ofiarom Hiroszimy) is an avant-garde composition for 52 string instruments by Krzysztof Penderecki (pronounced  [ˈkʂɨʂtɔf pɛndɛˈrɛt͡skʲi], the Polish c in his surname, like that of hanyu pinyin, being pronounced ‘ts’).

Composed and premiered in 1961, the piece was originally to be called 8’37”, after its length of performance, since the durations of the sound events of the piece are given in seconds, rather than through the use of, for example, the quarter and eighth notes of conventional notation. Indeed, Penderecki’s score is as experimental as is the music, using a variety of unorthodox ways to indicate how the music is to be played.

The piece was originally meant to be just an experiment with new musical ideas, as Penderecki said, to “develop a new musical language,” hence the original absolute music title. It was meant as an example of sonorism, focusing on timbre, texture, articulation, dynamics, counterpoint, and motion to create a form free of traditional ideas of “expressivity” in the playing of instruments. “It existed only in my imagination, in a somewhat abstract way,” he later said.

When he heard it performed, though, he was struck by the emotive power of what he had written. It was no longer just an abstract experiment with sounds. With what could he associate the feelings of terror evoked in the music?…the victims of Hiroshima, when the atomic bomb was dropped on them at the end of WWII. Hence, the piece’s new name, a threnody, or wailing ode of mourning for the victims’ suffering and deaths.

So though the piece was composed throughout with just the intention of experimenting with new ways to organize musical sound, its new name and dedication have given the piece a whole new dimension of meaning, a meaning that not only inspires compassion for the victims to whom it’s dedicated, but one that also makes the piece especially relevant for our troubled times today, with all the reckless nuclear brinksmanship of the US and NATO against Russia and China.

The 52 string instruments used in the piece are grouped into 24 violins, ten violas, ten cellos, and eight double basses. The unconventional sounds they are manipulated to make include tone clusters, faster and slower vibratos, slapping, and playing on the tailpiece and behind the bridge. While the sound durations are, as noted above, given precisely in seconds, other aspects of the music are aleatoric, allowing the players a choice of techniques. Nonetheless, specific note clusters are used, as well as quarter tones.

Such unorthodox techniques give the music its terrifying character, which is why the Threnody, as well as other avant-garde works by Penderecki–such as his Utrenja, The Awakening of Jacob, De Natura Sonoris, Kanon, and Polymorphia–have been used in such horror films and thrillers as The Shining, The Exorcist, and Children of Men. Purists in the world of avant-garde music may not like the, to them, excessive associations of experimental soundscapes with the horror genre, but Penderecki’s association of 8’37” with the suffering of the Japanese at the end of WWII was more than justified, as I will argue below.

II: The Historical Background of the Nuking

It is still believed by many that the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing about 200,000 people, was regrettable but necessary, so that a long, protracted ground assault, risking the lives of many American soldiers, could be avoided. A closer look, however, at the actual, historical circumstances surrounding the bombings will indicate how wrong this rationalization is.

At the time, Japan’s leaders were ready to surrender, though hoping for at least a conditional surrender, to save their emperor, Hirohito, from being harmed or removed, as a handful of high-ranking Nazis would be tried for war crimes. The US, however, still seething with virulent racial hatred for the Japanese over the bombing of Pearl Harbor, wanted nothing less than an unconditional surrender.

Pretty much the whole of the Japanese islands were being pummelled with conventional American bombs. The Japanese knew they’d lost. In fact, when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese at first couldn’t tell the difference between the effect of the older and new kinds of bombs. The use of these two new bombs did not end the war, as many assume; therefore, where was the justification to use them?

A number of American generals dissented over the use of those awful bombs. So what was the real reason they were dropped on those two unfortunate cities? They were a demonstration of a new, deadly toy of the American military…not to intimidate Japan, but to frighten that nation that was already understood to be the new enemy of the US: the Soviet Union!

…and what really made Japan surrender, if it wasn’t the bomb? A convincing explanation comes from what the USSR did, not the US. Up until their surrender, the Japanese were holding out on the small hope that the USSR would mediate negotiations with the US and influence a conditional surrender, one that wouldn’t favour the US too much, to give Japan better terms for their surrender. The USSR, however, invaded Manchuria, clearly indicating no interest in siding with Japan in any way, meaning Japan would be forced to surrender unconditionally. In short, it was the Soviet Union, not the American nuking, that decisively stopped Japan.

Therefore, the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had no redeeming moral justification of any kind. They were acts of mass murder on a mostly civilian population (the military portion of which was admittedly significant, but still a minority); in spite of the heinous war crimes of the Japanese military on Korea, China, the Philippines, etc., these victims had done no direct harm to Americans.

Granted, all Japanese were part of the war effort in some sense, as is the case with the people of other countries involved in WWII. Civilian Japanese helped in industry, making weapons, giving material support to the military, etc.; but to a great extent, this civilian support was for defence as well as offence–these particular people weren’t themselves raping and beheading their Asian neighbours, so the way they were killed was way out of proportion to their crime of equipping their soldiers to commit their ugly deeds. Japan’s loss of the war, with the conventional bombings that more accurately targeted military areas, should have been punishment enough for them.

As much as I abhor Nazi Germany, and I would never consider defensible the average “Aryan” civilian supporting Nazi ideology and helping out in their war effort, I would also never consider nuking any German city to be an acceptable way of forcing the fascists and fascist sympathizers to surrender. Similarly, though I detest the US military-industrial complex and wish wholeheartedly for its imminent defeat, I would never dream of such a defeat coming from nukes.

III: The Composition

Here is a link to a video of the Threnody, with footage of the aftermath of the bombing, with images of the destruction and the suffering of the surviving victims of radiation poisoning, and the doctors trying to help them.

And here is a link to a video of the piece with an animated score, so you can follow what is happening in the music, and you can see it broken down into its many parts.

The piece opens with fortissimo tone clusters played first on the first five of the ten violas, next on the first six of the twenty-four violins, then on the first four of the eight double basses, etc., until all of the subdivided groups of strings are playing their own set of clusters. This piling on of tone clusters lasts for fifteen seconds.

The cacophony of all of these clusters suggests the screaming of the residents of Hiroshima as they look up into the sky and see the Enola Gay flying over their city, knowing they’d be bombed, but not knowing the brand new nature of the horror they were about to experience.

After the first fifteen seconds, the music immediately comes down from fortissimo to forte (sub. f), and a slow vibrato is heard on the first six violins, and soon after on the third six, the second six, and the fourth six. This all goes on for the next eleven seconds.

The following four seconds has the first five of the celli doing the slow vibrato; and the last six of the violins switch from a slow vibrato to a fast one, as the two groups of violas have been doing from the previous eleven seconds until now. These vibratos, slow and fast, add an eeriness to the dark, terrifying atmosphere so unmistakably established.

Those violas will, during the next six seconds, immediately come down to pianissimissimo (sub. ppp), as will all the other strings at the beginning of the next thirty seconds. During the six-second section, the last five of the celli will play the slow vibratos as the strings hitherto playing slow vibratos are, group by group, replacing slow vibratos with fast ones.

The switch to ppp sounds especially scary, like a suspenseful scene in a horror movie right after an initial shock of terror. Small wonder Penderecki’s music is, rightly or wrongly, so associated with horror films. One senses, at this moment in the music, the trembling people of Hiroshima looking up at the bomber plane in all helplessness, waiting for “Little Boy” to be dropped.

Next come the experimental sound effects to be made on the strings. In the score, an arrow pointing up indicates the playing of a note of the highest, though indefinite, pitch (recall the aleatoric aspects of this music). An icon of four vertical lines with a horizontal arc crossing them represents, respectively, the instrument’s four strings and its bridge; the straight line under the arc indicates a four-note arpeggio to be played under the bridge.

Some notes are to be plucked (pizzicatopizz.), others bowed (arco). Again, if the straight line is below an arc, one is to play between the bridge and the tailpiece. Vertical lines intersected with short, upwardly diagonal lines indicate a percussion effect: striking the upper sounding board of the instrument with the nut or fingertips.

The symbol of a short, vertical line with a cone shape pointing to the right tells the last five cellists to bow the tailpiece. An umbrella-like symbol tells the first five cellists to play on the bridge.

These string effects are not required to be played at exact speeds. Only the order in which they are to be played matters. As Angus Lee explains in his video analysis of the Threnody, different performers will have varying levels of difficulty or ease in executing each different technique; so there will be considerable freedom in playing these parts, another example of the aleatoric aspects of Penderecki’s piece.

The result, when one hears the differing timing of each player, bowing, plucking, or tapping his or her instrument, is a rather chaotic flurry of sounds. Controlled chaos, yet chaos all the same. When we hear this chaotic texture of sounds, it suggests to us the frenzied panic of the people of Hiroshima, them all frenetically scrambling to run for cover and escape their doom.

Next, a pianissimo note in F is heard on the ten celli, which is briefly sustained, but soon after, some celli slide down to lower notes, others to higher ones (indeterminate pitches here, graphically presented in the score with a thick black line), while the remaining celli stay on the F. This results in another tone cluster; then those upwardly and downwardly straying notes return to the F. This goes on for fifteen seconds. It’s a moment of relative calm, as if some of the people of Hiroshima have found a place to protect themselves from the bomb, and are trying to reassure themselves that they are safe…at least for the moment.

Other strings do the same effect, with the first twelve violins sustaining a note on E and branching out upwards and downwards into a larger tone cluster, this time ppp. Then, the eight double basses, also ppp, do this on an E-flat, then bloat out into a huge dissonant chord before returning to that E-flat.

The ten violas, playing mezzo-forte, give out a huge cluster chord that decrescendos and slides into an A. The last twelve violins then play a sustained high B-flat in ppp, which fans out into a large tone cluster, which is accompanied by another mf cluster chord on the ten violas, which in turn decrescendos and slides into an A.

This shifting back and forth, from single notes to tone clusters and back again, on different groups of strings and at softer and louder dynamics, continues for some time. One senses during this moment that those people are trembling in suspense, waiting for the bombing to be over with.

There’s a brief silence, then groups of ppp tone clusters from all the strings are heard, the notation indicating all the pitches to be played. We’re almost halfway into the piece by now. The feeling one gets from all of these creepy dissonances is a sense of nausea from all those terrified Japanese, nausea from their despair.

Next, a fortissimo cluster chord is heard on the ten violas, notes ranging from about an F (above middle C) to about a c′′. This is soon followed by a similar tone cluster, also ff, on the last twelve of the violins, playing a range of notes from about c′′ to about f′′-sharp. Other groups of strings come in with their own loud cluster chords. It’s as though the bomb has now been released, and the people of Hiroshima are all screaming together as they watch it fall from the bomber and come closer and closer to the ground.

Eventually, all these cluster chords played on all the groups of strings decrescendo and do upward or downward glissandi. It’s as though terror among the people has been replaced with resignation to their fate, just as the bomb is about to hit the ground.

Next, we hear individual notes of distinct pitches played by each cello, notes that are sustained and that fan out upwards and downwards. These are played softly, and are followed by the same fanning out of individual notes played piano on the last twelve of the violins, then on the ten violas, and ultimately on all the strings, ending with each group playing loud tone clusters.

This fanning out of notes suggests the impact of the bomb on the ground, each individual note representing each piece of rock, concrete, brick, etc., that has been shattered from the blast. Again, the clusters represent the screams of those people not yet killed.

We then hear creepy glissandi in the cluster chords of the celli and double basses, suggesting the moaning and groaning of the traumatized survivors, many of whom won’t be survivors for very long. These clusters thin out into single tones and go from fff to f, then decrescendo from f to silence in the double basses, and to p in the celli, and to pp with slow vibrato, ending off with a ten-second decrescendo to pppp.

This slow fading to another brief silence suggests the dying-off of many hitherto survivors, leaving those still living to be doubly traumatized, from their own suffering and from the deaths of loved ones they’ve witnessed dying.

The string effects come back, including the one with the upward arrow symbol mentioned above, as well as certain pizzicato and arco notes of definite pitch. These are played by individual strings from all the groups. The tension in this section suggests the traumatic reaction of the survivors to the horrors just experienced.

The percussive effects remind us of those heard earlier, as if they are PTSD-like flashbacks of the panic felt before the bomb dropped. Sometimes we have individual players making the bowed, plucked, or percussive effects, as if we’re hearing the pain of lonely survivors with no living family or friends to mourn with. Sometimes we have players in groups, suggesting the mourning of living family and friends who are weeping and wailing together, trying to comfort each other in all futility.

A little later on, we get the string effects notated with the umbrella-like symbols mentioned earlier, as well as those with the vertical line going through a cone pointing to the right. These are played on the celli and the double basses. Other string effects are heard on groups of three or four violins, violas, and celli, accompanied by a sustained cluster chord on the violins. The ten violas will join in with a cluster chord of their own as those violins, having done a crescendo from mf to fortissimo, play another slow vibrato.

As the above continues, other strings come in with their own tone clusters. The dissonances pile up, with slow vibratos played on some groups. The dynamics go down to piano and pianissimo, but soon crescendo and abruptly stop, leaving a brief silence.

Next, a climactic cluster chord is played on all the groups of strings, a huge dissonance with notes ranging all the way from about a c to a c′′. The totality of it is like a culmination of all the preceding horrors, as well as of the suffering they caused. The slow decrescendo, fading to silence, suggests again the slow, painful dying-off of many more victims.

IV: Conclusion–What Can the Threnody Mean for Us Today?

Needless to say, this music is disturbing to listen to, especially on the YouTube video (link above) that combines the music with the footage of the aftermath of the bombing. It’s disturbing because it should be. Nuclear war is nothing other than disturbing, though some nut-jobs think it can be used to defeat Russia today.

Another one of the reasons that those two bombs should never have been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that it ushered in the nuclear age. Faced with the threat of such bombs being dropped on the USSR and, later, China and the DPRK, these socialist states were compelled to make their own nuclear arsenals.

…and look at where we are today.

Threatened with the loss of their unipolar global hegemony, the US and the extension of its imperialism, NATO, have been provoking Russia ever since the counterrevolutionary dissolution of the USSR, with the aid of Ukrainian neo-Nazis (and no, you don’t stop them from being fascists by a mere change of logo), culminating in the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Even cold-blooded war criminal Henry Kissinger has enough sense to know that the only way out of this war is to give Putin what he wants: Ukrainian neutrality, no NATO membership for the country, and a reasonable amount of autonomy for the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics…perfectly acceptable requests for the sake of Russian security, except that the US and NATO refuse to grant them.

That this war, if not ended, could escalate into a very nuclear WWIII (as could also happen when the US–via Taiwanprovokes China into a similar war), should be obvious to anyone with half a brain. Still, the US and NATO keep pressing their–and everyone else’s–luck…all because they don’t want to accept the emerging multipolar world with rising Russia and China, a world which, if handled well, could lead to a balance of power that could facilitate world peace.

(I go into more detail about these issues in these posts, if you’re interested, Dear Reader.)

The current-day threat of nuclear annihilation is what makes Penderecki’s Threnody not only relevant, but outright urgent to listen to. Let this terrifying music stir up your survival instinct and inspire you to do whatever we can do to stop the psychopaths in power from killing everyone and everything on our fragile planet.

Analysis of ‘Gesang der Jünglinge’

I: Introduction

Gesang der Jünglinge (“Song of the Youths”) is a 1955-1956 electronic music piece by avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. It was realized in the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) studio in Cologne. The vocal parts were sung by then-12-year-old Josef Protschka. The piece is exactly 13 minutes, fourteen seconds long.

Ryan Simms called it “the first masterpiece of electronic music,” and Pascal Decroupet and Elena Ungeheuer called it “an opus, in the most emphatic sense of the term.” The work has influenced such musicians as the Beatles (“Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Revolution 9“; Stockhausen’s face is also seen on the Sgt. Pepper album) and Frank Zappa (check out his own electronic sound montage experimentation on We’re Only In It for the Money).

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.

Here is the composition (with Kontakte, from the record I bought in my late teens, introducing me to Stockhausen’s music), and here is the analysis of Gesang der Jünglinge by Samuel Andreyev, to whom I owe a huge debt for my own analysis of the work.

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, 20:1415, 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.

Analysis of ‘The Rite of Spring’

I: Introduction

The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps) is a 1913 ballet and orchestral piece composed by Igor Stravinsky, with choreography originally by Vaslav Nijinsky and stage designs and costuming by Nicholas Roerich. This was the third of Stravinsky’s three great ballets (the other two being The Firebird and Petrushka) commissioned by impresario Sergei Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes, premiered in Paris.

The ballet is subtitled “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts.” When Stravinsky was finishing work on The Firebird, he claimed he had a vision of “a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of Spring.” I assume that by “the god of Spring,” he was referring to a Russian variant of Yarilo, a Slavic pagan god of vegetation, fertility, and springtime.

The brutality of human sacrifice, meant to appease the gods and avert such disasters as a bad harvest, is well-linked to the revolutionary aspects of Stravinsky’s music here: namely, his use of polytonality, polyrhythms, asymmetric and constantly changing meters, irregular accents, and harsh dissonance. These controversial departures from the more traditional, post-Romantic style of The Firebird and Petrushka (though these two also have their share of musical innovations–in the latter, the use of bitonality is especially to be noted), along with Nijinsky’s stomping choreography, resulted in an infamous riot at the ballet’s premiere on May 29th, 1913, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.

The riot, to paraphrase Cocteau, centred around two warring groups in the audience: the wealthy conservatives, who hated the ballet, and the “Bohemians,” who were thrilled at this new provocation of the stuffy cultural establishment. The controversy began early, with the dissonant winds of the Introduction; but the disturbances got worse when the curtain rose and Nijinsky’s eccentric choreography began. The uproar got so bad, the shouting of the audience drowning out the music, that Nijinsky had to shout the step numbers to his confused dancers.

I was introduced to the piece as a child through the truncated version of it heard in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, which replaced the pagan rites with cartoon sequences of the formation of the Earth and fighting dinosaurs struggling…and failing…to survive. The brutality of life was thus preserved in the adaptation; and The Rite of Spring has been my all-time favourite piece of music ever since my teens, this being the CD I enjoyed listening to.

Verses, set to music by Henry Cowell (another musical innovator who must have found the verses amusing), express the displeasure conservative ears have to Stravinsky’s ballet. Nonetheless, over the years, public opinion has changed, and now The Rite of Spring, whether performed as a ballet (with notable later choreographies, for example, by Léonide Massine in the 1920s–which revived performances of the ballet–and by Maurice Béjart) or as a concert suite, is acknowledged not only as one of the great masterpieces of 20th century classical music, influencing many modernist composers–such as Varèse, with his Amériques, and Messiaen, who constantly analyzed it–but also as one of the most recorded works in the classical repertoire.

Here is a performance of the ballet with Nijinsky’s choreography (the music starts at 4:38). [Please bear in mind that when I refer to ‘Nijinsky’s choreography,’ I really mean the reconstruction of it performed by the Joffrey Ballet in 1987, which is probably as close as we can get to an accurate version of Nijinsky’s intentions.] Here‘s one with Béjart’s choreography. Here‘s the Fantasia cartoon sequence. And here‘s a version with the orchestral score. Please refer back to the links of this paragraph for the sources to my commentary.

II: Adoration of the Earth

The “Introduction” of Part One of the ballet begins with a bassoon playing in a register so unusually high for the instrument that it sounds like anything but a bassoon: indeed, the beginning high C sounds like that of a flute to my ears. Other woodwinds join in, with strings later. Stravinsky said it was meant to sound like “a swarm of spring pipes,” or dudki. Peter Hill, in his book, Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring, wrote of the build-up of tension–before a sudden return to silence–saying, “it is bursting ecstatically into bloom.”

The Fantasia sequence shows the beginning formation of the universe, a darkness suggesting that of the Greek creation myth, then the fire of desire lights everything up, and we see the fiery, volcanic Earth by the beginning of “Augurs of Spring,” just before which the bassoon theme returns, but a semitone lower.

The curtain comes up, and we see the dancers stamping to the strong rhythms of “Augurs of Spring–Dances of the Young Girls.” An E-flat dominant seventh chord, played over a triad of E, G-sharp, and B (or F-flat, A-flat, and C-flat, as seen in the strings in the score), is heard on the horns and strings. This polychord is one of many instances of polytonality in the ballet, or of bitonality in this particular instance. Just as the bitonality of Petrushka was meant to represent the half-human, half-puppet nature of the titular character of that ballet, so can the bitonality of The Rite be heard to represent, among other conflicts, a duality in the adored Mother Earth.

The Earth mother goddess of Slavic pagan myth, Mat Zemlya, would have been both adored and feared, depending on whether she provided a bountiful harvest in the fall (i.e., the flourishing of Yarilo) or a bad one. The plenty or dearth that she provided would have been the salvation of the pagan tribe, or its doom…hence the tension in the music.

Recall what Camille Paglia had to say about the use of society and culture as an illusory shield against nature, and we can begin to understand the pagan tribe’s need for these ritual dances: “Human life began in flight and fear. Religion rose from rituals of propitiation, spells to lull the punishing elements…Civilized man conceals from himself the extent of his subordination to nature. The grandeur of culture, the consolation of religion absorb his attention and win his faith. But let nature shrug, and all is in ruin. Fire, flood, lightning, tornado, hurricane, volcano, earthquake–anywhere at any time. Disaster falls upon the good and bad. Civilized life requires a state of illusion. The idea of the ultimate benevolence of nature and God is the most potent of man’s survival mechanisms. Without it, culture would revert to fear and despair.” (Paglia, page 1)

Recall how, in the Fantasia sequence during this section of the music, we see erupting volcanoes, with bursts of lava synchronized at each of Stravinsky’s irregular accents that are played on the horns over the scraping strings. Consider the contrast of these visuals with those of the ballet, with the girls dancing a ritual to appease Mother Nature.

The Earth mother goddess, therefore, can be understood to be like the dual mother of Kleinian psychoanalysis: she is the good mother and the bad mother, the good breast that provides milk for her baby, and the bad breast that won’t provide. Sometimes Mat Zemlya provides a plentiful harvest; sometimes she doesn’t.

The people of the pagan tribe are like helpless babies, all dependent on their Earth mother goddess. They’re in what Melanie Klein called the depressive position, knowing that the good and bad breasts belong to the same good and bad mother. In their helplessness, the tribe must accept her as she is, in her capricious state, for they lack the scientific knowledge we today take for granted.

Utterly bereft of modern knowledge, the pagans have to believe in something to give them comfort and hope, so they have their ritual dances. Otherwise, the turbulent, chaotic, and unpredictable ways of nature–symbolized in the music by Stravinsky’s use of irregular accents, as we hear from the beginning of this section, with the dissonant E-flat major seventh chord on the E-major triad–would be unbearable for these people.

The pagans’ adoration of Mother Earth, thus, is them currying her favour. When Mommy is angry, her child blames him- or herself; for to contemplate the possibility of Mommy being the guilty one is far too frightening for the helpless child…or in this case, the helpless pagan tribe.

Since gods and goddesses are modelled on male and female authority figures respectively (e.g., mothers and fathers, as noted above), we can link the authority of Mother Earth with that of the old matriarch of the tribe who, during this section of the piece, comes out, prophesies the future of the tribe, and teaches rituals to the girls. One can imagine her prophesies to include a future doom to the tribe if one of the girls isn’t sacrificed.

“The Ritual of Abduction” gets even more violent and dissonant, with pounding tympani and frenzied instrumentation beginning in 9/8 time. French horns, playing an up-and-down tune of perfect fifths, contrast polytonally with shrill flutes and piccolos playing a frantic tune in eighth notes that repeats the same theme just heard by them, but in a lower key, two pages earlier in the score, with the trumpet in D and woodwinds.

Men appear and join the dancing girls. Each man grabs a girl, and they all dance: the men’s seizing of the girls is presumably what is meant by “abduction,” a word with far more forceful, violent connotations. Since the music is getting more and more intense, with growing dissonance and changing meters, I sense that each “abduction” of each girl is meant to be an omen for the girl among them to be chosen as the sacrificial victim, forced by the men surrounding her to dance herself to death, as happens at the end of the ballet.

The tension ceases with a soft passage of woodwinds. Flute trills are heard in the background, while clarinets in E-flat and B-flat play a tune octaves apart from each other in a bar of 5/4, then 7/4, then three bars of 6/4, and a bar of 5/4 again, before getting into the main theme of “Spring Rounds.”

This main theme was taken from a brief passage in “Augurs of Spring,” a hymn-like theme played in seventh chords, but now played more slowly, and with a mournful quality. The girls dance a Khorovod to it. Though all of Part One of this ballet, as an “adoration of the Earth,” is ostensibly about a celebration of the beginning of spring, with rituals meant to honour Mat Zemlya, the deep sadness felt in this section suggests one’s sense of resignation to one’s fate: one of these girls must die for her tribe. The depressive position, recognizing that Mat Zemlya is both a loving and cruel mother, is keenly felt.

Such a sad resignation isn’t without a sense of horror at the cruelty of the imminent sacrifice, though, for the sad theme suddenly transforms into an explosion of dissonant violence, punctuated by the tympani and the crashing of the tam-tam. After that, a frenzied passage precedes a repeat of that soft woodwind passage, ending this section.

“Ritual of the Rival Tribes” puts the men of the tribe in war games. Two groups compete: like the ritual preparations for human sacrifice to ensure the survival of the tribe in an unpredictable, treacherous world, so must there be preparations for the possible danger of invading tribes. The music is fittingly dissonant, violent, and metrically irregular, with lots of banging of the tympani.

A soft, rising and falling melody is heard first in the woodwinds, then in the brass, then in the violins and clarinets, with polytonal counterpoint in the pizzicato cellos and contrabasses. After that, a loud, martial theme is heard in the horns, suggesting those war games. The rising and falling theme returns and segues into the “Procession of the Sage,” but it’s even more dissonant and foreboding, with the brass in the background.

A wise tribal elder is brought onstage; from the Nijinsky choreography as seen in the performance in the video provided (link above), the old man appears to be blind, his disability allowing him to have a closer link to the spirit world, not distracted by the sights around him.

The violence of the music abruptly comes to a halt. Very soft, tentative music is heard as “The Sage” kneels down and kisses the Earth, blessing Her. Again, this sanctifying of the mother goddess, as an act of love, is actually performed out of fear of Her. Will the sacrifice be pleasing to Her and to Yarilo, or will there be a bad harvest after all, the victim having died in vain?

This question should be kept in mind with the explosive crescendo of the bass drum, tam-tam, and tympani leading to the “Dance of the Earth,” meant by the tribe to be a sanctifying and becoming one with the mother goddess. The tribe would express their love for Her, but the dissonance and irregular, stabbing rhythms suggest fear.

The Disney cartoon sequence puts this section at the very end, after the “Ritual Action of the Ancestors” (which shows the dinosaurs dying off from a heatwave and drought). Significantly, we see an extreme earthquake tearing up the land, a furious mother goddess to contrast with the passionate, celebratory dance seen onstage with Nijinsky’s choreography. The dancing is meant to prevent the wrath of the goddess. Stravinsky once described the dancers as “stomping like Indians trying to put out a prairie fire”: how aptly put.

The pagan tribe’s senses are assailed by the sundry irritants of a hostile world that they, in their pre-scientific mindset, haven’t a prayer of understanding. Their only way of expelling the pain heaped upon them is to project it all onto a chosen sacrificial victim.

III: The Sacrifice

The “Introduction” to Part Two of this ballet, as its title implies, leads us directly to which girl will be the chosen sacrificial victim. That is, we’re moving straight to the heart of the matter…the sacrificial death.

The Disney cartoon sequence, however, begins with the origin of life on Earth at this point in the music–a kind of dialectical irony…the end of life, and its beginning. It has often been said that we begin dying as soon as we’re born, so beginning Part Two of the cartoon in this way is fitting.

The music begins with a soft but eerie, wavelike theme of up-and-down eighth notes played on flutes and clarinets, the rising and falling possibly a symbolic suggestion of that relationship between the rising of birth and the falling of death. Adding to this eeriness is a melody, introduced with violin harmonics, in a bar of 4/4, then one of 2/4: A-G-A-E-D-G-E. This seven-note theme will be developed, with other instrumentation and transposed, throughout this introduction and in the following section.

A soft theme shared by two trumpets in C in 5/4, with a slight variation in 6/4, is another to be developed; a creepy background is heard in the violas and cellos for two bars of 5/4, then two bars later, an upward splashing of sextuplet 32nd notes is heard in the E-flat clarinet, backed by a similar upward splashing of notes in the violins and with viola harmonics. All of these sound effects create a portentous atmosphere.

“Mystical Circles of the Young Girls,” paralleling the “Augurs of Spring–Dances of the Young Girls,” sees the curtain rise to show a group of female dancers moving in a circle, as the title implies. (Interestingly, in the Béjart choreography [link above], we first see the female dancers only in the ‘Introduction’ of Part Two, for Part One is all male dancers; both sexes will dance together from the third section of Part Two.) Musically, this section begins with that theme first heard in violin harmonics from the “Introduction,” but now played by a sextet of three violins and three violas, not in harmonics, with the six of them playing in the key of B.

The girl to fall from the circle will be the chosen victim. According to Nijinsky’s choreography (see link above), the chosen one will fall twice, to music of a paralleled arrangement, heard on trumpets in C and on French horns. This horn arrangement gives us a feeling of surprise, and the second time we hear it, with the confirmation of the chosen victim, the horns repeat the motif, little by little getting louder and faster, and climaxing in a dissonant shriek, bringing us to the violent next section with a barbaric pounding in a bar of 11/4.

“Glorification of the Chosen One” opens with brutal, pounding rhythms in 5/8, 9/8, 5/8, 7/8, 3/8, and 4/8. All the girls dance in a circle around the chosen victim, who stands still and looks up with a frozen gaze, accepting her fate and repressing her fear, for even the slightest flinching on her part may displease the gods and jeopardize the tribe’s hopes for a good harvest.

It’s interesting to contrast Nijinsky’s choreography with the Disney cartoon sequence, which at this point in the music shows a Tyrannosaurus Rex (or some similar such predatory carnivore) appearing among a group of other dinosaurs, and fighting (and killing) a Stegosaurus. The dancing girls may be ‘glorifying’ and honouring the heroine who will lovingly give her life ostensibly to save her tribe, but she is an ill-fated Stegosaur in her own right (and rite), facing a T-Rex of superstitious tradition that is demanding her life.

In what way could her predicament be a metaphor for social phenomena in our lives today? I ask this question in the hopes of finding a way to make The Rite of Spring relatable to our modern world. Just as she, the chosen victim, is being made to die in a rite of human sacrifice, in the hopes that her death will improve the lives of the tribe, so do we, as a society in today’s alienated world, choose people to victimize in the hopes of making our own lives more bearable, to take our pain out on them.

I’m not speaking of human sacrifice, of course, nor am I even speaking necessarily of having someone die for us. I speak of bullies choosing a victim, picking on someone, to bear the brunt of all our pain, a victim to be bullied so we can hate ourselves a bit less, to release some of our own pent-up frustrations.

This maltreatment of others is so commonplace in our world–at school, in the family, in the workplace, and online–as to be a universal experience. Such universality of pain can symbolically give the pagan story of The Rite of Spring an unexpected relevance in a world far removed from that of superstitious people terrified of the wrath of the gods.

After all, the tribe bullies the girl, essentially, into dancing herself to death, because the tribe, in turn, feels bullied by the parent-like gods, who threaten such things as droughts or bad harvests if a sacrificial victim isn’t offered to them. Similarly, people who bully others tend to have been bullied themselves, so bullying others is a quick and easy, but cowardly way of ridding themselves of their pain.

The gods thus are like bullying parents, for example, the Kleinian bad mother I described above; and the children the parental gods bully–the tribe–are like elder siblings who pass the abuse down to younger siblings, like the tribe’s chosen victim. Remember that her “glorification” is just a bribe to motivate her to cooperate in doing something–dancing herself to death–that no one in his or her right mind would otherwise ever agree to doing.

“Evocation of the Ancestors” is brief, with fanfare-like brass and woodwinds, and pounding drum rolls. As the title of this section implies, the girls dance to invoke the tribal ancestors. We see, in Nijinsky’s choreography, the girls in a circle around the chosen one, falling towards her or away from her, with every drum roll. It’s as if they were falling to their deaths, yet ritualistically projecting the fall to death onto her.

Male dancers, representing the old men of the tribe, appear for the “Ritual Action of the Ancestors.” The music starts off very softly, with pizzicatos in the strings playing quarter notes with the French horns and the soft tapping of the bass drum, and a kettledrum and tambourine are hit during the offbeats. The cor anglais repeatedly plays a chromatic ascension of four 32nd notes (encased in a triplet), each phrase ending with a tied whole note (the first time), then with a tied, dotted half note.

At this point in the ballet, the victim is given to the care of these old men. This is a euphemistic way of saying that the men make sure that she goes through with her ritualistic suicide, and is never able to back down. It’s implied bullying, and the creepy, building tension of the music attests to this implication.

After a brief, pianissimo moment with the kettledrum and pizzicato strings, this ominous feeling heightens when we hear an undulating flute melody in the octatonic scale; soon after, a melody in the trumpets is also octatonic. The Disney cartoon sequence at this point in the music shows the dinosaurs plodding in a desert during a heatwave that has dried up everything. They’re doomed to an imminent death, as is the chosen one, surrounded by old men of the tribe.

Suddenly, the music gets loud, with French horns blasting that octatonic trumpet theme. In Nijinsky’s choreography, we see the male dancers going in circles around the victim, who still stands frozen in her spot in the centre, trembling and breathing heavily, as trapped and helpless as those dying dinosaurs in the cartoon.

The music gets softer, yet intensely suspenseful, for a brief moment. Female dancers join the males in the circles around the victim, and the loud octatonic French horn theme returns. A tense, rising four-note tremolo theme is played repeatedly in the first violins during this loud reprise of the French horn theme. In the Disney film, we see a Tyrannosaur fall on a sand dune, dying from dehydration and exhaustion. The chosen victim, too, will die of exhaustion from her endless dancing.

The music gets soft again, rather like the beginning of this section, but with a bass trumpet in E-flat playing the repeated, ascending chromatic line of 32nd notes played previously on the cor anglais. Flurries of notes are heard on the clarinets and bass clarinets. A bar of 2/4, with a quick descending of sixteenth notes in a septuplet on the bass clarinet, segues this section into the climactic last one.

The “Sacrificial Dance” (of “The Chosen One”) begins with particularly harsh dissonances in the strings, immediately followed by the oboes, cor anglais, and horns, with changes of time signature at almost every bar. The discords are so harsh, they almost sound like tone clusters.

The time has come: the victim begins her dance to the death. In Nijinsky’s choreography, we see her jumping, flailing her arms, and kicking her feet backward in frantic desperation.

What is interesting about this particular rite of human sacrifice is that we don’t see her ceremonially killed by someone else: no decapitation, no knife cutting her heart out. She must do the dirty work all by herself.

This is a forced suicide. This is the ultimate abuse, forcing her to destroy herself while all the others watch, her knowing no one will save her, which would shame her before the whole tribe.

The use of extreme dissonance and constantly irregular meters is fitting, for such music aptly expresses the Chaos-like, disorderly sense of what Lacan called The Real, an undifferentiated, and therefore traumatizing, world that cannot be symbolized or verbalized. This sense of the undifferentiated comes from the fact that the sacrificial victim, in giving her life for the tribe, is renouncing her sense of individuation to be submerged in the Dionysian unity of all things.

Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, described this Dionysian oneness as the opposite of Apollonian individuation: ‘Under the charm of the Dionysian not only is the union between man and man reaffirmed, but nature which has become alienated, hostile, or subjugated, celebrates once more her reconciliation with her lost son, man. Freely, earth proffers her gifts, and peacefully the beasts of prey of the rocks and desert approach…Now the slave is a free man; now all the rigid, hostile barriers that necessity, caprice, or “impudent convention” have fixed between man and man are broken. Now, with the gospel of universal harmony, each one feels himself not only united, reconciled, and fused with his neighbour, but as one with him, as if the veil of māyā had been torn aside and were now merely fluttering in tatters before the mysterious primordial unity.” (Nietzsche, page 37)

Now, one’s individuality being absorbed into the unifying All, like Atman into Brahman, can be a blissful experience, nirvana, if one voluntarily goes into it. This girl, however, has no choice but to be thus absorbed; and as I’ve explained elsewhere, there’s a dialectical unity between what we typically call Heaven and Hell, so her absorption into that unity under duress means she’ll be experiencing the hellish aspect of The Real, Bion‘s O, “the void and formless infinite” of Milton.

We see the men circling around the chosen victim as she stands trembling in the centre. The music has softened, yet is full of suspense and dread of the worst to come. Staccato sixteenth notes are played on bassoons, contrabassoon, and strings, with staccato 32nd notes on French horns. A threatening chromatic descent of sixteenth notes in a quintuplet is heard twice in the trombones, then in the trumpets. She briefly resumes her dancing with the sound of these brass instruments, as if their threatening notes were coming from the men.

She freezes for a moment again, as if her resolve to go through with her dance of death were faltering. Those staccato 32nd notes, once softly played on the French horns, are now loudly and aggressively bowed on the strings, and she is nervously moving again. The threatening chromatic descent is now heard in a different key in the trumpets in D and in the piccolos and piccolo clarinet in E-flat, raising the tension to an agonizingly dissonant climax in the brass and woodwinds, in a bar of 3/8, then of 4/8.

The soft staccato notes in the strings and French horns return. She is still and trembling again. She’s afraid to carry on with the dance…but she knows she must. Tense, chromatic waves of 32nd notes in quintuplets in the first violins, aided by similar playing in the piccolos, seem to restore her resolve (at least for the moment), and she’s moving about again.

The dissonant, metrically irregular beginning theme of the sacrificial dance returns, with added, extra pounding of the tympani. She’s doing the same jumping as before. She’s getting exhausted…but she cannot stop dancing. The men are sitting around her, not allowing her to rest.

The music explodes into a barbaric and chaotic sea-storm of sound, with sustained bursts of energy that sadistically pressure her to go to the polar opposite of her exhaustion. The tympani are pounding away, the horns are blaring, and she falls…but she must get up and continue!

She hits her fist on the ground in frustration, then gets up to dance again. She falls again, hits her fist on the ground again, gets up, falls…

Her leg is in pain. She mustn’t stop! More men in the circle surrounding her approach her, their dancing meant to inspire her…or threaten her, more likely…to continue. She’s twirling and flailing her arms about in a desperate attempt to give the best dance she can to the gods.

Any sacrificial victim would far prefer a quick death, the pain only brief before passing out. She cannot hope for such a happy death. As with crucifixion, hers will be a long, drawn-out, agonizing death in which one must keep moving long after total exhaustion makes even the slightest budge pure torture.

Though the “Sacrificial Dance” is only about four or five minutes long, we can assume that the girl’s dance to the death would be much longer. In a state of total exhaustion, yet still being required to dance, our poor victim will be moving around with every inch of her body in excruciating pain.

She is suffering the trauma of the undifferentiated state of The Real; life and death are one to her. Accordingly, the music ends with pounding rhythms of metric irregularity and dissonance after dissonance. After a brief, soft moment, the music gets loud and pounding, and it climaxes with her finally collapsing. The men pick up her dead body as an offering to the gods. The music ends with a final pounding of the bass and kettledrums.

IV: Conclusion

As I said above, we can find this music relatable to our world by seeing the human sacrifice, to appease the gods, as a metaphor for how we scapegoat people in our society as a cheap and easy way to rid ourselves of our pain. This is why the music is so dissonant: it’s a cathartic release of that pain.

Modern systems of farming, however, have ended the famines that plagued peasants living off the land throughout history, making such pain no longer an inevitability. The collectivization of agriculture in the USSR of the 1930s, contrary to popular belief and to Nazi propaganda about the “Holodomor,” actually ended the famines of that part of the world. The same is true of Maoist China, in spite of the bad start with the Great Leap Forward.

We now have the potential to feed, clothe, house, educate, and medically treat the people of the entire world…provided we use the world’s wealth properly. So why aren’t we doing this? Instead, some of our centi-billionaires are needlessly flying rockets into space while millions die each year of hunger. Aren’t these oligarchs, in a way, like the men in the circle, while the Earth’s wretches are like the girl dancing herself to death in the centre?

My point is that in today’s world, with the build-up of the productive forces, we have the potential for spreading love everywhere instead of dumping pain on the weak from a fear of scarcity that need no longer exist.

Forgive me, Dear Reader, if I’m getting too preachy here, but if our current world–with its ongoing ecocide, economic collapse, and threat of nuclear WWIII–continues down its present course, we’ll end up like those Disney dinosaurs.

Instead of destroying the Earth, let’s be in true adoration of Her. Let’s stop the dance to the death, and instead have a dance of life.

Analysis of ‘Conan the Barbarian’

I: Introduction

Conan the Barbarian is a 1982 epic sword and sorcery film directed by John Milius and written by him and Oliver Stone. Based on Robert E. Howard‘s Conan, the film stars Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role and James Earl Jones, with Sandahl Bergman, Gerry Lopez, Max von Sydow, Mako, Sven-Ole Thorsen, and Ben Davidson.

The film gave Schwarzenegger worldwide recognition, and in the years since its release, it became a cult film, making a lot more money on home video. It spawned a sequel, Conan the Destroyer, in 1984, and a reboot was made in 2011.

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

[My main concern in this analysis is the political agenda of this film. I very much like the movie, but that doesn’t mean I, as a leftist, agree with its politics, which I will criticize here. If you happen to love Conan the Barbarian, and you agree with the right-wing ideology that the film espouses–however subtly and allegorically–then this analysis is definitely not for you; therefore I recommend you read no further and find a more politically sympathetic write-up.]

II: Conservative Conan

I am analyzing Conan the Barbarian because it is very much a film of its time. Made in the early 1980s, it reflects, in symbolic and allegorical form, the politics of Reagan and his ilk. The film metaphorically not only glorifies the individualism that was and is part of the ideal of Reagan and other right-wing libertarians (who, incidentally, include Milius and Schwarzenegger), but also the reactionary hypermasculinity that went against feminist gains in the 1970s. There’s even a subtle nod to fascism in its light-brown-haired ‘Aryan’ muscleman hero fighting a black villain (Doom himself may not be black–he’s rather a member of an extinct pre-Atlantic race–but we see a black actor [Jones] playing him, and it’s the film’s social effect on our world that matters, not the fictional world it is literally presenting.), the decapitation of whom disturbed Roger Ebert. In fact, there was a white supremacist streak even in Robert E. Howard himself.

These three elements–right-wing libertarian individualism, hypermasculinity, and Aryan supremacist fascism–are interrelated, since the former two lie on a continuum with the extreme third (as even the social democracy of mainstream liberalism does, something Stalin noted). These three are especially interrelated in Conan the Barbarian, a highly entertaining film acting out the fantasies of mostly alienated pre-adolescent boys back in the early 80s (in spite of the film’s R-rating for violence, sex, and nudity); and it’s the mingling of these three ultraconservative elements that’s what makes the otherwise well-made film so dangerously seductive to such an impressionable young audience.

III: Steel

Let’s start with the notion of the “Riddle of Steel,” and what it can be seen to represent. While the fetish of weaponry (i.e., the steel of a sword) has long existed in literature–the Iliad, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, etc.–since this film came out during the early Reagan era and reflects the ideology of the time, we must consider what the steel of a sword can be seen to symbolize in the context of the film.

Steel is an alloy of iron with a tiny percentage of carbon to improve its strength. Iron, in turn, is an element forming much of the Earth’s outer and inner core (hence Crom, Conan’s god, is a god of the Earth). The point is that steel is derived from the Earth, fashioned for men’s purposes, as we see during the film’s opening credits. As a metal, like gold, silver, or copper, steel thus can be associated with money, the fetish of capitalists.

Since our concern is with the steel of a sword, we now move from the money-loving, Earth-plundering capitalist to phallic symbolism, thus linking the steel of a sword with hypermasculinity. After all, we don’t just see Conan displaying his muscles and brandishing a sword, but we also see him bed several women.

This hypermasculine association with phallic steel swords is reinforced in his constant killing of his enemies with his sword. This constant going out to far-off lands to kill others links the metal alloy of steel (symbolically associated with gold and coins) with the hypermasculine phallic sword and ultimately with imperialist plunder. Since this is a movie of the early Reagan era, we shouldn’t be surprised to see how these three elements of the “Riddle of Steel” are centred in capitalism.

IV: Flesh is Stronger

Of course, it must be emphasized that what Conan learns over the course of the film is that steel, the literal metal, is not the great source of strength that he, as a boy, came to understand from his father’s teachings. It is rather the steel heart of determination that gives one strength. In fact, Thulsa Doom (Jones), though originally coveting steel and killing Conan’s father and mother to acquire one of those swords, eventually learns that flesh is more powerful than steel, hence Doom’s snake cult.

Now, since Conan represents the heroic ideal of Milius’ libertarian/hypermasculine/cryptofascist myth, the villain of the film must be the ideological opposite. Conan, Valeria (Bergman), and Subotai (Lopez) are on Reagan’s side, so Doom must be symbolic of communist leaders like Stalin and Mao. Doom’s death cult is thus, thanks to the spurious anticommunist propaganda that flooded the Western media during the Cold War, representative of the wildly exaggerated death toll associated with communism.

Having a black man play Doom reinforces these associations for the film’s intended right-wing, white male audience. As I said above, it doesn’t matter that Doom, with his blue eyes and straight, long hair, is not actually a black man in the story: we as an audience see Jones, a black actor wearing blue contact lenses and a wig, on the screen. We make the necessary association, in spite of the actual race of the fictional character. If anything, the blue eyes and no Afro make one think of the experiments of Josef Mengele, who injected blue dye into people’s eyes to make them ‘more acceptable Aryans.’ The film’s fascist ideology is subtle, not obvious. The reason for this subtlety should also be obvious in the liberal world of Hollywood.

Now, if Thulsa Doom’s snake cult in this allegory represents the ideology of communism, and if he is right to have recognized that flesh is more powerful than steel, then his correctness goes against the tendentious political bias that this film is promoting. His affirmation of the superiority of flesh to steel, of the human will’s mastery of the sword, is a kind of Freudian slip that exposes the error of the right-wing ideology championed in Conan the Barbarian. After all, it was the steely determination of the Red Army that defeated the Nazis in WWII, in spite of the metal of the tanks of the Wehrmacht.

V: Freudian Slips

I’ve argued elsewhere that ‘Freudian slips,’ if you will, exist in many films, parapraxes that go against the bias presented in each of the films. The one I mentioned above in Conan the Barbarian isn’t the only one in that film. Others include the fact that our heroes, representing the “free market” capitalist agenda advocated by Milius and Schwarzenegger in the film’s allegory, are thieves by their own admission.

We on the left have always complained that capitalists–who exploit labour by taking, as surplus value, much of the value that workers put into the commodities they produce–are thieves who deny workers the full fruit of their labour, all for the sake of maximizing profit. When right-wing libertarians gripe that “Taxation is theft!”, being especially irked when tax revenue is put into social programs for the poor, they fail to understand how this ‘stolen’ money is really being returned to the poor from whom it was originally stolen by the capitalists.

Another Freudian slip is in how this film is supposed to reflect the right-wing libertarian opposition to ‘big government,’ as symbolized by Doom’s cult (for recall, libertarians tend to regard all socialism as ‘something a government does’); yet our hero, Conan, is understood to become a king at the end of the film. Though the film is set in a world of kings and queens, suggesting either feudal times or the ancient master/slave contradiction, these past class relations are still analogous to the modern contradiction of the bourgeoisie (and the state that protects its interests) and the proletariat; so seeing King Conan on his throne at the end of the film is a metaphor for the ‘government-hating’ libertarian who becomes the head of the government…as Reagan was.

VI: Libertarianism and Fascism

The notion of ‘big vs small government’ was and is a big lie. It isn’t the size of the state that makes it oppressive vs liberating; it’s whom the state serves–the rich, or the people–that makes it the one way or the other. So Conan, the thief who decapitates and disembowels with his sword, then becomes king, is hardly any better than Doom and his snake cult.

Remember that right-wing libertarianism isn’t the same thing as fascism, but the one exists on a continuum with the other. The only difference between the two is in how the material conditions of the world give rise to the one or to the other. Libertarian thinking is usually popular during economic good times (as is mainstream liberalism), when socialism is propagandized against as it was during the Reagan era. But when times are financially hard, as during the Germany of the 1920s, or over the past ten years, fascist and authoritarian systems of government tend to arise and even become relatively popular. As for our current situation, in which fear of disease is prompting measures that are disturbingly approaching totalitarianism, anyone who thinks Republican-friendly Biden is a communist is an idiotseriously.

The fascist ideology cunningly woven into the film’s narrative includes elements either rightly or wrongly associated with Nazism. These include the opening quote from Nietzsche‘s Twilight of the Idols (‘Maxims and Arrows,’ 8): “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” though at the film’s beginning, it’s rendered, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

Now, Nietzsche was about as far removed from being a proto-Nazi as anyone could be: just read his books, and note the many times he bashed his own country as a reaction against the disturbing growing trend of German nationalism that he saw all around him. Still, his pro-Nazi sister, Elisabeth Förster-Niezsche, edited his writing to make it seem sympathetic to Nazi ideology, and this association is sufficient for the film’s ideological purposes. After all, the opening quote, reflecting the film’s theme of determination, as well as such notions as The Will to Power, fit well with the themes of The Triumph of the Will. Add to these facts the film’s influence of Wagnerian opera, and we can further see the link, however subtle, with Nazism.

VII: The Barbarian’s Beginnings

Anyway, the story begins with Conan’s father telling him, a boy, to trust neither men, nor women, nor beasts…a perfect recipe for alienation. The boy is to trust steel and steel alone, which as I interpreted above means to trust the resources plundered from the Earth for the benefit of the rich, to trust the metal of coins fetishized by the rich, to trust a phallic symbol that encourages toxic masculinity, and to trust a weapon wielded for the sake of empire.

Later, Conan learns that he, indeed, can trust men (Subotai), women (Valeria), and beasts (the horses and camels he rides). His father was wrong. One of the most important things we learn as we grow up is, to our utter disillusion, how often our parents are wrong about things.

Since Thulsa Doom’s snake cult, in this allegory, represents the Soviet Union as demonized by right-wing propaganda, Doom’s raid on the Cimmerian village can be seen to represent how the Russian Revolution affected the country’s bourgeoisie in the late 1910s and in the 1920s (fittingly, the raid happens on a snowy day, suggesting a Russian winter). Conan’s steel-fetishizing parents can thus be seen to represent the Russian petite bourgeoisie, the confiscation of whose private property is symbolized by Doom’s taking of Conan’s father’s sword. The killing of Conan’s parents is, symbolically, just more anti-Soviet propaganda.

As a result, Conan’s simmering lust for revenge can be compared to the resentment of such Russian bourgeoisie as Ayn Rand, whose parents’ business was confiscated by the Soviets, and who emigrated to the US and got her revenge on the USSR by writing pro-capitalist novels and promoting her egoistic Objectivist philosophy.

VIII: Conan’s Coming-of-Age

Chained to the Wheel of Pain, young Conan grows up a slave. This is how self-pitying capitalists see themselves, not only under the dictatorship of the proletariat (where, thanks to Lenin’s NEP during the 1920s, the kulaks were allowed to make profits, and only when Stalin ended the NEP and collectivized agriculture, which benefitted the poor and ultimately ended famines, did the kulaks lose their profits, then, out of spite, hoarded food and killed livestock, thus exacerbating the bad harvests of the early 30s that were misrepresented as the “Holodomorhoax by Nazi propagandists), but also under social democratic forms of government, with their high taxes.

As a young man, Conan is given the opportunity to display his talents as a fighter. First we see this Aryan-looking Cimmerian (the casting of Schwarzenegger is more than ideal) fight and defeat a black man with razor-sharp teeth, the bestial savagery of whom reinforces that disturbing feeling we have at the end of the film, when Conan kills Doom. Recall Howard’s words contrasting whites and blacks: “The ancient empires fall, the dark-skinned peoples fade and even the demons of antiquity gasp their last, but over all stands the Aryan barbarian, white-skinned, cold-eyed, dominant, the supreme fighting man of the earth.”

This discovery and glorification of Conan’s abilities as a fighter represents a promotion of the capitalist ideal of competition. It is acceptable if the bourgeois, feudal lord, or ancient slave-master kills, but it’s never defensible if the proletarian vanguard, as represented in Thulsa Doom, kills.

IX: Women

Women in Conan the Barbarian are typically sexualized and treated as objects of men’s pleasure, hence the scene with the terrified, bare-breasted woman put in Conan’s cage so he can enjoy her while other men lecherously watch. It doesn’t matter that we see Conan put a blanket around her, playing the role of the ‘gentleman’: her fear and reluctance clearly demonstrate her non-consent. This is rape.

As for the beautiful witch (played by Cassandra Gava), who has presaged Conan’s coming, and who knows of Doom’s standard, with the snakes facing each other, again, it seems obligatory that she let him have her; note how she erotically crawls before him. And though Valeria is his equal fighting companion, he beds her, too. It is easy to see how all these women exist largely, if not almost exclusively, for male fantasy: this ties in with the hypermasculinity promoted in this right-wing film.

Connected to this is Conan’s ‘correct’ answer to the question, “What is best in life?” His answer, a paraphrasing of a Genghis Khan quote, glorifies conquest, implying a lust for imperialism, and the pleasure of hearing “the lamentation of [the enemy’s] women,” sounds like misogynistic sadism, a fascistic/imperialistic sadism. Small wonder right-wingers love this movie and Conan’s quote, delivered in Schwarzenegger’s German accent.

Why isn’t peace “what is best in life?” Why isn’t a society in which production is to provide for all “what is best in life,” rather than production to benefit a wealthy, privileged few? We wouldn’t expect these Mongol-like warmongers to embrace such pacifist, empathic values, of course, but the point is that the audience is expected to sympathize with the answer of the film’s light-brown-haired, Aryan-like hero.

X: Freedom and Friendships

Conan as a young man is freed, and in his travels is chased by dogs; he stumbles into an underground Atlantean colonist warrior’s tomb, where he finds an ancient sword. This going underground, then coming back up to the surface, is a symbolic death and resurrection, a theme to be repeated several times later in the film. His retrieval of the sword will make him feel as though he’s closer to discovering the Riddle of Steel, and his new, phallic weapon will make him feel like a rejuvenated man. What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.

He soon meets Subotai (based on a Mongol), a Hyrkanian, meaning someone from the Eurasian Steppe. This means he is someone who ethnically could be anyone from Eastern Europe to Xinjiang, Mongolia, and/or Manchuria. He’s made to look Asian, though the actor, Lopez, is a Hawaiian of Mexican descent. Just as Jones was made to look ‘less black,’ so is Subotai ‘not so Asian.’ His voice, incidentally, was overdubbed by the Japanese-American actor, Sab Shimono.

Conan and Subotai discuss their gods while eating. Subotai prays to the Four Winds, whom he considers superior to Conan’s Crom; naturally, our hero considers his Earth-god better than Subotai’s wind-god. Once again, we see a promotion of the spirit of competition, the urge to be superior, or at least associated with superiority, in our heroes’ banter.

XI: Thieves

They meet Valeria in the city of Zamora, and all three raid the Tower of the Serpent, stealing jewels and killing a giant snake there. Among the snake art we see there, usually two snakes facing each other, we also see an ouroboros, my symbol of the dialectic, which is fitting for how Doom’s snake cult is meant to represent the philosophy of Marxism-Leninism.

King Osric (von Sydow), impressed with these three thieves’ daring, and detesting Doom’s cult, pays them with all the jewels they can carry to rescue his daughter, who has been seduced by Doom’s ideas. The king’s love for his daughter is so great that he can easily give up so many jewels…but the eyes of the trio of thieves light up at the sight of so much wealth.

Conan, still with revenge on his mind, goes out alone to face Doom, since Valeria feels content just to take Osric’s jewels. Conan meets the Wizard of the Mounds (Mako), who also narrates the story. It’s curious how he, the film’s narrator, refers to Conan as his “lord” and “master.” Since this wizard is Asian, his subservient attitude to Aryan Conan reinforces the white supremacist undercurrent in this right-wing film. (Recall how, at the beginning, the narrator refers to the “sons of Aryus.”)

XII: Doom’s Cult of Personality

Conan reaches Doom’s Temple of Set, or Mountain of Power. Set, in the Marvel Universe of demons used in the Conan comics, is the “God of the Dead.” Thulsa Doom is based on two of Howard’s characters: the villain in Kull of Atlantis, yet based even more so on Thoth-Amon, a Stygian sorcerer in “The Phoenix on the Sword.” (One might also associate Set with the ancient Egyptian deity of violence, disorder, and foreigners, among other things, who was at times vilified for having killed Osiris, but who was also seen by some as a heroic deity.) Many see Doom as being like Jim Jones, the “apostolic socialist” cult leader whose control over his people was so complete as to make hundreds of them willing to kill themselves, as we see Doom have one of his female followers drop to her death.

Since Doom, in terms of the film’s Reaganite allegory, represents the ideological foe of the political right, this seductive death-cult leader is meant to represent the “cult of personality” seen in communist leaders like Stalin, Mao, and the Kims…at least as they’re portrayed in right-wing propaganda. What is little known, however, is that left-wing leaders like Stalin and Mao rejected the kind of idolatrous status that men like Hitler and Mussolini were all too happy to receive. Far from being the dictator he was believed to be, Stalin actually tried unsuccessfully to resign as General Secretary of the Soviet Union no less than four times; he had only one vote in determining Soviet policy, and often lost in these votes; and the notion of a “cult of personality” surrounding Stalin was actually a Khrushchev lie.

XIII: Doom’s Followers

When we see Conan among Doom’s many followers by the temple, it’s curious to note how, in their dress and their hair, they resemble hippies. This, I believe, is significant because far right-wing types tend, idiotically, to equate hippies with communists, when the former are so obviously liberal.

Conan approaches one of the priests, and it’s implied that this priest is homosexual and interested in our muscleman hero, who beats him unconscious and steals his priestly robes to disguise himself in. One shouldn’t be surprised to see our beloved hero act in this way: recall the German gay men forced to wear pink triangles on their Nazi concentration camp uniforms.

The dark robes of some members of Doom’s snake cult, including those worn by, for example, Rexor (Davidson), have a design in its contrasts of white and dark that, to my eye, vaguely suggest the clothing of rabbis, particularly those of ancient times. One normally expects snake designs to be round and swirling; but these snake designs are angular, square-like, and being dark against a white background, they vaguely remind me of Hebrew letters. I’m not saying any of this was consciously intended; I bring this up to suggest another fascist association often made with communism: the notion of Jewish Bolshevism. This Nazi association is made even though very few high-ranking members of the Bolshevik Party were Jews.

XIV: Christian Symbolism

Conan is apprehended by Rexor and Thorgrim (Thorsen), a spike on the latter’s boot is stabbed into Conan’s hand, and Doom gives the command, “Crucify him,” reminding us of what “the Jews” told Pilate to do with Christ (John 19:14-16).

And so, Conan is crucified on the Tree of Woe. While the religious world of this film is thoroughly pagan, of course, any rejection of Christian symbolism in this scene is absurd. After all, much of the make-up of Christianity is pagan mystery tradition, as Hyam Maccoby pointed out in his book, The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity. Many Christians try to deny the pagan influence on their religion, but even CS Lewis expressed the belief, in his book Mere Christianity, that his Christian God put the foretelling of Jesus on the Cross into the dreams of the people of all the heathen religions (page 37 of this pdf). These pagans, in Lewis’s opinion, misunderstood the message, and distorted it with myths of dying and resurrecting gods, or like Odin when nailed to Yggdrasil, whom Conan resembles on the Tree of Woe.

The accommodation of Christian symbolism into Conan the Barbarian also dovetails with the film’s right-wing message, since fascism and other forms of conservative politics have always found Christianity to be a useful tool for reactionary purposes. Make the toiling masses believe they will be rewarded in heaven, and they’ll work harder without complaint. Even libertarian-centrist Frank Zappa was worried about the direction that right-wing libertarian/Christian Reagan was moving America in; he warned of a future “fascist theocracy.” One can debate whether or not Zappa’s fears have been realized in the US, but the links between right-wing libertarianism, fascism, and Christian traditionalism are undeniable; all three of these can be seen, in a veiled symbolic/allegorical form, in Conan the Barbarian.

Francoist Spain was a combination of Falange fascism, monarchism, and Catholicism; in 1959, their government adopted “free market” economic policies. Pinochet’s right-wing authoritarian government in Chile also had “free market” policies courtesy of the Chicago Boys. While Nazi Germany made use of much of Teutonic pagan myth, Hitler et al also accommodated Christian ideas; Catholic Hitler and Nazi ideology tried to promote an ‘Aryan Christ,’ one not too far removed from light-brown-haired Aryan Schwarzenegger on the Tree of Woe.

My associating of Doom’s cult symbolically with “Jewish Bolsheviks” dovetails with this Christian interpretation of Conan’s crucifixion, since Nazi antisemitism has its roots in a two-millennia-old Christian antisemitism. Recall how Hitler used to enjoy reading Luther‘s antisemitic rants. Recall also how 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 blames the Jews for Christ’s crucifixion.

The relating of Conan the Barbarian with Christian ideas doesn’t end with our hero’s crucifixion. Valeria, Subotai, and the wizard rescue him, take him down from the tree, and treat his wounds in a manner reminiscent of the speculations of Hugh J Schonfield‘s Passover Plot. Unconscious Conan is beset by demons in the night, while Valeria fights them off (she’ll pay with her own life later); this scene symbolically suggests Jesus’ harrowing of Hell.

The next day, we see a rejuvenated Conan (“What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.”), suggesting the symbolism of a resurrected Christ. Now, Conan and his companions plan how they’ll infiltrate the Temple of Set and rescue Osric’s daughter.

XV: Orgiastic Music

Wearing stripes of black and white camouflage, our three thieves enter the mountain from the back. We hear choral music subtly reminding one of Orff‘s Carmina Burana (i.e., ‘O Fortuna’), but also suggesting Wagnerian opera, as Milius had always fancied his film to be. Images of large pots with the body parts of victims of cannibalism symbolically reinforce the anti-Soviet propaganda.

Added to this propaganda is the following scene, with our three heroes entering a large room with Doom and Osric’s daughter, and a bevy of beautiful women lying about orgiastically in the centre. Subotai remarks on the sight, calling it “paradise.” Right-wing ideologues assume that Stalin, Mao, the Kims, et al lived in the lap of luxury, when high-ranking members of communist parties lived only marginally better than their respective common populations. To see the obscene luxury of the capitalist über-wealthy, look no further than Bezos, Musk, Gates et al…and some of their ilk have been involved in their own orgiastic scenes.

Since I’ve been so critical of this film, I’ll take a brief moment to praise the waltz-like music in this scene. Film-score composer Basil Poledouris“Orgy” is a delight to listen to, with memorable melodies undulating throughout. It always stands out in my mind as one of the film’s highlights.

XVI: The Serpent

In this scene, we see Doom transform into a giant serpent. That his is a snake cult ties in well with the film’s Christian symbolism, for if Conan is our Christ-like hero, getting stronger after not dying from his crucifixion, then Doom as our villain is, fittingly, the Satanic serpent of the Garden of Eden, tempting such Eve-like women as Osric’s daughter and the half-naked women in the orgy.

The serpent, like the sword, is a phallic symbol in its own right, but one made of the stronger material of the flesh, not of steel. Phallic, serpentine Doom is leading women like Osric’s daughter astray, exploiting them, as the film would have us believe of leftist leaders; yet, was Conan any better with the bare-breasted woman in the cage?

Pre-Castro Cuba was teeming with prostitution when that right-wing butcher Batista was a puppet for American politicians and mafia. One of the first things communists do after a revolution is to work aggressively to rid their countries of prostitution, striving to provide women with the education, equal opportunities, and material conditions needed so they can avoid having to sell themselves to survive. Presenting Doom in an orgy symbolically portrays socialists as whoremongers; this pro-capitalist film is projecting right-wing guilt onto the left.

The thieves take the princess out and ride away. Doom, changed back into human form, makes a small snake into an arrow and fires it at Valeria, killing her. The superiority of phallic flesh over phallic steel is demonstrated again, for his command, “Seek,” is enough to ensure a hit. Valeria had paid the gods for interfering with the demons’ attack on unconscious Conan.

XVII: Valeria and the Princess

Conan burns her body with Subotai’s torch at her funeral. Subotai weeps for him, for as he observes, Cimmerians never weep. As the film’s masculine ideal, Conan reinforces the hypermasculine notion that ‘boys don’t cry.’ Subotai’s weeping for him suggests Asian servility to white supremacy, like the wizard’s servility.

We’re meant to believe that the princess’s continued allegiance to Doom is some kind of brainwashing, as right-wingers assume leftists to have, rather than a projection of right-wing brainwashing that ‘capitalism is freedom.’ So Doom’s shooting of a snake arrow at her is more symbolic anti-Soviet propaganda. The Battle of the Mounds, a desert-like region, reminds me of the then-already-underway Soviet-Afghan War that had been manipulated into being by Carter and Brzezinski: Conan and Subotai, luring Doom, Thorgrim, and Rexor to the mounds for a final battle, are thus like the mujahideen, well-paid and armed by the US (as Osric has paid the three thieves with an abundance of jewels), and bleeding Soviet power dry, as Conan does of Doom’s power, by killing Thorgrim and Rexor.

XVIII: Symbolic Castration, and Transcending a Father’s Wisdom

Indeed, the killing of Rexor is symbolic castration (with the help of Valeria as a glowing, Valkyrie-like spirit), with Conan’s breaking of his sword and realizing that the Riddle of Steel isn’t about steel per se, but about having the steely manhood to wield the sword with determination to win. In this way, Conan has outlearned his father, for part of becoming a man is going beyond the limitations of your father’s wisdom. Such an upstaging of your father is a symbolic castration of him (like Cronus‘ rising up against Uranus), and symbolic castration occurs in many forms in Conan the Barbarian.

Since I’ve equated serpents with the phallus, we can see Conan’s decapitation of the giant snake in his raid of the Tower of Serpents as a symbolic castration, too. And since Doom himself can be a giant serpent, his decapitation at the end of the film is also a symbolic castration. It’s interesting in this connection to note how Doom, immediately before Conan kills him, tries to hypnotize him and manipulate him by calling him his “son.” In Conan’s rise to manhood, he’ll have no one as his father, not even a father-figure in Crom, who, in Conan’s prayer to Him, says He can go to Hell if He won’t help him and Subotai defeat Doom.

In Conan’s prayer/curse to Crom, we see how the right-winger can take God or leave Him, depending on the circumstances. We’ve seen how Nazis can pose as Christians or as quasi-pagans. Similarly, such “new atheists” as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris have embraced neoconservatism as an imperialist reaction against Islam.

XIX: King Conan

The film ends with a shot of an older Conan sitting on a throne with an expression that suggests Henry IV‘s dictum, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” This image is reiterated at the end of Conan the Destroyer, with the narrative voiceover of Akiro the Wizard saying, “…he found his own kingdom and wore his crown upon a troubled brow.”

So Conan in the end will himself be a king, a ruler, the governor, as it were, of a people. Since this story, set in an ancient and fantastic world, is meant as an allegory of our times, his becoming a king represents how the libertarian ideal will eventually be the very government that people like Milius and Schwarzenegger so dislike (recall in this connection how Schwarzenegger would eventually be the Governor of California).

Similarly, the Koch brothers, of right-wing libertarian disposition, got heavily involved in influencing the government, as do Rand Paul and Ron Paul. The two Pauls, to be fair, are anti-war and opposed to the kind of rampant corruption we see in American politics today; but neither of them is willing to overturn the capitalist system that is, through the profit motive, the basis of all this corruption and all these wars. Perhaps that is the reason for King Conan’s “troubled brow,” his “uneasy…head.”

XX: Conclusion

Reagan ran on the idea that “government is the problem,” then he became the leader of that very government. His tax cuts to the rich, and those of similarly-minded politicians, allowed millionaires eventually to become billionaires, whose money has since been used to buy politicians to ensure that the state serves the rich rather than the people. The greater accumulation of capital, concentrating and centralizing it in the hands of the richest people, has required a larger government, not a smaller one, to protect all the resulting proliferation of private property. Libertarianism leads not to small government, but big, privatized government, hence Reagan’s inflated military budget. Conan, fighter of the powerful, will become one of them.

The right-wing message of Conan the Barbarian is subtle and muted–fittingly so, given the subtle and muted expression of the neoliberal agenda started by Reagan and Thatcher in the early 80s, when this film came out. Some on the left warned of the dangers of this resurgence of conservative ideas, but the warnings fell mostly on deaf ears, just as many would have considered this film to be harmless fun.

It seemed reasonable to most people of the time, myself included, to think of the collectivism of Doom’s followers to be representative of a supposedly similar Soviet collectivism, mindlessly obeying their leader and lacking in Conan’s virtuous individualism. But just as we don’t see what becomes of Doom’s followers after his head is thrown down the steps, neither did most people see how huge percentages of Russians and other Eastern Europeans didn’t want to see the security of the Soviet system give way to predatory capitalism.

Stalin rightly predicted that a dissolving of socialism would result in the most virulent reaction, grabbing the working class by the throat. In today’s post-Soviet world of extreme wealth inequality, the control of most of the American media by six corporations, epidemic homelessness, ecocide, and imperialist war threatening a nuclear WWIII, we see what Doom really is.

In the allegorical sense, Conan really was a barbarian…and a destroyer.

Analysis of ‘Tommy’

I: Introduction

Tommy is the fourth studio album by The Who, released in 1969. Most of the songs were written by Pete Townshend, with two songs by John Entwistle (“Cousin Kevin,” and “Fiddle About”), “The Hawker” being Townshend’s adaptation of a song with lyrics by Sonny Boy Williamson II; and “Tommy’s Holiday Camp,” though credited to Keith Moon, being based on his suggestion of what kind of religious movement Tommy could lead, was actually written by Townshend, too.

Though there are some historical precedents dating from the mid- to late 1960s, Tommy is the first album to be billed as a “rock opera,” according to Scott Mervis of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Townshend himself made some musical forays beyond the simple three-minute pop song from 1966 onwards, with songs that have extended narrative elements, resulting in such suites as “A Quick One, While He’s Away” and “Rael,” the latter having melodic material in its second half that was used in “Sparks” and “Underture.”

In 1968, Townshend became influenced by the Indian spiritual mentor Meher Baba, and deaf-dumb-and-blind Tommy Walker’s connection to the world through vibrations (making him amazingly gifted at pinball, as well as a spiritual leader in his own right) came from Baba’s mysticism. Indeed, this mystical connection is the flip side to Tommy’s self-isolating trauma response to the killing he, as a sensitive child, has seen, but has been forbidden by his perpetrator parents to acknowledge having seen or heard, or to speak about. This trauma reaction, Tommy’s mental block, was also influenced by Townshend’s own experiences of childhood trauma. As of 1968, the rock opera was referred to by such tentative titles as Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy, Amazing Journey, Journey Into Space, The Brain Opera, and Omnibus.

Tommy was acclaimed on its release by critics, who called it The Who’s breakthrough. It has been developed into other media, including the Ken Russell film of 1975 and the 1992 Broadway musical. The album has sold 20 million copies and has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Here is a link to all the lyrics of the album.

II: Traumatic Beginnings

The Overture is mostly instrumental, incorporating themes from “1921,” “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” “Go to the Mirror!”, “See Me, Feel Me,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Listening to You,” and “Sparks.” Another musical highlight is John Entwistle’s French horn. The song ends with one verse sung by Townshend, establishing that Tommy’s father, Captain Walker, is missing in action in WWI and presumed dead.

Tommy’s mother, left to raise the boy alone, takes on a lover. Though the year is 1921 in the album’s version of the story, Russell’s film changes the year to 1951; the war is thus changed to WWII, and her lover (played by Oliver Reed) has Fifties style hair. Furthermore, while on the album, Captain Walker kills his wife’s paramour, in the film, killer and killed are reversed.

Since the killing is the traumatic event that causes Tommy’s psychosomatic deafness/muteness/blindness, it’s interesting to explore the precise psychological circumstances of this trauma. We’re dealing with either the killing of Tommy’s father, implying an Oedipal wish-fulfillment (especially relevant given how the little boy’s mother is played by the oh, so hot Ann-Margret in the film), or the killing of her lover, suggesting what the boy’s daddy might do to him if he were to satisfy his Oedipal desires with her. (While Freud is generally considered passé today, recall how Townshend’s story was conceived at a time when the ideas of the founder of psychoanalysis were still in vogue, and his ideas are therefore a valid interpretation of the story’s meaning.)

Another crucial aspect of little Tommy’s traumatizing is the denying of what he’s seen and heard. The man and woman screaming at the boy, “You didn’t see it, you didn’t hear it!” happens while he says he did see and hear it, though his words are ignored. Such denial, or refusal to validate a painful experience, is the essence of gaslighting, which causes the victim to doubt his or her perception of the world–in Tommy’s extreme case, to doubt his very senses to the point where he feels forbidden even to use two of them.

The ultimate trauma, though, is in his being forbidden to talk about the painful incident. Being able to put one’s trauma into words is indispensable to healing, and his own parents, refusing to take any responsibility for what they’ve done, are denying the very thing the boy needs to do to get better. One is reminded of that old poem by Philip Larkin.

III: Lacan’s Angle

So this trauma, making Tommy psychosomatically deaf, dumb, and blind, has cut him off from society. The inability to communicate with others has isolated him from the world. Normally, a child of his age would, using Lacan‘s terminology, shift from the narcissistically Oedipal Imaginary Order to the Symbolic; that is, he would go from the dyadic mother/son relationship of self and other mirroring each other’s narcissism, to the healthy relationship of self to the many Others of society. Tommy’s move from other to Other would have been mediated by the Non! du père, the father’s prohibition of Oedipal incest with the mother, and the introduction of language, culture, law, and social customs.

Tommy, however, gets neither the Non! du père nor an introduction to language and culture. The murder of his mother’s lover (or, in the film, the killing of his father) precludes the boy’s entry into society with him seeing his father commit a crime (an antisocial act pushing Tommy in the opposite direction of society), or be killed. He cannot use language and relate to the Other of society if he’s deaf, dumb, and blind, so he cannot enter the Symbolic. Instead of le Non! du père, his is a case of les non-dupes errent: that is, not being duped by the hypocrisies of social life (because not initiated in society), Tommy errs in a non-Symbolic, solipsistic world.

If his mother is reunited with his father (or if, in the film, “Uncle Frank” [Reed] replaces his father, as Uncle Claudius replaced King Hamlet by crawling into Gertrude‘s bed), then Tommy cannot indulge in his incestuous, Oedipal desires with her, the transgressive jouissance of the Imaginary. He can be in neither the Imaginary nor the Symbolic. Therefore, Tommy is trapped in the traumatic world of the Real, a world of the undifferentiated, because of the absence of sight, sound, and speech.

IV: Heaven and Hell

Now, the undifferentiated world of the Real, or of Wilfred Bion‘s O, is not necessarily all traumatic. It’s actually on the cusp where heaven meets hell; it involves the dialectical relationship between the highest happiness and the most traumatizing pain. The only thing that marks the difference between an experience of bliss or one of horror is whether or not one is still attached to one’s ego (something formed during the mirror stage in the Imaginary).

In his essay Heaven and Hell, Aldous Huxley wrote of what he called antipodes, or extreme opposite “regions of the mind,” where one can have blissful or hellish visionary experiences, brought on by trances, meditation, self-flagellation, fasting, or the use of such drugs as LSD or mescaline, all of which in some sense biologically disable the mind–that is, turn off the senses, as Tommy has had his turned off.

Huxley wrote of how quickly one can shift from the blissful to the hellish experience: “In life, even the blissful visionary experience tends to change its sign if it persists too long. Many schizophrenics have their times of heavenly happiness; but the fact that (unlike the mescaline taker) they do not know when, if ever, they will be permitted to return to the reassuring banality of everyday experience causes even heaven to seem appalling. But for those who, for whatever reason, are appalled, heaven turns into hell, bliss into horror, the Clear Light into the hateful glare of the land of lit-upness.” (Huxley, page 90)

Now, we’ve already examined the traumatizing aspect of Tommy’s loss of connectedness with the social and sensory worlds. We must also look into the blissful, mystical aspect of his experience, something first heard in the song “Amazing Journey.” We learn that the “deaf, dumb, and blind boy [is] in a quiet vibration land.” The unifying vibrations of the Brahman-like universe are his only connection with everything around him…but they are also a powerful connection with it, because a connection not requiring the senses. Here we see the influence of Baba on Townshend.

These vibrations will be the mystical source of Tommy’s incredible talent at pinball. Since the regular, wave-like movement of these vibrations suggest a rhythm, we can see how Tommy’s interpretation of the world around him can be understood as a musical one. Such a context is what we need to hear “Sparks” in: a kind of musical dream. In this sense, “Sparks” can be interpreted to mean tiny flashes of symbolic light to guide Tommy through the darkness, and the rhythm of those vibrations is a sound he can feel rather than hear.

V: The Manic Defence

A quack/pimp known as The Hawker claims his wife, a drug addict/prostitute known as the “Acid Queen” can cure Tommy. The use of the lyrics to Sonny Boy Williamson II‘s blues song “Eyesight to the Blind,” which refer to how the beautiful prostitute’s sexy walk is so compelling that it would restore a man’s eyesight, his ability to talk and to hear, are effective in how they dovetail with my psychoanalytic interpretation of the cause of Tommy’s trauma.

The sexual allure of the Acid Queen (played by Tina Turner in the film), as well as the hedonistic escape that her drugs represent, embodies what Lacan called the objet petit a, the unattainable object-cause of desire. Since part of Tommy’s trauma is based on the violent expression of the paternal prohibition against the boy having his mother (given on the album in the form of his father killing her lover, on whom Tommy has projected his Oedipal desire; and given in the film in the form of “Uncle Frank” killing the boy’s father, usurping his position as his mother’s new lover and causing Tommy to have guilt feelings about a murder he himself has, however unconsciously, wished for…like Hamlet vis-à- vis Claudius, in Freud’s interpretation), the Acid Queen as seductress attempts to act as a replacement, a transference, for the Oedipally-desired mother, which if she succeeds, she theoretically could cure him of his mental block. Since the objet petit a never ultimately satisfies that forbidden desire, though, the Acid Queen’s attempt is doomed to fail.

Similarly, the boy may enjoy an intense LSD trip, as musically expressed in “Underture,” with musical themes similar to those of “Sparks” (implying the similarity between a drug trip and a blissful mystical experience of universal oneness, as Huxley observed), still, drugs won’t cure Tommy of his trauma any better than sex will. If anything, indulgence in these fleeting pleasures are the opposite of a cure, for they are only a manic defence against facing the pain, which is the only real cure. Hence, the Acid Queen’s drugs will fail, too.

VI: The Opium of the People

If drugs fail to help Tommy, religion, “the opium of the people,” will also fail. At “Christmas,” his parents fret about how the boy’s disconnect from the world around him means he doesn’t know about Jesus, and therefore cannot be “saved from the eternal grave.” Of course, these parents–being impenitent about a murder they’ve kept secret, a murder whose very secrecy is the cause of Tommy’s trauma–are in no position to judge whether Tommy, or anyone, for that matter, needs to be saved by Christ or not. Their main concern, in making Tommy a ‘good Christian,’ is in integrating the boy with the hypocritical bourgeois values of society.

Making Tommy know of religious custom, or the laws of morality and mores of society, is another manifestation of the Nom, or Non! du père (in this case, God the Father). But with Tommy, who won’t accept pretending he never saw or heard the killing (recall his protests of having seen and heard it in 1921), and who therefore won’t talk about it, is someone not willing to be duped by his parents’ social hypocrisies (including the phoney pretence of Christian piety). Therefore, the boy’s response to le Non! du père is les non-dupes errent: he won’t be duped into following the hypocrisies of society, so he errs in his psychosomatic disabilities.

Along with Tommy’s rejecting of hypocritical Christian piety is his flouting of other social graces. His playing of “poxy pinball,” of course, is a presaging of his uncanny skill at that game, but it’s a game played alone, without friends, and skill at pinball, like skill at billiards, is a sign of a misspent youth. Note how kids at Christmas normally are very excited, but the holiday means nothing to Tommy. He also “picks his nose,” a social horror that guarantees most people won’t like him. Still, since these dysfunctional habits are trauma responses to something his selfish parents have brought on, it is they, not he, who are to be blamed.

His parents ask, “Tommy, can you hear me?”, but if they’ve refused to hear him when he’s said he saw and heard their murder, why should he obligated to hear them? They should be more focused on removing the beams in their own eyes than on removing the mote in his eye (Matthew 7:3-5). Meanwhile, Tommy mentally pleads, “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me“: he so desperately wants to be able to connect with his parents, to be cured of his mental block.

VII: Fiddling About with Fourths

Indeed, far from making a decent attempt at curing him, his parents emotionally neglect him, something carried to the extreme that they “think it’s alright” to leave the deaf, dumb, and blind boy in the more-than-questionable care of, first, his bullying “Cousin Kevin” and his drunk, child molester Uncle Ernie, thus compounding Tommy’s childhood traumas.

A recurring musical motif in Tommy is the back-and-forth progression of suspended fourths to major chords (and variations thereof), a progression epitomized in “Pinball Wizard,” but also heard on “1921” (i.e., when we hear, “Got a feeling ’21 is gonna be a good year.”), and on such tracks as “Sparks” and “Underture” (i.e., the theme they share with that of the second half of “Rael”). In a way, it’s even heard on Townshend’s guitar part in “Cousin Kevin,” though the ‘suspended fourth’ part is actually in the context of a dominant 7th chord resolving to the tonic (i.e., the ‘fourth’ is really a minor 7th).

This back-and-forth, up-and-down movement between the suspended fourth and major third can be seen to symbolize the up-and-down, wavelike movements of the vibrations that Tommy feels are connecting him with the world. They’re the source of his mystical bliss, but paradoxically, they are also caused by his trauma. Significantly, the movement from suspended fourth to the major third chord is also a movement from musical tension to resolution (i.e., a symbolic move from pain to peacefulness). Hence, while we hear the back-and-forth of fourths and thirds in the mystical, visionary instrumentals (“Sparks” and “Underture”), as well as in “Pinball Wizard,” we also hear them in some of the trauma-oriented songs (“1921” and “Cousin Kevin”).

The trouble with childhood trauma, especially the kind that results in the “freeze” trauma response that Tommy’s deaf-dumb-and-blind mental block represents, is how quickly it attracts predatory types. Bullies like Cousin Kevin and child molesters like Uncle Ernie find people like Tommy, now a teen in the story, to be easy prey. Bullies and pedophiles are cowards who cannot take out their pain on people who fight back, so they prey on the weak, resulting in re-victimization for people like Tommy. PTSD thus grows into C-PTSD.

“Cousin Kevin” is sung by Townshend and Entwistle on the album, while in the film it’s sung by Paul Nicholas, whom we see torturing Tommy, who in turn is played by Roger Daltrey. “Fiddle About” is sung by Entwistle on the album, while in the film, the lyrics are growled by Moon, who plays Uncle Ernie. An amusing performance of this role, done during the reunited Who’s 1989 tour, was done by Phil Collins, dressed in the stereotypical pervert’s bathrobe, underwear, and with messy hair and glasses. Billy Idol did a profanity-laced performance as Cousin Kevin during that show.

“Fiddle About” switches from 4/4 to 3/4 when the song’s title is heard in the lyrics. That creepy, rocking 3/4 suggests the act of molestation, to our ears’ horror.

VIII: Heaven and Hell 2

It is fitting that “Cousin Kevin” should occur just before the Acid Queen giving Tommy his acid trip (“Underture”) in the sequence of songs on the album; then, that “Fiddle About” should appear just before “Pinball Wizard.” That is, two of the most traumatic events in his life should happen just before a great mystical or visionary moment, a move from hell to heaven. (Similarly, the traumatic “You didn’t see it!…” of “1921” immediately precedes the mystical/visionary “Amazing Journey” on the album.)

This juxtaposition of the worst with the best brings us back to what I discussed above about the traumatic and blissful aspects of Lacan’s Real Order and Bion’s ineffable O. Rudolf Otto, in his book The Idea of the Holy (1917, Das Heilige), wrote of the non-sensory numinous, the dual nature of experiencing God, which is both blissful and traumatic, mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Tommy’s traumas are so extreme that he’s come out the other end, dialectically speaking, from hell out to heaven; he’s so well connected to the world, so touched by God, so to speak, that he can excel at pinball without even seeing the ball.

As I’ve discussed in many other posts, I use the ouroboros to symbolize the dialectical relationship between opposites: the serpent’s coiled body represents a circular continuum with the biting head and bitten tail representing extreme opposites that meet, phasing into each other. All intermediary points are on the coiled body of the ouroboros, the head and tail of which can represent any pair of opposites–heaven and hell, sanity and insanity, etc.

In Tommy’s case, his mental state is right where the serpent’s head is biting its tail: the bitten tail is his trauma, and the biting head is the bliss of his mystical, visionary consciousness. So with the trauma of Uncle Ernie’s molestation of him, immediately preceding his amazing extrasensory powers as the usurper of the Pinball Wizard, we have a perfectly fitting juxtaposition.

IX: Tommy Uses the Force

How do you think he does it?” you wonder. “What makes him so good” at pinball? That Tommy has “no distractions” reminds me of that scene in Star Wars, when Luke is practicing with his lightsaber on the Millennium Falcon, and Ben has him wear a helmet with the blast shield down, making Luke unable to see the remote. Ben says, “Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them.” Then he tells sightless Luke, “Stretch out with your feelings,” and Luke can, through the “mystical energy field” surrounding him, sense when and where the remote will shoot at him, and he can deflect its shots perfectly. Similarly, Tommy is, so to speak, using the Force when playing pinball.

On the album, Daltrey sings most of “Pinball Wizard,” while Townshend, elsewhere quickly strumming those suspended fourths and major third chords on his acoustic guitar, sings some lead vocals during the bridge (quoted at the top of the previous paragraph). In the movie, Elton John plays the Pinball Wizard (in huge shoes!) and, on his piano, plays over the suspended fourth and major chord acoustic guitar strumming with fast, descending arpeggios of subdominant and tonic triads. The film version of the song is extended to include variations on the main guitar riff to “I Can’t Explain.”

X: The Mirror

A doctor is found who, his parents hope, will cure Tommy. In the film, he’s played by Jack Nicholson (“The Specialist”), who–like Oliver Reed–also sings…for good or ill. In the song on the album, we hear a refrain of Tommy’s “See me, feel me…”, a reflection of his trauma; then soon after, “Listening to you…”, a reflection of his mystical, visionary state of mind–again, a juxtaposition of his inner heaven and hell. Realizing that Tommy’s disabilities are all psychosomatic and not at all biological, the doctor et al advise that Tommy “Go to the Mirror!”

It is interesting, from a Lacanian perspective, that blind Tommy would be brought before a mirror, of all things, as an essential part of his cure. An infant establishes its ego, its unified sense of self, an ideal-I, by seeing itself in the mirror reflection for the first time, bringing it into the Imaginary Order. Apart from seeing itself in the specular image, the infant feels itself to be a fragmented body, awkward, lacking in boundaries between me and not-me, and lacking in a unitary identity.

The traumatic arrest in Tommy’s development as a child came from his having witnessed the murder and his parents gaslighting him into not seeing, not hearing, and never talking about it. Also, his having been deprived of his Oedipal desires (note that a baby seeing his mother’s loving smiles is also a metaphorical mirror that returns his infantile narcissism back to him; note also that, in the film, Tommy’s oh, so desirable mother is seen in the mirror reflection with Tommy during “Smash the Mirror”) is connected with the need to establish his ego before the mirror, something his trauma has frustrated. This connection is now key to curing him.

Having Tommy stand before a mirror and stare at himself also symbolically suggests therapy through the methods of Heinz Kohut–that is, a temporary indulging of narcissism through the mirror transference before gently weaning him of this indulgence through optimal frustration. The problem is that Tommy’s mother, chanting “Tommy, Can You Hear Me?” with the others, grows impatient and frustrated herself, and she decides to “Smash the Mirror.”

Such a smashing is far from the gentle weaning of optimal frustration. It’s much too sudden and abrupt, and the fragmenting of the mirror, its shocking suddenness, is symbolic of the threat of psychological fragmentation, a danger often averted by resorting to pathological narcissism. Sure, Tommy’s mental block is gone: he can finally see, hear, and speak, but his “Miracle Cure” is a superficial one.

XI: The Messiah

Now, the narcissism of Tommy’s fancying himself as a Messiah-figure is the one thing keeping him from falling apart and having a psychotic break with reality. What’s worse, as we see especially in the film, his family is indulging his megalomania to make a buck or two.

Tommy has already had “disciples” from the discovery of his amazing pinball skills, but now he’s become a “Sensation,” gaining many more followers, including groupie-like “Sally Simpson,” whose preacher father disapproves of her involvement in Tommy’s cult. Since he’s “free,” Tommy is trying to get as many followers as he can, people who, devoted to him, are treated as mere extensions of himself. They are the other, a mirroring back to himself of his ego, the other of the Imaginary (i.e., a form of the objet petit a, where a is French for autre, only one ‘other’), not the Other (many people) with its radical sense of alterity, the alterity of the Symbolic.

Wishing to cash in on Tommy’s new celebrity, his Uncle Ernie, his mother and Frank (in the film), set up “Tommy’s Holiday Camp.” This whole set-up would be the rock opera’s satirical take on all those who would exploit the spiritual yearnings of the masses for profit.

And at first, the masses go along with it. There’s an ironic twist in having them wear ear plugs, eye shades, and a cork in their mouths. As we know, Tommy’s psychosomatic disabilities gave him a mystical connection with the “deep and formless infinite”; but his followers, seeking to be pinball-playing imitators of Tommy as Christians would be imitators of Christ, are being wilfully deaf, dumb, and blind followers…that is, unthinking adherents of this phoney new religion that gives Tommy narcissistic supply.

When Tommy starts scolding certain of his followers for drinking, smoking pot, or being “Mr. Normal,” they grow disillusioned with him and his restrictions on their freedoms, realizing he is no different from any other religious leader who becomes too authoritarian and repressive. Thus, they all chant, “We’re Not Gonna Take it,” and reject his phoney cult.

XII: Rejection of the Messiah

Their rejection of Tommy leads to an ironic repeat of his “See me, feel me…” plaintive singing. Before, the traumatized boy had our sympathies; now that he’s not only regained his senses but also become a powerful cult leader, his pleas to be heard and healed fall on…deaf…ears.

This irony leads to yet another. The masses’ rejection of Tommy, their refusal to indulge him in his narcissism and megalomania, has made him retreat into himself again. Now, his singing of “Listening to you…,” instead of being straightforwardly visionary and mystical, has become dubious in this new, narcissistic context.

XIII: Conclusion

So, what are we to make of the ending of Tommy? Is it a happy one? To hear the driving guitar, bass, and drums of Townshend, Entwistle, and Moon, as well as the operatic grandeur of Daltrey’s vocals, harmonized by Townshend and Entwistle, one would think it’s a happy ending. The lyrics certainly seem upbeat at the end. Let’s consider, however, what has happened in light of the plot.

Tommy’s recovery from his trauma, from staring at a mirror which is then smashed by his mother, is a shaky recovery to say the least. He’s replaced his previous isolation with a narcissistic Messiah complex. In the end, his followers have rejected him, relegating him to his loneliness, and he’s withdrawn into himself. From this, can he really “see the glory,” “climb the mountain,” and “get excitement at your feet”?

I would describe these ecstatic words not as an attainment of nirvana, but rather as him deluding himself that he’s attained it, as a narcissistic defence against fragmentation. He can convince himself that he’s found the highest bliss, though he’s actually lost his mind, because as I’ve argued above, the heavenly and hellish mental states are actually opposite sides of the same coin.

Still, the very dialectical proximity of these opposing states makes the ending of Tommy ambiguous rather than pessimistic. Just as his childhood trauma also gave him his mystical connection with everything, so can his new isolation, with all the pain of the world’s rejection of him, make him once again pass the ouroboros’ bitten tail to the biting head of visionary bliss.

The “you” he’s “listening to,” “gazing at,” and “following” could thus be his rejecting herd of followers, or it could be God…or it could be both.

Analysis of ‘Déserts’

I: Introduction

Déserts is a 1950-1954 piece by avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse, scored for fourteen winds (brass and woodwinds), five percussion players (including tympani, xylophone, snare drum, and woodblocks), one piano, and magnetic tape. Deserts, according to Varèse, refer to “not only physical deserts of sand, sea, mountains, and snow, outer space, deserted city streets… but also distant inner space… where man is alone in a world of mystery and essential solitude.”

He elaborated by saying that what he meant by deserts are these: “All those that people traverse or may traverse: physical deserts, on the earth, in the sea, in the sky, of sand, of snow, of interstellar spaces or of great cities, but also those of the human spirit, of that distant inner space no telescope can reach, where one is alone.”

The piece was originally meant to be the soundtrack to a modernist film that was never finished, a film of images of the deserts of the Earth, the underwater sea, and outer space, but most importantly, the deserts of the human mind: his loneliness and alienation, especially after the terrors of the decade that preceded Déserts‘s composition: concentration camps, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, etc.

The piece is divided into seven sections, an alternation of four “Episodes” of music performed live by the ensemble of winds, piano, and percussion, with one of three “Interpolations” of magnetic tape recordings coming between each pair of “Episodes.” So Déserts is structured thus:

1st Episode
1st Interpolation of Organized Sound
2nd Episode
2nd Interpolation
3rd Episode
3rd Interpolation
4th Episode

Déserts is one of Varèse’s most radical pieces of music (and that says a lot, given the already experimental nature of the music he’d already composed before the 1950s). For in this piece, he introduces the use of pre-recorded sounds, a result of an anonymous gift of a tape recorder, which revived his musical inspiration, allowing him to compose music that would further advance its frontiers and experimental potential.

Until the 1950s, Varèse had been frustrated with the limitations of the technology of the time to produce the kind of new music he’d wanted to create. He was tiring of using the instruments of the orchestra, particularly the string section, which he’d used only sparingly (Amériques, Arcana, Offrandes, or the double bass in Octandre). The use of two ondes Martenots (or theremins, depending on the version) in Ecuatorial was something of an advance, but he needed more.

Hence, when Varèse should have been at the height of his creative powers, he actually composed very little, that is, in the 1940s. There was an ambitious idea, Etude pour Espace, that was never finished (<this arrangement of part of Espace was done in 2009). There was the Dance for Burgess (i.e., for Burgess Meredith), and Tuning Up (which was only sketched by Varèse, and completed by Chou Wen-chung in 1998).

But the totally new sound possibilities given to him through the tape recorder gift brought Varèse back. He regained his Muse, and created not only Déserts, but also Poème electronique in 1957-1958, for magnetic tape exclusively.

To understand Déserts, one must understand Varèse’s music in general, and for the uninitiated, such a general understanding is especially urgent, given how daunting this music will sound when heard for the first time. Frank Zappa was one of Varèse’s biggest and most famous fans, and he himself (also a composer and conductor of orchestral music) admitted that he couldn’t give “any structural insights or academic suppositions” as to how Varèse’s music works or why he liked it. As a teen, Zappa liked it simply for how ‘weird’ it sounded. Varèse’s music, Zappa says, is “completely unique.” If a fan like Zappa couldn’t explain Varèse’s music, the uninitiated will need insights far more desperately.

So I’ll try my best to give those insights myself.

II: Varèse’s Musical Language

To begin by painting with large brushstrokes, Varèse’s music is characterized by huge, dissonant sonorities and an extensive use of percussion, which isn’t generally used to punctuate rhythm, but rather to exploit and explore all the varieties of timbre it can provide. The dissonant sonorities are usually given through stentorian horns and shrill, sustained notes on woodwinds.

Varèse radically redefined music to mean “organized sound,” with a foreword-looking disregard for traditional notions of flowing, lyrical melodies, tonality, classical forms (sonata-allegro, binary, ternary, rondo, etc.), rhythm, or conventional groupings of instruments. Those huge, dissonant sonorities that I described above have come to be termed “sound masses.”

These sound masses of loud, dissonant brass and woodwinds tend to be contrasted with softer sections of individual, or small groupings of, percussion instruments (snare drum rolls, the quick tapping back and forth between differently pitched wood blocks, etc.) or solo woodwinds (flute, piccolo, or clarinet) playing long, sustained notes before the next loud, dissonant outburst. This shifting, from the softer passages of individual instruments to the large, loud groupings of horns and woodwinds, has been compared to natural processes of crystallization.

Varèse had an interest in science, and this interest naturally had an influence on how he chose to structure his compositions. So in the softer passages, the individual sounds can be likened to atoms and molecules; and the large, dissonant sound masses can be likened to the solids, the crystals formed out of those atoms and molecules. Smaller groupings of instruments can be seen to represent the middle phases of the solidifying process.

Varèse conceived of music as “sound as living matter.” So when we hear the crystallization of his sound masses, we can think of them as his intention to create living beings, so to speak. We should remember this when we look into Déserts specifically, a work about deserts of the mind, of people who are alone.

The basic parameters of Varèse’s music are duration, intensity, frequency, and timbre (sometimes space is considered, as in Espace, though the full exploitation of spatial effects in music has been the domain of such successors of Varèse as Karlheinz Stockhausen: listen to a live performance of Gruppen to get my point). For Varèse, these four parameters are all given equal importance.

Duration for Varèse isn’t subservient to traditional notions of rhythm or metre. One doesn’t usually tap one’s foot to Varèse. Instead, duration is more about holding notes at varying, sustained lengths. A note may be held, or repeated in short dots of sound, over a period of many seconds, rather than played to a beat–be this the regular beat of conventional music, or the asymmetric rhythms of, say, Stravinsky. As with the other three parameters, Varèse’s use of duration is generally divorced from conventional notions of ‘expressivity,’ which is not to say that his music lacks expressiveness, but rather that Varèse expresses himself in an entirely different way from the expression of the past.

Intensity for Varèse is his use of soft and loud dynamics. Interestingly, changes in dynamics on an instrument also result in changes in that instrument’s timbre. Don’t assume Varèse never toyed with the interrelation between intensity and timbre.

Frequency for Varèse is much more than just pitch. Sounds can be anything from the lowest to the highest frequencies, not necessarily with definite pitches. Sounds are made up of complex wave forms with multiple frequencies (i.e., the fundamental and overtone series), not just a single wave form. So in frequency, just as in intensity, we can find an overlap with timbre, something Varèse was deeply interested in exploiting to the maximum.

But frequency in terms of pitch alone in Varèse’s music leaves plenty to elaborate on. There is melody in Varèse–not nearly as much as in the music of his contemporaries, much less than that of those before him–but there is some. Varèse’s use of melody is unconventional, of course, using wide leaps and such dissonant intervals as minor 9ths, major 7ths, and minor 2nds. He also sometimes made use of the idée fixe, as in Arcana and Amériques.

Harmonically, Varèse’s music is obviously not tonal. It isn’t necessarily always atonal, either, though. There are ever-so-brief occasions when a melody or harmonic combination may seem tonic…then a cluster of dissonances will remind us we’re listening to Varèse. Consider the opening clarinet melody in Intégrales, which sounds like the 3rd, 7th, and upper tonic notes of a dominant 7th chord; then dissonances in the brass and woodwinds quickly dispel the aural illusion.

The fact is that Varèse didn’t conform to any harmonic system, traditional or non-traditional: not tonality, not Schoenberg‘s twelve-tone system, not Bartók‘s axis system, not Messiaen‘s modes of limited transposition, not the polytonality of Stravinsky or Milhaud–nothing remotely like any of these. Varèse seemed to be content to let the notes fall in any old way, because he’d always been more interested in frequency as an expression of timbre than of pitch. His use of sirens, as representations of a continuum pitch beyond twelve-tone equal temperament, should help us better to know how to think about his choices of pitch, rather than any use of scales or chords.

And finally, we come to what was perhaps Varèse’s favourite musical parameter, timbre. His fascination with timbre is why he used such an extensive number of percussion instruments in his works. Recall that one of Varèse’s most famous pieces, Ionisation, is to be played only by percussionists; these instruments are supplemented by such noisemakers as high and low sirens, two anvils, and a whip. Piano is also used, but not in its conventional, melodic way: it’s used as just another percussion instrument.

In his Densité 21,5 for solo platinum flute, again, though we hear monophonic melody throughout, the focus is on intensity and timbre. He was exploiting all the sound possibilities to be produced on the instrument, including tapping effects on the low finger keys about a third of the way into the piece.

Finally, as can be heard in Poème électronique and the three interpolations of organized sound in Déserts, Varèse uses electronically altered sound recordings on tape as an example of his love of exploiting timbre to maximum effect. Always remember that for Varèse, music is the organization of sound. Don’t listen for pretty, lyrical melodies (though that sort of thing can appear from time to time in his work–there is, after all, that one early work of his, written in a Romantic idiom, that he didn’t destroy, Un grand sommeil noir for voice and piano); listen instead for fascinating and imaginative manipulations of sound.

III: Déserts

Varèse’s discussion, in the above quotes, of deserts on the earth, in the sky, of sand, of snow, of interstellar space, etc., all seem to be metaphors for the deserts of the lonely human mind. On some level, this being alone could be manifested in the solitude of hermits and mystics; but the connotations of deserts suggest emptiness, lifelessness, purposeless stasis, and a sadness from being alone. The mystic’s solitude could be seen as an attempt to escape that sadness.

I will attempt, in my personal interpretation of Déserts, to find symbolism for this loneliness, as well as for mystical attempts to attain peace, in the musical structure of the piece. To begin with, note how there is no integration of the ensemble playing with the three interpolations of musique concrète. Such a division between these two ways of producing organized sound symbolically suggests a mutual alienation between people…and there’s nothing like alienation to provoke feelings of loneliness.

Déserts is probably Varèse’s most radical example of experimental music, of a break from almost every conceivable notion of tradition in music. Apart from the by-now-typical unorthodox instrumentation (no string section, extensive percussion as an integral part of the soundscape), as well as the introduction of tape recordings, he breaks even further with tradition here.

There is virtually no melody in this piece, except for a few ever so brief moments of rising and falling notes, including the lead-ups to those discordant fanfares, as Samuel Andreyev so aptly calls them. If melody is musical line, that is, curvy contours of notes going up and down in diatonic or chromatic steps or leaps, then the musical lines in Déserts were mostly drawn with a ruler, so to speak. We constantly get notes sustained or repeated in one pitch. Once again, his main interest is exploring timbre, durations, and intensities, not musical themes in the conventional sense.

Granted, there are a number of moments in the piece when we hear a woodwind or brass instrument play an alternation of notes a half-step from each other, going up and down several times (for example, the B-flat clarinet in bar 205). There are also two moments, in bars 45-46 and later in bars 50-58, when notes of an octatonic scale are heard in two separate transitions: first, G, B-flat, C-sharp, D, B-natural, and F; then, A-flat, G, and B-flat. But such moments as these are far more the exception than the rule in Déserts.

So, with single notes sustained or repeated on individual instruments making up most of the thematic material (except for the percussion sections and the fanfares, which will be dealt with later), we can see in each of these individual notes a symbol of aloneness.

Added to these lonely notes is a number of mirror chords, that is, chords whose notes reflect the same intervallic relationships among them. One example occurs in the first twenty bars of Déserts: in the bass clef, there is a stack of perfect fifths–D, A, and E; then, in the treble clef, there’s another stack of perfect fifths–F, C, and G. These six notes are static, unmoving during the beginning, except for the later addition of a B-flat, a B-natural, and a C-sharp. The diatonic mirror chord–opening the piece with Fs and Gs in the tubular bells (or chimes), xylophone, piano, piccolo, and B-flat clarinet, and later adding the other notes–symbolizes the lonely person looking in a mirror, seeing only himself instead of looking at others.

IV: Conscious vs Unconscious Varèse

Now, Varèse’s musical philosophy was such that one didn’t need to compose pieces with traditional notions of melody, harmony, rhythm, or conventional orchestration to move one’s listeners emotionally. Nonetheless, there’s the listener’s perspective on the matter as well as that of the composer, and the latter cannot realistically be expected to be oblivious to the attitude of the former.

Varèse may have consciously been dismissive of the idea that only conventional musical arrangements will move the listener in the desired, intended way; but there’s conscious intent and unconscious intent, too. Varèse may have been consciously unruffled by the vehemently negative reactions to his works when premiered before conservative audiences (and Déserts received one of those sadly typical responses); but this doesn’t mean he wasn’t at least unconsciously affected by that negativity.

There must have been something in his unconscious mind reacting with a ‘screw you’ attitude to the rejections he was getting from his audiences during those early performances of his work. Such mutual feelings of alienation between composer and audience, however unconscious and repressed for him, must have come out in its culmination in Déserts, through its extreme experimentation, even by Varèse’s standards, in its paucity of melody and gentle lyricism. He as an avant-gardist must have been in a mental desert of his own, which influenced how he wrote the piece.

Those sound masses of loud, dissonant fanfares are his crystallizations of “sound as living matter.” They are the children he’s sired, so to speak. They come into being between the quieter sections (for the most part), and therefore each sound mass, as a ‘living being,’ stands alone, in solitude, in a state of loneliness, surrounded by relative quiet on either side in musical time, a relative silence suggesting desolation. The fanfares are loud, dissonant sound masses because, experiencing the birth trauma of their crystallization, they’re screaming in pain. Existence is pain, as the Buddha observed.

Varèse surely didn’t consciously have this meaning for the sound masses; they’re just ‘organized sounds.’ Indeed, he once said that his music doesn’t tell any kind of story or have any kind of programmatic meaning; it’s just his music. Still, my interpretation, or something at least similar to it, surely is what the listener is imagining when hearing the sound masses in Déserts. Varèse, having grown accustomed to violent reactions against his musical experimentation, must have been sensitive to, and been anticipating, such reactions. All the same, he persisted in composing as he did, not just for the sake of experimenting, as he consciously conceived it, but as I suspect, unconsciously as an act of defiance against his conservative critics. This must, at least in part, have been what he meant when he famously said, “the present day composer refuses to die.”

V: Mystical Varèse

The quieter sections for percussion, especially those at the end of the third and fourth episodes, give a most vivid sense of loneliness and isolation, the deserts of desolation. On the other hand, there are also moments that seem to allude to a sense of mystical solitude, an urge to rise to a higher spiritual plane of existence. This surely is what the All Music Guide means when it says of Déserts, “The orchestra part expresses the gradual advance of mankind toward spiritual sunlight.” I’ve noticed several passages that suggest such an interpretation.

First, there are the opening tubular bells in F and G. They suggest church bells, ringing to summon the faithful but lonely to enter and receive edification. Then, there’s the association one can make of those horn fanfares with the arrival of the nobility. Their dissonance suggests pain, as I mentioned above, yet pain and suffering are also ennobling.

Finally, there’s the slow, gradual ascent of the following notes (mentioned in this video at about 12:05), buried in the first mirror chord mentioned above and the first two fanfares: C-sharp, D, E-flat, E-natural, F, F-sharp, and G. The burying of these rising notes symbolizes the mystery of spiritual ascent. In fact, the video linked above also mentions (at about 11:45) this chromatic rising as within the second fanfare, whose pitches are also all rising together.

Added to this idea of rising spiritually is how certain instrumentation, especially at the beginning, all play the same notes (if in different octaves), and at the same time, or at similar times. I’m thinking of the opening F and G notes in the tubular bells, xylophone, piano, B-flat clarinet and piccolo. Later, in bars 48-49 (see 15:26 of this video), we hear trombones and tympani playing major third intervals together (D-flat and F) in 5/4 time. This playing of the same notes by different instruments, when understood in relation to the notion of spiritual ascendance, can be seen to symbolize compassion and sympathy, which Schopenhauer deemed to be the basis of all morality.

VI: the Interpolations

The three musique concrète sections make use of sounds derived from factory noises and percussion instruments. The electronic alterations of these sounds seem to consist of a heavy use of reverb, echo, and distortion.

The sounds can be described, for the most part, as abrasive, percussive, and glissading. All three interpolations have at least a few manifestations of all three of these kinds of sounds, while the first has predominantly abrasive sounds, the second has more of the percussive kind than the other two sounds, and the third has more glissandi than the other two. A considerable number of abrasive sounds can be heard in all three interpolations, even if that sound isn’t always dominant.

That many of the sounds are derived from factory noises is thematically significant, given the context that Déserts is about the ‘deserts of the mind,’ a world of being alone. I mentioned alienation above, which is an especially modern problem considering the experience of workers in the world of industrial capitalism. Think of all those lonely, alienated workers in factories: hearing factory noises in Déserts is thus poignantly appropriate.

The abrasiveness of the sounds in all three interpolations, especially the first, is also significant in terms of what it can be seen to symbolize. The scratching, scraping, screeching metallic sounds evoke the harsh life of the factory worker, compounding his lonely misery. Such observations make me understand Varèse’s use of dissonance as more than just a transcending of the limitations of conventional harmony: the discords of the instrumental music shriek pain, just as these scraping sounds do in the interpolations.

The abrasive sounds are drawn out and sustained; when the instruments return in the second episode, we hear an abundance of sustained, dissonant combinations of notes played on the woodwinds and brass. So the second episode begins with a continuation of sustained, harsh sounds; this continuation of sustained harshness from the first interpolation to the second episode suggests the emotional effect of factory life on all the lonely people, whom I’ve described above as being symbolized by the crystallizations of loud, screaming fanfares of brass and woodwinds. Indeed, the loudness is sustained for quite a while in the first half of the second episode, before a substantial moment of relative quiet. That pain from factory life persists in one’s mind.

The second interpolation starts with much of the abrasive sound of the first, before the percussive sounds predominate. These sounds, presumably electronically altered xylophone and wood blocks, among other instruments, suggest again the toil of the workers hammering nails, anvils, etc. So we have a continuation of the theme of the plight of the lonely worker. These hammering sounds are carried on in the beginning of the third episode by the percussionists, with loud banging on the tympani, then later tapping on the xylophone.

The third interpolation seems, to a great extent, to be a fusion of the abrasive, percussive, and glissading sound effects, these last of the three coming more into prominence later on. The electronically altered glissandi seem like screams and wails of pain and suffering, the pain of the factory worker who is alienated from his work, from his coworkers, and from his species-essence. The very use of the then-new technology of magnetic tape, to produce harsh sound effects, is itself symbolic of how new technology can be, and often is, used to cause suffering, as in factories, with bombs, and modern surveillance.

VII: Conclusion

The fourth and final episode has a few more screams of fanfare pain in between moments of relative quiet, those quiet moments representing, as I mentioned above, isolating spaces between each crystallization of a lonely person shouting in agony. This continuation of ‘screams’ from the third interpolation and the fourth episode again suggests the emotional effect of factory life on the workers.

The piece ends with a long passage of quiet, using soft, sustained notes in the woodwinds and brass with intervals reminding us of the opening ninths and fifths in the first episode. These similarities between the beginning and ending of Déserts mean that the work has come full circle: the attempt to overcome the static, purposeless, lonely life through mysticism and religiosity seems to have failed (i.e., no chiming tubular bells are to be heard at the end–no ‘church’ to give guidance to the lonely).

This sustained softness, of relative silence, emphasizes the sense of aloneness, the empty deserts of the mind. Varèse composed Déserts not long after the devastation of WWII, so its horrors would not have been far from his thoughts. During this time, he complained about the conformist, conservative, money-oriented world he was living in.

These themes of loneliness, emptiness, and alienation make Déserts an especially relevant piece of music for our times in the 2020s, when we’re all being made to wear masks, practice social distancing, endure lockdowns, receive vaccinations that many fear haven’t been sufficiently tested, and–as many suspect–aren’t effective against new variants, and to risk losing our work and our homes. Whether one supports or is opposed to these new measures is irrelevant to my point, which is that the controversy is dividing us and alienating us from each other even more. Late stage capitalism is a desert all of its own.

May music like Déserts, Varèse’s appeal for a purer world, inspire us all to end our loneliness, and come back together as a global, human community.

Analysis of ‘Rope’

I: Introduction

Rope is a 1948 thriller film produced (with Sidney Bernstein) and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, adapted by Hume Cronyn and with a screenplay by Arthur Laurents. It is based on the 1929 Patrick Hamilton play of the same name (called Rope’s End in American productions), the play in turn having been inspired by the Leopold and Loeb murder case of 1924.

The film stars James Stewart, John Dall, and Farley Granger. It’s the first of Hitchcock’s Technicolor films, and is notable for taking place in real time and being edited to seem a single, continuous shot through the use of long takes. It’s also the second, after Lifeboat, of his “limited setting” films, since Rope takes place entirely inside an apartment (the outside showing only during the beginning credits and through windows throughout the rest of the film).

Contemporary reviews of the film were mixed, it did poorly at the box office, and neither Hitchcock nor Stewart were happy with the results of the real time experiment. The film’s reputation has improved over the decades, though, and it has, as of this writing, a score of 94% on Rotten Tomatoes (based on 49 reviews), with this consensus: “As formally audacious as it is narratively brilliant, Rope connects a powerful ensemble in service of a darkly satisfying crime thriller from a master of the genre.”

Quotes from the film can be found here.

II: Getting a Grip on the Rope

The symbolism of rope, and of rope’s end, ought to be discussed first. The continuous length of rope suggests the continuance of life, just like the real time continuity of the film. Still, the rope must come to its end, rather like the thread of life spun by Clotho, of the Fates, and cut by Atropos.

Similarly, though the film tries to simulate the effect of one seamless take of eighty minutes, back in 1948, takes couldn’t be any longer than ten minutes; so such tricks as having actors’ backs, or those of furniture, block the screen to allow unnoticed switches of reels, were necessary. Also, several cuts are unmasked, as at 19:45, 34:34, 51:56, and 1:09:51. So, there’s the continuity of Rope, as well as the Rope’s End cuts.

The symbolism thus is of life juxtaposed against death, for the ‘life’ of the party that carries on through most of the film coincides with the knowledge that there’s a dead man’s body hiding in a large antique wooden chest, on which dinner is served. Rope, of course, is also the murder weapon.

Hamilton’s play is also continuous in action, adhering to the three unities of place (one setting: the apartment), of time (that of the evening’s party, and no other), and of action (only the one plot of the party and the secret murder). Even this continuous action, though, is divided by the curtain fall at the end of each act: Rope‘s continuity is cut at Rope’s End.

Hamilton’s is what one would call a “well-made play,” whose characteristics are combined with the classical unities mentioned above; this form that it’s in is also symbolic of the elitist thinking of the murderers, who fancy themselves ‘well-made men.’ They are Wyndham Brandon and Charles “Granno” Granillo in the play, but respectively renamed Brandon Shaw (Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Granger) in the film.

These well-to-do young men would end a man’s life to clear the way for the lives of “superior” men like themselves. They use rope as an executioner would, and as Rupert Cadell (Stewart in the film) says at the end of the play, they’ll hang (i.e., by rope–perfect karma) for their crime (Stewart’s Cadell says they’ll die).

Apart from the paradoxical life/death symbolism, the rope can also represent a link between words and deeds. As Slavoj Zižek explains, ‘By means of a prohibition of montage, Rope enacts a psychotic passage à l’acte (the “rope” from the title of the film is, of course, ultimately the “rope” connecting “words” and “acts,” i.e., it marks the moment at which the symbolic, so to speak, falls into the real…the homosexual, murderous couple take words “literally,” they pass from them immediately to “deeds,” realizing the professor’s [James Stewart’s] pseudo-Nietzschean theories that concern precisely the absence of prohibition–to “superhumans,” everything is permitted).’ (Ziźek, page 42)

Another symbolism for the rope is to be understood in light of how the murder of David Kentley (played by Dick Hogan; in Hamilton’s play, the victim is named Ronald Kentley) is, metaphorically speaking, an act of gay sex. In this context, Kentley’s head and neck are the phallus, and the rope is–pardon my crudity, Dear Reader–the tightening sphincter.

This all ties in with the next topic of discussion.

III: Of Homosexuals and Homicide

With the prudish Production Code at the height of its authority and power in the late 1940s, one would think it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to include any gay innuendo in a film. Nonetheless, Hitchcock managed to pull it off with Rope, as he would later do in Strangers On a Train.

Though Hitchcock was a bourgeois liberal, he actually had quite a progressive attitude towards homosexuality for people of the time, and he was intrigued with the idea of suggesting that not only the two young killers, but also Cadell, were gay. Hitchcock often pushed the censors as far as he could (recall the kissing scene in Notorious between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, and how close we seem to come to seeing Janet Leigh naked in the shower scene in Psycho); so it would have been irresistible to him to drop many, many hints that the two young killers in Rope are a couple.

Not only are the characters gay, but so were the actors: Dall (closeted) and bisexual Granger. In fact, even the scriptwriter, Laurents, was gay…and he often wondered if Stewart knew that the character he was playing was gay. So Hitchcock had no bigotry towards LGBT people (recall that Anthony Perkins was also bisexual).

These characters in the film are gay because Brandon and Granno are hinted at being gay in Hamilton’s play, too. This is so because, in turn, Leopold and Loeb were actually gay lovers. Hamilton was a socialist, as Hitchcock was socially liberal, so both playwright and auteur would have wanted to address homosexuality in their productions of this story.

Now, the film begins with the strangling of (or symbolic sex with) David, who gives off quite an…orgasmic…scream. The lights are off, the curtains drawn in the middle of a sunny day outside; after all, we generally prefer to screw in the dark, don’t we? Especially if it’s in the socially taboo form of gay sex, something especially taboo before the second half of the twentieth century.

Phillip/Granno wants to keep the lights off and the curtains drawn for a while longer, since he’s the weaker-willed of the killers. Brandon fittingly lights a cigarette. Both are panting. They put Kentley’s body in the wooden chest, on which Brandon would proudly have dinner served.

After handling a phallic champagne bottle, Phillip asks Brandon how he felt doing “it,” a euphemism at the time for homosexual sex, but also of course referring to the murder, since the latter sin is symbolic of the former in Rope. Brandon answers that when David’s body went “limp” [!], he felt “tremendously exhilarated.” Now, how should we think about associating gay sex with murder?

The Legion of Decency–a group of Catholics working in association with the Hays Code, and watching every film of the time like a hawk to see if anything even suggestive of lewdness was there, and thus needing to be censored, boycotted, or banned–surely must have sniffed out the homosexual innuendo in Rope. Still, they approved of it. I suspect that they allowed Rope to go past the censors because, in their Catholic bigotry, they were happy to present to the public a film that associates homosexuality with homicide, a morality tale to deter the Christian flock from ever practicing…it.

But surely neither Hitchcock nor Laurents wanted to promote such an idea, did they? This seems to be where the good gay character, Rupert Cadell, comes in. Now, with Jimmy Stewart’s box office draw and charm as a movie star, the homosexuality of his character had to be toned down. The scenes in which Brandon and Cadell discuss “strangling chickens,” though, would be enough of a hint at Cadell being as gay as the killers.

The association of homosexuality with murder also hints, however subtly, that Cadell is either gay or at least philosophically approving of homosexuality. His defence of murder can thus be seen as a code for defending homosexuality. He is a liberal defending something deemed a sin by society; but like many a liberal hypocrite, he’s disgusted and horrified when presented with a graphic presentation of the act, as we see symbolized by Kentley’s murder, at the end of Rope.

The association of homosexuality with murder, in a way, can be seen historically in the homophobic fear–a totally irrational fear given the low percentage of the world’s gay people (as can be seen, for example, in these statistics of LGBT people in the US)–that tolerance of such sexual practices (anal and oral sex, mutual masturbation, or…choking chickens!) would result in a society producing far fewer children than an exclusively heterosexual, monogamous one. Such “murderers of [their] own posterity” as gays and perpetual bachelors were seen to be detrimental to the survival of any society (Farrell, pages 73-74).

Now, empires, in their political strength, have been somewhat more tolerant of homosexuality; but the Abrahamic religions started out as persecuted minorities, in whom a quick population increase was desperately wanted. Hence the homophobic passages unfortunately immortalized in the Bible (Leviticus 20:13) and the Koran (Al-Nisa, verse 16), meant to discourage gay sexuality, or similar scriptural passages condemning any sexual acts that didn’t result in children protected through the institution of heterosexual marriage.

Small wonder the Nazis condemned homosexuality as contributing to ‘race suicide,’ and put gay men in concentration camps. There was, however, Ernst Röhm, head of the SA, and a practicing homosexual. His sexuality was known, and Hitler grudgingly tolerated him for a while, because Röhm was so highly placed in the NSDAP; but when Hitler had come to power and needed to wipe out anyone who was deemed a threat to him, Röhm’s homosexuality was conveniently used as part of the rationale for having him killed.

A discussion of Nazi ‘superiority’ over homosexual ‘inferiority’ thus ties in with the next topic.

IV: From Untermenschen to Übermenschen

One of Hitchcock’s main purposes in making Rope was to discredit the Nazi notion of the ‘superior Aryan.’ We can see an irony in having two gay men, considered ‘inferior’ not only by Nazis but also by conservative society in general, who fancy themselves examples of the Nietzschean Superman. Röhm would have seen himself racially thus, too, as would his gay deputy, Edmund Heines.

[It’s interesting to note in passing that some have speculated that Nietzsche was gay. Also, one should recall how his younger sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, edited his writing to make his notion of the Superman seem proto-Nazi.]

To get back to Hitchcock’s intentions for the film, though, and his commendable use of Rope as a condemnation of Nazi thinking, on the other hand one mustn’t forget his reactionary stance as a bourgeois liberal, who during the late 1940s would naturally have been eager to distance himself from fascism as much as he could. All the same, consider in this connection what Stalin once said about liberals and their ilk: “Social-Democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism.” Nazis are to be crushed, not merely distanced from; and Western liberals were using unpunished ex-Nazis to help them fight the Cold War, starting right around the time that Rope was made.

Connected to all of this is a passage about homosexuals in Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis: ‘homosexuals or inverts…are men and women who otherwise have reached an irreproachably high standard of mental growth and development, intellectually and ethically, and are only afflicted with this one fateful peculiarity. Through the mouths of their scientific spokesmen they lay claim to be a special variety of the human race, a “third sex,” as they call it, standing with equal rights alongside the other two. We may perhaps have an opportunity of critically examining these claims. They are not, of course, as they would gladly maintain, the “elect” of mankind; they contain in their ranks at least as many inferior and worthless individuals as are to be found among those differently constituted sexually.’ (Freud, pages 313-314)

I bring up this quote because Hitchcock was known to have been heavily influenced by Freud and psychoanalysis, and gay Brandon’s and Phillip’s preoccupation with Nietzschean ‘superiority’ causes me to wonder if Hitchcock ever read the above-quoted book by Freud, its ideas influencing him in his making of Rope.

In any case, Brandon’s (especially) and Phillip’s/Granno’s sense of superiority doesn’t stem from their homosexuality, but rather from malignant narcissism, in which we see a huge overlapping of extreme narcissistic and psychopathic (ASPD) personality traits. Though the two may have felt narcissistic injury from being regarded by society as ‘sex perverts,’ and therefore wish to assert their ‘superiority’ by displaying the courage to kill, the thrill factor in killing Kentley seems to indicate the psychopathic side to Brandon’s personality, an impatience with boredom.

Now, Phillip/Granno, being the weaker-willed of the two killers, and lacking Brandon’s ability to tolerate stress (even though it is Phillip who does the actual strangling of Kentley!), is racked with guilt and stress throughout the film. While this guilt is surely a factor in his outburst, denying he’s ever strangled a chicken, this denial seems more connected with the implication, as stated above, that he’s gay rather than a killer. In other words, his lie that he’s never strangled a chicken seems to be his narcissistic rage at being implicitly labelled ‘queer.’

The narcissism of the two young killers can be linked to something else, in fact, something far more significant than being gay or wishing to emulate the philosophy of Nietzsche: it’s their elevated social class that gives them a false sense of superiority to most other people.

This ties in with the next point.

V: The Übermenschlichkeit of Capital

Brandon and Phillip/Granno, just like their real-life inspirations, Leopold and Loeb, are spoiled, well-to-do kids from affluent families. They’re preppy students living in a penthouse apartment in Manhattan, wearing nice suits, drinking fine champagne, and inviting similarly upper-middle-class friends to their evening party. They also have a servant in their employ, played by Edith Evanson.

Their smug belief in their supposed superiority is therefore symbolic of the narcissism of capital in general. Capitalist imperialists, like those in the British Empire, and now the US, have justified their plundering of the world–killing millions in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Southeast Asia (whether directly or indirectly)–by imagining their stock and civilization to be superior to all the brown people they’ve brutalized. Killing a fellow preppy like Kentley doesn’t deflate my argument, for those white imperialists, the Nazis, killed such whites as Jews and Slavs in their racist hubris, too.

Cadell’s ‘defence’ of murder is meant to be heard as a sardonic take on the hypocrisies of bourgeois society, not as a green light for Brandon and Phillip/Granno to kill. Cadell’s words, like Sade‘s glorification of the most heinous of crimes, are cloaked in irony. Cadell points out, in Hamilton’s play, that war is murder on a mass scale, and thoroughly approved of by patriotic society. Similarly, Hamilton’s Cadell approves of theft because society already condones capitalists’ theft of the poor through their ownership of private property: in this observation, he refers to Proudhon‘s notion that property is theft. Hamilton the socialist would have wanted to make this point to his audience, in the hopes of promoting progressive social change. In these ways, Cadell’s approval of crime is the opposite of capitalist Brandon’s relishing in crime.

…and the notion of narcissistic, bourgeois hypocrisy ties in with the final topic.

VI: Opening the Chest

Another part of narcissism is presenting a False Self to the world, a hiding of one’s True Self. Brandon’s and Phillip’s/Granno’s pretensions to superiority are an example of the False Self, while the concealment of their crime in the chest symbolizes the hiding of the True Self.

Since the crime is also symbolic of gay sex, the two killers are presenting themselves publicly as straight, ‘respectable’ members of society with their innocuous, high-class party. Phillip’s vehement yet dishonest denial of having ever strangled a chicken is an example of such pretending. Cadell, who knows better, and who is growing increasingly suspicious of his two young hosts, cross-examines Phillip, so to speak, while the latter is playing the piano. Cadell has witnessed the…choking of chickens…and knows Phillip has lied in his denial of committing the act. This cross-examination happens while Phillip has been playing, over and over again, the first of Francis Poulenc‘s Trois mouvements perpétuels. (Poulenc, incidentally, was also gay.)

The harmonic construction of the piano piece is a perfect parallel to the growing tension in the movie. It starts off with a pretty, light tune, the ideal sort of musical setting to a party with such people as the father (played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke), girlfriend (played by Joan Chandler), and friend (played by Douglas Dick) of the murder victim, none of whom of course know of the murder. But as the piano piece carries on, it grows–however subtly–more and more dissonant, something paralleled in the unease that the guests are feeling over Kentley’s never showing up for the party. Though Phillip never plays the first movement to the end, anyone who has heard it knows it ends at the height of inconclusive dissonance, just as the film ends at the height of tension and uncertainty for the two killers.

Now, Phillip has been revealing his guilty True Self through such parapraxes as breaking a wine glass in his bloodied hand and letting out nervous outbursts; his heavy drinking is also facilitating his disclosing of guilt. Brandon, on the other hand, enjoys suggesting that he’s guilty of murder, for he fancies himself above the common man’s hypocritical pretences of virtue.

In these ways, just as Rope demonstrates the dialectical relationships between life and death, continuity and breaks in it, ‘inferiority’ and ‘superiority,’ and pride (Brandon) vs. shame (Phillip), so does it demonstrate the dialectical opposition between hiding one’s True Self behind a mask of one’s False Self on the one hand, and on the other, removing the False Self mask to reveal the True Self, be such a removal through parapraxes or through the criminal’s vanity, his proud wish to display his murder to the world.

Just as the murder symbolizes gay sex, so does hiding the body symbolize hiding one’s homosexuality, while Brandon’s unconscious wish to have his mentor, Cadell, know of the crime represents a wish to come out of the closet…or come out of the casket, as is the case here…Brandon’s defiant wish to tell the world that homosexuality is no crime.

In keeping with the gay interpretation, though, we find that liberal Cadell, in his condemnation of the two young men’s symbolic gay sex act, is a hypocrite himself. He has philosophically condoned the act a mere 40 minutes before this condemnation, an unmasking of his own False Self. He thanks Brandon for this unmasking, just as Brandon has wished to be unmasked, too.

At the same time, though, in keeping with the capitalist/imperialist interpretation (particularly in Hamilton’s play), Cadell redeems himself by, first of all, frankly acknowledging his own guilt in killing in war and stealing in his ownership of private property, and second of all, condemning Brandon’s and Granno’s murdering of Kentley (an excess Cadell would never lower himself to), all out of a narcissistic fancying of themselves as superior.

Cadell’s redemption, however, is only partial: for as a liberal (as Hitchcock was), he is symbolically condemning the excesses of fascist delusions of superiority used to justify killing, while maintaining the bourgeois liberal class structure of society out of which fascism arises in times of crisis…just as Cadell’s verbal approval of murder inspired these two bad boys’ achievement of murder.

The rope that links the teacher and his pupils doesn’t end here, doesn’t get cut off, through the difference between word and deed. The continuity between the former and the latter is as smooth as Hitchcock’s deft camera tricks hiding the cuts between long takes.

Analysis of ‘Blowup’

Blowup is a 1966 mystery thriller film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, with a screenplay by him and Tonino Guerra, and dialogue by Edward Bond, based on the short story “Las babas del diablo” (1959), by Julio Cortázar. It is Antonioni’s first entirely English language film.

The film stars David Hemmings, with Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, John Castle, and Peter Bowles. A performance by the Yardbirds is featured towards the end, while the non-diegetic music was composed by Herbie Hancock.

Blowup won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The partial nudity and sexual content of the film defied the prudish Production Code of Hollywood, while its critical and box office success helped bring about the Code’s demise. Blowup influenced such films as The Conversation and Blow Out. Sight and Sound ranked the film #144 in its poll of the world’s greatest films.

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

To understand this enigmatic film, it helps to get acquainted with Cortázar’s enigmatic short story. The English translation, by Paul Blackburn, is also titled “Blow-up,” but the Spanish title means “The Drool of the Devil,” which refers not only to an older man in a car who seems to have lecherous designs on a teenage boy (more on that later), but also to the transient, evanescent existence of the drool, or spittle–“angel-spittle…devil-spit,” as Blackburn translates it at the bottom of page 109 (page 7 of the PDF, link above). This notion of transience, of evanescence, impermanence, the ephemeral, will be a dominant theme in both the short story and the film.

The narrator of the short story, French-Chilean translator/amateur photographer Roberto Michel–the filmic equivalent being London fashion photographer Thomas (Hemmings)–begins by struggling, in a state of great mental agitation, with how to tell his story. He’s even indecisive about whether to narrate it in the first or third person: he ends up alternating between the two throughout.

This switching back and forth between the first and third person narratives suggests a state of depersonalization, which is fitting given how traumatizing he finds the events following his taking of a picture of a teenage boy and his elder seductress (in a park on the Île Saint-Louis); his blowing up of the photo traumatizes Michel so much that he has a psychotic break with reality.

Indeed, several days after taking the photo, Michel blows it up in his room to scrutinize a detail of it, then he has a hallucination of the moving leaves of a tree in the photo’s background, of the woman’s hands moving, and of a man stepping into the picture. Michel speculates, to his horror, that this man is a pederast who has used the woman to help him seduce the boy, who has run away in terror as soon as the photo is taken. Michel’s photo shoot has saved the boy from the intended sexual abuse, apparently, but Michel has also lost his mind in the process of figuring out what (he thinks) has happened.

Michel’s loss of his grip on reality is the basis for understanding what happens in the film with Thomas, and his belief that his taking of photographs of a young woman (Redgrave) and her elder male lover in a London park–obviously the film’s equivalent of the short story’s boy and seductress–has prevented, or at least delayed, a murder (the gunman hiding in the bushes being the film’s equivalent of the pederast). Just as Michel, in his mental instability, is an unreliable (first or third) person narrator, so is Thomas’s perception of the details of his blown-up photos (and his account of his trip to the park at night, where he sees the dead body of the woman’s elder lover) unreliable.

Michel, prior to his taking of the picture of the woman and boy, is fully confident in his perception of visual reality; by the time he’s seen the blown-up photo, he’s lost that confidence. At the beginning of the film, Thomas is not only confident in his abilities as a photographer and in his visual perceptiveness, but he’s outright cocky and egotistical; by the end of the film, he has failed in his search for a deeper meaning in his photography, he’s become disillusioned with reality in general, and his dissolving into the green grass background represents the dissolution of his ego (more on that later).

So, if Michel has saved the boy from being raped by the pederast, why is he so upset over what he has seen? A hint can be found, I think, in his extensive, meditative description of the boy on pages 105-106 (page 5 of this PDF). Michel says “the boy was well enough dressed”; “it was pleasant to see the fingers of the gloves sticking out of his jacket pocket” (Could the glove fingers be phallic symbols?). The boy’s face, in profile, was “a terrified bird, a Fra Filippo angel, rice pudding with milk” (this last metaphor seeming to describe a creamy smooth cheek). The boy is “an adolescent who wants to take up judo,” suggesting he has a good body, or is at least working to build a good body. His home has “romantic landscapes on the walls”; he’s “mama’s hope…looking like dad.” Then there’s “the pornographic magazine folded four ways”.

From quotes such as these we can glean that Michel has revealed, through Freudian slips in the erotic connotations and imagery of his word choices, that it is he who has pederastic desires for the boy. As for the man in the car, who knows for sure what he is doing or thinking; perhaps, at the worst, he wants to watch the woman (his wife?) make love with the boy. Who knows? Does it even matter?

Considering Michel’s mental instability and hallucinating, we can have no doubt that he’s an unreliable narrator, so his belief that the man in the car is a pederast is on, at best, flimsy ground, if not outright baseless fantasy. Michel’s way of mitigating his guilty lust, therefore, is to project it onto the man; such an explanation would account for his mental breakdown (I’m not alone in the speculative opinion that he has repressed homosexual feelings), for even the hallucinatory projection wouldn’t eradicate the guilt from Michel’s unconscious completely. Repressed feelings always reappear in conscious thought, though in such unrecognized forms as projection and Freudian slips.

And just as Michel projects his guilty thoughts onto the man in his blown-up photo, so does Thomas on the imagined gunman in all of his blown-up photos, too. Thomas fantasizes that a gunman hiding in the bushes wants to shoot the woman’s elderly lover, but it is Thomas who has been shooting them…though with a camera instead of a gun.

We see photos of the woman looking apprehensively at Thomas, looking right into his camera, and of her looking in profile at the bushes, where the supposed gunman is; but I believe this second photo, and those that more explicitly show the gunman, are figments of Thomas’s imagination, at least in terms of how he interprets the meaning of those grainy, imprecise splotches of black and white in his photo blow-ups. He is projecting his intrusion, on the lovers’ privacy, onto the imagined gunman, as a way to mitigate his own guilty trespassing.

Now, why has Thomas–who until now hasn’t cared about how disrespectfully he’s treated his (generally female) models–suddenly become troubled about the situation with this woman in the park? Because unlike all those submissive “birds” who take shit from him all the time (i.e., his bossing them around, his objectifying of them, his inconsiderate tardiness for a shoot with Veruschka or his leaving a group of models in the lurch with their eyes closed), this woman complains of his unfair treatment of her. She demands to be treated with more respect; she fights for her rights. Unlike the models he dehumanizes, she demands, as a feminist would, to be treated like a human being, and this touches him.

Michel, at least unconsciously, treats the boy–Michel’s “angel…with his tousled hair” (page 113, or page 9 of the PDF–link above)–as an object, then his guilty conscience causes him to have a psychotic episode. Thomas objectifies the woman in the park, making her one of his models without her permission; and her assertion of her rights forces him to rethink his own relationship with the world…and with reality.

So Michel’s psychotic break with reality, based on a projection of his pederastic guilt onto the man in the car, is paralleled in the film with Thomas’s faltering sense of reality, based on a projection of his guilt onto an imagined gunman. This faltering sense of reality becomes the thematic basis for Antonioni’s film.

While Michel’s break with reality is blatant, with his hallucinations of his photo blow-up turning into a movie of sorts of a pederast’s attempt at a seduction, Thomas’s break with reality is far more subtle. Indeed, Antonioni’s film lies on the cusp between reality and non-reality. We don’t see anything surreal or hallucinatory, but we see realities that contradict–or at least seem to contradict–each other.

The theme of transience–of evanescence and impermanence, that short-lived spittle–is apparent in many forms throughout Blowup. The film begins with the credits against a background of the grass of the London park, Maryon Park in Charlton, to be exact; with Antonioni having had the grass painted a more vivid green, he’s given the park an Edenic quality (more on that later).

We see a car passing by, overflowing with boisterous people dressed as mimes. We will see them again, with that green grass, at the end, making the film come full circle.

Thomas appears leaving a flophouse with a group of impoverished men. He being as filthy and dishevelled as they are, we assume he’s as destitute as they are, since we don’t yet know anything about him, including the camera he has hidden in a crumpled-up paper bag.

Soon, though, we see him driving a nice-looking car after having sneaked away from the poor men. He isn’t destitute at all, with that fine automobile: we’ve seen the first of many examples of shifting, transient realities, or evanescent perceptions of them.

He arrives late for a photo shoot with Veruschka, as noted above, and he couldn’t care less about how annoyed and inconvenienced she is for having been kept waiting for so long. All that matters to Thomas is himself, not any of these “bitches.”

When he’s taking pictures of her, he gets closeups of her lying supine on the floor while he’s on top of her. Their positions, combined with his enthusiasm and excitement at her inspiring poses (as well as with his kissing of her a couple of times, and her outfit, which reveals along the side openings that she’s naked under it), means that this photo session is symbolic of, if not almost literally, him fucking her.

An important point must be made in connection with this juxtaposition of closeup camera shots and of his virtual shooting in orgasm. The taking of a photograph is a capturing of a millisecond moment, to be preserved in a permanent form…that is, one intended to be permanent, one desired to be permanent.

Buddhism teaches us that nothing is permanent, and that attachment to things, none of which can last forever, leads to suffering. Thomas the self-centred, sexist egotist, in practically screwing his model (including in the figurative sense of having made her wait an hour), is bursting with desire for her and for all the photos he’s taking, those evanescent moments he’s so attached to.

Still, he wants something more from his art than just taking pictures of (in his opinion) vapid fashion models. He wants to find a greater meaning. So he leaves a group of them–whom he’s been barking orders at and told to keep their eyes closed while they wait for him to return, which will be never–to wander off to an antiques shop…then, to that park.

Just as he treats his models like commodities (and fetishizes them accordingly, as described above), so does Thomas fetishize literal commodities, be they the use-values that his painter friend, Bill (Castle), paints and only later makes sense of what he’s painted (and won’t sell to Thomas), or the exchange values he finds, like the propellor, in the antiques shop. Just as he’s into his own ego, so is he into things; this craving, this attachment to what is perceived as having a state of permanent fixity–be they things or his own ego–is what he must overcome to rid himself of his unhappiness and emptiness.

He goes up into that park that he’ll later describe to Ron (Bowles) as “very peaceful, very still.” Indeed, there’s something symbolic of the Garden of Eden in this place, with not only its trees and pre-Fall serenity, but also the two frolicking lovers, who in this context correspond to Adam and Eve.

Such a scenario would make Thomas into Yahweh, “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3: 8) with his camera to intrude on the lovers. They hear his sound, and the woman is especially apprehensive, as if caught naked and wishing to hide as Adam and Eve did. The imagined gunman in the bushes is thus the devilish serpent, linking him with the devilish ‘pederast,’ and his spit, in Cortázar’s story.

Thomas has ruined paradise for the lovers, in his egotistical wish to steal their moment for his new collection of photos. Her complaining of his taking their pictures without their permission–to the point of following him to his home and continuing, with great agitation and even an offer of her body to him, to get the photos back–has planted the seed in his mind that his ill treatment of people, especially of women, is a judgement on him. In his egotism, he’d rather project his guilt than confront it.

This is why his projection of that guilt onto an imagined gunman is so important to him. This woman, Jane, has presented herself to him as a complete human being, as more than just one of those “birds,” his models. He realizes there’s a real person in that attractive body, with wants and needs just like him.

Everyone else is just somebody he uses to advance his career whichever way he can advance it; but Jane shows agency–she doesn’t just passively react to him and his whims, she moves right into his personal space and demands her rights be respected. He doesn’t normally experience this sort of thing, so she’s pulled him out of his solipsism. He has to acknowledge the existence of other people.

To give another example of the ephemeral in his presentation of the truth, Thomas–as he gets to know Jane in his home–speaks of a person on the phone as his wife. Then he admits to lying about that, saying they only have some kids out of wedlock. Then he admits this is a lie, too, but that she’s easy to live with…then he admits she isn’t easy to live with, and he doesn’t live with her. The ‘truth’ keeps changing, and changing, and changing. He has no qualms about lying to her at first, but her humanity is forcing him to admit to his lies.

Why she is so anxious to get the photos from him is never revealed–recall that his belief that a murder has been committed, that she’s supposedly trying to conceal, is just his interpretation of the sin committed. In fact, her dalliance with the elder lover, the one believed to be murdered, could simply be an affair she doesn’t want displayed in Thomas’s photos. After all, she tells him she doesn’t live alone. At her age, she thus is presumably married, and the man in the park is her paramour.

So once she’s left his home with the (wrong) negatives and he has received from her the (wrong) name and phone number he wants so he can contact her again (Note how their attempts at connection are vitiated by their dishonesty with each other, a symptom of alienation!), he goes to examine the park photos. He marks one of them, something he wants to see enlarged, and he blows up the photo.

This blowup leads to the enlargement of several photos, with which he constructs, in his mind, the narrative of someone hiding in the bushes. The details of these black-and-white photos are vague, blurry, and grainy, so the image of a man’s head and hand (supposedly holding a gun and pointing it at Jane’s lover) is far from certain.

The central point of Blowup is how huge the disparity is between reality and our perception of it. Thomas is trying to glean a hidden reality from split-second images forever caught in a state of fixity; but reality is never fixed or frozen…it is fluid, ever-shifting and changing. Those white spots that, to him, look like a man’s head and hand could actually just be the light reflecting off the leaves of the bushes.

When we see Jane’s photo in profile, her seeming to look in agitation at the bushes where the ‘gunman’ is hiding, for all we know, she could have just swung her head around for any old reason, and the photo just caught her head in that split-second position as a pure coincidence. Or that particular photo could be a figment of Thomas’s imagination, a mental duplicate of the real photo of her looking directly at his camera, at him, agitated that he’s taking pictures of her and her lover without their consent.

Thomas’s experience of Jane as a real, flesh-and-blood human being, and not a model (despite his attempts to make her into one), has caused him to feel a kind of remorse that has made his unconscious create another man in the bushes (recall that Thomas was in the bushes, too, as he took a few pictures) on whom he can project his guilt. He thinks his blowups are uncovering a deeper truth, but actually they’re making him stray further and further away from the truth.

Consider how those vague splotches of white, the ‘hand’ in particular, are further enlarged to reveal, in precise detail, a hand holding a pistol with a silencer on it, aiming it at Jane’s lover. How do we go from a blurry splotch of white, only vaguely suggesting a hand, to so exact an image of a hand holding a gun? The enlarged splotch should become only a larger one; no details can be revealed from it…that is, except in Thomas’s overactive imagination.

Thomas fails to understand from all of this that no photograph can capture an ever-flowing and ever-changing reality; a photo can only represent it, give an impression of it. Such an understanding is the basis of impressionist art: painters such as Monet knew that no painting could ever capture a scene in all truthfulness because of how such things as the wind blowing at leaves changes their position, or how light reflects off of things differently from second to second because of such changes in position. So Monet could only paint ‘impressions‘ of natural scenes–hence the blurry look of his and other impressionist works. Thomas’s wish to capture truth in a state of fixity is the basis of his deluded sense of reality, a delusion grounded in desire and attachment.

Speaking of Thomas’s desire, two teenage girls, aspiring models to whom he earlier wouldn’t give the time of day, suddenly appear at his door, hoping he’ll do a photo shoot of them. While Jane, in her pressing to have him acknowledge her rights, has affected him somewhat, he’s still largely the same self-centred man who uses girls for his pleasure, then kicks them out of his home as soon as he’s had his fun with them.

In his narcissism, he’s imagined that he saved the life of whoever the ‘gunman’ intended to kill; now, in his continuing narcissism, he’s going to enjoy these two teenage “birds” with little, if any, thought as to whether they are willing to give themselves to him (apart from a wish to further their modelling careers).

Since his sense of reality has begun to fade with his shaky, fantasied grasp of the meaning of the photos, we can easily assume that his romp with the two girls–on that large piece of purple construction paper, symbolic of a bedsheet–is distorted by his narcissistic wish to believe they want to have sex with him as much as he does with them. It’s far from likely that the sex was consensual, especially if the girls are underage. Consider how frightened the topless blonde is when he makes sexual advances on her; he thinks she’s playing hard to get…I don’t think so. She and the other girl switch from fear to giggles far too fast for it to be believable; I think he’s imagining the giggles, which may have been more like screams.

Still, just before he kicks them out, having blamed them for tiring him out, he sees something new in one of the photos, something suggesting he failed to protect the victim of the shooting of the ‘gunman,’ thus deflating his narcissistic fantasy that his impromptu photo shoot has made him a hero. Since Jane’s protestations against Thomas have led him to see a disturbing projection of his guilt, has his sexual encounter with the girls–bordering on, if not lapsing into, the realm of rape–provoked further unconscious guilt in him, which he’s now projecting onto the ‘gunman’ having succeeded in killing Jane’s lover?

In Cortázar’s story, Michel’s break with reality comes from, in my interpretation, a projection of his pederastic desire for the teen boy onto the man in the car. In Antonioni’s film, I see a parallel process going on with Thomas’s taking advantage of the teen girls, then finding his own grip on reality slipping further, all because of his projected, unconscious guilt. His phallic camera took shots of Jane and her elderly lover, his literal phallus took shots inside the girls, and now he projects his shots onto the phallic pistol of the imagined gunman.

Indeed, Thomas returns to the park that night, and he sees the corpse of Jane’s lover lying supine on the grass by a bush. I believe Thomas has imagined the body: I find it unlikely that the man was shot dead in the morning (presumably when Jane was trying to retrieve the camera from Thomas at the stairs of the park, our not hearing the gunshot being due to the silencer on the pistol), and that the body lay there all day, never noticed until Thomas finds it in the dark. (The park, lacking lampposts, would be much darker than what we see, which is because of the lighting of the film crew.) The darkness thus has facilitated his hallucination.

He goes back home after hearing a twig snap nearby (either imagined by him, or caused by something completely other than, presumably, the ‘gunman’ trying to sneak up on him); then he visits Bill’s home, where he sees him making love with Patricia (Miles). The juxtaposition of sex with killing is curiously recurrent in this film: just as Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit can be seen as symbolic of sex, and this leading to them losing their immortality, so do sexual encounters lead to some sense of death, or are at least associated with death, in Blowup. Certainly, Thomas’s sense of reality is dying, with all of this sex going on. Desire in an impermanent world leads to suffering, or the death of happiness.

He returns home, only to find it burgled: all of his enlarged photos (save the closeup of the ‘corpse’ by the bush), as well as his negatives, have been stolen. Presumably Jane, who’s realized he cheated her in giving her the wrong negatives, has sent someone to burgle his home, in my interpretation, to conceal her affair with the elder man, but in Thomas’s, to remove evidence of the murder she’s implicated in.

Thomas feels an attachment to his interpretation (i.e., that the splotch of light by the bush in the enlarged photo is the dead body of Jane’s lover), so the theft of his proof of the ‘murder’ is the frustration of that desire, the denial of indulging his attachment, which leads to suffering in the Buddhist sense. His grip on the reality he is so used to is slipping. Slavoj Zižek writes, “the body is, according to the code of the detective novel, the object of desire par excellence, the cause that starts the interpretive desire of the detective…” (Zižek, page 143)

Patricia, who noticed Thomas watching her when Bill was on top of her, comes to his home to ask him why he went to Bill’s home. In this scene, Thomas tells her about his conviction that a murder was committed in the park. He speaks to her with uncharacteristic respect: all other women, no more beautiful than she is, are called “love” or “bird” by him, or are barked at by him. He is so shaken by his interpretation of the photos, as depicting a murder, that they have transformed him.

They have transformed him, of course, because he has transformed them. In chapter one of Transformations: Change from Learning to Growth, WR Bion discusses such things as, on the one hand, a field of poppies or a psychoanalytic session, and on the other hand, a painting of the field of poppies or the therapist’s interpretation of the analytic session. The first two things are the actual experiences, the realizations; the second two are representations of those experiences or realizations. Going from realization to representation is what Bion called transformations, which is an effective way of thinking about what Thomas has done with the park incident (realization) with his photos and subsequent blowing up of them (representations). He has transformed what happened into what he merely thinks happened.

He thinks that by blowing up and analyzing the photos, he’s coming closer to the truth, but really he’s straying further and further away from it. In Cortázar’s story, Michel acknowledges he’s imposing his own ‘truth’ onto his photos (page 103, page 4 of the PDF: “the photographer always worked as a permutation of his personal way of seeing the world as other than the camera insidiously imposed upon it”; later, on page 107, page 6 of the PDF, “Strange how the scene…was taking on a disquieting aura. I thought it was I imposing it, and that my photo, if I shot it, would reconstitute things in their true stupidity.”). Thomas is, little by little, coming to the understanding that he’s been imposing himself on his ‘reality.’

He shows Patricia the one photo left behind, a vague, grainy closeup of what he sees as a head and upper torso lying on the grass by the bush. She says it looks like one of Bill’s paintings, and, recall, Bill himself doesn’t know what he’s looking at as he paints them, but only later finds meaning in them. Thomas, in imagining his photos have depicted a murder, is doing the exact same retrospective interpreting as Bill.

Thomas’s faltering sense of reality isn’t making him act wildly, like a madman, as is the case with Michel; rather, Thomas seems merely crestfallen as he realizes how wrong he’s been. Still, he tries to get proof elsewhere. He drives out to find Ron, but he first spots a woman who seems to be Jane outside a club where the Yardbirds are playing, so he goes in. (Incidentally, ‘Jane’ is standing by a sign that says “Permutit,” presumably for a hair salon, but the fortuitous choice of a name for the sign is associable with permutation, what reality in Blowup is all about.) He doesn’t find her in the club, but the gig is itself interesting to comment on.

The Yardbirds are performing their high-energy rendition of “Train Kept A-Rollin’” (actually renamed “Stroll On” in the film, with new lyrics by singer Keith Relf, because they couldn’t get the legal rights to the original lyrics), but the audience is watching the performance standing still, not at all bopping to the beat; one would think that, instead of watching a rock band, they were contemplating a Jackson Pollock painting in the MoMA. Only two people are seen dancing to the song.

It is only when Jeff Beck–frustrated that he’s getting buzzing noises from his amp (which exposes the Yardbirds’ music-making as the illusion that it is…and this film is all about exposing illusions)–smashes his guitar Pete Townshend-style and throws the broken-off neck into the audience, that the audience finally comes to life and grabs at it. The fetishizing of a commodity is of more appeal than actual music-making.

Since I have written about how Blowup presents reality as an ever-shifting phenomenon, as opposed to how we perceive it, or want to perceive it, as being in a state of fixity, it seems apposite to discuss the evolution of “Train Kept A-Rollin'” in this light. The song started out as a jump blues tune by Tiny Bradshaw in 1951, with lyrics based on “Cow-Cow Boogie,” from 1942. In 1956, Johnny Burnette and his band did a guitar-riff driven version, with an early example of deliberately distorted guitar. Next came the Yardbirds’ version, opening with Beck’s guitar imitating a train whistle and Relf singing two superimposed vocal tracks; in the film, we see Jimmy Page and Beck giving the song a powerful dual lead guitar sound. Their version would become the standard way of playing the song, later emulated by early Led Zeppelin (“the New Yardbirds“), Aerosmith (who begin the song at a slower tempo before speeding it up), and Mötörhead. Like reality in Blowup, this is a song that always changes.

Thomas finds Ron in a house where a party is going on and everyone is smoking marijuana. Perceptions of reality are once again being altered. Thomas wants to have Ron go with him to the park to see the body and take a picture of it, but Ron is far too stoned to be of any help. Veruschka is at the party, smoking dope with everyone else; she was supposed to be in Paris, yet she says, “I am in Paris.” One can be high on much stronger dope than pot, and still be aware of what city one is actually in. Thomas hearing her say she’s in the wrong city, and country, is not due to her being stoned: it’s another manifestation of his ever-weakening grip on reality.

Ron asks again what Thomas has seen in the park, and the answer, the penultimate word of the film, is “Nothing.” Thomas says this, knowing it’s pointless getting Ron to help him, but also because Thomas is slowly realizing he’s been making a big thing out of nothing.

Nothing can also be interpreted as “no thing” (no fixed state of being), wu, or sunyata, the nirvana-like void from which everything comes. Thomas’s realization that all that he’s been groping for is nothing, there is no corpse in the park (as he indeed discovers the next morning), and so there is no deeper meaning in the photos he took there, has led not only to his sad disillusion over the whole thing, but also his liberation from those illusions. In losing the corpse, he loses his attachment to it.

That deeper meaning he’s been trying to get out of his art has resulted in an absurdist failure. One cannot capture reality in a fixed form: it always shifts, changes, and therefore loses its original contextual meaning. Back in that Edenic, nirvana-like park, Thomas is beginning to accept this disappointing truth. Reality is impermanent, just like the impermanence of the ego. He’s also being humbled.

The carefree mimes have accepted absurdist, empty reality from the start, but they ‘play the game’ of life all the same. They don’t need rackets or a tennis ball: they’ll just pretend, as all of us should do in life, provided we all understand that it’s just an illusion. One can be happy in absurdity, as Camus observed.

As Thomas watches the mimed tennis match, he smirks and gradually accepts that things like rackets and tennis balls are a part of the maya of the universe, an illusion, because nothing has any sense of permanence.

When the ‘ball’ is knocked out of the court, and one of the mime players gestures to him to retrieve it, he does so, with an acceptance of the illusion that is life, but also with a new understanding that one should help others. He’s stepping out of his egoistic shell.

The mimes resume their game, which we no longer see, but now hear. Yes, we hear rackets hitting a ball. Once again, reality has shifted, this time from seeing to hearing. He smirks again, then frowns. Pleasure is fleeting.

We see a far shot of him on the grass, going over to pick up his camera. Hancock’s jazz soundtrack begins again, just as at the beginning of the film, which has come full circle, like a spinning of that huge propellor.

With Thomas’s acceptance of the fluidity of reality, including the fluidity and impermanence of his own ego, he attains a kind of nirvana. Hence the dissolving of his body into the Edenic green background, just before the end title.

Thomas, like Michel, tried to capture reality in a fixed, photographed state. Michel went mad and tried to pacify himself with visions of clouds and birds passing by. Thomas has come to accept what he can’t capture, because reality, like the train, kept a-rollin’.