The Sixth Poem from ‘Diverging Paths’

Here I’ll be looking at Poem #6 from Jason Ryan Morton’s collection, Diverging Paths. Recall that I’ve looked at many of his poems in previous posts, if you’re interested in looking at some of those. As usual, I’m setting his words in italics to distinguish them from mine. Here’s the poem:

This isn’t real this is a dream, 
When I wake I swear I will 
Never sleep again, 
Every waking moment a sin, 
God knows I’ve tried, 
But I’m lost in this, 
Magick and emotion, 
Turning down the podium, 
To stare into the heresy, 
Spiral unreality, 
Shadowing in moments lost, 
A vision of Holocaust, 
Sadly no divine intervention, 
Only death, 
And God a blemish,

And now, for my analysis.

The speaker, I suspect, is someone other than the poet, since, though I know the poet to be someone going through some difficult times emotionally, I don’t think he’s experienced a psychotic break with reality, as seems to be the case with the speaker here.

The speaker seems to be rejecting both dream and reality as too painful to bear. By a rejection of all, I mean a refusal to take in and accept any forms of stimulation from the outside world, Wilfred Bion‘s beta elements. In Bion’s theory of thinking, raw sensory data from outside, initially irritating, has to be processed (through what Bion called alpha function) into detoxified material acceptable for thought (alpha elements). In layman’s terms, this means that emotional experiences have to be processed in order for the brain to cope with them. (Click here for more on Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

If external stimuli aren’t processed and made into thoughts, one cannot sleep, dream, or even experience waking thought. Without this ability to process thought, one becomes psychotic.

Bion explained it thus: “If the patient cannot transform his emotional experience into alpha-elements, he cannot dream. Alpha-function transforms sense impressions into alpha-elements which resemble, and may in fact be identical with, the visual images with which we are familiar in dreams, namely, the elements that Freud regards as yielding their latent content when the analyst has interpreted them. Freud showed that one of the functions of a dream is to preserve sleep. Failure of alpha-function means the patient cannot dream and therefore cannot sleep. As alpha-function makes the sense impressions of the emotional experience available for conscious and dream-thought the patient who cannot dream cannot go to sleep and cannot wake up. Hence the peculiar condition seen clinically when the psychotic patient behaves as if he were in precisely this state.” (Bion, page 7)

I discussed this issue in my analysis of The Machinist, in which the main character, Trevor Reznik (played by Christian Bale), goes through a psychotic break with reality when he refuses to process his own emotional experiences, namely, his guilt over having hit and killed a child in a car accident, then driving away without taking responsibility. As a result, he doesn’t sleep for a whole year, descending into madness.

To get back to Jason’s poem, the speaker rejects what he’s experiencing, calling it a dream. He says he’ll never sleep again upon waking, since what he’s experienced is so intolerable, so impossible to process and turn into detoxified thought. Yet, “every waking moment [is] a sin,” so waking moments are as impossible to process as unconscious ones.

He’d rather be in a world respecting old ways and old gods, one represented by such archaic spellings as “magick.” Such an idealized world is one the speaker feels lost in, since it’s so much better than the painful one of today. He finds himself “turning down the podium” (i.e., not wanting to go up, be seen by an audience, and communicate with them). He’d rather “stare into the heresy” of an alternate reality not accepted by mainstream society (i.e., the Church), which is seen as “spiritual unreality,” but also the unreality of not wanting to face the painful, but real, world. “Moments lost” are shadowed-in traumas, that is, erased from memory, hidden in the darkness of the mind, repressed.

The pain of a trauma so severe that it must be rejected is seen as a “vision of Holocaust.” There’s “no divine intervention,” either of the Judeo-Christian or pagan kind, when psychosis has replaced coping with reality. So one experiences “only death,” and God seems to be only “a blemish.”

Note that “God” can represent an authority figure, like a stern father. So as a blemish, this harsh authority figure could be the root of the trauma that has caused the speaker to want to run away from painful reality, and to reject all stimuli and all thinking that makes a connection with the world possible.

That way madness lies.

The Ouroboros of Philosophy

I: Introduction

My concern here is not with presenting an encyclopedic understanding of philosophy and its history; I am in no way qualified even to attempt that. Instead, I will look at selected examples of philosophical ideas as manifestations of what I see the ouroboros as symbolizing.

As I’ve explained in a number of posts, I use the ouroboros to symbolize the dialectical relationship between opposites. The serpent, coiled in a circle and biting its tail, represents a circular continuum whose extreme opposites meet and phase into each other, the biting head being one extreme, and the bitten tail being its opposite. The coiled middle of the serpent represents all the intermediate points on the continuum, the moderate points between the extremes.

The dialectic, often being a dialogue of two disagreeing philosophers presenting their opposing opinions in a back-and-forth debate, has been the basis of so much of the history of Western philosophy that I find it illustrative to use my ouroboros symbolism to systematize the dialectic. Such a systematization is what I will attempt here.

II: Ancient Greece, and the Ancient East

Thales, interestingly, conceived of the universe as having originated in water. He believed this origin to be literally true, as Aristotle explained it in his Metaphysics:

“Most of the first philosophers thought that principles in the form of matter were the only principles of all things. For they say that the element and first principle of the things that exist is that from which they all are and from which they first come into being and into which they are finally destroyed, its substance remaining and its properties changing…There must be some nature–either one or more than one–from which the other things come into being, it being preserved. But as to the number and form of this sort of principle, they do not all agree. Thales, the founder of this kind of philosophy, says that it is water (that is why he declares that the earth rests on water). He perhaps came to acquire this belief from seeing that the nourishment of everything is moist and that heat itself comes from this and lives by this (for that from which anything comes into being is its first principle)–he came to this belief both for this reason and because the seeds of everything have a moist nature, and water is the natural principle of moist things.” (Aristotle, Metaphysics 983b6–11, 17-27…Barnes, page 63)

I, on the other hand–and as anyone who has read enough of my blog knows–interpret the water origin metaphorically, hence the name of my blog, Infinite Ocean. The rising and falling of the waves symbolize the opposing sides of the dialectic, the movements up and down each being a sublation of thesis (crest) and negation (trough).

It is from this notion of water that we move on to Heraclitus and his notion of endless movement. I discussed his ideas here. Diogenes Laërtius, in his Lives of the Philosophers, had this to say about the beliefs of Heraclitus: “All things come about through opposition, and the universe flows like a river. The universe is finite, and there is one world.” (Barnes, page 107)

To make a temporary digression from ancient Greece to ancient India, the endless, watery flow of everything in the universe has been used to describe Brahman, Atman being but a drop of this water. Furthermore, this universal Oneness, this monism that has been attributed to Thales, Heraclitus, and the Hindus is described as flowing and moving; yet this monism, pushed to its extreme, from its flowing to its extreme opposite, a Oneness of motionless stasis, is found in the philosophy of Parmenides and Zeno.

Parmenides insisted that notions of motion and plurality are illusions, the maya of the Hindus. All is one according to him; the universe has always been, is now, and always will be, an unmoving, unchangeable sphere. This Oneness is a reaction against Heraclitus (or vice versa) and against the philosophical pluralists, movements from the bitten tail of the ouroboros to its biting head, shifts from one extreme to their dialectical opposites.

In fact, Parmenides’ young pupil (and lover), Zeno, went so far as to defend his teacher’s rigid monism by devising a number of paradoxes to show the illusory nature of motion, change, and divisibility. His paradoxes, again, were a reaction, a dialectical shift from bitten tail to biting head, against the pluralists. Zeno’s point, as understood by Plato, was that if his paradoxes–for example, of infinitesimally divided walking distances precluding the possibility of getting anywhere, or Achilles never catching up to the tortoise, or a never-moving arrow in flight–are absurd, so much more absurd are the pluralists’ ideas.

As Plato expressed Zeno’s meaning: “My book attacks those who say that several things exist, aiming to show that their hypothesis, that several things exist, leads to even more ridiculous results, if you examine it properly, than the hypothesis that only one thing exists.” (Plato, Parmenides…Barnes, page 152) It isn’t about the ideas in themselves; it’s about ideas in dialectical opposition to others.

Parmenides’ and Zeno’s unchanging monism can, in a way, be compared to the eternal soul of Atman in Brahman, which in turn was reacted against in Buddhism’s adoption of the doctrines of anattā (or anātman) and impermanence. Again we see the dialectical movement of one doctrine, felt to have been pushed too far (e.g., Atman is believed to exist despite a lack of empirical evidence), over to its opposite (no soul or permanent self), a shift from the biting head to the bitten tail of the ouroboros.

The dialectical relationship between opposites, as I symbolize with the serpent’s head and tail, can also be seen in the yin/yang symbol of Taoism. The white dot in yin, and the black dot in yang, are like the teeth of the head stabbed into the tail. One opposite is experienced in the other.

III: From Doubt to Certainty

Another example of the ouroboros of philosophy can be found in the radical doubts of René Descartes. His doubting of the certainty of any kind of existence, including his own, found him passing beyond the bitten tail of extreme doubt to the biting head of cogito, ergo sum, which given more fully is dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum: “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.”

His very doubting, brought to such an extreme of doubts of existence, becomes the very existence, his own existence since he’s the one doing the doubting, that gives him a certain foundation for knowledge on which he can at least hope to build further certainties.

IV: Hegel and Marx

A few centuries later, we come to Hegel, who systematized the dialectic as a confrontation of, and resolution of, contradictions simplified in Fichte‘s triad of “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis,” a formula Hegel neither used nor liked. For my part, I prefer the terms thesis, negation, and sublation, which instead of being in the simplified form of a triad, go round and round in a circle of endless manifestations of contradictions to be clashed together and sublated, over and over again.

A simple but convenient example of Hegel’s dialectic can be found in his Science of Logic. He opposes being and nothing, which I would represent respectively as the serpent’s biting head and bitten tail. Then, his sublation of these contradictions, becoming, I’d represent as the coiled middle of the ouroboros.

Another example of the ouroboros of philosophy, as seen in Hegelian thought, can be found in his master/slave dialectic. Two men confront each other: a struggle ensues, and one attains mastery over the other. In my ouroboros symbolism, the master is the serpent’s biting head, and the slave is its bitten tail.

Over time, the slave’s creative efforts build up his sense of worth and usefulness to his master, as well as his own recognition of self-consciousness, a moving along the coiled body of the serpent from its tail to its head, to the point where his master finds himself utterly dependent on the slave for recognition of the master’s existence, and for the products the slave makes. Now the slave reaches the serpent’s biting head, and he trades places with his master. The other way to see this trading of places is to imagine the slave going in the opposite direction: right from the bitten tail over to the biting head, an excess of servitude phasing into its dialectical opposite, mastery.

The master/slave dialectic was a great inspiration for Karl Marx, who saw the Labour Theory of Value as the mechanism whereby the proletariat would one day overthrow the bourgeoisie. The workers need to know how it’s the total amount of their socially necessary labour time, not their bosses’ management, that creates value in commodities; and armed with this knowledge, they will be inspired to get organized and bring on a proletarian revolution.

Now, another dialectical shift from the biting head to the bitten tail can be found in Marx’s materialist reaction to Hegel’s philosophical idealism. Marx’s reversal of the notion that the world of ideas, of the spirit, brings about the physical world–typical of religious thinking–and making it instead that it’s the physical (i.e., having a brain) that creates the world of ideas (thinking), was him turning Hegel upside-down, standing him “on his head.” Though as Marx would have had it, Hegel’s dialectic was already “standing on its head,” and Marx simply put the dialectic back on its feet (Marx, pages 19, 102-103).

For Marx, the dialectic presents itself in physical manifestations throughout history, going from the ancient master/slave contradiction to that of the feudal landlord vs. the poor peasant. Within feudalism, though, a growing mercantile class, the first capitalists, would eventually overthrow their feudal lords and become the next ruling class, the bourgeoisie.

The suffering and struggling of those held down by the feudal lord, those including the rising capitalists, are thus symbolized in my system as those moving from the bitten tail of the ouroboros, along its coiled body in the middle, up to its biting head, where they would replace feudalism with capitalism. Such a bourgeois revolution was vividly depicted in Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities.

The bourgeoisie, now the head biting the tail of the proletariat, are no longer revolutionary. The working class has attempted revolution in, for example, the Paris Commune, the USSR, the Eastern Bloc, and Afghanistan‘s attempts at modernization in the late 1970s, but counterrevolution ruined all their hopes. We’ll have to see if a new socialist movement will rescue us all from late stage capitalism, and will sustain itself by repelling all future attempts at counterrevolution.

V: Schopenhauer

Schopenhauer‘s pessimism was inspired by the reading of translations of ancient Buddhist and Hindu texts. Interestingly, his idea of the thing-in-itself, the essence of everything as understood without the deceiving senses, is will, the striving to be alive (“On the Antithesis of Thing in Itself and Appearance,” 1; Schopenhauer, page 55). This conception is in contrast to the Eastern idea that the Oneness of everything, Brahman, Tao, etc., is the source of peace and bliss.

Now, this contrast I speak of is a dialectical one, for Atman, the soul of the willing individual, is to be identified with Brahman, the peaceful Oneness of the universe. The world is will, but it’s also representation, maya, a deception of the senses that, in its illusory nature, causes suffering. One ends suffering by negating the will-to-life, and thus tranquilizing it. When one understands Atman to be the same as Brahman, and to see plurality as an illusion, the ego is neutralized, the selfish desires of the will are extinguished, and one attains nirvana.

So life, for Schopenhauer, is essentially not worth living; being trapped in a body, with all its aches, pains, and ageing, is like being in a penal colony (“On the Suffering of the World,” 9, Schopenhauer, page 49). The extreme sadness such a realization engenders, though–the reaching of the serpent’s bitten tail–isn’t necessarily so bleak. One can pass the tail to the biting head of bliss by, paradoxically, extending one’s suffering, by suffering not all alone, but with other sufferers. Compassion is the basis of moral edification, according to Schopenhauer, and in compassion we find liberation from suffering, since compassion will drive us to end our suffering by ending that of those others we identify with in our pity for them.

The dialectical reaction against Schopenhauer’s pessimism can be seen in Nietzsche’s affirmation of the will-to-life, and his existentialism leads us to the next topic.

VI: From Absurdity to Meaning

In existentialism, one confronts the meaninglessness of life, the bitten tail of the ouroboros, by giving life meaning, one’s own personal purpose, a shift over to the serpent’s biting head. In Kierkegaard‘s Christian existentialism, this giving of meaning to life, as an escape from meaninglessness, is in the form of a leap of faith in God, believing in Him despite a lack of proof of His existence.

With the atheistic existentialism of such writers as Nietzsche and Sartre, though, one lacks the crutch of a leap of faith in God, so one must create one’s own, personal meaning in life. This, after Kierkegaard’s counsel has failed us, means a revolution around the body of the ouroboros, from the biting head after our leap of faith from the tail, going all the way back to that tail the long way, then to go past to the biting head again.

With Camus‘s absurdism, though, even the making of one’s own meaning rests on flimsy ground, since the contradiction between unescapable meaninglessness and man’s need to find meaning is equally unescapable. Camus’s advice, therefore, is to act in defiance against meaninglessness, to strive for flashes of meaning, however evanescent such flashes may be, since one must accept meaninglessness along with our defiance of it.

Just as Sisyphus must endlessly roll that boulder up the hill, only to see it roll back down and to have to roll it up again…and again, and again, and again, so must we go in endless cycles along the coiled body of the ouroboros, shifting past the biting head to the bitten tail, and back around the body to the head again…and again, and again, and again…

Small wonder the ouroboros is a symbol of eternity, Nietzsche’s myth of the eternal recurrence.

VII: Conclusion

So this absurdist advice can be seen as a variation on much of what I reviewed before: Zeno’s paradoxes of walking and getting nowhere, of swift Achilles never catching up to the tortoise, and of a flying, yet motionless arrow. Similarly, one is only certain of one’s existence through one’s extreme doubting; the sublation of two contradictions leads only to a new thesis to be negated and sublated, again and again and again. Will a socialist revolution lead to a classless, stateless, and money-less society? I continue to hope for it, in spite of the miserable state the world is in right now.

In Schopenhauer’s pessimism, the way to blessedness is through compassion, or suffering on a larger, more magnanimous scale; this in a way is strikingly similar to Kierkegaard’s leap of faith (i.e., a faith coupled with deeds of Christian charity), which is odd given Schopenhauer’s atheism…an atheism coupled with the inspiration of Eastern religion! And finding meaning is the solution to the impossibility of ever finding meaning? Again, it sounds like the bitten tail of atheism shifting over to the biting head of theism!

Reflecting on these observations, I find that the unchanging unity of all that Parmenides and Zeno insisted on is actually the ever-changing fluidity of Heraclitus. Parmenides’ stony sphere is really Thales’ water.

Atman = Brahman = anātman

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.

A New…and Different…Poem by Jason Ryan Morton

This new poem by Jason Ryan Morton is–based on all the stuff of his that I’ve read and analyzed–quite a departure. His words are in italics to distinguish them from mine, as usual. Here’s the poem:

In the light of the moon
Pale reflections of Adoration
Enjoy the oceanic saturation
Drinking in beauty of the Goddess three
My love – my heart
The soul of me cries out to touch your lips
With a ghost of a kiss
Brushing my life within your heart
A truth of the dawn heralding a new light
I slowly blend with you into one form
Thus an eclipse is born.

And now for my analysis.

Normally, Jason’s writing is full of themes of despair and trauma, but here we see him adoring beauty and light. Instead of irreverence to religion, and denial of belief in God (a male god, mind you), we have an affirmation of the Divine Feminine, presumably in a metaphorical sense.

He’s looking up to the moonlight and admiring its beauty. The moonlight reflects his “Adoration” back to him; note the capitalizing of Adoration, suggesting that it’s his love that does the deifying. We send out love, and love gratefully comes back to us.

I really like the assonant music of this line: “Enjoy the oceanic saturation.” One feels saturated with the divine beauty surrounding us and passing within us, a connection with the oceanic universe. One is “drinking in,” internalizing the natural beauty all around, the beauty of the Triple Goddess.

He is in love with the moon goddess, wanting to kiss her glowing lips. The “ghost of a kiss” brushes his life, which is within her heart, for inside her heart is where his life and happiness lie.

“A truth of the dawn heralding a new light” seems to indicate that he has found new vitality and hope from her, a vitality and hope to replace the despair and trauma he wrote about before. He would “blend with [her] into one form,” like Atman discovering its identity with Brahman, and finding peace in moksha.

Now, “an eclipse is born” with this blending of him with her into one form. Such a blending suggests that Jason is identifying himself with the sun, since not only is there a solar eclipse, the result of the moon passing in front of the sun; but also since the moonlight is a reflection of the sunlight off of it. If he is identifying himself with the sunlight, then that sunlight can be seen to represent the fiery passions, which are calmed when absorbed by the moon, like a loving mother soothing her agitated baby.

But could the “eclipse” be a case of “love is blind”? Could the moon be driving Jason lunatic; does her mesmerizing beauty block his ability to see straight, to give and receive his solar light? Is this why “Adoration” is capitalized, the deification of his love projected onto her, rather than she herself deified? Is this the meaning of “the dawn heralding a new light,” that his new vitality and hope come not from her, but from his idealizing of her in his mind? Is his love for her real, or is it an illusion?

I’ll leave you, Dear Reader, to decide whether his love of the moon is real or delusional, whether it is good for him or not.

Analysis of ‘Quartet for the End of Time’

I: Introduction

Quatuor pour la fin du temps is a 1940-1941 piece of chamber music composed by Olivier Messiaen. It was composed for an unusual combination of instruments: piano, violin, clarinet in B-flat, and cello; because these were the instruments played by the only musicians available to perform the piece at its premiere–Messiaen, Jean le Boulaire, Henri Akoka, and Etienne Pasquier, respectively. These four musicians premiered the piece, in January 1941, as prisoners of war in Stalag VIII-A, then in Görlitz, Germany.

Messiaen was inspired by this passage in the Book of Revelation: “And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire…and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth…And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever…that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished…” (Revelation, 10:1–2, 5–7, King James Version). What particularly struck Messiaen was the notion that there would be no more time.

He claimed that he wasn’t interested in using his music as a symbolic theological comment on the Apocalypse. After all, how can one make such a comment with only instrumental music (Iain G. Matheson, at the beginning of his essay on the Quatuor, addresses this question. [Hill, pages 234-235])? Instead, Messiaen was preoccupied with the idea of freeing music from the regularity of time.

Here are some recordings of the Quatuor, one with the score, and another of a live performance.

II: The Movements

There are eight movements: they represent the seven days of Creation, then the eighth day, Christ’s Resurrection.

i) Liturgie de cristal (“Crystal Liturgy“)
ii) Vocalise, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du temps (“Vocalise, for the Angel Who Announces the End of Time”)
iii) Abîme des oiseaux (“Abyss of Birds”)
iv) Intermède (“Interlude”)
v) Louange à l’éternité de Jésus (“Praise to the Eternity of Jesus”)
vi) Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes (“Dance of Fury, for the Seven Trumpets“)
vii) Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du temps (“Tangle of Rainbows, for the Angel Who Announces the End of Time”)
viii) Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus (“Praise to the Immortality of Jesus”)

As Robert Sherlaw Johnson noted in his book, Messiaen, there are “thematic and textural relationships between the movements, which shape the work as a whole” (Johnson, page 63): ii and vii, which share certain dissonant thematic material; iii and vi, which are monophonic, lacking in chords, harmony, or counterpoint; and v and viii, which, apart from being duets for a string instrument and piano, are also rearrangements of compositions of Messiaen’s from the 1930s.

III: Liturgie de cristal

This movement opens with the clarinet playing a blackbird’s song and the violin playing that of a nightingale. Messiaen described it thus: “Between three and four in the morning, the awakening of birds: a solo blackbird or nightingale improvises, surrounded by a shimmer of sound, by a halo of trills lost very high in the trees. Transpose this onto a religious plane and you have the harmonious silence of Heaven.”

Indeed, the violin and clarinet here are playing, independently of the cello and piano, a musical trademark of Messiaen’s that he introduced for pretty much the first time in the Quatuorbirdsong.

For Messiaen, birds are symbols of divinity (he was a devout Catholic his whole life). Also, their free-form singing, blissfully unaware of the musical rules of melody, tonality, and rhythm, represent the beauty of total freedom. Thus, their calls are also free of the constraints of musical time.

As part of his wish to free music of the shackles of time, Messiaen had the piano and cello each play a differing isorhythm (the piano, playing a twenty-nine chord sequence over a rhythm of seventeen values, and the cello with a five-note melodic shape over a rhythmic ostinato of fifteen values; the cello part’s rhythm is also non-retrogradable, giving no true beginning or end to the rhythm, suggesting eternity). Also, the rhythmic ostinato in the piano part is based upon three Hindu rhythms, the talas ragavardhana, candrakala, and lakshmica.

Messiaen, as something of an orinthologist, had had a love of birdsong from his early years. He used to go out into fields with sheet music and notate the bird calls he heard. Now, he was finally using their divine music as an integral part of one of his compositions, something he’d do ever after. He loved birds’ freedom to fly anywhere in the sky. As a POW in Nazi Germany, he could only have loved such freedom.

IV: Vocalise, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du temps

The angel’s announcing of the end of time comes with dissonant chords on the piano, a quick flurry of ascending and descending notes on the clarinet, then a sustained note and a trill on it while quick sixteenth notes are played on the violin and cello. These features are more or less heard again, then after quick ascending sixteenth notes on the violin and cello, we get trills on the violin, cello, and clarinet, and a dissonant piano ending leads to the ethereal, mystical middle section, with–as Messiaen called them–“the impalpable harmonies of heaven.” In this middle section, the violin and cello play the melody of the sixteenth notes, but slower and often in eighth notes. The A-B-A movement ends with more or less a repeat of the dissonant beginning, albeit in an inverted form.

It’s curious that Messiaen took the passage from Revelation, where the angel says, “there should be time no more.” Now, a more accurate translation would say, “there shall be no more delay,” as we get it in the New English Bible; the New Oxford Annotated Bible also uses “delay” instead of “time.” While I’m guessing that Messiaen’s old French Bible read, “Il n’y aura plus de temps,” my modern French Bible says, “Il n’y aura plus de délai [time-limit].” The original Greek used the word χρόνος (i.e., “time”), but in the context of the passage, it too meant “delay.” So, in most modern cases of translation, delay is used rather than time.

It’s interesting how people project themselves into their interpretations of things. (Anyone who has read enough of my analyses of films, etc., knows that I project my own inner preoccupations into them all the time.) Messiaen was preoccupied with freeing musical time from its traditional restraints, so when he read the Biblical passage, he took the word time literally, at face value, rather than seeing that what the angel really meant was, “We have no time left.”

No disrespect intended to Monsieur Messiaen (who happens to be one of my all-time favourite composers!), but this inaccuracy of his with regards to the background and creation of the Quatuor isn’t an isolated incidence. He claimed that the cello used for the premiere lacked a string, while Pasquier insisted it had all four strings, and his part would have been impossible to play with three. Messiaen claimed the premiere was performed before an audience of about 5,000 people, when there were really only about 400 (no more could have fit in).

Messiaen was correct to say that the piano had keys that stuck when played; but though he said of the premiere, “Never had I been listened to with so much attention and understanding,” one of the other musicians remembered the audience’s reaction differently. Given Messiaen’s idiosyncratic, modernist compositional style, the other musician said, “The audience, as far as I remember, was overwhelmed at the time. They wondered what had happened. Everyone. We too. We asked ourselves: ‘What are we doing? What are we playing?’”

Since we’ve established that some of Messiaen’s recollections of what happened at the first performance aren’t completely reliable, I believe that some of his other comments can be regarded with some suspicion, too. The Quatuor, as with his music generally, is considered apolitical; but given his predicament then and there as a POW of the Nazis, among the cruellest and most inhumane scum in history, I find it hard to imagine his suffering not influencing the conceptualizing and creation of the Quatuor.

He recalled being stripped naked, as were all the prisoners. They were cold and underfed. In fact, Messiaen developed chilblains because of the extreme cold and malnutrition. Even though, as a composer tasked with writing a piece for himself and the other three musicians to play, he was relieved of much of the worst treatment in the prison, he still suffered terribly. Given what we know about the brutality and contempt for human life that is Naziism defined, we can trust Messiaen to be accurately recalling this harsh aspect of life during his stay in Stalag VIII-A. It’s doubtless that he was traumatized.

Such trauma surely influenced the concept behind his composition. He claimed that there was little to no theological commentary in his musical presentation of the Apocalypse, but rather only a wish to liberate musical time…but why should we believe this? One of the central features of the Apocalypse is not only the glorious saving of the Christian faithful from the world of sin, but also the judgement and punishment of the wicked (e.g., the Nazis). Such an outcome would have to have been a wish-fulfillment for him.

Surely Matheson thought so in his essay: “Messiaen’s decision to use this particular text [Revelation 10: 1–2, 5–7] rather than any other may well have been prompted by the prisoner-of-war conditions in which he found himself, in which time might indeed have seemed literally endless, and the Apocalypse close at hand.” (Hill, page 235)

Related to the idea of time is temporality, which also refers to the laic, secular world. Indeed, the French word temps, like the Latin word tempus (which is used in the Vulgate Latin translation of Revelation 10:6), is cognate with temporal. So when Messiaen consciously wished for freedom from musical time’s traditionally equal measurements, he also unconsciously wished for freedom from this world, ruled by Satan (John 12:31), and in particular for liberation from Stalag VIII-A.

He didn’t overtly express any wish, in his music, to be anti-Nazi for fear of angering the SS. So when he was freed from the prison in 1941, he taught harmony in the Paris Conservatoire even while France was still occupied by Nazi Germany, free of any fear of further persecution. His reticence on political matters surely was a shrewd move to save his life; hence, the Quatuor is ostensibly only about ‘freeing musical time.’

V: Abîme des oiseaux

This movement for solo clarinet reminds me of Edgard Varèse‘s Densité 21,5 for platinum flute. It demands considerable technical ability on the part of the clarinettist. There are slow, long crescendos that require great breath control (see, for example, the 13th measure). Akoka grumbled and complained of how difficult this movement was to master, but Messiaen urged him and encouraged him to keep trying.

Of this movement, Messiaen said, “The abyss is Time with its sadness, its weariness. The birds are the opposite to Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs.”

So, in time, we have sadness…for Messiaen, the sadness and weariness of having to pass the time in a Nazi prison. Since birds are the opposite of time, they represent freedom from incarceration in our temporal world. Accordingly, we hear the clarinet play birdsong. The free-form rhythm once again represents Messiaen’s wish to free musical time of traditionalistic, regular measurement.

VI: Intermède

In the centre of the Quatuor, this short, jaunty interlude in 2/4 time contains several references to thematic material heard in other movements: for example, the flurry of quick ascending and descending clarinet 32nd notes (C-sharp-D-sharp-F-sharp-G-sharp-B-natural-G-natural-C-natural-B-flat-F-natural) heard in the second movement (and the third [B-D-sharp-F-sharp-G-sharp-C-sharp-G-natural-C-natural-B-flat-F-natural, in the 20th measure]); also a softly played, but ominous anticipation of the opening theme of the sixth movement.

For the most part, though, the movement is a cheerful one, including a passage with the violin and cello trading pizzicatos and an arco melody of D-B-G-F-natural-B-natural-A-flat-C-sharp-G-natural in the cello’s high register; then, as a kind of relative subdominant to that, a melody of G-E-C-B-flat-E-flat-D-flat-F-sharp-C-natural (measures 24-31).

VII: Louange à l’éternité de Jésus

This movement, in which the cello plays a sobbing, plaintive, high-pitched melody over mostly soft piano chords, is a rearrangement of the fourth movement (titled either “L’Eau“…”Water” or “Oraison“…”Prayer”) of Fête des belles eaux (“Celebration of the Beautiful Waters”) for six ondes Martenots, from 1937. The tempo is infiniment lent, extatique (“extremely slow, ecstatic”): this extreme slowness is meant to represent a sense of endlessness, eternity.

The beginning of the cello melody seems to be in the second of Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition–namely, the octatonic scale. This movement is assuredly one of the most beautiful things he ever wrote. Though the longing felt seems unfulfillable, the harmonic resolutions ultimately satisfy that longing.

One passage that I especially like is from measures 15-17, in which the cello melody tops off the piano’s playing of (what at least sounds, to my not-so-well-trained ear, as) a D-sharp dominant seventh sharp ninth chord, an E major seventh chord, a C-sharp dominant ninth chord, a D-sharp augmented chord, and a resolution to E major. Then there’s the ending (the last three measures), with the cello playing a melody of ascending notes (E-G-natural-A-sharp-C-sharp) of the diminished seventh chord, resolving on the high octave of an E-major piano chord.

By “l’éternité de Jésus,” Messiaen means Jesus as understood as the pre-existing Word from the beginning of time. In this meditative music, we can sense Messiaen’s mysticism.

Since this music is derived from his Fêtes des belles eaux, and the original movement was alternatively titled “L’Eau” or “Oraison,” I find there to be interesting connotations, from a mystical point of view, in all of these titles: eternity of Jesus, the beautiful waters, and prayer.

In this music Messiaen would be both praising and praying to Jesus, an urgent pleading to save him from the Nazis. A mystical connection with the Divine, often achieved through prayer or meditation, has sometimes been described as oceanic; I have addressed this idea myself in music, and in the name of my blog.

And sometimes, in the lowest depths of our suffering, as Messiaen surely felt in Stalag VIII-A, we can find the extreme of hell phase into the extreme of heaven, a dialectical shift from one polar extreme to its opposite state. I’ve compared such a meeting of opposites, on a circular continuum, to the ouroboros‘ biting head and its bitten tail.

When Messiaen suffered in the prison, made music there, then was released, he experienced something comparable to Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, and so we can see in the parallel experiences a mystical union of Messiaen and Messiah, at least in a symbolic sense.

VIII: Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes

As I mentioned above, this movement parallels the third in its monophony: though all four instruments are heard, none plays harmony or counterpoint. Every single note, played collectively, is a unison or an octave.

In spite of the monophonic melody, though, Messiaen manages to infuse plenty of musical tension in his “dance of fury.” We are, after all, dealing with the Final Judgement here, the sending to hell of sinners, which contrasts dialectically with the preceding movement’s serenity. I sense his wish for his Nazi captors to receive God’s judgement.

He exploits loud and soft dynamics as well as irregular rhythms (with measures lacking time signatures), using non-retrogradable rhythms as well as augmentation, diminution, added values, and the derivation of Greek rhythm and meter. All of these techniques serve to realize his wish to free musical time of its traditionally dull regularity.

One passage (at about 28:03 in this video), expressed in cycles of five beats (i.e., eight sixteenth notes and an eighth note), we hear notes whose pitches fly in all kinds of wild directions, yet paradoxically, the last note of each of these cycles, the eighth, is always the same pitch: an F-sharp (A-flat for the clarinet in B-flat). The result is a paradoxical juxtaposition of melodic desultoriness and stasis. This mixing of the erratic and the static can be seen to represent the conflict Messiaen felt between wanting to roam freely and being incarcerated.

Elsewhere, at about 28:35 in the video, we hear the piano and clarinet play a grim, three-note ostinato: F-natural, C-sharp, and A-natural on the piano, and G-natural, E-flat, and B-natural on the clarinet, the notes of an augmented triad. This ostinato is subjected to rhythmic augmentation and diminution: first slowly–as quarter-notes, eighth-notes, then quarter-notes again; then, as half-notes, quarter-notes, then half-notes again; then quickly three times as eighth-notes, sixteenth-notes, then eighth-notes again. Again, time is permitted no predictable sense of regularity.

IX: Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du temps

Recall that the Biblical verses describe the angel who announces the end of time as being “clothed with a cloud, and a rainbow was on his head,” with one foot on the land and the other on the sea. The colours of the rainbow were important to Messiaen, who had synesthesia and saw colours in his mind’s eye whenever he heard this or that musical idea. In the second movement, which parallels the seventh, he used harmonies that made him see the orange and blue of the rainbow).

A dreamy tune in 3/4 opens the movement with a sad, upper-register cello melody played over soft piano chords; this theme will alternate with developments of the dissonant opening theme of the second movement. That dreamy tune will return with the clarinet in the background playing a melody based on the ascending and descending octatonic scale, the second of Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition. Just before the end of the movement is the dreamy tune played in trills on both cello and violin, and on the clarinet, with piano arpeggios in the background.

As for the dissonant sections, I’d like to speculate on why an increasing use of dissonance was appearing around this time (i.e., the late 1930s and into the 1940s) in Messiaen’s musical career. To be sure, his music was, from the beginning, technically dissonant, through his use of modes based on equal octave divisions, since he liked the colours these unusual melodies and harmonies, derived from the modes, evoked in his imagination. Indeed, early Messiaen sounds like an exotic version of Debussy, who also sidestepped tonality without sounding harsh.

But the Messiaen of the 1920s and 1930s largely lacked the harsh dissonances we would begin to hear by the time of the Quatuor. The middle section of Les offrandes oubliées (<<<starting at 3:32 in the video), in its musical description of “the forgotten offerings” of grace and salvation, and therefore the descent into sin, is somewhat more dissonant. Chants de terre et de ciel has some dense piano chords, admittedly. But the really huge dissonant sonorities begin with pieces like Visions de l’amen, Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus, and Harawi; they grow even more extreme in pieces like the Quatre études de rythme, Cantéyodjayâ, and Chronochromie. I believe these extreme dissonances were Messiaen’s way of expressing, and of exorcising from himself, the lingering trauma he received from his experience as a prisoner in Stalag VIII-A.

Now, the quite dissonant Chants de terre et de ciel, composed in 1938 and premiered in 1939, was a celebration of the birth of his son Pascale in 1937, which would seem to contradict my speculation that his aggravated use of dissonance was the expression of trauma. But consider what was happening politically in Europe at the time. His son’s birth was a year before the Anschluss and the Munich Agreement, when the leaders of England and France were trying to appease an increasingly ambitious, imperialistic Hitler. Underneath Messiaen’s surface joy over the birth of his son must have been an unconscious anxiety over the boy’s safety.

His trauma in the Nazi prison would have increased the kind of violent feelings he felt even after his release, and the use of tone clusters and other dissonances could have been his way of venting these violent feelings, a projection of the violence he had introjected from the Nazis. These violent melodic and harmonic ideas can be heard in this seventh movement of the Quatuor, not only in the piano chords, but also in the creepy-sounding cello glissandi and col legno, and the screeching violin, cello, and clarinet sounds at the end (38:43 in the video, just before the brutal piano in the bass register), which might remind the listener of horror movie music.

Messian’s piano arrangements of birdsong, the pitches never altered to fit any scales, are particularly dissonant, as can be heard in any of his compositions since the Quatuor. Could there be a relationship between his conception of birds’ freedom and the discordant representation of their singing…an expression of pain coupled with the yearning to fly away free?

X: Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus

This final movement is a rearrangement of the second section of Messiaen’s organ piece, Diptyque (<<at about 5:12 in the video), transposed up a major third from C to E, with the violin playing the melody over piano chords largely in pairs each of thirty-second notes and double-dotted eighth notes. In 4/4, it’s played much slower (extrêmement lent et tendre, extatique, with an MM of an eighth note equalling about 36) than in the Diptyque (with an MM of 58 equalling an eighth note, très lent), the slowness again meant to represent the everlasting life of heaven, after time has ended. This movement thus parallels the fifth.

Whereas the fifth movement contemplated Jesus as the pre-existing Word from the beginning of time, now Jesus is meditated on in his resurrected spiritual body, in the Second Coming at the end of time.

The movement is scored in E-major, though the modes of limited transposition add a great deal of chromaticism to the mix. Instead of the sad, unfulfillable longing of the fifth movement, this one is full of spiritual joy, for in Christ’s immortality we have a sign of the conquering of death, something very important to Messiaen, given how close death must have felt to him as a prisoner in Stalag VIII-A. It ends with a high E on the violin and high-register E-major sixth chords on the piano.

XI: Conclusion

Though for Messiaen, the Quatuor was, as he consciously expressed it, a wish to free musical time from the traditional prison of regularity and measurability, it was also, through the symbolism of the passage in Revelation, chapter ten, an unconscious wish of his to be free of his Nazi tormentors. Anyone else who happens to be a Christian can content him- or herself with the Biblical ideas musically expressed.

But what of those of us today, who love this 20th century masterwork, and don’t share the religious faith that inspired the conceptualization behind this music? How can we derive our own meaning from the Quatuor?

I’d like to propose a secular interpretation that will be relevant for us in the 21st century, one that uses Christian symbolism to illustrate that meaning. I’ve already discussed what must have been Messiaen’s extreme aversion to all things fascist, even though he didn’t dare give it expression at the time, in front of Nazi guards. Now, the polar opposite of the far right (barring such nonsense as the horseshoe theory) is, of course, the far left.

Granted, I’m sure that Messiaen, the devout Catholic, would have been just as horrified of atheistic communism as he was of fascism. But my concern here is with his unconscious feelings, the associations that the unconscious mind makes, and the way that repressed feelings return to consciousness in unrecognizable ways. Messiaen may not have liked the socialist alternative to fascism, but he definitely wanted to go as far from Naziism as he could. Maybe he simply didn’t know what he liked in political terms, for Christian moral teachings aren’t as far removed from socialism as one might think.

Though one tends to associate Christianity, and especially the authoritarian aspects of Catholicism, with right-wing, conservative thinking, there is much in the Christian tradition that can be associated with the left. Liberation theology is only the tip of the iceberg in that respect.

Just as socialists wish to feed, clothe, and give medical aid to the poor, so did Jesus say of giving such help, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:40) On the other side of the coin, just as socialists excoriate the amassing of obscene amounts of wealth, so did Jesus say, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25) And just as socialists despise televangelists who hoard wealth tax-free, so did Christ drive the money changers out of the Temple (Matthew 21:12)

Furthermore, the Messiah was a revolutionary figure, meant to liberate the Jews from Roman imperialist oppression. Later on, the Church cunningly downplayed Jesus’ revolutionary leanings (i.e., “Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.” —John 18:36) in order to reconcile itself with the Roman authorities; but Jesus originally said, “I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34) Similarly, as I mentioned above, Messiaen was smart enough to avoid admitting to any anti-Nazi intent in this composition.

Since imperialism has in our time reached an extreme that is threatening our world with nuclear war (How’s that for ‘the end of time’?), and fascism has in many places come back in style–a tried-and-true tactic that capitalists use to beat back political agitation from workers–we can see the Quartet for the End of Time as not only a music of consolation for our suffering today, but also as a clarion call–the seven trumpets!–for a revolutionary end to all the war, ecocide, alienation, income inequality, and immiseration of the Third World.

The end of time, for us socialists, is the end of the dialectical, historical struggle between rich and poor–first, master vs. slave, then, feudal lord vs. peasant, and finally, bourgeois vs. proletarian. Let this music inspire us all to break out of our fascist prisons, these cages of ours, and fly freely and sing with the birds.

Robert Sherlaw Johnson, Messiaen, Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1975

Peter Hill, editor, The Messiaen Companion, London, Faber and Faber, 1995

My Last Five Pop Songs

Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

That wonderful friend of mine, Gerda Hovius, who helped me gain access to most of my pop song recordings and classical music compositions from the Jamendo website (which won’t let me play or download them, for some reason), has pulled through for me again. She emailed me those last five songs I didn’t have as of my last post of pop songs, so now I have them all at last! Thanks again, Gerda! I owe you big time!

In fact, she sent them to me just after I’d published my blog post of most of the rest of my pop songs. I could have simply updated that post to include the five songs, but I decided to publish them separately instead, in order to stretch out and extend interest in my music a little further.

As I mentioned in my last post, four of these pop songs were originally published on my second Jamendo album, Meeting Places. These were “Meeting Place,” “Better,” “‘Til Divorce Do Us Part,” and “Lethargy.” The fifth track was originally published on my third Jamendo album, Infinite Ocean. It was “Moonlit Strolls.”

The album title, Meeting Places, was in plural because, if you were to hear all the tracks of that album in order, you’d notice common musical ideas, or ‘meeting places,’ that linked the first track to the second (an electronic synth sound), the second to the third (the gamelan-like sound I discussed in my previous song post), the third to the fourth (recorders and tuned percussion sounds), etc.

The song “Meeting Place” is in the singular because it’s about finding the one common unifying idea in the entire universe. Does such a unifying principle (Brahman, the Tao, the “Infinite Ocean“) exist, or is it just a figment of my imagination?

Musically, the song combines the electronic synth and drums dance sound of “Blow” with the gamelan imitation sound of songs like “Grateful,” “Freedom,” and “Regrets?” To expand my musical range, I added recorders and a harmonica solo at the end.

Better” has me playing ascending melodies to symbolize a striving for self-improvement. I do this tone painting in my singing and playing of the recorder. In the lyrics, I make an allusion to the Beatles song, “Getting Better.”

Throughout the recording of Meeting Places, I had difficulty keeping the recorders in tune. I’m not 100% sure about the last recorder notes I play on “Better,” so I hope, Dear Reader and Listener, you’ll forgive me if those notes sound a bit off.

‘Til Divorce Do Us Part” is a satirical song in 5/4 time about people who marry for superficial reasons (sexual attraction, money, social status), then get divorced soon after. The music was inspired by a Nonesuch recording of an African tribal wedding song, though I added the gamelan imitation sound, bongoes, a steel drum sound for a keyboard solo, recorder, and an acoustic guitar solo. The juxtaposition of lyrics about superficial, loveless modern marriages in the West, with music inspired by that of a traditional African wedding (presumably for marriages that are far more enduring) was meant to be ironic.

Lethargy,” also in 5/4 and immediately following “‘Til Divorce Do Us Part” on Meeting Places (and therefore, in sharing the same time signature, have this in common as their ‘meeting place’), is a 12-bar blues/jazz song I composed at the acoustic guitar. The song is about my constant drowsiness and lack of energy, something that’s predictably gotten worse as I’ve gotten older.

I added piano and harmonica licks at the beginning and ending of the song, as well as a jazz electric guitar solo and an electric piano solo, the former of which I’m particularly proud, even if I do say so myself.

Moonlit Strolls” is a sentimental song composed at the acoustic guitar in an old-fashioned, 1930s and 1940s jazz style, like “The Happy Song,” which it follows on Infinite Ocean. The chord progressions make extensive use of the diminished seventh chord as a passing chord.

Lyrically, the song is about walks at night that I used to take with my then-girlfriend, now my wife, about twenty years ago. I have pleasant memories of that simpler time in my life, which I tried to give a sweet kind of expression to in this song.

The one thing I don’t like about this recording is my annoying falsetto, meant to represent her voice as a stereotyped imitation of a woman talking. I hope you, Dear Reader and Listener, won’t be as irritated by it as I am.

Anyway, that’s all five of the last songs. I hope you like them and will be more forgiving of their imperfections than I am. Cheers!

Most of the Rest of My Pop Songs

Photo by Jessica Lewis on Pexels.com

Thanks to a wonderful friend of mine, a really kind Dutch woman named Gerda Hovius, I finally have access to most of the rest of the pop song recordings I published on the Jamendo website, where for some reason I cannot listen to or download them. She, having access to the Luxembourg website, emailed the recordings to me, so I could download them and post them on another music site called SoundClick. Thanks a million, Gerda!

On Jamendo, I had posted these songs in albums by the names of The Human Element, Meeting Places, and Infinite Ocean. There are only five songs I need to have emailed to me: “Meeting Place,” “Better,” “‘Til Divorce Do Us Part,” and “Lethargy,” from Meeting Places; and “Moonlit Strolls,” from Infinite Ocean.

In my previous posts, My Classical Music Compositions and Some Pop Songs I Wrote, I discussed all the other music I saved from Jamendo, music which can be found on SoundCloud, MixCloud, ReverbNation, and Jango (“Let Me Come In”). Now, all my pop songs–except, for now, the five mentioned in the previous paragraph–can be found on my page on SoundClick.

On all these pop song recordings, I sang all the vocals, played all the instruments, and did all the recording, mixing, and mastering. Please, Dear Reader and Listener…don’t hold this against me.

I’ll discuss these newly-saved songs in the order in which they appear on those three Jamendo albums. After “Let Me Come In,” the first track off my first pop album, The Human Element, came the song, “Resilient.” Like the song before it, “Resilient” has a synth/electronic drum background. It’s a song about being determined at self-improvement, despite the discouraging words I heard from my family and from classmates when I was a kid.

Grateful” is the first of a number of songs in which I, trying to find a distinctive sound, experimented with the influence of Balinese gamelan music. Instead of using the Indonesian metallophones, however, I used synthetic imitations, which I played on the keyboard, of xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, and tubular bells. Instead of bass and drums, I used a synthetic bassoon sound and played bongoes.

Unfortunately, when I recorded the songs for the first two albums, I didn’t really know what I was doing, as far as mixing and mastering is concerned (I was particularly clueless about compression); what’s worse, I no longer have the original master recordings (for reasons I won’t go into), so I can’t go back to them and correct my mistakes. What you hear is what you get, I’m afraid. I just hope, Dear Reader and Listener, that you’ll be patient and indulgent of the recordings’ many imperfections.

I didn’t mix my lead vocal track of “Grateful” well, so you’ll have difficulty making out the lyrics (except for the chorus and bridge, maybe); the song page has the lyrics printed out, though. Anyway, the song expresses my gratitude for being able to leave Canada and find work in East Asia, and for finding the woman I love and am married to. I’m doubly grateful for having distanced myself from my emotionally abusive Canadian family.

Freedom” is also about my gratitude in getting away from that abusive family, and it also has the gamelan-influenced sound, though it’s a more energetic song than “Grateful.” It is also inspired musically by King Crimson‘s “Thela Hun Ginjeet,” and it has a bassoon sound instead of bass, bongoes instead of drums, and Chinese temple blocks which I played in a 5/4 cross-rhythm to the 4/4 of the rest of the instrumentation.

Life Is a Dream (This Naïve Spell)” is a Latin-jazz tune composed at the acoustic guitar, similar to “Without You With Me.” Lyrically, it’s about the foolishness of idealistic dreaming about a perfect world. It’s mostly in 4/4 time, with a brief passage of two bars in 5/4 after each verse, the first bar being a fast single-note run on the guitar (doubled on the piano), and the second bar being harmonics (and electric piano).

The last two songs on The Human Element are “I Lie Alone” and “She Was a Funky Girl,” both of which I described on my previous post about my songs. So this leads me to a discussion of the songs on my second pop album (and my personal favourite, despite its imperfect mixing and mastering), Meeting Places.

The first track on that album was the electronic dance song, “Blow” (discussed previously), and the second track was “Meeting Place,” which as I mentioned above, I don’t have downloaded yet. This leads me to a discussion of the third track, “Regrets?

This song also has the gamelan-influenced sound, but it’s also inspired by a live version of “Once In a Lifetime,” by The Talking Heads. The tuned percussion sounds are in 6/8 time, in a cross-rhythm against the 4/4 played by the rest of the instrumentation (vocals, electric guitar, bassoon sound, recorders, harmonica, and percussion).

“Regrets?” is about the conflict that often exists between conservative parents, who want their kids to get high-paying jobs, and their kids, who’d rather pursue their dreams and become, for example, professional musicians. Where are the regrets–in being financially successful, but suffering in a soul-crushing, conformist job; or in being poor, but artistically fulfilled?

After “Better,” “‘Til Divorce Do Us Part,” and “Lethargy” (none of which I’ve downloaded yet) comes “Blues for the Abused,” a blues/jazz song I composed at the acoustic guitar, which is about my mourning over not having the loving family I needed as a child. The opening and ending chord progressions were inspired by Django Reinhardt‘s closing chord progression on “Souvenirs,” and the body of the song is inspired by a combination of Robert Johnson blues and the Queen song “Dreamer’s Ball.”

She Moves Me” is a love song I wrote for my wife. It’s partly inspired by the Queen song “She Makes Me (Stormtrooper in Stilettos),” and was composed at the acoustic guitar. I wish I’d sung it better, to be perfectly frank; I overdid the vibrato, making my pitch wobbly and unstable in the bass range.

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers” is about the exploitative internet porn business. In F-sharp major, it’s musically inspired by the Wham! song “Everything She Wants,” and Queen’s “Body Language.”

My third pop album, Infinite Ocean, opened with the naughty dance song, “Lucille,” followed by the more serious “Angelic Devils” (both songs were discussed in my previous post). After that came the album’s title track, which of course inspired the name of my blog.

The song has the gamelan-inspired tuned percussion sounds again, playing notes that ascend and descend, like the waves of the ocean. Recorders are played in 4/4, and the bassoon sound is in 5/8. These winds play pairs of rising and falling notes, also like the waves of the ocean. Their conflicting cross-rhythms are meant to symbolize cycles of life that each have different durations.

A high-pitched two-note phrase I played on an ocarina (an instrument I haven’t a prayer of mastering!) is heard during the chorus. I played a classical guitar during the bridge, and I did an electronic piano solo at the end.

The song is about the Brahman-like, pantheistic All that is the unity of the universe. The waves of the ocean, crests and troughs representing the thesis and negation of the material dialectic (the rising and falling representing the sublation), symbolizes the flowing back and forth of yin and yang.

My Cold Heart” was composed at the electric guitar, the 7/8 strumming of seventh chords in which thirds alternate with seconds (or ninths, if you prefer). The opening and middle instrumental sections have saxophone sounds playing a melody over paralleled minor seventh chords. The song is about my feelings of alienation from other people, brought on by the emotional abuse I suffered as a child. I wish I could be close to others, but I can’t.

Tribal Victory March” is a song whose lyrics express my anti-war sentiment ironically through the perspective of the leader of the victorious tribe (understood as a metaphor for any imperialist government of today). He says his army has vanquished “all of my,…our foes” (that was no error in my singing). The leader, or demagogue, representative of any president of today’s world (Bush, Obama, Trump, whoever you like), celebrates the violence and rape inflicted on an enemy he deems to be his nation’s enemy, rather than only his own and that of the ruling class. His people slavishly repeat his words, since they’re unable or unwilling to think for themselves.

Musically, the song was inspired by an African recording of a solo male voice alternating with a group of singers repeating his words; the singing is followed by the sound of a plethora of horns over a pounding rhythm. My song imitates these musical ideas in principle, but with my own harmonies (based on equal octave divisions [whole tone scale, octatonic scale, augmented triad, and the tritone], as in a number of my classical music compositions), my soloing on an acoustic guitar and on a recorder (in a whole tone scale).

The Happy Song” is probably my least successful song. I’m not happy with my singing on it (I’m bordering on, if not lapsing into, straining). I also attempt a scat-singing vocal solo that I’m not 100% sure of. Apart from that, the song imitates a 1930s/1940s jazz style, and it preaches a philosophy of happiness I don’t think I’ve practiced in any capacity. I include the recording here only for the sake of completeness, and I hope, Dear Reader and (at your own risk!) Listener, you’ll be kind in your judgement of it.

After “Moonlit Strolls,” the last of the five not-yet-downloaded songs, comes “Nothing to Fear,” which is musically influenced by soft, slow gamelan music, and is lyrically influenced by the quasi-Hindu mysticism of “Infinite Ocean.”

I’m Hip” is the one straightforward rock song I’ve recorded. I’m affecting a rock singer’s voice here, though I’m not sure if I succeeded. I back this up musically with distorted electric rhythm and lead guitars, harmonica, and bass and drum sounds I played on a keyboard. Lyrically, the song is about my escape from the mental imprisonment of my emotionally abusive past, so I need no longer think of myself as ‘less cool’ than other people.

Anyway, that’s all for now, musically speaking. If I can get someone to email me those other five songs, which I consider to be among the better ones, I’ll write up a blog post featuring them, with the recordings published (presumably) on SoundClick.

Analysis of ‘Pet Sematary’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Darling.” –reanimated Rachel, to Louis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Legendary Life of the Buddha

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I: Introduction

My commentary below is just a personal interpretation of the symbolism of the Buddha myth; furthermore, the focus here isn’t on the historical Buddha, of which little can be known for sure, but on the legendary narratives. I am neither a Buddhist, nor am I anywhere close to being an expert on the study of Buddhism. The following is just my thoughts on the meaning behind his legendary life story, for what they’re worth, so take it with a generous dose of salt.

The Buddha was known by many names, including Shakyamuni, “the sage of the Shakyas.” The Shakya people had a small kingdom, Kapilavastu, just south of the Himalayas in India; this was around the sixth century BCE.

Kapilavastu was a peaceful kingdom ruled by King Suddhodana and Queen Maya. Later legend claims that the Buddha was born into a royal family (though modern scholars doubt this), which should give us some idea of the political agendas behind such legends. The close association thus assumed to exist between those of high birth and those who are spiritually advanced is another example of how religious traditionalism is used to justify and perpetuate class differences and authoritarianism.

II: Queen Maya

One full-moon night, Maya dreamed of a white elephant with six tusks coming down from the heavens and entering her womb from the right side, prophesying the birth of a great man. The white of the elephant suggests spiritual purity, the god Indra has such an elephant (the animal being seen as a symbol of greatness), and one has often seen wealthy men riding in howdahs on elephants; so we see again the association of high spirituality with a high social position.

Pregnant Maya left the king and returned to her parents’ home, as was the custom of the time. On the way, she stopped in a garden in a park in Lumbini. Here, among the beautiful flowers, she gave birth to the prince under a sal tree. He would be named Siddhartha (“the All-Successful One,” or “He Who Achieves His Aim”) Gautama.

Soon after Siddhartha’s birth, a wise hermit named Asita came from the mountains to the palace to congratulate the king and queen for their new child. Yet he was sad, because as an old man, Asita knew he’d never live to see the baby grow into the greatness he was destined to have: to be a king of kings, or to be a Buddha.

III: Joy and Sadness

Again, we see the association of spiritual greatness with regal nobility, a justification of the caste system that allows the rich to stay rich and keeps the poor in squalor. Asita’s sadness also reflects the dialectical relationship between happiness and sadness: a great child was born, but the hermit would never see that greatness come to fruition. One is reminded of Verse 58 in the Tao Te Ching: “Misery is what happiness rests upon./Happiness is what misery lurks beneath.”

Added to this juxtaposition of joy and sorrow was the death, only seven days after Siddhartha’s birth, of his mother, Queen Maya. Though he was too young to remember her, he in his great spiritual development was greatly affected by her loss. Maya is Sanskrit for “illusion.” Illusion dialectically gives birth to enlightenment. The brief flowering of the sal tree symbolizes impermanence, so this combined with her death emphasizes the association between birth, death, illusion, and impermanence. The young prince would have felt all this.

Not being able to have the Oedipally-desired mother, Lacan observed, is a lack giving rise to desire for anything to replace her, a replacement that never satisfies, the objet petit a. The prince, in his wisdom, knew he’d never have that satisfaction, so he’d soon learn to give up desiring altogether.

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IV: Growing Up

He and his cousin, Devadatta, were skilled at archery. When the latter shot down a flying swan, though, the prince was full of sadness to see it in pain. Devadatta claimed it belonged to him, but Siddhartha, having pulled out the arrow and rubbing its wound to heal it, wanted it. They went to the court of a sage to decide what would happen to the animal. The sage, wisely knowing that the one who saves an animal has more right to it than the one who tries to kill it, favoured the prince, so it was his. Devadatta would resent this, and the cousins would be spiritual rivals later in life.

When the prince came of age, he wanted to know what the world outside his palace walls was like. His father, the king–worried that he would want to be a spiritual teacher rather than his successor to the throne–tried to distract him with indulgence in worldly pleasures: beautiful dancing girls, wealth and finery, etc. Siddhartha still wanted to go outside.

Here, instead of seeing the association between high spirituality and high social rank, we see the contradiction between the two. The prince would resolve this contradiction, to an extent, by marrying his cousin Yaśodhara and, by her, fathering a son, Rāhula; but he would still go outside.

V: His Four Trips Outside

On his first trip out, through the East Gate, he would see an old man. On his second trip, through the West Gate, he’d see a sick man. On his third, through the South Gate, he’d see a dead man’s funeral. This must have brought out feelings of his dead mother, his unattainable objet petit a.

Suffering is universal…especially for the poor.

On his fourth trip, out the North Gate, the prince saw something encouraging, for a change: he saw a holy man sitting in peace. This gave the prince hope that suffering can be ended…even in a world of poverty.

VI: Giving Up His Power

The contradiction between high social rank and high spiritual attainment is highlighted once again when we see the prince having made the Great Renunciation, giving up his position of regal power to help humanity and end suffering. Siddhartha’s decision to do this should be an inspiration to all in positions of political or financial power: give it up, and end class conflict. Sadly, far too few of them heed the message this inspiring renunciation gives us.

Siddhartha was twenty-nine years old when he chose to go from prince to mendicant, going from holy man to holy man for spiritual guidance, and practicing strict asceticism. None of the teachers had the answers he sought.

His asceticism grew more extreme; first, he ate only one grain of rice a day, then he stopped eating altogether. Five men became his disciples. It had been six years since he’d left the castle. His extreme self-denial was harming his physical health.

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VII: From Suffering to Enlightenment

Just as Siddhartha’s ventures outside the castle walls showed him visions of increasing suffering, then a glimpse of holy inspiration, so would the increasing suffering he felt from his extreme asceticism lead to the holy inspiration of discovering the Middle Path.

The dialectical relationship between this increase of suffering, leading to greater spiritual awareness, can be compared to the points on a circular continuum that I’ve used the ouroboros to symbolize: the point of departure is the serpent’s biting head, the increasing suffering is movement along the length of its coiled body towards its bitten tail, and the enlightenment is a return to the biting head. I’ve written of the ouroboros as a symbol of the dialectical relationship between opposites (which meet where the serpent’s head bites its tail) in many other blog posts.

A girl named Sujata gave almost-dying Siddhartha some rice pudding and milk, and helped restore his health. His five followers, though, disappointed at his ‘weak resolve,’ left him.

VIII: Meditating Under the Bodhi Tree

Now better, he sat at the foot of the Bodhi Tree to begin meditating. He was determined not to get up until he’d attained enlightenment. This hard resolve of his is an interesting parallel to his previous, self-starving effort, with the crucial difference being one of success instead of near self-destruction. Of course, nirvana is a kind of destruction…that is, of an illusory self.

Mara the demon tried to tempt Siddhartha from finding enlightenment through pleasure (i.e., the devil’s three beautiful daughters) and through guilt (i.e., from having abandoned his kingdom). He resisted these temptations.

He was assailed with the temptations of Mara again, whose devils rained arrows on him; yet in his growing power, Siddhartha either transformed the arrows into flowers or had the arrows fly back at the devils. Turning arrows into flowers symbolizes the wise way to deal with hate: to turn it into love; one is reminded of Verse 197 in the Dhammapada: “Indeed we live very happily, not hating anyone among those who hate; among men who hate we live without hating anyone.” Also, there is Verse 5: “For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love, this is an eternal rule.” The arrows flying back at the devils symbolize bad karma.

Mara claimed that only he could be the greatest, and that Siddhartha had no claim to greatness. Siddhartha responded by touching the earth, an appeal to the mother goddess, who acknowledged him as a great sage. Mara knew he lost.

IX: Becoming the Buddha

Finally, at the age of thirty-five, Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment. From now on, he would be known as Buddha (“the Enlightened One”), Shakyamuni (“the Sage of the Shakyas”), the World-Honoured-One, or Tathāgata (“the One Thus-gone”).

He now understood the Four Noble Truths: the universality of unhappiness in the world; the cause of unhappiness, being desire; the way to end unhappiness, being the extinguishment of desire; and the following of the Eightfold Path to end unhappiness.

He got up from the Bodhi Tree and went to Benares to teach others how to end suffering, for his compassion for all–those who didn’t know the Dharma–necessitated his helping them. Mara tried to tempt him away from sermonizing, too, but of course the demon failed.

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X: His First Sermon

The Buddha found his five old followers who’d thought he’d given up on trying to find enlightenment. They quickly realized how wrong they were about him, and they became his disciples again. To them, he preached his first sermon, in the Deer Park in Benares.

He taught that one must avoid the extremes of indulgence in pleasure, on the one hand, and of self-mortification, or enduring extreme pain, on the other. Doing neither is useful or worthwhile. The Middle Path, avoiding the extremes, is useful and worthwhile. He also taught the Four Noble Truths.

One must follow the Noble Eightfold Path, in which each part builds on and reinforces the preceding and succeeding parts: right understanding, right intention, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

One cannot have the right intentions without the right belief system, or understanding of the world, as a foundation for those intentions. Of all the good deeds one can do, speaking the right way (i.e., with kindness and honesty) should be the easiest. Good deeds should lead naturally to doing honest work (i.e., non-exploitative work, and not cheating people).

Right effort (i.e., resisting temptations before they arise, abandoning sin when it has arisen; also, arousing and maintaining wholesome states of mind) should grow from this living of a good life, and in turn that effort should lead to right mindfulness (i.e., always keeping one’s mind on the goal of liberation). Right concentration, that is, meditation, is an extension of mindfulness to every second of one’s thoughts.

XI: No Gods, No Self

Since the gods are part of the phenomenological world of pain and suffering, they cannot help us attain nirvana, which is a state of no-thing-ness, of a fluid, ever-changing reality that is unlike any perceived ‘fixed’ state of being. Our attachment to previous forms of being, wishing them never to go away, is what causes our suffering.

Without the aid of the gods, we must rely on ourselves. As daunting a task as this is, to attain enlightenment on our own, we nonetheless have Three Jewels to take refuge in: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

When one speaks of ‘self’-reliance, though, one must use the word self with caution; for the Buddha taught that there is no self (anattā, or anātman), in direct contrast with the Hindu concept of one’s eternal soul, Atman, being one and the same as Brahman, or the eternal oneness behind the whole universe. If all is impermanent (anicca), there can be no soul; karma is what binds people to the cycle of reincarnation.

How can one reconcile the contradiction between the Hindu conception of Atman with the Buddhist concept of anātman? I use the dialectical relationship between opposites to do that. Impermanence is, paradoxically, the one permanent reality. Self and other are unified, as I see them; Atman and Brahman are one. Brahman is an infinite ocean of perpetual change, ever flowing from one temporary state to another, from one dialectical opposite to the other, and we are a part of that endless flowing, though we think we each have a self. Lacan recognized what a lie the notion of a fixed, permanent self is, in our experience of the mirror stage.

In any case, the Buddha was not interested in speculation about theological or philosophical matters; he just wanted to end suffering, and thus to focus on what would help end suffering. These issues were recorded in the Lesser Mālunkyāputta Sutra.

XII: The Fire Serpent

He went to the Kingdom of Magadha, where he stayed overnight in the hall of the sacred fire of Agni, worshipped by the three Kasyapa brothers. There, a fire snake emerged to attack him, but he used his radiant power to charm, calm, and defeat it. The three brothers were so impressed (and repentant that they’d tried to have the Buddha killed) that they and their many disciples joined the Sangha. (The story is represented on a fragment of a stone slab from Gandhara.) He would teach them the Fire Sermon.

The vanquishing of the fire serpent symbolizes the defeating of the fires of desire. In this story, I also see, in the calming of the snake, an illustrative example of what in psychoanalytic circles is Bion‘s theory of containment. Normally something a mother does to pacify her agitated baby, or what a psychotherapist does for his or her psychotic analysand, containment involves receiving the agitation of a distressed person (this agitation and distress being known as the contained) and being a container for it. One detoxifies the contained distress and returns it to the upset person, but it’s now in a tolerable, acceptable form. (See here for more on Bion and other psychoanalytic ideas.)

The Buddha made himself the container of the fire snake’s ferocity (the contained). He used what Bion called alpha function to soothe and calm the snake. The ‘heart of the Buddha,’ that is, his calm, loving, compassionate way replaced the ferocity with calmness and returned this now-soothing energy to the serpent. This kind of soothing and pacifying, reflected in the Christian tradition by the notion of ‘turning the other cheek,’ is the ideal way to deal with the hostility of other people. If only it weren’t so difficult to do…

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XIII: Spreading His Message

The Buddha’s message spread so far that it was received by followers of all social classes, from the poorest and hungriest to the richest of kings, including King Bimbisara of Magadha, who donated a garden of squirrels to the Sangha, the Bamboo Grove Monastery.

The Buddha returned to the Shakyas to see his father, King Suddhodana, his wife, Yaśodharā, and his son, Rāhula. The king had hoped he’d be dressed better, but the Buddha knew he didn’t need fine clothing. Purity of heart is more important. Soon, all the Shakyas became Buddhists.

These incidents, including the donation of the Prince Jeta Monastery through the (unnecessary) covering of the ground with thousands of gold coins, show how the Buddha’s message of love, compassion, and conquering of desire can win over even the wealthy and powerful.

XIV: The Three Poisons

Still, conquering our passions is never easy, even for committed monks. The three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion must be constantly guarded against; and even monks can miss the mark, as the Buddha noted in the quarrel among the monks of Kosambi, which even he couldn’t resolve (over a fairly minor problem, unclean water that mosquitoes might breed in), and threatened a rending asunder of the congregation.

Suffering isn’t caused only by wanting to keep things we cannot keep (greed) because of the reality of impermanence; it’s also caused by not accepting the unpleasant things that must be (hatred), even if just temporarily. The delusion behind all of this is the belief in a permanent pleasure and permanent non-existence of pain. All things, both good and bad, flow to us and away from us, like ocean waves.

XV: Devadatta

Speaking of sinful Buddhist followers, we mustn’t forget the Buddha’s envious cousin, Devadatta, who as a fellow Buddhist monk formed a splinter group to rival the Sangha. According to the Theravada Vinaya, Devadatta persuaded Prince Ajātasattu to have his father, King Bimbisara, killed (or jailed?); then he hired mercenaries to kill the Buddha.

But the mercenaries couldn’t bring themselves to do so horrible a deed, and they joined the Sangha instead. Devadatta made other attempts on the Buddha’s life, such as throwing a huge rock from up high on a mountain to crush him (it missed), and releasing an intoxicated elephant to trample him (as with the fire serpent, the Buddha used his powers of love and compassion to tame the elephant).

Devadatta eventually repented of his sin, but karma would have its way, and when he approached the Buddha, the earth opened up and sucked him into the Niraya Hell.

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XVI: Angulimāla

There are sinners who pretend to be good, like Devadatta; then there are those who are unabashedly bad, like Angulimāla, a robber who murdered hundreds, having cut off a finger from each victim to wear on a necklace (hence, his name).

When he encountered the Buddha, Angulimāla had already murdered 999 victims and was craving his thousandth, to fulfill a demand made by his old teacher for a thousand fingers. So wicked had Angulimāla become that he was actually considering murdering his own mother! Karma would never support such a crime, hence the Buddha’s intervention.

When he appeared on the road through a forest in Kosala, Angulimāla began chasing after him. Strangely, the killer was running as fast as he could, with his sword drawn, but the Buddha was just calmly walking. Even more strangely, instead of catching up with the Buddha, Angulimāla found the distance between himself and his prey lengthening!

The killer yelled at the Buddha to stop, to which he replied that he’d already stopped, and it was his pursuer who needed to stop. The killer repented and became a monk, who then had to endure the wrath of the families and friends of all of his murder victims; the Buddha told him to endure their hatred with patience, for such was his karmic burden.

This story demonstrates the superiority of calm over the passions; it also teaches how even the worst of people can be redeemed and made good.

XVII: The Buddha Enters Parinirvana

The Buddha spread his message for almost fifty years before finally falling ill and dying at about the age of eighty. He was going from Rajagaha to Savatthi. He reached a forest bordering Kusinara and rested between two large sala trees.

His disciple, Ananda, made a bed for him under the shade of the two trees. Subhadda, the Brahmin, came to see him, and he became the Buddha’s last disciple. He lay on the bed, reclining.

As he lay dying, the Buddha consoled his mourning disciples by saying that all things arise and pass away. “All compound things are transitory,” he said. “Seek out your liberation with diligence.” Then he died.

He went into the state of parinirvana, the end of his last physical life and into nirvana. Twentieth century scholars gave his dates as 563 BCE to 483 BCE, but recent scholarship considers the following dates as more accurate: from about 480 to about 400 BCE.

XVIII: Prodigal Sons

There is a story in the Lotus Sutra, about a young man who runs away from home, then, destitute, accidentally finds himself returned to the city of his (unrecognized) father, now a wealthy old man who recognizes his son and wants to ensure the boy inherits his wealth when he dies. Christians sometimes misinterpret this story, thinking that when the father gives his son work, he is making the boy do penance for his former unfilial ways. Part of the motive for such a misinterpretation is to present the forgiveness of the father in the Christian parable as proof of the ‘superiority’ of Christianity over Buddhism. Apparently, only Christianity offers grace; other religions require atonement.

The father in the Buddhist story, however, already forgives his son, and would eagerly have him back; but the boy, in his shame and impoverishment, would never accept being taken in as the son of such a rich man. The father accepts this mistaken feeling of his son, and employs him only to ensure that the boy is always nearby. He will tell his son the truth when the boy is ready to hear it. He also goes over to his son in filthy clothes and works with him.

When the son eventually learns who the rich old man really is, and that he is to inherit his father’s wealth, he is overjoyed to receive so unexpected a fortune, one unearned and given as a free gift. His job of cleaning away dung was not penance, but just something he did because of his inability to comprehend that he already had his father’s favour.

The father represents the Buddha as understood in the Mahayana tradition; the son represents those Theravada arhats who would never believe themselves capable of attaining Buddhahood. The purpose of the story is to tell Theravada Buddhists that, while they may continue practicing Buddhism in their usual way, they may become Buddhas just as Siddhartha did.

In an extended sense, this story can be interpreted to mean that we all have potential Buddha-nature. The Mahayana tradition sees no distinction between nirvana and samsara, two opposites that I would consider dialectical in nature. These things put together can be seen as a kind of grace, encouraging us, as the dying Buddha advised us, to seek our liberation with diligence.

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Analysis of ‘Star Wars’

In this analysis, I’ll be focusing on the George Lucas films, not the Disney debacle (my reasons for this are given below). As inferior as the prequels were to the trilogy of undeniably good films, at least they were a part of Lucas’s vision, not merely a grab for money.

I am saddened by the fact that, in all likelihood, I won’t live to see Lucas’s original idea for the sequel trilogy presented on the screen. All I can do is speculate and use my imagination as to how the Whills are in the drivers’ seats, controlling everything, behind every life form.

Nonetheless, there is enough material in Lucas’s six films to explore how he weaved a narrative–as clunky as his dialogue often was–to combine myth, mysticism, film lore, and (for me, the most exciting part) anti-imperialism.

Here are some famous quotes…and a few infamous ones:

Star Wars (1977)

“The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” –Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi, to Luke

Luke: I can’t get involved! I’ve got work to do! It’s not that I like the Empire, I hate it, but there’s nothing I can do about it right now. It’s such a long way from here.
Obi-Wan: That’s your uncle talking.

Motti: Any attack made by the Rebels against this station would be a useless gesture, no matter what technical data they’ve obtained. This station is now the ultimate power in the universe! I suggest we use it.
Vader: Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.
Motti: Don’t try to frighten us with your sorcerer’s ways, Lord Vader. [Vader walks toward Motti, then slowly raises his hand] Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes or given you clairvoyance enough to find the Rebels’ hidden fortr––[grasps his throat as if he is being choked]
Vader: I find your lack of faith disturbing.

Tarkin: Princess Leia, before your execution, I would like you to be my guest at a ceremony that will make this battle station operational. No star system will dare oppose the Emperor now.
Leia: The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.

Obi-Wan: Remember, a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him.
Luke: You mean it controls your actions?
Obi-Wan: Partially, but it also obeys your commands.

“Don’t underestimate the Force.” –Vader, to Tarkin

Vader: I’ve been waiting for you, Obi-Wan. We meet again at last. The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but the learner. Now I am the Master.
Obi-Wan: Only a master of evil, Darth.

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Gen. Maximilian Veers: My Lord, the fleet has moved out of lightspeed. Com-Scan has detected an energy field protecting an area of the sixth planet of the Hoth system. The field is strong enough to deflect any bombardment.
Vader: The Rebels are alerted to our presence. Admiral Ozzel came out of lightspeed too close to the system.
Veers: He felt surprise was wiser–
Vader[angrily] He is as clumsy as he is stupid. General, prepare your troops for a surface attack.
Veers: Yes, my Lord. [bows and leaves quickly][Darth Vader turns to a nearby screen and calls up Admiral Kendel Ozzel and Captain Firmus Piett.]
Ozzel: Lord Vader, the fleet has moved out of lightspeed and we’re preparing to– [begins choking]
Vader: You have failed me for the last time, Admiral.

The Emperor: The Force is strong with him. The son of Skywalker must not become a Jedi.
Vader: If he could be turned, he would become a powerful ally.
The Emperor[intrigued] Yes… He would be a great asset. Can it be done?
Vader: He will join us or die, master.

Han Solo: You like me because I’m a scoundrel. There aren’t enough scoundrels in your life.
Princess Leia: I happen to like nice men.
Han Solo: I’m a nice man.
Princess Leia: No, you’re not…[they kiss]

“Yes, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.” –Yoda, to Luke

Luke, having seen his X-wing sunk into the bog: Oh, no! We’ll never get it out now!
Yoda: So certain, are you? Always with you, it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?
Luke: Master, moving stones around is one thing, but this is… totally different!
Yoda: No! No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.
Luke: All right, I’ll give it a try.
Yoda: No! Try not. Do… or do not. There is no try.[Luke tries to use the Force to levitate his X-wing out of the bog, but fails in his attempt.]
Luke: I can’t. It’s too big.
Yoda: Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And where you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship.
Luke: You want the impossible. [sees Yoda use the Force to levitate the X-wing out of the bog and gets flustered when he does it] I don’t… I don’t believe it!
Yoda: That is why you fail.

Darth Vader, after choking Captain Needa to death: Apology accepted, Captain Needa.

Luke: I feel the Force.
Obi-Wan: But you cannot control it. This is a dangerous time for you, when you will be tempted by the dark side of the Force.

“Only a fully trained Jedi Knight with the Force as his ally will conquer Vader and his Emperor. If you end your training now, if you choose the quick and easy path as Vader did, you will become an agent of evil.” –Yoda, to Luke

“Luke. Don’t give in to hate. That leads to the dark side.” –Obi-Wan

Leia Organa: I love you.
Han Solo: I know.

“The force is with you, young Skywalker, but you are not a Jedi yet.” –Vader

Vader: If only you knew the power of the dark side. Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.
Luke: He told me enough. He told me you killed him.
Vader: No. I am your father.
Luke[shocked] No. No. That’s not true! That’s impossible!
Vader: Search your feelings; you know it to be true!
Luke: NO!!! NO!!!
Vader: Luke, you can destroy the Emperor. He has foreseen this. It is your destiny. Join me, and together, we can rule the galaxy as father and son! Come with me. It is the only way. [Luke lets go of the projection and falls into the shaft]

Return of the Jedi (1983)

Luke: Obi-Wan. Why didn’t you tell me? You told me Vader betrayed and murdered my father.
Obi-Wan: Your father was seduced by the dark side of the Force. He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed. So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view.
Luke[incredulously] A certain point of view?
Obi-Wan: Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view. Anakin was a good friend. When I first knew him, your father was already a great pilot. But I was amazed how strongly the Force was with him. I took it upon myself to train him as a Jedi. I thought that I could instruct him just as well as Yoda. I was wrong.
Luke: There is still good in him.
Obi-Wan: He’s more machine now than man. Twisted and evil.

Leia: But why must you confront him?
Luke: Because there is good in him, I’ve felt it. He won’t turn me over to the Emperor. I can save him; I can turn him back to the good side. I have to try. [kisses Leia on the cheek, then leaves]

Luke: Search your feelings, father. You can’t do this. I feel the conflict within you. Let go of your hate.
Vader: It is… too late for me, son. The Emperor will show you the true nature of the Force. He is your master now.
Luke[resigned] Then my father is truly dead.

“I’m looking forward to completing your training. In time, you will call me ‘Master’.” –the Emperor, to Luke

“It’s a trap!” –Admiral Ackbar

The Emperor: Come, boy, see for yourself. From here, you will witness the final destruction of the Alliance and the end of your insignificant rebellion. [Luke’s eyes go to his lightsabre] You want this, don’t you? The hate is swelling in you now. Take your Jedi weapon. Use it. I am unarmed. Strike me down with it. Give in to your anger. With each passing moment you make yourself more my servant.
Luke: No.
The Emperor: It is unavoidable. It is your destiny. You, like your father, are now mine.

Stormtrooper: Don’t move!
Han Solo, glances nervously at Leia…who subtly reveals the blaster hidden at her side: I love you.
Princess Leia: [smiles] I know.

The Phantom Menace (1999)

“Exsqueeze me…” –Jar Jar Binks

Maul: At last we will reveal ourselves to the Jedi. At last we will have revenge.
Sidious: You have been well trained, my young apprentice. They will be no match for you.

“How wude!” –Jar Jar Binks

“Yippie!” –Anakin

Palpatine[Whispering to Queen Amidala] Enter the bureaucrats, the true rulers of the Republic. And on the payroll of the Trade Federation, I might add. This is where Chancellor Valorum’s strength will disappear.
Valorum: The point is conceded. Will you defer your motion to allow a commission to explore the validity of your accusations?
Padmé: I will not defer. I’ve come before you to resolve this attack on our sovereignty now! I was not elected to watch my people suffer and die while you discuss this invasion in a committee! If this body is not capable of action, I suggest new leadership is needed. I move for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum’s leadership. [The Senators begin arguing over Queen Amidala’s decision, as Valorum sits down, stunned]
Mas Amedda: ORDER!!
Palpatine: Now they will elect a new Chancellor, a strong Chancellor. One who will not let our tragedy continue.

Mace Windu, after Darth Maul’s defeat: There’s no doubt the mysterious warrior was a Sith.
Yoda: Always two, there are. No more, no less. A master and an apprentice.
Windu: But which one was destroyed, the master or the apprentice?

Attack of the Clones (2002)

“Why do I get the feeling you’re going to be the death of me?” –Obi-Wan, to Anakin

Barfly: You wanna buy some death sticks?
Obi-Wan[executes a Jedi mind trick] You don’t want to sell me death sticks.
Barfly: I don’t wanna sell you death sticks.
Obi-Wan: You want to go home and rethink your life.
Barfly: I wanna go home and rethink my life. [leaves]

“I see you becoming the greatest of all the Jedi, Anakin. Even more powerful than Master Yoda.” –Palpatine

“Attachment is forbidden. Possession is forbidden. Compassion, which I would define as unconditional love, is essential to a Jedi’s life. So you might say, that we are encouraged to love.” –Anakin

“I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft and smooth.” –Anakin, to Padmé

Mas Amedda: This is a crisis. The Senate must vote the Chancellor emergency powers. He can then approve the creation of an army.
Palpatine: But what Senator would have the courage to propose such a radical amendment?
Amedda: If only…Senator Amidala were here.

“Victory? Victory, you say? Master Obi-Wan, not victory. The shroud of the dark side has fallen. Begun, the Clone War has!” –Yoda

Revenge of the Sith (2005)

“Chancellor Palpatine, Sith Lords are our speciality.” –Obi-Wan

Anakin: My powers have doubled since the last time we met, Count.
Dooku: Good. Twice the pride, double the fall.

Palpatine: Have you ever heard the Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise?
Anakin: No.
Palpatine: I thought not. It’s not a story the Jedi would tell you. It’s a Sith legend. Darth Plagueis was a Dark Lord of the Sith so powerful and so wise, he could use the Force to influence the midi-chlorians to create… life. He had such a knowledge of the dark side, he could even keep the ones he cared about… from dying.
Anakin: He could actually… save people from death?
Palpatine: The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.
Anakin: What happened to him?
Palpatine: He became so powerful, the only thing he was afraid of was losing his power…which, eventually of course, he did. Unfortunately, he taught his apprentice everything he knew, then his apprentice killed him in his sleep. Ironic. He could save others from death… but not himself.
Anakin: Is it possible to learn this power?
Palpatine: Not from a Jedi.

“POWER!!!! UNLIMITED POWER!!!!” –Palpatine, then sending Windu flying out the window to his death

Anakin: I pledge myself… to your teachings.
Sidious: Good. Good… The Force is strong with you. A powerful Sith, you will become. Henceforth, you shall be known as Darth…Vader.

Palpatine: The remaining Jedi will be hunted down and defeated. [applause] The attempt on my life has left me scarred and deformed. But, I assure you, my resolve has never been stronger. [applause] In order to ensure our security and continuing stability, the Republic will be reorganized into the first Galactic Empire, for a safe and secure society. [the Senators cheer]
Padmé: So this is how liberty dies… with thunderous applause.

Vader: You turned her against me!
Obi-Wan: You have done that yourself!
Vader: YOU WILL NOT TAKE HER FROM ME!!!
Obi-Wan: Your anger and your lust for power have already done that. You have allowed this Dark Lord to twist your mind, until now- now, you have become the very thing you swore to destroy.
Vader: Don’t lecture me, Obi-Wan. I see through the lies of the Jedi. I do not fear the Dark Side as you do! I have brought peace, freedom, justice, and security to my new empire!
Obi-Wan: Your new empire?!
Vader: Don’t make me kill you.
Obi-Wan: Anakin, my allegiance is to the Republic, to democracy!
Vader: If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy!
Obi-Wan: Only a Sith deals in absolutes. I will do what I must.
Vader: You will try.

“It’s over, Anakin! I have the high ground!” –Obi-Wan

[Obi-Wan Kenobi has cut off Vader’s legs and part of his remaining good arm on one of Mustafar’s higher grounds. Vader is struggling near the lava river]Obi-Wan[anguished] You were the chosen one! It was said that you would destroy the Sith, not join them! Bring balance to the Force, not leave it in darkness! [picks up Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber]
Vader: I HATE YOU!!!
Obi-Wan: You were my brother, Anakin. I loved you. [leaves as Vader, now too close to the lava river, catches on fire.]

“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!” –Vader, after realizing he’s killed Padmé

Yoda: An old friend has learned the path to immortality. One who has returned from the netherworld of the Force… Your old master.
Obi-Wan[surprised] Qui-Gon?!
Yoda: How to commune with him, I will teach you.

As my ordering of the above quotes indicates, I’m going through these films in the order they were made, rather than their order in terms of episodes. I’m doing this because, first, the above represents the order in which my generation and I experienced them, second, this is the order in which all the plot elements and characters were introduced for us, and third, anyone who hates the prequels so much that he or she doesn’t want to see them dignified with an analysis won’t have to scroll down to the good movies.

Star Wars

I’m also going by the original titles of the films, as you can see, rather than enumerating the “episodes.” It’s a nostalgia thing, as is my reason for giving minimal approval to the changes Lucas made to the original trilogy, most of which–in my opinion, at least–were unnecessary, self-indulgent, and even irritating at times.

Though the story takes place “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” its relevance to so much of what has happened in our world, up until now, shows the Unities of Time, of Space, and of Action, as I’ve described them elsewhere. These are universal themes, happening everywhere and at all times.

The opening crawl says, “It is a period of civil war.” Civil war, among the stars of the galaxy? By ‘civil,’ this means that members of the imperial senate are among those rebelling against the evil Galactic Empire. It’s a revolution from within, hence it’s a ‘civil war.’

Princess Leia claims she’s a member of the imperial senate on a diplomatic mission, when she’s actually behind the stealing of the Death Star plans. Later in the film, Commander Tagge, during a meeting of the imperial big brass on the Death Star, says “the rebellion will continue to gain a support in the imperial senate…”. The rebels are to a great extent made up of former members of the Empire…and what should we make of the Empire?

Note how they’re all Nordic-looking white men…not one of them is an alien, nor are any of them even non-white. We hear either British or American accents…or in the case of Darth Vader’s voice, the Transatlantic accent. The Galactic Empire thus can easily be seen to represent the Anglo-American imperialism of the past several hundred years.

Those dissidents who have left the Empire to join the rebellion are an inspiration to all of us living in the West, those who hate imperialism and late stage, neoliberal capitalism. It isn’t enough to hate the perpetrators of modern evils: we must fight them.

Fight the empire.

Granted, no one ever said it would be easy to fight them. That opening shot, of the tiny Tantive IV being chased and shot at by that huge Star Destroyer, coming from and dominating the top of the screen, establishes and emphasizes just how formidable an enemy the Empire is. Similarly, we in today’s world know who we’re up against, with not only a multi-billion-dollar funded American/NATO military, militarized cops, and their vastly superior technology, but also a trans-national corporate media that lulls us into submission.

Princess Leia’s iconic hairstyle, with its ‘cinnamon buns,’ was at least in part inspired by those of some of the Mexican women, called soldaderas, who fought in the Mexican Revolution. Darth Vader’s costuming, and that of the Jedi Knights, were inspired by that of the samurai, redolent of old, Japanese feudal times; for as benign as the Jedi are, they nonetheless represent a dogmatic, stodgy, conservative way of thinking that lends itself, despite the Jedi’s best intentions, to the authoritarianism of the Republic-turned-Empire.

Indeed, the Galactic Republic was always corrupt to some extent at least (more on that in the analyses of the prequels below); but in the emergence of the Empire, we see that corruption transforming into a kind of fascism. Before the rise of Naziism, the Weimar Republic was seen as a similarly corrupt democracy, hated by the German right and left. The Stormtroopers, whose name reminds us of the Sturmabteilung, wear uniforms that, appropriately, make them look like skeletons. Vader’s skull-like mask reinforces the Empire’s association with death. (Yes, note how masks represent conformity and hide individuality!)

R2-D2 and C-3PO, the only comic relief the franchise ever needed (Sorry, Jar Jar and BB-8), were inspired by two peasants from Akira Kurosawa‘s Hidden Fortress, as was so much of this movie. The first of these two ‘droids is the film’s MacGuffin, in its carrying of the Death Star plans to Tatooine.

In deleted scenes, Luke sees the Star Destroyer and rebel cruiser from his binoculars, then tells his friends, Deak, Windy, Fixer, and Camie, about it (see also Lucas, pages 16-19). Luke has had thoughts of joining the academy, since living on Tatooine is boring and depressing; but his friend Biggs tells him he’s leaving the Empire and joining the rebellion (Lucas, pages 24-27). This revelation gives Luke an important opportunity to begin questioning authority.

[In the deleted scene (link above) with Biggs and Luke, unfortunately Biggs says the Empire are starting to “nationalize” commerce; whereas in Lucas’s novelization, he says “they’re starting to imperialize commerce” (Lucas, page 26, my emphasis), which makes much more sense. How does one “nationalize” commerce in the context of “the central systems”? Also, nationalization isn’t exactly in keeping with imperialism.]

The contrast between feisty R2-D2 and polite and proper C-3PO is striking: the former defies authority, while the latter defers to it, except when the latter has no choice but to defy it. This contrast is emphasized when the two ‘droids part ways in the desert sands of Tatooine.

No analysis of Star Wars is complete without a discussion of Joseph Campbell‘s notion of the Hero’s Journey. Luke’s journey begins with his boring, ordinary world on Tatooine, the status quo. His Uncle Owen won’t let him leave and join the academy, rationalizing that he doesn’t yet have enough staff to replace Luke to work on the vaporators on his moisture farm; actually, Owen, knowing the fate of Luke’s father, doesn’t want the boy to suffer the same fate by getting involved in the conflict between the Empire and the rebels.

Luke’s call to adventure comes when he plays a fragment of a recording by Leia, who needs the help of Obi-Wan Kenobi. The boy is intrigued by two things in this recording: he recognizes the name Kenobi, wondering if she’s referring to old Ben Kenobi; Luke also notes how beautiful she is, not knowing she’s his twin sister (Did Lucas know she was his twin sister from the beginning? Some of us have our doubts about that, if you’ll indulge a little understatement on my part.).

Having tricked Luke into removing a restraining bolt attached to its side, R2-D2 sneaks away in search of Obi-Wan. Luke and Threepio chase after the twittering little ‘droid, only to be attacked by Sand People. Then Kenobi comes to rescue them, this moment being Luke’s meeting the mentor/supernatural aid.

In Kenobi’s home, two subjects under discussion between him and Luke are merged, one that has been of major emotional importance to the boy, and one that will be of major importance for the rest of his life: they are, respectively, his father and the Force. A mystery from Luke’s past, and a mystery to be unravelled in his future.

What’s particularly interesting about this juxtaposition of his father and the Force is that both have been divided into good and bad sides, though of course Luke doesn’t yet realize it. When Ben says, “Vader was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force,” Luke takes note only of, “the Force.”

Saying that Vader “betrayed and murdered” Luke’s father, instead of telling him what we all now know, the ret-con that Vader is his father, represents psychological splitting: Anakin is the good father, and Vader is the bad father. In fact, ‘Darth Vader’ is a pun on ‘dark father,’ or perhaps ‘dearth’ or ‘death (of the) father.’ Furthermore, ‘Vader’ can be seen as a near-homographic pun on the German word for ‘father’…Vater, which is appropriate, given the (unfortunate) stereotypical German association with fascism, and the Empire’s association with Naziism.

Just as there’s a duality in Luke’s father, so is there a duality in the Force; and while this film focuses on the dark side of Luke’s father (though Vader isn’t yet known to be him…and again, Lucas did not yet ‘know’ until after rewrites of Leigh Brackett‘s draft of The Empire Strikes Back), so does it focus on the good side of the Force.

…and what are we to make of this “ancient religion”? The mystical energy field has been compared to such ideas as the Chinese concept of ch’i, a knowledge of which helps the martial artist and samurai, to whom the Jedi can be compared. If one were religious, one might compare the Force to God, and its dark side to the Devil.

In order to defeat so intimidating an enemy as empire (be it the Galactic Empire of the Star Wars saga, or in our world, today’s US/NATO empire), one may find it helpful, at least in strengthening one’s sense of hope, to believe in some kind of Higher Power. For some, that might be God, the Tao, ch’i, or Brahman, as the Force can be seen to represent.

For me, the Force represents a kind of dialectical monism, the light and dark sides of which are sublated into the “balance” that is hoped for in the prequels. We Marxists, even though we’re generally not religious, can see the dialectical resolving of contradictions in history and economic systems as being symbolized by these yin-and-yang-like sides of the Force.

One interesting point made by Kenobi, in his description of the Force, is that it is “created by all living things,” rather than having created all life. This reversal is crucial in understanding how the Force is unlike any god. It’s useful for atheistic Marxists, too, who in our struggle against today’s imperialism, believe in dialectical materialism, in which the material world, and its dialectical contradictions, come first…then ideas come from the physical (i.e., through the brain). This conception is opposed to the Hegelian idea coming first (i.e., the Spirit), and physicality is supposed to grow from ideas.

So even if we’re atheists, we can derive hope from the dialectical materialist unfolding of history gradually resolving the contradictions of today and ending imperialism. This hope can give us the strength and resolve to carry on fighting our empire today, just as the rebels hope the Force will be with them. Even Han Solo, who doesn’t believe in the Force, uses its power, if only unconsciously.

We can also find inspiration in the Hero’s Journey, all the while understanding that it is no easy path to go on. Luke himself goes through his own refusal of the call when he tells Ben that he “can’t get involved.” Only the stormtroopers’ killing of his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru will radicalize him into going with Ben to Alderaan and learning the ways of the Force.

This radicalizing of Luke is interesting in itself. During the “War on Terror,” we in the West have been propagandized into believing that “Islamists” are just crazed fanatics driven to violence by their ‘backward’ religion, rather than by such things as drone strikes from imperialists that kill Muslims’ families, thus radicalizing them, as Luke as been.

That Tatooine is a desert planet, symbolic of Third Word poverty, is significant. That desert poverty makes it easy to compare to life in the Middle East and north Africa, whose populations have been oppressed by Western imperialism (starting with the British and French empires, then Zionism and American neocons) for decades and decades. Recall that Lucas filmed the Tatooine scenes in Tunisia.

The killing of Luke’s aunt and uncle, pushing him to join Ben and learn how to be a Jedi, means that Luke is crossing the first threshold and beginning his hero’s journey. Those of the imperialist mentality would say Luke is becoming a terrorist…well, when hearing that, just consider the source.

The poverty and want of Tatooine, a planet among those in the Outer Rim (an area whose very name tells us already just how marginalized it is), indicates the economic aspect of oppression in the galaxy. The Empire in this context should be seen to symbolize the bourgeois state.

The role of any government, properly understood, is to represent and protect the interests of one class at the expense of the others. Coruscant–a planet that is one big city all over (a city of flying cars and night lights that visually remind us of the Los Angeles of Blade Runner), and that is the seat of the galactic state (in either its republican or imperialistic form)–is representative of the First World, with all of its wealth and privilege. The contrast of Coruscant against such desolate planets as Tatooine and Hoth should help us recognize the state in the Star Wars saga as the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

Along with the desolation of Tatooine is the sense of alienation felt among its inhabitants. The aggression of the Sand People, gangsters like Jabba the Hutt, and the ruffians in the Mos Eisley cantina are indicative of such social estrangement as caused by the Galactic Empire. There’s so much needless fighting among them, a hostility that, if channeled properly, could be directed at the Empire instead.

Macho Han Solo, a cowboy without a hat, is yet another example of the “I’m alright, Jack” kind of rugged individualism in a world where solidarity against the Empire is needed far more. A deleted scene shows him with his arm around a pretty girl whom he calls “Sweetheart” when she leaves so he can meet Luke and Ben. Han’s involvement with the rebels, led by another “sweetheart,” will make a much-needed change in his character.

But for now, we just have the cocky he-man…so much so that, as a nod to all of us who saw the original version of this film, we can say that Greedo never fired a single shot before Han blew him away. Han, at this point in his life, wasn’t meant to be a good role model for children.

Another point needs to be made about Mos Eisley spaceport, as it was originally conceived: it originally had far fewer people, aliens, etc. That was the point–it was a lonely place where anyone trying to hide from the Empire could lie low and hope not to be apprehended. Adding all that CGI may have made the scenes more visually interesting (to those with shorter attention spans), but sometimes less is more.

While it’s interesting to see the scene with Han Solo talking with Jabba by the Millennium Falcon, in another way, it’s better without that scene, for its omission gave Jabba a sense of mystery (Who is he? What does he look like?) until we finally see his infernal sliminess in Return of the Jedi. Besides, Han’s calling him a “wonderful human being” (my emphasis), even if meant sarcastically, sounds rather out of place (He doesn’t even say that in the novel; instead, he says, “Don’t worry, Jabba, I’ll pay you. But not because you threaten me. I’ll pay you because…it’s my pleasure.”–Lucas, page 89).

There are many variations on how the hero’s journey can be told, depending on the story. Some steps may not be presented in the exact same order, and some may be combined into a single step, or into fewer steps, or omitted altogether. A hero different from the main one may fulfill a few of those steps, too. Depending on one’s interpretation of the plot structure of Star Wars, a number of such changes can be seen to have happened in this film.

The Millennium Falcon’s being pulled by the tractor beam into the Death Star, and the ensuing struggle to rescue Leia and get out, seem to be a combination of the belly of the whale, the road of trials, the meeting of the goddess, approaching the cave, woman as temptress, and the ordeal. Beautiful Leia is thus both the goddess and, in terms of her potential love triangle with Luke and Han, the temptress. Almost being crushed in the trash compactor would be the ordeal.

While many decry the dearth of female characters in the original trilogy, and to mention the only nascent progressivism of 1970s and 1980s movies is seen to be a lame excuse for this dearth; what these three films lack in quantity of strong women is more than made up for in quality of strong women. Iconic Princess Leia is, if anything, a parody of the damsel in distress.

Indeed, Lucas takes the traditional trope of the dashing male heroes rescuing the pretty girl in danger, and he subverts it, not only by showing Leia take charge in the detention area (blasting a hole in the wall leading to the trash compactor), but also by showing how inept Han and Luke are in their bumbling attempt to save her.

As the sparks fly between bickering Han and Leia, we’re already sure of one thing: they have the hots for each other.

One important thing to remember about Luke’s relationship with Ben, though, is that the old man has become the father the boy never had. Luke has transferred his filial feelings from mysterious Anakin onto Ben. With this understanding, we can know what to make of Luke’s watching of the light-sabre duel between Ben and Vader.

When Luke watches in horror at the two men fighting, he sees the symbolic good father versus the bad father. This brings us back to what I said above about psychological splitting. Luke’s rage at seeing Vader cut Ben down with his red light-sabre provokes in him what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position, the persecutory anxiety felt as a result of the frustration felt towards the split-off bad parent. Luke fires his blaster at the stormtroopers, wishing he could hit Vader in revenge for having killed the good father…now, for a second time.

On the other hand, Ben’s allowing himself to be struck down is motivated, not only out of a wish to sacrifice himself so the others can escape (thus making his sacrifice to be symbolically a Christ-like one, resulting in Ben changing from a physical to, if you will, a kind of spiritual body); but also as a form of atonement for having failed to train Anakin to be strong enough to resist the temptations of the Dark Side, and for having dismembered him and left him for dead amidst the molten lava of Mustafar. In this sense, it is Ben, rather than Luke, who has made atonement with the father. In his changing into a Force ghost, Ben has also had a kind of apotheosis.

The ultimate boon or reward is achieved when Han and Luke get the Millennium Falcon out of the Death Star and return Leia to the rebels on Yavin. Han will be paid well for his services in rescuing her, but her and Luke’s disapproval of his mercenary attitude will push him to change his ways and receive the ultimate boon: the honour of being a true hero, what Luke has already achieved.

An analysis of the Death Star plans reveals a weakness in its design that the rebels can use to their advantage and destroy it. Here we see dialectics again: “the ultimate power in the universe,” as Motti boasts of the Death Star, “is insignificant next to the power of the Force,” as Vader corrects him.

Han’s refusal of the return, that is, to return to the fight against the Empire, prompts Luke and Chewie to guilt trip him to the point where he, at the last, crucial moment, rescues Luke from without, shooting at the three TIE fighters led by Vader, who is just about to destroy Luke’s X-wing.

Though for the sake of pacing, it was necessary to cut out most of the scenes with Biggs, these omissions were unfortunate; for their inclusion would have added emotional depth to when he is killed. The scene mentioned above, with Biggs on Tatooine telling Luke of his joining the rebels, establishes the two of them as best friends; then the added scene of the reunion of Luke and Biggs among the X-wing fighters, just before they fly off to confront the Death Star, further cements this friendship.

Han’s saving of Luke, though, just before he trusts his feelings and uses the Force to destroy the Death Star, means the boy now has a new friend…and friends are what we need to defeat imperialism.

The Empire Strikes Back

Just as the major planet for the first half of the 1977 film is a barren, hot planet, the major planet for the first half of the 1980 film is a barren, cold planet. Both planets, Tatooine and Hoth, are desolate places in contrast to the city-planet of Coruscant, symbolic of the contradiction between, respectively, the Third and First Worlds; the desert and ice planets are also dialectically opposed for self-explanatory reasons.

Luke’s face being mangled by the Wampa may seem to audiences to be the Star Wars plot’s attempt to explain the change in Mark Hamill‘s looks (he’d been in a car accident in early 1977), but in all likelihood, it wasn’t. Leigh Brackett’s first draft included the Wampa attack, which had the ice creature slash Luke “across the face,” leaving him with “one side of his face a mass of blood”; this was written as early as about 1978, and so thought up even earlier. Hamill wasn’t yet a well-known actor as of 1977, and he looked OK when filmed with Annie Potts in 1978’s Corvette Summer, so neither audiences nor Brackett (in the late 70s, just before she died) would have thought much of the change in his looks by the time of the 1980 film.

The hostility of the Wampas (some of which try to break into the rebel fortress, as seen in some deleted scenes), like the hostility of Tatooine’s Sand People and gangsters, reflects again the alienation felt among the life forms of the desolate, poverty-stricken planets in the Mid and Outer Rims, marginalized by the Empire.

Luke’s only way to save himself from the Wampa is to get to his light-sabre, which is lying in the snow on the ground, out of his reach (for Luke, hanging upside down, has his feet held in ice on the ceiling of the Wampa’s cave). He needs to use the Force, of course.

In Donald F. Glut‘s novelization, Luke imagines the light-sabre already in his hand (Glut, page 192). Just in time, it flies up from the snow and into his hand. This using of the Force involves acknowledging the links between oneself and the objects all around us. Acknowledging such links is part of the cure of alienation, which in turn helps us build the solidarity needed to defeat imperialism.

Speaking of such solidarity, Han is conflicted over leaving the rebels to pay off Jabba the Hutt and staying to help them; his decision to rescue Luke from the icy cold (not to mention his feelings for Leia) resolve his conflict.

The Disney producers of the “sequel trilogy” thought that all they needed to do to pique the interest of Star Wars fans was to have Han, Luke, and Leia involved on some level in the new stories. Those producers missed the point of what made the magic in the three heroes’ presence: their interaction with each other–the bickering, the love rivalry (before Lucas retconned the story to make Leia Luke’s sister, of course), and most importantly, the camaraderie of the three.

Camaraderie among heroic revolutionaries is crucial to defeating imperialism. This is part of the use of the word comrade among socialist revolutionaries. The word gives verbal expression to the solidarity needed as the cure for alienation, and the word also reinforces a sense of egalitarianism.

Contrast this mutual love and respect among the rebels with the mutual ill will and alienation felt among the officers in the imperial army. First, there’s the scowling and sneering between rivalrous Admiral Ozzel and Captain Piett; then there’s Vader’s Force-choking of Ozzel for having been “clumsy” and “stupid” enough to have come “out of light speed too close to the [Hoth] system,” and promoting Piett to admiral.

Luke is not the only one going through the hero’s journey in this movie. Han’s refusal of the call has Leia frowning at him, but their being chased in the Falcon by Vader and the Star Destroyers is his crossing the threshold and road of trials.

Luke’s trip to Dagobah, to be trained by Yoda, is his meeting with the mentor, whose lifting of his X-wing out of the swamp is an example of his supernatural aid. That swamp planet, just like the desert planet and the ice planet, is full of treacherous life forms whose hostility is symbolic of the alienation caused by imperialism. Luke is literally approaching the cave when Yoda tests his ability to control his fear with the Vader apparition.

Han, Leia, and Chewie are symbolically in the belly of the whale when in that giant slug among the asteroids, the chase through which having been a scene in Brackett’s first draft. Han’s growing romance with Leia is his meeting with the goddess, her beauty making her the woman as temptress.

As Luke learns about the Force, we finally learn about the nature of the Dark Side. The spiritually good are “calm, at peace, passive,” while the evil give in to “anger, fear, aggression.” The Dark Side is “quicker, easier, more seductive.” Yoda tells Luke that if you turn to the Dark Side, “forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will”…but that’s not entirely true, given that Anakin will redeem himself by the end of Return of the Jedi.

It would be truer to say that, “Once you start down the dark path,” it will be harder and harder to turn back, but not impossible. Yoda’s insistence, on the impossibility of returning to the good side after having gone down the dark path, seems to be an instance of the dogmatism of the Jedi clouding up the truth.

When Luke encounters the Vader apparition in the cave, Luke’s own version of the road of trials, his panicked parrying of Vader’s light-sabre and slicing off of Vader’s head is a wish-fulfillment, Luke’s getting revenge on Vader for cutting through Ben at the neck in their Death Star duel.

Since Vader is the bad father (as discussed above), Luke’s fear in fighting him represents the persecutory anxiety felt in the paranoid-schizoid position. But when the mask explodes and reveals Luke’s face, this represents how the bad father is an internalized object residing in Luke’s psyche. To kill off this introjection is to kill off a part of himself. Thus, Luke must integrate his splitting of good Anakin and bad Vader if he is to find spiritual peace and stay with the good side of the Force. This understanding is part of his atonement with father.

It is interesting to see how Luke, as he learns how to move stones around, is typically in postures reminding us of yoga asanas. In this connection, Yoda’s name (originally Minch in Brackett’s first draft) is an obvious pun on yoga, a philosophy that is all about finding the union, the oneness, in all things, a joining of the human spirit and the Divine spirit.

The energy of the Force “surrounds us and binds us,” as Yoda tells Luke. In the 1977 film, Ben has added that the Force also “penetrates us.” This penetrative aspect within us is the Living Force, existing in the spirit of each living thing, which is rather like Atman; the aspect of the Force that surrounds and binds us is the Cosmic Force, which is rather like Brahman. As an energy field in all things, the Force is thus that infinite ocean I’ve written of so many times–the Unity of Space.

After having tested Luke’s patience by pretending to be just an annoying little alien (a test Luke fails when he presumes that the “great warrior” could never be this “little fella,” an implied racial prejudice Luke quickly outgrows), Yoda scoffs at Luke’s longing for adventure, his having always “looked away to the future, to the horizon…never his mind on where he was, what he was doing.” If Luke wants to master the Force, he must focus on the Eternal NOW–or as I’ve called it, the Unity of Time–rather than the past or the future, which are just human constructs and have no basis in material reality.

Very little in these movies is overt about the capitalist basis of imperialism, but there are a few significant indications. Jabba the Hutt is a gangster, and as I’ve shown in a number of film analyses, mafias–criminal businesses–make a perfect metaphor for capitalism. Han owes Jabba for having dumped off spice, a narcotic many in the galaxy use recreationally as a manic defence against the despair they feel from their alienation. The Empire may disapprove of the trafficking of spice, but it sometimes has uses for gangsters and bounty hunters, too.

Later, when Boba Fett finds Han Solo, Darth Vader is content to let the bounty hunter take Han to Jabba the Hutt once Vader has Skywalker. Fett is worried that, if Han dies either through the torturing (to make Luke want to come to Bespin) or through the carbon freezing, Han’s great worth will be reduced to nothing. In other words, Han is being treated as no more than a commodity, a common problem those in the sex industry suffer under capitalism.

To get back to Luke, though, his training in the Force is moving him further away from alienation and closer to a linking with all things. As he moves stones around, Yoda’s soothing voice tells him to “feel” the Force, that is, the connections between all things that make moving things with one’s mind possible. When Luke can’t imagine how he can lift his X-wing out of the water with his mind, he is ignoring the microscopic wave-particles that are everything, and he’s ignoring how the Force links all things together.

On Bespin, a planet whose theme, oddly, is clouds and sky rather than land or water, Lando Calrissian has set up a business independent of imperial meddling. His business would seem to represent the right-wing libertarian ideal of capitalism without government interference. Up in the sky, among the clouds, Bespin is a heavenly utopia…

Let’s remember, though, that Lando isn’t exactly trustworthy. He’s been a “gambler, con artist, all-around scoundrel,” as Han describes him in the novelization (Glut, page 275); so we should be wary of Lando’s conception of utopia. He has won the ownership of a Tibanna gas mine in a sabacc match, or so he claims. He’s not part of the mining guild, which on the one hand would be a cartel regulated by the Empire, but on the other hand would be, in part, like a trade union. Free-market-minded Lando, with his lack of love for the Empire, would never want inclusion of his business in a guild.

In fact, in his desperate–and ultimately futile–attempt to protect his business from the Empire, Lando makes a deal with Vader to hand over Han, Leia, and Chewbacca. The fascist capitalist state that is the Empire, however, betrays Lando with the “altering [of] the deal” as cold-bloodedly as he has betrayed Han et al, in true Judas Iscariot fashion. Right-wing libertarians similarly pose as anti-government, yet they’ll support the state if it’s convenient for them. Just take note of the Koch brothers to see what I mean.

Right-wing libertarians fail to see the link between capitalism and the state, in part, because they imagine the old free-competition of the 19th century to be something they can revive as long as they minimize ‘pesky, intrusive’ government. But capitalism in its modern, imperialist stage is a concentrated, centralized, monopolistic form in which industrial cartels have been merged with the banks, resulting in finance capital. The need for markets to expand ever-outwards and take over foreign lands, as a counterweight to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, renders a return to the “free market” an impossibility. Capitalism without a state that’s protective of private property is also an impossibility.

The Empire’s takeover of Lando’s mining business is teaching him the reality of these impossibilities, and teaching him the hard way, so he quickly repents of his betrayal of Han, Leia, and Chewie. As a member of the vacillating middle bourgeoisie, Lando may be what Mao considered an enemy of the people if he shifts to the right, or he may be considered the proletariat’s friend if he shifts to the left. The Empire has pushed him to the right by making him betray our rebel heroes, but the imperial takeover of his business has pushed him to the left, so now he wants to help Han, Leia, and Chewie.

The suffering that Han, Leia, and Chewie are forced to endure is that part of the hero’s journey known as the ordeal. The freezing of Han in carbonite is, once again, the belly of the whale, with him as Jonah, who formerly didn’t want to do God’s work and preach to the people of Nineveh, and when freed from the “great fish,” Jonah had changed and would do the right thing. Han hasn’t committed himself to the cause of the rebellion, but being encased in carbonite will effect a spiritual transformation similar to Jonah’s.

Frozen Han, taken to be put aboard Slave I, looks like he’s the focus of a funeral procession. It’s as if he is dead, taken in a coffin. In James Kahn‘s novelization of Return of the Jedi, Han speaks of his experience of having been frozen in carbonite: “That carbon freeze was the closest thing to dead there is. And it wasn’t just sleepin’, it was a big, wide awake Nothin’.” (Kahn, page 370)

When he’s unfrozen in Return of the Jedi, his will be a Christ-like resurrection, Han’s apotheosis. Lando, as the Judas of this Passion, doesn’t even get his thirty pieces of silver from the Empire; instead, he has his business taken from him. He doesn’t hang himself in remorse: Chewbacca chokes him instead.

Meanwhile, Luke has had visions of a future in which his friends “are made to suffer.” (I wonder if Yoda has put the visions in Luke’s head, to test him again.) Nonetheless, Luke on Dagobah should be keeping his focus on the NOW, rather than be distracted by the future, which is “always in motion.” His fears of the future are a temptation to the Dark Side.

When Luke rushes over to Bespin to face Vader, it’s yet another example of the rebels fighting against formidable odds. One must fight the Empire, but Luke isn’t ready. He hasn’t learned how to control the Force. Though he’s controlling his fear and anger, he has revenge in his heart.

With the understanding that Vader is the bad father, Luke’s light-sabre duel with him is a dramatization of Luke’s experience of the paranoid-schizoid position. Vader–as the bad father using the Force to hurl objects at Luke, hitting him with them–is thus the ultimate abusive parent.

His causing Luke to lose his grip on his light-sabre, as well as cutting off the hand that holds it, makes Vader a symbolically castrating father as well. His revelation that he is Luke’s father, saying, “Search your feelings; you know it to be true,” means Luke can already feel, through the Force, that Vader really is his father. Only splitting and projection can cause Luke to feel any doubt that Vader and Anakin are the same man.

The wish to keep the good and bad fathers split means Luke cannot bear that Vader is telling him the truth, so he’d rather fall to his death. Hanging outside, below Cloud City, Luke is experiencing a kind of dark night of the soul, an existential crisis. Becoming a Jedi was supposed to be about Luke identifying with his father; such an identification gave his life meaning. But if his father is the very evil he has been trying to defeat, then what meaning can there be in his life?

Now, in order to achieve this identification, Luke has no choice but to experience reparation with the father, in his good and bad aspects as they exist in Luke’s psyche, a true atonement with the father. This is what Melanie Klein called the depressive position: Luke must also cope with the Dark Side of the Force to grow spiritually.

As I said above in the discussion of Luke’s father and the Force, these two are interconnected. A reconciliation of Anakin with Vader is intimately related with ‘bringing balance to the Force,’ or sublating the good and dark sides of it. Since, as I said above, the Force can be seen to represent the dialectic, which involves a resolving of such contradictions as the light and dark sides of the Force, a reconciling of Anakin and Vader, the good and bad father, is another such dialectical sublation.

In the fight against imperialism, we all–as a part of our own hero’s journey–must resolve dialectical contradictions such as those of the rich vs. the poor, the oppressors vs. the oppressed, the state vs. the people, etc.; but also we must make reparation, as best we can, with all those people in our lives whom we split into good and bad versions, then project their bad parts out, far away from ourselves, in an attempt never to have to deal with our shadows.

Luke must learn how to achieve such a reparation. When he has resolved and reunited the good and bad objects in his mind, he’ll be a true Jedi Knight. This ability to accept the Anakin in Vader, and the Vader in Anakin, is how he can have already learned all that he needs to learn, with no more need for training from Yoda by the time of the beginning of Return of the Jedi.

Return of the Jedi

Just as in Star Wars, the emphasis is on the good side of the Force and on Luke’s father as a good, but mysterious, man (we didn’t know Vader is Anakin, for the ret-con hadn’t happened yet); and in The Empire Strikes Back, the emphasis is on the Dark Side of the Force (Vader’s Force-choking of Ozzel and Needa to death, Luke’s failure in the cave, and the cliff-hanger ending) and Vader as Luke’s bad father revealed; in Return of the Jedi, we have a sublation of the light side thesis and dark side antithesis, and of Vader as having equal potential for evil and good.

And just as, in the original version of this trilogy, Jabba the Hutt was something of a mystery until the 1983 film, so was the Emperor largely only spoken of until this third film. (Though the switch from Clive Revill‘s Emperor to that of Ian McDiarmid in the later version of Empire Strikes Back was one of the few justified changes that Lucas made–for the sake of preserving continuity among all six films–I’ll always have a nostalgic place in my heart for the Revill performance.) The paralleled late emergence of these two villains suggests, in personified form, the dual mysterious cause of all our oppression (capitalism and its state) being discovered only at the end, after careful reflection frees us from our cultural brainwashing.

As I said above, gangsters like Jabba the Hutt represent the capitalistic aspect of oppression in the galaxy, and the Empire represents the statist aspect. Just because the Empire apprehends smugglers of spice (Jabba’s drug business), though, this doesn’t mean the capitalist and statist aspects are mutually exclusive, as the right-wing libertarians would have us believe.

Vader allowed Boba Fett to take Han Solo to Jabba rather than follow the bounty hunter to Tatooine and do a sting on the gangster in his palace, thus to eliminate a huge part of the spice trade once and for all and morally justify the Empire’s authoritarian rule. This inconsistency of the Empire to arrest some smugglers, but not go after their bosses, is in a sense comparable to the US government’s hypocritical “War On Drugs,” which was an excuse to target counter-culture types like the hippies and the Black Panthers (of whom the Star Wars equivalent would be miscreants like Han Solo), but also, through the CIA, subjected many non-consenting Americans to LSD.

Another similarity between what Palpatine and Jabba represent is the commodification of living beings. The Emperor wants Luke to replace Vader as his Sith apprentice; he would own Luke. As he says to Luke in that sublimely evil voice, “You, like your father, are now…mine.”

That Jabba commodifies others is so obvious that it scarcely needs going over, but I’ll do it anyway. Apart from keeping Han frozen in carbonite and hanging him on a wall like a work of art, a human being treated as a mere possession, Jabba has females chained up near him to dance for his pleasure…and if they don’t want to satisfy his lust (which, naturally, is invariably not wanting to), they can sate the Rancor‘s appetite instead.

When Han is released from the carbonite, not only is this a symbolic resurrection (and his time in Jabba’s infernal palace, with all of its horrors, is like a harrowing of hell), but it’s also rather like Saul’s conversion to Christianity, since Saul was blinded temporarily when encountering Christ on the road to Damascus. Now, instead of refusing the call to adventure (as Saul refused to be a Christian), Han, upon his rescue from Jabba, can commit to helping the rebellion (as Saul, renamed Paul, could commit to spreading the word of the gospel).

The contrast between alienation and solidarity is striking: Jabba and his fellow scum laugh at the suffering and death of others (even the Gamorrean Guard gets neither pity nor help when he falls into the Rancor’s pit); while Leia, Chewie, Lando, and Luke all work together to save Han, Luke even saying that Jabba may profit from a deal from releasing Han.

When Jabba dies, it’s ironic how Leia uses the very instrument of her enslavement and commodification by him–the chain–to strangle him to death with. His fat, slimy ugliness is a perfect image with which to present his licking lechery, for it is this very goatish, gluttonous expression of lust that makes such men so unattractive to the beautiful women they desire. It’s also fitting that his little pet is named Salacious Crumb.

The commodifying of Luke, Han, et al is carried further when they’re all punished for Luke’s killing of the Rancor (the only living being any of Jabba’s scum feel pity for). The Sarlacc is a giant mouth in the Dune Sea, in the middle of the Tatooine desert (a monster preferably without the added CGI); the throwing of victims into it, treating them as mere food, is the ultimate commodification of the living.

After rescuing Han, Luke returns to Dagoba, only to find Yoda dying of old age after having confirmed that Vader is Luke’s father. Now Luke, for sure, must reconcile the good father with the bad, an experiencing of the depressive position, a resolving of opposites, the dialectical sublation of the good and bad sides of the Force that will ensure that he is a true Jedi Knight.

Indeed, Luke’s wearing of black, and even having worn a black cloak when entering Jabba’s palace, make him look like a Sith Lord, though he is in no way surrendering to the Dark Side. The contrast of his clothing with his light-side leanings symbolically suggest such a sublation of the good and bad.

Still, resolving those dark and light contradictions doesn’t mean he won’t have to face Vader again. When opposites are sublated, the cycle of the dialectic begins again: the sublation becomes a new thesis to be negated, and these two contradictions must be sublated. Luke, with the integration of the internal objects of the good and bad father, must face evil and be tempted by it (his wearing of black in part symbolizes that temptation), as it’s personified in Vader and the Emperor.

Because of the integration of the good and bad father that Luke has experienced, he tells Ben’s Force ghost that there is still good in Vader, to which Ben replies that there’s “more machine than man” in Vader. Not only is this true in the sense that Vader is a cyborg (mechanical arms, legs, and breathing apparatus), but also in the sense that he is a slave to the imperial machine. With Luke’s love for Anakin, we begin to feel something we hitherto never thought we would: we pity Vader.

This ability to feel pity and love (as opposed to the heartless cruelty just seen among Jabba and his ilk), a pity extended even to a villain who is actually enslaved to the Emperor, is a crucial ingredient in the defeat of imperialism. Recall what Che once said about love: “the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.”

Ben imagines Luke’s pity and love to be excessive, as something ruining their hopes of defeating the Empire. Then Luke says that Yoda spoke of another hope…

…and as soon as I hear Ben say that the other Skywalker is Luke’s twin sister, I think of how moviegoers must have first reacted to this in theatres back in 1983. They must have been cringing and squirming in their seats, whispering to themselves, “Please, Lucas! Don’t make her Leia! Don’t make her Leia!” And then, when Luke says, “Leia! Leia is my sister!” those moviegoers must have reacted as Vader did when learning he killed Padmé: “NOOOOOOOO!”

…and somehow, Leia has always known Luke was her brother, which means she must have known when she gave Luke those kisses that got him so excited. And why didn’t Luke feel even private embarrassment at all that previous sexual innuendo with his “sister”? I can accept the ret-con of Anakin as Vader, but the incestuous implications of this new change make it more difficult to smooth over (especially since Leigh Brackett’s first draft had Luke’s sister as someone else, someone named Nellith). Yes, even the sacred original trilogy has its flaws.

Our heroes go to the moon of Endor to knock out the new Death Star’s deflector shield. The theme of this moon is all forest, suggestive of the jungles of Vietnam: I make this comparison because Lucas, in a discussion of Star Wars with James Cameron, stated explicitly that the Ewoks, with their primitive weapons going up against the Empire and its vastly superior technology, were meant to represent the Viet Cong and their resistance to US imperialism. The rebels are also “Charlie.”

As you can see, Dear Reader, I’m not merely imposing a Marxist agenda on Star Wars. There is real evidence to back up my interpretations. Lucas, having begun filmmaking during the antiestablishment 1970s, was a left-leaning liberal back in the days when that modification, “left-leaning,” actually meant something, even if used among bourgeois Hollywood liberals whose political ideals are far removed from mine.

Though Lucas’s egregious fourth Indiana Jones movie fashionably vilified the Soviet Union, to be fair to him, he also acknowledged, in an interview, the greater artistic freedoms given to Soviet filmmakers, if not the freedom to criticize the government. The capitalist compulsion to maximize profits has always stifled artistic freedom.

Though the Ewoks represent the North Vietnamese, their physical form, as space-age teddy bears, was another fault of the film. “Dare to be cute,” Lucas said. Speaking of capitalism, the Ewoks–whose name we knew even though ‘Ewok’ is never said in the movie–were a toy to be sold and profited from, to say nothing of the Ewok movies and cartoons. At the risk of contradicting myself with my above preaching of pity, I must acknowledge that we Ewok-haters can comfort ourselves when we, at least, get to see a few of them die during the Battle of Endor.

To elaborate again on the hero’s journey, as it is manifested in Return of the Jedi, Yoda and Ben telling Luke he must face Vader again is his call to adventure. We see Luke’s refusal of the call when he says he can’t bring himself to kill his own father. Luke’s interacting with Yoda and Ben’s Force ghost is his meeting with the mentor and supernatural aid. Luke’s giving himself up to the Empire on Endor is his crossing the threshold and the beginning of his road of trials. His going with Vader to the new Death Star is his approaching the cave. Inside the Death Star with Vader and Palpatine is Luke in the belly of the whale, and his agony at watching the rebel fleet attacked by the imperial fleet is his ordeal.

Luke’s temptation, to take his light-sabre and strike the devilish Emperor down with all of his hatred, is like Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness, and like the Buddha’s temptation by Mara while sitting under the Bodhi tree. After Luke’s successful resistance to the temptation, it is understood that he will train a new order of Jedi Knights, just as Jesus gathered his twelve disciples, and the Buddha began his teaching of the Dharma, after their triumphs over temptation.

Luke’s light-sabre, lying on the arm of Palpatine’s throne rather than in Luke’s hand, is representative of Lacan‘s notions of symbolic castration and lack, which lead to desire. Desire here is not to be understood in the sexual sense, but lack as the cause of desire (i.e., want in both senses) is clearly relatable to Luke’s temptation; and Palpatine is exploiting this want to the hilt. Indeed, the Emperor’s feeling of Luke’s anger, the hate that is swelling in him, is giving Palpatine a high comparable to that of cocaine.

“Man’s desire is the desire of the other,” Lacan said, meaning that we desire the recognition of others, and we desire to be what other people desire. Luke wants his father to acknowledge him as a Jedi, and he wants Anakin to want to be a Jedi again. Vader wants what Luke wants, only we must replace the word Jedi with Sith. Palpatine wants mutual alienation among all three of them.

Between the inability of Han’s team to knock out the Death Star’s shield generator, the rebel fleet having to face not only the imperial fleet, but also a fully-armed and operational Death Star, and Luke’s growing temptation to give in to his anger and hate, we see again how the anti-imperialists face near-impossible odds.

How can they overcome such a formidable foe? Through linking, connecting, and solidarity, which come from empathy and love. Up until this film, we’ve seen largely human rebels, without any alien comrades (save Chewie). Now, not only have the rebels linked with the Mon Calamari (led by Admiral Ackbar) and Lando’s first mate aboard the Falcon, Nien Nunb, they have also linked with the Ewoks, who will be a crucial distraction for the imperial troops on Endor.

During Luke’s duel with Vader, once he’s regained control of his anger, he must be sensing through the Force that the tide is turning with the space battle and the struggle on Endor, and that the shield generator is finally down. Luke works on building his link with Vader by mentioning the good he feels in his father, the conflict between Anakin and Vader.

Later, Luke’s fear for his friends, especially for “Sister,” is an echo of young Anakin’s fear for his mother and for Padmé; so Vader can exploit Luke’s fear to bring him out of hiding. Vader pushes Luke too far, though, by suggesting finding Leia and turning her to the Dark Side, and Luke’s need to protect one link paradoxically endangers his link with his father.

Slicing off Vader’s mechanical hand holding his red light-sabre, a symbolic castration comparable to usurping Cronus emasculating his father Uranus, Luke is now in the position to usurp his father as Palpatine’s new apprentice. Luke looks at his own mechanical hand, remembers how much of Vader’s body is machine, and regains his compassion for the Anakin inside.

Foolishly, though, Luke throws his light-sabre away, a symbolic castration of himself, for he now has no protection from Palpatine’s Force lightning. Though love and compassion are crucial, necessary conditions for defeating imperialism (in how they help form links between people to build solidarity and eliminate alienation), they are not sufficient conditions. There are still contradictions to be resolved, and we resolve them by fighting the Empire.

We see rebels in uniforms, just as we saw the Soviets in uniforms during the Cold War, because they all knew the realities of imperialism: they had an enemy to fight, and wars are won only through military discipline, as personified in troops in uniforms. Luke must keep his compassion, but he mustn’t act like a soft-hearted liberal.

Now that Luke is being zapped with the Emperor’s Force lightning, there’s only one hope of him being saved–by the Anakin buried deep down inside of Vader. This stage of the hero’s journey is rescue from without, just as–at the end of the first Star Wars movie–Luke needed Han to intervene when Vader was about to blow him up in his X-wing as it flew along the Death Star trench.

In this tense moment, with Vader looking back and forth between Luke and Palpatine, we feel as though we can see through his mask to see the conflict on his face. We don’t need the scene altered, with Vader saying “No” before picking up the Emperor and throwing him over the precipice. This sacrificial act, Anakin’s redemption bringing balance to the Force, is the atonement with the father.

After blasting the Death Star’s reactor, Lando must fly the Falcon outside in time before the whole space station blows up, as must Luke while carrying Vader’s dying body. This final struggle is, at least in a symbolic sense, the crossing of the return threshold, the road back.

Back in The Empire Strikes Back, when we saw the back of Vader’s scarred head without his helmet on, it looked creepy, because we thought of him merely as a villain. Now that we’ve made a link with Vader through Luke’s love, we see his scarred head and face with ironic pity. Instead of cheering for Vader’s death, as we would have had it happened in the 1977 film or three quarters into the 1980 film, we’re saddened.

Back on Endor with the victory celebration, we see the apotheosis of the Force ghosts of Anakin, Yoda, and Ben, the masters of the two worlds of the Living and Cosmic Force. Redeemed Anakin (best seen played by Sebastian Shaw!) has experienced, if you will, a kind of resurrection. The linking of all life forms in the galaxy, the end of their alienation, replaced by love, empathy, friendship, and solidarity, is the ultimate boon and reward, giving them the freedom to live without imperialism.

The Phantom Menace

Since the prequels are so obviously inferior to the original trilogy, I won’t be going over them in quite as much detail. Nonetheless, in terms of exploring political allegory, there are some interesting ideas in these films.

Many people have criticized Episode One for having so bland an opening conflict as the taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems. Actually, the film itself acknowledges this blandness when Qui Gon says, “I sense an unusual amount of fear for something as trivial as this trade dispute.” To me, it seems reasonable to start the conflict with something small and build from there.

Let’s reconsider this trade dispute as an allegory for the beginnings of neoliberal capitalism in the mid-1970s. While it’s easy to see the Empire as symbolic of the fascistic extreme of statism, we should see the Trade Federation, with its droid army, as symbolic of the more capitalistic aspects of imperialist aggression. Recall that the East India Company had its own army.

The greedy Trade Federation is opposed to the taxation of trade routes, just as “free market” capitalists are opposed to higher taxes. The Trade Federation blockades and invades Naboo, causing a “death toll [that] is catastrophic,” symbolic of how “free market” capitalists insinuated their way into the Western political system, resulting in Reagan, Thatcher, etc., and beginning the widening of the gap between the rich and poor, in turn resulting in more homelessness and other forms of suffering. This suffering has crept in…insidiously…

Controlled opposition between the Republic and the Trade Federation has been orchestrated by the Sith, symbolic of the ruling class that pits liberals against right-wing libertarians. Palpatine’s plan is divide and conquer.

Market fundamentalists like to fantasize that there is no coercion in “true capitalism.” Reagan and Thatcher, who preached about “small government,” nevertheless bloated the state with the arms race and engaged in such coercions as the Falkland Islands War and the invasion of Grenada. Capitalism, in the form of imperialism, forces itself on people far more than Reagan’s so-called “evil empire,” the USSR, did.

Alas, what could have been done to fix the many things that were wrong with the prequels? I’d say, essentially, that Lucas should have done what he did with Empire and Jedi: he should have collaborated on the script (i.e., written out basic treatments, and used his money to pay first-rate screenwriters to do rewrites of his clunky dialogue), hired talented directors to inspire better performances, and he would thus have been free to focus on what he’s good at–world-building and visuals (i.e., production).

As for the interesting theory by Lumpawaroo on Reddit–that Jar Jar Binks was really a secret master of the Dark Side, whose clumsiness was really a kind of zui quan (pronounced “dzway chüen”); and he would have shown his true colours in Attack of the Clones, had Lucas not chickened out after the backlash from fans–I imagine such a change would have improved Phantom Menace, at best, only marginally, since, as we know, so much more was wrong with the movie.

Presenting Anakin as a yippee!-shouting little kid deflates his grandeur as a tragic hero, Macbeth-style, in the worst way. Still, I feel sorry for Jake Lloyd and Ahmed Best, who’d had such high hopes that Phantom would shoot their acting careers into the stratosphere, instead of making them objects of ridicule and fan hate.

We learn that Anakin’s was a virgin birth. Qui Gon believes that the boy is the fulfillment of a prophecy that someone, especially endowed with the Force, will bring balance to it. In other words, Anakin is to be understood as a Christ-like, Messiah figure. Given what we know Anakin will eventually become, we wonder if he’s really Christ, or Antichrist.

This extreme good, at one with extreme evil, leads us back to dialectics. Qui Gon believes Anakin was conceived by the midi-chlorians; while, in Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine, when speaking of Darth Plagueis‘ ability to influence the midi-chlorians to create life, will imply that he (or Plagueis?) used them to create Anakin. Did ‘God’ create Anakin, or did ‘the Devil’? Was his creation a bit of both good and bad fathers?

…and now we must come to a discussion of a much-hated topic among Star Wars fans: midi-chlorians. Fans complain that midi-chlorians, in giving a quasi-scientific veneer to the Force, cheapen and demystify it, taking away its mysticism. I’m pretty neutral in my attitude towards midi-chlorians: I can take them or leave them.

Since we already know why most people dislike the idea of midi-chlorians, to balance things out, let’s consider a brief defence of them. First of all, they are not the Force; they are merely microorganisms that connect living beings with the Force. We all know that some are more Force-sensitive than others, and that the greater or lesser number of midi-chlorians simply explains these differences. The Force itself remains a mystical enigma.

Secondly, the Jedi’s understanding of midi-chlorians could be seen as a misunderstanding. Never assume that Lucas’s characters, including the sympathetic ones, always reflect his own personal philosophy of the Force. One of the things we glean from the prequels is how neither the Jedi nor the Republic are infallible: their collective errancy, both in knowledge and in morals, is a major factor in their downfall and in the rise of the Empire. The Jedi’s theory behind midi-chlorians, at least in part, can be seen as every bit as much a pseudoscience as creationism is for Christian fundamentalists. The greater or lesser midi-chlorian count can be the pseudoscientific basis of feudal Jedi elitism.

Thirdly, the midi-chlorians seem to be an introduction to Lucas’s concept of the microscopic Whills. He insists that he had this idea way back in the mid-1970s, though he hadn’t yet gone public with it. The Journal of the Whills was introduced in his novelization (page 4); we don’t know for sure if he’d meant at the time that the Whills were micro-biotic (and given all of his ret-cons over the years, we might imagine that, for all we know, the Whills were originally giants!), but it’s far from impossible that they were always meant to be microscopic. A pun on mitochondria, the midi-chlorians aren’t the Force, but they connect a Jedi with the Whills, which are the Force…and as I’ve argued repeatedly here, links and connections between living things are what this saga’s moral base is all about.

Finally, the microscopic Whills could be seen to symbolize the particle/wave duality in everything, the “energy field created by all living things.” The point is that mysticism hasn’t been replaced by “junk science,” but rather that it has been complemented with something part-junk, part-real science. Science and religion aren’t necessarily always in a state of mutual contradiction.

Back to the story. Anakin is a slave, indicating how the Republic, failing to solve this violation of a living being’s rights, is far from the ideal form of government we assumed it was from the original trilogy. The bizarre election of queens, who serve mere terms in power, rather than rule in the context of hereditary dynasties, allegorically suggests the phasing out of feudalism and phasing in of capitalism.

The only way one could conceivably rationalize the nonsensical form in which politics are depicted in Star Wars is to say that, “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” people arranged power structures far differently from the way we have arranged them here on Earth. Class struggle, in the forms of master vs. slave, feudal lord vs. peasant, and bourgeois vs. proletarian, is shown with these forms coexisting simultaneously rather than replacing each other in succession, as if to make a commentary on the commonality of all three power structures on our planet. Willing suspension of disbelief, my dear readers…

Anakin’s being taken away from his mother, Shmi, has been traumatizing for him, as it would be for any of the younglings separated from their parents at so tender an age. The difference, however, between Anakin’s yielding to the Dark Side, versus the other younglings’ staying with the light side is Anakin’s bad influence, Palpatine, as will be dealt with below.

The Jedi replacement for empathic parental love is mere submission to authority, which under normal circumstances can be kept stable, despite how problematic it is; but the danger of the narcissistic lust for power that the Sith represent shows the cracks in not only the Jedi armour, but also that of the bourgeois democracy of the Republic.

The Jedi Council sense Anakin’s fear and knows the danger such fear leads to, but they have no empathy for a boy torn away from his mother; they, after all, have been torn away from their parents at so much younger an age that they’ve lost touch with such feelings of familial attachment. Their own failed linkages to the most crucial ones of their early lives has clouded their judgement on so many other matters.

Many have criticized the ‘boring’ political scenes in the prequels, but a presentation of politics is indispensable to their plot. Here we see how Palpatine has manipulated his way into power. Why would we not see the politics behind his rise?

We see not only how he puts on a superficial charm, with his avuncular smiles, but also the corruption in the Republic, kowtowing to the Trade Federation and their bribery. The relationship between the Republic and the Trade Federation parallels the true relationship between the state and capitalism, however the right-wing libertarians may try to deny it.

The corrupt Republic, just like the evil Empire it morphs into, not only allows slavery in the Outer Rim, but also allows gangsters like the Hutts to exist–gangsters who manage gambling on dangerous pod races, which symbolize the brutal, cutthroat competition of capitalism, as opposed to the cooperative society of linking, empathy, and love that could exist if such corruption were ended.

Queen Amidala knows that the only way she can end the Trade Federation’s occupation of Naboo is to fight a war with them, for they represent capitalist imperialism–which in our world has brought about the US embargo on Cuba, and the sanctions on Venezuela and the DPRK–before the rise of the fascist version of imperialism seen in the original trilogy.

She will be able to defeat the Trade Federation only by linking the people of Naboo with the Gungans, through cooperation and solidarity. They succeed, though the Trade Federation will continue to oppose such linking through the separatist movement seen in Episode Two.

Attack of the Clones

While the romance between Anakin and (now Senator) Padmé, unlike that of Han and Leia, is terribly botched because of Lucas’s awkward dialogue, it does establish an important transference for Anakin, from his mother to the senator. In this movie, he fears his mother dying, his nightmares coming true; in the next movie, he’ll have nightmares of Padmé dying.

Two poles of Anakin’s personality structure would have his mother empathically mirroring his grandiose self back to him, and a father would be an idealized parental imago for him…only he, of course, has no father. With his mother taken away from him, Anakin doesn’t even have her. To replace a father for an idealized role model, Chancellor Palpatine has stepped in!

Normally, Anakin would get empathetic mirroring from his mother; instead, he’ll get that mirroring from Padmé, as he does just after he’s killed the Sand People for killing Shmi. On the other hand, Palpatine is puffing up Anakin’s grandiose self by telling him he’s the greatest Jedi of all. Empathetic mirroring and idealized role modelling from one’s parents, if done well, can help a child to grow up with restrained, moderate, and healthy levels of narcissism; with the severing of these necessary links in Anakin’s life, though, we can see how a sweet boy will turn into fragmented Vader.

Obi-Wan, as Anakin’s master and teacher, does give him some psychological stability. Anakin even says that Obi-Wan is the closest he’s ever had to a father, and conversely, Obi-Wan regards Anakin as being like a younger brother. So the Jedi mentoring does compensate…to an extent…for the severed parent/child links with the taking of Force-sensitive younglings to make them Padawan learners. In Anakin’s case, though, such compensation is far from enough.

More splits in linking come with the separatists, led by Trade Federation head Nute Gunray (who, in my opinion, as an embodiment of Chinese stereotypes–slits for eyes, a flat face with no nose, and worst of all, a weaselly, cowardly personality–is far worse racism, even if unintended, than Jamaican Jar Jar). Other separatists include the Banking Clan, and potential separatists include the Commerce Guild and Corporate Alliance, more references to capitalists who don’t like the statist regulations of the Republic.

Helping the capitalist separatists is former Jedi and secret Sith Lord Count Dooku, who–played by none other than Christopher Lee of the old Hammer movies–is an obvious and cheesy reference to Dracula. Capitalists have been compared to vampires and bloodsuckers by, respectively, Marx and Malcolm X, so Dooku as the separatists’ helper is fitting. His Sith name is Darth Tyranus, and the unaccountable private tyranny of unbridled capitalism is oft-noted.

Again, Dear Reader, just so you don’t think I’m imposing a leftist agenda on Star Wars, consider this quote from the novelization of Attack of the Clones. Count Dooku says to the separatists, ‘”And let me remind you of our absolute commitment to capitalism…to the lower taxes, the reduced tariffs, and the eventual abolition of all trade barriers. Signing this treaty will bring you profits beyond your wildest imagination. What we are proposing is complete free trade.” He looked to Nute Gunray, who nodded.’ (Salvatore, page 260) The capitalism implied in the film is made explicit in the novel.

Because Dooku is a Sith, and therefore replacing Darth Maul as Sidious’ apprentice, he is also helping the Republic’s side by secretly establishing the creation of an army of clones. Dooku’s helping of both sides is another example of Palpatine’s divide and conquer. As part of the allegory for our times, the clone army can be seen to represent the militarization of our police, as well as the growth of fascistic forms of imperialism.

The clones are being made on an all-ocean planet called Kamino. These aren’t peaceful waters, though: it’s all stormy seas…wind and rain–a tempestuous origin of war. The idea that the troops are clones is interesting in itself: none of them is an original human being; all are mere copies of another human being–the ruthless bounty hunter Jango Fett. What’s more, their accelerated physical growth is contrasted sharply with their lack of individual wills. They are “docile,” blindly obedient. Thus, all of these traits put together make the clones a perfect metaphor for the police and military of our world today: the unthinking death squads of capitalism and imperialism.

The fact that the Clone Wars are a mere staging of a conflict between those personifying capitalism (the separatists and Dooku) and those representing the state (the Republic), a staging whose purpose is to consolidate Palpatine’s power, is an allegory of the false dichotomy between capitalism and the state, a truth the right-wing libertarians can deny all they want. The two sides are contradictory in some ways (in a larger sense, there are contradictions in everything), but complementary and unified in others. Capitalism feeds off the state, and vice versa.

The Jedi are fooled into going along with this charade of a war because, as believers in the authority of the Republic, they display the authoritarian mentality of their own religion, symbolically a throwback to feudal authoritarianism. What is understood by all too few in this story, that is, Padmé, Bail Organa, and later, Mon Mothma, is that war itself is the enemy, and the fighters on both sides are that enemy…including the unwitting Jedi, who represent religious authority.

The planet where Obi-Wan discovers the truth–about Dooku’s betrayal of the Republic, and the separatists’ raising up of a droid army to do war with the Republic–is named Geonosis, a portmanteau of the prefix geo- (“earth,” or planet Earth) and gnosis (“knowledge”). So Geonosis is the planet of knowledge, of revelations of the truth…a desolate planet like our own warlike Earth.

Dooku is a political idealist who has become disillusioned with the corruption in the Republic, hoping that, through separatism and Sidious’ help, he can bring about the political changes he wants to see happen. His siding with the capitalist separatists puts him allegorically with right-wing libertarians (see quote above, from Salvatore’s novelization) and their wish for “limited government”: having whole star systems break off from the Republic thus limits its sphere of influence, and its governance.

His working with Sidious, who he knows is Palpatine, shows allegorically the hypocrisy of libertarians who use the state “to shrink” it, especially for an imperialist form of capitalism that, the freer it gets of regulations, the more it grows, requiring more state protection of private property in the form of such things as military bases.

Dooku hopes to goad Obi-Wan into helping him kill Sidious so he can be the new Sith master, which would involve him ruling the galaxy instead. Little does Dooku know that Sidious is just using him as another stepping stone in his rise to power. Similarly, so many politicians imagine they can work within the system to change and reform it, only to be swallowed up by the very system they hope to remake in their own image.

Mace Windu and Ki-Adi Mundi can’t imagine Dooku to be a murderer (i.e., responsible for the attempts on Padmé’s life) because, apparently, it is not “in his nature” to murder. This shows the conspicuous absence of wisdom among the Jedi, comparable to the naïve thinking among many religious people about the ‘righteousness’ of their fellow believers. In this short-sightedness of the Jedi, we see their own contribution to their eventual downfall.

Amid the Jedi’s overconfidence in their own ability to use the Force (followed by their realization of the limits of this ability, a realization that comes too late to save them) is Anakin’s own arrogance, a narcissism encouraged by Palpatine, as noted above. His lack of an idealized parental imago (no father), and lack of empathetic mirroring from the mother who was taken from him, means Anakin is in a vulnerable psychological state, making him susceptible to pathological narcissism (an element of the Dark Side of the Force). The danger of psychological fragmentation (in this film, symbolized by Dooku’s severing of his arm) is never far from him. He needs the love of Padmé (his new empathetic mirror) to help him hang on. As we’ll soon see, though, he’ll lose even that.

Revenge of the Sith

A staged kidnapping of Palpatine by Dooku draws Anakin and Obi-Wan to rescue the chancellor. It is Palpatine’s secret plan, however, to replace Dooku with Anakin in the ensuing light-sabre fight.

Since Palpatine, as the Dark-Side-wielding Sith master, is the very personification of malignant political narcissism in these movies, it is easy to compare his schemes with those of pathological narcissists. By staging his kidnapping, he can play the victim. In his grinning at handless Dooku and telling Anakin to “kill him now,” Palpatine is demonstrating the typical idealize/devalue/discard tactic of narcissists–a problem normally applied to romantic relationships, but one easily applied to politics. Dooku has had his uses for Palpatine; now, he has none. Anakin is to be idealized now.

Palpatine continues his playing the victim when he tells Anakin that he fears a plot by the Jedi Council to take over the Republic. This victim-playing, of course, is projection, another narcissist’s tactic, for we know which user of the Force is really taking over.

General Grievous can be seen as a double for the future Darth Vader, since he too is only the fragments of a body protected in armour. Thus, he can be seen as a projection of Anakin’s bad self: recall how Anakin, with a sinister smile, calls Grievous “that monster.”

Anakin’s idealizing of his father figure, Palpatine–an idealization mirrored back to him, since the latter wants the former to be his next apprentice–blinds him to the chancellor’s hidden evil. Combine this idealizing with his fear of losing Padmé as his empathetic mirror (whom he’s already lost in his mother), and we see the enormous psychological danger Anakin is in.

Some people believe that Palpatine is deformed by his Force lightning being deflected by Windu’s light-sabre, but I go with the camp that believes that he was already deformed from his excessive use of the Dark Side. If it has been caused by the deflection, why isn’t Luke also deformed after his sustained zapping by Palpatine in Return of the Jedi? That bits of Windu’s light-sabre may have been mixed into the deflected lightning is an interesting but inconclusive theory; perhaps this mixing is a factor in his deformity, but I’m not convinced it is the whole reason.

I find the theory that Sidious has used Sith alchemy to create a mask to hide his deformity more convincing. After the mask has been destroyed by the lightning, making a new one will be too difficult. Besides, blaming his scarring on the Jedi will give him political sympathy, thus further consolidating his power.

As it says in the novelization of Revenge of the Sith: ‘Palpatine examined the damage to his face in a broad expanse of wall mirror. Anakin couldn’t tell if his expression might be revulsion, or if this were merely the new shape of his features. Palpatine lifted one tentative hand to the misshapen horror that he now saw in the mirror, then simply shrugged.

‘”And so the mask becomes the man,” he sighed with a hint of philosophical melancholy. “I shall miss the face of Palpatine, I think; but for our purpose, the face of Sidious will serve. Yes, it will serve.”‘ (Stover, pages 362-363)

Interpret this passage as you will, Dear Reader, but to me, “the mask [becoming] the man” sounds a lot like Palpatine’s false face becoming Sidious’ true face. Palpatine’s mask, as his false face, represents his narcissistic False Self, the image of the kindly, avuncular old man that he would have the public believe him to be. His malignant True Self, symbolized by the deformed face and yellow eyes, is the man, Sidious, that the mask (Palpatine) has ‘become.’

“Lies, deceit, creating mistrust” are the ways of the Sith, as Yoda observed at the end of Episode Two. These ways are clearly seen as Palpatine manipulates Anakin into distrusting the Jedi. Such deceit and creating distrust are typical of narcissists when they recruit enablers and flying monkeys to help them do smear campaigns against their victims, all the while playing the victim and projecting their malicious intent onto their victims.

Seen in a political context, this is how we see narcissistic politicians rise to power, by smearing their enemies and claiming to be victimized by them. Hitler rose to power by appealing to the popular prejudices of Germans through blaming Germany’s economic woes on a ‘back-stab’ by Jews and communists, whose fault it supposedly was for having lost WWI. Furthermore, fascism rises whenever capitalism is in crisis, as in the 1920s and 1930s…and as it is rising now. Similarly, Palpatine’s Empire is rising because of the crisis of the Clone Wars.

Now, as evil as Palpatine is, and as evil as the Sith are, this doesn’t mean that their perspective is entirely evil (though their fascism is entirely so), and that the Jedi perspective is entirely good. Palpatine does have a point, if a limited one, about “the dogmatic, narrow view of the Jedi.”

The strict rules of the Jedi (no attachments, no sexual relationships, little expression of emotion, etc.), as well as their taking of younglings from their parents at such early ages, are all problematic; so a Sith critique of these issues would, to this extent, be a valid one. That the Jedi never use anger, fear, or aggression at all, though, is debatable. I have my doubts that Obi-Wan felt no urges to vengeance when fighting Darth Maul after Qui Gon’s death. I guess that the Jedi use these forbidden emotions at least a little bit, but keep such use minimal.

Notions of ‘bringing balance to the Force’ thus must involve a reconciliation–to some extent, at least–of the light and dark sides. On a literal level, Vader’s killing off of all the Jedi, as terrible as that is, is such a bringing of balance to the Force, since it ends with two Jedi (Obi-Wan and Yoda) and two Sith (Vader and Sidious). On a deeper level, ending the Jedi Order means ending their dogmatic authoritarianism, and thus allowing the Force to be expressed more freely.

Also, the rise of the Empire has an accelerationist effect, intensifying the need to restore justice and end the corruption that began in the Republic. The very desperation to fight the formidable Empire, as seen among the rebels, is the very impetus needed to give them a strong enough motive to fight. The Nazi invasion of the USSR pushed the Red Army to defeat Hitler. The metastasizing of neoliberalism, with the fascist tendencies we see today, push us to fight imperialism. So this intensifying of evil brings balance by impelling the drive for good.

Ultimately, the rift between the Sith and the Jedi is the very splitting Luke experiences in his conflict over how to feel about his father (see above). His love awakens the Anakin hidden deep inside Vader, and Anakin’s redemption ends the splitting between the good and bad sides of the Force, the dialectical sublation that brings balance.

As I said above, the Sith are largely, generally evil, but not 100% so. It’s debatable whether Darth Plagueis really cared for the others he saved from dying (i.e., Was Palpatine lying about that?); but Dooku had a look of empathetic concern on his face when he noted young Boba Fett’s grief upon seeing Jango decapitated by Windu, and Palpatine could have easily found a new apprentice instead of flying out to Musatafar and saving mutilated, burned Vader.

All of these instances demonstrate at least a little good remaining in the Sith. If some good could be noticed in Vader by Luke, as well as by dying Padmé, then some good could be found remaining in Dooku and Palpatine, too. Still, the rift between the Sith and the Jedi causes such powerful splitting in Anakin’s mind that he won’t acknowledge any good in the Jedi; their faults are too great for him to bear, and his idealizing of Palpatine causes him to ignore the evil of the atrocity he commits in killing all the younglings.

Such splitting happens when we dehumanize those deemed the enemies of imperialism. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, too many of us in the West allowed (and sometimes still allow) the US government and its corporate media to demonize Muslims in general and Iraqis in particular (despite Bush’s lip service that Islam is ‘a religion of peace‘). Just as Bush said, “either you’re with us, or you are with the terrorists,” so does Anakin say, “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy.”

Granted, Obi-Wan is wrong to say, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes,” given the Jedi’s absolute stance against passion leading to the Dark Side (as a point of no return), but the absolutism of Anakin’s splitting is enough to push him over the edge and into evil.

Splitting–not just the psychological splitting of our mental representations of people into absolute good and bad, but also the splitting into every contradiction of our world: rich/poor, oppressor/oppressed, exploiter/exploited, etc.–is the fundamental problem of our world. As young Anakin says to Shmi in Episode One: “the biggest problem in this universe is nobody helps each other.” All splitting, no links between people. No links, no mutual aid.

Anakin’s internal splitting is at its height when he’s on Mustafar, a volcanic planet symbolic of hell. In his paranoid anxiety, imagining that Obi-Wan is ‘turning Padmé against him,’ we see him experiencing the paranoid-schizoid position; Obi-Wan, who is the closest thing Anakin has had to a father, is now perceived as the bad father, while Palpatine is perceived to be the good father.

The key to ending contradictions like empire vs. colony is rooted in integrating the dark and the light, finding balance in the Force, a sublating of the contradictions that Anakin will be able to achieve only through being exposed to the love of his son.

The ‘Sequel Trilogy

I reject the Disney trilogy because it isn’t canon; it’s glorified fan fiction made by a corporation. Disney rejected Lucas’s story in favour of ‘pleasing the fans’ (translation: maximizing profit for Disney). While, to be fair, there has of course always been a huge merchandising element in Star Wars, in the Disney trilogy it’s only been about money-making.

As a result, there’s no direction in the movies, because they were never properly planned. It’s Lucas’s story, and his ideas should have been respected, if modified to remove his more inanely conceived details. The Disney producers must have thought, “Well, as long as there’s a lot of action and excitement that makes the fans feel as though they’re in the Star Wars universe, good enough. We’ll make a lot of money. Actual storytelling isn’t all that important.”

Other faults to be found in these films include villains who aren’t particularly menacing. Kylo Ren and Hux do a lot of shouting and throwing temper tantrums, whereas in the icy coolness of Vader, Tarkin, and Palpatine, we see a frightening self-assurance that rarely needs to show anger.

Rey is a Mary Sue. (Yes, there are male versions of such characters, and generally, I’m not particularly enamoured of them, either.) She never needs any substantial amount of training to become a formidable Jedi. Now, just because screenwriters give flaws to an otherwise strong female character doesn’t mean the writers are sexist; and just because male audiences accuse a strong female character of being a Mary Sue, doesn’t necessarily mean they are sexist, either.

Luke has flaws–he’s reckless; Han has flaws–he’s macho and, at first, uncommitted to the rebel cause. Leia is, perhaps, a bit too feisty and impulsive for her own good at times. Still, these three characters are very much loved. Characters need flaws to become more well-rounded and nuanced, and therefore more relatable. They need to be tested and to encounter setbacks so they can grow and become strong. Rey gets all her abilities handed to her on a silver platter.

The politically correct liberal script writer has to stop being condescending to women, thinking they’re too insecure to accept a flawed heroine. To have strong female characters as iconic and memorable as the famous male ones, they have to be fallible, too. For this reason, I don’t include Superman and Captain America among my favourite superheroes (I also wish those two weren’t so iconic and memorable).

To get back to what’s wrong with the Disney trilogy in general, The Force Awakens is a point for point repeat of the 1977 movie. The Last Jedi goes from that extreme to the other, namely, throwing monkey wrenches into the plot. “Subverting expectations” is a euphemism for cheap surprises. The Rise of Skywalker is little more than fan service; the shoe-horning in of Palpatine, which cheapens Anakin’s redemption in killing him, is claimed to have been planned from the beginning of work on the Disney trilogy. Given the obvious lack of planning and coherence between the first two films, with no hint of an anticipation of Palpatine’s return, can we really buy this ‘planned’ return excuse?

The Whills

Unlike the all-too-safe regurgitation of the same old Star Wars story that Disney did, Lucas’s original intention for the sequel trilogy was going to involve a whole new world. Instead of the setting being only in the vastness of space, it was going to include a micro-biotic world, too.

This would have been risky, especially since the fans weren’t happy with the midi-chlorians, but risk is what innovation is all about, and while it could have failed (as, to a great extent, the prequels failed), it could have also triumphed (had Lucas got the right writers and directors to present his vision in an appealing, relatable way). It also, success or failure, would at least have been his story, properly brought to an end.

This microscopic world presumably would have been presented with a plethora of video-game-like CGI, but it also would have been a totally new world, a totally new idea, instead of what Disney gave us: being limited to the same old light-sabre, blaster clichés. Lucas would have given us the world of the Whills.

We would have been brought closer to an idea of how the Force really works, for the Whills are the Force. Whills is a pun on will; consider Qui Gon, in explaining midi-chlorians to little Anakin, saying that the midi-chlorians tell us “the will of the Force,” as he also says that finding Ani and training him as a Jedi is the will of the Force.

The Force is best understood without our distracting senses, as Ben tells Luke when he’s practicing with the remote on the Falcon. With the blast-shield on, Luke can’t see the remote as it fires at him, but using the Force means not needing to see it. In other words, the Force can be understood to be the thing-in-itself, not phenomena we know of through our senses.

What we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell around us is the world as representation, Schopenhauer tells us. The thing-in-itself, known in all things, is the world as will. This will is all the urges (to anything) that are in everything in the universe, not just in living things. This will can be related to the Whills.

Now, Schopenhauer’s pessimistic philosophy regards will as a bad thing, since will leads to desire and suffering. Schopenhauer was influenced by Eastern philosophy and religion (e.g., Hinduism and Buddhism), just as Lucas is. One must resist will in order to find spiritual peace–nirvana. Both the Jedi and the Sith, in their growing mastery of the Force, are demonstrating the will to power.

Mark Hamill didn’t feel that the pessimism in Luke in The Last Jedi was true to the character’s usually optimistic outlook, and I agree with him generally on that; but Luke’s pessimism in that movie does dovetail with Schopenhauer and Buddhism, if I’m interpreting the nature of the Whills correctly. This pessimism, in the sense of the Whills being not necessarily good, is perhaps the one thing in the Disney trilogy that approaches Lucas’s story on some level.

With my assessment of the Force as symbolic of the dialectic (see above), we can see it as a marriage of heaven and hell. The divine state is both ecstasy and trauma. The Whills don’t give us a Force of sentimentality. To be truly at peace, we must embrace neither the light side exclusively nor “a larger view of the Force,” as Palpatine would characterize the Dark Side. Perhaps the point is, when we come in touch with the Whills, we must let them go. We master the Force, then give it up.

In the meantime, though, as we strive to rise and grow spiritually, we must remember that the evil will dominating the world is imperialism.

Fight the Empire.