Analysis of ‘The Thing’

I: Introduction

The Thing is a 1982 science fiction/horror film directed by John Carpenter and written by Bill Lancaster. Like the 1951 film, The Thing from Another World, it was an adaptation of the 1938 novella, Who Goes There?, written by John W. Campbell (under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart); actually, though, the 1982 film is much more faithful to Campbell’s novella than the 1951 film was.

The Thing stars Kurt Russell, with A. Wilford BrimleyT. K. CarterDavid ClennonKeith DavidRichard DysartCharles HallahanPeter MaloneyRichard MasurDonald MoffatJoel Polis, and Thomas Waites in supporting roles. Though the film garnered praise for its special effects, it was poorly received on its release; some even considered it one of the worst films ever made. Its critical reputation has since improved, though, and it’s now considered one of the best sci fi/horror films ever made.

Here are some quotes:

[talking into tape recorder] “I’m gonna hide this tape when I’m finished. If none of us make it, at least there’ll be some kind of record. The storm’s been hitting us hard now for 48 hours. We still have nothing to go on. [turns off tape recorder and takes a drink of whisky. He looks at the torn long johns and turns it back on] One other thing: I think it rips through your clothes when it takes you over. Windows found some shredded long johns, but the nametag was missing. They could be anybody’s. Nobody… nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired. Nothing else I can do, just wait… R.J. MacReady, helicopter pilot, US outpost number 31.” [turns off recorder] –MacReady (Russell)

“I know I’m human. And if you were all these things, then you’d just attack me right now, so some of you are still human. This thing doesn’t want to show itself, it wants to hide inside an imitation. It’ll fight if it has to, but it’s vulnerable out in the open. If it takes us over, then it has no more enemies, nobody left to kill it. And then it’s won.” –MacReady

[the Thing roars at MacReady] “YEAH, FUCK YOU TOO!!!” [throws stick of dynamite] –MacReady

[after passing the blood test] “I know you gentlemen have been through a lot. But when you find the time… I’d rather not spend the rest of the winter TIED TO THIS FUCKING COUCH!” –Garry (Moffat)

************

MacReady: I don’t know. Thousands of years ago it crashes, and this thing… gets thrown out, or crawls out, and it ends up freezing in the ice.

Childs (David): I just cannot believe any of this voodoo bullshit.

Palmer (Clennon): Childs, happens all the time, man. They’re falling out of the skies like flies. Government knows all about it, right, Mac?

Childs: You believe any of this voodoo bullshit, Blair?

Palmer: Childs, Childs… Chariots of the Gods, man. They practically own South America. I mean, they taught the Incas everything they know.

*************

Blair (Brimley): [showing the remains of the dog-thing to the entire camp] You see, what we’re talkin’ about here is an organism that imitates other life-forms, and it imitates ’em perfectly. When this thing attacked our dogs it tried to digest them… absorb them, and in the process shape its own cells to imitate them. This for instance. That’s not dog. It’s imitation. We got to it before it had time to finish.

Norris (Hallahan): Finish what?

Blair: Finish imitating these dogs.

*************

MacReady: Somebody in this camp ain’t what he appears to be. Right now that may be one or two of us. By Spring, it could be all of us.

Childs: So, how do we know who’s human? If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know if it was really me?

*************

MacReady: How you doin’, old boy?

Blair: I don’t know who to trust.

MacReady: I know what you mean, Blair. Trust’s a tough thing to come by these days. Tell you what – why don’t you just trust in the Lord?

*************

Childs: The explosions set the temperatures up all over the camp. But it won’t last long though.

MacReady: When these fires go out, neither will we.

Childs: How will we make it?

MacReady: Maybe we shouldn’t.

Childs: If you’re worried about me…

MacReady: If we’ve got any surprises for each other, I don’t think either one of us is in much shape to do anything about it.

Childs: Well… what do we do?

MacReady[slumping back] Why don’t we just wait here a little while? See what happens.

**************

[from teaser trailer] Some say the world will end by fire. Others say it will end by ice. Now, somewhere in the Antarctic, the question is being settled forever.

[from theatrical trailer] Twelve men have just discovered something. For 100,000 years, it was buried in the snow and ice. Now it has found a place to live. Inside. Where no one can see it. Or hear it. Or feel it.

Nauls (Carter) and Clark (Masur) playing pool; Norris (Hallahan), Bennings (Maloney), and Garry (Moffat) playing cards.

The main theme of this film is paranoia, distrust of others, based on the fact that “The Thing” is an alien able to imitate other life forms to perfection, thus making it next to impossible to be sure if any of the men in the research base in Antarctica is really a man, or an alien imitation waiting for its chance to change the other men into imitations.

This ability to pretend to be human or animal, not just in physical but in mental form, too, is also in Who Goes There?, unlike the 1951 film, which is essentially just a monster movie. The alien can slip in undetected and seem to be one of the men, knowing their memories and personality traits down to the last detail. Hence, “Who goes there?” implies the next, and even more relevant question: “Friend, or foe?”

II: Unity of Opposites

This friend/foe duality is merged in how those who seem friends are often really foes…and vice versa. This merging and juxtaposition of opposites is seen in other forms, too, as in the extremes of fire and ice, both of which end and preserve lives (i.e., the flame thrower and the blowing up/burning down of the research base, which kill alien manifestations and save the men; this burning happens in the freezing cold temperature of a winter in Antarctica, which can kill the men and preserve the alien in a state of hibernation…“to die, to sleep”). Also, there are the literally polar opposites of Antarctica versus Scandinavia (i.e., the Norwegians whom MacReady confuses with Swedes, so, the Arctic); then, there’s the 1951 movie’s moving of the setting from Antarctica to Alaska.

Another opposition in the film is in its implied anti-woman versus anti-male attitudes. There isn’t even one actress in the entire film (save Adrienne Barbeau‘s voice-acting of the “Chess Wizard” computer game, which sexist MacReady calls “baby,” and a “cheating bitch” before pouring his glass of booze into its inner circuitry, because he can’t accept losing a chess game to a ‘woman’), something to annoy any feminist. On the other hand, this very lack of females is ironically itself a criticism of masculinity, since the point of the film is the relative lack of empathy, cooperation, and friendship among the characters, virtues more stereotypically associated with femininity.

MacReady (Russell)

III: Who Were Our Real Friends and Foes During the Cold War?

The more germane question of the movie, however, is what does this alien represent, this “Thing” that causes so much alienation and confusion among the men? One allegorizing of the film is of the Cold War (indeed, the story is a literal cold war), representing the antagonism between the NATO and Warsaw pacts, and the danger of provoking MAD.

Some might see the alien as representing the Soviets, and therefore its spreading imitations of humans as the fear of the spread of communism; while the paranoid, bickering men represent such right-wing curmudgeons as those in the GOP (and since this is a Hollywood film, all of this hostility between the two extreme sides is best neutralized with a ‘balanced’ liberal mindset [!]).

Those of you who have read enough of my blog posts will know that I have no intention of interpreting this film’s meaning through either conservative or liberal lenses. I, contrarian that I am, plan to flip conventional analysis of this film on its head. So what follows will be, in part, a Marxist-Leninist interpretation of the story.

Though the men fighting off the thing are Americans, and at the beginning, Norwegians (that is, members of two countries that were founding members of NATO, and therefore ideological opposites to the Soviets), I see them as symbolic of any socialist state fighting off the forces of capitalist reaction. US vs USSR, friend vs foe, fire vs ice, all men vs no women: all dialectically related opposites, the one side merging and interacting with the other. Because of the dialectical unity in all contradictions, we can see an interesting irony in Americans representing their ideological foes.

The Thing, capable of taking on any shape and imitating any life form, as we see here in its cross between a giant insect and Norris’s head.

Consider what The Thing can do: taking on any shape or form, it sneaks up on unsuspecting people, attacks them, and replaces them with imitations of them; then those imitations do the same to others, again and again, until–theoretically, at least–the entire Earth has replaced all life with alien imitations. It’s rather like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, actually.

This spreading of a kind of cancer, if you will, wiping out all life and replacing it with the infection–is this not like what capitalism does? Modern capitalism grew out of the mercantilism and merchant capitalism that were dominant in the modernized parts of Europe about five centuries ago. Those two, as well as feudalism, transitioned into capitalism as the new form of class conflict, which then spread around the world.

Capitalism also causes alienation between workers, like the estrangement felt among the paranoid men in the film. It causes alienation from one’s species-essence, symbolized in the film by the contradiction between the False Self of the alien imitation and the True Self of the original man who is imitated.

The alien imitations pretend to be the men’s friends, just as capitalism is made out to be the friend of humanity, according to bourgeois propaganda, liberating us from Bolshevik state tyranny, eliminating poverty, and bringing about economic prosperity. The metastasizing of neoliberalism, especially since the disastrous dissolution of the USSR, has shown what lies these notions of ‘liberty,’ ‘poverty elimination‘ and ‘prosperity’ are, just as when we are shocked to learn that Norris and Palmer are aliens.

A research base in Antarctica: a lonely, isolated place, vulnerable to attack.

So in this context, the US research station in lonely Antarctica can be seen to represent any of the socialist states, past and present, that have been economically isolated by sanctions and embargoes. The Americans’ struggle to defeat The Thing represents the aggravation of class struggle under socialism, as manifested in the Great Purge and the Cultural Revolution. Stalin and Mao knew there were bourgeois traitors hiding among them and pretending to be fellow socialists (just as The Thing hides among the Americans in the film), and allowing them to gain the upper hand would have lead to the defeat of socialism, the actual achievement of which, as we have seen since the 1990s, has lead to the egregious wealth inequality, the constant threat of US imperialist war, and destruction of the earth that we’ve seen and are still seeing.

Now, as we recall, a lot of nastiness occurred in the USSR in the 1930s, and in China during the late 1960s, just as there is nastiness among the Americans in the movie as they try to eliminate the alien: MacReady shoots Clark (not an alien) in the head. Of all the men MacReady–threatening them with dynamite–has tied up, only Palmer is an alien; the men freak out, tied up and helpless, as the Palmer-Thing reveals itself and infects Windows, forcing MacReady to kill them both with the flamethrower. These problems are comparable with the innocent Soviets imprisoned and executed (the fault of Yezhov, not of Stalin), and with the violent moments of the Cultural Revolution.

The film begins with a sled dog (man’s best friend?) running in the snow towards the US research station, with Norwegians in a helicopter pursuing it and shooting at it. The Norwegian with the rifle shouts frantically about the danger the dog poses; since he isn’t shouting in English, the Americans have no idea what his problem is. Because of his constant shooting at the dog, and accidentally wounding Bennings, he seems crazy (Dr. Copper [Dysart] speculates that the “stir-crazy” Norwegian got “cabin fever”)…and dangerous himself; so Garry gets a pistol, points it out the window, and kills the man.

Communists are similarly seen as crazy (as are the victims of narcissists) when warning the world about capitalists (who, especially in the upper echelons of power and wealth, tend to be narcissists); they’re vilified and often killed, as is the Norwegian. My point is that we leftists, like the Norwegians, see a real danger that most other people don’t.

The Norwegian, trying desperately to kill the dog-imitation. Though this seems madness, yet there is method in’t.

Later, we see that sled dog looking intently, ominously, out a window at the Americans’ helicopter returning after investigating what happened at the Norwegian base. Ennio Morricone‘s keyboard soundtrack was playing when the dog was chased by the helicopter, with an eerie bass synth ostinato highlighting a pair of loud notes making us think of a heartbeat…the alien’s heartbeat? The dog isn’t man’s best friend, but his worst enemy.

When the dog is caught in the middle of making another dog into an imitation, Blair (Brimley) examines the internal organs of the imitation and realizes how indistinguishable those organs are from a real dog’s organs. He is so horrified by the implications of this alien ability (i.e., that it can imitate humans) that he goes mad and violent, and then has to be sedated and confined, separate from the other men.

The imitation is both internally and externally perfect, and so the alien can take on all kinds of shapes and forms. Recall what happens to Norris’s body when Dr. Copper does the defibrillating; a huge mouth opens up from Norris’s chest, with huge teeth that bite off Copper’s hands, killing him. Then Norris’s head rips off the body and grows what look like an insect’s legs and stalks with eyes on the top of each; hence MacReady’s correct observation that The Thing’s body parts, right down to drops of blood, can be complete life forms in themselves. Copper’s mutilation symbolizes the injuries the worker under capitalism often suffers, often without compensation.

Capitalism, too, can adapt and imitate many aspects of leftist ideology, in ways so convincing that many people confuse real leftism with phoney versions of it, for example, mainstream liberalism, social democracy, identity politics, social justice warriors, “democratic socialism,” etc. Tiny parts of capitalism existing within ‘socialism’ are still cancerous capitalism, and thus must be rooted out. Capitalism’s ability to adapt is remarkable, as David Harvey noted in a quote I’ve used in other blog posts, but it’s relevant to reuse it here, too:

“Capital is not a fixed magnitude! Always remember this, and appreciate that there is a great deal of flexibility and fluidity in the system. The left opposition to capitalism has too often underestimated this. If capitalists cannot accumulate this way, then they will do it another way. If they cannot use science and technology to their own advantage, they will raid nature or give recipes to the working class. There are innumerable strategies open to them, and they have a record of sophistication in their use. Capitalism may be monstrous, but it is not a rigid monster. Oppositional movements ignore its capacity for adaptation, flexibility and fluidity at their peril. Capital is not a thing, but a process. It is continually in motion, even as it itself internalizes the regulative principle of ‘accumulation for the sake of accumulation, production for the sake of production.” –David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, page 262

Left to right: Childs (David), Dr. Copper (Dysart), Nauls (Carter), Clark (Masur), Garry (Moffat), and MacReady (Russell). No one trusts anyone, no one knows who is friend or foe. Friends and foes get confused.

So, with all this shapeshifting and adapting that The Thing does, who are the men’s friends, and who are their foes? Much suspicion is put on Clark, Windows (Waites), Garry, and MacReady, all of whom, it turns out, are not aliens (though we can’t be too sure about MacReady at the end of the movie). Windows in particular has a menacing look on his face as he waits in the shadows for MacReady to dip a hot wire into a sample of his blood, only to prove his innocence.

Similarly, who are the friends, and who the foes, of the working class? Is communists’ preoccupation with the imperialist plunder of the Third World a legitimate concern, or does this concern just make us ‘tankies‘ whose ‘over-solicitude’ is used to justify ‘dictatorship’? Will a few left-leaning reforms, giving the Western working class some free stuff, be sufficient, while we not only ignore but aggravate the exploitation of people in developing countries? Is getting rid of Trump and the GOP all we need to do, or is there something more fundamental that needs to be fixed in American politics?

As I mentioned above, this alien doesn’t need a full body to reproduce itself in imitations: a mere drop of its blood is enough, hence the efficacy of MacReady’s blood test with the hot wire (also used in the novella). Since I see the alien as symbolic of capitalism and imperialism, we should consider what the drops of blood–these ever-so-small parts of the alien’s body as fully-functioning, independent units of existence, each a microcosm of the macrocosm that is the whole Thing–imply about the danger of the existence of even the smallest manifestations of capitalism, that eerie alien (and alienating) heartbeat that never dies.

Social democracy incorporates strong unions, a welfare state, free education and healthcare, among other benefits for working people, all within the context of a market economy. Yugoslavia under Tito pursued a market socialist economy and remained independent of the Eastern Bloc; some say Yugoslavia‘s non-alliance with the Eastern Bloc gave Western imperialism an advantage, helping them defeat communism by the 1990s, thus ushering in the current neoliberal hell. Recall that Lenin’s NEP was only meant as a temporary measure. Stalin put an end to it after a mere eight years.

Even the smallest part of The Thing–its blood–can exist as a complete entity, and thus as a formidable enemy.

Even the smallest amounts of capitalism–just like even the smallest amounts of The Thing–can’t be allowed to live and thrive. The microcosm is no less evil than the macrocosm.

IV: The Narcissistic Thing

While discussing the tinier manifestations of evil as seen in The Thing, consider how narcissism or psychopathy (seen in ambitious, exploitative individuals) are the microcosm of the macrocosm of capitalism and class war. People with Cluster B personality disorders will slip in among the crowd of normal people, pretend to be as normal as the latter, and will treat them as extensions of themselves, just as The Thing does to the Americans.

Non-psychopathic and non-narcissistic people will be falsely accused of having either those pathologies (i.e., through projection) or similar ones, as Clark, Garry, Windows, and MacReady are suspected of being alien imitations. Not only will the Cluster-B-disordered one accuse the innocent, but so will his enablers (even the unwitting enablers), as is the case when the non-assimilated men accuse each other of being ‘Things.’

The narcissist or psychopath is, like The Thing, selfish, wishing only to survive, even at the cost of betraying his own kind (this selfishness is noted especially in the novella with respect to “the monster”–Chapter VIII). A game of divide and conquer is played, making the victims hostile to each other instead of to the victimizer. We see this antagonism in The Thing, in the exploitative relationship between narcissists and their victims–that is, on the microcosmic level–and in class relations (i.e., big corporations vs. small businesses and workers) on the macrocosmic level. Recall Marx’s words: “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, page 929)

The imitation of Palmer (Clennon), once exposed as such.

Still, the narcissist needs other people to give him narcissistic supply, and the capitalist always needs new supplies of profit to offset the TRPF; just as The Thing always needs a new supply of life forms to assimilate. If the narcissist’s True Self is exposed, he goes berserk with narcissistic rage, feeling the danger of psychological fragmentation; just as the alien goes wild and physically comes apart when Palmer is exposed as an imitation.

Heat will expose the alien, and fire will kill it. It can, however, hibernate in ice. The narcissist, as well as the capitalist, has an icy heart–cold is his home. The Thing, narcissist, and capitalist can all hide in human warmth, though, pretending to be a friend even as they plot our destruction.

V: The Thing-in-itself

So, to recap, The Thing could be seen as symbolizing the threat of the spread of communism, as conservatives and liberals would see it. In my Marxist interpretation, the alien invader represents capitalist imperialism, the microcosm of which (that is, The Thing’s blood) is the narcissistic or psychopathic personality. But this all depends on one’s sense perceptions.

What is The Thing, in itself?

Thanks to Kant, I’ve just answered my own question.

Das Ding an sich.

The Thing appears to be a sled dog at the beginning of the film, thanks to the limitations of the Americans’ sense impressions. When they see the thing-in-itself, that is, in mid-transformation into other dogs, they realize their senses have deceived them. The men continue to have this sensory deception throughout the film, as do we, the viewers, right up to when MacReady and Childs share the bottle of scotch and begin freezing to death.

In this sense, The Thing represents the source of human problems, whatever that source really is; it is what it is, in spite of the limitations of our sensory impressions, those of our world view, those of our political biases. Conservatives’ and liberals’ biases would call that source communism, or something similar. Marxists like me would call that source the capitalism that conservatives and liberals defend (in its ‘free market‘ or ‘kinder, gentler‘ forms, respectively).

So, which is the friend, capitalism or communism, and which the foe? According to John Carpenter, one of the two freezing men sharing the bottle is an alien assimilation: is it Childs, or MacReady? Which is the friend, and which the foe? Is the friend the man who–suspected of being a foe–‘Stalinistically’ [!] had most of the other men tied up, and yet exposed Parker; and is the foe Childs, who was opposed to imperious MacReady’s blood testing, yet at the end of the film shows no light reflection in his eyes, and whose breath isn’t visible?

As for the thing-in-itself, some, like Wilfred Bion in his mystical conception of O, might associate Kant’s idea with God, or Ultimate Reality. O is to be understood intuitively through the abandonment of memory, desire, and understanding–no use of deceptive sense impressions. Bion didn’t sentimentalize his mystical idea, though; he acknowledged that O results in moments of ominous and turbulent feelings…feelings the alien certainly provokes in the Americans…feelings that cause one to lose one’s anchor of security in everyday reality.

The seemingly omnipotent Thing is too terrifying to contemplate in its unmasked reality.

If The Thing, as thing-in-itself, is some form of Divinity, again we must ask: is God friend, or foe? Is Ultimate Reality a comforting…or a terrifying…reality? Recall that Christians (Protestants in particular) often embrace capitalism, believing that God is rewarding their work ethic, seen as an expression of their religious faith, with financial success. Thus, God is a friend to the capitalists–to the rest of us, not so much.

During the end credits, we hear Morricone’s funereal organ tune and its alien heartbeat bass synth line; a fusion of life and death, more dialectical unity in opposites. The killing alien is still alive. The defeat of communism is a joy to the capitalists, but a catastrophe to us Marxists, who see imperialism‘s continued destruction of the rest of the world, just as The Thing will surely continue to assimilate other humans when a rescue team comes and finds the American research base.

When Childs and MacReady freeze, the human will die and The Thing will hibernate until that rescue team comes and thaws it out. Which man is real, and which is fake? It’s been said that all the men whose eyes show a reflection of light are real, and those without that reflection–like Palmer, Norris, and Childs (at the end)–are imitations. But that’s just the opinion, the sense perception, of cinematographer Dean Cundey, who deliberately provided a subtle illumination to the eyes of uninfected characters, something absent from Childs, with his conspicuously invisible breath, at the end. 

Cundey created that sense impression in the characters’ eyes, just as we all create our own sense impressions of the world through our personal biases. Does light in the eyes symbolize ‘seeing the light’ of human truth, or do we just interpret the symbolism that way? Is the light in our eyes just the limitation of our own sense perceptions?

If, Dear Reader, your senses perceive it to be disturbing that I would consider the communists our friends, and the capitalists–of every conceivable stripe–our foes, remember that The Thing is a horror movie. That’s the whole scary thing about the film: we don’t know who our friends and enemies really are, including our ideological friends and foes; and in spite of the persuasiveness of the light-in-the-eyes theory, we don’t know for sure which man–Childs, or MacReady–is The Thing.

The two freezing men will just have to wait there a little while, and see what happens.

Analysis of ‘Pink Floyd–The Wall’

Pink Floyd–The Wall is a 1982 film directed by Alan Parker and written by Roger Waters, with music from Pink Floyd‘s 1979 album, The Wall. It stars Bob Geldof in the role of Pink, an alienated rock star (modelled after Waters) who isolates himself from the world with a metaphorical wall built around him.

Indeed, the film is intensely metaphorical and semi-autobiographical (of Waters), with numerous surreal animated sequences done by Gerald Scarfe. It deals with themes of alienation, madness, and ultimately, fascism. It has little dialogue, with the song lyrics largely filling in the verbal narration.

The film was generally well-received (now having cult status), in spite of problems with production and its creators’ dissatisfaction with what resulted.

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

The film begins in a hotel hallway, one side of it, with its wall and row of doors, being prominent. A maid is going from room to room with a vacuum cleaner. A song is heard about Christmas, and a little boy for whom the holiday is no different from any other, for Santa Claus forgot him. This is an indirect reference to Pink, who is then seen in his room, watching TV alone, remembering his dead father. She’d like to clean his room, and she knocks on his door, but he ignores her.

Pink (played by Bob Geldof).

Her attempts to open the door agitate him, making him think of the hell of having people around him, watching him. We then see images of running British soldiers fighting in WWII, juxtaposed with a running crowd of Pink’s fans at one of his concerts who are violently apprehended by cops for their unruliness, then with Pink’s fantasy of himself as a fascist leader at a rally with his crowd of followers, actually his fans at his concert. The sequence of images ends with the killing of his father in the war.

This juxtaposition is significant in how it identifies and equates these three groups. Soldiers, as patriots, are fans of their country, fans (that is, fanatics) to the point of being willing to kill for the fatherland. Fans of a rock star idolize him to the point of stampeding in a concert venue (the kind of thing that can lead to such tragic accidents as the trampling-to-death of eleven Who fans at a Cincinnati concert in 1979, the same year The Wall was released as an album) and being willing to believe or do whatever the rock star wants. Fascists are a kind of military rock star, if you will: charming, hypnotizing, and manipulating their followers to do whatever the leader wants them to do, as Hitler demonstrated.

Pink’s estrangement from the world is rooted in several childhood traumas: his bullying teachers, his over-protective mother, and most importantly, the death of his father as a soldier in WWII, before Pink was even at an age to have known him.

These three sources of trauma all involve, in one sense or another, Pink’s relationship with authority, how that authority has dominated his life. How his mother and the teachers have oppressed him is obvious; how his dead father has done so requires further explanation.

Pink as a boy (played by Kevin McKeon).

While Pink’s father’s death in WWII is autobiographical, in how Waters’s father also died as a soldier in that war, the death of Pink’s father can also be symbolic of the death of God the Father. Note that Waters, unlike his late father, is an atheist. Thus Pink’s father can be seen on one level as symbolic of Church authority, its validity dead to both Pink and Waters, yet still weighing down on them.

On the other hand, the literal death of Pink’s (and Waters’s) father is still troubling the rock star decades later. This goes way beyond mere mourning: this is melancholia, which leads to a discussion of Freud‘s reflections on the matter in Mourning and Melancholia.

As Freud conceptualized it, mourning and melancholia share almost all of the same traits, except that only in melancholia is there also a profound self-hate. Freud theorized that this self-hate results from ambivalent feelings towards the lost loved one, a mix of unconscious hate and hostility with the expected love for him or her, if not a pure, though repressed, hostility. The lost loved one has been internalized, introjected into the mourning subject (the self), and is now an internal object; so any hate or hostility felt for the object (the other person) is now felt for the self, who reproaches himself for having ‘willed’ the death of the loved one.

Freud explains: “If one listens patiently to a melancholic’s many and various self-accusations, one cannot in the end avoid the impression that often the most violent of them are hardly at all applicable to the patient himself, but that with insignificant modifications they do fit someone else, someone whom the patient loves or has loved or should love. Every time one examines the facts this conjecture is confirmed. So we find the key to the clinical picture: we perceive that the self-reproaches are reproaches against a loved object which have been shifted away from it on to the patient’s own ego.” (Freud, pages 256-257)

Daddy died in the war.

Freud’s insights here became part of the origin of object relations theory, as further developed by Melanie Klein, DW Winnicott, WRD Fairbairn, Wilfred R Bion, and others. The point I’m making about Pink (and Waters, presumably) is that he feels as though the ghost of his father is still inside him, tormenting and oppressing him.

Pink feels as though his father abandoned him by dying when he was a baby:

Daddy’s flown across the ocean
Leaving just a memory
A snapshot in the family album
Daddy, what else did you leave for me?
Daddy, what d’ya leave behind for me?
All in all, it was just a brick in the wall
All in all, it was all just bricks in the wall

This has led to feelings of hostility towards his father–as well as a longing for him. Thus, Pink’s hostility is redirected back at him, oppressing him, because he has internalized his father.

Freud explains: “…identification is a preliminary stage of object-choice, that it is the first way–and one that is expressed in an ambivalent fashion–in which the ego picks out an object. The ego wants to incorporate this object into itself, and, in accordance with the oral or cannibalistic phase of libidinal development in which it is, it wants to do so by devouring it. […]

“Melancholia, therefore, borrows some of its features from mourning, and the others from the process of regression from narcissistic object-choice to narcissism. It is on the one hand, like mourning, a reaction to the real loss of a loved object; but over and above this, it is marked by a determinant which is absent in normal mourning or which, if it is present, transforms the latter into pathological mourning. The loss of a love-object is an excellent opportunity for the ambivalence in love-relationships to make itself effective and come into the open. Where there is a disposition to obsessional neurosis the conflict due to ambivalence gives a pathological cast to mourning and forces it to express itself in the form of self-reproaches to the effect that the mourner himself is to blame for the loss of the loved object, i.e. that he has willed it.” (Freud, pages 258-260)

Young Pink identifying with his father by wearing his army hat.

We see a visual manifestation of Pink’s identifying with his father in the scene when he, about ten years old, goes through his father’s old things, puts on his dad’s uniform (which, of course, is far too big to fit), then sees himself in the mirror. The image alternates between seeing the boy’s reflection and seeing his father in the uniform.

This is Lacan‘s mirror: young Pink looks awkward in his father’s uniform, and the image of his father, alternating with that of himself, in the reflection represents the alienation of oneself from the reflected image. His father looks perfect, even ideal, as a war hero, in the uniform; but that uniform is awkwardly too big on the boy. His father is his ideal-I, but his imperfect approximation to that ideal means he is alienated from his ideal and from himself.

Since I’ve argued that his dead father symbolizes dead God, too, then we see atheist Pink (a stand-in for atheist Waters) as alienated from God the Father, particularly in the scene with him (about the age of six) and his mother in church. Only she prays; he shows no interest in religious matters. He does, however, play with a toy fighter airplane, thus showing his wish to be a warrior like his father (though it was a fighter plane that killed his father, so the boy’s playing with the toy plane could also be seen as an unconscious wish to do away with his father, a reflection of that ambivalence of love and hostility). Once again, Pink is alienated from an ideal Father, though trying to identify with his real father (from whom he is also alienated).

The next authoritarian source of his traumas is his school life. One teacher in particular is abusive, giving bad kids canings and humiliating Pink by reading one of the boy’s poems aloud in class. The poem in question is the song lyric from ‘Money.’

Money, get back
I’m all right Jack keep your hands off of my stack […]

New car, caviar, four star daydream
Think I’ll buy me a football team

The abusive teacher (played by Alex McAvoy).

The teacher calls the boy’s writing “absolute rubbish,” and demands that he focus on his lesson. Since ‘Money‘ is a critique of capitalism, and the teacher is invalidating the poem, we see in this scene how capitalism stifles creativity. (I’ve briefly discussed this stifling in other analyses.)

The abusive teacher shouldn’t be seen as just a tyrannical entity unto himself, though, for he has a domineering wife he has to put up with every day at home. People receive abuse, then pass it on to others. Pink himself does this, in his emotional neglect of his wife, driving her into the arms of another man; in his terrifying of the groupie by busting up his hotel room in a manic rage; and finally, in his fantasy as a fascist who inspires violence in his followers.

After Pink’s humiliation in the classroom, he daydreams about the suffering of his oppressed classmates, who are all seen marching–looking like automatons and wearing grotesque masks of school conformity–towards a meat grinder (the shadows of which ominously show the fascist hammers to be seen later, an indication of what excessive conformity can lead to) spewing out shit-shaped meat. Ultimately, Pink fantasizes about a student revolution, involving the teacher getting his comeuppance.

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey, teachers, leave them kids alone
All in all it’s just another brick in the wall
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall

The surreal nature of this scene, as with all the cartoon sequences, shows how all of this is Pink’s unconscious phantasy. Indeed, this whole film is about the turbulent, conflicted world of the unconscious.

What’s interesting, given the teacher’s henpecked attitude towards his wife, is how he could be seen as a substitute father for Pink. As a violent, bullying authoritarian, the teacher certainly embodies the stereotype of the conservative father; as such a substitute father, the teacher would thus be a disappointing, alienating one, disillusioning Pink from his ideal father and–through his identification with his father–driving him towards his own authoritarian, fascist fantasies. The teacher’s submission to his wife also parallels Pink’s own submission to his mother, suggesting an equating of one woman with the other.

This observation leads us to the third source of Pink’s traumas, that of his over-protective mother. She is oversolicitous about him getting sick, fretting in a conversation with the doctor. We see the boy climb in bed with her, indicating his unresolved Oedipal relationship with her.

Pink’s mother (played by Christine Hargreaves).

Mama’s gonna make all your nightmares come true.
Mama’s gonna put all her fears into you.
Mama’s gonna keep you right here under her wing.
She won’t let you fly, but she might let you sing.
Mama’s gonna keep baby cozy and warm.
Ooh baby, ooh baby, ooh baby,
Of course mama’s gonna help build the wall.

Mother do you think she’s good enough, for me?
Mother do you think she’s dangerous, to me?
Mother will she tear your little boy apart?
Ooh ah,
Mother will she break my heart? Hush now baby, baby don’t you cry.
Mama’s gonna check out all your girlfriends for you.
Mama won’t let anyone dirty get through.
Mama’s gonna wait up until you get in.
Mama will always find out where you’ve been.

Because of this Oedipal relationship, Pink will find it difficult to have intimate relationships with women, for no woman could ever replace Mama. Small wonder his marriage is a disaster, as is his picking up of the groupie. He shows hardly any sexual interest in women at all. One wonders: is Pink a virgin?

Pink and his estranged wife (played by Eleanor David).

Though Pink is emotionally neglectful of his wife, a residual part of him still wants to connect with her, hence the number of long-distance calls he makes to her from hotels or pay phones while he’s on tour. Nonetheless, his attempts to connect with her are too little, too late. She’s already in bed with another man, and Pink knows.

Through his constant melancholia, he already hates himself (really an introjection of the bad father object he’s angry with for having abandoned him by dying in the war, as explained above). Since being cuckolded has always been a crushing source of shame for men, Pink finds his wife’s being with another man to be an unbearable intensifying of his self-hate.

This is not “just another brick in the wall”: this is many scores of bricks. Hence, the cartoon sequence with the all-enveloping wall, a screaming head emerging from the bricks.

This wall represents what Fairbairn called the Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object configuration that all of us have as a part of our personalities, though people like Pink have it far worse than the average person. According to Fairbairnian psychoanalysis, the libido seeks objects (i.e., other people to have relationships with); but after experiencing disappointments in relationships, or the kind of trauma Pink has endured, the ego splits into three parts–the original, Central Ego that seeks real bonds with other people (the Ideal Object), the Libidinal Ego that seeks pleasure (the Exciting Object), and the Anti-libidinal Ego that builds metaphorical walls (keeping the Rejecting Object away).

Because of his wife’s infidelity, Pink’s Anti-libidinal Ego is going into overdrive, rejecting all contact with anyone. Furthermore, as a surreal part-animation sequence shows, he is also experiencing persecutory anxiety, as if his wife is vengefully attacking him for neglecting her…and, even, abusing her…

How could you go?
When you know how I need you
To beat to a pulp on a Saturday night

Still, small residual amounts of the other two thirds of his fragmented psyche remain. What’s left of his Central Ego later asks, “Is there anybody out there?” to any possible manifestations of the Ideal Object. His Libidinal Ego, as moribund as it is, also seeks out the Exciting Object in the form of a groupie.

This pleasure-seeking is a manic defence aimed at getting him to forget his pain. The attempt fails miserably, of course, because pleasure-seeking results from a failure to build relationships with others, as Fairbairn noted: “…from the point of view of object-relationship psychology, explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour…Explicit pleasure-seeking has as its essential aim the relieving of the tension of libidinal need for the mere sake of relieving this tension. Such a process does, of course, occur commonly enough; but, since libidinal need is object-need, simple tension-relieving implies some failure of object-relationships.” (Fairbairn, p. 139-140).

Pink’s groupie (played by Jenny Wright).

Freud also noted how manic pleasure-seeking is an attempt, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding, to deal with grief: “…the content of mania is no different from that of melancholia, that both disorders are wrestling with the same ‘complex’, but that probably in melancholia the ego has succumbed to the complex whereas in mania it has mastered it or pushed it aside. Our second pointer is afforded by the observation that all states such as joy, exultation or triumph, which give us the normal model for mania, depend on the same economic conditions.” (Freud, page 263)

That this attempt at pleasure-seeking with a groupie is doomed from the start is seen in the fantasy visuals of a group of girls arriving and seducing security guards, symbols of Pink’s super-ego, in turn an internalizing of his domineering, moralizing, overprotective mother. Pink’s Libidinal Ego (Fairbairn’s approximation to Freud’s id) fantasizes that the Exciting Object (the groupies), by seducing the super-ego/security guards, will free his libido to enjoy the girls, which of course will never happen, because…Mama. The song, ‘Young Lust,’ with the lyrics, “Ooh, I need a dirty woman/Ooh, I need a dirty girl,” is so obviously non-Pink Floyd in nature (the song is actually a parody of arena rock) that it can be understood as a sarcastic attitude of celibate Pink.

The surreal animation sequence, of copulating/cannibalistic flowers, is a far more accurate representation of Pink’s attitude towards sex. A phallic flower, symbolizing Pink, is hesitant before entering a yonic flower, representing his wife, or any female partner. When intercourse is achieved, the ‘female’ flower devours the ‘male’ with her ‘vagina dentata.’ Next, we see the creation of the wall with its screaming head. The animation ends with a hammer (having formed from a raised fist, the kind symbolic of socialism), then we see a store window broken with the same, portentous kind of hammer, reminding us of when the Nazis attacked Jewish stores.

Alienation and self-hate can, and often do, lead to fascism. What’s more, fascism tends to lead people astray from socialism, hence the fist morphing into a hammer.

Self-hate also leads to a rejection of humanity, of neediness of anyone or anything, because the hate, unbearable as it is, gets projected outwards:

I don’t need no arms around me
And I don’t need no drugs to calm me
I have seen the writing on the wall
Don’t think I need anything at all
No! Don’t think I’ll need anything at all

Thus, he’s rejected the groupie, despite her attempts to contain his tormented, loner self by sucking on his fingers, to take in his pain and hold it, as a mother would her baby’s anxieties in a state of maternal reverie. Still, he won’t be contained, so he flips out, terrifying her and smashing everything in the hotel room, a projection of his self-hate.

Run to the bedroom
In the suitcase on the left
You’ll find my favourite axe
Don’t look so frightened
This is just a passing phase
One of my bad days
Would you like to watch TV?
Or get between the sheets?

Later, he arranges all of his smashed property into some kind of work of art (the only substantial example of creativity we ever see him engage in) on the floor. Broken records and guitars, cigarettes, and other things are spread out on the carpet in rectangular shapes and straight lines.

Then he goes into the washroom to shave. His looking at himself in the mirror parallels when he, as a boy, looked at his reflection in his father’s uniform. His reflection, in Lacan’s mirror, represents an idealized, coherent, unified person that the man looking at it–being a fragmented, awkward man who’s falling apart inside–would like to measure up to.

To attain the mirrored ideal this time, though, instead of adding to his imperfect self (i.e., wearing his dad’s uniform), Pink feels he must remove unwanted, disliked things from himself (shaving his chest and eyebrows, cutting himself many times). His self-hate is growing: all that shaved hair represents the ugliness in himself that he hates; also, his self-hate expresses itself through his self-injury with the razors.

This removal of unwanted hair reminds us of how women suffer to be beautiful, shaving their legs, armpits, pubic hair, and (in the case of such medieval/Renaissance fashions as those typified by the Mona Lisa) even eyebrows. Pink’s self-hate is women’s everyday self-hate, introjected from society; his very name makes us think of the stereotypical girls’ colour.

Pink is back watching his TV, like all of us zombies staring at the idiot box, or these days, at our phones, tablets, and laptops. His unconscious wanders about in a dreamlike state: we see young Pink wandering about the fields of WWII, seeing the bloody bodies of the soldiers; evidently, he’s still looking for his dad.

Young Pink here represents Fairbairn’s Central Ego, seeking the Ideal Object of his father. He goes through a military hospital, finding present-day Pink (representing the Anti-libidinal Ego) going mad, and he sees adult Pink watching TV in the field, with those ominous hammers among the tall grasses and bushes.

Pink’s manager (played by Bob Hoskins) breaks through the hotel door with a group of men, all of them needing Pink to get ready to perform at a concert that night. Shocked at the sight of Pink in his mentally broken-down state, they give him a shot of something to bring him back so he can do the show. We hear the song ‘Comfortably Numb.’

As the song is playing, Pink goes through a series of memories of everything that has traumatized him, including a time when young Pink found a huge rat in a field and wanted to take care of it at home. Naturally, his mother would never have a rat in her house; but this being one of the few times Pink has ever connected with another living thing, he is deeply hurt by his mother’s rejection of it.

The assonance of the line “I have become comfortably numb” expresses the ‘pleasure’ of feeling immune to any emotions, since they can only cause pain for Pink. Emotional numbness is a common avoidance symptom of PTSD sufferers.

As David Gilmour‘s second guitar solo is playing and Pink is carried from the hotel to a car taking him to the show, he hallucinates that his body is melting and decomposing. This symbolizes his psychological fragmentation, his disintegration, his falling apart. The imagery of worms, which eat away at corpses, add to this sense of Pink’s self-destruction.

In the car on the way to the concert, Pink finds the one and only way to protect himself from fragmentation: to take on the narcissistic False Self of posing as a fascist.

Narcissistic defences against fragmentation are far from the only reasons Pink has for fantasizing about fascism. Recall that one of his main problems is self-hate, which he tries to project outwards. Hatred for “any queers” out there, anyone who “looks Jewish,” every “coon,” and anyone “smoking a joint” is an obvious projection of his self-hate, as is the case with any Nazi.

But there’s a deeper thing going on in Pink’s unconscious: recall that hostility to his father, introjected and now an internal object, thus becoming self-hate. Instead of facing his taboo hate against a father he feels abandoned him by dying fighting fascism, he fantasizes that he is his father’s ideological foe. (Obviously, his father’s death wasn’t really an abandoning of him, but we aren’t concerned with physical reality here, only with Pink’s mental and emotional representation of reality.) In Pink’s mind, it’s better to be a fascist than not to “honour thy father and thy mother,” a Biblical morality no doubt reinforced throughout his childhood by his domineering mother.

Then there’s the relationship between fascism and capitalism. Roger Waters, as a rock star whose left-wing father fought fascism, has always had ambivalent feelings about his wealth, and Pink represents him in this autobiographical film. Waters’s writing of ‘Money’ represents this ambivalence, for though the love of “money, so they say, is the root of all evil today,” Waters (and therefore, Pink too, no doubt) naturally likes the luxuries capitalism provides those in the upper classes. Waters and Pink have wrestled with the guilt of this craving for lucre, for–Dengists aside–socialists tend to frown on the personal accumulation of wealth and capital.


Pink the fascist.

Along with Waters’s/Pink’s ambivalence towards capitalism is fascism’s unholy alliance with the profit motive. Consider Big Business’s financing of Hitler in their hopes that the Nazis would crush the Soviet Union (something Churchill also hoped for, especially after the Nazi defeat, and Pink’s father fought under Winston’s leadership). Consider MI5’s paying of Mussolini to keep Italy fighting in the imperialist First World War, and capitalists’ glee that his fascists crushed the socialists in Italy back in the early 1920s.

Finally, the cult of personality that fascist leaders use to hypnotize the masses is not all that far removed from the hero worship that rock fans engage in, and that rock stars use for their financial gain and narcissistic supply. For all of the above reasons, we shouldn’t be too surprised to see an ‘anti-establishment’ rock star embracing far-right thinking.

Now, Pink’s projection outward of self-hate, inciting his fans to attack ethnic and racial minorities in England, can’t be expected to last long, since identifying with some of the world’s most despised people is hardly a cure for self-hate. So, a vision of those marching hammers is enough to make Pink scream, “Stop!”

Personified hammers: the only way humanity can be together, in Pink’s mind, is to be mindless automatons, without individuality, acting as instruments of destruction.

We next see Pink reading in a toilet cubicle of a public washroom, of all places, sitting next to a toilet. His self-esteem is so low, he’s literally on a level with shit. One of those security guards, who as I mentioned above in their encounter with the groupies, represent Pink’s super-ego, opens the door to the toilet cubicle to find him there.

Recall that the adult Pink represents his Anti-libidinal Ego, which Fairbairn devised to replace, and therefore make approximately equivalent to, Freud’s super-ego. Fairbairn originally called the Anti-libidinal Ego the Internal Saboteur, and it’s easy to see how Pink has sabotaged his whole inner emotional life. Furthermore, the overly judgemental, moralistic super-ego is essentially an inner critic, tearing down one’s self-esteem, often requiring one to build a protective wall around oneself, as the Anti-libidinal Ego does by rejecting people and pushing them away. Thus, in Pink we see a fusion of Freud’s and Fairbairn’s concepts of aspects of the human personality.

Fittingly, when the door to the toilet stall is opened, we don’t see Pink reading beside the toilet anymore, but instead we see the beginning of an animated sequence, with the enveloping wall, guarded by the hammers, and a doll-like figure lying against the wall. Here is Pink at his most vulnerable, and his cruel super-ego is about to judge him.

He is accused of daring to show feelings (Egad!), and he is judged, in turn, by that abusive old schoolteacher (who in turn is abused by his puppet-master wife in a kind of S and M fantasy), Pink’s wife (who calls him a “little shit”), and his mother. These three are all internalized bad objects who–having been repressed before–have now returned to torment him.

The conclusion that Pink has gone mad is expressed in a predictably judgemental way, using slang euphemisms and lacking any compassion:

Crazy
Toys in the attic, I am crazy
Truly gone fishing
They must have taken my marbles away
(Crazy, toys in the attic, he is crazy)

The judge declares his wish to defecate, he’s so disgusted with Pink’s inadequacies. The final judgement? “Tear down the wall!” Now, tearing down the wall is a necessary condition in helping Pink, but it’s far from being a sufficient condition, for the wall’s removal alone won’t reunite him with humanity–it will only expose him to humanity’s judgements. And in his fragile emotional state, such judgements would be disastrous for him, causing him either to succumb to fragmentation, or simply to build another wall.

Ultimately, the true source of his trauma–his ambivalent, love-hate attitude towards his father, the root of his melancholia–has not been processed or healed. This healing must occur, though. His unconscious hostility to his father–for not being there with him when he grew up–was never brought up to his conscious mind. Without that processing and healing, he’ll never be able to rejoin humanity.

So, what should we make of the ending? The three children in this scene can be seen as aspects of Pink’s inner child. The girl’s collecting of milk bottles suggests a wish to return to being nurtured by his mother; the dark-haired boy’s emptying of the Molotov cocktail could represent a wish to end all hostility. But the blond-haired boy, collecting bricks and putting them in a toy truck, seems to represent a wish to use them to rebuild the wall.

The message of Pink Floyd–The Wall, as I see it, is about the relationship between internal and external pathologies. We start with childhood traumas, in this case, Pink’s mourning and melancholia over his lost father, then his domineering, over-protective mother, his abusive schoolteachers, and finally, his explosive reaction to his wife’s infidelity. From here we go from his inner world to the outer world.

As a rock star, Pink enjoys the luxurious lifestyle of the rich, a product of capitalism, which also, by the way, reinforces alienation, a social estrangement Pink is already suffering. This combination of rejecting people, but enjoying material objects–like the smashed-up ones he makes into a work of art on the carpet of his hotel room, or the buildings, cars, stereos, and TVs seen as part of the wall in one of the animation sequences–exacerbates the inner problem by making it into a social one. When this problem comes to a head, we can find ourselves faced with a rise in fascism.

Shall we buy a new guitar
Shall we drive a more powerful car
Shall we work straight through the night
Shall we get into fights
Leave the lights on
Drop bombs

Look at our world today: the number of Pinks out there is disturbing. Alienated people, from broken or abusive families, stare at TVs instead of connecting with others; people who worship rock stars, celebrities, and authoritarian demagogues, blindly following them instead of thinking for themselves. These idolized narcissists, typically members of the capitalist class, feed on our insecurities, separating us and making us fight with each other when we should unite. We need to tear down the walls, but if we don’t heal our old wounds, those bricks will just get collected and used to build new walls.

Sigmund Freud, 11. On Metapsychology, the Theory of Psychoanalysis: Beyond the Pleasure Principle, The Ego and the Id and Other Works, Pelican Books, Middlesex, England, 1984

W. Ronald D. Fairbairn, Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, Routledge, London, 1952

Don’t Fear Freedom from Abuse

[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]

You might ask, Dear Reader, why any victim of emotional abuse would be afraid of being freed from it. Isn’t freedom from the abuse exactly what we victims crave? That freedom is what we want should be a no-brainer.

The sad reality is, however, that the functioning of the mind is far more complex than that of one having a straightforward wish for what’s good for us, or for what’s pleasurable for us. Not to rely too much on Freud, who got a lot more wrong than he got right; but for what it’s worth, in his Beyond the Pleasure Principle, he noted our self-destructive, aggressive tendencies in what he called the death drive (Thanatos) and “the compulsion to repeat” irrational acts, or re-experience distressing moments in the past.

Object relations theorists like Melanie Klein and WRD Fairbairn noted how negative internal representations that we have in our minds of our parents and early caregivers (the “bad mother” and “bad father” internal objects) can be transferred to our later relationships in the form of boyfriends, girlfriends, or spouses with similar narcissistic traits to those of our parents. These bad internal objects, residing in our minds like ghosts, become the blueprints for our later relationships, and they are difficult to shake off (see part 5 of this for a deeper explanation).

Making things even more difficult, our wish to find good people in our lives–to replace the bad ones we’ve gone no contact with–can be thwarted by what Fairbairn called the Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object configuration in our minds. Originally, Fairbairn called this the Internal Saboteur, for that’s exactly what this part of our minds does–it sabotages possible new, good relationships by rejecting people.

For Fairbairn, libidinal need is object-need, that is, a need people have for others to love and have relationships with (the subject=the self; objects=people other than the self); so the anti-libidinal ego is the part of oneself that is hostile towards and rejects objects. We all know how we reject new people from having been hurt so often by earlier ones.

In An Introduction to Object Relations, Lavinia Gomez explains that the “anti-libidinal ego [corresponding roughly with Freud’s superego] is the split-off ego fragment that is bonded with the rejecting object. We can think of it as the ‘anti-wanting I’, the aspect of the self that is contemptuous of neediness. Rejection gives rise to unbearable anger, split off from the central self or ego [corresponding roughly to Freud’s ego] and disowned by it. Fairbairn originally termed this element the ‘internal saboteur’, indicating that in despising rather than acknowledging our neediness, we ensure that we neither seek nor get what we want. The anti-libidinal ego/rejecting object configuration is the cynical, angry self which is too dangerously hostile for us to acknowledge. When it emerges from repression we may experience it as chaotic rage or hatred, sometimes with persecutory guilt.” (Gomez p. 63-64)

Even worse, our relationships with narcissists, past and present, are those of traumatic bonding rather than ones of mutual respect and love. We feel as though we’re glued to these bad kinds of people whether we want to or not, so when we leave a relationship with a narcissist, we often fall back (however unwittingly or unconsciously) into a relationship with either the same one, or get trapped in a new relationship with another.

How do we get out of this vicious circle? Since I find relationships with these people to be overbearingly authoritarian, I find that the ideas Erich Fromm wrote about in his classic 1941 book, Escape From Freedom (also called The Fear of Freedom), to be applicable in relationships involving narcissistic abuse.

In his book, Fromm wrote about the experience of Europeans having been freed from the yoke of authoritarian thinking on two momentous occasions (from medieval-era Catholicism, and Germans from their authoritarian empire a century ago), only to find themselves with feelings of isolation, insignificance, and meaninglessness in their lives. The only way they found themselves able to reestablish a sense of meaning and belonging was to adopt new forms of authoritarianism: respectively, 16th century Lutheran and Calvinistic Protestantism; and for early 20th-century Germans, Nazism.

Fromm writes, [for the Germans] “The authority of the monarchy was undisputed, and by leaning on it and identifying with it the member of the lower middle class acquired a feeling of security and narcissistic pride. Also, the authority of religion and traditional morality was still firmly rooted. The family was still unshaken and a safe refuge in a hostile world. The individual felt that he belonged to a stable social and cultural system in which he had his definite place. His submission and loyalty to existing authorities were a satisfactory solution to his masochistic strivings…What he was lacking in security and aggressiveness as an individual, he was compensated for by the strength of the authorities to whom he submitted himself.

“The postwar period [i.e., 1918 and after] changed this situation considerably…the economic decline of the old middle class went at a faster pace…The defeat in the war and the downfall of the monarchy…on which, psychologically speaking, the petty bourgeois had built his existence, their failure and defeat shattered the basis of his own life. If the Kaiser could be publicly ridiculed,…what could the little man put his trust in? He had identified himself…with all these institutions; now, since they had gone, where was he to go?” (Fromm, pages 211-213)

In abandoning the old authoritarian structures, these Europeans achieved what Fromm called negative freedom, or freedom from an oppressive life; they hadn’t, however, achieved positive freedom, or freedom to reach their true human potential. Without this second kind of freedom, their sense of loneliness, purposelessness, and powerlessness could only lead them back to the comforting, though dysfunctional, structure of a new authoritarianism, namely, Nazism or authoritarian forms of Protestantism.

As for Luther and Calvin, Fromm writes, “Luther’s system, in so far as it differed from the Catholic tradition, has two sides…he gave man independence in religious matters…he deprived the Church of her authority and gave it to the individual; that his concept of faith and salvation is one of subjective individual experience, in which all responsibility is with the individual and none with an authority which could give him what he cannot obtain himself. […]

“The other aspect of modern freedom is the isolation and powerlessness it has brought for the individual, and this aspect has its roots in Protestantism as much as that of independence…Luther’s and Calvin’s doctrines…[have] a negative aspect…: their emphasis on the fundamental evilness and powerlessness of man.” (Fromm, page 74)

Fromm explains further: “Calvin’s theology…exhibits essentially the same spirit as Luther’s, both theologically and psychologically. Although he opposes the authority of the [Catholic] Church and the blind acceptance of its doctrines, religion for him is rooted in the powerlessness of man; self-humiliation and the destruction of human pride are the Leitmotiv of his whole thinking.” […] Calvin himself said, “We are not our own; therefore neither our reason nor our will should predominate in our deliberations and actions. We are not our own…it is the most devastating pestilence which ruins people if they obey themselves…” (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Chapter 7, 1; quoted in Fromm, pages 84-85)

There’s a kind of sadomasochistic quality to this authoritarian structure (just to be clear here, I’m not talking about the sexual kind found in the BDSM community; rather, I’m talking about the appeal of a dominant/submissive relationship with others, as a simpler, easier one, rather than the ambiguous, more challenging one of equality and mutual respect). In this structure, you know who is ‘above’ you, and who is ‘below’ you; hence, the comforting assurance and belonging felt in this structure. The Protestant God of Luther and Calvin was above the ‘unworthy’ sinners. (Again, I’m not criticizing Protestant Christianity in general here, just the particular, authoritarian form it took when Martin Luther and John Calvin had established their churches back in the 16th century.) Similarly, the Führer was ‘above’ the ‘Aryan‘ German; the Jews, Roma, gay men, and other persecuted groups were ‘below‘ the ‘Aryans.’

To get back to my main point, I believe this kind of authoritarian restructuring can be seen in the replacing of old forms of narcissistic abuse with new forms, either in staying with the abuser, in leaving one abuser only to enter into a new abusive relationship, or through our inner critic‘s continuing of the old abuse in our minds (“the fundamental evilness and powerlessness” that we imagine ourselves to embody, thanks to our abusers’ gaslighting of us), even years after we’ve ended the old relationships and not replaced them with new narcissistic abusers. (Note: I’m not trying to blame the victim here, but rather to explain what I think is happening.)

It’s been noted many times how we victims of emotional abuse keep the haranguing going on in our minds years later. I do this kind of haranguing to myself! There’s a feeling that if I don’t go over these feelings, this endless rumination and re-examining of past events, that I’ll have jumped to premature conclusions and misjudged my family too harshly. The feeling is, why can’t I just put it all behind me and be happy?

I suspect that many other sufferers of narcissistic abuse out there go through similar internal conflicts. Instead of properly processing their trauma and rebuilding their lives through a regular practice of self-care, they go over the same past events to reassure themselves that they’re judging their past relationships correctly (when they so obviously are correct about the abusive relationships, and thus don’t need to re-examine them, except that all their second-guessing perpetuates their doubts).

My point is, are we afraid of being free of the past?

Is our mental state comparable to what was happening after the end of medieval Catholicism, and after the end of the authoritarian German state? Has our traumatic bonding caused us to crave the sense of ‘security’ and ‘belonging’ that comes from the authoritarian rule of our narcissistic abusers?

Are we so used to the sadomasochistic structure, the false assurance, of who’s ‘above’ us (i.e., the narcissistic parents or ex) and who’s ‘below’ us (i.e., the scapegoats…if we’re the golden children or lost children) that we’re afraid of giving up that structure, only to be thrown into a world where we don’t know who we are anymore? Has the trauma of narcissistic abuse drilled a false self so deep into our heads that we can’t conceive of ourselves as having any other self?

Just as Fromm, at the end of his book, suggests positive freedom is the solution to the problem of negative freedom (and its attendant void of meaninglessness, loneliness, and powerlessness), so do I. Positive freedom, or the “freedom to” achieve one’s fullest potential, involves living a life of spontaneity, of solidarity and equality with others in mutual respect and love, with no more rigid sense of people ‘above’ or ‘below’ us. It involves us enjoying life in the moment, a focus on present-mindedness.

Fromm explains: “We have said that negative freedom by itself makes the individual an isolated being, whose relationship with the world is distant and distrustful and whose self is weak and constantly threatened. Spontaneous activity is the one way in which man can overcome the terror of aloneness without sacrificing the integrity of the self; for in the spontaneous realization of the self man unites himself with the world–with man, nature, and himself. Love is the foremost component of such spontaneity; not love as the dissolution of the self in another person, not love as the possession of another person, but love as spontaneous affirmation of others, as the union of the individual with others on the basis of the preservation of the individual self. The dynamic quality of love lies in this very polarity: that it springs from the need of overcoming separateness, that it leads to oneness–and yet that individuality is not eliminated…It affirms the individuality of the self and at the same time it unites the self with man and nature. […]

“In all spontaneous activity the individual embraces the world. Not only does his individual self remain intact; it becomes stronger and more solidified…The inability to act spontaneously, to express what one genuinely feels and thinks, and the resulting necessity to present a pseudo self to others and oneself, are the root of the feeling of inferiority and weakness. […]

“…what matters is the activity as such, the process and not the result…[by focusing only on “the finished product” rather than the process, though,] man misses the only satisfaction that can give him real happiness–the experience of the activity of the present moment–and chases after a phantom that leaves him disappointed as soon as he believes he has caught it–the illusory happiness called [financial] success.

“If the individual realizes his self by spontaneous activity and thus relates himself to the world, he ceases to be an isolated atom; he and the world become part of one structuralized whole; he has his rightful place, and thereby his doubt concerning himself and the meaning of life disappears. This doubt sprang from his separateness and from the thwarting of life; when he can live, neither compulsively nor automatically but spontaneously, the doubt disappears. He is aware of himself as an active and creative individual and recognizes that there is only one meaning of life: the act of living itself.” (Fromm, pages 259-261, his emphasis)

I believe we survivors of emotional abuse can apply these principles in our own lives, incorporating them into all the other things we can use for self-care. Space in this blog post cannot do justice to a full explanation of what Fromm was writing about; so if you find these ideas intriguing but don’t fully understand them, I suggest buying his book and imagining how his ideas can apply to your healing journey.

Note that there is a dialectical relationship between freedom and bondage, as Fromm notes in his analysis of history. The thesis is authoritarian oppression, be it from the Church, the state, or a narcissistic abuser; then, there’s the negation, or freedom from those oppressors. We all too often expect life to have a kind of secure stasis, or a state of familiar fixity. Change frightens us, so a move to freedom from the familiar form of bondage is frightening. Spontaneous living, however, is the resolution of the opposition between freedom and bondage; spontaneity is the sublation of the contradiction, because our individuality/unity creates our own structure, belonging, and meaning.

Instead of settling for the false security of staying in abusive relationships (the troughs of the ocean of life), or fearing a permanent sense of powerlessness, meaninglessness, and loneliness associated with negative freedom (the crests of the ocean of life), we should just ride the waves as they go up and down. There is no fixed, permanent solution in life, but there is a soothing flow to everything. Go with the flow.

Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1941

Analysis of ‘Salomé’

I: Introduction

Salomé is an opera by Richard Strauss that premiered in 1905, the libretto being Hedwig Lachmann‘s German translation (with some editing by Strauss) of Oscar Wilde‘s 1891 French play. Wilde’s play, of course, was in turn inspired by the Biblical narratives in the Gospels According to Mark and Matthew.

Wilde transformed the brief Biblical story, making what’s implied explicit, namely how Salomé’s dance sexually aroused the Tetrarch Herod Antipas, elaborating on it as The Dance of the Seven Veils, considered by some to be the origin, however unwitting, of the modern striptease. Wilde also altered certain details, such as when, in the Biblical version, Herodias tells her daughter, Salomé, to demand the head of John the Baptist; instead, Wilde has Salome ask for “the head of Iokanaan” of her own accord.

Both Wilde’s play and Strauss’s opera caused scandals on their earliest performances, resulting in performances of them being cancelled or banned, for example in London, for many years. Now, Strauss’s opera is considered a masterwork, a regular part of any orchestral or operatic repertoire.

II: Quotes

Here are some quotes from Wilde’s play (some of which are not in Strauss’s opera), in English translation:

“How beautiful is the Princess Salomé to-night!” –Narraboth, the young Syrian, Captain of the Guard

“You are always looking at her. You look at her too much. It is dangerous to look at people in such fashion. Something terrible may happen.” –Herodias’ page

“How pale the Princess is! Never have I seen her so pale. She is like the shadow of a white rose in a mirror of silver.” –Narraboth

“The Jews worship a God that one cannot see.” –First Soldier

“After me shall come another mightier than I. I am not worthy so much as to unloose the latchet of his shoes. When he cometh, the solitary places shall be glad. They shall blossom like the rose. The eyes of the blind shall see the day, and the ears of the deaf shall be opened. The suckling child shall put his hand upon the dragon’s lair, he shall lead the lions by their manes.” –the voice of Iokanaan, heard from below, in a cistern

“What a strange voice! I would speak with him.” –Salomé, of Iokanaan

[Approaching the cistern and looking down into it.] “How black it is, down there ! It must be terrible to be in so black a hole ! It is like a tomb. . . . .” [To the soldiers.] “Did you not hear me? Bring out the prophet. I would look on him.” –Salomé

“Thou wilt do this thing for me, Narraboth, and to-morrow when I pass in my litter beneath the gateway of the idol-sellers I will let fall for thee a little flower, a little green flower.” –Salomé

“Oh! How strange the moon looks. Like the hand of a dead woman who is seeking to cover herself with a shroud.” –Herodias’ page

“Where is he whose cup of abominations is now full? Where is he, who in a robe of silver shall one day die in the face of all the people? Bid him come forth, that he may hear the voice of him who hath cried in the waste places and in the houses of kings.” –Iokanaan, having emerged from the underground cistern

“It is his eyes above all that are terrible. They are like black holes burned by torches in a tapestry of Tyre. They are like the black caverns of Egypt in which the dragons make their lairs. They are like black lakes troubled by fantastic moons. . . . Do you think he will speak again?” –Salomé, of Iokanaan

“Who is this woman who is looking at me? I will not have her look at me. Wherefore doth she look at me with her golden eyes, under her gilded eyelids? I know not who she is. I do not desire to know who she is. Bid her begone. It is not to her that I would speak.” –Iokanaan, of Salomé

“Speak again, Iokanaan. Thy voice is as music to mine ear.” –Salomé

“Back! daughter of Babylon! By woman came evil into the world. Speak not to me. I will not listen to thee. I listen but to the voice of the Lord God.” –Iokanaan, to Salomé

“Thy hair is horrible. It is covered with mire and dust. It is like a knot of serpents coiled round thy neck. I love not thy hair. . . . It is thy mouth that I desire, Iokanaan.” […] “There is nothing in the world so red as thy mouth. . . . Suffer me to kiss thy mouth.” –Salomé

IOKANAAN: Never! daughter of Babylon! Daughter of Sodom! Never.

SALOMÉ: I will kiss thy mouth, Iokanaan. I will kiss thy mouth.

“Cursed be thou! daughter of an incestuous mother, be thou accursed!” –Iokanaan, to Salomé

HEROD: Where is Salomé? Where is the Princess? Why did she not return to the banquet as I commanded her? Ah! there she is!

HERODIAS: You must not look at her! You are always looking at her! […]

HEROD: I am not ill, It is your daughter who is sick to death. Never have I seen her so pale.

HERODIAS: I have told you not to look at her.

HEROD: Pour me forth wine [wine is brought.] Salomé, come drink a little wine with me. I have here a wine that is exquisite. Cæsar himself sent it me. Dip into it thy little red lips, that I may drain the cup.

SALOMÉ: I am not thirsty, Tetrarch.

HEROD: You hear how she answers me, this daughter of yours?

HERODIAS: She does right. Why are you always gazing at her?

HEROD: Bring me ripe fruits [fruits are brought.] Salomé, come and eat fruits with me. I love to see in a fruit the mark of thy little teeth. Bite but a little of this fruit that I may eat what is left.

SALOMÉ: I am not hungry, Tetrarch. […]

THE VOICE OF IOKANAAN: Behold the time is come! That which I foretold has come to pass. The day that I spoke of is at hand.

HERODIAS: Bid him be silent. I will not listen to his voice. This man is for ever hurling insults against me.

HEROD: He has said nothing against you. Besides, he is a very great prophet. […]

A THIRD JEW: God is at no time hidden. He showeth Himself at all times and in all places. God is in what is evil even as He is in what is good.

A FOURTH JEW: Thou shouldst not say that. It is a very dangerous doctrine, it is a doctrine that cometh from Alexandria, where men teach the philosophy of the Greeks. And the Greeks are Gentiles: They are not even circumcised. […]

FIRST NAZARENE, of Jesus: This man worketh true miracles. Thus, at a marriage which took place in a little town of Galilee, a town of some importance, He changed water into wine. Certain persons who were present related it to me. Also He healed two lepers that were seated before the Gate of Capernaum simply by touching them. […]

THE VOICE OF IOKANAAN, of Herodias: Ah! the wanton one! The harlot! Ah! the daughter of Babylon with her golden eyes and her gilded eyelids! Thus saith the Lord God, Let there come up against her a multitude of men. Let the people take stones and stone her. . . .

HERODIAS: Command him to be silent.

THE VOICE OF IOKANAAN: Let the captains of the hosts pierce her with their swords, let them crush her beneath their shields. […]

HEROD: Dance for me, Salomé.

HERODIAS: I will not have her dance.

SALOMÉ: I have no desire to dance, Tetrarch. […]

HEROD: Salomé, Salomé, dance for me. I pray thee dance for me. I am sad to-night. Yes; I am passing sad to-night. When I came hither I slipped in blood, which is an evil omen; also I heard in the air a beating of wings, a beating of giant wings. I cannot tell what they mean . . . I am sad to-night. Therefore dance for me. Dance for me, Salomé, I beseech thee. If thou dancest for me thou mayest ask of me what thou wilt, and I will give it thee, even unto the half of my kingdom.

SALOMÉ: [Rising.] Will you indeed give me whatsoever I shall ask of thee, Tetrarch? […]

HEROD: Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, even unto the half of my kingdom.

SALOMÉ: You swear it, Tetrarch?

HEROD: I swear it, Salomé. […]

SALOMÉ: I am ready, Tetrarch. [Salomé dances the dance of the seven veils.]

HEROD: Ah! wonderful! wonderful! You see that she has danced for me, your daughter. Come near, Salomé, come near, that I may give thee thy fee. Ah! I pay a royal price to those who dance for my pleasure. I will pay thee royally. I will give thee whatsoever thy soul desireth. What wouldst thou have? Speak.

SALOMÉ [Kneeling]: I would that they presently bring me in a silver charger . . .

HEROD [Laughing]: In a silver charger? Surely yes, in a silver charger. She is charming, is she not? What is it thou wouldst have in a silver charger, O sweet and fair Salomé, thou art fairer than all the daughters of Judæa? What wouldst thou have them bring thee in a silver charger? Tell me. Whatsoever it may be, thou shalt receive it. My treasures belong to thee. What is it that thou wouldst have, Salomé?

SALOMÉ [Rising]: The head of Iokanaan.

HERODIAS: Ah! that is well said, my daughter.

HEROD: No, no!

HERODIAS: That is well said, my daughter. […]

“You have sworn an oath, Herod.” –Salomé

“Well, thou hast seen thy God, Iokanaan, but me, me, thou didst never see. If thou hadst seen me thou hadst loved me. I saw thee, and I loved thee. Oh, how I loved thee! I love thee yet, Iokanaan, I love only thee. . . . I am athirst for thy beauty; I am hungry for thy body; and neither wine nor apples can appease my desire. What shall I do now, Iokanaan? Neither the floods nor the great waters can quench my passion. I was a princess, and thou didst scorn me. I was a virgin, and thou didst take my virginity from me. I was chaste, and thou didst fill my veins with fire. . . Ah! ah! wherefore didst thou not look at me? If thou hadst looked at me thou hadst loved me. Well I know that thou wouldst have loved me, and the mystery of love is greater that the mystery of death.” –Salomé, holding and gazing upon the severed head of Iokanaan

“She is monstrous, thy daughter I tell thee she is monstrous.” –Herod, to Herodias

“Ah! I have kissed thy mouth, Iokanaan, I have kissed thy mouth. There was a bitter taste on my lips. Was it the taste of blood ? . . . Nay; but perchance it was the taste of love. . . . They say that love hath a bitter taste. . . . But what matter? what matter? I have kissed thy mouth.” –Salomé, still with Iokanaan’s head

HEROD: [Turning round and seeing Salomé.] Kill that woman! [The soldiers rush forward and crush beneath their shields Salomé, daughter of Herodias, Princess of Judæa.]

III: Themes and Beginning

Recurring themes in the play/opera include these: lust, with gazing/leering/staring at the object of desire, hence objectification; the conflict between, and complementarity of, opposites (love/loathing, spirituality/carnality, desire/disgust, white/black, male/female roles, beauty/ugliness, life/death, victim/victimizer, etc.); and the decadence of the ruling classes, as against the assurances for the oppressed that revolution, redemption, and liberation are soon to come.

The story begins at night, just outside a banquet held by Herod, his wife, Herodias (widow of his half-brother, Herod II), and her daughter, Salomé, along with all their guests in Herod’s palace. The moon is shining, silvery-white and bright. Silvery-white because, as Narraboth says, “She [the moon] is like a little princess…whose feet are of silver,” and “who has little white doves for feet.”

Narraboth, a young Syrian and Captain of the Guard, amorously declares how beautiful Salomé looks. The Page of Herodias wishes he wouldn’t always stare at her, for the Page fears that disaster will come of his passion.

The moon is a pale, virgin, silvery white, as is Salomé’s flesh. The moon looks so pale and white, “She is like a woman rising from a tomb. She is like a dead woman,” as the page of Herodias observes.

The princess-moon, with her innocent white feet, can drive men lunatic, as can Salomé’s virginal beauty; as, in turn, the holy purity of similarly-pale Iokanaan drives her mad with love for him. In this play, virginal innocence is dialectically related to the deadly sin of lust: the one opposite dissolves into the other.

IV: Enter Salomé

Salomé leaves the banquet area, finding it disturbing how Herod keeps staring at her with lust in his eyes. Of course, Narraboth is eyeing her similarly, but she will soon be an ogler herself, for she hears the voice of Iokanaan from the cistern below.

He has spoken harsh words against her mother, Herodias, as well as against Herod (i.e., his incestuous marriage with his half-brother’s widow); Salomé knows of this, but instead of being offended by Iokanaan’s words, she’s intrigued. It seems evident that Salomé has hardly any less contempt for her mother than she does for her adoptive father: alienation, including that between family members, is a typical symptom in a world of class conflict, in this case, that of the ancient slave vs. master variety.

Thus, any speaker of ill against Salomé’s family is a singer of sweet music to her ears. Small wonder she’d like to take a look at that mysterious man down in that dark, yonic pit. She looks down into it, awed by its darkness. This blackness, of course, is associated with Iokanaan’s mysticism. An ominous, eerie tritone is heard in the musical background when she looks into the cistern and notes its blackness, near the beginning of scene two.

Let’s compare some images used so far. Pale Salomé is consistently associated with the silvery-white, virginal moon, an ominous orb portending imminent evil. The cistern is black, as Salomé observes, but since it houses a holy man, a celibate man, it could be seen as virginal, too, the yoni of a virgin such as Salomé herself. The cistern’s blackness thus has a dialectical relationship with the silvery-white moon, which phases from white full moon to black new moon, and back again. Iokanaan, like the moon, also portends an evil coming too soon for comfort.

She insists on having Iokanaan brought out so she can see him, to have his mysteries revealed…just as Herod will want Salomé to dance a striptease for him, to reveal her anatomic mysteries. The lecherous, decadent tetrarch, of course, also hopes to make the young beauty replace her mother as his new queen, so her virginal yoni‘s dark secrets can be revealed to him…just as she wishes to have Iokanaan, the secret of the dark yoni of the cistern, revealed to her eyes.

The parallels between Iokanaan’s display and that of her nakedness continue, first with Narraboth’s and the soldiers’ insistence that the prophet not be allowed out (by Herod’s orders), on the one hand, and Herodias’ disapproval of her daughter dancing erotically for Herod. Also, Salomé entices Narraboth with suggestions of her favouring him (offering a green flower and a smile) if he’ll allow Iokanaan to come out, and Herod entices her with an oath to give her anything she wants if she’ll dance for him. Both Narraboth and Salomé are persuaded to do what they’d otherwise never do.

V: Enter John the Baptist

Iokanaan emerges from the cistern, pale, hairy, and filthy, but always shouting his imprecations against the decadent kings and queens of the world, especially Herodias. His holiness inspires Salomé’s passion for him, symbolizing the dialectical relationship between the erotic and the ascetic (something also explored in Hindu myth, as Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty observed in Siva: the Erotic Ascetic, pages 33-36).

At first, Salomé loves Iokanaan’s white flesh, a parallel of the love Narraboth and Herod have for her pale flesh. The prophet, of course, rejects her wish to touch his body; indeed, he can’t even bear to have this “daughter of Sodom” look at him. She’s angered by his rejection, feeling narcissistic injury, no doubt; but his chastity fascinates her all the same.

Salomé is used to having a train of admiring men following her everywhere, leering at her, lusting after her. Such men bore her, annoy her, inspire her contempt; but Iokanaan is no lecherous pig. With him, the sexes are reversed, and the man is disgusted with the woman’s lechery. She’s hurt by his rejection, but she can only admire him all the more for it. This man’s spiritual willpower is as rare as her physical beauty is, and her desire for him is made all the hotter for this.

As soon as he rejects her, she speaks ill of his whitest of white body, which she’s just finished praising. Now she speaks of loving his blackest of black hair; note the immediate juxtaposition of opposites–loved/loathed, beautiful/ugly, and white/black. When he rejects her wish to touch his hair, she’s now repelled by it and begins loving his red lips.

VI: Baiser

She wants to kiss his mouth, saying in Wilde’s French: “Laisse-moi baiser ta bouche.” Baiser, as a verb, originally meant ‘to kiss,’ but it grew to mean ‘to fuck,’ this new meaning starting as early as the 16th or 17th century, having been used this way in, for example, a few poems by François Maynard. This usage began to grow more common by the beginning of the 20th century, prompting the French to start using embrasser to mean ‘to kiss’ instead.

My point is, given the already shockingly erotic overtones of Wilde’s play, as well as in his choice to write it in French instead of his usual English, did he use baiser as a double entendre? Was he suggesting a secondary meaning, a cunnilingus fantasy of Salomé’s, to get head from Iokanaan?

Now Strauss, in using a German translation for his opera, used the word küssen, which only means ‘to kiss.’ Perhaps he was aware of the growing use of the sexual meaning of baiser, and wanted to mitigate the scandal by eliminating that problematic French word. I’m guessing that my speculations hadn’t been discussed by critics back around the turn of the 20th century, given the-then taboo nature of this subject; but this taboo use of baiser has been discussed more recently.

VII: Lustful Staring

Back to the story. The prophet is so shocked by this “daughter of Babylon” that he curses her and goes back down into the cistern. Salomé’s unfulfillable desire has turned into an obsession; speaking of which, Narraboth’s has caused him to implode with sexual jealousy, since he can see she clearly prefers Iokanaan to him. Thus, he stabs himself and dies, fulfilling Herodias’ page’s dire prediction that his obsessive, mesmerized staring at Salomé would bring evil.

Of course, the young Syrian hasn’t been the only one staring at Salomé to the point of such ogling being dangerous. Herod enters with Herodias; he slips on Narraboth’s spilled blood, an obvious omen.

The tetrarch speaks of the silvery-white moon and Salomé’s pale skin, an evident identifying of the one with the other, just as Salomé has identified the chaste moon with celibate Iokanaan. We see more unions of opposites: virginity and whorish objects of desire, in both her and the prophet.

Herodias is annoyed with Herod’s staring at her daughter, with Iokanaan’s insulting diatribes against her, and Herod’s–to her, absurd–belief in omens and prophecies. She is a purely materialist, decadent queen: the moon is just the moon to her.

She wishes he would just give Iokanaan over to the ever-disputatious Jews, who come out and begin a clamorous storm of debating over whether Iokanaan has seen God, whether he is Elijah having returned, and whether this or that dogma is correct. This is another example of wanting to know mysteries, to see secrets.

In all of this arguing among the Jews, we see dramatized the dialectic of contradictory viewpoints. Added to this is the contradiction between the Jewish point of view and that of the Nazarenes, who now come onstage.

VIII: Revolution

Since the Crucifixion hasn’t happened yet, discussion of how the Messiah will save the Jews from their sins is never in the Pauline notion of a Divine Rescuer dying and resurrecting, so that believing in Him will confer God’s grace for the forgiveness of sins. Instead, salvation for the Jews is understood to come in the form of a revolution against Palestine’s Roman imperialist oppressors. Recall Matthew 10:34.

Revolution! Insurrection! Such words terrify decadent rulers like Herod and Herodias, who naturally don’t want to lose their privileges as members of the ruling class. Thus do we see the dialectic move, from the Hegelian sort we heard among the debating Jews, to the materialist sort that Marx discussed: the contradiction between the rich and poor.

Iokanaan prophesies the downfall of sinful rulers like incestuous Herod and Herodias, as well as the redemption of the downtrodden. As the prophet says at the beginning of Wilde’s play, “the solitary places shall be glad. They shall blossom like the rose. The eyes of the blind shall see the day, and the ears of the deaf shall be opened. The suckling child shall put his hand upon the dragon’s lair, he shall lead the lions by their manes.”

Such welcome changes can be seen to symbolize revolutionary relief given to the suffering. The blind seeing, and the deaf hearing, suggests the enlightenment of the poor, hitherto ignorant of the true causes of their sorrows. The idea of gladdened solitary places suggests the replacement of alienation with communal love. The suckling child, with his hand on the dragon’s lair, and leading the lions, suggests the end of the oppression of the weak by the strong, replacing it with equality.

Marx similarly prophesied the end of the rule of the bourgeois, to be replaced by communist society. The bourgeois today, like threatened Herod and Herodias, are scared of their imminent downfall, for many believe their days are numbered.

My associating Iokanaan with Marx is no idle fancy, for in 1891, the very same year Wilde wrote Salomé, he also wrote The Soul of Man under Socialism, inspired by his reading of Peter Kropotkin, and in which Wilde considered Jesus to be a symbol of the extreme individualist he idealized. Wilde would also have been aware of the short-lived Paris Commune twenty years prior, which Marx joyfully described as being a manifestation of his notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

IX: The Music

It seems apposite, at this belated point, finally to discuss Strauss’s music. Influenced by Wagner’s musical dramas, Strauss used Leitmotivs (“leading motives”) for each character in Salomé, as well as for many key moments or concepts in the story.

There’s the light, dreamy Leitmotiv heard when Narraboth expresses his admiration for Salomé’s beauty at the beginning of the opera. There’s the Leitmotiv when she sings of wanting “den Kopf des Jochanaan,” which gets increasingly dissonant with her every iteration of the demand for it, to ever-reluctant Herod.

And there are Leitmotivs for Iokanaan and his prophetic abilities, the former being a stately, dignified chordal theme heard on the horns; and the latter melody being a trio of fourths, C down to G, then F down to C, then–instead of another, third perfect fourth–there’s a tritone of A down to D-sharp, then up to E, now a perfect fourth (relative to the previous A). These three sets of perfect fourths symbolize Triune, holy, divine perfection; the tritone, though the diabolus in musica, nonetheless resolves to E, symbolizing a prophecy of sinning imperfection soon to be made perfect, redeemed.

Strauss, as a late Romantic/early modern composer, anticipated many of the revolutionary musical ideas soon to be realized in full by such modernists as Stravinsky, Bartók, Schoenberg, and Webern. Strauss was thus a kind of musical Iokanaan. Strauss, through his extreme chromaticism, pushed tonality to its limits, while not quite emancipating the dissonance, as Schoenberg would soon do. Since some have seen the emancipation of the dissonance as linked with the emancipation of society and of humanity, the music of Strauss–as musical Iokanaan–can be seen symbolically as heralding the coming of that social liberation I mentioned above.

The harsh discords in his score symbolize the contradictions not only in the class conflict between the decadent rulers (puppet rulers for imperial Rome) and the oppressed poor, but also in the conflicts between what Narraboth, Salomé, Iokanaan, Herod, and Herodias each wants. Also, the contrast between these dissonant moments and the prettier, more tuneful sections suggests the dialectical relationships between beauty and ugliness, and love and loathing.

Finally, the choice of ‘harsh‘ (at least from the point of view of English speakers), guttural German–instead of Wilde’s erotically lyrical (if a tad idiosyncratic) French–reinforces the dramatic tension, especially when Salomé demands the prophet’s head on a silver charger.

X: Dance for Me, Salomé

Back to the story. Herod is so obviously troubled, on the one hand by the threats Iokanaan is making against his rule, and on the other by his fear of the prophet as a man of God–which means he can’t kill him–that the soldiers note the tetrarch’s sombre look.

Herod hopes that Salomé will dance for him, to take his mind off his troubles. This escape into sensuous pleasure is an example of the manic defence, to avoid facing up to what makes one so unhappy.

Always annoyed that her husband stares lustfully at her daughter, Herodias forbids Salomé to dance for him. But his oath to give her anything she wants, even to half of his kingdom, puts a sly grin on her face and a twinkle in her eye; so Salome agrees to dance.

Wilde‘s brief stage direction, of Salomé dancing in seven veils, has been made so much of. It says nothing explicitly of a striptease, but why else would she dance in those veils, if not to remove them one by one?

Strauss’s exotic, sensuous music certainly makes much of the dance, starting with a slow, erotic, mysterious aura and building up to a fast, frenzied, and dissonant climax, once almost all (or absolutely all, depending on the boldness of the woman playing Salomé) of the veils have been removed.

XI: Getting Naked

As each veil is removed, more of the mysteries of her body are revealed to horny Herod, just as the mystery of Iokanaan was revealed to lascivious Salomé when he emerged from the vaginal cistern. This story is all about the desire to have secrets revealed, including, as the Jews obsess over, the mysteries of God, through such things as prophecies, as the Nazarenes are concerned with. Mysteries thus may be sensual or spiritual: note the dialectical relationship between these two.

While we usually think of men objectifying women, as Herod is doing with Salomé here, in Salomé the objectifying is a two-way street, since she lusts after chaste Iokanaan. And while it is usual and correct to be concerned with the injuries done to female strippers, sex workers, and pornographic models and actresses, consider how pathetic the men are, those addicted to porn, prostitutes, and strippers, using these as a manic defence to avoid facing their own sadness. Consider their shame at knowing what pigs they’re being (or at least seen as being), each a modern Herod, walking guiltily in and out of strip joints, whorehouses, and the porn sections of DVD rentals.

There are two sides to objectification: the view to destroy, as Salomé does to Iokanaan, and as Herod does to Salomé at the end of the opera; and there’s the view to admire, to worship the beautiful object, as any connoisseur of art understands…and as Salomé and Herod also do to their adored objects. Looking to admire and to destroy are, again, dialectically related. This obsessive urge to look, a pagan adoration of divinity that is–in this opera–thematically related to whether or not the Jew or Nazarene has ‘seen’ God, is also a weakness that can be exploited.

Salomé is certainly using her sexuality to take advantage of this weakness of Herod’s. And since, on the one hand, the tetrarch is objectifying and using her for his pleasure, getting her to strip down to a state of nude vulnerability; and on the other hand, she’s turning his lust against him, we have here a male/female variant of Hegel‘s master/slave dialectic, or a dialectic of feminism meeting antifeminism.

XII: Switching Roles

The master (Herod) uses the, so to speak, slave (Salomé) for his own pleasure, but she uses her creativity (her dance) to build up her own mastery over him. Thus, master and slave switch roles, making her especially triumphant, since she’ll cause the doom of two men–decapitated Iokanaan, and the revolutionary toppling of Herod, as it is assumed will happen to him when the Nazarenes (and God!) are so enraged to learn of the execution of their beloved prophet.

Women are perceived to be inspiring of lust and sin (the misogynistic, antifeminist side of the dialectic), yet Salomé and Herodias triumph in thwarting the tetrarch and killing the male religious authority (the feminist side). What’s more, Salomé is all the more feminist in wishing for Iokanaan’s head for her own pleasure, not out of obedience to her mother.

Herod pleads with Salomé to ask for something else. The tetrarch has made himself a slave to his oath, of which she’s the master. He offers her rare jewels, ones even her mother doesn’t know he has; he offers her rare white peacocks. All she does is repeat her demand for “den Kopf des Jochanaan,” each time given more and more aggressively, with increasingly tense music in the background. Finally, he is forced, in all exasperation, to relent.

XIII: The Head

When the executioner is down in the dark cistern, Salomé waits by the hole and listens. Suspense is built when she hears nothing. She grows impatient, thinking she’ll need the soldiers to do the job she imagines the slave who went down with his axe is too incompetent or cowardly to do. Nonetheless, he emerges with Iokanaan’s bloody head. The ruling class’s indulgence of their petty desires always brings about violence of this sort.

Still, there are contradictions even among the desires of the different members of the ruling class. Herod is horrified to see Salomé’s maniacal gazing at the head, but Herodias is pleased to no end. Salomé kisses the mouth, triumphant in having achieved what the living prophet refused to let her do. In her mania, she imagines for the moment that Iokanaan’s eyes should be looking at her, as if the severed head could possibly be alive. She is thus disappointed that the eyes don’t look at her.

She wishes that he could have accepted her love, that if he’d looked at her, that if he’d just let her kiss his mouth, he would have loved her back, for love is a greater mystery than death.

XIV: Decapitation as Symbolic Castration

Since Wilde’s use of baiser has the implied secondary meaning of “to fuck,” and since she says, “Ah! thou wouldst not suffer me to kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan. Well! I will kiss it now. I will bite it with my teeth as one bites a ripe fruit. Yes, I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan,” she is implying that she has a symbolic vagina dentata, which will castrate him when they make love. She compares his body to a column of ivory, a column being a phallic symbol. Thus, ‘fucking’ his mouth with the implied vagina dentata means his decapitation is a symbolic castration.

Herod’s unwillingness to have Iokanaan beheaded is thus an example of castration anxiety, especially since loss of the phallus is a symbolic loss of power. Herod’s fear of Iokanaan’s execution provoking a Nazarene revolution, spearheaded by none other than God, reinforces this symbolic fear of castration. Iokanaan’s “Kopf” is a cock.

XV: Conclusion–Who Wins the Sex War (and the Class War)?

Salomé (and by extension Herodias, since she has wanted Iokanaan’s death from the beginning), having the prophet’s head in her arms, is now symbolically the powerful phallic woman. She, especially in her madness and perversity, is a threat to Herod. Regarding her as “monstrous,” he orders all the torches to be put out. He says, “Hide the moon! Hide the stars!” For the whiteness of the moon and stars resemble her pale skin far too much for his comfort.

Finally, the male/female dialectic sways back in the antifeminist direction, and Herod orders his soldiers to “Kill that woman!” The men surround Salomé with their shields, and crush her to death with them, ending the opera with a barrage of discords.

Still, we know that the days of all decadent kings and queens–as well as those of the tetrarch, it seems–are numbered. Herod is still quaking in fear over the consequences of killing a holy man. The Nazarenes believe the tetrarch cannot stop the march of God through history, just as we Marxists believe the bourgeoisie cannot stop the dialectical movement of historical materialism.

Herod can hide the moon and the stars for only so long. Recall Iokanaan’s words: “In that day the sun shall become black like sackcloth of hair, and the moon shall become like blood, and the stars of the heaven shall fall upon the earth like unripe figs that fall from the fig-tree, and the kings of the earth shall be afraid.”

Furthermore, Salomé may be dead, but her double, that pale moon overhead, is still shining. In his poem, ‘Problems of Gender,’ Robert Graves wondered which gender to assign the moon, asking, “who controls the regal powers of night?” In Salomé, I think we know which sex controls them.

Present-mindedness

[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]

One of the methods of coping that sufferers of C-PTSD use is dissociation, a shutting down to block the trauma’s intensity and a mental escaping from the present, stressful moment into a world of fantasy. As an alternative to fight or flight, dissociation is part of freezefawn being used more typically by people-pleasers and golden children.

This dissociation can be in the more advanced form of maladaptive daydreaming, a kind of manic defence escape from what troubles us into fantasy for protracted periods of time. Now, while this escape into fantasy may have served some useful purpose as a way to cope with childhood trauma, when we reach adulthood we can’t allow ourselves to dissociate to the point of it interfering with our lives.

I’ll give an example of a mild form of this problem. I look back on my teen years with regret over my habit, at the time, of daydreaming and excessively fantasizing, hour after hour, about being a great musician. I should have been practicing the guitar for the required hours, gradually overcoming my faults, and perhaps even becoming at least a good musician, instead of being the, at best, mediocre one I am now. The creativity involved in daydreaming isn’t worth much if it isn’t manifested in the real world, demonstrated as a physical thing people can see, hear, read…and admire.

Don’t daydream too much!

That excessive daydreaming was one of a number of things that helped me forget–temporarily–the school bullying and emotionally abusive family of my youth. Once, however, we’ve escaped the traumatizing relationships we were in with toxic people, be they a narcissistic family or ex-boy- or girlfriends, or ex-spouses, we have to learn to wean ourselves away from the bad habit of excessive daydreaming, as well as all the other, more serious problems that ongoing dissociation can cause. We have to train our minds to live in the NOW.

I’ve discussed this issue before, though from different angles. In Putting the Painful Past Behind Us, I devised an auto-hypnosis geared at persuading us to think of our painful pasts as no longer having any relevance in our present lives; if we think of it more as a dream we’ve woken from, it may be easier to forget and to stop ruminating about. In Rumination, I featured a list of reasons why overthinking the past is not only a pointless waste of time, but is also harmful.

Now, instead of stopping overthinking the past, I’m focusing on getting us to be more present-minded, to being mindful for as much of the day as we can. I’d like to try that by having us do another auto-hypnosis.

Start by sitting or lying down in a comfortable, quiet, and relaxing place, with nothing to distract or bother you. Close your eyes and take slow, deep breaths, in and out, in and out, over and over again. Pay close attention to what is happening in your body.

Sit or lie in a comfortable position.

Imagine yourself standing in a growing, rising pool of water, at first covering your toes and heels, then rising up to the tops of your feet and reaching your ankles. As every part of your body is submerged by this ‘water,’ you feel those submerged body parts tingling, vibrating with relaxation.

This ‘water’ rises up to your calves, knees, upper legs, and thighs. Now, half of your body is submerged in this ‘watery,’ tingling relaxation. It continues up to your waist, belly, and lower back. Your fingers, then hands and lower arms are also submerged.

The ‘water’ rises up to your chest and upper back, as well as your elbows and upper arms, until your shoulders are also submerged, then the water reaches your neck. Finally, your whole head is ‘underwater.’

This whole time, you’ve continued your slow, deep breathing. Now, with each long inhalation and exhalation, count down from ten to one; as each number is passed, feel yourself getting more and more relaxed, so by the time you reach one, then zero, you’re at a maximum state of relaxation.

Now, imagine your nostrils are like the gills of a fish, and breathe in that ‘water’ you’re submerged in. As it enters and permeates your whole body, imagine yourself becoming one with the ‘water.’ This ‘water’ is the infinite ocean that is the entire universe, and like the Hindu notion of Atman‘s union with Brahman, you are now unified with, you’re a drop of water in, that peaceful ocean of everything.

You are a part of the ocean’s waves. You ARE those waves.

Feel the soothing waves of that nirvana-like ocean passing in you, through you, and out of you, for you are that ocean, or at least you’re a tiny but happy part of it. The waves move up and down, slowly, serenely. Focus on the gentle movement of those waves as they flow through you right now. If you get distracted and catch yourself dissociating, that’s OK: just gently but firmly bring yourself back to concentrating on those peaceful waves. Feel them massaging your soul.

Try to stay focused on this three-part state of consciousness: your connection with the oneness all around you, what I like to call the Unity of Space (that Atman = Brahman idea); your focus on the present, the eternal NOW, what I like to call the Unity of Time; and the up and down rolling of those waves, which for me symbolizes the dialectical unity of opposites, the crests being the theses, the troughs the theses’ negations, and the in-between movements up and down being the sublations of the theses/negations, what I like to call the Unity of Action. Everything is one: there is no more fragmentation.

Focus on these Three Unities simultaneously to bring yourself into full consciousness of the present reality within and around you. Such a meditation is excellent practice in concentration, and doing it regularly, every day, over time should help you become more habitually present-minded, since it will discipline your mind to stop drifting off into dissociations. It will also help you to calm your mind, be more peaceful, and feel more connected with the world, less alienated.

The infinite ocean of peace that gives true happiness.

The Unity of Time combines present-mindedness with an instinctive understanding of the eternally cyclical nature of reality, symbolized not only by those undulating waves, but also by the ouroboros, as I’ve discussed elsewhere. I find focusing on the cyclical motion of the waves to be helpful in keeping my mind from wandering from the NOW. Keep your mind on those up-and-down wave movements, and stay in the present.

Now, if you don’t like the meditation/visualization I’ve proposed above, remember that you can develop present-mindedness through the practice of other meditations, such as chanting the mantra Aum; counting slow, deep breaths; or staring at a single object. The basic principle is to do one thing and concentrate only on that thing you’re doing, not allowing your mind to wander.

What matters most is that, in developing your skill at sustaining your present-mindedness, you’ll be ruminating less, agonizing over the past less, feeling more peaceful, and enjoying more of your real life, which is right here in front of you, and which is now and only now.

Analysis of ‘Scarface’

Scarface is a 1983 crime film directed by Brian De Palma, written by Oliver Stone, and starring Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert Loggia, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and F. Murray Abraham. It’s a remake of the 1932 film, which in turn was loosely based on the 1929 novel by Armitage Trail, itself based on Al Capone, who also had the nickname of Scarface.

In the 1983 version, Tony Montana (Pacino) is a Cuban criminal who immigrates to the US and lives in Miami, Florida. He rises to wealth and power in the criminal underworld there selling cocaine. He’s always been a bad man, but the acquisition of wealth and power estranges him from everyone around him, leading to his self-destruction.

The film got a negative response initially, with much criticism over its violence (also a criticism of the 1932, pre-Production Code film) and strong language (indeed, the 1983 film is one of those, like The Big Lebowski, in which the word fuck is heard more often than in most other films). Its critical reputation has improved over the years, though, thanks in part to its status as a cult classic, and now the film is generally praised.

Here are some quotes:

Tony Montana: You a communist? Huh? How’d you like it, man? They tell you all the time what to do, what to think, what to feel. Do you wanna be like a sheep? Like all those other people? Baah! Baah!

Immigration Officer #3: I don’t have to listen to this bullshit!

Tony Montana: You wanna work eight, ten fucking hours? You own nothing, you got nothing! Do you want a chivato on every corner looking after you? Watching everything you do? Everything you say, man? Do you know I eat octopus three times a day? I got fucking octopus coming out of my fucking ears. I got the fuckin’ Russian shoes my feet’s comin’ through. How you like that? What, you want me to stay there and do nothing? Hey, I’m no fuckin’ criminal, man. I’m no puta or thief. I’m Tony Montana, a political prisoner from Cuba. And I want my fuckin’ human rights, now! [slams desk] Just like the President Jimmy Carter says. Okay?

Immigration Officer #1: Carter should see this human right. He’s really good. What do you say, Harry?

Immigration Officer #3: I don’t believe a word of this shit! They all sound the same to me. That son of a bitch Castro is shittin’ all over us. Send this bastard to Freedom Town. Let them take a look at him. Get him outta here.

Tony Montana: You know somethin’? You can send me anywhere. Here, there, this, that; it don’t matter. There’s nothing you can do to me that Castro has not done. Nothing! […]

“You tell your guys in Miami, your friend, it’d be a pleasure. You know, I kill a communist for fun, but for a green card, I gonna carve him up real nice.” –Tony

“What I try to tell you? This country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the woman. That’s why you gotta make your own moves.” –Tony, to Manny

Tony: You know what capitalism is? Gettin’ fucked!

Elvira: A true capitalist if ever I met one. […]

[to the guests at the restaurant] “What you lookin’ at? You all a bunch of fuckin’ assholes. You know why? You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be. You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fuckin’ fingers and say, ‘That’s the bad guy.’ So… what that make you? Good? You’re not good. You just know how to hide, how to lie. Me, I don’t have that problem. Me, I always tell the truth. Even when I lie. So say good night to the bad guy! Come on. The last time you gonna see a bad guy like this again, let me tell you. Come on. Make way for the bad guy. There’s a bad guy comin’ through! Better get outta his way!” –Tony

“Okay, Sosa. You wanna fuck with me? You fucking with the best! You wanna fuck with me? Okay. You little cockroaches… come on. You wanna play games? Okay, I’ll play with you. You wanna play rough? Okay! Say hello to my little friend!” –Tony, with a grenade-launcher-equipped M16A1

The film begins with footage of Fidel Castro announcing that the Cuban government is letting go of thousands of Cubans who refuse to cooperate with the Marxist-Leninist revolution. This Mariel boatlift is sent to Miami, Florida.

A huge portion of those on the boat are criminals, like Tony and his friends. They come to the US with nothing, and have to fend for themselves in a country that has never cared for the poor in a meaningful way. Contrast this with revolutionary Cuba, which has provided housing for pretty much everyone, as well as free education, free healthcare (training superb doctors who often go to poor or wartorn countries to give the afflicted medical aid), and usually low unemployment rates. All of this, in a Third World country saddled with an economic embargo for almost sixty years now!

Tony tries to charm his way through US immigration, the officers there not buying a word of his lies. He speaks of all of his family being dead, when his mother and kid sister (Mastrantonio) live right there in Miami. He speaks of being oppressed by the Cuban communists, when he, representative of capitalists, is hardly one to judge the faults of any political or economic system.

The officers ask him about the scar on his left cheek: he says they should see what he did to the boy who gave him the scar when he was a kid. That scar is symbolic of a narcissistic scar, the childhood cause of Tony’s criminal pathologies.

Narcissism on a pathological level is typically rooted in childhood emotional neglect, abuse, and a lack of empathy from one’s parents, as Heinz Kohut observed in such writings as his book, The Analysis of the Self: “The mother’s responsiveness to the child’s needs prevents traumatic delays before the narcissistic equilibrium is re-established after it has been disturbed, and if the shortcomings of the mother’s responses are of tolerable proportions, the infant will gradually modify the original boundlessness and blind confidence of his expectation of absolute perfection. […]

“If, however, the mother’s responses are grossly unempathic and unreliable, then the gradual withdrawal of cathexis from the imago of archaic unconditional perfection is disturbed; no transmuting internalization can take place; and the psyche continues to cling to a vaguely delimited imago of absolute perfection, does not develop the various internal functions which secondarily re-establish the narcissistic equilibrium–either (a) directly, through self-soothing, i.e., through the deployment of available narcissistic cathexes; or, (b) indirectly, via an appropriate appeal to the idealized parent–and remains thus relatively defenseless vis-à-vis the effects of narcissistic injuries…In general…they consist in a hypersensitivity to disturbances in the narcissistic equilibrium with a tendency to react to sources of narcissistic disturbance by mixtures of wholesale withdrawal and unforgiving rage.” (Kohut, pages 64-65)

Now, while Tony’s mother is justified in being–to put it mildly–disappointed in him for his criminal ways, one shouldn’t find it hard to believe, knowing Kohut’s insights, that she was probably lacking in motherly love for him when he was a boy. Tony’s quick temper, his fury sparked by any slight, or by any sense of having been dishonoured, is the essential manifestation of his narcissistic wound, which is central to his personality.

He won’t have the Cuban communists telling him what to do, or what to think, though he’s perfectly content to tell his kid sister, Gina, what to do or think (i.e., not give up her ‘maidenly virtue’ to any man). Indeed, with all his mafia criminal activity in Florida, he’d do well to have the communists tell him what to do and think.

Now in the ‘free’ capitalist world of the US, Tony quickly comes to hate being a dishwasher at a local Miami restaurant. Granted, any worker would rightly complain of the alienation inherent in being a wage slave, helping a boss make profits and not getting the full fruits of his labour; but with Tony, the narcissistic injury of being a ‘lowly’ worker is too much for him. He wants to rise high in the capitalist world, and the upper echelons of capitalism are filled with narcissists.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, gangsters make a perfect metaphor for capitalists, people who get rich off of people’s craving for commodities, here symbolized by cocaine. Hence, Tony becomes a drug lord, killing his way to the top, as many capitalists have done.

Indeed, every rung of the ladder that Tony climbs, he kills people, has them killed, or at least alienates them: first, there’s Rebenga, the Cuban communist he kills so he and his friends can get green cards; then, there’s Hector, with the chainsaw. Hector’s dismembering of Angel Fernandez with the chainsaw perfectly symbolizes the psychological fragmentation, disintegration, and alienation from oneself that capitalism causes.

Next, there’s the murder of Omar, whose arguing with Tony exemplifies the alienation between competing employees. Finally, the killing of Frank Lopez, for his attempt on Tony’s life, demonstrates the alienation between worker and boss.

Tony is alienated from his family–first, from his disapproving mother, then from Gina, who grows sick of his overprotective attitude, really his sense of the patriarchal family’s honour being tarnished.

Indeed, alienation and social isolation permeate this film. Few people are real friends with each other. Men chase women only for sex and to acquire females as social jewelry, so to speak, as is the case with Tony pursuing Elvira (Pfeiffer)…not for love. Manny may feel a bit more for Gina than the women in bikinis he pursues with his laughable ideas of how to pick them up, but Tony’s gun ends the newlyweds’ love fast.

Elvira never feels anything for Tony, or for Lopez, for that matter; she just lives off their money and snorts their cocaine. She judges them and their work, just as a liberal judges capitalism, but enjoys all the privileges associated with it.

As mentioned above, Scarface is among those films in which the word fuck is said most frequently. Many objected to the film’s ‘excessive’ profanity, but I’d say there’s justification for the constant use of the word fuck, since it symbolizes the nature of human connection throughout the film. People fuck each other constantly, if usually only in the metaphoric sense.

The word‘s denotation as sexual intercourse–an entering and connecting of one person with another–is paired with its connotations of violence: one etymology of the word is from the Swedish focka, ‘to copulate, strike, push’). So this combination of denotative and connotative meanings gives us a hint as to the true nature of human relationships as seen in the movie–people connect, and they hurt one another.

This connecting to cause mutual grief suggests Wilfred Bion‘s extensions of Melanie Klein‘s notion of projective identification, that is, Bion’s concept of container and contained, symbolized respectively by a yoni and a phallus. One projects one’s pain into another, like a raping phallus entering a vagina, the contained entering the container, causing the container to hold all that psychological grief, and to become, to manifest, what is projected.

Normally, only a mother in what Bion called a state of reverie could contain the pain of her frustrated baby, and only a trained psychoanalyst like Bion could contain the pain of a psychotic, transforming that pain into something acceptable that is returned to the baby or psychotic, pacifying them. In Scarface, Tony forces others to contain his pain, which they cannot do; as a result, no pacifying return of the projections is possible.

Tony’s scar is a symbolic yoni, a container receiving narcissistic injury from his childhood, and from–I theorize–an unempathic mother who never contained his violent infantile projections in reverie. He therefore projects that pain onto others, symbolized by his every fatal gunshot or stab, and also in how he hurts and alienates his mother, through his criminality, and Gina, through his patriarchal overprotectiveness.

Indeed, Tony’s killing of Manny, after learning his friend has had his sister, is a projective identification causing her to be as violent as her brother has always been. She approaches him in a provocative state of relative undress, firing a gun at him and offering (in bitter sarcasm) her body for his incestuous pleasure. Tony ‘fucks’ Manny–with his bullet-ejaculating, phallic gun–for fucking Gina; she ‘fucks’ Tony back by firing an ejaculating, phallic pistol at him while offering herself to be literally fucked by him. Container and contained switch roles in this dance of relationships of symbolic sexual relations.

These relationships by fucking are explicitly connected with capitalism when Tony complains of the criminalization of drugs by the establishment. Capitalists don’t mind exploitation as long as they are the exploiters; but when the government intervenes and regulates, the capitalist feels exploited from the disrupting of his business, the lowering of his profits. Hence, Tony is enraged at the ‘unfairness’ of it all.

At least Tony acknowledges that this government interference can happen within the context of capitalism, unlike your average right-libertarian. Tony complains, “You know what capitalism is? Gettin’ fucked!” Elvira notes his hypocrisy, though, by calling him, “A true capitalist if ever I met one.” Capitalism is only good when it’s convenient for this or that capitalist.

Capitalism is also about expansion, and seeking out new markets in other countries, other parts of the world, resulting in imperialism. Hence Tony’s interest in doing more business with Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar) in Bolivia. Sosa’s drug empire stretches throughout the Andes; Tony builds his in a number of major cities in the US, after he removes the small-potatoes drug lord, Lopez. As Marx once said, “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, page 929)

Sosa and his South American associates have their worries about a journalist who has been investigating their criminal activities. Sosa needs Tony’s help in killing the journalist, who is about to make a UN speech exposing Sosa. A car bomb is set up to kill the man, but his wife and daughters unexpectedly get in the car, too. Tony’s sense of honour is offended: he has no problem killing men, but to kill women and children would cause him intolerable narcissistic injury, so he kills Alberto the Shadow, the assassin operating the car bomb, instead. This infuriates Sosa, causing a mafia war.

This mafia war symbolizes inter-imperialist conflict, since Tony’s and Sosa’s cocaine businesses are those of capitalists from different countries, capitalists with conflicting interests. Tony, always snorting the commodity he sells, is full of narcissistic brashness, fighting to the end, even after the killing of Gina, who injures him with a gunshot.

At Sosa’s men, he fires a huge, phallic, grenade-launching M16A1, calling it his “little friend,” an ironic reference to this extension of his big dick. He narcissistically defies his killers, even after being wounded several times, saying, “You fuck with me, you fuckin’ with the best!” Finally, a shot in the back from The Skull is the one narcissistic wound he won’t recover from.

The world was his…for a while, anyway.

Analysis of ‘Velvet Goldmine’

Velvet Goldmine is a 1998 musical drama film directed by Todd Haynes and written by him and James Lyons. It stars Ewan McGregor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Christian Bale, and Toni Collette; it costars Eddie Izzard, Emily Woof, and Michael Feast. It has music by Roxy Music, Brian Eno, and Lou Reed (though these are often covered by other musicians), among others, as well as original songs. Though the film’s title is inspired by the David Bowie song, that song isn’t used in the movie.

The story is about a glam rock star from the 1970s named Brian Slade (Rhys Meyers), who fakes his own assassination and ‘disappears.’ What’s happened to him? Journalist Arthur Stuart (Bale) must find out, in a manner reminiscent of the search for the meaning of ‘Rosebud’ in Citizen Kane.

The film also includes a number of quotes from Oscar Wilde: those from The Picture of Dorian Gray interest me in particular, since Slade, like Gray, is a beautiful boy whose homoerotic, narcissistic charm and false public image leads to the suffering of many, especially his female love interest (Mandy Slade, played by Collette).

Brian Slade, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

Here are quotes of Wilde’s used in the movie, all from The Picture of Dorian Gray, unless otherwise specified (the quotes aren’t letter perfect in the movie):

“I knew I should create a sensation, gasped the Rocket, and he went out.” –“The Remarkable Rocket,” the end

“An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them.” (Chapter 1, page 18) [In the film, Curt Wild says, “A real artist creates beautiful things and…puts nothing of his own life into them.”]

“Women defend themselves by attacking, just as they attack with sudden and strange surrenders.” (Chapter 5, page 76)

“Nothing makes one so vain as being told that one is a sinner.” (Chapter 8, page 119)

“There were times when it appeared to Dorian Gray that the whole of history was merely the record of his own life, not as he had lived it in act and circumstance, but as his imagination had created it for him, as it had been in his brain and in his passions. He felt that he had known them all, those strange terrible figures that had passed across the stage of the world and made sin so marvellous, and evil so full of subtlety. It seemed to him that in some mysterious way their lives had been his own.” (Chapter 11, page 166)

“The world is changed because you are made of ivory and gold. The curves of your lips rewrite history.” (Chapter 20, page 252)

Slade and Curt Wild (McGregor)

Here are some quotes from the movie:

Opening text: Although what you are about to see is a work of fiction, it should never the less be played at maximum volume.

“Histories like ancient ruins are the fictions of empires. While everything forgotten hangs in dark dreams of the past, ever threatening to return.” –female narrator

“I want to be a pop idol.” –young Oscar Wilde

“Childhood, adults always say, is the happiest time in life. But as long as he could remember, Jack Fairy knew better.” –female narrator

“Rock music has always been a reaction against accepted standards. And homosexuality has been going on for centuries. At the moment having a ‘gay’ image is the ‘in’ thing, just like a few years ago it was trendy to wear a long grey coat with a Led Zeppelin record under your arm.” –Trevor (Slade’s guitarist)

“Everyone’s into this scene because it’s supposedly the thing to do right now. But you just can’t fake being gay. You know, if you’re gonna claim that you’re gay you’re gonna have to make love in gay style, and most of these kids…just aren’t going to make it. That line, ‘Everybody’s bisexual’, that’s a very popular thing to say right now. Personally, I think it’s meaningless.” –Curt Wild

“He thought he fucking was Maxwell Demon in the end – you know? And Maxwell Demon…he thought he was God.” –Curt Wild

“I want you because you remember.” –Lou

“He was elegance, walking arm in arm with a lie.” –Cecil, of Slade

“The doctors guaranteed the treatment would fry the fairy clean out of him. But all it did was make him bonkers every time he heard electric guitar.” –Cecil, of Curt Wild

“Heroin used to be my main man. You could be my main man.” –Curt Wild, to Brian Slade

“You all know me – subtlety’s my middle name. It’s as subtle as the piece of skin between my vagina and my anus – ooh la! la! Now what’s that called, I can never quite remember…No man’s land? Oh gosh – my geesh, dah-ling!” –Mandy Slade

“It’s funny how beautiful people look when they’re walking out the door.” –Mandy Slade

“Time, places, people,… they’re all speeding up. So, to cope with this evolutionary paranoia, strange people are chosen who, through their art, can move progress more quickly.” –Mandy Slade

Mandy Slade, played by Toni Collette.

While the film received only mixed reviews and was not a box office success, it has since become a cult classic, as it should be at the very least, for it is a superb film, visually and sonically gorgeous.

Brian Slade is a rock star reminiscent of David Bowie (during his Ziggy Stardust years) and Jobriath. He’s also bisexual, as is Curt Wild (McGregor), who’s based on Iggy Pop; and the two glam icons have a gay affair during the time they’re musically collaborating.

The film begins with a spaceship delivering a baby (Oscar Wilde), with an emerald pin clasped to his blanket, on the doorstep of the Wilde family in Dublin in 1854. This pin symbolizes the special talents of those who wear it, in particular the artistic gifts of LGBT people, whose suffering from the prejudice of mainstream society shapes the expression of those talents.

Genius is pain: the goodness of the one dialectically phases out from the evil of its opposite; the ouroboros‘s bitten tail of pain leads to the biting head of talent. I’ve discussed elsewhere how the ouroboros symbolizes the dialectical unity of opposites.

The ouroboros: I’d have the biting head and bitten tail represent the dialectical relationship between extreme opposites, while the length of its coiled body symbolizes a circular continuum of every intermediate point between those opposite extremes.

The next person to own the pin is gender-bending Jack Fairy, whom we see as a child being bullied by his male classmates in the schoolyard, all for such effeminate tendencies as wearing lipstick. As an adult, he will be admired by the glam rock community for his daring androgyny. He is a true original.

The glam rock fans of the 1970s like to put their ‘bisexuality’ on display…but are they really bisexual, or do they merely posture as such because of bisexual chic? Curt Wild, speaking to a TV reporter, thinks many of them are faking being gay. This notion of posturing, of having a narcissistic False Self, is a major theme in the movie…artificialityimage.

Slade’s identification with his persona, “Maxwell Demon” (paralleling Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust,’ an alien who comes to Earth, saves it, and becomes a rock-and-roll star, only to be destroyed in the end), goes to the point of almost driving him mad; he fakes his murder to be freed from the persona (a liberating from one’s False Self that is comparable to Dorian Gray’s stabbing his portrait with a knife, only to end up killing himself). Then, Slade becomes…someone else…

This escaping from reality, and from its pain, to build up a false self-image, is a manic defence, a mask to hide behind. Be a performer, and forget the pain that comes from the alienating bigotry and social rejection of the ‘freaks’ of the world: gays, transwomen, etc. Only through the flamboyant lie of being a rock star can we ever accept society’s deviants.

If you aren’t a star, though, then you’re just a lonely, sensitive fellow like journalist Arthur Stuart.

Journalist Arthur Stuart, played by Christian Bale.

As a member of the largely closeted LGBT community, a closeting resulting from the AIDS scare of the mid-1980s that revived much of the homophobia that had been tamed somewhat in the 1970s, Stuart has little to smile about. The partying years of the glam rock era are no more; his hero–Slade–turned out to be a phoney to all his former fans; and so all Stuart has are the painful memories of a once-hopeful time (hopeful for gay liberation) long since dead.

And now he has to research those painful years for Lou, his newspaper editor.

He sits on the subway, moping and brooding over those years, while a few seats over from him, a child is wearing a mask of Tommy Stone, the current pop idol. That mask is symbolic, because in the end we learn that Stone is who Slade has become! Slade has replaced one mask for another; he’s gone from the fake image of a glam rock star to that of an 80s pop star.

As an appropriate soundtrack background to Stuart’s melancholy, we hear the sad piano notes beginning Slade’s “Hot One,” a song from Stuart’s past, lost and gone forever. The song, with its promo video, combines Slade’s openly-expressed bisexuality with the fantasy of being from outer space, a world far better than our shitty Earth.

Actually, “Hot One” is sung and performed by Shudder To Think, who also wrote and recorded “The Ballad of Maxwell Demon” (the soundtrack CD version). It’s interesting how Rhys Meyers, playing Slade, is mouthing the words of “Hot One,” as well as lip synching “The Whole Shebang” (performed by Grant Lee Buffalo) and the covers of Roxy Music’s “Ladytron” and “2HB” (performed by The Venus in Furs, a fictional band for the movie, but with vocals by Thom Yorke); while Rhys Meyers himself sang “The Ballad of Maxwell Demon” (the movie version), the cover of Eno’s “Baby’s On Fire,” and the covers of Cockney Rebel‘s “Sebastian” and “Tumbling Down.” These alternating singers symbolize the shift back and forth between Slade’s False and True Selves.

Slade, in his False Self persona as Maxwell Demon.

Consider the prettiness of the voices whenever Rhys Meyers is not singing, as opposed to the rawness of his own voice. Not to disparage the immense talent of the other singers (Rhys Meyers, too, sings well, of course, but just with a different style); but my point is that the pretty vibratos of Craig Wedren of Shudder To Think and of Thom Yorke can be symbolically associated with the poseur primness of Slade’s Maxwell Demon persona, while Rhys Meyers’s earthier sound symbolically suggests the real Thomas Brian Patrick Stoningham Slade hiding underneath.

Since Slade is modelled largely on Bowie, this alternation between pretty and raw voices can be seen as a parallel of Bowie’s sometimes rawer, higher register (which can be heard in much, if not most, of his singing on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, as well as in other songs) and his more typical elegant baritone.

That ‘poseur,’ posturing voice is heard when Rhys Meyers’s Slade is mouthing the words of “Ladytron” to Collette’s Mandy, just before he steals her (and the emerald pin) from Jack Fairy. Recall the lyrics of the song: “I’ll use you, and I’ll confuse you, and then I’ll lose you…still, you won’t suspect me.” These words reflect the idealize, devalue, and discard phases of narcissists’ relationships with their victims…and these three things are exactly what happen to Mandy.

Since Slade is comparable to Dorian Gray in their narcissism, aestheticism, and libertine indulgence, so is his relationship with Mandy comparable to Gray’s with the actress Sibyl Vane. Gray loves Vane only when she acts well, that is, when she is not being herself; but when she does a poor performance of Juliet, showing obviously fake emotions because she’s too distracted in her love for him, he loses interest in her. (Wilde, Chapter seven, pages 97-102)

Similarly, Slade loves Mandy only when she does as much posturing (the American woman even faking an English accent) as he does. Later, he falls in love with the raw, real Curt Wild, she is doing less and less posturing, and Slade loses interest in her.

Slade has a love/hate relationship with his image; he’s told Wild, “A man’s life is his image.” He needs his phoney personae, but too much of living in them drives him mad. Dorian Gray has a similarly ambivalent relationship with the portrait Basil has painted of him: he envies and covets the permanence of its beauty, yearning to trade the impermanence of his own beauty with it; later, after the trade has been achieved, the picture’s growing ugliness, representing his growing sinfulness, makes him hate and fear the painting, since it’s a mirror to his soul.

Slade has also traded his True Self for the beauty of Maxwell Demon…later, Tommy Stone. And since Maxwell is paralleled to Bowie’s Ziggy, Tommy–in his white outfit, the next big image Slade has made for himself–can be paralleled with Bowie’s Thin White Duke, appearing in a white shirt from 1974-1977, right after Ziggy appeared. And as The Thin White Duke spoke in a pro-fascist way, there is Tommy Stone’s support for “President Reynolds” (sounds like right-wing Reagan) as “Excellent. Excellent. I think he’s doing brilliant work. He’s a–tremendous leader, tremendous spokesperson for the needs of the nation today.” (And post-Ziggy Bowie, as did Slade after the end of Maxwell, snorted a lot of cocaine.)

Slade repels his True Self, yet sees an idealized (i.e., fake!) version of it in Curt Wild’s raw energy. His falling in love with Wild is Narcissus adoring his reflection in the pond.

Wild’s excessive drug use, incompetence in the recording studio, and violent temper tantrums (to say nothing of Mandy’s jealousy) mean that Slade’s symbolic ‘True Self’ is unacceptable to his peers. When he loses Wild, he must lose his False Self, Maxwell Demon, too…for that False Self is a true demon, like Gray’s portrait.

Stuart’s also had to lose his False Self, the glitter-eye-makeup-wearing gay groupie of the band who covers T. Rex‘s “20th Century Boy” (actually performed by Placebo); and so now all he has is his melancholic, lonely True Self.

Curt Wild keeps screwing up in the studio.

Slade’s indulgence in his Maxwell Demon persona, pushed to the extreme of thinking he is Maxwell (“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person! Give him a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth!”), is him going to the ouroboros’s biting head of extreme posturing. His love of earthy, real, proto-punk Curt Wild is Slade pushing past the biting head, over to the bitten tail of his ‘True Self,’ projected onto Wild, and therefore he’s not really being his True Self. This means Slade has not only gone past the serpent’s head to its tail, but he’s gone another circle around the ouroboros’s coiled body, back to the head. And since Wild can’t be the ‘True Self’ Slade needs him to be, their affair ends.

Similarly, teen Stuart–idolizing Slade, narcissistically identifying with him, and masturbating to pictures of Slade and Wild–shifts past the serpent’s biting head of an extreme False Self, and over to his True Self again, when his father catches him in his room and shames him for expressing his sexuality.

The fact is, all of us have a mixture of False and True Selves, and with this reality comes our place on the narcissistic spectrum. But since most of us have integrated our True and False Selves, our narcissistic tendencies are usually at moderate, healthy, mature, and realistic levels. It’s when the True and False Selves are polarized and split, the ‘ugly’ real self being repressed and/or projected onto other people, that’s when narcissism becomes pathological, resulting in hurting those around us. (I’ve written much about this problem elsewhere.)

The splitting of True and False Selves is a manic defence against dealing with our pain. Pushing these defences to extremes–the libertine hedonism of Slade in his orgies and cocaine-sniffing, and of Gray in his opium den–results in an explosion of pain, going from the ouroboros’s biting head to its bitten tail.

We can’t run away from the pain of such bigotries as homophobia and transphobia by escaping into a sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll fantasy world; we must change our world as it is…not in the idealistic way Slade and Wild try to do and end up only changing themselves, but in the realistic way of changing all of ourselves, together, slowly but surely, through teaching people love…not the fake love of religious authoritarianism, but the real love of tolerance and open-mindedness.

Todd Haynes, Velvet Goldmine, Miramax Books/Hyperion, New York, 1998

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Penguin Popular Classics, London, 1994

Hoovering

[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]

Because of traumatic bonding, we survivors of emotional abuse may find it tempting to believe our abusers when they say they want ‘to connect’ with us again, or to be ‘reconciled’ with us. Nobody wants to lose friends; we all hate to see close relationships disintegrate.

But since the pain outweighs the good we received (or thought we received), we must protect ourselves from any new pain our abusers are planning to inflict on us. At the same time, their manner of communicating with us seems so kind, so patient, so loving.

Have they changed? Have they finally learned from all the mistakes they made in the past? We’d like to think so…oh, how we’d like to think so! After all, though the good that we got from the relationship may have made up a minority of the total experiences in it, that good may have been (or at least may have seemed to be) a rather large minority. A minority, nonetheless, is still a minority, big or small. What can we do to avoid falling into yet another trap?

If that ‘large minority,’ or ‘significant minority,’ of good times really was good, in spite of the clear majority of bad, we might want to think less of the quantity of experiences of good and bad, and think rather of their quality. Were the good experiences of any real importance, or were they just fleeting pleasures? If the latter, their large number (if they actually even were large in number) hardly comes close to compensating for all the pain that the bad experiences caused. If the good times were significant, the bad times all too often outweigh the good times, too. Either way, be careful!

Don’t let ’em suck you back in!

And if those abusers are asking you to get back in touch, you know their sucking you back in is not in your best interests.

I’ll give an example of hoovering I got from my older sister, J., the golden child of the family. She tried emailing me, after the falling-out I had with the family when my late, probably narcissistic mother died (read these posts for the origin story of my troubles with my family, if you’re interested), telling me about possessions of mine still in our mother’s home that I should collect. I didn’t want them. I never even replied to her email. I also blocked her and all our other family members.

Then she tried, several months to a year or so later, to contact me on Facebook. I rejected her message request. When you go No Contact, you must commit to it.

She tried, in her messages (the opening part that I actually saw, for I had no wish whatsoever to read them), to be warm and caring in her tone. I wasn’t buying one word of it. I know her too well. She likes to open her messages to me with such stale, formal language as, “I hope this email finds you well,” implying a lack of genuine, heartfelt emotion. She never was one for the sincerity club.

She would have me believe that the whole family misses me terribly (If so, why have neither of my older brothers–nor anyone else in the family, apart from her and Mom when she was alive–ever tried contacting me, except ever so rarely over the past twenty years I’ve lived in Asia after leaving Canada in 1996?); and they want us to “heal those wounds,” as my aunt described the problem on the phone just before my mom died in hospital. I haven’t contacted them because, frankly, I don’t miss them. Why would I miss emotional abusers?

Don’t be a sucker!

Furthermore, I assure you, Dear Reader: the only ‘healing’ they want is from their own point of view; they couldn’t care less whether I heal or not–I’m expected just to fall in line and do what they want. The ‘healing’ would involve me changing my ‘errant’ ways and apologizing for the hurt I caused them. They wouldn’t need to change, because in their opinion, they never did me any wrong. Their anger towards me is always ‘justified’; mine never is. I’m just an immature, selfish whiner, according to them.

I beg to differ, as I’ve explained at length in all the posts (links above) that I’ve written on the subject; there’s no point in my repeating all of that here. In any case, true reconciliation must involve reciprocity: it’s only fair. I’m prepared to acknowledge things I’ve done to upset them, in recent years as well as those further off in the past; but beyond a mere paying of lip service to their faults, they will only trivialize all that they and Mom did over the years to provoke my wrath. As her flying monkeys, they’re willfully ignorant of what she did, which was an atrocious string of lies and smear campaigns against me and our cousins over the decades.

The point, Dear Reader, is that it will take a lot more than honeyed words from abusive people to be worthy of your trust. It actually doesn’t involve them saying much of anything; it involves them doing those two things they’ll never do–listening to you and validating your feelings.

Always remember that, whenever your abusers pull the old hoovering tactic: it doesn’t matter what their mouths are doing, or what their fingers are doing when they write or type their messages for you to read; it’s what their ears are doing…and what their brains are thinking in secret.

Since we abuse victims have no way of knowing for sure what activity is going on in their ears and brains, our abusers should have a formidable task convincing us if they’re truly contrite. For if they’re faking their regret, their attempt to regain our trust should be an impossible task.

Validation

[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]

Of all the aspects of emotional abuse that I suffered from the family–the autism lie, the bullying, the scapegoating, the explosive anger, the triangulation, the smear campaigns–in many ways, the most hurtful of all was the constant invalidation of my feelings and perspective.

This invalidation is especially cruel when one receives it as a child. Crucial psychological development is going on during those years, and telling a kid he’s ‘wrong,’ or he’s ‘making too big a thing’ out of the problems his abusers are causing, subjecting him to victim-blaming, saying his opinion ‘doesn’t count,’ etc. (all of these examples being lines I’ve heard come out of the mouths of my family, by the way), is damaging to his ability to grow self-confidence. Such invalidating, minimizing, and trivializing of one’s feelings and experiences are all forms of gaslighting.

Granted, we all have to deal with the reality of being wrong sometimes, and conflict occurs in even the best of families; but I’m talking about a consistent, systemic negation of the victim’s point of view. The victim is made to feel as though being right about anything is generally beyond his or her reach.

My late mother’s lie, about my supposedly having an autism spectrum disorder, provided the foundation for the apparent incorrectness of my perception of everything. The bullying I endured from my elder siblings, R., F., and J., only reinforced my inability to have a voice; if I tried to stand up for my rights, or challenge any of my siblings, they’d double down on the verbal abuse and physical threats, turning up the volume of their shouting at me–because allowing me to fight back would be a threat to their power over me…and emotional abuse is all about power and control.

If I tried to assert myself to my brother R., he’d say such things as, “You’re full of shit!” or “You misunderstand [Mom], just as you misunderstand everyone…” etc. If I tried the same with my sister J., she’d say, “Don’t get lippy with me!”, “I don’t wanna hear it!”, or “I don’t need to hear your attitude!”; then, she’d hypocritically judge me for not “voicing” my issues with her. If I challenged my brother F., he’d shout, “Who the fuck are you?! Oh, I oughta smack you for saying that!” They never take it as well as they dish it out.

Our mother, of course, defended them almost every time, especially J., her golden child. All of this, of course, reinforced my invalidation. Things had gotten so bad that I found myself with no choice, about three to four years ago, but to go No Contact with them. I’m sure they still blame me, and solely me, for our falling out. These people have no sense of introspection. If they had it, they’d have acknowledged the role they’ve played in this problem years ago…decades ago.

I’m sure, Dear Reader, you’ve dealt with this problem in one form or another, either with family, or in a former relationship; otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this. Let’s face it: you’re not going to get any validation from people like that. You’ll have to rely on yourself to get it.

I’ve written other blog posts on how to ‘exorcise,’ if you will, the inner critic we sufferers of C-PTSD have. I also recommend auto-hypnosis, for the deep state of relaxation you get from hypnosis will make your mind more suggestible. And that’s where the validation of affirmations comes in.

Sit or lie down in a relaxing position, close your eyes, take long, slow, deep breaths, and become aware of every inch of your body, starting with your toes and feet, and work your way up, inch by inch, to your head. Feel your body vibrating all over, or–as I like to describe it–feel as if your body is part of an ocean, an infinite ocean of Brahman, with your body and surroundings as all gently flowing waves. No distinction between the outside and your inner Atman: it’s all soothing, peaceful water, everywhere.

Once you’re fully relaxed, begin to imagine good people who love you, an inner guidance system, new internalized good objects, saying these kind words of validation:

“You’re completely normal.”

“You have the same right to be heard as everyone else.”

“You’re a good, decent, caring person.”

“You deserve much better treatment than you’ve been given.”

“You’re smart, capable, and talented.”

“Your feelings matter.”

“You are beautiful, inside and out.”

Feel free to make a list of your own affirmations, if you can think of ones more suitable to your situation. To get the best effect, do this meditation again and again, every night over several weeks. If you don’t like the way I have set it up, try some YouTube videos, self-hypnosis videos with positive affirmations. I like the ones incorporating ASMR.

Whatever you do, I urge you to invalidate your invalidators. Consider the source. Ask yourself, “What the hell do they know, anyway? What makes them think they’re an authority on me, or on anyone?” You don’t have to say these words to your abusers’ faces (indeed, I’d advise against that, actually): leave them to blunder about in their narcissistic delusions. It’s not your job to fix what’s wrong with them.

Instead, invalidate your abusers in your mind. You’re the only one who has to know that they’re the problem, not you.

Second-Guessing

[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]

Even though I’ve come to conclusions about my family, most of which are beyond a reasonable doubt, I’m still assailed by doubts. Have I examined my memories too selectively? Have I misinterpreted their meaning? Were things really as bad as I imagine them to have been? Am I too sensitive? Have I just been trying to justify a selfish attitude to the family?

There’s no doubt in my mind, on the other hand, that the family would smugly answer ‘yes’ to all of these questions, and not give the issue any second thoughts. They would insist that I am the real narcissist of the family (recall that, in their imagination, narcissistic = “autistic“), and that I am playing the victim, projecting my faults onto them.

Here’s the thing, though: constant second-guessing is a common behaviour of C-PTSD-suffering victims of narcissistic abuse; while a smug self-assurance that one has never done any significant wrong is typical of narcissists, including members of a collective narcissist social group.

Always questioning ourselves.

Where do I get my doubts from? A gradual accumulation of episodes of having been subjected to gaslighting. As I’ve explained in many posts already, my late–probably narcissistic–mother lied to me about having an autism spectrum disorder. My realization of the untruth of her words came not so much from 1) two psychotherapists telling me they saw no autistic symptoms in me, and 2) my score of a mere 13/50 on the Autism Quotient test [a score of at least 26-32/50 would be needed to establish the mere suspicion of clinically autistic traits] as it did from her wildly hyperbolic description of my supposed mental state as a child–i.e., the mythical psychiatrists’ recommendation to “lock [me] up in an asylum and throw away the key,” and her wondering, “Would I ever even make a good garbageman?”

Mom’s purpose wasn’t to make me believe I am retarded, for she claimed “a miracle from God” (she was never religious) had pulled me out of my supposedly hopeless mental state by the time I was around eight to ten years old…a clearly absurd claim. Her purpose was to make me believe I am somehow ‘feeble-minded’ in a more general way, that I am ‘behind’ everyone else.

This gaslighting, combined with her general winking at the bullying (from my elder siblings, R., F., and J., Mom’s flying monkeys) that she knew I was being subjected to, was all calculated to hinder my ability to build up self-confidence, to trust my instincts, and to question any of the family’s nonsense. Hence, my second-guessing.

We never feel sure of ourselves.

In contrast to that, their smug assurance that they’ve done no significant wrong to me came from Mom’s constant justifying of my siblings’ actions and general defence of them at my expense–their reward for giving her a steady feeding of narcissistic supply.

One example of my mother’s gaslighting through the autism fabrication was back in the early 2000s, when she’d been insisting, with no apparent need to check with a psychiatrist, that I have Asperger Syndrome (AS). She emailed me an article about a young man with AS. His life story of having been bullied for being different was meant, through her sharing it with me, to say that I am just like him. What’s more, the article stated several times that ‘he perceives the world differently’ from everyone else. I’m convinced my mother wanted me to think that my perception of everything is different, too. Translation: I understand the world incorrectly.

Similarly, R., F., and J. were fond of calling me a “dip,” a “dork,” stupid, etc., when I was growing up. R., as an example of his meanness, liked scowling at me and telling me, “Think,” implying I never do. Being subjected to this kind of emotional abuse regularly, throughout one’s upbringing and even well into one’s later adulthood, leads inevitably to the victim second-guessing his perception of everything…especially the emotional abuse.

We doubt ourselves, when we shouldn’t.

Bukowski once said, “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.” Not to toot my own horn about my intelligence, and furthermore, I’m implying a lack of emotional intelligence in my abusers (they aren’t inherently stupid people); but all of this once again demonstrates the dialectical, yin-and-yang nature of reality. Another relevant quote: “To realize that our knowledge is ignorance, this is a noble insight. To regard our ignorance as knowledge, this is mental sickness.” (Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 71)

My point, Dear Reader, is that if you–having suffered emotional abuse and gaslighting–second-guess yourself all the time, and are full of doubts about how badly your abusers treated you, remember that the big irony of all this is how your very second-guessing is one of the proofs that you really were mistreated.

Conversely, the self-satisfied attitude of your abusers, who never feel a dram of remorse, also helps prove how right you are about how much they’ve wronged you; for people who truly care will wonder if they’ve wronged you, even if they haven’t–it’s called empathy. Bad people, on the other hand, kid themselves all the time that they’re doing right: if you don’t believe me, just look at your average politician.

Heinz Kohut, who wrote about narcissism.

Now, does this mean that we victims must torment ourselves with self-doubt for the rest of our lives, just to feel paradoxically vindicated? Of course not: over time, the gradual process of healing from our psychological wounds will allow us to feel reassured without any need to fear that we’re using our pride to blind ourselves to our faults.

Narcissists evade shame by repressing their True Self of egotism, and by disavowing their faults by, for example, projecting them onto their victims; Heinz Kohut wrote about this dual process (horizontal and vertical splitting) in his book, The Analysis of the Self (page 185).

When we victims, on the other hand, project vice onto our abusers, we’re merely giving back to them what they originally dumped onto us; we’re merely putting the vices back where they belong. As for our actual faults…well, let’s let the genuinely good people in our lives tell us about those.