Analysis of “Él”

Él is a 1953 Mexican film directed by Luis Buñuel and based on the novel, Pensamientos, by Mercedes Pinto. Él is ‘him’ in Spanish; in the US, though, the title of the film is This Strange Passion.

The film stars Arturo de Córdova as the insanely jealous Francisco Galván de Montemayor, a wealthy, middle-aged bourgeois who falls in love with young Gloria Vilalta (Delia Garcés), steals her away from her fiancé, Raul Conde (Luis Beristáin), and marries her, only to be paranoid that other men are trying to seduce her and steal her from him.

The film begins in church during a foot-washing ceremony, at which both Francisco and Gloria are present. Francisco watches as Padre Velasco (Carlos Martinez Baena) washes and kisses the feet of a fair-haired boy. Francisco’s eyes wander over to the high-heel-clad feet of Gloria, and his eyes move up to see her pretty face, one expressing discomfort at his gaze.

His gaze at her feet and/or at her high heels, as seen here and in later scenes, suggests that he has a foot fetish. (He is seen putting her shoes away in a hotel during their honeymoon; at dinner at home in a later scene, he looks at her feet under the table. Soon after both instances of contemplating her feet/shoes, he flies into wild jealous rages.)

A Catholic foot-washing ceremony is meant to be a humble imitation of Christ’s washing the feet of his disciples (John 13:14-17). Francisco’s fetishizing of Gloria’s feet, however, doesn’t inspire him to be her humble servant; instead, his fetishizing leads to his possessiveness. He treats her feet, and therefore all of her, as a commodity to be jealously guarded, just as a traditional patriarchal husband invidiously watches over his wife.

The source of his foot fetish can be found when connected with another preoccupation of his: his wish to reclaim land and property once owned by his grandfather–land, where feet and shoes come into contact. This land was his family’s land, and he wants it back. His jealous possessiveness of Gloria can thus be linked to his jealous possessiveness of his family’s land and property; and in this way, she can be linked symbolically to his family.

Right after being upset with his lawyer for not being helpful enough in his suit to reclaim his land, prudish Francisco gets upset with his servant, Pablo (Manuel Dondé), for being involved in an indiscreet sexual encounter with a pretty young maid in Francisco’s employ, Martha, whom he demands that Pablo dismiss immediately. The quick juxtaposition of these two sources of Francisco’s frustration suggest a close connection between them in his unconscious: the possession of his family’s land and property; and the sexual possession of one of his female employees. Combine these with his wish to have Gloria all to himself, and you might be able to guess where I’m going with this.

When he calms down, he lies on his bed and looks up at a picture of the Virgin Mary. He tells Pablo to straighten it. She, as the Mother of God, is his maternal ideal, and he’d never want her looking bad in any way. The juxtaposition of this with what immediately preceded also links it symbolically with those earlier concerns.

We never learn anything substantial about Francisco’s family apart from his grandfather’s land and property. All we know is that Francisco is obsessed with getting his hands on it, as he wants to get his hands on Gloria. People (even family) and things are just possessions to him; nobody but he can have them. He wants them so badly that he’s willing to take them from others…but how dare they try to take them from him!

He sees Gloria at the church again, and appropriately, we hear the fugue section of J.S. Bach‘s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor playing on the organ. The word fugue literally comes from Latin words meaning “to flee” (fugere) and “to chase” (fugare). So we have a fitting soundtrack–with counterpoint following after, or chasing, the original, fleeing melody–for Francisco’s chasing after fleeing Gloria.

When he learns that Raul, an engineer, is engaged to Gloria, Francisco immediately begins scheming to take her from his friend. He invites the couple to a dinner party at his home, with such guests as the padre, a kind of good father substitute for Francisco. Raul and Gloria will come with her mother, who will insist on coming; Francisco says he’ll court the mother, Doña Esperanza Vilalta (played by Aurora Walker; the English subtitles of my DVD actually say, “make love with the mother”). After marrying Gloria, he’ll have her mother as both his mother-in-law and as his symbolic good mother, too, as we’ll see later.

At the dinner table, Francisco speaks of his idea of falling in love. To him, this passion is “nurtured from infancy” [!]; as the years go by, one grows up and sees many women pass by, but that one woman destined to be his will be found, and his love will shoot straight at her like an arrow. She must be his, willing or no.

Thus begins Gloria’s victimization.

Up until Francisco’s taking of her away from Raul, the latter man has had no moustache, as Francisco has (and a moustache is often seen as a symbol of manliness). Raul seems to have given her up without much of a fight…which is rather odd. Now, no longer having her, Raul has a moustache, and he continues to have one throughout the film, as do all the men Francisco is afraid will take her away from him. Now-moustachioed Raul is seen at a construction site, the machines and vehicles working on the land.

Buñuel’s films typically have surrealist elements, which means there’s a sense of the unconscious mind influencing the visuals and the story. One unconscious association humanity’s had in its mind for centuries is the notion that the land is our Mother Earth. The unconscious represses any desires deemed forbidden, but those desires are never eliminated–they reappear in new forms, though.

Raul and his construction workers, digging into the earth with their shovels, trucks, bulldozers, and cranes, are symbolically penetrating Gaea…they “make love with the mother.” He, with his moustache now, looks more like a man, a father.

Francisco, so much older than Gloria, has chosen a woman so much younger out of a reaction formation against choosing a woman of, say, her mother’s age, an age I suspect he’d unconsciously much prefer. His paranoia of other men taking Gloria away from him is really him projecting his own guilt over having taken her away from Raul.

When he takes her by train to Guanajuato for their honeymoon, Francisco is already demonstrating his possessiveness, that of her and of the land he wants back. They look over the city where his family’s property is; he says he likes looking at it from on high. It’s as if doing so makes him feel superior to it and the people living there. He wouldn’t humbly serve the land, as Jesus would humbly wash the feet of those walking on it: he’d subjugate and dominate it, even if he no longer has any legal right to it. He’d similarly possess Gloria.

As all of his fits of jealous rage go on, Gloria is desperate for help. Since Francisco has a spotless reputation (a narcissistic False Self all too often believed by enablers to be the true one), no one believes her when she complains of his abuse. Not even her own mother believes her.

Indeed, while he unjustly accuses Gloria of being a “tramp,” he has a pleasant relationship with her mother. The two women are split objects in his mind: the former is a bad object, the latter, a good object. Similarly are the men in Francisco’s life split into absolute good and bad objects–the padre is good, and all the young men (Raul, Ricardo [played by Rafael Banquelis], the lawyer Gloria dances with), with their moustaches and slicked back, black hair, are bad objects.

When Gloria tries to get help from the padre, not only is he as unsympathetic to her plight as her mother is, he also reveals an eye-opening secret about Francisco: prior to his marriage to Gloria, he has never had sexual relations with a woman.

She is shocked to hear this: surely a man of his age–handsome, wealthy, and charming (if only superficially so, which should be enough for him to get laid)–has lain with a woman at least a few times! Her mother, at that dinner table before he seduces Gloria, has said it should be easy for him to find a woman; her mother can’t imagine a single girl resisting him. (Now, imagining her mother thinking so highly of him is a wish-fulfillment. So much of this story is really just a dramatization of Francisco’s unconscious.) What could have been stopping him from having sex for all of these years?

As noted above, he has said, at the dinner table before seducing Gloria, that his love is something that has been “nurtured from infancy.” His love is what Lacan called the objet petit a, the unfulfillable object-cause of his desire. Now, what is that object-cause?

This desire, having been “nurtured from infancy,” is something Lacan traced back to the mother’s breast, a Kleinian part-object. In other words, Francisco’s “strange passion” is derived from an unresolved, but repressed, Oedipus complex.

Dear Reader, if you’ve read enough of my analyses, you’re probably getting sick and tired of me harping on about all that Freudian hooey; but consider when Buñuel made this film–in the early 50s, when notions of a man unconsciously having a thing for his mother was still in vogue, so this kind of interpretation, as dated as it is now, is nonetheless appropriate for a film of the time. Besides, I do believe I’ve provided a reasonable amount of evidence so far…and more evidence, especially persuasive evidence–I believe–will be revealed towards the end of the movie.

So to recap, Gloria and her mother respectively represent transferences of the bad mother and good mother, these being internal objects in Francisco’s mind; and the padre is a transference of the good father internal object, while every moustachioed young man that Francisco is jealous of represents his bad father internal object.

I suspect that the reason of Francisco’s seeing Gloria, as love at first sight, is that she physically resembles his mother when she was a young woman. Gloria’s mother would resemble his mother as an older woman, and all those young men with moustaches and slicked-back hair resemble his father as a young man. This will make more sense when we come to the end of the film.

What’s curious is that, during the entirety of his marriage to Gloria, he never gets her pregnant. In fact, one suspects they’ve never once had sex. Part of his sexual prudishness seems to be sexual dysfunction. Small wonder he shoots her with a pistol full of blanks: the gun is an obvious phallic symbol whose ejaculations are ineffectual. He is sexually inadequate, and he knows it: he cannot be the Lacanian phallus for his symbolic mother. This is why he’s so paranoid that she’s seeing other men, the symbolic bad fathers of his psyche. That whacking of the stick against the posts of the handrail on the stairs fittingly suggests the symbolism of a guilty teenage boy’s masturbating; the only way he can have sex is with himself.

I consider the Oedipus complex to be the root of his problems because, as Don Carveth argues, it is a universal narcissistic trauma. Francisco wants to have Mother (in the symbolic, transferred forms of Gloria and her mother) all to himself: he wants her as a narcissistic mirror reflecting his entire world all back to himself, because he wants everything to be about him.

This narcissism is important in how it links with his bourgeois wish to reclaim his grandfather’s old land and property. The bourgeoisie are narcissistic by nature, imagining themselves entitled to all the land, property, and means of production they steal and hog to themselves, never sharing it with the global proletariat. Even when his lawyers tell him he has no way to prove he has a legal right to that land, Francisco throws temper tantrums and childishly fancies he has documentary proof that he actually lacks.

Many people mistake capitalism as being, in its essence, about markets. To be sure, the market is extremely important as a generator of profits for the accumulation of capital, but capitalism’s essence is about ownership of private property–factories, office buildings, apartment buildings, farmland, foreign lands gained by imperialist conquest…land. Just as Francisco’s possessiveness of Gloria and his grandfather’s old properties and land are interrelated, so are the capitalist’s possessiveness of private property and the patriarchal husband’s jealous clinging to his wife interrelated. And the psychological root of this jealous possessiveness is the child’s narcissistic Oedipal relationship with his or her desired parent, whom he or she doesn’t wish to share.

If we follow the symbolism of the film as I’ve interpreted it, we can see all three of these strands–ownership of land, possessiveness of one’s wife, and the narcissistic Oedipal relationship with the mother–played out in the scene when Francisco takes Gloria up to the belfry and they look down on the people walking in the streets of the city. Just as he has earlier expressed his contempt for the common “morons” one sees in the cinema or at the race track, he, from the belfry, looks down on those people below as if he were God judging them from the heavens. She calls him “self-centred,” which of course the narcissistic man is.

He thinks it’s “marvellous” to be up with Gloria in the belfry, where we see a huge bell and its clapper above their heads. A comparison I’ve made elsewhere, in my analysis of Belle de Jour (another Buñuel film), is that a bell symbolizes the vagina, and the clapper the hymen. So his ideal is to be above human mediocrity, with his wife as immaculate a virgin as Mary. As I said above, the Madonna is his maternal ideal, and he wants Gloria to embody this ideal; hence, she must be as chaste as he, and he must jealously guard her virtue from other men. She would be the perfect symbolic mother of his repressed, narcissistic Oedipal fantasies, and he would be lord over her life and over the land, which is our Mother Earth. Hence the connection between capitalism, the traditional patriarchal family, and narcissistic, Oedipally-minded child.

So afraid is Francisco of his wife getting any phallus other than his own, he attempts one night to infibulate her. If he succeeds, though, he won’t be able to penetrate her any better than any other man will. This would prove his sexual impotence, since if he can’t have her, he doesn’t want even the possibility of another man having her.

She wakes and screams, and it is only natural that she leaves him the next day, running off with Raul. In a panic, Francisco goes after her. He has several hallucinations, each increasing in intensity: he imagines a maid laughing at him; he thinks he sees Raul on a street corner buying a newspaper; he sees Gloria in a car putting on lipstick; and he thinks he sees her and Raul entering the church of the film’s beginning.

He goes in and finds them at their pew; but when he’s about to confront them, the young man and woman are actually two different people. Then, after hearing the cough of an old man walking behind him, Francisco imagines all the churchgoers laughing at him…even the altar boy and the padre!

This last man, who hitherto has been Francisco’s chaste, paternal ideal, is now no better than all the ‘bad fathers.’ With neither symbolic parent to be his ideal parental imago (i.e., both have traumatically disappointed him), and with his grandiose self (his narcissistic False Self exposed as such) abased and humiliated, the structure of his bipolar self has been destroyed, he undergoes psychological fragmentation, and he goes mad. He attacks the priest, is subdued by the churchgoers, and will be taken away…eventually to be put in a monastery.

Raul and Gloria, now married and with a fair-haired son of about 8-10 years old (who looks rather like the boy whose feet the padre washes at the film’s beginning), visit the monastery years later and ask about Francisco. We learn that their boy’s name is also Francisco! Why would Gloria want to name her son after a man who has caused her so much suffering? Why would Raul, who loves her in a way her former husband has never ben able to, be so insensitive to her as to want to name the boy after her former tormentor?

To me, the only logical answer to why the boy has this name is to regard the whole story as a particularly subtle use of surrealism on Buñuel’s part. As I see it, this boy is the real Francisco (and his resemblance to the boy whose feet are washed by the priest at the film’s beginning suggests a narcissistic wish-fulfillment to have his symbolic good father be subservient to him), and the older version of him is an unconscious wish-fulfillment, a dream of him having the age, manly moustache, and financial success necessary to win his mother away from his father.

The head monk asks them if the boy is their son, to which Raul gives no answer. The Wikipedia article for Él interprets his silence as implying that he may not be the father: I dispute this, for I see no reason to think Gloria has had the boy by any other man, especially by impotent Francisco. Raul’s silence probably comes from the tension he must feel from his son’s still-unresolved Oedipal attachment to Gloria (normally, a boy of his age should be going through the latency period).

(With regards to her name, I’ll mention in passing that, with the entrance of Iocaste in Stravinsky‘s 1927 opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex, the men’s chorus sing “Gloria, gloria, gloria!” at the end of Act One.)

Finally, we see old Francisco as a monk, after the family has left the monastery. He no longer has his moustache: he’s lost his manliness, a symbolic castration. In giving up his symbolic mother, Gloria, and adhering to the nom, or Non! du père, Francisco is now the personification of the moralistic superego. He must remain chaste for the rest of his life.

Will he be happy doing so? He claims he’s found true peace, but the frown on his face gives us doubts. Repressed desires always resurface in one form or another. His zig-zagging walk down that path to the dark doorway, an implied inability to stay on ‘the straight path,’ reinforces our doubts.

Analysis of “Joker”

I: Introduction

Joker is a 2019 supervillain origin story film directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. Though based on the DC comic book character, this film takes many liberties with the story material by creating a background for the Joker that has hitherto been kept deliberately mysterious.

The notion of him starting out as a failed comedian comes from Batman: The Killing Joke, but other elements come from two Martin Scorsese films starring Robert De NiroTaxi Driver and The King of Comedy. This origin story nonetheless can be reconciled with the comic book canon somewhat in that, given how the story is told from the Joker’s point of view, and given his psychotic penchant for mixing fantasy with reality, he is an unreliable narrator; so it hardly matters if events in the movie contradict those of the comic books.

Phoenix’s performance deservedly won him the Best Actor Oscar. For her plaintive, brooding cello soundtrack, Hildur Guðnadóttir won the Best Original Score. The film itself has also been praised (with nominations for such Oscar categories as Best Picture and Best Director), in spite of such controversies as the baseless fear that its sympathetic portrayal of a mentally-ill loner, who shoots people, would inspire incel murders. Actually, the film–despite Phillips’s denial of having intended any political message–is clearly presenting a drama of class war.

II: Quotes

“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” –Arthur Fleck/Joker

[written in notebook] “I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.” –Arthur

[written in notebook] “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” –Arthur

“You don’t listen, do you? You just ask the same questions every week. ‘How’s your job?’ ‘Are you having negative thoughts?’ All I have are negative thoughts.” –Arthur, to his therapist

“For my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do. People are starting to notice.” –Arthur

“I know it seems strange, I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, I don’t know why everyone is so rude, I don’t know why you are; I don’t want anything from you. Maybe a little warmth, maybe a hug, ‘Dad,’ maybe just a bit of common fucking decency!” –Arthur, to Thomas Wayne

“I haven’t been happy one minute of my entire fucking life.” –Arthur

“You know what’s funny? You know what really makes me laugh? I used to think that my life was a tragedy…but now I realize…it’s a fucking comedy.” –Arthur, to his mother before killing her

“When you bring me out, can you introduce me as Joker?” –Arthur, to Murray Franklin

Murray Franklin: Okay, I- I think …I might understand it. You…did this to start a movement? To become a-a symbol?
Joker: Come on, Mur-ray. Do I look like the kind of clown that could start a movement? I killed those guys because they were awful. Everybody is awful these days. It’s enough to make anyone crazy.
Murray: Alright. So that’s it, you’re crazy. That’s your defense for killing three young men?
Joker: No. They couldn’t carry a tune to save their lives. [the crowd boos and jeers] (growing frustrated) Ugh, why is everybody so upset about these guys?! If it was me dying on the sidewalk, you’d walk right over me! I pass you every day, and you don’t notice me! But these guys… What, because Thomas Wayne went and cried about them on TV?!
Franklin: You have a problem with Thomas Wayne?
Joker: Yes, I do! Have you seen what it’s like out there, Mur-ray? Do you ever actually leave the studio? Everybody just yells and screams at each other. Nobody’s civil anymore! Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy. You think men like Thomas Wayne ever think what it’s like to be someone like me?! To be somebody but themselves?! They don’t. They think we’ll all just sit there and take it like good little boys! That we won’t werewolf and go wild!!

You’re awful, Murray.” –Arthur, coldly

Joker: How about another joke, Mur-ray?
Franklin: No, I think we’ve had enough of your jokes.
Joker: What do you get…
Franklin: I don’t think so.
Joker: …When you cross…
Franklin: I think we’re done here now, that’s it.
Joker: …A mentally-ill loner with a SOCIETY THAT ABANDONS HIM AND TREATS HIM LIKE TRASH?!?!
Murray Franklin: Call the police, Gene!
Joker: I’ll tell you what you get!
Franklin: Call the police.
JokerYOU GET WHAT YOU FUCKING DESERVE!!!! [pulls out his gun and shoots Murray in the head, instantly killing him]

[Joker, in a police car, is laughing and chuckling at the chaos being spread to Gotham City]
Cop 1: Stop laughing, you freak. This isn’t funny.
Cop 2: Yeah, the whole fucking city’s on fire because of what you did.
Joker: I know… Isn’t it beautiful?

[Arthur is laughing loudly during a psychiatric examination at Arkham Asylum. He soon settles down, but still laughs]
Psychiatrist: What’s so funny?
Arthur[laughing and chuckling some more] I was just thinking…just thinking of a joke. [shot of a young Bruce Wayne standing over the bodies of his dead parents as the camera pulls back and Arthur’s laughter is heard]
Psychiatrist: You wanna tell it to me?
Arthur[softly whispers] You wouldn’t get it.

III: Mirrors

The story is set in 1981, as the film’s use of the old Warner Bros. logo of the time suggests. We hear the news on the radio describing a garbagemen’s strike in Gotham City, resulting in pileups of garbage bags all over town. Just as M.A.S.H., set during the Korean War, was meant as an allegory of the Vietnam War, so can Joker, set in early 80s Gotham, be seen as an allegory for our neoliberal time (in fact, because of the general strike in France, garbage is piling up there, too). The earlier time in which the film is set is a mirror to our present time.

Already we see, in this garbagemen’s strike, an indication of class war: if the workers’ demands would simply be respected, the mess would be cleaned up. The filth in the city, and the fears of it leading to the spread of disease, shows how little the rich care about the poor. The pileup of filth is a mirror to the political and economic corruption of our world.

We see Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) putting on clown makeup in front of a mirror. He puts his fingers in his mouth, stretching it upwards and downwards to make smiles and a frown (and remember that a ‘smile is just a frown turned upside-down’).

What’s established in this scene are two themes: the psychoanalytic symbolism of mirrors, and the dialectical relationship of opposites. These themes can also be fused in the form of the self-other dialectic, in which we can see the self in the other, and vice versa. One thing mirrors its opposite.

Fleck’s mirror is Lacan‘s mirror: the man looking in the reflection is Arthur’s real, socially awkward self; the reflection is his ideal-I, the successful comedian he wishes he could be. In his attempts to be that great comedian, to smile and make others smile and laugh, he finds himself constantly failing…hence, frowning.

The idealized image in the mirror is a lie, for the very formation of an ego–as opposed to the awkward, fragmented self one really is, lacking a clear definition between oneself and the outside world of other people–is also a lie. Hence, Arthur is alienated from the ‘self’ he sees in the mirror; that ‘self’ is really someone other than himself.

Similarly, he idealizes other people, such as Murray Franklin (De Niro) on the TV, whom Fleck sees not only as his idol as a comedian, but also as a kind of father figure, since he doesn’t know his real father. Seeing Murray’s face on the TV is thus like looking into a metaphorical mirror for Arthur.

Indeed, there are a number of such metaphorical mirrors, or idealizations of other people seen as reflections of one’s narcissistic self. Apart from Murray, these ideals include Arthur’s mother Penny (Frances Conroy; his idealization of her is Oedipal), Thomas Wayne (played by Brett Cullen, Wayne is idealized by both Flecks, who imagine the billionaire to be Arthur’s father), and Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz), whose finger gunshot to her head is imitated…mirrored, by Arthur. Charlie Chaplin, the comic tramp that penniless [!] Arthur sees mirrored on the silver screen, is another ideal.

Those are the idealized reflections, but then there’s the real Arthur looking at the literal or symbolic mirror reflection. The real Arthur is coming apart; he is experiencing psychological fragmentation, and a narcissistic False Self, as dysfunctional as that may be, is an effective defence against fragmentation. Hence, Arthur’s transformation into the Joker.

IV: Opposites Attract

The Clown Prince of Crime (a perpetrator of it), as we see in this film, starts out as a victim of crime: he’s beaten up by the kids who’ve stolen and broken his sign over his face; he’s docked pay for the sign, whose theft and breaking weren’t his fault…not that his boss, agent Hoyt Vaughn, wants to listen (this is tantamount to wage theft); and he’s assaulted by the three Wayne employees on the train, making him snap and kill them.

The dialectical unity of opposites is best symbolized in Arthur’s involuntary laughing, a result of pseudobulbar affect. His pained laugh, which he–in his embarrassment–desperately tries to control, looks like a cross between laughing and weeping; the sad aspect is especially apparent when we see it typically happening whenever something bad happens to him. Smile, though your heart is aching…

All Arthur has ever wanted is recognition, an acknowledgement that he exists. To make a kid laugh on the bus, such a happiness is the mirrored reflection of a smile Arthur’s own wounded inner child yearns to be able to do, but for real, for a change.

Lacan said, “Man’s desire is the desire of the Other,” that is, we feel desire in terms of other people. We desire what we imagine others desire, and we desire recognition from other people. Arthur imagines that, in making others laugh, he’s fulfilling their desires; and in doing so, he’s fulfilling his own desires by getting people’s recognition. Once again, we see the self defined in terms of the other.

While watching the Murray Franklin Show on TV with his mother, Arthur fantasizes that he’s sitting with the studio audience. This scene establishes the fact that not all we see and hear in this film is really happening. In fact, a lot more of it could be fantasy. Could all of it be fantasy?

Even if all of it is, the themes of class war and of alienation–social, worker, and inner alienation–are real enough to deserve examination. People like Arthur Fleck have existed and continue to exist; their problems of loneliness, mental illness, and exploitation by the ruling class countervail the Joker’s ‘fake’ origin story so many times over that the Arthur Fleck story might as well be 100% true.

I will argue that the Joker is Arthur’s False Self, his narcissistic defence against psychological fragmentation; on the other hand, the Joker (the only version of him that is ‘real’ to us, i.e., that we have seen in the comic books and in previous movies) could be imagining Arthur as a fake version of his past self in order to win people’s sympathy. Which version of him is real, and which is fantasy? Here we see how the opposites of fantasy and reality attract, as do those of the self and the other.

Arthur fantasizes that Murray would give up all his fame and wealth just to have Arthur for a son. As an aspiring comedian, Arthur wishes to identify with his idol, Murray, just as any son, upon the dissolution of his Oedipus complex, identifies with his father.

V: Comparisons With Other Films

Some interesting comparisons can be made between films in that De Niro is playing Murray; he also played Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy and Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Arthur is both the fantasizing, failed comedian counterpart of Pupkin and the journal-writing psychotic counterpart of Bickle. Similarly, Murray is the TV show host equivalent of Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) in The King of Comedy. In this use of De Niro, we see a further identification of Arthur with his TV-mirror reflection and father figure, Murray Franklin.

And since Arthur is an unreliable narrator, who may have killed fewer people than we see him kill (Does he kill Murray, or is that scene as much a fantasy as is his scene sitting with the studio audience? And what about the excessive number of shots fired from his gun on the three yuppies on and off the train?), Joker could be seen as the proletarian version of American Psycho. And this leads to an interesting inter-film coincidence: Christian Bale played both Patrick Bateman and Batman, the latter of whom would “complete” Heath Ledger’s Joker!

Fleck’s mother always calls him “Happy,” imagining that “he’d always been such a happy little boy”; but his ‘happiness,’ linked with his involuntary laughing and his failed attempts at comedy, is just a reaction formation against dealing with his profound sadness, a form of manic defence against depression. In this, we see the unity between the opposites of happiness and sadness, as when he–taking care of his mother–has seen his life as a tragedy, then–smothering her with the pillow in the hospital–sees his life as a comedy.

VI: The Love Gun

Randall, a clown colleague of Arthur’s, gives him a gun for his protection against any future attacks from punks like the teens at the film’s beginning. This pistol is a symbol of the Lacanian phallus, which is itself symbolic of the thing we lack, and therefore desire. Arthur’s lack, as mentioned above, is a feeling that he doesn’t exist (Lacan’s manque à être), which shifts into symbolic castration (manque á avoir, ‘lack of having’), the powerlessness he feels as a poor, struggling clown/comedian.

It’s around when he gets the gun that he begins to fantasize and obsess about Sophie. He dances in his living room holding the gun, imagining he’s talking to her and that she’s impressed with his dancing. His erotic pelvic moves emphasize the phallic nature of the gun, and when he accidentally shoots a hole in the wall, and his mother complains about the noise, it’s as if she’s caught her boy masturbating. Apologizing to her, he feels ashamed. Later, when he fantasizes about Sophie at his door, and she asks him about his having followed her, and hopes he’d “come in and rob” her in her apartment (obvious sexual symbolism), he playfully mentions the gun he has…more sexual and phallic symbolism.

When he performs for the hospital kids and the gun falls out of his pocket and onto the floor, we see another symbolic castration, his loss of power (he gets fired, and thus can no longer be the ‘happy’ clown he imagines his mom wants him to be…”to spread joy and laughter”). Ironically, it’s his dancing about that causes the gun to fall out. Actually, Arthur has missed his calling: he should be a dancer, not a comedian. Dancing is natural for him: he doesn’t even seem to need lessons.

He regains his power when killing the three men on the train with that ejaculating, phallic gun (a comparison I made in my Taxi Driver analysis, too). He escapes to a public washroom and does another of his therapeutic dances. Using the gun to kill his tormentors, projecting his pain onto them, is therapeutic and empowering, as is his dancing, perhaps the purest art form of all, since it involves the direct, instinctive movements of the body to express oneself (‘express,’ to press outward, to project outside what has been bottled up inside, to take what’s in the self and put it in the other).

VII: Thomas Wayne

Unlike the kind Thomas Wayne of Batman Begins, this one is an unsympathetic, Trumpish sort. Accordingly, his attitude towards the angry poor is offensive and condescending–he calls them “clowns,” yet he hypocritically claims that, if elected mayor of Gotham, he’ll help the poor, even though really doing so would be against his class interests as a billionaire.

Yet aptly-named Penny imagines Wayne will save Gotham, as many poor Americans believe their incumbent–who has cut (or at least proposed to cut) food stamps, taxes for the rich, and funding for healthcare and education, yet has also sought to boost military spending into the billions–actually cares for them. She idealizes Wayne, just as Arthur has idealized images of Murray, Sophie, and Wayne in his head, mirror images that don’t reflect the truth.

There’s more fantasizing when Arthur imagines Sophie at his door asking about his having followed her (something no woman in her right mind would be happy about); then he imagines himself dating her, with her enjoying his disastrous standup comedy routine, and her with him in the hospital with his mother. One wonders: have the fantasies increased now that he isn’t getting his medication? Is the rest of the movie especially unreliable?

This leads back to the discussion of class war: the cuts in funding that cause Arthur to lose both his therapy sessions and his medication. Problems like these underscore how a movie set in 1981 (before Reagan had really begun to force ‘small government,’ and ‘free market‘ capitalism on the US) is actually a parable for our much worse times. The cops accuse the Joker of causing the social unrest at the end of the film, instead of taking responsibility for protecting the capitalist system that has really caused the unrest.

VIII: Mommy and Daddy Issues

But what is the thing that makes Arthur totally lose it? Not so much these problems mentioned above, not even Murray humiliating him on TV, but that archaic, narcissistic trauma that–in all of its variations–is universal: his love/hate relationship with his parents.

Heinz Kohut‘s theory of the bipolar self posits that we all get our sense of self, as children going through primary narcissism, through the grandiose self on one side (which says, “I’m great, and I need you, Mom and Dad, to mirror my greatness back to me!”) and the idealized parental imago on the other (a mental internalization of one’s ‘godlike’ parents that says, “You, Mom and Dad, are the greatest, and I get my greatness from your love!”). Lacking this validation, a person is in danger of either pathological narcissism or fragmenting into a psychotic break with reality.

Such fragmenting, with only a narcissistic False Self as a defence against it, is exactly what’s happening to Arthur. When his mother plants the seed in his head that his rolling-stone papa is billionaire Thomas Wayne, he naturally wants to idealize the man as much as she does.

When Arthur meets young Bruce, the two facing each other with the gate of class difference separating them, I suspect that Arthur is fantasizing about touching the boy’s face and curling it up into a smile. No child would tolerate a stranger touching him like that without at least some resistance, especially a rich child raised to believe that the lower classes are ‘inferior.’

Arthur’s wish to make Bruce smile, as with the boy laughing and facing him on the bus, represents his own wish to smile by having happiness mirrored back to him. It’s his wish for recognition, just as he’d have Thomas acknowledge him as his son.

But as always, his wishes keep getting frustrated. In the public washroom with Thomas Wayne, Arthur sees both of them in the mirror reflection, himself juxtaposed with his idealized father, another kind of ideal-I. Not only does Wayne, however, deny that he’s his father, in an even more devastating blow, he claims that Penny adopted Arthur.

Arthur claims that Thomas resembles him (“Look at us,” he says. “I think you are.”): is this a fact, or is it wish-fulfillment? Thomas’s denial of paternity could easily be part of a cover-up to avoid publicizing a scandalous adultery with a former employee, complete with documents forged by the unscrupulous Dr. Benjamin Stoner. On the other hand, especially with regards to Arthur’s unreliable point of view presenting the story, we must also consider how far-fetched it is to believe that he and Bruce Wayne are half-brothers.

Arthur’s visit to Arkham State Hospital seems to confirm his worst fears: his mother’s medical documents seem to confirm that Penny adopted him as a child. What’s worse–and this seems to be real–he reads of her having allowed her then-boyfriend to abuse him when a boy. The physical abuse little Arthur suffered included blows to the head that must have caused his pseudobulbar affect; the ex-boyfriend also chained him to a radiator and left him deprived of food.

IX: Trauma Leads to Madness

Those who prefer leaving the Joker’s past a mystery, leaving it “multiple choice,” seem to be reinforcing, intentionally or not, the idea that criminal psychopaths are just “fucking crazies,” as Detective Mills calls them in Se7en. I prefer to go with the trauma model of mental disorders, and I believe that Arthur’s reading of his mother’s medical records has triggered repressed childhood memories, forgotten traumas. People aren’t just ‘born crazy,’ they are made to be mentally ill.

Erich Fromm, in Man for Himself, explains how, in a general sense, one becomes evil rather than is innately so: “If life’s tendency to grow, to be lived, is thwarted, the energy thus blocked undergoes a process of change and is transformed into life-destructive energy. Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life. Those individual and social conditions which make for the blocking of life-furthering energy produce destructiveness which in turn is the source from which the various manifestations of evil spring.” (Fromm, page 162, his emphasis)

Worse than having triggered the memory of Arthur’s repressed childhood traumas, regardless of whether or not the medical documents have been faked, the seed of doubt has been planted in his head: is Penny not his biological mother? Are both of his parents unknown? Did both parents abandon him when he was a child? Does nobody love him?

He has experienced traumatic disappointments on both poles of his personality (in Kohut’s sense): his grandiose self has been shattered with humiliations and rejections, and his parental idealizations have proven false to him.

He’s had a bad day.

Only transforming into the Joker will keep him from falling apart.

With both parents having abandoned and betrayed him, Arthur will perceive them as only bad internal objects in his mind. This is Melanie Klein‘s notion of the bad mother and bad father, causing him to experience what she called the paranoid-schizoid position, a splitting of internalized objects into absolute good and bad, and a paranoid fear that the bad objects will harm him. (Click here for a more thorough elucidation of psychoanalytic concepts.) There are no good objects for Arthur…only bad ones. Now, he will feel an urge to kill his parents, both biological and symbolic.

X: Metamorphosis

After smothering Penny (whose very name he hates) in the hospital, Arthur returns home; having learned (or, as I suspect, fantasized in his narcissistic imagination, leading to a fantasy of murderous revenge) that Murray wants him as a guest on the TV show, Arthur is seen looking in a mirror as he dyes his hair green. This is him constructing his False Self as the Joker, looking at his ideal-I in the Lacanian mirror and striving to live up to that ideal.

Murdering Randall helps further cement Arthur’s new identity as the Joker, so his transformation is complete. Hearing the music from, thankfully, only the largely instrumental section of Gary Glitter‘s “Rock and Roll” (speaking of sickos…and Glitter will get no royalties for the song’s inclusion in the soundtrack, so don’t worry about that), we see Arthur enter the elevator and leave his apartment all decked out in Joker garb and clown makeup.

In several scenes, we’ve seen sad Arthur climb that interminably high staircase up to his apartment as the evening sun is going down. I’m reminded of a passage from Milton‘s Paradise Lost: “Long is the way/And hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” (Book II, lines 432-433) Now as the Joker, though, he joyfully dances his way down the stairs. Instead of struggling his way up in search of heaven, he’s dancing down to hell.

Two cops chase him into a train filled with his followers, the anti-Wayne protestors in clown masks. These people, who regard him as a hero for killing the three Wayne employees, are each a mirror reflection of him, giving him the recognition he’s always craved. To help him escape from the cops, he even steals and dons a clown mask to mix in better with the crowded protestors, and to cause a fight among them to stop the cops from being able to continue their pursuit. His wearing of the mask reinforces the false nature of his Joker persona; he’s making himself mirror his fans.

XI: When Homicide Is Suicide

As I said above, I believe his appearance on the Murray Franklin Show is a fantasy, as much a fantasy as his first appearance in the studio audience. (At the very least, the producers of the show would have cut to commercial and gotten rid of him as soon as he began flaking out on live TV, long before he’d have had a chance to take out his gun.) In the first fantasy, Murray is Arthur’s symbolic good father, a transference from his unknown father onto Murray; in the second fantasy, Murray is the symbolic bad father who, like bad mother Penny, must be killed.

Note how, during his rant on the show, the Joker complains of how we must suffer and “take it like good little boys.” This sounds like a child suffering from an abusive father, authority figure…or Penny’s abusive ex-boyfriend, another substitute father for little Arthur. In his fantasy, he kills symbolic father Murray and gives a long kiss to the elderly woman sex therapist, Dr. Sally, who could be considered a symbolic mother transference (recall how he says he loves Dr. Sally). How Oedipal.

I’m guessing he fantasizes about killing Murray while actually still in his apartment, where he’s similarly fantasized about shooting himself, this suicide ideation being a recurring idea throughout the film. In imagining he’s shot Murray, he’s really shot that mirror image of his idealized self, his identification with the idealized parental imago that he now hates, and has replaced with his new ideal-I…the Joker. So this is yet another example of the self mirrored in the other, and vice versa.

XII: Destructive or Constructive Revolution?

He is delighted to see all the rioting and violence on the streets of Gotham, all those people in clown masks hating Wayne and the other rich of the city. Their anger mirrors his own, even though he insists he’s apolitical: recall his words to Murray, “I don’t believe in anything,” echoing the nihilism of the Germans in The Big Lebowski. Arthur finally has the recognition he’s craved; the rioters want what he wants–chaos and destruction. Accordingly, he does another dance, this time for his fans on the police car. He puts his fingers in his bloody mouth, pulls them upward, and unlike his frowning before the mirror at the beginning of the film, this time he makes a genuine, if gory, grin.

Now, we can sympathize with the anger of these people and their wish to destroy the current, corrupt social order. Revolution cannot, however, end with only violence; one must build a new world after the destruction of the old, and return to stability. The Joker and his clowns don’t want to rebuild.

It’s interesting how the Trotskyist Left Voice largely praises Joker for its insurrectionary message, while this Marxist-Leninist blog is critical of the film for its stopping at the violence and chaos. These two strands of socialism respectively advocate either violent, permanent, worldwide revolution, or the building up of socialism, be that building-up in several countries, or even just in one, if continued revolutions elsewhere aren’t possible for the time being.

Though the Joker imagines that a life of chaos is the only one for him, and that his current, laughing madman self is the real him, remember what I said above: his Joker persona is a narcissistic False Self that keeps him from psychologically falling apart. A rebuilding of society, on socialist principles, would restore the cut funding to social services, giving Arthur back his psychotherapy and medication. Socialism would also work to end the alienation he suffers.

XIII: Bruce Completes Arthur

It’s interesting how both Arthur and Bruce have lost their parents by the end of the film (be they Arthur’s actual or imagined parents), and in the loss of both people’s parents, both a supervillain and a superhero are being born. In this we see a mirroring of the Joker and Batman, of the one completing the other, the self-other dialectic…there’s a bit of one person in the other, and vice versa.

The one scene in the film not ‘narrated’ by Arthur (i.e., he isn’t in this one scene) is when Joe Chill shoots Thomas and Martha Wayne. Arthur, in Arkham, laughs about that moment, presumably having read about the murders in the newspapers and imagining a private joke. In contrast to the first scene of him laughing/weeping during a therapy session (also, just to reinforce the parallels, with a black female therapist [as was fantasized Sophie, in a way, a therapist for him], but now we’re in a white room instead of the dark room of the beginning), this time he’s really enjoying the laugh.

His therapist may not get the joke, but I think I do: he, in having inspired the clown protestors, is indirectly responsible for the murder of Bruce’s parents; because Chill, in the clown mask, is a metaphorical mirror of Arthur. This makes Arthur like young Jack Napier of the 1989 Batman film, to note yet another interesting coincidence between films. Traumatized Arthur knows young, traumatized Bruce will want revenge on him, just as he’s wanted revenge on the whole world.

Arthur=Joe=Jack=Joker=Bruce=Batman

It would be interesting to see a sequel to Joker, with Batman–the bourgeois superhero par excellence (Tony Stark ranking a close second)–fighting the permanently revolutionary Joker. What a complex, morally and politically ambiguous story that would be, where such dialectical opposites as hero and villain intermingle, as do the self and the other, happiness and sadness, and bourgeois and proletarian heroism and criminality.

If I, in my flight of ideas, have left you confused, should I explain further?

Nah.

You wouldn’t get it.

Sour Grapes

A number of years back, when I wrote this blog piece (scroll down to Part III–The Sins of State Socialism), it was at a time when I was only beginning to learn about socialism (at the age of fifty as of this post, I’ve been a late bloomer on the left). I considered myself an anarcho-communist at the time, and I knew very little about Stalin, Trotsky, Mao, etc., beyond what the usual imperialist propaganda tells us.

Accordingly, I made the naïve assumption, as given in Part III of the above-linked blog post, that the “somewhat more democratic nature” [barf] of Trotskyism and the Fourth International is preferable to Stalin and the Third International. I also naïvely assumed that Socialism in One Country is alien to the internationalist spirit of communism, and that Permanent Revolution is what socialists should be prioritizing.

It didn’t take me too long to see the error in my thinking. (As I’ve already pointed out a number of times in other posts, consider my more recent ones to be accurate reflections of my beliefs–not so much my older ones; I haven’t deleted or updated the erroneous older ideas because firstly, I sometimes like to look back and compare old ideas to new, to see how my thinking has changed over the years, and secondly, because I’m simply too lazy to bother revising all that old writing.)

Even with this change of heart, though, I chose to read The Revolution Betrayed in order to get a chance to see Trotsky’s side of the story. I recently finished reading it, and I must say that I am not impressed. I’ll give my reasons for this.

Crucial to understanding how wrongheaded is Trotsky’s perspective is to see how dated the arguments are. The book was published in 1937, and barely a decade later, one could see how justified Stalin’s decisions were…provided one doesn’t rely on such spurious sources as Robert Conquest and The Black Book of Communism.

If Trotsky had won the power struggle over Lenin’s succession in the late 1920s, and if he had applied his interpretation of permanent revolution–as opposed to fortifying the Soviet Union (socialism in one country)–the Nazi invasion, which occurred no later than the year after he was assassinated, would have been a success, and all that the communists had fought for would have been in vain. Recall also Lenin’s own words in “On the Slogan for a United States of Europe”: “Uneven economic and political development is an absolute law of capitalism. Hence, the victory of socialism is possible first in several or even in one capitalist country alone.” (Tucker, p. 203) Evidently, socialism in one country isn’t so anti-Marxist as it would seem.

Speaking of anti-Marxism, Trotsky, in spite of his pretensions as a socialist, was less interested in the good of socialism than he was in acquiring power for its own sake. The man was known for his stubbornness and arrogance (if not outright narcissism) and his opportunism (of which he hypocritically accuses the ‘present communist “leaders”‘ on page 232 of his book), having jumped ship and joined the Bolsheviks just before they took over the Russian government in October/November 1917. In contrast, Stalin–despite his undeserved reputation as a ‘power-hungry, genocidal maniac’–asked to resign from his position as General Secretary no less than four times.

Trotsky didn’t lose the power struggle to Stalin out of a lesser lust for power; he lost because he lost. He lost because the Russian people knew they needed to build up a strong defence for the nation, especially with the growing Nazi threat. The lack of successful communist revolutions outside the USSR at the time reinforced an understanding of that reality.

When reading through The Revolution Betrayed, I find it next to impossible to verify whether or not Trotsky’s sources are reliable (no footnotes). He’d been exiled from the USSR for about eight years, and so he wouldn’t have had first-hand access to any information on the goings-on of Soviet government, industry, agriculture, the status of women, etc. Yet he wrote as if he knew of all of these things in minute detail. How could he have known what he’d claimed so confidently to have known? Needless to say, he didn’t have the kind of access to information that we have in today’s online world.

Of course, he had his sympathizers and followers in the Soviet Union sending him his source material and statistics…but who were these people? The USSR was honeycombed with traitors in the 1930s, including pro-fascist ones who were working hard to pave the way for the Nazi invasion. The Holodomor hoax was being circulated at the time, Yagoda and Yezhov were up their mischief, all of which the bourgeois media blames on Stalin, among other schemes and forms of sabotage.

It’s been said many times, many ways, and by many people: Trotsky was a liar. His followers, those providing him with his dubious source material, were and are liars. This kind of propagandizing was picked up by such various anti-Soviet propagandists as Robert Conquest, Nikita Khrushchev (in his ‘secret speech‘), anarchists like Emma Goldman, George Orwell (recall his sympathetic portrayal of Snowball in Animal Farm), Noam Chomsky, etc. Despite having ‘leftist’ credentials, Trotskyism has been a darling of the political right for 80-90 years; capitalists have been able to use these anti-Soviet polemics to legitimize their critiques by saying, ‘See? Even leftists admit that Stalin was awful!’

So, what was Trotsky’s motive in writing smear campaign after smear campaign against the USSR? As I see it, sour grapes. When losing the succession to Stalin, a man he foolishly underestimated, egotistical Trotsky must have experienced narcissistic injury on a level comparable to Hillary’s humiliating loss to the Donald in 2016. And in a manner comparable to the DNC’s baseless Russiagate fabrications, Trotsky began inventing stories about the corrupt bureaucracy, oppression of the Russian people, and the subversion of Soviet democracy. Narcissists try to destroy what they envy by characterizing the good that they envy in someone as being rotten; this imagined rottenness, however, is just a projection coming from the narcissists themselves.

Stalin, with his many more years of experience as a Bolshevik, and therefore greater dedication to their cause, was the obvious choice over Trotsky. The Bolsheviks, moreover, believed in the peasants, as did Mao: Trotsky didn’t believe in them, thus alienating them from him. Stalin’s prioritizing of protecting the Soviet Union against future invasions (a fear keenly felt less than a decade after the Russian Civil War of 1918-1922), as against Trotsky’s quixotic dreams of revolution after revolution after revolution (which hadn’t succeeded in the 1920s), was simply common sense.

Had Trotsky been a socialist worth his salt, he’d have gracefully accepted defeat, wished Stalin the best of luck as the new leader and supported him in any and every way he could, and respected the people’s wish to focus on building socialism in the USSR and making people’s lives better, as over the exhausting efforts of perpetuating revolutions worldwide, with little interest in protecting their already successful one. In other words, Trotsky didn’t care about worker solidarity…he only cared about his wounded ego.

Trotsky characterized the Gulag as “concentration camps” on, for example, page 213 (twice); incidentally, the CIA itself acknowledged that the Gulag, from which 20-40% of prisoners were released in any given year, was nothing like the Nazi death camps. Trotsky also used Mussolini’s term “totalitarian” several times in his book (for example, on page 210) to describe Stalin’s government (which was much more democratic than is assumed). Such characterizations of the USSR reek of propaganda, yet millions of readers uncritically read Trotsky’s work, thinking they’re getting an accurate assessment of the 1930s Soviet Union.

Now, there are ways of frankly discussing the errors and problems of the time without advocating an overthrow of the Soviet government (as Trotsky does, for example, on pages 214-219; check out this quote from page 217–“the bureaucracy can be removed only by a revolutionary force…To prepare this and stand at the head of the masses in a favorable historic situation–that is the task of the Soviet section of the Fourth International.”)…but overthrow was what he wanted; that was the point. He didn’t want to advance socialism; he wanted power.

And what of spreading revolution beyond socialism in one country? Did that not happen from the end of World War II? The Eastern Bloc was established; four years later, Mao took China; ten years after that, there was the Cuban Revolution (and Che took his inspiration from Stalin, not from Trotsky), and the USSR was supporting Third World liberation movements all over the place. There’s your permanent revolution, Leon: it’s just a matter of waiting for the right time to come, as Lenin discussed in his paper, ‘The Symptoms of a Revolutionary Situation” (Tucker, pages 275-277)

Though Trotsky complained in his book about the problems in the Soviet Union of the 1930s (probably more imagined than real), since his assassination, we know of the glorious successes that Stalin achieved by the time of his death in 1953: the defeat of fascism (due mostly to his leadership), the transformation of Russia from a backward, agrarian society into an industrialized, nuclear-armed superpower, affordable housing for all, collectivized agriculture ending the famines, full employment, free healthcare and education, equal rights for women, and huge economic growth. I’ll bet you couldn’t have outdone Stalin, Leon, had you succeeded Lenin.

So, that’s my assessment of Trotsky. In sum, apart from his contributions to the Red Army’s defeat of the White Army during the Russian Civil War, there isn’t much to say in his favour. Anything good in his Marxist writings is–to my knowledge, for what that’s worth–excelled in the writings of his predecessors, Marx, Engels, and Lenin, so I suggest reading those instead, Dear Reader.

As for Trotskyists, I’d say they are, at best, inferior Marxists who may be well-intentioned, but who’d do better by reading more of the three authors I recommended above, as well as Stalin and Mao. At their worst, though, Trotskyists are dangerous, lying counterrevolutionaries. Contributors on Trot websites like the WSWS and Left Voice (who may or may not be actual Trotskyists) may sometimes write informative articles, provided they don’t add claptrap like, “…as Leon Trotsky once said,” “Join the Fourth International!”, or drone on about the ‘evils’ of “Stalinism.” Readers of Trot rags must be able to discern between fact and agitprop.

While I don’t like violence, I must acknowledge that the assassination of Trotsky was necessary. The USSR in 1940 was in a precarious position with the looming Nazi threat, and Trotsky’s polemics and lies were just adding to the danger against the Russian people. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 shows how real that danger was.

As Stalin himself once said, “What would happen if capital succeeded in smashing the Republic of Soviets? There would set in an era of the blackest reaction in all the capitalist and colonial countries, the working class and the oppressed peoples would be seized by the throat, the positions of international communism would be lost.”

As we know from the metastasizing of neoliberalism since the dissolution of the USSR, we can see how prophetic Stalin was being; and from this growing catastrophe, we can see how wrong Trotsky was to oppose Stalin. After all, neocons evolved from Trots; accordingly, “permanent revolution” has evolved into permanent war.

Beware of those who pretend to be leftists. Not all friends are comrades.

Leon Trotsky (translated by Max Eastman), The Revolution Betrayed, Dover Publications, New York, 1937

Robert C. Tucker, The Lenin Anthology, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1975

Analysis of “Midsommar”

Midsommar is a 2019 folk horror film written and directed by Ari Aster. It stars Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren, William Jackson Harper, and Will Poulter. It is considered one of the best horror films of 2019, with its unconventional way of disturbing and unsettling the audience.

Normally, a horror film thrives on the use of darkness to evoke the creepy mood. With this film, most of the horrors occur in broad daylight, as the film’s title suggests. Much of the film actually has a sad tone–unusual again for a film full of sunny skies–since the story is essentially about the slow but sure breakup of a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship.

The disturbing aspect of this breakup, though, is how it’s actually being manipulated and aggravated by a pagan cult. It’s equally obvious that Pelle (Blomgren) is drawing Dani Ardor (Pugh) away from Christian Hughes (Reynor) as it is that Maja (played by Isabelle Grill) is drawing Christian away from Dani; but I suspect the cult has been orchestrating this breakup to a far greater extent than is assumed by the average viewer of the film.

Here are some quotes:

[in Swedish] “This high my fire. No higher. No hotter!” –Siv

“He’s my good friend and I like him, but…Dani, do you feel held by him? Does he feel like home to you?” –Pelle, talking to Dani about Christian

“He draws, and we, the Elders, interpret. You see Yosh, Ruben is unclouded by normal cognition. It makes him open, for the source.” –Arne

“Ruben was – a product of inbreeding. All of our oracles are deliberate products of inbreeding.” –Arne

“I think I ate one of her pubic hairs.” –Christian, of Maja

[in Swedish] “I can feel it! I feel the baby!” –Maja, right after having sex with Christian

“Christian?” [snaps fingers twice] “Christian… Hi. Hello! There you are! Listen: You can’t speak. You can’t move.” [smiles] “All right?” [smiles] “Good.” –Ulla

**********

Siv: On this, the day of our deity of reciprocity, we gather to give special thanks to our treasured Sun. As an offering for our Father, we will today surrender nine *human* lives. As Hårga takes, so Hårga also gives. Thus, for every newblood sacrificed, we will dedicate one of our own. That is: four newbloods, four from Hårga, and one to be chosen by the Queen. Nine in all, to die, and be reborn, in the great Cycle.

Stev: The four newbloods, have already been supplied. As for our end, we have two already dedicated…And two who have volunteered. Ingemar and Ulf. [they step forward] You have brought outside offerings, thus volunteering your own bodies. You will today be joined in harmony with Everything. And to Pelle, who has brought new blood, and our new May Queen, you will today be honored for your unclouded intuition. And so, for our ninth offering. It is traditional that our fair Queen shall choose, between a preselected newblood, and a specially ordained Hårgan.

**********

The shifting of the seasons, from the dead of winter to the sunny skies of midsummer is important in terms of symbolism. It represents the dialectical relationship between opposites, one of unity in duality, as seen in the gradual transition from one opposite extreme to the other. We shift from the death and cold of winter to the renewed life and warmth of summer. As observed in my analysis of A Christmas Carol, we see here a case of ‘out with the old, in with the new’…only here, the seasons are reversed.

What should be noted here is that, just as there’s a shift from the winter’s death and cold to summer’s life and warmth, so is there a shift from the life and warmth…well, relatively speaking, of course…of Dani’s and Christian’s relationship, to the death and absolute cold of the relationship’s official end in summer–to say nothing of Christian’s winter life and midsummer death. Here again we see the unity of opposites.

Furthermore, as I mentioned above, most of the killing (and discovery of it) happens under sunny skies (except for the murder of Josh [Harper]); while the dark moments deal mostly with Dani’s fears or realizations of abandonment (her sister’s suicide/murder of their parents, more a tragic than horrific moment; Dani’s drug trip experience in the dark bathroom, with her hallucinating the sight of her dead sister in the mirror; her dream of her ‘friends’ driving out of the commune at night and leaving her there).

Her sister Terri suffers from bipolar disorder, the cycles of excitement and depression being symbolically paralleled here with the bright highs of summer and the black lows of winter; so it’s fitting to start with both the extreme cold and dark night of winter, along with the extreme depths of Terri’s worst depressive episode ever. In Terri’s scary email to Dani, she types, “everything’s black.”

Dani is already extremely vulnerable emotionally, her anxiety being such that Christian finds it hard to cope. She takes Ativan to soothe her anxieties, and she’s afraid that all her emotional baggage is pushing Christian away; whereas if he were a decent boyfriend, he’d be much more compassionate than he is.

Of course, Christian’s friends are hardly inspiring of compassion for Dani. Mark (Poulter), a particularly insensitive ass, bluntly tells Christian that he should dump her. Then, there’s Pelle…

Right from the film’s beginning, we see Pelle–the Swede who’s inviting the group to his commune’s midsummer celebrations, and who is the only one who’s happy, even excited, to have Dani tag along–sitting with Christian, Josh, and Mark, when they’re telling Christian he should break up with Dani. Pelle doesn’t say much about the souring relationship at the time (except mentioning the beautiful Swedish women Christian will meet in Hälsingland–i.e., Maja), but given what we know of his motives by the end of the movie, we now can see that it’s obvious his mind is turning already.

Knowing the pagan commune’s use of spells, I speculate that Pelle, right from the beginning, may have been using magic (i.e., the pictures he draws, including the one of Dani) not only to accelerate the couple’s breakup, but also even to drive Terri to the murder/suicide, orphaning Dani so he can ’empathize’ with her, bring her into the cult…and finally have her.

The worst of Dani’s fears of abandonment are realized when she learns that Terri has wiped out their entire family by flooding the house with carbon monoxide while their parents are sleeping. The premeditative nature of this killing, how Terri must have planned it, is almost like a human sacrifice (!). Dani is all alone in the world…except for her doing-the-bare-minimum boyfriend.

But with the onset of winter comes the birth of the sun god; that is, the sun is farthest away from the northern hemisphere, and it will be coming back, slowly but surely, until midsummer, when it’s at its closest. This slow return symbolizes the slow return of hope for Dani, who, though still traumatized, is little by little learning to put her life back together, if in the dubious form of joining a cult.

Christian’s aloofness isn’t helping, though. When he originally intends to go to Sweden with Pelle, Josh, and Mark, he hopes to blow off Dani and have fun in bed with beautiful Swedish girls. It’s only after seeing Dani sob (in an extended scene from the director’s cut, deleted from the theatrical release) that he reluctantly invites her along, lying that he’s meant her ‘last second invitation’ as a “romantic” surprise.

His inviting of Dani has made things awkward for the two of them, as well as for Mark and Josh (though Pelle, of course, is thrilled she’s coming). She can feel the annoyance of the former three men, who–apart from Josh’s work on his thesis–have been hoping for a buddy trip, chasing skirt. This awkwardness is indicative of the alienation in modern society, which will be sharply contrasted with the communal closeness felt among the pagan cult in Hårga…a closeness that will feel too close.

Indeed, part of the cult’s manipulation of its visitors will be a dividing of the four of them through triangulation, and this divisiveness is already beginning because of Pelle’s influence. We often see him drawing: for her birthday, he gives her a drawing of her wearing a wreath; I’m convinced that these drawings are spells, Pelle’s visualizations of such things as her as the next May Queen…which, indeed, is what she’s fated to become.

There’s a dialectical relationship between this growing alienation among the four visitors and the all-too-close bond Dani is developing with the cult, which actually is enmeshment. Similarly, the coming together of her and Pelle, the coming together of Christian and Maja, and the slow breakup of him and Dani, are also dialectically related–more unions of opposites.

To develop this theme further, it’s interesting how the visitor who has been traumatized by a murder/suicide in her family is the only one to be able to adapt to the death cult ways of the commune. The one who has viewed death with the greatest horror is also the one who becomes most accepting of it at the end. What’s more, it’s interesting how, of the four visitors, it’s Josh–the only African-American among a cast of people of European descent–who is by far the most passionate about learning about Scandinavian pagan traditions.

[NOTE: please don’t misinterpret my meaning here. I’m not trying to say that it’s somehow ‘odd’ or ‘out of place’ for a black person to be interested in European culture. Far from it! We should all, regardless of ‘race’ or colour, be encouraged to learn about cultures outside of those of our ethnic background. For indeed, many blacks have been famous for not only loving, but also excelling, at presenting various aspects of ‘white’ culture. A few examples, off the top of my head, include Jessye Norman in opera, Wynton Marsalis when interpreting Haydn, and Paul Robeson playing Othello and singing “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.”]

My only point in speaking of Josh’s thesis in terms of the ethnic difference between him and Scandinavia is to give another example of this film’s theme of the unity of opposites: in terms of ethnic and cultural background, Josh, of the four visitors, is furthest away from Nordic tradition, yet he’s nearest to it in his emotional investment. It’s not about whether African-Americans ‘should or shouldn’t’ be interested in European culture (Why shouldn’t they be interested?); it’s that, technically speaking, he is passionate about it, making him, in this sense, more Nordic than Dani, Christian, and Mark could ever be; and in this we see a sameness in difference…as there should be a unity and harmony between all cultures, including those (actually or only seemingly) most dissimilar. I’m not prescribing what cultures one is ‘supposed’ to be interested in; I’m only exploring theme.

In contrast to Josh’s love of all things Scandinavian, white Christian, who also wants to do his thesis on the Hårga, is totally half-assed in his interest in the culture; worse, he is leeching off of Josh’s passion, justifiably angering him. In fact, Josh’s fascination goes so far as to have among his research books one involving the Nazi use of the Uthark (seen in an extended version of the scene of the car ride into Hälsingland)! Pelle claims that Josh carries the book around only to annoy him, but one would think that Josh himself would be annoyed to have it around. Once again, opposites attract.

Yet another example of the union of opposites is in Christian’s attitude towards Dani. He’s a bad boyfriend, to be sure, but not completely bad. He’s conflicted about her: part of him wants to end the relationship, but part of him wants to hang onto it. He expresses fears of regretting dumping her, and then not being able to get her back. He’s emotionally distant, yet tries…however clumsily…to be considerate. This ‘to be or not to be’ her boyfriend is thus another paradoxical unity of opposites.

Even when he is offered Maja for mating, he asks to watch the sex ritual instead of participate in it (in another deleted extension, that of his scene with Siv). And after he comes inside Maja, he runs out of the building naked, full of fear and remorse. He’d still be with Dani, yet not be with her.

When the visitors arrive in the Hårga community, pretty diegetic music is heard playing on flutes as they walk through a huge, yellow circular entrance designed like the sun. It’s a quaint, charming scene, and the people living here seem sweet. The charm is superficial, though, since we’ll see soon enough what will happen to Mark, Josh, and Christian, as well as to UK visitors, Simon and Connie.

One can debate whether or not ancient Norse pagans actually committed any or all of the shocking acts seen in the film (senicide, blood eagles, skinning of human flesh, and human sacrifices); but staying within the framework of the story of the film, we need to wonder about a community in the modern world doing things they know that no one outside would ever accept.

Such extreme acts, deemed understandable only in a pre-scientific world–where human sacrifice, rather than such things as modern agricultural practices, is believed to ward off bad luck and ensure good harvests–when combined with the pagan cult’s superficial charm, can only mean that the Hårga commune is collectively sociopathic and narcissistic. They fancy their ways to be superior to those of the modern scientific world; they arrogantly think they have the right and duty to manipulate and end human lives. Yet, on first meeting them, we find them so charming and sweet.

Again, we see here a meeting of opposites: so sweet, kind, and gentle, yet so cruel and merciless. This is a collectively narcissistic community. Membership (enmeshment, actually) has its privileges (e.g., being the May Queen, a kind of golden child), but being outside of the inner circle only brings death. Horrors happen under sunny skies.

Normally, when we think of sexual predation, we think of lecherous men prowling after pretty, nubile young women. Indeed, Mark–who’s such a jackass, he can’t even refrain from engaging in locker-room talk in Dani’s presence…so inept around women, and probably a virgin–is all eager about chasing Swedish women. But when one of the Hårga women (Inga, played by Julia Ragnarsson) shows an interest in him as a mate, he gets scared, not just because he’s such a dork, but because he can sense the predation.

Maja, of course, is especially predatory, what with the spells she uses on Christian (the runic charm she puts under his bed, and her pubic hair in his food), and the unsettling way her eyes are always on him. This sex role reversal is another union of opposites: men chase women, but women hunt after men. The hunter becomes the hunted.

Simon and Connie cannot hide their shock at the senicide, so when they say they want to leave immediately, not only is their murder necessary to silence them and protect the cult from the police; it’s also revenge for the narcissistic injury the cult feels after Simon and Connie make them lose face by his calling the senicide “fucked!”

Mark’s pissing on the ancestral tree, another loss of face for the cult, is more narcissistic injury requiring his death, as is Josh’s forbidden taking of photos of the cult’s holy book. The visitors have no respect for the commune’s traditions, so they must die.

That tense scene of the four visitors sitting together at the dinner table exemplifies another union of opposites, that of social alienation vs. enmeshment. Resentment builds between Dani and Christian when she says she can imagine him leaving without telling her (as Simon has done to Connie) because of a “miscommunication.” Mutual resentment builds between Christian and Josh over the former leeching off the latter’s thesis. Mark fears being murdered because of his pissing on the tree. All four feel alone, divided from each other…and yet they’re surrounded by a commune of people so together, they all share one will.

…and Dani, quite soon, will be part of that one will.

As part of his slow seduction of her, Pelle comforts Dani, after her shock at the senicide (which reminds her far too much of Terri’s murder/suicide–the death of their aged parents), by mentioning his own parents…who died in a fire (!). We must remember this fiery death in light of the sacrifice at the end of the film, a ritual murder Pelle fully, willingly participates in. He would tell her of his parents’ death to have her believe he empathizes with her, that he would hold her in a way Christian never will…yet Pelle is using her pain to lure her in; and as I speculated above, he may have used a spell to kill her family.

Pelle is the central villain of the movie. He has used his slick charm to engineer all the major events of the story. His plan from the beginning has been to break up Dani and Christian so he can have her, and so his sister Maja can have Christian. Maja has liked him ever since Pelle sent her a cellphone picture of him back when Pelle and the four were still in the States. The human sacrifice, killing Pelle’s “American friends,” was planned from the start, too. Pelle has the charm and sweetness Christian lacks, but Christian is the central victim, and Pelle is the central victimizer. Opposites, here of good and bad, are united again.

Dani’s aloneness–no family, an emotionally uncommitted boyfriend, and Josh and Mark, who resent her tagging along–makes her a perfect choice to join the pagan cult. She has no one else, but the people of Hårga are happy to have her. She dialectically shifts from being the social reject to being all lovingly accepted as May Queen–note the love-bombing she gets when she wins the Maypole dance. Note especially the passionate kiss Pelle gives her; having been drugged, she calls out “Mom?” when seeing a hallucination of her mother among the love-bombers, the only one who isn’t happy for her…but they are all her family now. She can leave behind her painful old world.

On many occasions, I’ve used the ouroboros as a symbol for the dialectical relationship between opposites: the serpent’s biting head and bitten tail represent the meeting, extreme opposites on a circular continuum that in turn is represented by the snake’s coiled body, where every intermediate point between the extremes is. Dani is shifting from the bitten tail of loneliness to the biting head of inclusion in the cult. Christian, on the other hand, has been slipping from the head of acceptance among his buddies, along the length of the serpent’s coiled body towards the tail as his friends are killed, to the bitten tail of being the new outcast, where Dani was, now that she has been crowned May Queen, and is loved by the cult, while he just stands by alone and watches.

Christian is the lonely, vulnerable one now. The cult doesn’t even want him to marry Maja: they just want his sperm to impregnate her. The combination of this fact with the cult’s accepting of Dani, the only survivor of the visitors being female (Ingemar was hoping to mate with Connie, but her sticking with Simon has sealed her fate.), makes me believe this cult must be matrilineal. Males are more expendable here than females (just as we know that in the patriarchal family, the sexes are reversed in this regard). Hence, seven out of the nine sacrificial victims are male; in fact, strictly speaking, the only ones burned alive are male (Christian, Ingemar, and Ulf), for the other victims (including Connie and the elderly woman who jumped from the cliff) were already killed long before.

This is an upside-down world (recall that upside-down shot during the car ride to Hälsingland), where sex roles are often reversed, moments of emotional dark occur during sunny brightness, and extreme opposites are intermingled. The only solution to social alienation that the movie offers is total enmeshment in a cult. This enmeshment is perfectly symbolized by Reuben, the deformed ‘oracle’ who is a result of inbreeding. A healthy society is a balance of closeness with independence: not too close, yet not so apart as to result in alienation. Dani is going from one extreme to the other.

As for Christian’s ‘moment of truth’ with Maja, we cannot afford to be so naïve to think that, just because he gets to enjoy her, that this means he’s really enjoying her. He has always been reluctant about it; part of him, even if just a small part, still wants to be with Dani. The only reason he has sex with Maja is that he’s being manipulated into it. Men’s greatest weakness by far is lust.

Drugged with aphrodisiacs and psychedelics that, frankly admitted by Ulla, will break down his defences, Christian enters the room where the fertility ritual is to take place. Maja is lying naked and beautiful in a bed of flowers, surrounded by naked older women who sing a hypnotic tune in B major, with two sets of three harmonies (which, if I’m hearing them correctly, are based on triads of I vi[a first inversion 6th chord] I, I II[major] I); an eerie instrumental variation of the tune is heard earlier in the film whenever Maja is working her love magic on Christian.

This scene perfectly exemplifies erotic horror, one of the best fusions of the sexy and the scary that I’ve ever encountered. Maja is so tempting, so exciting…and yet, so terrifying for those very reasons. (Now we can understand why Mark changes his mind about Inga, the Hårga girl he’s been so attracted to–the one intelligent thought he has anywhere in the film.) Maja is luring Christian into a trap. She takes the femme fatale to a whole new level. Omne animal triste post coitum. And this fusion of pleasure and terror is yet another union of opposites.

Such books as Frazer‘s Golden Bough, Graves‘s two-volume Greek Myths, and Hyam Maccoby‘s Sacred Executioner discuss ancient pagan rites of human sacrifice, later distorted into myths, which included orgiastic fertility rites. (I briefly discussed these in Part V of this post.) This is exactly what we’re seeing happening to Christian: he has a fuck, then he goes up in flames.

Now, we wouldn’t hesitate to describe as sexual assault a man giving a woman alcohol and drugs, then taking advantage of her while she’s wasted; but is that not exactly what’s being done to Christian? He has been thoroughly manipulated and drugged into having sex with Maja, and he has clearly demonstrated reluctance. During the sex, his agape eyes show no sign of pleasure: he’s all in a state of doped-up shock. Let’s dispense with the sexual double standards, look at what’s happened to him with an open mind, and take the following point seriously.

There should be no surprise that naked Christian runs out of the building disoriented and scared: what has happened to him can be seen as a kind of rape. It doesn’t matter that he orgasmed inside Maja; when women are raped, they sometimes orgasm–coming doesn’t make these women any less rape victims. The only reason we assume Christian ‘wanted it, so it isn’t rape’ (a particularly cruel thing to say to female rape victims just because they’re dressed provocatively) is because we stereotype men as lechers, and society assumes that sex is something only men do to other people, especially to women, instead of something done to them, especially when done by women to them.

When I say the above, I’m not trying to claim any kind of solidarity with woman-hating MRAs. I only bring this up, once again, to explore the theme of an upside-down world in which opposites are unified. Normally, we think of male sexual predation on women; here, the sexes are reversed.

Christian’s running outside, frontally nude and totally exposed to anyone looking, underscores his vulnerability. Ascendant Dani was emotionally vulnerable; falling Christian is now physically vulnerable (especially when he is drugged into mute paralysis). He has given up his usefulness to the cult in impregnating Maja. In the language of narcissism, he has gone from idealized to devalued…and he’ll soon be discarded.

At the end of Dani’s initiation as May Queen, the women accompanying her take her to a place within earshot of the sex rite. The empathic chanting of the women surrounding Maja and Christian make the rite especially audible to Dani. This must be deliberate. One of the women supposedly tries to dissuade Dani from going over and seeing what’s going on, but this ‘dissuasion’ is clearly reverse psychology: the women want her to see Christian ‘cheating’ on her; they let her walk over there.

Throughout the film, Maja’s moves on Christian have been public and therefore easily made known to Dani. Her suspicions have been growing the whole time; before she looks through the keyhole and sees her boyfriend fucking Maja, she’s already 99% certain that her suspicions have been correct. You can see it on her frowning face as she approaches the building.

After seeing the betrayal, she runs into the sleeping area, bawling in a jealous rage and feeling the triggering of her trauma of abandonment. The other women follow her. As Dani is bawling, the other women face her, and in the collective form of a symbolic mirror, they empathically reflect her bawling and pain back to her. This ritualistic empathizing, however, shouldn’t be mistaken with real empathy, or with Bion‘s psychotherapeutic notion of containment; the women aren’t properly soothing her. They are manipulating Dani, channeling her jealousy and pain, validating it so she’ll have a motive strong enough to betray Christian as a sacrificial victim, which of course she does.

Midsummer is the highest point at which the sun god rises, before his descent and death in fall and winter. Such gods as Balder were killed in midsummer, as Christian, Ingemar, and Ulf will be. Capital punishment has been deemed by many to be the secular equivalent of human sacrifice, and such ceremonial murder is also correlated with social hierarchy, a ladder that narcissists like to ascend. Christian is being executed for the crime of unfaithfulness (as Dani sees it). Being discarded by the cult, he is also the scapegoat, dressed in a bearskin, just as May Queen Dani is the golden child, adorned in a dress of flowers.

Dani has relived the trauma of Terri’s murder/suicide in viewing the ättestupa, and now she’ll have to relive it again by watching the burning building, with a front row seat, so to speak. (Ingemar’s and Ulf’s volunteering as sacrificial victims makes this into a kind of murder/suicide, too.) Her surname, Ardor, means ‘burning passion,’ which is appropriate, for watching the burning yellow building, shaped like the capital A of her surname, is like her looking in a mirror. It’s an agonizing passion for her to watch at first, but it’s ultimately cathartic–hence, her smile at the end.

The ’empathic’ wailing of Pelle, Maja, and all the others in the cult should now be seen for what it really is: not only is it fake, but also psychopathic. This commune is a case of group insanity. Narcissists are deficient in empathy, but they can fake it; what’s more, they kid themselves into thinking their empathy is real–hence, the cult’s wailing, meant to assuage their guilt.

So, what will become of Dani? Has she finally found the love and belonging she has so craved her whole life? It may seem so for now, but our feelings change with the seasons. Given time, that smile of hers will change into a frown, just as the sun, at its height, will wane as fall and winter come. It’s only a matter of time before she grows disillusioned with this death cult.

She has been idealized; she may, in time, be devalued and discarded, just as Christian has been. She, too, may slide from the ouroboros’ biting head (idealization), along the length of its coiled body (devaluing), down to its bitten tail (discarding). Four years ago, she and Christian were in love; that love faded away. She will mate with Pelle…the summer of their love may fade away into another winter of emotional distance.

After Pelle has fathered a few children by her, and she in her anxieties wants to get out of the cult, she won’t be able to…not alive, anyway. She is in a trap. She has exchanged alienation and loneliness with enmeshment. Pelle’s parents died in a fire…Christian has died in a fire…will Dani, too, die in a fire, one midsummer’s day…or midwinter’s night?

Projection and Gaslighting

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

In this post, I’m not going to be talking about the kind of projection most people usually think about, which involves imagining that other people have one’s own good or bad personality traits. The kind of projection I’ll be discussing, what Melanie Klein called projective identification, is, however, just as commonly practiced between people; in fact, it’s the most primal form of pre-verbal communication and interaction between people, starting with the mother/infant relationship, as Wilfred Bion noted in his theory of container/contained.

Projective identification involves actually pushing out those personality traits, emotions, etc., and imposing them on other people, actually manipulating others into manifesting the behaviour associated with one’s own personality traits, emotions, etc. Emotional abusers, those who practice gaslighting, use projective identification to an especially great extent.

My late mother was never formally diagnosed with NPD, but as I’ve discussed in many blog posts, I have every reason to believe she had pathological levels of narcissistic traits, even to the point of malignant narcissism. As many narcissists do, she cleverly hid her disorder behind a mask of altruism, all the while bad-mouthing and triangulating anybody she either disliked, envied, or felt in some sense threatened by.

One way she kept her pathologies hidden and unknown to the world, even to us in the family, was by projecting her faults onto other people, in the Kleinian form I described above. She projected her narcissistic self-absorption onto me, calling it “autism,” from the old definition it had a century ago (i.e., Bleuler‘s notions of excessive social withdrawal, admiration of oneself, etc.). Since I was an impressionable child at the time, I naïvely and uncritically accepted the label, and found myself acting accordingly. My acceptance of it was a case of introjective identification.

This is what narcissists and emotional abusers do: as self-psychology originator Heinz Kohut pointed out in his book, The Analysis of the Self (pages 176-177 and footnote of page 185), narcissists vertically split off and disavow everything they hate about themselves (along with horizontal splitting, through repression), everything about them that reminds them of how flawed they are, and they find a suitable victim to project those faults onto. They use gaslighting and denial to trick the victim into believing he or she has the victimizers’ faults, and the victim so thoroughly believes he is the flawed one that he displays and manifests those very faults; thus, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

My mother and her flying monkeys, my elder siblings, all projected their faults onto me from when I was too young to suspect their true motives. Their projections–in the form of my mother’s gaslighting and lies about me being “autistic,” and in my siblings’ almost daily insults, verbal abuse, bullying, and making fun of me–instilled in my pre-teen/adolescent mind that I was so flawed, I behaved in the very awkward, inappropriate ways associated with such flaws, thus ‘confirming’ their judgements of me.

But my awkwardness was based on false beliefs about myself, not on reality.

I’ll give a few examples of my family’s projections. My eldest brother, R., back when I was a teen and he was in his early/mid 20s, would sometimes hear me talking too loudly (a natural thing overexcited teens will do); and instead of just telling me to lower my voice–a reaction that a young man of his age should have been mature enough to give–he felt it was necessary on such occasions to say, “Can you be an ass quietly?” It never occurred to the egotist that he was the one being an ass.

On other occasions back then, he would call me a “wimp.” Recall how I explained in other posts–his young-adult meanness towards me was really based on his anger towards our dad (from back when he was a teen), on whom he was too much of a coward to release that anger. Any young adult jerk can take out his anger on a pre-teen/adolescent, designated as the family’s emotional punching bag. R. was projecting his own weakness onto me (in fact, when he as a teen was having his problems with Dad, he was so weak about it that he dropped out of school and ran away from home; whereas when I was a teen and being emotionally abused by up to five people, I was strong, stuck it out, and stayed home until finishing university, then I left home as a young adult); and he was gaslighting me into thinking I, a kid at the time, was the weakling.

My older sister, J., the family’s number one golden child (my two older brothers, R. and F., being somewhere in between golden and lost/invisible children), was fond of pointing out how “rude” I often am (which, to be fair to her, I must confess has more than some truth to it), though she had no qualms about being rude to me if she wanted to (the same goes for my mother, who also liked to complain about my rudeness). J. would, for example, be talking to me, and if I interrupted–which, granted, I shouldn’t have done–she’d snap “I’m talking!” at the top of her lungs. On another occasion, when I was 14 and too preoccupied with a high school bully to remember to thank her (about 19-20 years old at the time) for a ride to school, she–feeling narcissistic rage at the time, no doubt–screamed at me for being “ungrateful.” Wow, J., what graciousness you have.

Then, recall how in this post she barked at me to remember to say goodbye to our grandfather at our grandmother’s funeral about thirty years ago. She then rationalized her bitchiness by lecturing to me about how “rude” it is not to say goodbye to the funeral guests (my crime was daydreaming when all the goodbyes were being said: dissociation is a common C-PTSD trait, an escape from the pain). When I angrily tried to stick up for myself, she shouted four-letter words at me to silence me. What graciousness, J.! Again, she was projecting her personality problems onto me; and our mother’s biased defence of her attitude was just more gaslighting.

I’ve also mentioned elsewhere how my older brother F. used to harangue me about ‘not caring about anyone but myself,’ when it was his bullying of me, as well as that of R. and J., and Mom’s gaslighting of me with the autism lie (not to mention all the bullying I’d suffered at school as a kid), that had alienated me from society so much that it should have been no surprise at all that I grew so aloof from others and their needs. F.’s brute stupidity blinded him from the obvious consequences of his and others’ actions.

What’s more, I knew of several occasions when J. and Mom complained of him and his wife being ‘cheap,’ or in some other sense detached from the family (one example involved his family habitually arriving late at family get-togethers). Now, to be fair to F., this complaining was probably motivated, to at least a large extent, by J.’s and Mom’s narcissistic judging and competing to be the family member ‘most worthy of love and respect’; but given what I know of how mean F. is capable of being (if only to me), it’s far from impossible to believe that J.’s and Mom’s gripes had at least some substance. And if that’s true, surely to a fair extent, then his complaining of my ‘uncaring’ nature is partially projection, too.

All of them taking their little bites out of me over the years allowed them to shed hateful parts of themselves, or at least fool themselves into thinking they’d done so. This shedding, this projective identification, was a major factor helping them to build self-confidence (even if based on a narcissistic false self), raise families, and function in society in ways that it’s been much harder for me to do.

Research on the long-term deleterious psychological effects of bullying on its victims (developing social anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicide ideation, etc.) shows that it is a serious problem in our society that must be addressed. Bullies and emotional abusers are stealing victims’ happiness, their self-esteem, and their very ability to live.

So, what can we do to repair ourselves? If you can’t afford a therapist, you could consider free online therapy. I recommend such forms of self-care as ASMR, EMDR therapy, meditation, self-compassion, and repeating lots and lots of affirmations to offset all the vicious lies your abusers made you believe about yourself.

Yes, lies. That’s what projective identification and gaslighting are all about. Everything nasty they said, or are saying, about you was and is only a reflection of themselves, not of you. They were and are telling you about their faults; when they say these faults are yours, they’re lying.

Now, there’s also no doubt that the abusers really believe the lies they tell you. This doesn’t mean they’re merely mistaken in their judgements: it means they’re lying to themselves as well as to you. Their false belief doesn’t mean they’re lying less (i.e., that they’re being delusional); it means they’re lying more, for recall that narcissists have a false self they want to present to the world.

My family fancied themselves as all confident, polite, considerate, and thoughtful of others. They loved to flatter themselves in this regard, in their private thoughts, if not always openly in public. (J., for example, once bragged to me of being a follower of “the religion of human relationships,” during the very same years she alienated me from her with an endless stream of condescending, snarky, know-it-all remarks.) In reality, my siblings were in an exclusive social club, jealously competing for our late mother’s love and approval while believing, uncritically, all of her denigrating comments about our cousins, our father, and–of course–me.

So what you must do, Dear Reader, is aggressively work to counteract all the brainwashing your abusers subjected you to. Take the time every day to remember every compliment you’ve heard other people give you, remind yourself of good, loving moments in your life (dig deep into your brain and search for those long-forgotten moments…find them!), and make lists of everything you’re good at. This, over time, can gradually boost your self-esteem.

Those good moments, those good words–for far too long trivialized and invalidated in your mind by your inner critic–must be revived. They not only have every right to all the attention that you’ve unfortunately given your negative thoughts and memories, all those mean things your abusers said and did to you…they have so much more of a right to that attention. The mean words you heard were lies, projections; if you believed all that nonsense, why not give it a try to believe the good words, regardless of whether you think they were valid, or if you think they seemed not to be?

We need to reprogram our brains to stop just uncritically accepting every negative opinion we hear (each one just a projection), getting emotionally invested in it, believing it, and using confirmation bias to find ‘proof’ of it in our everyday problems and mistakes, thus reinforcing the negativity. Instead we must take those nasty comments and say to ourselves, “That’s just his or her opinion. I don’t have to believe it.” Don’t be emotionally invested in it.

Instead (and this will be difficult, given all the abuse we’ve endured over the years), we must magnify the positive words we hear from others (embrace those good projections!), get emotionally invested in them (feel good about them!) so we can believe they’re true, then find proof in our daily successes of the truth of those compliments. We must do this healing work every day without fail, over and over again, so that eventually we can turn things around and finally start to like ourselves.

If thinking straight ‘happy thoughts’ seems too unrealistic to you at the moment (yes, abuse does weigh us down that much!), you can start with Kati Morton‘s “bridge statements,” which start with small but realistic compliments and slowly work your way up. You can combine that with starting your day with several diaphragmatic breaths and at least 10-15 minutes of meditating, among other suggestions I shared in this blog post. Remember that this is a long process that will achieve results only gradually. Breaking free from the past isn’t at all easy; but it isn’t impossible, either.

Whatever you do, don’t believe your abusers’ lies and projections. Those people are sellers of falsehoods. To put it crudely and bluntly, your abusers are full of shit; and if they’re full of shit about you, then you must be so much better of a person than they say you are.

Bringing Us All Together

The ego, understood as a separate, isolated entity that develops apart from others, is an illusion. The human personality is constructed only through its relationships with other people. These relationships can be of the two-way kind, that is, a narcissistic, dyadic relationship in which two people mirror each other (Jacques Lacan‘s other with a lower-case o); or they can be a communal sort (Lacan’s Other), involving many people who interact and share, but also respect each other’s autonomy.

Everyone who is healthy goes from the dyadic, one-on-one relationship (i.e., parent/child) to the communal sort, with varying levels of success, depending on how well one can get over the traumatic transition from the child’s primary narcissism (ego love) to object love, or love of other people. Those who fail to get over this trauma are in danger of developing secondary narcissism (the pathological kind that upsets so many of us), or they suffer a psychotic break with reality, a fragmenting of the personality. These failures, in their mild to severe forms, are part of the basis of social alienation.

In previous posts, I have written about the problem of social alienation, in its socioeconomic and psychological forms. I have also written about how the development of the personality is based on its relations with other people, and that there is a dialectical relationship between self and other.

I have compared the healthy and unhealthy relationships between self and other (or Other), as well as the traumatic, fragmentary state of alienation, to different points on a circular continuum that I symbolize with the ouroboros. The biting head and bitten tail of the serpent represent the meeting extreme opposites on the circular continuum, while the coiled length of the snake’s body represents all the intermediate points on the continuum, the moderate tints and shades of grey between black and white.

The unhealthy relationship between self and other, placed at the biting head of the serpent, is of the Oedipal, dyadic, one-on-one sort commonly seen between parent and child, who look lovingly into each other’s eyes as if no one else existed. Their looking and smiling at each other is like a mirror reflection, for both of them are narcissistic extensions of each other. This is Lacan‘s Imaginary, a world of literal and metaphoric mirrors, respectively the mirror stage and the dyadic parent/child mirroring.

The healthy self/other relationship is that of the individual with society in general, where the individual acknowledges, recognizes, and respects the individuality and autonomy of every other person he or she encounters. Here, the Other is not a mere extension of one’s narcissistic self. This healthier area is represented all along the coiled length of the body of the ouroboros; the healthier the relationships, the closer one comes to the head (without reaching the narcissistic biting teeth), while the more dysfunctional they are, the closer one comes to the bitten tail. The whole length of the serpent’s body, preferably towards the head, of course, is Lacan’s Symbolic register, the realm of language, culture, and society.

The most dysfunctional realm, the traumatic one, is at the bitten tail, where reality is too painful to bear, and one attempts to escape the pain through a psychotic break from reality and enter a world of fantasy. This is the undifferentiated world of Lacan’s notion of the Real, a state of being that cannot be processed because it cannot be symbolized or put into words; there are no differential relations in the Real, as there are in the Symbolic. The healthy escape from this traumatic state is through talk therapy, a putting of trauma into words, a moving from the bitten tail along the length of the serpent’s body towards its head.

Note how this traumatic realm is right next to the narcissistic, dyadic realm, where the serpent’s head bites its tail; this is where, originally, parent and child mirrored each other, a kind of Oedipal Garden of Eden, if you will, as I’ve described that mental state elsewhere. My point in describing all of this, metaphorically in terms of places on the ouroboros’ body, is that there is a point where happiness, pleasure, and ‘good health’ go too far. Sometimes, happiness is too happy, and fulfilled is too fulfilled. It’s Spenser‘s bower of bliss.

To be truly happy, one has to allow oneself to be at least a little unhappy. Happiness and sadness must be allowed to coexist, to be brought together, to flow into each other like the waves of the ocean; if we don’t allow this unity, this intermingling of opposites, they will come together in another way, typically one for which we aren’t prepared; for one way or the other, the serpent’s head is always biting its tail.

The excess of pleasure that one gets in the dyadic, narcissistic relationship comes from enjoying the self-other dialectic in the form that Heinz Kohut described as the grandiose self mirrored by the idealized parental imago, which is the original, Oedipal parent/child relationship, but whose idealized aspect can also be transferred onto a lover, a spouse, a therapist, or even a political demagogue. One wishes to see, mirrored in the other, an idealized version of oneself.

Needless to say, it isn’t healthy to use another person to reflect one’s grandiosity onto oneself, to use another as an extension of oneself, as narcissists do in order to defend themselves against the fragmentation that is so dangerously close to the narcissistic state. This perilous proximity is symbolized where the snake’s head (narcissistic, illusory paradise) bites its tail (Sartre‘s hell of other people, whose critical glances and remarks imprison one’s self-concept in a never-ending need for external validation and approval).

The ego is formed through illusory mirror reflections, literal ones or metaphorical ones as described above. One strives to be the ideal-I one sees in the reflection, an ideal that one loves and hates at the same time, precisely because it’s an unattainable ideal. Through all of this striving, though, one forgets that the ideal isn’t a real representation of oneself–it’s an illusion.

Similarly, the idealizing of the metaphorical mirror reflection–that of, say, the parent a child smiles at and who mirrors the smiles back at him or her–the idealization of this parent, or the objet petit a (as manifested in the lover, spouse, therapist, political demagogue, movie, sports, or pop star, or the pornographic model) who is a transference of the originally, Oedipally-desired parent, is also an illusion, a projection of the ego’s narcissism.

When both poles of Kohut’s conception of the child’s self–the grandiose self and idealized parental imago as described above, these two poles that say, “I am great, and I need you, O perfect Mom and Dad, to validate my greatness”–break down because the parents and general social environment fail to empathize with the child’s needs, he or she is at that dangerous area of fragmentation, symbolized by the bitten tail. The child either builds a narcissistic False Self to be protected from psychological disintegration, or the person falls apart emotionally.

Children need their parents’ love and empathy to help them grow and thrive in the social world, but they need to have their narcissistic sense of omnipotence let down and frustrated in tolerable amounts, too. This gradual, bearable letting down is symbolized by a sliding down from the Edenic head of the ouroboros to the upper middle of its coiled body. Traumatic, extreme disappointments will make the child slide in the other direction, from biting head to bitten tail.

A crucial part of this tolerable frustration of the wish to fulfill the dyadic, Oedipal parent/child relationship is what Lacan called the nom, or Non! du père, that is, the demand of the other parent for the child to end his or her fantasy of eternally having the Oedipally-desired parent all to him- or herself. This frustration, if dealt with well, brings the child out of the dyadic, narcissistic, one-on-one relationship and into the larger social world of interacting with many people, who aren’t seen as mere extensions of the self, but who are recognized as independent entities in their own right. This is a shift from the unhealthy to the healthy self-other dialectic.

My point in describing all of this, if my overbearingly academic choice of words isn’t giving you too much of a headache, Dear Reader, is that we must promote as much societal togetherness as we can. This may be a point so obvious as not to need making, but the purpose of the psychoanalytic concepts used in this post (click here for a fuller explanation of them) is to explain the psychological mechanisms that can shed light on how relationships go sour, how people revert to narcissism, become alienated, or lapse into psychosis instead of resolving their conflicts.

The narcissistic, dyadic relationship leads to envy and jealousy if a third party interferes with the duo; if not resolved properly (i.e., if the Name of the Father, in its literal or metaphorical senses, isn’t accepted by the child), we can have, at worst, the kind of scenario depicted in Psycho when Norman poisons his mother and her lover (a symbolic father). To avoid facing his guilt over the matricide, Norman has his internal object of his mother take over half, if not all, of his personality. He never escapes the one-on-one, parent/child relationship; she may be physically dead, but she lives on in his mind.

Part of the building up of a healthy personality in a child is encouraging his or her wish to seek out knowledge (Wilfred Bion‘s K) in the social context of interacting with people, or in making links (hence, Bion’s K, L, and H-links, standing for Knowledge, Love, and Hate–K being the most important link). Attacks on linking are a major problem to be resolved, for the resulting -K, a stubborn refusal to grow in knowledge through connecting with other people, when taken to extremes, leads to psychosis, as does Lacan’s notion of foreclosure, a refusal to let the non/Non! du père take one out of the dyadic relationship and into society.

Bion states that a thought is an emotional experience, something a baby doesn’t yet have the thinking apparatus (alpha function) for processing, so its mother must do its thinking for it, until it has built up its own thinking apparatus and can thus do its own thinking. Thoughts, understood as emotional experiences, start off as external stimuli (beta elements) that assail the consciousness; if they can’t be processed and used for thought (beta elements transformed, by alpha function, into alpha elements), they are ejected.

A baby ejects these overwhelming beta elements, and its mother receives and contains them for it; as a container of her baby’s agitated response (the contained) to the rejected beta elements, the mother soothes her baby through her capacity for reverie. Her comforting communication with the baby is a sending back of those elements, now alpha elements that are tolerable for the baby to receive.

This sending back and forth of beta and alpha elements between baby and mother is done through projective identification, which goes beyond projection‘s mere imagining of one’s own traits to be in another person, but involves actually pushing those traits and elements that are inside oneself onto the other, making him or her manifest them in reality.

Not only do babies and their primary caregivers engage in projective identification‘s trading back and forth of psychic energy, but so do patients (especially psychotic ones) and their therapists, respectively in the roles of baby and mother; for psychotics, as Bion observed, lose their grip on reality by rejecting beta elements to such an extreme extent, such an extreme level of -K, that they lose their ability to process external information properly. Their ejection of beta elements creates a beta screen that blocks off reality.

It’s this blocking off of the external, social world that is the source of mental ill health, willful ignorance (-K), and social alienation. A bringing together–union, integration–is the solution.

The blocking off is a characteristic of splitting into absolute good and bad objects, what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position (PS). The integrating tendency, and bringing together of the good and bad aspects of an object, is characteristic of the depressive position (D). One tends throughout life to waver back and forth between splitting and integration, or as Bion notated it, PS<->D.

Since everything is interconnected, whether we like it or not, this means that whatever goes on without goes on within, too, in one way or another. So if we split external objects and reject the bad parts, we split their internalized equivalents, too, and eject these split-off bad parts. Hence, the attacks on linking, -K, and ejection of beta elements, leading to the erection of a beta screen.

The social isolation resulting from this splitting results in the kind of psychosis seen in Pink in The Wall, the wall he builds around himself being essentially a giant beta screen.

The beta screen that refuses to let in any new experiences, knowledge, or social connections, and the fragmentation that results from the ejected, split-off parts of the self, results, in turn, in the creation of bizarre objects, which are hallucinatory projections of those split-off parts. What we look at or listen to seems to be watching and hearing us, too. This is another example of the psychotic break with reality that is caused by the breakdown of society.

A shifting back and forth between PS and D is inevitable, to an extent. The unity of everything will always be qualified by duality, hence dialectical monism, yin and yang. One must nonetheless strive to minimize PS, which is situated where the serpent’s head bites its tail, and try to maximize D, along the coiled middle of the body of the ouroboros.

As selfish as desire is, even it is oriented towards objects, or other people. WRD Fairbairn replaced Freud‘s drive theory with an object-seeking libido, or a desire to have relationships with other people, as over mere pleasure-seeking. Lacan said that desire is of the Other, a desire to be recognized by the Other, a desire for what (one thinks) the Other desires. So again, even in selfish desire, we exist in relation to others.

We never exist in isolation, as isolated as we may want to be from others. If we reject others, as Fairbairn‘s Anti-libidinal Ego reacts to the Rejecting Object (Fairbairn‘s replacement and approximation of Freud’s superego), we’ll still fantasize about imaginary, internalized people, as the Libidinal Ego does with the Exciting Object (approximating Freud’s id). We need to get out of this splitting mindset, and get back into the real world, engaging the Central Ego with the Ideal Object (approximating Freud’s ego), since being in real relationships with real people is the ideal of mental health.

We must allow the flow of energy in and out of ourselves, to grow in K, to contain beta elements and turn them into alphas. We must tear down the walls, or beta screens. We must replace narcissistic, dyadic, mirrored relationships with social ones. We must regard the ego as a drop in an infinite ocean of humanity, not a separate, walled-off entity.

The Long Road to Healing from C-PTSD

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

We sufferers of complex post-traumatic stress disorder have to remind ourselves that there is no quick path to recovery. We mustn’t see sickness and health in terms of black and white, but rather as a long progression with a lot of dark to light grey in between.

In fact, impatience in healing can lead to an even worse feeling of emotional sickness. Impatience leads to frustration, which in turn leads to self-blame, meaning the inner critic makes us feel worse for not improving. In failing to recognize the dialectical relationship between illness and health, as between all opposites (which I, in a number of blog posts, have symbolized with the biting head and bitten tail of the ouroboros), we make ourselves sicker.

We know intellectually, of course, that we must be patient as we tread that long, grey path from the darkness to the gradually brighter light, but our emotions won’t accept this reality easily. What can we do to comfort ourselves in the meantime?

Reality isn't so black and white.
Reality isn’t so black and white.

Apart from the usual forms of self-care that I and others have recommended (psychotherapy, art therapy, writing, hypnosis, ASMR, etc.), we should consider such things as a daily routine to start off our day in as positive a way as possible. Michele Lee Nieves recommends starting off the day with these five things:

  1. Do 2-3 diaphragmatic breaths
  2. Trace your meridians (look into kinesiology)
  3. Meditate for at least about 10-15 minutes every day
  4. Read things you find uplifting, and
  5. Write in a journal for a brief time (less than 5 minutes)

Why does one tend not to stick to such a routine? Is it laziness? Poor motivation? More likely, it’s because one’s self-esteem is so low that one doesn’t consider oneself worth the effort to do the healing work.

The road to wellness is NOT a straightforward one.

Of her five recommendations, I tend towards doing only the first two, to be honest (I suppose that means my own self-esteem is that limited). My application of #5 seems to be my blogging, to some extent. Instead of doing #4, I’ve begun the habit of using what Kati Morton calls “bridge statements,” which are the next thing I want to discuss.

As we know, attempts to recover by switching immediately from black to white don’t work. The same can be said about positive affirmations. If one is feeling down about one’s looks, intelligence, and talents, for example, merely saying, “I’m super beautiful and smart, and I’m amazingly good at (subject),” over and over again, won’t lift one out of the depths of one’s low self-esteem, it should go without saying.

Here is where “bridge statements” come in, which occupy that grey area of moderately comforting words between the cruel, black self-reproaches and the too-good-to-be-true white words. So, instead of replacing the usual negative self-talk (“I’m fat, stupid, ugly, and talentless.”) with its felt-to-be implausible extreme opposite, we find an in-between self-description (“I’m actually not as fat, stupid, ugly, and talentless as I’ve been led to believe.”), which balances kindness with believability.

A bridge from the darker to the lighter.

Over time, the belief in this kinder, yet realistic, self-assessment can encourage one to improve one’s looks and abilities. Then, one can move further along the bridge, away from the black side, and closer to the white side. Here, at about the middle of the bridge, one can say, “Hey, I’m actually OK-looking. I may not be a beauty queen, but I’ve lost some weight, make-up really does make me look rather pretty, my passion learning about (subject) has proven that I’m actually pretty smart, and I’m growing my talents in this field.”

Later, one goes even further along the bridge, about three quarters of the way across, say, and one reaches the light-grey area. Now, one can say, “Wow, I’ve lost even more weight! I’m still a little big around the butt, but a shapely figure is within reach. I’ve learned a lot about (subject), and in a fairly short time, too, considering how difficult it is to learn. I’m actually a lot smarter and more talented than I used to believe! Why did I ever believe those lies my emotional abusers told me?”

Now, do we ever get all the way to the other side, the absolute white side of immaculate self-love? To be frank, I have my doubts. Even if we neutralize the abusive words our bullies said to us by 100%, the reality is that there will always be new critics, new trolls, new unreasonable nay-sayers, and new narcissistic bullies out there. In fact, wanting too much of the white, the biting head of the ouroboros, leads to the black, the serpent’s bitten tail.

Photo by Craig Adderley on Pexels.com

But to that sobering reality, I say…so what? Who needs to be perfectly happy? When I wrote in previous posts of coming “closer and closer to that nirvana of no more pain,” and of achieving “a lasting cure for complex trauma,” I wasn’t talking about a state of literally perfect happiness (even if it may have sounded that way). I meant that happiness is a process, a moving ever closer towards the white.

“Closer and closer to…no more pain” is nirvana enough for me.

Analysis of “Eraserhead”

Eraserhead is a 1977 experimental body horror film written, produced, and directed by David Lynch. It stars Jack Nance as Henry Spencer, the otherwise titular character (due to a surreal dream sequence in which his decapitated head is taken to a pencil factory and made into erasers).

Filmed in black and white, the film presents a bleak, lonely cityscape expressive of extreme social alienation and violent, disturbing unconscious phantasy. It has been preserved in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Here are some quotes:

Mrs. X: It’s Henry isn’t it? Mary tells me you’re a very nice fellow. What do you do?

Henry: Oh, I’m on vacation.

Mrs. X: What did you do?
***************

Mr. X: I thought I heard a stranger. We’ve got chicken tonight. Strangest damn things. They’re man-made. Little damn things, smaller than my fist – but they’re new!…… I’m Bill.

Henry: Hello. I’m Henry.

Mrs. X: Henry’s at Lappell’s factory.

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

Mr. X: Well Henry, what do you know?

Henry: Oh, I don’t know much of anything.

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

Mrs. X: Henry, may I speak to you a minute? Over here. Did you and Mary have sexual intercourse?

Henry[stammering] Why?

Mrs. X: Did you?

Henry: Why are you asking me this question?

Mrs. X: I have a very good reason, and now I want you to tell me.

Henry: I’m, I’m very… I love Mary!

Mrs. X: Henry, I asked you if you and Mary had sexual intercourse!

Henry: Well, I don’t… I don’t think that’s any of your business!

Mrs. X: Henry!

Henry: I’m sorry.

Mrs. X: You’re in very bad trouble if you won’t cooperate… [nuzzling at his neck]

Henry: Well, I… Mary!

Mary X: [grabbing her away] Mother! [sobs]

Mrs. X: Answer me!

Henry: I’m too nervous.

Mrs. X: There’s a baby. It’s at the hospital.

Mary X: Mom!

Mrs. X: And you’re the father.

Henry: Well that’s impossible! It’s only been…

Mary X: Mother, they’re still not sure it is a baby!

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

Mary X[to the crying baby] Shut up! [Baby continues to cry] I can’t take it anymore! I’m going home!

Henry: What are you talking about?

Mary X: All I need is a decent night’s sleep!

Henry: Why don’t you just stay home…

Mary X: I’ll do what I want! And you better take good care of things while I’m gone!

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

[the Baby is going into violent convulsions and has broken out in spots] “Oh, you are sick!” –Henry

“In Heaven, everything is fine.
In Heaven, everything is fine.
In Heaven, everything is fine.
You’ve got your good things, and I’ve got mine.
In Heaven, everything is fine.
In Heaven, everything is fine.
In Heaven, everything is fine.
You’ve got your good things, and you’ve got mine.
In Heaven, everything…is fine.” –The Lady in the Radiator, singing

The film begins with the Man in the Planet moving levers, Henry’s head floating in space with his mouth wide open, and a large, snake-like spermatozoon coming out of his mouth.

This seems to be a dream, or fantasy, of his. Henry doesn’t want to be the father of a baby, and so he imagines the Man in the Planet to be a kind of sky-father god impregnating his girlfriend Mary X, making her like one of those pretty maidens that Zeus ravished and impregnated in Greek myth.

We note that the Man in the Planet has a deformed face, just as the Lady in the Radiator and the baby are deformed. Unattractiveness in general is a recurring theme in the movie, reinforcing the sense of alienation.

Henry is unattractive in how absurdly geeky he looks, with that hair and those clothes (with the pens in the pocket, and the too-short pants), to say nothing of his awkward pouting. The X family are unattractive in how odd their manner is, always making Henry feel uncomfortable. Even the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall is unattractive in how society would disapprove of her promiscuity.

Lynch’s own fear of fatherhood is apparently what inspired the story (other influences being Kafka‘s Metamorphosis and Gogol‘s short story, “The Nose“), for his daughter Jennifer had been born with “severely clubbed feet.” Hence, the deformed baby with the snake-like head, no limbs, and no skin covering its internal organs.

The fear of fatherhood is extended in the film through Henry’s own conflicted feelings about sex. Part of him wants the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, though her ‘whorishness’–as he seems to sense it–repels him. His coitophobia is demonstrated in his reaction to Mary X’s mother bluntly asking him if he’s had sexual intercourse with her daughter: he retorts that it’s none of her business. Her kissing him embarrasses and agitates him all the more.

Since so much of this film is surreal, it isn’t always easy to distinguish fantasy from reality. So, as with my analysis of mother!, I’ll be assuming that the more bizarre and hallucinatory moments are figments of Henry’s imagination.

Such fantastic moments, apart from the obvious ones, would include Mary’s mother nuzzling on his neck (a narcissistic projection of his own sexual disgust and desires onto her), the bleeding, small “man-made” (!) chicken on his plate (symbolic of his hated baby), and the baby itself, whose hallucinated (as I see them) deformities make it easier for him to rationalize killing it at the end of the movie.

His real reason for hating his baby–however repressed that hate may be–is his Laius complex, a father’s desire to commit filicide out of a fear that his child will grow up to supplant him one day, as evinced in his dream of being decapitated, the baby’s snake-head appearing from the cut in his neck to replace his head.

In Greek myth, Laius wanted baby Oedipus exposed out of fear of the fulfillment of the prophesy that he’d grow up to kill and replace Laius and marry Iocaste. Uranus, disgusted with the ugly children he had by Gaea (the twelve Titans, the three Cyclopes, and three Hecatoncheires), imprisoned the youngest of them in Tartarus. Cronus would rise up against his father and castrate him. Cronus himself was afraid one of his children, the Olympians, would one day supplant him, so he ate them. Zeus, in turn, feared his unborn child, by then-pregnant Metis, would one day supplant him, so he ate her and the baby!

The Man in the Planet (these two could be seen to represent, respectively, Uranus and Gaea–i.e., he is inside her in an act of copulation), moving the phallic levers and causing the spermatozoon to emerge from Henry’s mouth, is thus a figment of Henry’s imagination, a key role in his fantasy that he isn’t the true father of his deformed baby. He is thus projecting his hatred of his baby onto the Man in the Planet, who could also be seen as representing Henry’s hated father.

Henry fears that the baby will supplant him in an act of revenge by the Man in the Planet (an internal object of Henry’s father–recall the close proximity of the planet to Henry’s floating head, and their overlapping, in the opening dream-sequence), whom Henry–in his unconscious phantasy–imagines to be the father he himself supplanted.

In that opening surreal dream sequence, we see Henry’s unconscious mind let loose. We see his head floating in space, so close to that planet, a barren, lifeless spherical rock. The planet suggests the desolation of his inner mental life. Thus, the Man in the Planet, whose deformed face symbolizes an abusive nature, allied with those phallic levers he manipulates, is an internal object residing in Henry’s mind like a ghost haunting a house.

Hard rock suggests death, and pools of water suggest the primordial soup out of which life emerges; so when we see the spermatozoon drop into the liquid, this suggests conception.

Henry walks home alone, carrying a bag of groceries in a bleak, desolate cityscape of essentially lifeless industrialization. We see hills of dirt by a building; he has to pass them to get to where his apartment building is. In fact, his apartment also has piles of dirt and lifeless vegetation in it.

He works in “Lappell’s factory,” but he’s on vacation: that he isn’t going anywhere special, or doing anything interesting, tells us two things about him: his salary must be too low for him to afford going on a trip somewhere, and/or he’s too dead emotionally even to be able to enjoy himself on such a trip, so why go anywhere?

In all of the above observations–filicide fantasies, bleak industrial landscapes bereft of plant life, and a lonely life without human bonding–we see a theme of death over life. Given the increasing urgency in today’s world to resolve the climate change crisis, we can see Eraserhead as prophetic.

David Lynch called this his “most spiritual film,” an odd statement to make about a wish to commit infanticide. In exploring this “spiritual” interpretation, we can see a kind of perverse, morbid, and dark version of the Christ myth: the Man in the Planet is God the Father, the deformed baby is the Christ Child (and Christ, like the baby, must die for us to live), Henry is Joseph (since he’d rather not be the biological father), and aptly-named Mary X is the Virgin Mary, her surname suggesting the Cross, or X as in Xmas.

After learning from the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall that Mary’s family has invited him over for dinner, Henry goes into his apartment, takes off his socks, and lays them on his radiator to heat them. He seems to fetishize this radiator, for he stares at it often. It gives him heat in a cold world, though it’s an artificial, electric heat. He has no use for the natural warmth of human companionship. The Lady in the Radiator, as deformed as she is, seems to be Henry’s ideal of beauty. At least she has a pleasant, if odd-looking, grin.

He takes out a photo of Mary, torn in two, from his dresser drawer; it’s torn at the neck, suggesting a wish to decapitate her, more of his preference of death over life. Recall his later dream of being decapitated, the baby’s snake-head emerging from the cut in his neck, a symbol of the baby supplanting him. His fears of being destroyed are projected onto other people: better that they die than he.

The awkward conversations he has with the X family underscore the ubiquity of alienation in this film. He denies the possibility that he’s the baby’s father, preferring the fantasy of a virgin birth and a Uranus for the real father. Still, he must marry Mary.

Having moved in with Henry, she tries to feed the baby, which won’t eat anything. It is the most revulsive baby…conceivable–with its snake-like head, lack of limbs, and what seems a bandage instead of swaddling clothes. Her mother says the baby is just prematurely born, and as I mentioned above, I suspect its deformity is just a hallucination that Henry–in his obvious psychotic tendencies–is having to make it easier for him to kill the child one day. When Mary says one can’t be sure if it even is a baby, Henry could be imagining her saying that, too.

Cuteness in children has been recognized as a factor inspiring parental affection, making caregivers want to love a child, thus motivating them to care for it as best they can. This spermatozoon-child, however, inspires loathing and revulsion, not just in its appearance, but also in its unwillingness to cooperate during feeding, and in its irritating bawling.

Because the parent/child relationship here isn’t the normal, healthy kind (the occasional smiling at it from the parents, especially from Henry, should be seen as reaction formation), we don’t see what Wilfred Bion would have called the soothing containment of the baby’s agitated reaction to external stimuli.

Instead of using maternal reverie to soothe her baby, Mary engages in the negative version of the container/contained relationship (Bion, pages 95-99), shouting at the bawling baby to “Shut up!” (Click here for a full explanation of Bion‘s and other psychoanalytic concepts that I use throughout this analysis.) Instead of being soothed, the baby experiences aggravated agitation, turning it into a nameless dread.

Here we can see the foundation of so much of the alienation of society: if one can’t feel empathy for a baby (which, outside of Henry’s hallucinatory perception of it, probably isn’t half as repellant or deformed as he, and we, imagine it to be), for whom can we feel empathy?

Mary leaves the apartment in frustration, and Henry is left to take care of the baby alone. At first, he plays the role of the dutiful father, doing his best to attend to the baby’s needs. But his sudden discovery of sores on its skin, and its difficulty breathing, suggest that he has imagined the sickness, as a wish-fulfillment.

Bion explained that people learn from experience through a social connection with people, what he called the K-link, K standing for Knowledge. But in this film, no one really wants to connect with anyone else in a meaningful way, so just as there is the negative container/contained relationship, so is there one of -K, the avoidance of, and refusal to gain, Knowledge: recall Henry saying, “I don’t know much of anything,” to Mary’s father.

Attacks on linking are seen in Henry’s and Mary’s revulsion towards the baby, or, to use Bion’s terminology, ‘parents -L baby’ (i.e., they don’t Love it), or even, ‘parents H baby,’ that is, they Hate it (Bion, pages 42-43). The baby’s growing sickness thus reflects how it can sense this lack of parental love, so it cannot thrive and grow in K. Instead, the baby can only self-destruct in states of -K, -L, and H, because it has been born into a world of extreme alienation.

Henry’s dream/fantasy about the Lady in the Radiator reveals his true, if unconscious, feelings about the baby. He sees her shuffling from right to left on a stage, grinning that weird grin and seeming pretty in spite of her deformed cheeks, with their bulbous, sideburn-like protrusions.

As she shuffles from side to side, we see spermatozoa fall on the floor of the stage. She steps on a couple of them, squishing and destroying them. See seems to be telling Henry that she condones his future killing of his baby.

Since I consider the Man in the Planet to symbolize Uranus, as well as to be Henry’s father as an internal object, I see the Lady in the Radiator, in spite of her deformity, to symbolize both Aphrodite and to be Henry’s objet petit a, the unfulfillable object of his desire, rooted in possible Oedipal feelings his father has frustrated.

Consider the phallic association, if not the shape, of the spermatozoa. They fall on the stage as if from the sky, like the severed genitals of Uranus, which fell into the sea and foamed up, Aphrodite then emerging from the foam. Just as the baby’s relationship with the Man in the Planet, Henry, and Mary X can be seen as a perverse variation on the Christ myth, so can the Lady in the Radiator’s relationship with the Man in the Planet and the spermatozoa–which I believe came from him (in Henry’s unconscious phantasy)–be seen as a morbid variation on Aphrodite’s birth.

Henry’s disgust with his baby is further demonstrated when he wakes in the middle of the night next to Mary (whom we never see again), and finds spermatozoa between him and her. They droop like flaccid penises, and he throws them against the wall; they splatter on impact, a symbolic castration, just like the Lady in the Radiator’s stepping on them.

Note how Cronus supplanted Uranus by castrating him, then Cronus was afraid of being supplanted himself (Freud noted how Zeus supplanted Cronus by castrating him, too–Freud, page 469; Robert Graves found, in John Tzetzes, a source that confirms how castration was part of Zeus’ usurping of Cronus).

So in Henry’s hallucinated fantasies, we can find the unconscious root of his fear of being supplanted by a son: his own taboo wish to eradicate his father. The ugliness of the deformity of the Man in the Planet seems to represent Henry’s father’s brutal, bullying, authoritarian nature; whether or not Henry has had Oedipal feelings for his mother may be a moot point, but I suspect at least that when he was a little boy, his father caught him enjoying a guilty pleasure like masturbating, and he brutally beat little Henry for it. Hence, his extremely uptight attitude towards sex.

While we don’t know for sure if Henry’s objet petit a (the Lady in the Radiator) is based on an Oedipally-desired mother, we can see that his wish to fulfill his sexual desires (in his lovemaking fantasy with the Beautiful Girl Next Door) is something he feels his father will punish him for (recall that brief flash we see of the Man in the Planet, eyeing him maliciously, just before we see Henry’s head popping off, his baby’s snake-head then emerging from the cut in the neck).

I’ll acknowledge Henry’s desire to have the Beautiful Girl Next Door, and I believe she really offers herself to him when saying she’s locked herself out of her apartment; but I insist that he’s fantasizing about being in bed with her, both of them sinking in that hot tub, if you will, of life-creating primordial soup (pardon the mixed metaphors). I believe he’s rebuffed her sexual advances, while fantasizing (if not hallucinating) having sex with her; it’s the only way he could resolve his conflict between wanting sex and being afraid of it. Similarly, he can’t quite face his revulsion towards his baby, so he projects that disgust onto her when he imagines her look of horror at the sight of the baby as they’re having sex in his fantasy.

His lovemaking fantasy with her culminates in another vision/dream of the Lady in the Radiator, who sings, “In heaven, everything is fine…” three times, then, “You’ve got your good things, and I’ve got mine.” She repeats this verse, but ends it with, “You’ve got your good things, and you’ve got mine.” (My emphasis.)

“Heaven” can be interpreted as Henry’s procurement (however fleeting) of his objet petit a: he has come to possess her “good things” (i.e., her genitals) as well as his own “good things” (i.e., there’s the sexual union of both people’s genitals).

Now, in capitalist heaven, “You’ve got your good things…” (your private property) “…and I’ve got mine” (my property). Then, “You’ve got your good things, and you’ve got mine” (You, the capitalist, have taken my good things, through wage slavery/theft, mergers and acquisitions, and/or imperialist conquest.). Since alienation is such an important theme in this movie, Marx’s conception of it shouldn’t be overlooked. (I’ll later resume a discussion of capitalism as a factor in the film’s sense of bleak social estrangement.)

Henry, in his dream, comes on the stage and stands before the Lady in the Radiator, who holds out her hands invitingly to him. He looks at her awkwardly and fearfully, wanting to claim his objet petit a, but afraid of the consequences–this is, the cruel look on the face of the Man in the Planet, symbol of Uranus (who is heaven, incidentally), and of Henry’s father. He touches her hands, and there’s a bright flash of light, along with a typhoon of white noise. This black-and-white film is the black-and-white thinking of splitting; since she is his objet petit a, his idealization, we momentarily see all white…and hear all ‘white.’

Henry retreats behind a black curtain when a leafless tree stuck in a rock emerges from the backstage curtains. This tree and rock symbolize a giant phallus and testicles. Henry is terrified, for this lifeless tree represents the father’s punitive castration, as does his head’s popping off of his shoulders, to be replaced by his baby’s bawling snake-head.

If Henry’s decapitation and supplanting by his snake-headed baby is a symbolic castration of the Cronus-vs-Uranus, or Zeus-vs-Cronus type, then phallic-headed Henry’s frizzy hair, standing up on end to indicate his eternal state of horror, is his symbolic pubic hair.

His head falls into a lake of blood, and then falls from the sky, just like those penile spermatozoa that land on the stage and are stepped on by the Lady in the Radiator, and just like the severed genitals of Uranus, god of heaven, that landed in the sea. Henry fears the humiliation of being emasculated by his child, just as he has feared being castrated (literally or symbolically) by his father as punishment for having sexual feelings.

It’s significant that, in his dream, Henry sees a boy (symbolic of his baby) picking up his phallus-head and taking it to a pencil factory, where an employee named Paul frantically buzzes to alert his boss of the arrival. The boss, who shouts at Paul, is a transference of Henry’s intimidating, bullying father; he even calls the boy with Henry’s head, “Sonny,” suggesting a symbolic link with Henry’s fantasied notion that his baby is actually the son of the Man in the Planet, Henry’s symbolic father.

Here, we see how the traumas of family translate into the conflicts inherent in capitalism. Bosses are as authoritarian and bullying as fathers and governments can be. Bits of Henry’s head are shaved into erasers to be attached to pencils, then sold by the boss for a profit. This is how capitalism cuts off a bit of the worker every day, castrating him symbolically, making him less and less of an existing thing.

And here is where we can come to a fuller understanding of the meaning of the film’s title. An eraser removes words, drawn lines, etc., either erroneous or deemed to be so (it removes information); in the process, bits of eraser are eliminated, too.

Since Henry is the “Eraserhead,” we can now understand what such a concept means, that is, in terms of Bion’s notion of -K, the adamant rejection of Knowledge through links with other people. Henry’s alienation is so severe that he’d rather ‘erase’ knowledge through human interaction than absorb it. As I’ve discussed in other analyses, when this rejection of external stimuli is taken to extremes, it can lead to psychosis, hence Henry’s bizarre, surreal, hallucinatory visions.

His brain’s ‘erasures’ of ejected, unwanted external stimuli, what Bion called beta elements, have accumulated over time, building up a beta screen (symbolized by the brick wall just outside the window of his apartment, the one above the radiator), which rejects all access to new Knowledge (-K) for Henry’s inner mental life. These ‘erasures’ are also split-off parts of himself that are projected outward and become hallucinatory phenomena that Bion called bizarre objects. This was Bion’s explanation of the origin of psychosis (and incidentally, I’m not the only one linking bizarre objects with David Lynch’s movies).

Henry’s unconscious hostility to his father, a hostility displaced onto his baby, forms the basis for the Lacanian explanation of the origin of psychosis, too: foreclosure. In not wanting to give up the dyadic mother/son Oedipal relationship (here transferred to Henry’s imaginary relationship with his objet petit a, the Lady in the Radiator), he is rejecting the nom/Non! du père, which would introduce him to society. Hence, Henry’s alienation drives him mad.

Symbolic castration is the lack, or manque, that originates desire, which Lacan says is of the Other, or the people of the world, to be recognized by them, and to desire what one thinks they desire. But Henry is afraid of his desires, and he wants only the dyadic, lower-case other (the objet petit a of his fantasied relationship with the Lady in the Radiator, who isn’t even a real person). So his inability to relate to others leads to his madness.

He wakes up, and remains in his apartment for most of the remaining time, at one point hearing his baby laugh, as if at his inadequacies, and at another point seeing two people fighting outside another of his windows; this is the kind of hostility and unpleasantness that makes him want to reject the world. Sometimes, he wants to reach out, though. On two occasions, he hopes to connect with the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall: the first time, she isn’t at home; the second time, he sees her with another man, one almost as ugly (though not deformed) as the Man in the Planet, and so he can be seen as another substitute for Henry’s hated father.

That this trio of people in the hall can symbolize the Oedipal relationship is also seen in how she is a manifestation of his Oedipally-based objet petit a, who looks back at him scornfully, and she sees–in his hallucinatory projection–the baby snake-head on his shoulders, symbolizing his feeling of having been reduced to an infant that cannot be the phallus for Mother (symbolized by the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall; by ‘phallus,’ I’m referring to it in the Lacanian sense of being a signifier of lack, not the literal male genital organ).

Crushed, Henry retreats back into his apartment. The Beautiful Girl Across the Hall’s scornful look at him was probably because–his hallucinated lovemaking with her notwithstanding–he actually rebuffed her advances before. Still, he feels humiliated, symbolically castrated…and so he looks in hatred at his baby.

He gets some scissors and approaches the baby. I believe he’s hallucinating the bandage wrapped around the baby’s body: imagining the bandage makes it easier for him to cut it open, when he’s really cutting a long incision along the naked baby’s belly and chest, hence, we see its internal organs.

Some of those internal organs are black; those dark organs, taken as a whole, have the shape of that “man-made” chicken that Henry stabbed into at the dinner table with the X family. This is why I say that chicken represents a baby; for I suspect that Henry was already fearing he’d impregnated Mary at the time he’d learned of the invitation–hence his awkward meeting of the family. All it takes is the sex act, one time, to get him nervous.

Anyway, Henry takes those scissors and stabs his baby. He recoils in horror at what he’s done; there’s no way he’ll escape the consequences of his filicide…except in hallucinatory fantasy. The electric lights flicker on and off, suggesting he’s descending into darkness. The baby’s neck elongates, and its head grows to a gigantic size; both of these sights symbolize Henry’s fear of the baby growing up, coming of age, and taking revenge on him, to supplant him, like castrating Cronus dethroning Uranus, only to be dethroned himself by Zeus.

In the narcissistic imagination of the sufferer of the Laius complex, there can be only one man in the family: neither Henry’s father, nor his son, may exist with him. In reality, of course, the baby won’t do anything to harm Henry, but he’ll be socially shamed and arrested for murder. In his psychotic state, though, reality doesn’t matter. Only a fantasy world will protect him, so he indulges in it.

He imagines the giant snake-head to have transformed into the planet, one side of which then bursts apart. The phallic levers of the Man in the Planet emit sparks; they seem damaged, for he struggles with them (this symbolizes castration, and therefore the thwarting of Henry’s oppressive Uranus-like father).

Henry watches this symbolic thwarting with a look of amazement, his head surrounded by a billowing cloud of those eraser shavings we saw in the pencil factory, those which were made from his head. As I mentioned above, the shavings represent split-off portions of his ego, projected outwards and now made into bizarre objects. He is at the height of his psychosis in -K, in an arrested state of the paranoid-schizoid position, for there can be no reparation with the bad father; his paranoid fear of a reprisal from his father internal object will ensure no repairing of his damaged internal world.

His only escape from this fear and pain is an escape into fantasy, where, having finally defeated his father, he can enjoy the love of his objet petit a, the Lady in the Radiator, without fear of paternal punishment. The bright light and white noise return, she appears, and they embrace. On his face, we finally see a look of peace of mind.

Henry has finally found love…in a hallucinatory world of fantasy.

The Ouroboros of Psychoanalysis

In a number of posts, I have used the ouroboros as a symbol for the dialectical relationship between opposites. The serpent’s biting head is one extreme, its bitten tail is the other extreme, and every point on the length of its body, coiled into a circle, represents a median point on a circular continuum between those dialectically related opposites. Therefore, any extreme can phase into its opposite, and vice versa.

I believe such a dialectical relationship between opposites can be demonstrated in the field of psychoanalytic theory. I will make such a demonstration below. I have already done so, to an extent, in my post, The Psychoanalysis of Narcissistic Parental Abuse. I’d like here to expand on that.

The extremes of frustration and hostility felt by a baby towards its non-breastfeeding ‘bad mother‘ during the paranoid-schizoid position (PS), which is at the biting head/bitten tail area of the ouroboros (i.e., the extreme opposites, side by side, indicate the black and white, all or nothing, thinking behind splitting), lead to a fear that the baby has annihilated its ‘good mother’ in unconscious phantasy, or has provoked a retaliation in the ‘bad mother.’

The seeming destruction of an external object results in a fear of the destruction of the internal equivalent of that object, for there is a dialectic of the self and other, too. There’s a bit of the other in the self, and vice versa.

For these reasons, the baby passes over the biting head/bitten tail of the ouroboros (as manifested in PS) and, passing over the head to the serpent’s upper body, the baby reaches the depressive position (D), wanting reparation with the mother (and the internalized object representing her) that it now realizes is both good and bad. The thesis (‘bad mother,’ that is, the ouroboros’ bitten tail) and negation (‘good mother,’ or the biting head) are sublated (the good and bad aspects are integrated into one complete human being, represented by the serpent’s coiled middle body).

The self-other dialectic, as seen, for example, in the Kleinian concepts of introjecting objects and projecting unwanted, split-off portions of the subject (via projective identification), was expanded on by Wilfred R. Bion in his description of the mother/infant relationship. He saw that the establishment of a baby’s thinking apparatus was made through this dyadic relationship, through a mother’s containing of her baby’s ejections of intolerable external stimuli.

For Bion, thoughts are emotional experiences coming from the outside world–“thoughts without a thinker.” These stimuli (beta elements) assail the baby, who doesn’t yet know how to cope with them. It needs its mother to do its thinking for it; so when it ejects the intolerable beta elements, she receives and contains them, and through using the alpha function the baby hasn’t yet learned how to use, she converts the agitating beta elements into tolerable alpha elements, and sends these latter elements back to the baby.

[Click here for a more thorough explanation of psychoanalytic concepts.]

This process (maternal reverie) of a mother helping her baby to process unacceptable external stimuli, this trading back and forth of energy through projective and introjective identification, is how an infant gradually develops an ability to do the mental processing by itself. In other words, this is how an infant learns how to think.

The use of alpha function to convert beta elements into alpha elements is something we do all the time, because our mothers helped us acquire this skill when we were infants. The agitating beta elements, hitting us from the outside world, are the emotional experiences of being at the ouroboros’ bitten tail. When we process the feelings, we slide along the coiled length of the serpent’s body, using alpha function, until we reach the biting head, when the experiences have been fully assimilated and have become alpha elements.

Babies cannot do this yet, so their mothers do the processing for them, then send the fully-converted elements back to their babies. The babies are thus able to go from bitten tail straight over to biting head, without any trauma.

If, however, a mother doesn’t do this containing properly for her baby, or if other agitations occurring later in life, for some reason, cannot be processed and converted into alpha elements by the affected person, he or she may be stuck in the ‘bitten tail’ area of the ouroboros for an unacceptably long period of time, and the agitation may turn into a nameless dread.

This nameless dread may, because of the lengthy experience of PS, result in the affected person splitting off large chunks of his or her bad internal objects, projecting them outward and creating hallucinatory bizarre objects. In other words, the affected person has a psychotic break with reality.

For there to be mental health, PS must shift over to D. The process of developing alpha function for oneself, that sliding along the length of the serpent’s coiled body, from its tail to its head, is done through the K-link, a growing of knowledge through object relationships, the self-other dialectic of inter-personal communication.

So, mental growth and learning comes from tolerating and processing unpleasant emotional experiences, and such growth is best done in an exchange of feelings between people. This exchange of feelings is done through empathic mirroring. This mirroring is originally between a mother (or primary caregiver, male or female) and her infant.

When I speak of the self-other dialectic, I refer to the close bond between two people, the blurred boundary between them, since projections and introjections of psychic energy are passing back and forth between them. Since a young child is going through primary narcissism, and one hopes he or she will soon mature past ego-libido into object-libido, empathic mirroring between the child and his or her parents, at least one of whose internalized objects will be an idealized parental imago, is vital for the child’s health.

These mirrored relationships and idealized parental imagoes are what Heinz Kohut called self-objects, or internalized relationships a child has with his or her primary caregivers that help the child to build stable and healthy psychological structure. If the child’s narcissism isn’t dealt with tactfully by his or her parents, if the child’s fantasied omnipotence isn’t let down in small, tolerable amounts, the lack of needed empathy will result in a split sense of narcissism, of repressed and disavowed narcissism vs. a feeling of low self-worth, a placing at the biting head/bitten tail of the ouroboros.

In other words, healthy people have a proper mix of pride and humility, somewhere in the middle of the serpent’s body, between the extremes. Pathological narcissists, on the other hand, have wild grandiosity as a mask to hide self-hate, where the head bites the tail.

So, during these early years, a child uses his or her parents as both an ideal and a mirror for him- or herself. Parents are seen, to at least some extent (the depressive position, D, notwithstanding), as extensions of the child’s self.

And here is where the Oedipus complex fits in.

The child’s relationship with his or her idealized parent–be this the opposite-sex parent of the classical Freudian version, or the same-sex parent of the negative Oedipus complex–is a narcissistic one, a dyadic, one-on-one mirroring that coincides more or less with such things as the establishment of an illusory ego in the mirror stage. The idealized parent corresponds to the ideal-I in the specular image.

The clumsy child sees him- or herself in the idealized specular or parental image looking back…but that other person isn’t really the child. He or she is alienated from the image, from him- or herself, from the idealized parent looking back. The biting head of the ouroboros is connected…united…with the bitten tail, but the two are opposite ends.

The tip of the serpent’s tail can be seen as symbolically phallic, as the ouroboros’ mouth can be seen as yonic. The union of the two can thus be seen as symbolizing the unconscious phantasy of incestuous union between parent and child. The union needn’t be literally lustful; it can simply represent the wish to have that one parent all to oneself…not shared with siblings, or, God forbid!…the other parent. Hence, this is a narcissistic love.

Before the other parent comes along and breaks up this dyadic, mutually mirroring relationship, the child feels him- or herself to be in an Oedipal paradise of jouissance, that transgressive excess of pleasure that leads to pain (going past the ouroboros’ biting head to its bitten tail), though the receiver of these paradoxical sensations still wants them.

I like to allegorize this Oedipal state with the myth of the Garden of Eden. In this scenario, Adam represents the child, Eve is the mother rather than the wife (for she is “the mother of all living,” Genesis 3:20), the serpent is the ouroboros of the growth of Bion’s K, and Yahweh Elohim is the father. (I touched on this allegorizing in the psychoanalytical aspect of my analysis of mother!)

Please note that I’m assigning these roles in a metonymic sense: the child (Adam) could be male or female; the mother (Eve) could be either parent, as long as he or she is the Oedipally desired one; and the father (God) could be either sex, as long as he or she is the one breaking up the Oedipal union.

The rib coming out of sleeping Adam, which is then shaped into Eve, represents how the child sees the parent as an extension of him- or herself. No sense of the difference between what Winnicott called me and not-me has yet been made by the child. Adam wakes, sees her, and says, “bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” (Genesis 2:23)

Bion saw (pages 45-49), in the Oedipus myth, the importance of the growth of knowledge (K). Oedipus would know the truth even if it destroyed him, while Tiresias, who already knew, warned Oedipus not to seek it out. Knowledge is desired, but having it can be painful.

Similarly, Yahweh Elohim warns Adam and Eve not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge: this is the Name of the Father (le nom, or le Non! du père), the nom suggesting the nomos, or law, and the Non! being the prohibition against enjoying the (often understood to be carnal) knowledge that the forbidden fruit offers.

Nevertheless, the serpent, subtler in K than all the other animals, tempts Eve to eat of the fruit. Her offering of it to Adam, and eating it with him, represents the container/contained relationship between mother and child, the building up of a thinking apparatus for the infant, its ability to use alpha function, its growth in K.

Bion used a feminine symbol for the container, suggesting a yoni, and a masculine symbol for the contained, a phallus; so container/contained symbolically suggests copulation. I’ve already associated the yoni with the ouroboros’ mouth, and the phallus with its tail. This is how the subtle serpent in the Garden represents the ouroboros’ growth in K.

In enjoying the taste of the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:6), Adam and Eve are experiencing the transgressive pleasure of jouissance. The child is enjoying the Oedipally-desired parent’s love and attention, but this one-on-one relationship can last only so long. Even the child can feel surfeited by the pleasure, and want to escape it. No wonder Lacan called the excess “plus-de-jouir,” a kind of surplus-value of pleasure that is beyond what is acceptable.

Remember, the yonic serpent’s mouth has teeth. Its union with the phallic tail leads to the threat of castration. The expulsion from the Garden of Eden is the dissolution of the Oedipus complex. The child has gone from the excess of pleasure (jouissance) of the ouroboros’ head to the extreme of pain in the bitten tail.

The dyadic, mirrored relationship of the Imaginary must be transcended to allow entry into the social world of the Symbolic. The other (who was Mother) must now be the Other of all people, who cannot be narcissistic extensions of the self; they must be understood as independent subjects in their own right. The pain of paradise lost is the endless search for someone to satisfy the objet petit a, a replacement for Mother.

The objects that are found to satisfy the objet petit a can do so only temporarily, for there is never a complete fulfillment of desire. Desire stretches beyond need; it always wants more…there is never enough. Desire is also the desire of the Other: one wants what others are seen to want; so again, we see a manifestation of the dialectic of the self vs. the Other.

One begins with manque, the lack that is the cause of desire, symbolized by castration at the bitten tail of the ouroboros; one seeks out an object to satisfy the desire, a movement from the tail along the coiled middle of the serpent’s body; and when one finds a temporary satisfaction, one reaches the head…but the satisfaction results in a moving past the biting head back to the bitten tail of lack, and the cycle must begin again. It thus goes round and round, ad infinitum.

The realm of communication parallels the cycles of desire in how each word in a signifying chain only temporarily holds meaning, the signified. No one word can decisively contain a meaning, since a word can house many meanings, whichever meaning it may house, at a given moment, depending on the context, or on whatever words are positioned before and after it in the signifying chain.

The flow of meaning can be compared to a river whose current moves under a continuous plane of broken ice, this ice being all of the signifiers. One follows the current, passing by each crack in the ice which represents the space between words. Meaning is fully grasped only if one continually reads or hears word after word, never stopping. The ultimately unfulfillable search for absolute, complete meaning is thus like the never-ending quest to satisfy desire.

My ouroboros metaphor can also demonstrate this idea. One seeks meaning by beginning to read, or to hear a speaker utter, the first word (the bitten tail). One reads/hears that word, grasping its meaning (the biting head). Then one leaves that word to come to the next (the coiled length of the serpent’s body, or the Aufhebung of the previous thesis and negation).

Lacan literally used the word Aufhebung in describing the experience of each signifier. I prefer to translate the German noun as “sublation,” but he translated it as “cancellation.” Such is the transitory nature of how meaning is held in a word: it’s here one moment, gone the next, as we move on to the next word in line.

Understanding grows in this cyclical manner, through communication in society’s shared signifiers, culture, and customs. It’s the growth in K, but here it’s in the Symbolic Order rather than the dyadic, mirrored mother/infant relationship of the Imaginary.

K grows through pain, originally in the form of receiving beta elements that a baby needs its mother to help it cope with, helping the baby develop the ability to think. The child recognizes him- or herself as a distinct ego in the mirror reflection, and le nom/Non! du père breaks him or her away from Mother and introduces him or her to developing the K-link through a shared language. K continues to grow through pain, in the seeker of an object to replace Mother (objet petit a) finding people to communicate and bond with. Temporary satisfaction, returned manque, and resumed seeking.

A similarly cyclical process happens with repression, which doesn’t involve burying anxiety-provoking feelings in the unconscious forever, because those emotional experiences bounce back into consciousness, only in a new form, safely unrecognizable to the person agitated by those feelings. Such anxiety-provoking feelings are thus new beta elements being ejected.

There’s the anxiety-provoking feeling (the bitten tail), the repression of that feeling (the biting head), and the transformation and resurfacing of that feeling in a manner unnoticed by the person feeling it (the movement along the length of the serpent’s coiled body).

The above are but some of the many ways that the dialectical nature of reality, as symbolized by the ouroboros, can be manifested in psychoanalytical concepts. It’s further proof of the unity in duality, and of the dynamic, wave-like swaying between only seemingly contradictory phenomena.

This oneness that is experienced behind the veil of language’s differential relations, known only when one abandons memory, desire, and understanding, is Bion’s O, and Lacan’s Real Order. It can be traumatic, but it can also lead to a kind of mystical state. It’s the marriage of heaven and hell, the giving up of the fraudulent ego of the Imaginary, and the embracing of intuition that transcends the ever-elusive meaning behind the signifiers of the Symbolic.

Properly accepted, this terrifying Moby-Dick in a transcendent, mystical infinite ocean of Brahman can put an end to the quest to satisfy desire, which only leads to more suffering. It’s like the bodhisattva who, having attained nirvana (the ouroboros’ tail), returns to samsara (the biting head) to help sufferers, for he has sublated the two (the middle of the serpent’s body).

I make the comparisons to Buddhism and mysticism because psychoanalytic technique is used to help us better understand the mind, in the hopes of healing various forms of mental illness and emotional pain. Lacan spoke of unfulfillable desire, and Buddhism and mysticism aim at ending desire and the suffering it causes.

I’m no Buddhist or mystic, and I’m certainly no expert in psychological matters of any kind. But I like to write about such matters, relating them to dialectics, in the hopes that I can make some kind of contribution, however small and amateurish, to an understanding of ourselves, our desires, our suffering, and how to end the latter two. Perhaps someone better educated than I am on such matters can find a use in what I’ve written here, and apply it in a way far better than the one I’ve so cryptically expressed.

Living Well Is the Best Revenge

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

Among the symptoms of those suffering from C-PTSD are a preoccupation with the abuser(s), a feeling that they are somehow ‘all-powerful,’ and an urge to get revenge on them. I find myself ruminating over all the times that members of my family emotionally abused me, and the thought that they got away with all of that just makes it hurt all the more.

There’s a terrible feeling of defeat that one gets from contemplating how one’s abusers and bullies never got theirs, that they’ve never even had an inkling that what they did was wrong. Their blissful ignorance (willful ignorance, actually) seems to suggest that the victim got what he or she deserved. Doubtless, the bullies want their victim to think that. No fun for them, otherwise.

The problem with trying to get even with them in some way is that it leads to escalation. The abusers are known for their viciousness when it comes to getting their way, so if you try to hurt them, they’ll hurt you back far worse than they ever did before. You can’t pull a “Cask of Amontillado” on them, so how are you supposed to punish with impunity?

Constant rumination and fantasizing about getting them back is the opposite of satisfying, yet thinking about it, over and over again, is addictive. Added to this problem is the ongoing experience of intrusive thoughts. One never has peace of mind as a result of all this brooding.

We want to put the pain outside of ourselves, but we can’t.

So, what can we do to heal ourselves, and also to get some kind of satisfaction over all of the wrongs done to us? One little bit of inspiration comes from a collection of quotes called the Jacula Prudentum, compiled by the 17th century Welsh-born poet, George Herbert. Number 520 gives this little nugget of wisdom: “Living well is the best revenge.”

“How does one live well, when one is soaking in trauma?” one might ask. Well, we can consider many possible ways, taken in combination: we can work extra hard on healing, that is, psychotherapy, meditation, self-care, writing therapy, art therapy, and mindfulness; and, as I see it, we can try to be as happy as possible.

Derive great pleasure from the idea that your tormentors of the past, those narcissists who gain supply from contemplating how miserable they’ve made you, would be furious to know that you’re actually happy without them! It doesn’t matter if they, living far from you and blocked online, don’t know that you’re happy…you’re the only one who needs to know.

I’m not saying that this is the only thing you need to do to get better. Obviously, you cannot escape from your pain and lie to yourself about being happy, as a kind of manic defence. As I said two paragraphs above, you have to work hard on healing in the various forms I gave as examples, among many others.

Smile, though your heart is aching…

But whenever you can, try to feel good, and let that good mood expand into an even better mood when you contemplate how your abusers wouldn’t want you to feel that way. Enjoy your revenge; imagine them going crazy. Indulge in a little Schadenfreude.

This little piece of advice, like all my others, is only meant to be one of many things you can do to help yourself. My auto-hypnoses on removing the inner critic, treating the painful past as if it were just a bad dream (i.e., no longer relevant to your life now), introjecting positive internal objects, and seeing the good and bad of the world as flowing into each other, not a permanent state of bad, etc., are all meant only as parts of the healing process, to be combined and used with other writers’ ideas. No individual one of them is meant to be a total cure in itself.

People often think of happiness as something way out there in the future, as something we’ll have only once we’ve either achieved something or reached a certain level of spiritual attainment. First, we’re at A (misery), then we go through a process of B (the spiritual or healing journey) in order to arrive at C (happiness). But I think dialectically: sadness and happiness can flow back and forth into each other, like the waves of the ocean. Sometimes we first have to make conditions better in order to be happy, and at other times, we have to decide to be happy first in order to make conditions better.

But for now, here’s a little tip: just imagine those narc jerks seeing you walking around with an ear-to-ear grin. Imagine them stewing over your happiness. That alone should make you feel good.

Revenge is a dish that is best served glad.