Putting Trauma Into Words

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

In previous posts, I wrote of the dialectical nature of health and ill health, and every intermediate point, all of these being represented on a circular continuum symbolized by the ouroboros. The two extreme opposites meet where the serpent’s head bites its tail: at the head, feelings of self-love get excessive, bordering on pathological narcissism; at the bitten tail is the threat of (if not the realization of) fragmentation, a psychotic breaking away from reality that is often defended against through pathological narcissism, where the serpent’s teeth are biting. Everywhere else on the ouroboros’ coiled body is every intermediate point from the best of health, just behind the head, to the worst of neurosis, just before the bitten tail of psychosis.

To simplify, we can make three basic categories of mental health and ill-health out of this ouroboros as a symbol of the circular continuum: the biting head is the narcissistic world of what Jacques Lacan called the Imaginary Order, seeing an ideal self in the mirror, just as Narcissus, seeing his reflection in the pond, fell in love with himself; the bitten tail is the traumatic, inexpressible world of what Lacan called the Real; and the intermediate, relatively healthy world represented by the serpent’s coiled body is what he called the Symbolic Order, where we’re connected to society through language.

The expression of our feelings, through society’s shared symbols and signifiers (i.e., language), is the basis of our mental health. Bottling up our feelings, never venting them, leads to mental illness. A crucial part of giving expression to how we feel, though, is having people who will listen to us, who will validate us, who will contain our pain as a mother would contain the anxieties, fears, and frustrations of her baby, then transform those feelings and process them for it (since the baby has no mental apparatus yet developed for thinking and processing thoughts on its own), and return them to it in a form it can accept, thus pacifying it. We need people–friends, loved ones, therapists, etc.–who will perform that maternal role for us if we’re ill.

Wilfred Bion‘s theory of a mother containing her baby’s disturbed state (in maternal reverie) is replicated in the patient/therapist relationship, where the patient is in the baby’s role, and the therapist is in the mother’s role. Such a relationship is necessary when, overwhelmed by raw, unprocessed external sensory stimuli (beta elements) that become traumatizing, the patient has psychotic episodes and approaches psychological fragmentation, a terror of disintegration, a mental falling-apart.

This falling apart often happens because there is no one to help the sufferer contain and thus help to process his or her trauma; the therapist must step in and do the containing. This containing (similar to D.W. Winnicott‘s notion of a holding environment) allows the agitating beta elements to be processed and transformed into alpha elements, or thoughts acceptable to the patient. These alpha elements can go into the patient’s unconscious mind–which is structured like a language, as Lacan said–and can be used in dreams and as thoughts to be expressed in words.

Most of us, of course, cannot afford a therapist, due in no small part to the aggravation of wealth inequality over the past thirty to forty years; so we may have to make do with playing the role of therapist for each other. By this I mean being the empathic containers of each other’s traumas and anxieties; for the trauma of having suffered narcissistic and emotional abuse is such that, given no validation of our pain at all from the narcissist’s flying monkeys, we victims are like those crying babies in need of having those agitating beta elements (our trauma) transformed into alpha elements (processed, more soothing thoughts).

So how can we rank amateurs help each other? By listening to our fellow sufferers and validating (containing) the emotional effects of the abuse they went through. Similarly, we can vent our own pain (the contained) in as expressive and vivid a language as we can muster (Richard Grannon calls it ‘Emotional Literacy‘), while others (e.g., our communal online support on Facebook pages about emotional abuse) listen to and validate us. This is how we can move from the bitten tail of trauma (Lacan’s Real) to the upper middle of the ouroboros’ body (Lacan’s Symbolic Order, the realm of interpersonal communication).

I’ll start with some venting of my own pain, which I hope, Dear Reader, you’ll contain for me, then return to me with some soothing validation. (I’ll be willing to return the favour if you send me a link of your verbalizing of your traumas, your ‘contained,’ and I’ll reblog it here, as is my intention with the message given in this post.)

  • Back in the early 2000s, when my mother was prating on and on about my supposedly having Asperger Syndrome, or AS (I’ve never been diagnosed with it, and she didn’t even merit being called an amateur psychiatrist, let alone someone with any measure of authority on mental health issues), I grew increasingly agitated, frustrated, and exasperated with her. When she dismissed my legitimate objections, I just felt unheard, invalidated, and uncared for.
  • In the mid-2000s, when she rejected my wish to fly from Asia (where I live) to Canada to see my sister, J., and her terminally ill husband, rationalizing that I’m “different,” as well as “tactless and insensitive” (due, apparently, to AS–see Part 2 of this), I exploded with rage at her condescending, hurtful attitude, for which she’d never repented. I felt insulted, devalued, excluded, and unwanted.
  • When, not too long after, J. emailed me, telling me to stop complaining to Mom about her attitude, showing me she was 100% on Mom’s side, and trivializing my pain, J. made me feel like a ten-year-old; I frowned like a hurt child, though I was in my late thirties when I read that email. I felt humiliated, disrespected, and infantilized. Her not wanting me to reply made me feel silenced and voiceless.
  • By the 2010s, when I realized that not only was Mom’s talk about AS, but also her labelling me with classic autism when I was a child, all lies, I felt so betrayed and heartbroken, I thought of the whole family, who supported her in her fabrications, as a bunch of perfidious snakes! How awful it is to feel so alone, so isolated, and so unloved. I felt fooled, conned, cheated, deceived, and tricked. (See Part 3 here.)
  • As a child, whenever I got subjected to Mom’s wild rages, or the bullying of my elder siblings, I felt terrified, helpless, overwhelmed, and trapped. Mom’s indifference to, if not outright conniving at, all that bullying just increased my sense of loneliness, of separateness from society, of unworthiness, of inferiority.
  • During the 2010s, when I heard, in the middle of a long-distance phone call from Mom, that she said–after indulging in a spate of bad-mouthing of my youngest cousin, G., about whom she’d never said anything kind in her life–she thought he might have Asperger Syndrome, I groaned in a fury, knowing she was using this psychiatric label to devalue his worth in the family…just as she’d been doing with me. I felt a growing sympathy for my so-unjustly-despised cousin. See Part 4 here.
  • Later this decade, as it became more and more obvious that Mom (an RN, incidentally) was adamant about not wanting to help my cousin, S., who was manifesting paranoid delusions about me, I felt a growing hopelessness, a despairing of the family. No one else, including J., showed any interest in helping S., either: these were the same people who had preached to me for years about the importance of putting other people’s needs in front of your own…and they were now proving they were no better than “self-centred” me! Now, I felt a growing contempt for them and their hypocrisy.
  • When my mother told me a string of lies in the late summer of 2015, the year before she died, and I heard the most blatant untruth of them all–that I supposedly had sent my aunt a series of “over-the-top” emails (click here for the whole story, if you’re interested: Part 5–More Elaborate Lies)–I lay shaking in bed, shocked, unable to sleep the whole night (I’d received Mom’s email, with this lie, just before I was to go to bed). I felt disoriented, baffled, confused, and disconcerted. I had no idea who that family even was anymore.

As you read through my examples, note my use of ‘feeling’ words, especially those in italics: agitated, frustrated, rage, betrayed, etc. It is the use of words like these, carefully chosen and made as vividly descriptive–particular and precise in meaning–as possible, that is the key to processing your trauma. Get to the root of your trauma, and get it out of your system; share your words with people you can trust, people who will contain your pain for you, validate it, and send the energy back to you in a transformed way, to pacify and heal you.

The unconscious, as understood in terms of the Symbolic Order, isn’t the unconscious of an individual person; it’s rather a trans-individual unconscious connecting us with everyone else. The unconscious as the discourse of the Other (radical ‘otherness’: that is, all other people out there, not just someone we would narcissistically mirror against ourselves, as a baby and its mother looking into each other’s eyes), a conversation between the self and other, communication and connection between people in which they aren’t extensions of a narcissistic self, but coexist as equals.

As a rank amateur myself, with no formal training in the field, I tend to modify and adapt psychoanalytic theory as I see fit, so when I see a similarity between Lacan’s trans-individual unconscious and Jung‘s collective unconscious, I do so with an understanding that Lacan would probably wince at my conflation of the two.

My point is that it is in this place where all minds meet–a psychic state unified by communication, shared symbols and signifiers (‘language’ here has the expanded meaning of being a signifying system of differential relations–all interconnected ideas, just as our trans-individual unconscious makes us all interconnected), and listening empathically. I like to call it the Unity of Space, an infinite ocean where we can all heal together.

Narcissistic Envy and Jealousy

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

The development of pathological narcissism can in some ways be connected to the irresolution of the Oedipus complex, for as Don Carveth has noted, this complex is a narcissistic trauma. Still, we must first clarify what the Oedipus complex really is; a brief explanation of other psychoanalytic concepts helpful in understanding narcissism (a more detailed exploration can be found here, if what’s written below is frustratingly obscure) will be made below, too, before I get into a discussion of how my family conflicts can be seen as an example of narcissism based on Oedipal envy and jealousy.

The best way to understand the Oedipus complex is in a metaphoric sense–far more than just Freud‘s literal, primitive conception of wanting to remove the rival, same-sex parent and wanting to possess the opposite-sex one (or, in the case of the negative Oedipus complex, children loving the same-sex parent and hating the opposite-sex one). The desire for the one parent doesn’t have to be sexual, incestuous; and the hostility to the other parent doesn’t have to involve murderous phantasies. The child simply doesn’t wish to share the desired parent with a rival; he wants that parent all to himself.

Furthermore, as I’ve touched on elsewhere, the desire and hostility don’t each have to be reserved for only one parent or the other; a child typically has a love/hate relationship with both parents, based on his or her acceptance of what Melanie Klein called the “good” and “bad” mother and father aspects of both parents, understood when the child has developed a sense of ambivalence for them, derived from the depressive position, a resolution of the black-and-white splitting from the earlier paranoid-schizoid position.

Anyway, the Oedipal situation is best understood as a narcissistic relationship we all, as little children or infants, had with an idealized parent and the rival other parent, who annoys the child by drawing Mother’s attention away from him or her. Usually the ideal parent is the mother, idolized by little boys and girls–these latter kids during the pre-Oedipal phase–because the mother usually has more access to, and (unfortunately, due to sex roles and the patriarchal family) responsibility for, the babies than the father has.

This narcissistic period occurs in what Jacques Lacan called the Imaginary Order, sparked by the mirror stage, when an infant sees his or her mirror reflection for the first time, then conceives him- or herself as a coherent, unified being (as opposed to the spastic, fragmentary body the infant otherwise perceives himself to have). The reflected image is an idealized self–just as the mother’s smiling face, which the baby sees as a metaphorical mirror reflection of itself, is the face of an idealized person the child imagines to be an extension of itself, rather than an independent being in her own right, with her own needs and desires.

The notion of the mother as an extension of the baby is intensified since, as Wilfred Bion observed (and expressed with his idiosyncratic terminology), the baby needs the mother to provide her ability to think for it and process its outer stimuli (beta elements), because the baby doesn’t yet have a developed thinking apparatus. The mother is a container, holding all the upsetting, frightening external stimuli for the baby (the contained) in a state of maternal reverie, then transforming the baby’s pain, anxiety, etc. into a pacifying form it can accept (alpha elements), and returning it to the baby.

This, according to Bion, is how Knowledge (K) develops for the infant, a transferring of energy back and forth, from infant to mother and back again (container/contained), via projective identification; acquiring knowledge, however, may be desired or feared. (Bion observed this of Tiresias in the Oedipus myth, when the blind prophet was reluctant to tell King Oedipus that he was responsible for his father‘s death, and that he had married and committed incest with his mother. Read more here, pages 45-49.)

A narcissistic mother, already lacking in empathy, may not be all that willing to help her babies grow in knowledge through reverie and Bion’s notion of containment, thus causing the babies’ anxieties not to be processed and soothed, but rather to be turned into a nameless dread; the frustrated baby thus, in self-defence, limits its acquiring of knowledge (-K) from what it perceives to be the “bad mother.” The narcissistic mother would rather have her children dependent on her than be independent in knowledge.

This building-up of knowledge exclusively through the mother (or, by extension, the infant’s Oedipally-desired, male or female primary caregiver), can thus be a bad thing if this desired caregiver is the baby’s more-or-less only window to the world, barring the intervention of a third party (Father, or by extension, the rest of society) to round out and give nuance to the child’s experience of the world. The child thus never matures or fully leaves Lacan‘s narcissistic Imaginary Order to enter the Symbolic Order, to acquire fluency in the language and shared symbols of society, and thus fit into society.

In a similar vein, Heinz Kohut wrote about how the infantile narcissistic state is composed of two poles: 1) the idealized parental imago, an image of the loved parent (what Kohut called a self-object to satisfy narcissistic needs, or to validate and affirm the ego’s narcissistic self-image), which is introjected and felt to be an internal object inside the child’s mind; and 2) the boastful grandiose self, which can be related to Lacan’s narcissistic ideal-I from the mirror stage. If these two poles’ effectiveness in building psychological structure for the child are compromised (e.g., because of an unresolved Oedipal conflict), he or she could develop pathologically narcissistic traits as an adult.

Since the mirror doesn’t have to be a literal one (i.e., the infant–looking at his mother’s loving face [see Homer, page 24]–can see a symbolic mirror reflecting both his ideal, grandiose self and his idealized parent, an extension of himself via projective and introjective identification [container/contained]), we can see how Freud, Lacan, Bion, and Kohut can be fused. This is the self/other dialectic, the human personality as understood in a relational sense with other people, the psychic bridges between us all.

So, the Oedipal relationship with (usually) the mother is one of mirroring narcissism back to the child and of giving narcissistic idolatry to the desired parent. The problem for the child is that this two-way, mirroring relationship can’t last forever. As the child gets older, he or she must come to accept that the prized parent has desires for someone else (the other parent, a boyfriend/girlfriend, etc.). The parent can’t belong exclusively to the child, and this traumatizing disappointment must be gotten over.

Most of us can get over this, to at least a reasonable extent, hence our infantile, childhood narcissism is let down tolerably, bit by bit (optimal frustration), and reduced to socially acceptable levels by the time we reach adulthood. Some people, on the other hand, because of some arrest in their childhood development, never sufficiently resolve this Oedipal trauma; these people grow up with pathological levels of narcissism, and throughout their lives need people to mirror their grandiosity back to them in the form of narcissistic supply.

I believe my mother suffered such unresolved traumas when she was a child, having been born in England two years before the Blitz, which–even if the bombings hadn’t happened in the city or town she, as an infant, had been in at the time–at least would have exposed her to a great level of parental stress in her immediate environment.

More significantly for her, though, would have been the death–several years later–of her father, to whom she’d have had a great Oedipal attachment, him being her metaphorical mirror when she was a little girl in the 1940s. Finally, her move with her widowed mother to Canada, by the 1950s, would have ripped her away from the–to her–idyllic, Edenic world of her origins, and put her in a strange new world she’d have found difficult to adjust to at such a tender, young age.

Because of these disruptions in her childhood development, she would have needed to fill in the voids where empathic mirroring was supposed to be. I believe she would eventually use my dad, my siblings, and me to fill in those voids, either to mirror her grandiose self back to her (i.e., my sister, J., her golden child, her idealized self), or to have people onto whom she could project the hated parts of herself (me–the scapegoat, or identified patient–and her nephews, L. and G., and eventually S., too, as I’ve explained in previous posts). To an extent, even my dad got scapegoated (whenever he displeased or disappointed her, which was frequent); so when he took me under his wing when I was a kid, the rest of the family blackballed me all the worse.

If Dad and I were mirroring each other, Mom was getting all that much less of a mirroring from me, causing her narcissistic injury. Narcissists are known for their wish to hog all the attention to themselves, so anyone taking any of that coveted attention away is seen as a rival to be envied. A key personality trait of people with NPD is envy: envy of others as well as a perception that others envy them, something easily interpreted as projected envy.

I believe that my mother’s envy of Dad’s ‘usurping,’ if you will, of some of that attention was part of her motive to fan the flames of jealousy that my brothers, R. and F., felt when Dad seemed to favour me over them. Their jealousy would have been a manifestation of their unresolved negative Oedipal feelings toward Dad; the same would apply to my sister, J., in her Oedipally-inspired jealousy. The Oedipal situation is all about narcissism, family rivalry, competition for love, and therefore, jealousy.

Jealousy differs slightly from envy, in that the former involves a fear of losing someone’s love to another person (this was my siblings’ problem); whereas envy involves irritation over one person having some kind of advantage, something or someone the envier lacks, thus making the envious one want to hurt the object of his envy (Mom’s problem).

I believe Mom envied the attention I gave to Dad, so she set up two camps in the family: those who were ‘loyal’ to her (my three siblings), and those who were ‘disloyal,’ Dad and me; this division into camps was the basis of much of the needless conflict in our family. While much of my father’s grumpy, authoritarian nastiness was due to his excess adherence to conservative values (his slavery to tradition), I believe a lot of his adversarial nature came from his bitterness in having married a narcissist, all while lacking the psychological vocabulary to give expression to his frustrations (one of Dad’s many bigotries was his hate of psychiatry, which he believed spawned many social ills).

So, by pushing R., F., and J. to focus their attention on Mom, to mirror her grandiosity back to her, and by punishing them if ever they failed to do so, Mom was causing my siblings to have–at least to a significant extent–an insufficiently resolved Oedipal conflict, a conflict she exploited to her advantage. They idolized her, felt a guarded hostility to Dad (criticism of him was allowed to a point; criticism of Mom was taboo, with rare exceptions), and tormented me for daring to do what they’d been forbidden to do: to have roughly equal proportions of affection and hostility for both parents.

I’m not saying R., F., and J. felt only negative feelings for Dad: a certain, circumscribed amount of affection for him was seen by Mom as not only acceptable, but appropriate and expected (after all, we had to maintain the public image of being a ‘good, loving family’). A similarly limited love was doled out to me by all of them, ‘as appropriate.’ J., as the golden child, was especially obligated ‘to love’ me.

The conflict that my mother promoted was also meant to stay within certain ‘acceptable’ limits. Mom was at least partly responsible for having failed to resolve the mid-1970s conflict between Dad and teen R. over the relative triviality of his bad grades at school. I speculate that she may have, in fact, helped escalate the conflict leading to teen R.’s leaving home; it’s all described in more detail here–scroll down about a third to halfway into it; read there also about his ranting to me, years later, of Dad supposedly loving J. and me more for having gotten better grades in school…Oedipal jealousy. Mom thus had to be careful not to let family fights escalate into physical violence, or into any of us, still underage at the time, running away from home.

Hence, Mom tolerated anyone verbally abusing me, but drew the line at physical violence (i.e., when she knew F. had perpetrated it); also, Mom’s use of the autism lie on me (read about that here) could have been partially motivated by a wish to ensure I’d be too scared to run away from home, she having implied that I was ‘too mentally incompetent’ to be able to take care of myself.

The family was fond of scorning me as some kind of overgrown child. But if I’m right about this repressed, unconscious Oedipus factor as the basis for so much of my conflict with Mom and my siblings, as well as their conflicts with each other and with Dad (all those unresolved Mommy and Daddy issues), we now can see who in my family, deep down, were the truly childish ones.

R., F., and J. were in a perpetual competition to see who was the ‘worthiest’ of Mom’s love, never realizing that conditional love isn’t love at all. They based their (and my) worth on how much of Mom’s love we had ‘earned’ (in earlier posts–some of which are among the links given above–I gave many examples of my siblings implying they’d ‘earned’ a love I hadn’t). Their sense of emotional stability, self-confidence, and ability to function normally in the world was based on the comfortable, flattering illusion of that love. I saw through the family’s bullshit, and they shame me for daring to have that Tiresias-like insight, Bion’s K, which they are probably still too afraid to uncover.

Wilfred R. Bion, Learning From Experience, Maresfield Library, London, 1962

Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Approach to the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1971

Sean Homer, Jacques Lacan, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, London, 2005

Intrusive Thoughts

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

Way back when I wrote my article on C-PTSD, I discussed emotional flashbacks, which are a re-experiencing of the emotional states of painful memories from emotional abuse. This re-experiencing of the painful emotions from a memory–not a re-experiencing of the memory itself, as in the flashbacks of PTSD sufferers–can last for hours, days, or even weeks, often with an overwhelming feeling of profound sadness, anguish, or fear.

In my article, I imagined my generally brief fantasies of rage at my emotional abusers–my (probably) narcissistic late mother and her flying monkeys, my siblings–to have been emotional flashbacks. I believe I may have been mistaken about that: what I have been experiencing seems to have been more like intrusive thoughts.

We all think black thoughts sometimes, even the healthiest of people; but these kinds of thoughts become a problem when they recur obsessively. Intrusive thoughts tend to come in three basic forms: aggressive, blasphemous, and sexual. I generally get them in the first category.

Photo by Craig Adderley on Pexels.com

An imagined scenario, of me in a conflict with my mother, my older brothers R. and F., or my older sister J., will pop into my head. I’ll imagine myself yelling my grievances at them, the whole situation soon spiralling out of control. I’ll end it by telling myself mentally to stop dramatizing the ridiculous spectacle in my head, and I’ll feel awful.

This has been an ongoing problem in my head for years, even decades. One of the things I was hoping to achieve by ending communication with the family was to stop these mental melodramas from playing in my head, over and over again. Going no contact was a necessary condition for ending the emotional abuse, to be sure, but it wasn’t a sufficient condition.

Those people still exist as internal objects in my head. The auto-hypnoses I created in previous posts, such as exorcizing the inner critic demon, imagining that painful past as a mere dream, etc., are helpful to an extent, as has been this writing therapy–processing my feelings by finding the right words to describe them–but other methods have to be used in conjunction with those to lessen the effects of the trauma even further.

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

An additional tactic we survivors can have in our healing arsenal, as it were, is to practice grounding whenever those intrusive thoughts pop up in our heads. Essentially, this involves bringing ourselves back into our bodies, back into the present moment, typically using the five senses (e.g., taking note of how something in our immediate surroundings feels, looks, sounds, smells, and/or tastes, to bring us out of our ruminating, dissociating heads, and back into our bodies at the moment).

One time, a week or two ago, I was getting worked up with an intrusive thought about an imagined argument with one of my siblings. It was irritating me so much, taking my mind off of one simple thing I needed to get done at the time, that I decided to ground myself: I focused on my arms, my legs, my torso, and my head, thinking about what was going on in those body parts at that moment, instead of dwelling on those ghosts in my head. It worked. I brought myself back to the present moment, and I could function.

Another thing I’ve found helpful, when imagining the hurtful things my family would say to me, is to say to myself, “Their opinion doesn’t count.” It’s just one opinion that they all share, and it has no nuance or sophistication (‘I was just born screwed up,’ apparently). It’s also a result of their willful ignorance of the true causes of the problems I had with the family, problems largely caused by them, but things they never want to take responsibility for.

Photo by Nathan Cowley on Pexels.com

There are lots of videos and blog posts out there on grounding and other ways of dealing with these nasty emotional spells. Here are a few. Another thing you can do is use positive affirmations to help pull you out of your pain. I recommend using techniques like these if you have a problem with intrusive thoughts.

I know it’s difficult to replace our bad thoughts with positive ones, but we have to try; if we don’t, we’ll just stay a prisoner in the dark. All things are hard at first before they can be easy; repeated effort can help us eventually shift from the bad thoughts to the good.

Analysis of ‘Black Swan’

Black Swan is a 2010 psychological thriller directed by Darren Aronofsky and written by Mark Heyman, John McLaughlin, and Andres Heinz, based on an original story by Heinz. It stars Natalie Portman in an Oscar-winning performance as ballerina Nina Sayers, with Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, and Winona Ryder.

The story, with its overarching themes of duality, dualism, and the dialectical relationship between opposites, is strongly influenced by Dostoyevsky‘s novella, The Double. Nina’s double is her dialectical opposite, Lily (Kunis); and just as the protagonist in Dostoyevsky’s story is paranoid about his double’s attempts to take over his life, so does Nina have persecutory anxiety about Lily supposedly scheming to take the role of Swan Queen away from her.

Here are some quotes from the film:

Nina (Portman): I came to ask for the part.

Thomas (Cassel): The truth is when I look at you all I see is the white swan. Yes, you’re beautiful, fearful, and fragile. Ideal casting. But the black swan? It’s a hard fucking job to dance both.

Nina: I can dance the black swan, too.

Thomas: Really? In four years, every time you dance I see you obsessed getting each and every move perfectly right, but I never see you lose yourself. Ever! All that discipline for what?

Nina[whispers] I just want to be perfect.

Thomas: What?

Nina: I want to be perfect.

Thomas[scoffs] Perfection is not just about control. It’s also about letting go. Surprise yourself so you can surprise the audience. Transcendence! Very few have it in them.

Nina: I think I do have it in me.
************

Nina: Beth! I’m so sorry to hear you’re leaving the company.

Beth (Ryder): What did you do to get this role? [about Thomas] He always said you were such a frigid little girl. What did you do to change his mind? Did you suck his cock?

Nina: Not all of us have to.

Beth[chuckles] You fucking whore! You’re a fucking little whore!

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

Thomas: You could be brilliant, but you’re a coward.

Nina: I’m sorry.

Thomas[yelling] Now stop saying that! That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Stop being so fucking weak!

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

“That was me seducing you. It needs to be the other way around.” –Thomas, to Nina

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


Lily (Kunis): [about Beth] I can’t believe he calls her that. It’s so gross.

Nina: I think it’s sweet.

Lily: Little princess? He probably calls every girl that.

Nina: No way! That’s just for Beth.

Lily: I bet he’ll be calling you little princess any day now.

Nina: I don’t know about that.

Lily: Sure he will. You just got to let him lick your pussy.

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

Erica (Hershey): What happened to my sweet girl?

Nina: She’s gone!

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

Nina: You put something in my drink.

Lily: Yeah.

Nina: And then you just took off in the morning?

Lily: In the morning?

Nina: Yeah, you slept over.

Lily: Um, no. Unless your name is Tom and you got a dick.

Nina: But we…

Lily: But we what, Nina? [pauses] Wait, did you have some sort of lezzy wet dream about me?

Nina[whispers] Stop it.

Lily: Oh my God. Oh my God! You did! You fantasized about me!

Nina: Shut up!

Lily[gasps] Was I good?

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

Erica: This role’s destroying you. [Nina violently pushes Erica aside]

Erica: No! Please! You’re not well!

Nina[yelling] Let go of me!

Erica: You can’t handle this!

Nina: I can’t? I’m the Swan Queen, you’re the one who never left the corps!

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

“I felt it. Perfect. It was perfect.” –Nina

One visual cue to take note of throughout the film is the preponderance of blacks, whites, and greys, in clothing especially, but also in interior designs. Black and white have the traditional symbolism of, respectively, evil and good, sin and innocence, etc. Grey, as a mixture of black and white, can thus be seen as an integration, or a sublation, of the black and white thesis/antithesis.

Nina, the “sweet girl,” wears mostly white clothes, as well as her lightest of light pink coat and light-grey track pants. As she gradually loses her innocence over the course of the film, she’ll be wearing darker, greyer clothing until she’s fully transformed into the Black Swan, the evil twin, as it were, of the White Swan. Appropriately, at the beginning of the film, she dreams of dancing as the White Swan; that she’s being eyed predatorily by Rothbart, the evil owl-like sorcerer, already shows her repressed sexuality, for deep down in her unconscious, she wants to be seduced.

Nina’s mother, Erica, is always in black, except for an outfit that’s a combination of black and dark grey, worn once in the middle of the film–black enough. We’ll see the significance of these black clothes on Erica later.

Erica seems to be a generally good mother, though she is in many ways frustrating for Nina, too. Erica’s overprotectiveness and lack of respect for her daughter’s privacy force Nina to take on an exclusively “sweet girl” persona…a white swan. With Erica’s domineering overprotectiveness comes a repression and disavowal of Nina’s sexuality.

This disavowal of her sexuality comes in the form of projection. Nina tends to see people in black clothes, sometimes young women with Nina’s hallucinated face superimposed on them, as in one example in the subway station. The sexual brazenness she sees in some of these black-clothed people (Lily, and in particular, a lecherous old man on the subway making obscene gestures at her) is really a sexuality inside herself that she doesn’t want to accept. She’s the white swan “sweet girl,” so she projects that sexuality onto others through her hallucinations. An important question here is: where do we draw the line between what she actually sees and what she hallucinates? (I suspect that she hallucinates a lot more often than the times she obviously does.)

Thomas, the artistic director of her ballet company, wants to do a production of Swan Lake in which the same dancer will play both the white and black swans. This would be a challenge for any dancer, but it is especially so for Nina, who will have to integrate her white side with her disavowed, forbidden black side. She will have to discover some very dark shadows inside herself.

Naturally, as she does this uncovering, this integrating of white and black, she’ll experience conflict and resistance. Part of her must do this integrating to be worthy of dancing the part, and part of her will be terrified of discovering the dark sexuality hidden inside herself, a sexuality her mother forbids her to express, as we’ll soon see. Projecting that sexuality onto others, certain black-clothed others in particular, will achieve this purpose…for a while…

Thomas, as an agent of this integration of black and white, accordingly wears combinations of black, grey, and white. He makes demands on Nina to open up sexually, to loosen up on her meticulous, perfectionistic ballet technique in order to dance more freely as the uninhibited Black Swan. She mustn’t be all Apollonian discipline; she must also be Dionysian passion and fire. Nina can’t adjust at first, though her doppelgänger Lily, with her pornographic mouth and frank sexuality, can do it naturally, effortlessly. Lily usually wears black clothes; she even has a tattoo of black wings on her back.

Look at the two girls’ four-letter names, Nina and Lily. They have paralleled repeats of consonants, ls and ns, letters close to each other in the alphabetic sequence; both names’ second letter is an i, and both names end with an a or a y, two vowels at almost opposite ends of each other in the alphabet. Lily only seems to be Nina’s polar opposite, but she’s actually her dialectical opposite, for in the sublation of contraries, there is a unity. Nina does have Lily’s wild sexuality: it’s just repressed and disavowed, for reasons I’ll speculate about later.

Nina’s unwillingness to learn how to dance the Black Swan with the free sexuality that Thomas wants represents what Wilfred Bion called -K, a negation of the desire to gain knowledge (K) by linking between oneself and others (Bion, p. 47ff.). All those external stimuli that arouse sexual feelings are rejected by Nina, like Bion‘s beta elements: raw, external sensory data that aren’t processed in the mind or turned into thoughts.

Many consider this film an allegory of the agony one feels in the search to attain artistic perfection. Nina certainly is striving, to the point of self-destructiveness (as her predecessor, Beth, has), to be the perfect ballerina; but her quest isn’t so much about dancing perfectly as it is about becoming someone else–actually, being her True Self (in DW Winnicott‘s sense of the term).

Black Swan is Nina’s journey towards self-knowledge, and this journey is terrifying for her because it means revealing feelings she is ashamed of–her repressed sexuality, which is, to at least a great degree, lesbian.

Recall “how pink! So pretty” that grapefruit half is that Nina’s mom serves her for breakfast at the beginning of the film. At this early point in the story, only the unconscious mind of that “sweet girl” would be able to see the vulva symbolism of the pink inside of the grapefruit.

When Thomas awakens her sexuality with that hard kiss he gives her in his office (which she rejects by biting him), then later he invites her to his home at night for a drink–and he talks about sex with her–we assume he is being the stereotypical male lecher trying to take advantage of a pretty young woman, offering her career advancement in exchange for a sexual favour. Actually, though, he doesn’t take her to bed. He’d have her masturbate in her home instead.

This awakening to self-knowledge (Bion’s K) is, so to speak, the ‘Biblical kind of knowing,’ and Nina is conflicted about it. She tries masturbating the next morning, but she sees her mother sleeping in a chair by her bed. This would seem to be yet another example of her mother not respecting her boundaries and invading her privacy. I suspect, however, that this is actually another of Nina’s many hallucinations, a convenient excuse to stop exploring her sexuality, for Erica would never approve of it.

It’s interesting that we never learn of Nina’s father–he’s not mentioned even once, at any time in the film. There’s a good possibility that Erica has raised Nina all the way, or almost all the way, from infancy; perhaps a man got Erica pregnant and abandoned her, forcing her to give up on her dreams of being a ballerina herself, and causing her to be overprotective of Nina for fear of her being seduced, knocked up, and thrown over in the same way. Recall Erica’s warning to Nina about Thomas and his “reputation” with women: “I just don’t want you to make the same mistake I did.” Whatever the cause of her repressions of Nina, Erica has been, essentially, Nina’s one conduit to knowledge of the world, having stifled the growth of Nina’s sexuality.

Bion’s theory of thinking and learning is based on developments of Melanie Klein‘s notion of projective identification, which involves projecting feelings and ideas into another to the point of making the other feel and think those feelings and thoughts. A baby isn’t able to think and process external sensory stimuli (Bion’s ‘beta elements’) for himself, so he must expel and project the distressing ones, pushing them into his mother, who as a “good enough mother” can contain them, process them in maternal reverie, and return them to her baby in a form acceptable to him, pacifying him. Erica, I suspect, didn’t sufficiently contain baby Nina’s anxieties and frustrations, which, instead of being pacified, became a “nameless dread“; hence, her current pathologies.

Object relations theorists like Klein wrote of how we all make internalized objects of our early caregivers, i.e., our parents. These internal objects reside in our minds like ghosts in, so to speak, the haunted houses of our heads; they are homunculi in us. In fatherless Nina’s case, there is only one foundational object introjected into her mind: Erica.

Sometimes, Erica is the good mother, caring for Nina and protecting her (or at least trying to) from external dangers (sexually predatory men) and internal ones (Nina’s scratching and self-injuries). Of course, Erica carries that protection way too far, and far too often, making her into the bad mother.

Since Black Swan is a movie about duality, it’s important to note this good/bad mother duality in Erica, which Nina has internalized. Erica’s repression of Nina’s sexuality, infantilizing her (Nina, on two occasions, calls Erica “Mommy”), is another big part of the bad mother that frustrates Nina.

This frustration results in the defence mechanism of splitting into absolute good (white swan) and absolute bad (black swan). Thomas’s insistence that Nina dance both black and white swans necessitates an integration that threatens her ego defences, causing her psychotic break with reality.

Nina would resist this knowing (-K) of the integration of white and black; she’d rather be all-white, so all impulses and excitations (beta elements) luring her towards the black (which she nonetheless must accept if she’s to succeed in Thomas’s production) are frightening things she must eject from herself and project onto others (i.e., Lily).

The problem is that if Nina keeps rejecting these beta elements over time, never processing these taboo thoughts or allowing them to settle in her mind as alpha elements, the rejected beta elements will accumulate and become what Bion called bizarre objects, hallucinatory projections of herself (e.g., those talking pictures in Erica’s room). If Nina doesn’t accept her dark side, she’ll go mad.

I’ve mentioned Nina’s lesbian tendencies; recall the gossiping dancers who note her staring at Veronica. Then there’s Nina’s obsession with black-clothed Lily, and that notorious sex scene in which Lily performs cunnilingus on Nina. She’s not only hallucinated the entire lovemaking, but also superimposed her own face on lip-smacking Lily’s. Nina is constantly projecting her inner dark side.

According to classical psychoanalytic theory, children go through an Oedipal phase, usually loving and desiring the opposite-sex parent and hating the same-sex parent, wishing to remove this latter one out of jealousy. These children normally outgrow this phase and develop heterosexual feelings for people outside the family. Some people have a negative Oedipus complex, a homosexual version; again, in the best of circumstances, they’ll outgrow it and have gay relationships outside the family.

In Nina’s case, however, a father with whom she can pass through an Oedipal phase is out of the question. She is in no Oedipal love triangle, only a dyad. All she has is her mother–the good mother who serves her a “pink” and “pretty,” vulva-like grapefruit, and the black-clothed bad mother who disapproves of her ever being involved with boys.

Some bloggers have speculated that Erica has sexually abused Nina, thus causing her pathologies. It’s an interesting, even compelling, theory; but just as Freud downplayed and modified his seduction theory to accommodate what he considered to be the much more universal Oedipus complex, so must I respectfully disagree with those bloggers.

Though Erica’s relationship with Nina is inappropriately close, the daughter clearly being an extension of her mother’s will, I don’t see sufficient evidence of even implied sexual abuse. Furthermore, such a theory doesn’t harmonize with the symbolism of Nina as the “sweet girl,” the innocent, virginal white swan. The trauma of child sexual abuse is centred around a forceful robbing of the child’s innocence. On the contrary with Nina, it’s her innocence that Erica is so preoccupied with preserving.

I argue, instead, that Nina’s psychopathology is based on a combination of sexual repression (from Erica the bad mother) and an unresolved, repressed negative Oedipus complex (Erica the all-too-good mother). The dialectical relationship between these polar opposites is like the biting head and bitten tail of the ouroboros that I’ve used so many times before to represent the unity of opposites, how one phases into the other.

Bion elaborated on the Oedipus myth by focusing on how reluctant Tiresias was to tell the incestuous, patricidal Theban king that it was he who killed his father Laius (Bion, p. 45ff.). This reluctance to impart or acquire knowledge (-K) is seen in Nina’s not wanting to come to terms with her unconscious Oedipal feelings for her mother.

One way of avoiding those feelings, as we’ve seen, is through projection, that is, to project the internalized object of Nina’s mother onto Lily. In the lesbian sex scene fantasy, Nina has an acceptable sexual substitute for Erica in Lily; Nina has displaced her desire onto an object outside her family. Another way for Nina to disavow her negative Oedipus complex is through reaction formation, i.e., through being hostile to her mother (even physically hurting her), to mask her unconscious desire for her.

Indeed, the juxtaposition of Nina’s barring Erica’s entry into her bedroom with her imagined lovemaking with Lily represents the basic schizoid position (p. 8ff.) that WRD Fairbairn wrote about. In Nina’s relationship with Erica on the one hand, and with Lily on the other, we see Fairbairn‘s Anti-libidinal Ego (Nina) and Rejecting Object (Erica), and the Libidinal Ego (Nina) and the Exciting Object (Lily). What we don’t see is the Central Ego (Nina) with the Ideal Object (anyone), this last object being ‘ideal’ because a real person in the external world is ideally who one should have a relationship with.

Lily, the Exciting Object of Nina’s libidinal desires, isn’t in the room; she’s only an internalized object in Nina’s mind. Even her mother, as the despised, unwanted object rejected by Nina’s ‘anti-libidinal’ feelings, isn’t wholly the bad mother that Nina imagines her to be: Erica’s only partly a bad mother, but also partly a good mother. Nina must come to grips with this duality.

Nonetheless, in order to prevent herself from knowing (-K) about her Oedipal desires, Nina must imagine Erica to be all bad, and must reject her even when she’s trying to do good (i.e., help Nina when she’s obviously going mad, and stop her self-injuries). Hence, Nina’s schizoid position–or as Klein called it, the paranoid-schizoid position. In Nina’s splitting of the internal object into absolute bad (this is Lily now, for Nina imagines her to be trying to steal her role as Swan Queen) and absolute good (Erica, the good side of whom is ignored, physically attacked, and treated derisively: “I’m the Swan Queen! You’re the one who never left the corps!”), she is about to get very paranoid.

Though Nina has struggled to avoid the integration of white and black, and thus to know herself (-K), she has also, in her quest to perfect the role of Swan Queen, been forced to approach that self-knowledge (K). Nonetheless, just as Oedipus’ quest for knowledge of the truth destroyed him (as Tiresias warned him it would), so is Nina’s quest destroying her. After all, who would want to have conscious knowledge that he or she had incestuous desires for his or her mother?

In her drive to attain perfection, her ballerina ideal, Nina sees herself in the mirror and hallucinates that her reflection is moving in ways that she herself is not. This is Lacan‘s mirror, in which one’s clumsy self, unable to match the perceived perfection in the reflection, is alienated from that graceful image.

On the one hand, Nina is alienated from herself when she sees her reflection, but when she faces other people–as if they were her mirror reflection–she often sees herself (as a result of projective and introjective identification). These hallucinations make this normally graceful ballerina as clumsy as those psychologically fragmented infants seeing themselves in Lacan’s mirror for the first time.

Nina thus in a larger sense has many doppelgängers: her main one is Lily, of course, but there are also the pairs of Nina/Erica, Nina/Beth, Nina/Veronica, and ultimately, Nina White/Nina Black. The film expresses the universal idea that the self, or subject, is seen in the other, or object, and vice versa. Lacan’s mirror reflects the self/other dialectic.

Though Nina’s white and black sides are integrating, she’s still conflicted about it, and she’s still resisting the integration. She projects her black onto Lily and Erica, and she projects in the forms of vomiting into toilets, self-injury, and pulling a hallucinated black feather out of her back.

Though Erica is as annoyingly overprotective as always, she–as the good mother–is justified in trying to intervene when she can see that Nina is clearly going insane. In her bedroom, after slamming the door on Erica’s fingers, Nina hallucinates that her legs have transformed into those of a swan’s, bending backwards. Though symbolically this could be seen as a positive, in that she’s transforming into the Black Swan and thus mastering the role, it also represents, apart from her obvious psychotic break with reality, a fear of never being able to dance again (i.e., broken legs).

Her suffering from the paranoid-schizoid position is at its peak when she rushes over to the ballet company to ensure that she, and not (she imagines) usurping Lily, will perform as the Swan Queen.

During her performance as the White Swan, she hallucinates seeing her own face on one of the heads of the corps de ballet, giving her a jolt and causing her male dancing partner to drop her onstage. Weeping as she returns to her dressing room, she hallucinates seeing Lily get ready to play the Black Swan, when of course she’s really seeing a projection of her black half. Thinking she’s stabbed Lily with a piece of broken glass from a mirror, she’s actually stabbed herself in the gut with it.

She goes back onstage as the Black Swan, fully transformed. No longer is she in conflict about it; she fully accepts and embraces her dark side. She even hallucinates seeing her arms turn into black wings, and she grins at the transformation. Never does she notice her stab wound; nor does the audience, who loves her performance.

She goes offstage and kisses Thomas hard on the mouth, as if she were Lily. Finally, she is seducing him, instead of the other way around. He, just old enough to be her father, provides her with a symbolic positive Oedipal object, awakening her hitherto repressed heterosexual side, which was also awakened earlier in the dance club scene, with those young men, “Tom and Jerry.”

Back in her change room, Nina must become the White Swan again; not just for the sake of the ballet, but because she can be neither only black, nor only white. Lily…dressed in an all white ballet outfit!…appears at her door to congratulate her on her superb dancing. Nina realizes she never stabbed Lily.

Pulling out a shard of mirror glass from her bleeding gut, Nina weeps. Her persecutor has never been Lily, nor has she even been Erica in her bad mother mode. Nina’s persecutor has been herself the whole time, as the bad internal object of her mother.

Fully integrated now, Nina no longer sees people in terms of all good or all bad, for she understands how illusory her projections are. Lily is in white, but still brazenly sexual and using four-letter words, for she never was “all black.” Nina has merely imagined her to be that way…as she has imagined her mother to be.

Nina weeps copious tears as she prepares to go back onstage as the White Swan (presumably having bandaged her stomach as best she can), for she has switched from the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive position. By stabbing herself, Nina was trying to stab the bad mother object inside herself, something projected onto Lily. Now she fears having killed her internal mother object, which means also killing herself. Thus sobbing Nina feels depressive, rather than persecutory, anxiety.

Back onstage, she has a sorrowful face as she dances in the finale, as brilliantly as always. Red is visible on her belly, the blood gushing out of a vulva-like wound suggesting the symbolic breaking of her hymen, her loss of virginity and innocence.

Is her mother–the good mother–watching her in the audience, tearfully moved by her performance, or is Nina just imagining her there, as part of her depressive wish for reparation with Erica? Either way, though she needs to be rushed to hospital, she is perfect…not just from a great performance, but perfect in that she’s complete–not half a woman, but both white and black.

Analysis of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’

Rosemary’s Baby is a 1968 psychological horror film directed by Roman Polanski (with Repulsion and The Tenant, it’s part of his ‘Apartment’ trilogy) and based on the Ira Levin novel of the same name. It stars Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, and Sidney Blackmer, with Maurice Evans, Ralph Bellamy, and Charles Grodin.

I haven’t read Levin’s novel, but apparently I don’t need to. For Levin himself wrote of Polanski’s movie, “The result was possibly the most faithful film adaptation ever made. It incorporates whole pages of the book’s dialogue and even uses specific colors mentioned. It was not only Polanski’s first Hollywood film but also the first one he made based on someone else’s material; I’m not sure he realized he had the right to make changes. His understated directorial style perfectly complemented the style of the book, and the casting couldn’t have been better. I’m one of several people who claim credit for first suggesting Mia Farrow for the leading role.”

Speaking of quotes, here are some from the film (except as indicated):

“Awful things happen in every apartment house.” –Rosemary (Farrow)

“Are you aware that the Bramford had rather an unpleasant reputation around the turn of the century? It’s where the Trench sisters conducted their little dietary experiments. And Keith Kennedy held his parties. Adrian Marcato lived there too…The Trench sisters were two proper Victorian ladies – they cooked and ate several young children including a niece…Adrian Marcato practiced witchcraft. He made quite a splash in the 90s by announcing that he’d conjured up the living devil. Apparently, people believed him so they attacked and nearly killed him in the lobby of the Bramford…Later, the Keith Kennedy business began and by the 20s, the house was half empty…World War II filled the house up again…They called it Black Bramford…This house has a high incidence of unpleasant happenings. In ’59, a dead infant was found wrapped in newspaper in the basement…” —Hutch (Evans)

***********

‘”Sometimes I wonder how come you’re the leader of anything,” she said. A bump on the other side of the wall woke Rosemary, and Mrs. Castevet said, “And please don’t tell me what Laura-Louise said because I’m not interested!” Rosemary turned over and burrowed into her pillow.

‘Sister Agnes was furious. Her piggy-eyes were squeezed to slits and her nostrils were bubbling the way they always did at such moments. Thanks to Rosemary it had been necessary to brick up all the windows, and now Our Lady had been taken out of the beautiful-school competition being run by the World-Herald. “If you’d listened to me, we wouldn’t have had to do it!” Sister Agnes cried in a hoarse midwestern bray. “We’d have been all set to go now instead of starting all over from scratch!” Uncle Mike tried to hush her. He was the principal of Our Lady, which was connected by passageways to his body shop in South Omaha. “I told you not to tell her anything in advance,” Sister Agnes continued lower, piggy-eyes glinting hatefully at Rosemary. “I told you she wouldn’t be open-minded. Time enough later to let her in on it.” (Rosemary had told Sister Veronica about the windows being bricked up and Sister Veronica had withdrawn the school from the competition; otherwise no one would have noticed and they would have one. It had been right to tell, though, Sister Agnes notwithstanding. A Catholic school shouldn’t win by trickery.)

‘”Anybody! Anybody!” Sister Agnes said. “All she has to be is young, healthy, and not a virgin. She doesn’t have to be a no-good drug-addict whore out of the gutter. Didn’t I say that in the beginning? Anybody. As long as she’s young and healthy and not a virgin.”‘ –Minnie Castevet (played by Ruth Gordon in the film), actually (close to the end of Chapter 4 in Levin’s novel)

*********

Roman: No Pope ever visits a city where the newspapers are on strike.

Minnie: I heard he’s gonna postpone and wait till it’s over.

Guy: Well, that’s show-biz.

Roman[chuckling with his wife] That’s exactly what it is. All the costumes or rituals, all religions.

Minnie: Uh, I think we’re offending Rosemary.

Rosemary: Oh, no.

Roman: You’re not religious are you my dear?

Rosemary: I was brought up a Catholic. Now I don’t know. He is the pope.

Roman: You don’t need to have respect for him because he pretends that he’s holy…A good picture of the hypocrisy behind organized religion was given I thought in Luther.

*********

[referring to Rosemary] “As long as she ate the mousse, she can’t see nor hear. She’s like dead now.” –Minnie

“This is no dream, this is really happening!” –Rosemary

“Tannis anyone?” –Rosemary

*********

Rosemary: I dreamed someone was raping me, I think it was someone inhuman.

Guy: Thanks a lot. Whatsa matter?

Rosemary: Nothing.

Guy: I didn’t want to miss the night.

Rosemary: We could have done it this morning or tonight. Last night wasn’t the only split-second.

Guy: I was a little bit loaded myself, you know.

*********

[about having sex with Rosemary while she was passed out] “It was kinda fun in a necrophile sort of way.” –Guy (Cassavetes)

[describing how her pregnancy feels] “It’s like a wire inside me getting tighter and tighter.” –Rosemary

“I’m having a party for our old…I mean our young friends – Minnie and Roman are not invited. Neither is Laura-Louise nor is Dr. Sapirstein. It’s gonna be a very special party. You have to be under 60 to get in.” –Rosemary

“Dr. Sapirstein is either lying or he’s, I don’t know, out of his mind. Pain like this is a warning something’s wrong…And I’m not drinking Minnie’s drink anymore. I want vitamins in pills like everyone else. I haven’t drunk it for the last three days. I’ve thrown it away…I’ve made my own drink…I’m tired of hearing how great Dr. Sapirstein is.” –Rosemary

“Pain, begone, I will have no more of thee!” –Rosemary

“Now! That’s what I call the long arm of coincidence!” –Minnie

“Witches…All of them witches!” –Rosemary

**********

Roman: Rosemary –

Rosemary: Shut up! You’re in Dubrovnik. I don’t hear you. [She slowly walks over to the cradle, sees her child in the bassinet – her eyes widen in terror] What have you done to it? What have you done to its eyes?

Roman: He has his father’s eyes.

Rosemary: What are you talking about?! Guy’s eyes are normal! What have you done to him? You maniacs!

RomanSatan is his father, not Guy. He came up from hell and begat a son of mortal woman. [Coven members cheer ‘Hail, Satan!’] Satan is his father and his name is Adrian. He shall overthrow the mighty and lay waste their temples. He shall redeem the despised and wreak vengeance in the name of the burned and the tortured. Hail, Adrian! Hail, Satan! Hail, Satan!

Minnie: He chose you out of all the world – out of all the women in the whole world, he chose you. He arranged things, because he wanted you to be the mother of his only living son.

Roman: His power is stronger than stronger! His might shall last longer than longer.

Japanese man: Hail, Satan!

Rosemary: No! It can’t be! No!

Minnie: Go look at his hands.

Laura-Louise: And his feet.

Rosemary: Oh, God! [She drops her knife]

Roman: God is dead! Satan lives! The year is One, the year is One! God is dead! Why don’t you help us out, Rosemary? Be a real mother to Adrian. You don’t have to join if you don’t want to. Just be a mother to your baby. Minnie and Laura-Louise are too old. It’s not right. Think about it, Rosemary.

Rosemary: Oh, God!

*********

[The baby starts to cry. Rosemary watches as Laura-Louise roughly rocks the bassinet, and then slowly walks over.]

Laurie-Louise[To Rosemary] Get away from here! Roman!

Rosemary: You’re rocking him too fast.

Laurie-Louise: Sit down. [To Roman] Get her out of here. Put her where she belongs.

Rosemary: You’re rocking him too fast. That’s why he’s crying.

Laura-Louise: Oh, mind your own business.

Roman: Let Rosemary rock him. Go on, sit down with the others. Let Rosemary rock him.

Laura-Louise: Well, she’s liable to –

Roman: Sit down with the others, Laura-Louise. [To Rosemary] Rock him.

Rosemary: Are you trying to get me to be his mother?

Roman: Aren’t you his mother?

Apart from the obvious theme of paranoia, a recurring one in this movie is intrusion, introjection. Rosemary and her husband, Guy, move into an apartment in New York, a place with a strange history that their friend Hutch tries to warn them about. A previous tenant, an elderly woman, has left a written message about not being able to cope: “I can no longer associate myself.”

The couple’s elderly next-door neighbours, Roman and Minnie Castevet, are unusually nosy. They have a superficial charm; we often see them wearing brightly coloured clothes (Minnie wearing bright makeup), an unusual look for older people, whom one would assume would dress more modestly, not so ostentatiously.

The Castevets have taken in a young woman (Terry Gionoffrio, played by Victoria Vetri) who has been recovering from a drug addiction, but whose mental health is still shaky. They have given her a pendant, the inside of which is filled with foul-smelling ‘tannis root.’ It represents the introjected presence of the Castevets; always there with the girl, controlling her. “Ro” will get such a necklace soon. Terry kills herself by jumping off the apartment building. Minnie Castevet, when seeing her body on the sidewalk at night, tells the onlooking police, Rosemary, and Guy that the girl was happy, denying she had any problems.

The Castevets invite Rosemary and Guy to have dinner in their apartment. Roman boasts of having been to every city in the world. One is reminded of Job 1:7, “And the LORD said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.” This connection with the devil becomes more pertinent when Roman speaks ill of all world religions, condemning their sanctimony and hypocrisy.

While a criticism of the hypocritical morality of organized religion is generally warranted (consider the largely unpunished Catholic priesthood, guilty of the sexual abuse of children, to see my point), the Castevets and their elderly inner circle are hardly any better. In fact, they have a religion of their own…Satanism! What’s worse, Rosemary’s husband is about to join their clique.

A struggling actor, Guy makes a deal with the devil to further his career: have his wife get pregnant and give the baby over to the Satanists, she of course knowing nothing of the conspiracy. First, she is given one of those smelly necklaces, which she’d rather not wear, but which Guy urges her to wear.

On the night they plan to have her conceive, Minnie gives her and Guy cups of a special chocolate mousse treat. Rosemary’s has “a chalky aftertaste,” making her reluctant to eat it all. She tricks Guy into thinking she has eaten it all, when she’s only eaten some. The funny aftertaste comes from the fact that her mousse was drugged: since she hasn’t eaten it all, she’s only partly drugged and when Satan rapes and impregnates her during the Castevets’ ritual, she screams, “This is no dream! This is really happening!”

The foppishness of the Castevets in their brightly coloured clothing, Roman’s bragging of having been everywhere, and Minnie sticking her nose in Rosemary’s business, all combined with their Satanism, represent pathological narcissism and psychopathy. Recall that Satan’s original sin was his overweening pride, regarding himself as too superior to need to bow before Adam and Eve, or to be subject to God’s Son, as in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Satan’s pride thus prompted the War in Heaven and the expulsion of the fallen angels from heaven and into hell. Similarly, the Castevets proudly believe their religion to be superior to the conventional faiths.

Part of narcissism is narcissistic abuse, which involves projecting one’s own evil or faults onto the victim. This projection includes projective identification, which extends into making the victim incorporate, embody, and manifest the projections, as Rosemary is doing by wearing the smelly necklace, eating the drugged, funny-tasting mousse, drinking the daily health drink Minnie prepares for her, and–of course–having the baby. Satan’s penetration inside her, during the rape and impregnation of her, is a graphic symbol of all this projection and introjection of evil.

The horror of her having this beast on top of her, moving in and out of her, makes her fantasize of the opposite, of seeing and receiving forgiveness from the Pope, as a way to cope. Her fantasy symbolizes the defence mechanism of splitting into absolute good and bad. Something similar has happened in her dreaming that a nun was speaking Minnie’s angry words to Roman over Terry Gionoffrio’s suicide. This splitting also represents a failed attempt to reconcile the real evil around her with her fantasized good.

It is often said of Rosemary’s victimization that it represents feminist issues about male oppression of women throughout history. After all, her husband conspires with the Satanists to control her reproductive system, standing by as Satan rapes her, to bear the Antichrist. I must to an extent disagree with this interpretation, and I’ll give my reasons.

Firstly, since the root cause of women’s oppression has been the patriarchal family–i.e., to ensure patrilineal succession, one must be sure that a woman’s husband is the father of all of her children–she must be a chaste, bashful virgin on her wedding night, sexually blinded to any interest in other men, and sacrificing her intellect so that motherhood can be her only vocation…all to assuage the paranoia her husband feels of the possibility of being cuckolded. Guy, however, wilfully participates in a Satanic ritual that leaves him a cuckold…he even sees it happen before his very eyes!

Secondly, Rosemary isn’t the only victim in the movie. In fact, two of the other major victims are men: Donald Baumgart, an actor blinded by a spell so Guy can replace him and get his big acting break; and Hutch, who is killed for having tried to help Rosemary.

Finally, many of the Satanists who victimize Rosemary are women–not only Minnie, but also Laura-Louise (played by Patsy Kelly) and Mrs. Gilmore (Hope Summers), among others. In fact, Minnie’s nagging of Roman indicates who is the dominant one of the Castevets; remember when she says she wonders how Roman could be the leader of anything, Rosemary dreaming that an angry nun is doing the wondering instead.

Now, it is far from me to imagine that a patriarchal marriage would be preferable to the one causing Rosemary such victimization here; but her being manipulated into having a baby other than her husband’s, especially when he witnesses the adulterous sex with a group of Satanists as naked as he and his wife are, is diametrically opposed to the fundamental principles of patriarchy. Guy even takes her wedding ring off her finger prior to the Satanic sex-ritual, suggesting a temporary respite from patriarchal marriage.

To understand the root of her victimization, even though it has some of the features of the usual forms of female oppression, we have to look elsewhere. I see that root in narcissistic abuse, and in the authoritarian lording of the older generation’s worldview over that of the younger generation. Recall how ‘don’t trust anyone over thirty‘ was a popular saying of the counterculture of the late 1960s.

These two elements–narcissism and aging–are interrelated in the context of this film, for research has shown that narcissism in people gets worse as one gets older. The original sources of narcissistic supply–the beauty, intelligence, and strength of youth–fade away with age, and this fading away becomes a source of narcissistic injury and rage, which can be assuaged only by gaining feelings of power over others in new, compensating ways.

Furthermore, the birth of the baby means that these elderly Satanists can vicariously experience youth anew. They’ve been projecting their evil into Rosemary via her womb. The ugliness of the newborn baby will be a symbolic projection of the Satanists’ moral ugliness.

As the fetus grows in her womb, Rosemary finds herself experiencing unbearable pain. This pain symbolizes the effects of the emotional abuse she is suffering, a suffering compounded by her tormentors’ repeated invalidation and minimizing of it. This is typical of narcissistic abuse.

Dr. Abraham Sapirstein (Bellamy), who refuses to give Rosemary pills and instead has Minnie make the ‘health drink’ (though later, he’ll change his tune almost unnoticeably and allow pills), dismisses her pain, saying it will go away soon (it won’t). Guy won’t acknowledge how ghastly and pale she looks; instead, he criticizes only her decision to cut her hair short in a Vidal Sassoon style.

Rosemary arranges to have a party with only her and Guy’s younger friends, a plan Guy looks askance at, but she defiantly insists on. Minnie tries to stick her nose in, but Ro won’t let her. At the party, she breaks down and weeps from the pain in the kitchen, in front of her girlfriends, who insist she stop seeing “that nut,” Dr. Sapirstein. She fears the baby will die.

After the party, she has a fight with Guy over her wish to see Dr. Hill (Grodin) instead of Sapirstein. This resistance to allow her to make contact with anyone outside of the circumscribed social circle is another feature of narcissistic abuse.

In the middle of this argument, her pain suddenly stops, and she can feel the baby moving inside her. To her joyous relief, it’s alive! From now on, she willingly drinks more of Minnie’s health drink, and acts as if everything’s back to normal, which of course it isn’t. These up-and-down cycles of narcissistic abuse are common; Rosemary is just experiencing the ‘honeymoon’ stage at this moment.

As anyone who has experienced emotional abuse knows, the ‘honeymoon’ doesn’t last long, and Rosemary’s experience is no exception. Hutch falls into a coma induced by a spell in which the Satanists have used a stolen glove of his; then, he dies. Before his death, though, he has made sure she receives a book called All of Them Witches. He has also rather cryptically said, “The name is an anagram.”

At first, she thinks he meant the name of the book, and with Scrabble tiles she rearranges the letters of the title to get some interesting, though incorrect, messages: “Comes with the Fall,” and “Elf shot lame witch.” Then she realizes, after having leafed through the book and seen old black-and-white photos from the nineteenth century of Adrian Marcato (who looks eerily similar to Roman) and his son, who if still alive in the 1960s would be about Roman’s age.

The son’s name is Steven, so when Rosemary rearranges the letters of Steven Marcato, she indeed gets Roman Castevet. Now, her paranoia–however justified it may be–shoots through the roof. The anagram symbolizes the rearrangement of personality traits to create Roman’s False Self out of his True Self.

She remembers not only her previous pain, but also the chanting and recorder-playing heard through the thin wall separating her bedroom and the Castevets’ apartment…how like Satanic rituals. After reading about how witches use blood–including babies’ blood!–in their rituals, she puts all the pieces together: Guy’s friendship with the Castevets, and his subsequent success as an actor, means he must have made a deal with them to give them her baby in exchange for helping him become a star!

A paradox typical of victims of emotional abuse occurs: though she isn’t at all deluded in her belief that the Castevets el al are witches, what she’s experiencing is nonetheless truly maddening. Furthermore, she’s portrayed as insane by her abusers, who know perfectly well that she sees the truth about them.

A narcissist collective of flying monkeys will do whatever they have to do to ensure that their ‘version’ of the truth is the generally accepted version, no matter how harmful their version of that ‘truth’ is. This kind of circumscribing of the truth is exactly what Guy, the Castevets, Dr. Sapirstein, et al are doing to ensure that no one takes Rosemary’s side of the story seriously.

Thus ‘Satanists’ and ‘witches’ make perfect metaphors for collective narcissists: they’re twisted and evil, and they use lies to cast spells on anyone outside their ‘coven’ to make the outsiders believe whatever they want them to believe. Rosemary, as the justifiably paranoid victim, with all of the Satanists’ evil introjected into her (the Antichrist baby, the ‘health drink,’ the ‘devil’s pepper’ necklace, the pills, and Laura-Louise’s milk-poison–“…we’ll kill ya – milk or no milk!”), is never listened to or helped, like a typical victim of narcissistic abuse.

Rosemary’s role as a victim of narcissists is also a paradoxical one. Her portrayal by her abusers as having gone mad puts her in the role of scapegoat, or of the identified patient who is always ‘acting up’ and ‘causing trouble.’ On the other hand, as the mother of Satan’s child, she is also idealized by the Satanist coven as a kind of golden child, the Non-virgin Rosemary, Mother of Gog. This latter aspect will become especially apparent at the very end of the film.

These interchangeable scapegoat/golden child roles suggest that Rosemary is a symbolic daughter to the Castevets, with Guy as their symbolic son. Since he has been welcomed into the Satanic circle, he’s the Castevets’ golden child, making her–relative to him–the scapegoat whose perspective is never listened to.

As she gains more and more Knowledge (Wilfred Bion‘s K) about witchcraft in her reading, the Satanic clique–especially Guy–reject what she’s learned (-K); Guy even throws away All of Them Witches, patronizingly claiming that doing so is for her own good, that this gaining of Knowledge is harming her.

The rejection of newly-acquired Knowledge, Bion’s -K, is motivated by the Kleinian notion of envy, in particular, the infant’s unconscious desire to destroy and spoil the goodness in the good object, its mother. This is what the unborn Antichrist is doing to its mother, by making Rosemary physically, then mentally, ill.

Envy, just like pride, was a major motive of Satan’s in John Milton‘s Paradise Lost. When the devil, having just been thrown into hell with the other rebel angels, learns of God’s plan to create Adam and Eve, he wants to go up to earth and figure out how he can spoil the goodness of God’s creation (Book II, lines 330-389). Rosemary and Guy in this regard are like Adam and Eve, and the Castevets et al are a collective devil. Their envy, like that of proud Satan, is an envy typical of the pathological narcissist, too.

Another thing narcissists are apt to do is pretend to be the pitiful victim. As Rosemary’s suspicions are growing, and she tells Sapirstein about them (not yet knowing, of course, that he’s a smelly-necklace-wearing Satanist, too), he tells her that Roman has only a short time left to live. Instead of feeling mad at him, she’ll be compelled to feel sorry for him, since one of his flying monkeys (Sapirstein) has passed on the bad news to her.

She imagines she’s protecting her unborn–and presumably human–baby, but it won’t contain her love, since she wants to thwart the plans of the Satanists. Her refusal to join their group makes the baby feel as though its life is endangered; as the Antichrist, it presumably has the supernatural ability to sense its mother’s hostility to the coven that’s been looking out for it, i.e., to sense this danger with neither the need of sensory indications nor of the mature intellect for processing the information as normal people would. Thus, it projects its fear of annihilation onto her.

Instead of container/contained enhancing the baby’s growth by learning and cultivating self-soothing, there’s minus container/contained (Bion, pages 96-99) intensifying its fear, turning it into a nameless dread. As with -K, Bion says that minus container/contained “asserts the moral superiority and superiority in potency of UN-learning.” (Bion, 98) The unborn baby rejects any insight his mother would give him.

The Satanists restrain Rosemary with a sedative after having gotten Dr. Hill to help get her back in their clutches; and after she’s given birth, they give her a diet including pills and milk, all to keep her in their control. For the whole purpose of narcissistic abuse is to have power and control over the victim.

Rosemary, however, refuses to take the pills, knowing they’re more forms of evil she’s being made to introject. Her defiant resistance, in spite of how insane it makes her look, is what keeps her good, keeps her human.

Once the collective projection of evil, the Antichrist baby, has been delivered, and therefore no longer an introjection she’s carrying inside herself, the Satanists are content with it and no longer need her. She, it seems, will be slowly poisoned to death with the pills and whatever has been mixed in with that milk. They tell her the baby died so, after mourning, she won’t have any more interest in it.

Still, she can hear a baby crying in a nearby room, so she wants to investigate, taking a knife and discovering a secret passageway through her closet to the Satanists’ apartment. This connection between apartments represents how the narcissist considers his victim to be an extension of himself; recall how the Satanists can sneak into her apartment after she’s locked the front door.

Her sense of isolation in her bedroom is a motif shared in Polanski’s other two ‘Apartment’ films, Repulsion and The Tenant. Her knife symbolizes her wish to get revenge on the Satanists by projecting her pain into them, making them negative containers that introject her hate of them.

She barges into the room where the Satanists all are, including the crying baby and a number of guests from other countries. Roman is has healthy as ever, his trip to Dubrovnik a lie.

Now, it’s Rosemary who is projecting herself into the Satanists’ personal space. Laura-Louise screams, and the others sit awkwardly as they watch her entrance…especially Guy, who’s avoiding her eyes in embarrassment. That knife in her hand is a powerful symbol of such a projection, a malign contained element threatening to be vengefully stabbed in their hearts, a collective malign container.

She looks into the cradle and sees the monster inside. This thing was in her womb for nine months! A mother naturally wishes to see herself in her beloved baby, but Rosemary cannot see her reflection in such hideous eyes.

She projects the fault onto the Satanists, assuming they have deformed her and Guy’s son; but Roman drives home the point that I made above, that her husband is not the father…Satan is.

Satanists aided in this birth, in which the patriarchal Christian faith has had no involvement whatsoever. There is no patrilineal succession from Rosemary’s husband to her son. The conceiving was outside the bonds of patriarchal wedlock. The evil that the Satanists represent is a formidable, horrifying one, but not a patriarchal one, in spite of the rape and the exploiting of a woman’s reproductive system. (The Virgin Mary may have conceived and given birth to a son of whom Joseph wasn’t the biological father, but unlike with Rosemary, there was no sex involved in that mythical conception, either.)

Guy hides his face in shame not because Satan has made him a cuckold (the male patriarch’s greatest fear), but because he knows he has sold his soul to the devil to advance his career. The traditional male role, with its pressure to make as much money as possible to provide for the family, and to repress feelings that are associated with weakness, makes many men feel as though they’ve sold their souls for money and the pretence of being ‘tough.’ This is part of why, to ensure needed equality for women, we must abolish sex roles, or at least minimize their divisive influence in our lives.

The shame that Guy feels doesn’t, however, excuse him of the vile thing he has done to his wife. He deserves a lot worse than being spat on. His job as a professional actor is symbolically fitting, as his success rests on being a pretender, a big phoney.

The trauma she feels, over having been manipulated into giving birth to such a beast, is overwhelming. The Satanists’ projection of their evil into innocent Rosemary allows them to function normally in society. She is falling apart inside, but they can keep their cool. This ability to project shame onto others is the essence of narcissistic abuse, the real evil symbolized by Satanism here.

She drops the knife, its point stabbing into the wooden floor, the symbolic fulfillment of her wish to injure the Satanists by forcing them to contain the pain they’ve made her contain; Minnie unabashedly pulls it out of the floor and rubs the mark as if removing a smudge. This action shows how well a narcissist can keep his or her cool, because the shame has been projected elsewhere.

The narcissistic façade of calm, collected superiority is a defence against psychological fragmentation; the Satanists can wear this façade, but neither Rosemary–in whom the introjected evil has only just been removed, but still remains a traumatic memory–nor the crying baby Adrian, who is the embodiment of that evil, can wear it.

Adrian’s distress cannot be contained by Laura-Louise, what with her clumsy, hurried rocking of the bassinet; only Rosemary, his mother, can contain it. So Roman, like the tempting devil himself, hoovers her into the devil-worshipping cult by goading her into rocking the baby instead.

Teary-eyed, she acquiesces.

The Satanists watch the, to them, touching scene as she looks lovingly at her baby and contains his distress in maternal reverie (i.e., as his container, she transforms that distress [the contained] into emotional peace by mentally processing his fears for him, then returns the transformed feelings back to him). In other words, she has to take terrifying feelings and make them into soothing ones.

She must also nullify her own fears and accept her lot. How can one do that among devil-worshippers?

This is the scariest moment of the whole film: by accepting her role as his mother, she is now thoroughly enmeshed in the narcissistic Satanic cult. To keep from falling apart, she must become one of them.

She must delude herself that the bad internal object, of which the unborn child was the symbol, is actually a good object; she has learned to love Antichrist-Adrian (as Winston Smith learns to love Big Brother), as terrifying as he is.

She must love the Antichrist… she has no escape.

Analysis of ‘Pink Floyd–The Wall’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Fear Freedom from Abuse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Scarface’

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

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

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

Here are some quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The world was his…for a while, anyway.

Analysis of ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a 1972 rock album by David Bowie. The eleven songs on the album together tell the story of Ziggy Stardust, a messenger who tells of saviour aliens coming to an Earth that has five years left before all life on it must come to an end. He tries to save the Earth in the form of an androgynous, bisexual rock star, but his arrogance, excesses, and decadent lifestyle end up destroying him. The songs were written first, and the story grew around them later.

The album shot Bowie into stardom, and it’s now considered one of the most important albums in rock history. Bowie toured in the Ziggy persona for several years; but his immersion into the character blurred the line between him and Ziggy, almost driving him over the edge. This going-over-the-edge is similar both to that of Vince Taylor, Ziggy’s main inspiration, and that of ‘Maxwell Demon,’ the persona of Brian Slade in the 1998 film Velvet Goldmine, inspired by Ziggy Stardust.

Here is a link to the lyrics for all the songs on the album.

Five Years” introduces the problem of the story: it isn’t specified what the cause is, but “we had five years left to cry in.” The end of the world is nigh, apparently. Environmental destruction? Nuclear war between the NATO and Warsaw pact countries? No cause is stated explicitly, if it’s even implied. Bowie paints a vivid verbal picture of the traumatized reaction of everybody, but little more than that.

There are, however, a few hints as to what’s really going on. First of all, consider who the would-be messiah is: an alien whose herald is a bisexual, androgynous rock star? What can such a messenger do beyond entertain? Adults understand this, but the idolizing teenager sees so much more in the heroes he or she worships.

This story is a teenage fantasy, a melodrama in which rock stars are messengers of saviours, and mundane problems are seen as apocalyptic. How often have we heard adolescents over-dramatize whatever upsets them, acting as though their problems are heralding ‘the end of the world’? They do this again, and again, and again…

Consider the chord sequence of almost the whole song: G major, E minor, A major, and C major–four chords, repeated in a cycle throughout the song (save for the fat/skinny, tall/short, nobody/somebody people verse–A minor to C major [twice], G major to C major, D major 7th, and A minor to C major–not much of a variation). Anyone who listens closely to David Bowie songs, especially those of the 1970s, will typically hear many chord changes and variations within each song. “Five Years,” with its repetitive four chords, is symbolic of that adolescent melodrama of, “Mom! Dad! You’re ruining my life! My life is over!” happening again and again, in teenage crisis after teenage crisis.

Those five years are rumoured to have been the result of a dream Bowie had, in which his deceased father told him he would die in five years; but I see the choice of five years ’til ‘Armageddon’ as going from turning 13 to turning 18, or from turning 14 to turning 19…five years of emotional crises; perhaps a teenage fear of not being able to take care of oneself upon reaching the independence of adulthood. This fear of freedom is something Erich Fromm once explored.

The first time I heard this song, back when I was a teen, I was struck by how different Bowie’s voice sounded. It wasn’t his more usual baritone; he sang the song in a more boyish-sounding upper register, suggesting he was telling the story from a teen’s point of view.

Aside from the teen perspective, though, there are other interesting observations. Life is equated with suffering, since “we had five years left to cry in,” rather than live in. The teen narrator is observant in how deceptive the media is, since by his noting of the reporter’s tears, he “knew he was not lying.”

The teen wishes he could escape the pain by distracting himself, thinking of pop culture-oriented things, entertainment, etc.: “opera house, favourite melodies, boys, toys,…and TVs” (he and the other teenagers will be distracted by the pop culture icon, Ziggy Stardust, soon enough), but this manic defence cannot cure his despair.

His head is in pain; it feels “like a warehouse, it had no room to spare.” Now, he’s trying to cram in people, instead of pleasurable things; for as Fairbairn observed, correcting Freud, our libido is object-seeking (that is, seeking relationships with other people–objects are people other than oneself, the subject), not seeking to achieve pleasure, or the gratification of drives.

The boy is cramming “so many people”: fat/skinny, tall/short, nobody/somebody–these pairs of opposites sound like merisms, figures of speech often found in the Bible (heaven/earth, good/evil, as in the first three chapters of Genesis) meant to indicate the whole range from one extreme to the other. In other words, the teen is stuffing the internalized objects of people of all shapes, sizes, social classes, and of everything between the extremes of fame and obscurity, into his head, in a desperate attempt to escape the despair and desolation of loneliness that the imminent destruction of his world would cause for him.

The boy sees child abuse caused by the stress felt from the global crisis: a girl his age hits some children, rather like an elder sibling imitating the abusiveness of his parents. A black person stops her, saving the kids. This vignette suggests a number of the social issues many were especially concerned with at the time: the teen girl’s imitation of parental abuse suggests she isn’t observing the dictum, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” We also see a negation of the stereotype of the black criminal, by making a black man the hero this time. Teens of the early Seventies would have been sensitive to anti-establishment ideas like these.

A soldier stares at a Cadillac: he’s a member of the working class, who often die for the rich during war; he contemplates the luxury he himself can never enjoy, but for which he slaves away, so the ruling class can enjoy it. A cop defers to religious authority, disgusting a gay man who has been persecuted by that very authority.

The boy sees his love in an ice cream parlour, “looking so fine.” He feels “like an actor”–presumably in a melodramatic love story, or perhaps, in his teenage identity crisis, he doesn’t feel like his True Self. He wants his mother; he wants to regress back to an early childlike state, to an easier, less stressful time.

He thinks of his love, “drinking milkshakes cold and long.” He mentions his love’s “race”: is this person black? Is this the cause of his emotional crisis, the ‘end of the world’ for him? Have his conservative parents rejected his love for being a non-white? (Or is he black, and is his love white?) Is his love a she…or a he?

If he is in an interracial relationship, how does this tie in with the black person stopping the teen girl from beating the kids? His open-mindedness towards other racial groups for lovers is commendable, but is his choice of a (presumably non-white) partner meant as a deliberate act of defiance against his parents’ authority? If so, is his seeing a black person saving kids from a teen girl’s assault actually a wish-fulfilling dream, the girl representing his (immature) mom, the kids representing him (and similarly bullied teens), and the black person representing his love?

Does he want his love “to walk” up to him? “To walk” free from prejudice? Anyway, they have five years that he’s so obsessed with, it’s “stuck on [his] eyes,” and the “surprise” sounds like sarcasm; for he’s been through these brain-hurting crises so many times before, and will again so many times in the future, hence the repetitiveness of the song’s chord progression.

Soul Love” expresses the pitfalls of idolatrous “love” in several different forms. There’s the fake love of patriotism, the “slogan” of fighting for one’s country, leading to a mother’s tears at the sight of her son’s headstone in a cemetery.

Another form of idolatrous love is the puppy love of a teenage boy and girl speaking “new words.” But “love is careless,” descending over “those defenceless.” “Sweeping over, cross a baby,” could mean lovemaking resulting in an unwanted teen pregnancy, or it could mean the Cross that the baby Jesus, another idol, would eventually give His love on. Furthermore, “love is not loving.” The idolized ideal is far from the real thing.

“The flaming dove” could be religious zeal for the Holy Spirit, or the burning destruction of peace when “idiot love will spark the fusion” resulting in nuclear war, that foolish love of conquering an enemy (i.e., those ‘commies’ during the Cold War), instead of the wise love of learning how to coexist with differing ideologies. The “idiot love” could also cause “the fusion” resulting in an unwanted pregnancy.

The “soul love” of a Catholic priest tasting the Host (“the Word” made flesh…and in this case, made bread) is “told of love” of the Most High God as “all love” (1 John 4:8); but Bowie sings that his “loneliness evolves by the blindness that surrounds Him.” Evolutionary theory helps expose the phoney idolatry of religious faith, freeing man from Church authoritarianism, but also leaving us to feel alone and insignificant, in need of a new idol to worship, a new leader to follow blindly, as Fromm observed:

“When one has become an individual, one stands alone and faces the world in all its perilous and overpowering aspects.

“Impulses arise to give up one’s individuality, to overcome the feeling of aloneness and powerlessness by completely submerging oneself in the world outside.” (Fromm, page 29) The teen, rejecting parental or Church authority, nonetheless needs a new leader to follow, someone in whom he can submerge his individuality so he no longer feels alone or insignificant. The stage is set for Ziggy Stardust’s arrival.

Moonage Daydream” is more of a surrealist vignette than a continuation of the album’s narrative. Incoherent imagery (“I’m an alligator. I’m a mama/papa coming for you…a pink monkey-bird…,” etc.) abounds, like the automatic, random ramblings of the unconscious, a teenager’s “moonage daydream” of his coming rock ‘n’ roll messiah-herald, his dream as wish-fulfillment.

The notion of a wish for salvation through rock ‘n’ roll is accentuated with Mick Ronson‘s power chord at the beginning of the song. This “moonage daydream” is a teenage fantasy in which the teen hopes his rock ‘n’ roll idol will “lay the real thing on [him],” and prove that he really cares for the fan.

The daydream could be seen as a surreal dialogue between the rock star and his fan. We keep the “‘lectric eye” (the TV camera) on the star, while he presses his “space face close to” the fan’s. This “church of man,” a secular church of rock ‘n’ roll to replace that of the Bible-thumpers, “is such a holy place to be,” for it frees us of the repressions of the past.

Starman” advances the story with Ziggy Stardust heralding the coming of a saviour from outer space. The message is heard on a rock radio station; then, those Earthlings who hear it hope to learn more “on Channel Two,” on their TVs. Here we see how the media mesmerizes us with pop culture icons, who distract us from our real problems by tempting us to idolize rock stars; but as we learned from “Soul Love,” love (i.e., the idolatry of celebrities, religious figures, or partners who may break our hearts in the future) is not loving (i.e., real, selfless love).

The melody Bowie sings at the beginning of the chorus, with its upward leap of an octave and step down a semitone, reminds us of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” We’re being lured into a fantasy world, the adoration of a rock star, when we should focus on our reality on Earth; Dorothy similarly dreamed of an ideal world to escape from dreary Kansas–she’d want to return home soon enough, though. Little children were charmed by the Land of Oz; teenage “children” will “boogie” to Ziggy’s musical message.

It Ain’t Easy” has fewer chord changes than even “Five Years.” It isn’t a Bowie composition, though: it was written by Ron Davies. Bowie nonetheless did make a few lyrical changes to the song, in particular, this one: “With the help of the good Lord [instead of “patience and understanding”], we can all pull on through.” Such a change reinforces the album’s theme of reliance on religion, a form of idolatrous love that is a drug to distract us from our problems–recall, in this regard, what Marx had to say about religion.

Another contrast is between Davies’s bluesy original and the dainty melancholy of Bowie’s version, accentuated by Rick Wakeman‘s harpsichord playing. The repetition of the song’s few chord changes, like the four of “Five Years,” can be heard to symbolize the mundane normality of our unhappiness: same shit, different day.

“We will all pull on through, get there in the end. Sometimes it’ll take you right up, and sometimes down again.” The idolatrous love that religion and rock stars inspire only temporarily raises our spirits; like the highs and depressing coming-down on drugs, these manic defences aren’t omnipotent.

Side Two of the album establishes the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll prophet Ziggy Stardust. Now, “Lady Stardust” is actually about androgynous Marc Bolan, but the song still fits the narrative, since Ziggy represents glam rock stars like Bolan, Lou Reed, Jobriath, and of course Bowie. The boys and girls gaze on the beautiful star in pagan adoration.

While Ziggy is often confused with the extraterrestrials he’s heralding, it shouldn’t really matter whether he’s merely an earthly messenger or a quasi-divine alien. Rock stardom, here a metaphor for organized religion, shows that the distinction between messenger and message is typically blurred. The Bible is often perceived as infallible, even when its message of love is ignored; rock stars are practically deified by their fans, when it’s really their performances that should be admired. Jesus is God according to Christians; he’s a prophet according to Muslims. Religion on TV is entertainment as distracting as rock ‘n’ roll.

Star” begins with references to men who tried to improve their world through methods more down-to-earth than Ziggy’s. “Tony” is involved in the troubles in Northern Ireland, with the conflict between Britain and the IRA. Nye Bevan, as the UK Minister of Health from 1945 to 1951, tried to improve health care in England by socializing it. Some try to make things better, others fail and suffer.

Ziggy, however, imagines he can save the world by announcing the alien saviour “as a rock ‘n’ roll star.” He finds it “so enticing to play the part.” While Bowie himself had been without a major hit since “Space Oddity,” and therefore “could do with the money”; this preoccupation with cashing in on selling salvation through the media is chillingly redolent of the TV evangelists.

Hang On to Yourself” focuses on Ziggy’s party lifestyle with the groupies who idolize him. I’m reminded once again of the sons of God descending on the daughters of men in Genesis 6:1-4. The Starman has descended on Earth, and his mingling with us has resulted in the heroic Nephilim of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Yet since, as I argued in my examination of “Lady Stardust,” it doesn’t matter all that much whether Ziggy’s the alien himself of just an Earthly messenger of the Starman (because the religious tend to revere prophets almost on the same level as gods), then Ziggy and his band could themselves be the sons of God enjoying the daughters of men in their hotels every night. ‘Sons of God’ could be angels, gods, or otherwise quasi-divine beings, or they could be the descendants of Seth; therefore, Ziggy et al could be terrestrial or extraterrestrial, actual spiders from Mars.

In spite of the light-hearted attitude towards screwing groupies, though, they’d still “better hang on to [themselves].” For all of this freewheeling partying will ultimately lead to Ziggy’s self-destruction, just as the mating of the sons of God with the daughters of men led to the Deluge and destruction of the Earth, this latter already something expected to happen in five years.

Ziggy Stardust” tells the whole story in brief, but from the point of view of the envious Spiders from Mars. Ziggy’s an amazing talent on the guitar, but “he took it all too far.” Ziggy lets his talent and fame go to his head, “making love with his ego.” He imagines himself as godlike, “jiving us that we were voodoo.” The fans recognize that, in his growing egotism, Ziggy isn’t the saviour they’ve thought he is, so they kill him, and that’s the end of the band. The idolatrous always suffer bitter disappointment when reality hits them in the face.

Suffragette City” is about Ziggy’s relationship with a woman who’s great in bed, but has him so wrapped around her finger that she won’t let him hang out with his male friends. The power-based relationship is given a tongue-in-cheek comparison to men’s relationship with feminism, since Manchester, England was a major city for the growth of the Suffragette movement.

One of the hurdles in the fight for equality of the sexes is the perception that it involves one sex trying to dominate the other. Accordingly, feminists are perceived as ruling over their boyfriends/husbands in exchange for sex. On the other hand, a young man without a girlfriend or wife is seen as a freewheeling “droogie” running around partying, doing drugs, destroying property, beating people up, and even engaging in sexual impropriety (as Bowie himself was apparently guilty of with then-underage Lori Maddox).

What’s interesting, from the point of view of this song, though, is how rock star and groupie have changed roles: the idol has become the idolater, and vice versa. A son of the gods, having mated with a daughter of men, has become a son of men mating with a daughter of the gods. The dominant and submissive have swapped positions.

So, part of Ziggy’s self-destruction as a rock star is his ‘domestication’ by his girlfriend, thus losing his power and status as a rock-and-roll demigod; part of it is his having disappointed his fans by not delivering the salvation he’s promised; and most importantly, part of it is the drinking and drugs he’s overindulged in.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” focuses on that self-destructiveness through the excess partying. You can smoke the cigarette of time quickly, or you can savour it; live life in the fast lane, or take life with a relaxed attitude. Teenagers are stuck at a time of life of being “too old” and “too young” at the same time, too young to be partying to excess, but too old to be overprotected as children.

Early in the morning, one may “stumble across the road” drunk and stoned after a night of partying, which is a manic defence against all that is depressing to a teen…the “five years left to cry in.” Ziggy knows that kind of pain, for he’s “had [his] share.”

Even in his dying, Ziggy tries to comfort all the teens that he’s disappointed with his “religiously unkind” posturing as a prophet (making him no better than the priests and televangelists). Still, his advice is worth hearing: “Oh, no, love, you’re not alone!”

One of Bowie’s musical influences was Jacques Brel, whose “Jef” has been echoed in this song: “Non, Jef, t’es pas tout seul.” Brel comforts his friend Jef, after his girlfriend has dumped him and broken his heart; Ziggy comforts his teen fans after he himself has disappointed them, breaking their hearts. “You’re not alone!” Don’t let alienation get you down! “You’re wonderful!” You don’t need to identify with a rock star to feel worthy, teens. You’re already wonderful, just as you are.

The song climaxes with a whirlwind of chord changes and modulations suggesting the complicated emotions teens go through during those turbulent years. After the C major to A major sequence beginning with “Oh, no, love, you’re not alone,” we hear those words again with a chord progression of C-sharp minor, G-sharp minor, B major, D-sharp minor, B-flat minor, C-sharp major, B major, D-sharp minor, B-flat minor, and C-sharp major. Then, repeated chromatic ascents from B-flat major to C-sharp major are heard as Bowie sings, “Just turn on with me, and you’re not alone!…Give me your hands, ’cause you’re wonderful!” etc.

The lesson to be learned from this album is that, no matter what ‘apocalypse’ of “Five Years” we’re about to suffer, “No matter what or who you’ve been, no matter when or where you’ve seen, all the knives seem to lacerate your brain,” we don’t need an idol to “get there in the end.” No messengers of such idols, as the media likes to distract us with–be they priests, televangelists, or rock stars–are going to help us “all pull on through.”

It’s knowing that we’re not alone, that is, we’re all sharing the same sorrows and alienation of one form or another, that will comfort us, through our mutual empathy (that is, through Ron Davies’s “patience and understanding”). And if we give each other our hands in that empathic attitude, to help each other in solidarity, we’ll realize we have a lot more than just five years to live in.

Analysis of ‘Midnight Cowboy’

Midnight Cowboy is a 1969 buddy drama film starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman. Directed by John Schlesinger and written by Waldo Salt, the film is based on the 1965 novel by James Leo Herlihy. It won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

It was rated R originally, then rated X for its treatment of adult subject matter (gender-bending gay men and other people deemed ‘degenerates’ of the seedier side of New York City) considered discomfiting to moviegoers at the time.

Ultimately, the film is relatable for its exploration of themes of loneliness, fantasy (including dissociation and drug use, as escapes from the ugliness of the real world), melancholia, poverty, and alienation. There’s a recurring manic defence against depression, guilt, and sadness in the film.

Here are some famous quotes:

“Lotta rich women back there, Ralph, begging for it, paying for it, too…and the men – they’re mostly tutti fruttis. So I’m gonna cash in on some of that, right?…Hell, what do I got to stay around here for? I got places to go, right?” –Joe Buck (Voight), to Ralph

“You look real nice, lover boy, real nice. Make your old grandma proud. You’re gonna be the best-looking cowboy in the whole parade.” –Sally Buck, to little Joe

“Well, sir, I ain’t a for-real cowboy. But I am one helluva stud.” –Joe, to Mr. O’Daniel

“I’m lonesome, so I’m a drunk. I’m lonesome, so I’m a dope fiend. I’m lonesome, so I’m a thief! I’m lonesome, so I’m a fornicator! A whoremonger!” –Mr. O’Daniel

[To taxi driver]HEY! I’m walkin’ here! I’m walkin’ here! [bangs hand on car] Up yours you son-of-a-bitch! You don’t talk to me that way! Get outta here! [to Joe] Don’t worry about that. Actually, that ain’t a bad way to pick up insurance, you know.” –Enrico Salvatore “Ratso” Rizzo (Hoffman)

“The X on the windows means the landlord can’t collect rent, which is a convenience, on account of it’s condemned.” –Ratso

“Got my own private entrance here. You’re the only one who knows about it. Watch the plank. Watch the plank. Break your god-damn skull. No way to collect insurance.” –Ratso

“The two basic items necessary to sustain life are sunshine and coconut milk. Did you know that? That’s a fact. In Florida, they got a terrific amount of coconut trees there. In fact, I think they even got ’em in the, uh, gas stations over there. And ladies? You know that in Miami, you got, uh, you listenin’ to me? You got more ladies in Miami than in any resort area in the country there. I think per capita on a given day, there’s probably, uh, three hundred of ’em on the beach. In fact, you can’t even, uh, scratch yourself without gettin’ a belly-button, uh, up the old kazoo there.” –Ratso

“Not bad, not bad for a cowboy. You’re OK. You’re OK.” Ratso, to Joe

[to Joe] I’m gonna use ya. I’m gonna run you ragged…You and me can have fun together. It doesn’t have to be joyless.” –Mr. O’Daniel (John McGiver)

“I’ve prayed on the streets. I’ve prayed in the saloons. I’ve prayed in the toilets. It don’t matter where, so long as He gets that prayer.” –O’Daniel

“Do you love me, Joe? Do you love me? Love me? You’re the only one, Joe. You’re the only one. You’re better, Joe. You’re better than the rest of ’em. You’re better than any of them, Joe. You love me, Joe. You’re better than all of ’em. You’re the best, Joe.” –Annie […]

Cass: I hate to ask you, but you’re such a doll.

Joe: You know, Cass, that’s a funny thing you mentioning money. ‘Cause I was just about to ask you for some.

Cass: You were gonna ask me for money? Huh?

Joe: Hell, why do you think I come all the way up here from Texas for?

Cass: You were gonna ask me for money? Who the hell do you think you’re dealing with? Some old slut on 42nd Street? In case you didn’t happen to notice it, ya big Texas longhorn bull, I’m one helluva gorgeous chick.

Joe: Now, Cass, take it easy.

Cass: You heard it. At twenty-eight years old. You think you can come up here, and pull this kind of crap up here! Well, you’re out of your mind! […]

The film begins with a shot of a blank movie screen at a drive-in. As the shot backs away, we hear the sounds of gunfire in a ‘cowboys and Indians’ shoot-out in an old Western movie. The sound, but lack of cowboy movie visuals, reinforces the sense of fantasy, the fantasy Joe Buck (Voight) has of being a cowboy. But real life is no movie, and he is no real cowboy.

We see him showering and singing about the joys of leaving for New York, where he imagines he’ll prosper as a prostitute servicing rich but lonely older women. As he fantasizes, he’s already aware of the reality of his annoyed coworkers at a restaurant where he’s expected to be to wash the pile-up of dishes. He’s just quitting all of a sudden, and taking a bus to New York, in all irresponsibility.

It’s a beautiful sunny day in Texas as Joe is walking down the streets to catch the bus. This pleasant day symbolizes his enjoyment of his fantasizing about his glamorous life as a “hustler” in New York, ignoring the traffic as he crosses the road. A truck driver honks at the absent-minded dreamer.

Nilsson‘s “Everybody’s Talkin’” is heard as Joe is walking merrily along in his cowboy outfit, carrying his suitcase and radio. Even if he’d been given warnings about what problems he might have in New York, a city he’s never been to, and one he’ll be totally out of his element in, Joe wouldn’t have listened to them.

His fellow dishwasher, Ralph, asks what he’s “gonna do back East,” as if anticipating Joe’s future problems; but it doesn’t occur to Joe at all that there might actually be problems there. “I betcha it’s a mess back there,” Ralph warns in all prescience, though oblivious Joe just thinks he’ll “cash in on some of that.”

Nilsson sings, as if in Joe’s voice, “Everybody’s talking at me; I don’t hear a word they’re saying, only the echoes of my mind.” Joe won’t heed any warnings, because he “won’t let you leave [his] love behind,” his love being his dream of being famous in New York as “one helluva stud.”

“People stopping, staring, I can’t see their faces, only the shadows of their eyes.” Joe won’t heed people’s warnings, nor will he behold their disapproving facial expressions. He can barely make out the disapproving shadows of their eyes. He won’t face the reality of the disastrous future he’s walking into; he barely notices taxis or trucks about to hit him on the road. All he cares about is his fantasy, and his hopes of fulfilling it.

His fantasy is an escape from his painful past, one that included his mother giving him up as a child to his grandmother, the late Sally Buck. His relationship with her was a strange one, only superficially loving. She’d often leave him alone in the house, blowing him a kiss and dropping off a few dollars for him, to be with “a new beau,” the drunk Woodsy Niles. Sometimes she’d lie in bed with little Joe and kiss him: did she sexually abuse him? Is that why he wants to prostitute himself to older women?

Whatever was going on between little Joe and Sally, it’s certain that his family relationships were a failure. Her unexpected death on his return from the military has only increased his feelings of isolation. His sexual relationship with Annie, a girl with a reputation for being promiscuous (boys lined up to have sex with her), was also a failure that has contributed to his loneliness; for those boys who’d lined up to have her grew jealous of her preference for Joe, and so they got revenge on both lovers by surprising the two in a car when they were making love, and gang-raping her, forcing Joe to watch.

Her trauma resulted in her being institutionalized, and Joe was alone again. Throughout his life, he’s been taught that sex is a commodity, an exchange value rather than part of the value of a relationship with a mate. For these reasons, Joe can find only pain and loneliness in the Texas he’s grown up in; so he must leave to escape that pain, his dream of being a desirable “hustler” as his manic defence against the crushing depression he’d feel from facing that pain.

Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein first wrote about the manic defence as part of an infant’s dealing with the pain of transitioning from the paranoid-schizoid position (hostility towards the “bad mother” half of the split mother object in the baby’s mind) to the depressive position (involving guilt over that hostility, fear of the hated object being taken away and/or killed, and a wish for reparation when the infant realizes Mother is a mix of good and bad aspects). The manic defence, however, can be felt at any point in one’s whole life, and D.W. Winnicott expanded on Klein’s idea in a 1935 paper. We can see, in his description of the characteristics of the manic defence, how Joe Buck deals with his pain through an escape in sex.

Winnicott describes one aspect of this manic defence, which we can see as applying to Joe, in the following way: “Denial of the sensations of depression–namely the heaviness, the sadness–by specifically opposite sensations, lightness, humorousness, etc. The employment of almost any opposites in the reassurance against death, chaos, mystery, etc., ideas that belong to the fantasy content of the depressive position.” (Winnicott, page 132, his emphasis)

So, in order to protect himself from the pain of his childhood and failed relationship with Annie, Joe must assume the opposite feelings: hope, enthusiasm, excitement, and joy. To evade feelings of loneliness, he must seek the opposite, to be close to as many other people as possible, so close as to be intimately close, his naked body rubbing up against others in sex. To avoid the pain of reality, he must be constantly daydreaming, in a fantasy world, living inside his mind, ignoring the sobering outside world.

His loneliness is accentuated through his experiences with the others on the bus: he tries to chat with the driver, who ignores him; young women titter when he walks by in his cowboy outfit, his radio in his hands; and the only person who shows any real interest in communicating with him is a little girl who plays some coquettish peek-a-boo…not an appropriate client for his services, to put it mildly.

Elsewhere on the bus, a group of army men are singing “The Caisson Song,” with the enthusiasm of the brainwashed, but at least they have each other’s company. Women on the radio speak of how they want a stud in bed, and Joe is thrilled, but it doesn’t occur to him that these women don’t want a prostitute.

Wherever he sees himself in a mirror, he’s pleased to see a handsome cowboy…but even he knows he isn’t “a for real cowboy.” That mirror is Lacan‘s mirror, in which he sees only his idealized self, his ideal-ego, all together, unified, and cohesive; but this ideal-I is only an illusion, for his real self looking into the mirror is an awkward, fragmented, and unhappy man.

This real man is suited for the most menial of labour, like dishwashing, a job so lacking in glamour that he’s run away from it so quickly, no notice is even given to his boss. He quit because of the alienating nature of the job: it alienates him from any sense of pride in his work; it alienates him from his coworkers and boss; and it alienates him from his species-essence, or his sense of meaning in life. He hopes the cowboy image will restore all that he’s been alienated from, but he’ll soon be even more alienated in New York.

Indeed, as he wanders the streets with his money having run out, and his having been kicked out of his hotel, he walks by a restaurant and sees a dishwasher through the window, a frowning young blond who could be his twin. His reflection in the glass is seen beside the dishwasher, accentuating both their identity with each other and the Lacanian illusion of his reflection. His False Self and True Self are tragically juxtaposed.

Upon his arrival in New York City, he’s been going around trying to connect with his would-be female clientele, but of course with no success. In fact, his only success has been with a call girl who expects him to pay her! The big question ringing in the head of every viewer of this movie is, Where did Joe get the idea that scores of New York women want to pay a man for sex?

Finally, he meets Rico “Ratso” Rizzo (Hoffman) in a bar; this is the one time we see the con man/cripple dressed well, for this first impression Joe gets of him is as Rico’s False Self; for most of the rest of the film, he has his more typical scruffy “Ratso” look, getting sicker and sicker. Thus, Rico is Joe’s double; we have the posturing duo of a “cowboy” and a ‘streetwise man with connections,’ both trying to escape their wretched condition.

As Joe is chatting with Rico in the bar about the disastrous hook-up with the call girl, and Rico is pretending to help Joe get the “management” he needs, we can hear the song “A Famous Myth,” by The Groop, playing faintly in the background. Indeed, it is a famous myth that anyone beyond the 1% will ever “fly so high.” This goes double for Joe’s fantasy of being a glamorous “hustler” or Rico’s fantasy of living the good life in Florida. Note the song’s juxtaposition, of the hopeful aspiration in the lyrics, with the sadness of that unfulfillable longing in the music. The manic defence fails again.

As Joe and Rico are talking and walking down the street on their way to Mr. O’Daniel’s place, we see Rico’s limp. In the famous scene of them crossing the road and a taxi almost hitting Rico, his shouting “I’m walkin’ here! I’m walkin’ here!” (as opposed to him limping) is a wish fulfillment we later see in his Florida fantasy, when we see him actually running with Joe on the beach.

Mr. O’Daniel (played by the character actor, John McGiver) is Joe’s would-be connection with that coveted elder female clientele; but wearing that bathrobe and smiling that maniacal grin, O’Daniel comes across as some kind of sex pervert. When he says Joe will need his “strong back,” we wonder what for.

As it turns out, O’Daniel–who correctly notes that being “lonesome” is what leads to alcoholism, crime, drugs, and sex addiction–has his own manic defence against loneliness and depression: religion. Prayer, even in the toilet stalls, will cure sadness!

(Recall, in this connection, what Marx said about religion: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” [Marx, Introduction to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right])

Joe, whose childhood traumas remind him of the excesses of religious fanaticism, runs out of the apartment, another attempt to escape from pain. In his mad search for that cheat Rizzo, Joe dissociates in his thoughts, and what ensues is a melange of images of Rizzo found in the subway, Joe’s wish-fulfillment that he’s found the snake, with memories of Annie’s gang rape mixed in. Reveries, dreams, religion, and drug-induced hallucinations all represent the failure of fantasy as a manic defence cure for sadness.

Later, Joe’s money runs out, and he’s kicked out of his hotel room, an obvious example of private property. Homelessness is one of the abused children of private property and capitalism, and Joe has joined Rico as one of those children. Desperate, Joe resorts to gay prostitution (something, in the novel, that he is indifferent to because of having been a victim of homosexual gang rape).

He allows a young man (Bob Balaban) to perform fellatio on him in a movie theatre for $25, which the boy, it turns out, doesn’t even have. Joe tries fantasizing about sex with Annie to get excited during the blow job. His feelings of degradation are mirrored by the science fiction movie playing: in it, an astronaut is cut off from his spaceship, depriving him of his oxygen supply as he drifts off, lost in space. Joe feels similarly lost, his dream of being a lady-pleasing stud also losing oxygen.

The phallic spaceship comes apart into halves, symbolizing castration, as does the severing of the connection of the ill-fated astronaut to his ship. Since engaging in gay male sexual activity is traditionally associated with a loss of manhood, and cowboy-stud Joe believes in such traditional societal narratives, he feels himself to be symbolically emasculated.

The irony of Joe’s belief in the macho cowboy, John Wayne stereotype, his ideal-ego that he sees in the mirror, is that Rico disillusions him by telling him that only gay male prostitutes dress like cowboys. Joe’s manic defence has never protected him from his self-loathing.

Rico has his own manic defences, apart from his con man/thief persona. Just as Joe dreamt of leaving Texas to find his would-be haven in New York City, so does Rico dream of leaving the hell of New York for the would-be paradise of Florida.

And just as Joe has had painful relationships with his neglectful mother and his grandmother, who suddenly died on his return home from the military, so does Rico suffer the memories of his disappointing late father, a shoe-shiner who “was even dumber than [Joe],” and whose headstone should say “one big, lousy X,” just like the building he and Joe are squatting in. They’ve been “condemned by order of City Hall,” part of the bourgeois state that protects private property and throws people like Joe and Rico out onto the street for not having made more of themselves.

The loss of, or traumatic disappointment in, parental objects results in a splitting of the personality into ego-segments that WRD Fairbairn called the Libidinal Ego (connected to the Exciting Object) and an Anti-libidinal Ego (connected to a Rejecting Object). Joe’s pursuit of older women as clients represents the former ego/object configuration, while Rico’s misanthropic rebuffs (e.g., “Take your hands off of me!” at the party) represents the latter ego/object configuration.

This libidinal or anti-libidinal retreat into a world of exciting or rejecting objects is another escape into fantasy, a refusal to face the real world, where Fairbairn‘s concept of the Central Ego is linked to an Ideal Object (“ideal” because it is best to be in relationships with real people [“objects” in relation to oneself, the subject] in the external world, as opposed to the fantasy life of the internal, mental world). At least Joe and Rico have each other as Ideal Objects…that is, until the end of the movie.

One comical scene shows Joe and Rico in their non-heated home, the condemned building, shivering in the winter and dancing to a commercial jingle on Joe’s radio about “Florida orange juice…on ice.” An icicle is hanging from a tap, and Rico’s fantasy of the warmth of Florida makes the jingle into a cruel musical joke on his manic defence.

Another escape attempt from their melancholy comes in the form of a party held by artsy siblings “Hansel and Gretel McAlbertson.” At this party, we can see the difference in the manic defence’s degree of success or failure in Joe vs. Rico. Joe (Libidinal Ego) bogarts a joint that he naïvely thinks is just a regular cigarette, then he’s given a pill to augment his high (Exciting Object). Rico (Anti-libidinal Ego), on the other hand, remains misanthropic, stealing food and picking pockets, and scowling at all the other guests (Rejecting Object). Elephant’s Memory‘s psychedelic “Old Man Willow” is heard in the background.

A woman Hansel is filming grins and says, “I love everything in the theatre. I would like to die on the stage.” Of course: the theatre is a staged illusion, an escape from the pains of the real world; hence, “to die on the stage,” the final, sad acquiescence to reality, would at least be a happy death.

Joe’s brief escape into the euphoria of drugs ends with him scoring with a woman guest (Brenda Vaccaro, another Exciting Object for his Libidinal Ego) at the party, but also with his worries over Rico’s declining health. This worry, along with perhaps the effect of the marijuana and the pill, affects his ability to get an erection for the woman in her bed; hence, the look of abject terror on his face.

Winnicott wrote of the “ascensive” quality of the manic defence (Winnicott, pages 134-135), which can be symbolically associated with an erection. Joe’s failure to get it up thus represents his failed escape from melancholy through sex. Rico never succeeds in escaping his own sadness, especially on that bus ride to Florida; and Joe is so psychically conjoined to Rico, that Rico’s failed escape becomes Joe’s, too.

Rico refuses to accept the reality of his worsening illness; he’d rather be sick and risk dying in sunny Florida than get well in a New York hospital, which could lead to cops and to his incarceration. Desperate to get money for the bus ride, Joe assaults (and possibly kills) a client (Barnard Hughes) to steal all of his money.

The beautiful sight of bright, warm, sunny Florida–Rico’s manic defence against his melancholy, and ironically similar to the sunny Texas that Joe escaped from at the film’s beginning–is tragically contrasted with the continuing decline of Rico’s health. His body’s in pain, he wets his pants, and he’s sweating all over; this symbolizes his psychological disintegration–his body is trying to project his self-hate, just as he was projecting it onto all the people he was robbing, cheating, and rejecting at the party.

Freud, in Mourning and Melancholia, wrote of the similarity between the two, but with the one crucial difference being that, with normal mourning, one fully loves the deceased, mourned love object, whereas with melancholia, the unconscious source of one’s sadness comes from a mix of love and hate for the deceased. One internalizes the deceased–that is, identifies with the object through introjection; so the hated aspects of the object become the hated self, hence the mysterious source of one’s sadness. (Freud, pages 254, 256-260)

Both Joe and Rico have this melancholy after having lost and mourned family members who were far from ideal. Unconscious hostility to Sally Buck and to Rico’s father are thus introjected, and Joe and Rico hate themselves.

Nonetheless, even Freud acknowledged the presence of mania as having a dialectical relationship with melancholia: “The impression which several psychoanalytic investigators have already put into words is that the content of mania is no different from that of melancholia, that both disorders are wrestling with the same ‘complex’, but that probably in melancholia the ego has succumbed to the complex whereas in mania it has mastered it or pushed it aside. Our second pointer is afforded by the observation that all states such as joy, exultation, or triumph, which give us the normal model for mania, depend on the same economic conditions.” (Freud, page 263)

Some, like Joe, are more successful with the manic defence, while others, like Rico, fail at it, and also fail at projecting their self-hate onto others (e.g., Rico‘s homophobia and misanthropy in general). For these reasons, Rico dies while Joe lives, but now Joe has a new loved one to mourn, and to be melancholy about.

The Midnight Cowboy theme, the lead melody of which is played on Toots Thielemans‘s chromatic harmonica, symbolizes this ‘happy sadness’ of the manic defence perfectly. Though a profoundly sad piece of music, the theme is melodically based on paralleled major 7th chords (save the G dominant, so C maj. 7, A-sharp maj. 7, G-sharp maj. 7, C-sharp maj. 7, G7). Major scales and chords seem to sound ‘happy,’ or ‘bright’ (like the sunny skies in Texas and Florida) as opposed to the ‘sad,’ or ‘dark’ (like the darkness inside Joe’s and Rico’s hearts, or the shadows in wintry New York) minor scales and chords. Here, the major melodies are sadder than Nigel Tufnel‘s D minor.

In sum, the movie’s whole message is that, no matter how hard we try to escape our sadness and loneliness with pleasure-seeking or fantasy, we can’t. Our melancholia can be cured only by confronting it.

D.W. Winnicott, Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis: Collected Papers, Brunner-Routledge, London, 1992

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