Analysis of the Oedipus Myth

I: Introduction

In this analysis, I plan to say little about the Oedipus complex, because–apart from what a cliché that has turned into–I’ve already written so much about it that doing so here again would be irritatingly redundant. Instead, I’ll focus mostly on other aspects, themes, and symbolism of the myth.

These themes and symbolism centre around the dialectical relationships between knowing and not wanting to know (what Wilfred Bion called the K and -K links, respectively), which in turn are symbolized by seeing and blindness. Also, there’s the dialectical unity of resisting fate vs. succumbing to it. There’s the dialectic of family love and family hate, too, leading to the next theme.

That theme is male-on-male violence: Laius raping Chrysippus, Oedipus killing Laius, his accusatory threats against Tiresias and Creon, his blinding of himself, and his cursing of his sons/brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, who in turn kill each other. Finally, could Oedipus’ killing of his father and marriage to his mother represent an attempted shift from matrilineal to patrilineal succession?

II: Sin and Punishment

The story all begins with King Laius having committed a terrible sin to offend the gods. Some scholars think that his homosexual passion for the beautiful youth Chrysippus, leading to his abduction and rape of the boy, was a later addition to the overall story, so I imagine earlier versions must have had Laius angering the gods in some other way.

In any case, Laius’ punishment will involve not only shaming him, but his entire family, too. Belief in such extensive divine punishment seems to have been common in the ancient world, given how close-knit the family was back then, as if all members shared the same identity, thus making the entire family as guilty of the sin as the original sinner was. Recall what Yahweh said to Moses: “for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” (Exodus 20:5)

Laius does everything he can to prevent the terrible prophecy that any son he has by Iocaste will one day rise up and kill him; hence George Devereux‘s invention of the term, ‘Laius complex.’ The king refuses to sleep with his queen, Iocaste, but the constant attempts at defying his fate ultimately lead to its fulfillment, for the gods will have their way, no matter how hard we try to thwart their will.

Iocaste, annoyed at never being fulfilled in the bedroom (see Graves, 105, page 371, paragraph a.), gets Laius drunk one night, and he lies with her, getting her pregnant. As I’ve discussed many times before, I use the ouroboros to symbolize a circular continuum where opposites meet and phase into each other dialectically, where the serpent’s head bites its tail.

Laius’ attempts to prevent the prophecy from coming true, at the serpent’s bitten tail, are his movement along the coiled length of its body, away from its tail and toward its head, where perfect safety from the prophecy’s fulfillment would be. But the further he goes away from the tail and toward the head, the more sexually frustrated Iocaste becomes, since she’s being made to suffer a longer and longer period without any fulfillment of her desires. So instead of just reaching the serpent’s biting head and stopping there, she makes him go past it and over to the bitten tail, getting her with child.

III: Oedipus Is Born

To Laius’ even greater horror, the child born is a son. Since the prophecy also involves the boy marrying her and sharing her bed, Iocaste agrees to have the baby exposed.

In an attempt to accelerate the baby’s death, by keeping it from crawling away from danger, Laius puts a pin into its feet. The resulting injury to the baby inspires its name, “Oedipus” (“swollen foot”). Iocaste can’t bear to kill her own child, so she has a servant, a shepherd, take the baby away to be exposed. He, too, can’t bear to let the baby die, so he gives it to another shepherd, one in Corinth. This shepherd, in turn, gives Oedipus to childless King Polybus.

Polybus’ shame at not being able to have a child of his own leads him to pretend that Oedipus is his biological son. Oedipus thus believes this king of Corinth, and his queen, Merope (or Periboea, depending on the source), are his true parents. When doubts are raised of his true parentage, Oedipus consults the Delphic oracle, who tells him the prophecy instead of confirming or denying whether the king and queen of Corinth are his parents. So thinking still that Polybus and Merope are his biological parents, Oedipus leaves Corinth and heads in the direction of…Thebes!

Here we see how oversolicitude of the prophecy coming true pushes Oedipus past the ouroboros’ biting head, where a safe prevention of its coming true lies, to the bitten tail of its surely coming true.

IV: Swollen Feet, and the Sphinx

What we note about Oedipus is his constant travels…on those ‘swollen feet.’ This use of injured feet can be seen to symbolize how his movement from here to there always involves pain of some sort. He’s had to leave Thebes and any hope of getting love from his real parents. He’s had to leave Corinth and the love of his assumed parents. And his trip back to Thebes will involve his unwitting fulfillment of the first part of the prophecy…he kills Laius.

At a place where three roads meet, Oedipus encounters a chariot carrying a wealthy older man and his servants. Neither Oedipus nor the old man has the patience or humility to make way and let the other pass, so a fight begins. Oedipus kills everyone except one servant, who manages to run away and tell the tale later. The killed rich old man is, of course, Laius.

Oedipus continues on his journey in the direction of Thebes, and just before the entrance to the city he encounters the Sphinx, a monster with the head and breasts of a woman, a lion’s body, an eagle’s wings, and a serpent’s tail (the description varies, of course, depending on the source). Whoever cannot answer her riddle will be strangled and eaten by her…everyone who has tried, so far, which is odd, given how easy to answer the riddle actually is.

V: The Riddle

There are variations on how the riddle is asked, but perhaps the best-known version is, “What animal goes on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening?” Another version is, “What creature of one voice has sometimes two feet, sometimes three, sometimes four, and is weakest when it has the most?”

This second version relates well with Oedipus’ experience, since he as a baby had the pin swelling his little feet, and he as a blind old man, shamed and in despair after learning of his unwitting fulfillment of the prophecy, has not only a walking stick, but also his daughter/sister, Antigone, to help him go everywhere. As I said above, everywhere he walks, he is in pain.

The idea that the Sphinx’s riddle is difficult to answer shouldn’t be taken literally, since as I said above, it’s actually ridiculously easy to answer: man is the animal, crawling as a baby on all fours ‘in the morning’ of his life; walking on two legs as a young man during the ‘noon’ of his life; and needing a walking stick as an old man during the ‘evening’ of his life. The point of the ‘difficulty’ of the riddle–as I see it–is that it was fated for Oedipus…and Oedipus alone…to answer it, for it is about him knowing himself, something few people really do.

VI: Unnatural Knowledge

Having a special knowledge of the arcane matters of life is a province of the unusual people of our world, the perverse and unnatural ones, even. Such monstrosities as the part-human, part-animal Sphinx (suggesting a conception by bestiality), and incestuous patricides like Oedipus alone will know life’s darkest secrets. Nietzsche commented on this special insight-from-the-unnatural in The Birth of Tragedy (Section 9, pages 68-69), and we should see Oedipus’ ability to answer the riddle in terms of his drive toward self-knowledge, as we’ll see when examining Sophocles‘ play.

The Sphinx kills herself in shame and despair over someone knowing the answer to her ‘enigmatic’ riddle, and Thebes is saved from her. Since the Theban people have lost their king to, as the story goes, a gang of robbers rather than a sole man, and since Oedipus–a stranger in town [!]–is the city’s hero, he is made their new king. His marriage to Iocaste thus fulfills the second part of the prophecy.

Their marriage, of course, is by no means Platonic. He gets his mother pregnant and has two sons/brothers (Eteocles and Polyneices) and two daughters/sisters (Antigone and Ismene) by her. If Freud was right, one can imagine the nights that Oedipus shares in bed with Iocaste to be by far the most enjoyable times of his whole wretched life. Not only is he enjoying his mother with neither guilt nor a paternal rival, but he is the honoured hero of his city.

His pride, accordingly, is puffed up. Then the plague descends on Thebes, and our discussion of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus begins.

VII: Pride Comes Before a Fall

Oedipus’ hubris first demonstrates itself in his outward show of concern for his people. He speaks of how his pain is greater than that of his people, feeling each individual’s suffering as well as his own, and his not being able to sleep at night.

Oh, really, Oedipus? You, a king in all your finery, have it worse than the poor multitude? You feel each person’s individual pain, plus your own, but they don’t feel each other’s, the pain of their families, of their neighbours? Only you are gifted with such a magnanimous compassion?

He has sent his brother-in-law, Creon, to consult the Delphic oracle to find out what must be done to rid Thebes of the plague. Creon returns and tells Oedipus that they must find the murderer of Laius, who is still in the city [!].

Oedipus also has the blind seer Tiresias reveal who the killer is. The king praises Tiresias for his gift of prophecy, but the blind old man considers his special abilities to be a curse, since knowing the truth can be painful, and can cause others great pain.

Tiresias, like Oedipus and the Sphinx, has gained access to esoteric forms of knowledge through unnatural means. When Tiresias was younger, he was made a woman for seven years as punishment for having beaten a pair of copulating snakes. With this experience, he knew which sex derived greater pleasure from lovemaking; and in telling Zeus and Hera that it is women who enjoy sex far more than men, the goddess was indignant and made him blind…but Zeus compensated for this by giving him the gift of foresight.

VIII: Ignorance Is Bliss

Tiresias is averse in the extreme to telling the Theban king what he knows, since the pain for Oedipus will be overwhelming. This refusal to promote knowledge is what Bion called -K, and this psychoanalytic angle on the Oedipus myth was detailed in Bion‘s book, Elements of Psychoanalysis (in chapters 10, 11, and 14 especially).

Oedipus, however, is driven to know the truth (K) at all costs, so he angrily provokes Tiresias to give it up by accusing him of complicity in Laius’ murder. What’s interesting about this exchange between the king and the prophet is how it can be paralleled with the interlocution between Oedipus and the Sphinx. The monster has asked Oedipus a riddle to which only he knows the answer; Oedipus (a monster of another sort) asks Tiresias something only he can answer. The Sphinx kills herself on hearing Oedipus’ correct answer; Oedipus’ self-destruction begins on hearing Tiresias’ correct answer.

We’ll note the dialectical relation between knowing and wishing not to know (K vs. -K) when Oedipus, having pushed for an answer from Tiresias, now rejects the truth upon hearing it. This is the biting head of the ouroboros (K) phasing over to its bitten tail (-K). Instead of accepting the painful truth that Oedipus killed Laius, the shaken king fantasizes that Creon, supposedly coveting the crown, has suborned Tiresias to lie about Oedipus being Laius’ murderer.

What reinforces this dialectical K vs. -K relationship is how Oedipus should already know, or at least suspect, his own guilt. He knows of the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother; he hasn’t been certain that Polybus and Merope are his true parents; he’s killed a wealthy old man on a road near Thebes; and he’s married a woman old enough to be his mother. Denial and projection are his only defences against Tiresias’ increasingly probable revelation.

IX: Carnal Knowledge

Allow me to digress for a few paragraphs…

Bion conceived of our growing in knowledge (K) as originating in the baby’s interactions with its mother. Since the baby doesn’t yet have a thinking apparatus for processing the external stimuli that agitate him, his mother must do this processing for him, in the form of soothing the baby and pacifying him. Then those agitating feelings can become tolerable thoughts for the baby once they’ve been processed and detoxified by his mother; they are then returned to him.

She is a container of his anxieties and frustrations, feelings that Bion called the contained. Her containment of her baby’s agitations–reassuring him that everything is OK, and returning his feelings to him in a tolerable form–helps him to develop his own ability later to do the containing for himself and thus grow in K, a link between himself and other people involving an exchange of emotional experiences through projective identification (read here for more information on Bion and other psychoanalytic concepts).

To relate all this to the play, since Oedipus was given to a shepherd to be exposed on Mount Cithaeron, he was never given that needed containment from Iocaste. In fact, he experienced negative containment from Laius, through the pin that pierced his feet, a traumatic experience causing a nameless dread that has adversely affected Oedipus’ development into adulthood.

Bion used a masculine symbol to represent the contained (implying phallic symbolism), and a feminine symbol to represent the container (implicitly yonic). This suggests the erotic symbolism of copulation in his theory of containment. Such associations are significant considering Oedipus’ relationship with Iocaste. His lack of soothing, pacifying containment as a baby has led to its dialectical opposite: excessive, erotic containment with her when he has become an adult; this is a shift from the serpent’s bitten tail of negative containment to the biting head of ‘erotic containment.’

We go from the lack of shared, exchanged emotional experiences between baby Oedipus and Iocaste (the ouroboros’ bitten tail) to excessively shared, exchanged emotional experiences between adult Oedipus and Iocaste, in the form of their incest (the serpent’s biting head). From -K to forbidden K.

Similarly, we go from the symbolically phallic pin (Laius’ contained) making the symbolically yonic wound in baby Oedipus’ feet (the container), to Oedipus’ literal phallus (his contained) put in Iocaste’s literal yoni (her container). From negative to taboo container/contained, from -K to carnal K.

X: Arousing Pity and Fear

Aristotle, in his Poetics, said that tragedy should arouse pity and fear in the audience, as well as the catharsis of those emotions (Aristotle 6, p. 348). Pity and fear are better “aroused by the very structure and incidents of the play” than through spectacle (Aristotle 14, page 358). For Aristotle, Sophocles’ Oedipus is an ideal example of such a play.

What must be remembered is that we all know the Oedipus story; the ancient Greek audiences knew that Oedipus is doomed to kill his father and marry and commit incest with his mother. The magic of watching the play, or even just reading it, as Aristotle observed, is in sympathizing with poor Oedipus as he learns, little by agonizingly little, that he has fulfilled the prophecy. As he continues his compulsive investigation, he peels away every hope of his innocence, peels away every doubt that he is guilty. Each peeling away, one by one, is torture for him, and for us as we feel the pain with him.

We are shaken with Oedipus when we hear Tiresias say that the prophecy has been fulfilled, but we feel temporary relief in how we empathize with the king’s illusory belief that Polybus and Merope are his parents. When Iocaste mentions Laius having been killed where three roads meet (about line 716), then that Laius looked much like Oedipus (about line 744), we feel his surges of agitation, even though she has been trying to relieve his fears by demonstrating the supposed falsity of prophecy.

When Oedipus takes heart in the account that Laius was killed by a group of robbers rather than by one (about lines 890-894), we enjoy feeling his relief even though we know the report to be wrong. Again, the report from a shepherd/messenger from Corinth that Polybus is dead (about line 985) gives Oedipus hope, for he can’t kill a father already dead. Though we know his father isn’t the Corinthian, but the former Theban, king doesn’t matter: we empathize with Oedipus, so we feel his relief, and enjoy it. We wish with him that it could be true.

This relief is ephemeral, though, for we’re soon to feel Oedipus’ dashed hopes when the shepherd explains that he gave baby Oedipus to Polybus and Merope, having received the baby himself from a Theban shepherd! Oedipus is inching closer and closer to the terrible truth, and we as an empathizing audience feel his growing fears as if we were discovering it all with him.

This mounting fear is like the suspense felt in a horror movie, the secret to such a film’s success. Oedipus sends to have the Theban shepherd brought before him to tell him the truth. He clings to the feeble hope that he isn’t Laius’ abandoned son, but rather that of a Theban slave (about lines 1092-1093), which is nowhere near as shameful. We share his agitation in clinging to that tiny hope, knowing he’ll soon lose even that.

XI: Hamartia

One way to think about the tragic flaw of the hero of an ancient Greek drama is to see it as a comment on the faults of a society’s political leaders, to exhort them to improve on their governance.

As we’ve noticed in Oedipus, his flaw is his hubris. He is puffed up with pride over having saved Thebes from the Sphinx by correctly answering her riddle. But as I pointed out above, the riddle isn’t particularly difficult to solve; his being the only one able to answer it seems more to do with it being about his own life than about it being difficult to solve.

What’s more, he’s no real hero of Thebes: he killed their king over a petty squabble, because he was too proud to give way to Laius’ chariot. He is the opposite of a saviour, and only his willful ignorance (-K) delays his acceptance of the truth.

Vanity has been a serious fault in leaders throughout history and legend, from Caligula and King Lear up to many (if not almost all) of our heads of state today. They want to be flattered rather than hear needed criticisms. In other words, they’re narcissists.

What is the origin of pathological levels of narcissism? Heinz Kohut discovered it in a lack of parental empathy. He conceived of two poles on which a child builds a healthy sense of self and restrained, moderate levels of narcissism: the grandiose self, and the idealized parental imago. In being abandoned by Laius and Iocaste, given over to a shepherd to be exposed, baby Oedipus was deprived of both poles of healthy, psychological structure: small wonder he grew up proud at the first moment of his life that he was ever meaningfully appreciated.

To cut the wound even deeper, though he was raised and cared for by King Polybus, who never even let on that he was adopted, Oedipus was forced to give up his parental idealizations to avoid shaming them through fulfilling the prophecy. Committing incest (as he imagined he would be) with Queen Merope would destroy his grandiose self, still something he fears the possibility of even after hearing of Polybus’ death (about line 976); and killing the Corinthian king would have meant the killing of his idealized parental imago. With both poles gone, he’d be destroying himself.

Lacking parents to idealize, Oedipus would need to overcompensate with the grandiose self in order to salvage whatever psychological structure he could muster. Small wonder he felt narcissistic rage when that rich man on the chariot demanded he give way on the road, and small wonder he’s been basking in the adulation of the Thebans since his delivering of them from the Sphinx.

It’s fitting, then, that the universal narcissistic trauma children suffer is called the Oedipus complex (to make my one reference to it in this article). Oedipus never had his true mother’s love, that maternal love that a little boy selfishly wants to hog all to himself and never share with his father. Hence, Oedipus’ incest with Iocaste as a long overdue overcompensation for that infantile deprivation. On the universality of this childhood trauma, recall Freud’s quote from Sophocles’ play:

“For many a man hath seen himself in dreams
His mother’s mate, but he who gives no heed
To suchlike matters bears the easier life.” (Freud, page 162)

XII: Peripeteia and Anagnorisis

Oedipus’ discovery (anagnorisis) that he has, in fact, fulfilled the prophecy leads to his reversal of fortune (peripeteia), the climax of Sophocles’ tragedy. The peripeteia, as Aristotle explained it in the Poetics, involves a complete switch from one state of fortune to its opposite: in Oedipus’ case, from overweening pride to overwhelming shame, from being an honoured king to being a pitied exile; and Aristotle deemed Sophocles’ Oedipus to be the exemplary tragedy.

Yet this switch from one state of affairs to its opposite should be seen as a dialectical unity of opposites, for the anagnorisis is so causally linked with the peripeteia, the one so immediately following the other, that they seem almost to coincide, to be at one with each other. And Oedipus’ ‘discovery’ is really just something he’s always known, deep down, to have been true. The truth has just been buried in his unconscious, and now it’s returned to consciousness.

He knew the prophecy back when he was in Corinth, and he surely knows that the will of the gods is not something easily thwarted. He learned of the prophecy after already having the parentage of Polybus and Merope put in doubt. Oedipus killed a rich man old enough to be his father where three roads meet. He’s married a woman old enough to be his mother. And Tiresias, a famed, honoured prophet, explicitly tells him he has fulfilled the prophecy. What is there to discover later on?

It’s not that Oedipus has discovered the shameful truth; it’s that he now knows he can no longer deny that truth. He has been using denial, projection, and repression to shield himself from the truth, even as he’s been investigating it unflinchingly. Here we see the dialectical relationship between K and -K. And since his discovery of the truth is a foregone conclusion, so is his reversal of fortune.

It’s ironic that a blind old man tells seeing Oedipus the harsh truth, he who has been wilfully blind to the truth. Then, when he can no longer deny, project, or repress the truth into a conveniently faulty memory, he removes pins from the clothes of Iocaste–whom he’s just seen having hanged herself–and stabs them into his eyes.

Tiresias is thus a kind of double of Oedipus, his judgemental ego ideal, yet also his mirrored ideal-I facing him and articulating the truth he dare not say about himself. Though blind, Tiresias is more complete, more whole, than is the metaphorically blind Theban king. Accordingly, Oedipus would rather deny and project his guilt onto his personified mirror, Tiresias, claiming the blind old prophet is conspiring with Creon to dethrone him, than acknowledge that he himself has already dethroned his own father…and should already know it, or at least suspect it.

Just as the contrast between not knowing and anagnorisis is dialectically unified, so is the contrast between his fortunes as a king and his ill fortune as an exile. His loss of a kingly throne at the end of the play is not his first time to be thrown out. He was an exile of Thebes from birth, after Laius’ thwarted attempt to expose him. Then he exiled himself from Corinth upon hearing the prophecy. Being regal has been more the exception than the rule in his life of wandering; and even his rule as king has been insecure the whole time, with that prophecy looming like a shadow over his head.

So, what peripeteia has there really been?

His feet have been swollen his whole life, from doing far more homeless travelling than resting.

XIII: Matrilineal or Patrilineal Succession?

A common element in ancient myth has been the killing of an old sacred king, to be replaced by a new king. The queen, in being the wife of both kings, is keeping the royal bloodline intact through matrilineal succession. This pattern has been noted by such writers as Frazer in The Golden Bough and the other ritualist theorists of myth from a century ago.

As Northrop Frye noted in The Great Code, meaning in ancient times was predominantly conveyed through the metaphorical and allegorical phases of language, as opposed to the modern-day, prosaic descriptive phase. Phenomena weren’t usually expressed in words describing what they literally were, as they typically would be today; they were far more often compared to, analogized with, and “put for,” other things (Frye, page 7). So a retelling of the killing of the old king through human sacrifice was given metaphorically and allegorically through a mythic narrative, as we see in the Oedipus story. (I discuss such mythic distortions of ancient ritual in this post.)

In this particular myth, however, a prince kills his father-king and succeeds him, resulting in a patrilineal succession, which largely replaced the matrilineal kind in the ancient Middle East/Mediterranean world. Does this story, through metaphor and allegory, express a conflict-laden transition from mother-kin to father-kin? Such a speculation was made by Robert Graves in his two-volume Greek Myths (Graves, 105, note 7, page 377). AeschylusOresteia also seem to represent such a conflict in the trial over Orestes‘ murder of his mother (I cover this issue in more detail here).

XIV: Oedipus’ Eye-Gouging as his Fragmentation

Oedipus’ hubris, his self-conception as a great king and saviour of Thebes, is his narcissistic False Self, a manifestation of his grandiose self. The other of the two poles of his sense of self, personified in Iocaste, is his idealized parental imago; since he doesn’t yet know (or consciously admit to himself) that she’s his mother, this other pole would seem to be a transference of that parental idealization. The shame he feels, from the realization of his incest and patricide, has destroyed his grandiose self; her suicide has destroyed his (now-understood-to-be) idealized parental imago. Both poles are destroyed: his narcissistic defences against fragmentation are destroyed; his mutilating of his eyes is thus symbolic of this fragmentation.

The play ends with the Chorus proclaiming that no man is happy until he dies. This observation seems an echo of the story of Cleobis and Biton, who showed great filial devotion to their mother. She in turn wished Hera would grant her sons the greatest of gifts; the brothers immediately died (they fell asleep in Hera’s temple and never woke), since only in death is there true happiness.

XIV: Oedipus at Colonus

The disgraced king wasn’t immediately exiled as of the end of Oedipus Rex, but as of the beginning of this play (actually the third chronologically written of Sophocles’ Theban plays, written just before he died and produced posthumously…and therefore inconsistent with the other two Theban plays), he has been a wandering exile for some time, guided by his faithful daughter/sister, Antigone.

An interesting theme of Oedipus at Colonus is his relationship with the land: at some times, he’s a curse to it; at other times, he’s a blessing. Naturally, there’s a dialectical relationship between this blessed and cursed state, too.

His incest and patricide caused a plague on Thebes, making him a curse on that land. This is interesting when seen in the light of his having been the temporary lord of that land. As E.F. Watling says in the introduction to his translation of the Theban plays, “king” doesn’t exactly convey Oedipus’ status over Thebes, though the word seems close enough. Oedipus “was probably something more like a wealthy landowner. All that is necessary for the play is that he should be recognised as a ‘great one’ in virtue of his own power of command and, it may be, of the election of his townsmen.” (Watling, page 18)

The ruling classes throughout history have been not only rich, but also owners of land, be they ancient slave-masters, feudal landlords, or today’s bourgeois owners of private property. In exploring the hamartia not only of Oedipus, but also of Laius, Creon, Eteocles, and Polyneices, and of how their flaws make us question their worthiness as lords over the people, we begin to wonder about the very validity of the 1% having ‘property rights,’ as against the 99% not having such rights. Given the enormity of our lords’ faults, what makes them any better than we are?

Antigone has led blind old Oedipus to Colonus, a village near Athens. She’s led him to rest on a stone in an area sacred to the Erinyes; a villager there says his presence has profaned the land, and he must leave. That Oedipus now knows that this place is sacred to the Erinyes is actually good news. (It’s also dialectically ironic that he, an incestuous patricide, would be a blessing here, since the Erinyes are personifications of guilt and vengeance.)

He tells the locals that a prophecy from Apollo says that he will die in a place sacred to the Erinyes, and being buried there, he will be a blessing to the people of the area. In fact, the Thebans have learned of such a prophecy since his exile, and Creon wants to bring Oedipus back home, so that his burial in Colonus won’t benefit another city at Thebes’ expense.

Oedipus, in his rage against disloyal Creon, Eteocles, and Polyneices, refuses to go back. He will, however, respect the wishes of the Chorus of villagers of Colonus, and be led by Antigone off the Erinyes’ sacred land. He will also have newly-arrived Ismene do the expiatory rites to eliminate any curse he may have unwittingly brought by sitting on the stone on the Erinyes’ sacred ground.

So, he’s both a blessing and a curse to the land. Such relationships to the land determine our perceived worthiness as people; such a reality is as true today, if only in a secular sense, as it was then. Consider our cruel treatment of the homeless today (‘anti-homeless’ architecture on the ground and on park benches; laws against feeding the homeless). Bezos, Gates, Buffett, Trump, Zuckerberg, et al are the god-kings of our time; one representative of them, French president Emmanuel Macron, is practically an Oedipus himself!

The moment of Oedipus’ death is an interesting one: the blind old man can, without his daughter’s guidance, find the place where the gods would have him buried…he walks there unaided (about lines 1543-1551)! His close connection with the gods, knowing his burial will be a blessing to Athens, combined with his age and blindness, makes him all the more of a double of Tiresias. He is as much of a blind old prophet as the one who so reluctantly told him he’d killed his father and married his mother. Though this play, Antigone, and Oedipus Rex aren’t consistent in plot-line, they are so in terms of theme.

XV: Antigone

Oedipus’ curse on his sons/brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, for not coming to his aid in his exile, has led the brothers to kill each other over who would rule over Thebes. Creon, the current king of Thebes, is angry over the wickedness of Polyneices, and refuses to bury his body.

In dialectical contrast to the hatred and rancour felt among all these other members of this cursed family, Antigone wants to show love for and duty to her dead, unburied brother. She’d disobey Creon’s order never to bury Polyneices, and risk the king’s wrath. The ouroboros’ bitten tail of fraternal hate has phased over to the serpent’s biting head of sisterly love.

Hegel was touched by Antigone’s self-sacrificing love. As Walter Kaufmann noted in Hegel: a Reinterpretation, “in the Phenomenology, Hegel celebrates the brother-sister relationship as the highest possible ethical relationship. He twice mentions and quotes Antigone in this context, and no attentive reader can fail to notice that the whole discussion revolves around Sophocles’ play.” (Kaufmann, 6, pages 17-18; see also 30, pages 125-127) The passages in the Phenomenology that Kaufmann refers to are in Part VI: Spirit, section A, a. and b. (Hegel, pages 267-289) Hegel considered Antigone’s love to be an example of Sittlichkeit. She would die out of love for her brother.

XVI: Conclusion

So, in the Theban plays, we see dialectical relationships not only between seeking the truth (K) and resisting it (-K), but also in one’s relationship with the land. One is at the ouroboros’ biting head as the lord of the land, then one passes over to the bitten tail when one’s presumptuous arrogance, one’s tragic flaw, results in one being a landless, swollen-footed exile).

We also see such dialectics in the love/hate relationship between family members. We go from attempted filicide, as well as successful patricide and fratricide, at the bitten tail of the ouroboros; then to sisterly love and Sittlichkeit at the serpent’s head, and then to forbidden love, mother/son incest, where the head bites the tail, leading from extreme virtue back to extreme vice.

These are universal themes, far beyond Freud’s mommy issues. The dialectical presentation of these themes makes them all the more universal, for everything is made up of dialectical contradictions, in the material world as well as that of ideas. This is what makes the Oedipus myth great, and worthy of examining over and over again. It affects all of us, from ancient times to today.

Further Reading

Sophocles (E.F. Watling, translator), The Theban Plays, Penguin Classics, London, 1947

Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (complete edition), Penguin Books, London, 1955

W.R. Bion, Elements of Psychoanalysis, Karnac Books, London, 1963

Friedrich Nietzsche (Walter Kaufmann, translator), The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, Vintage Books, New York, 1967

Walter Kaufmann, Hegel: a Reinterpretation, Doubleday Anchor Books, New York, 1965

G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1977

Aristotle (W.D. Ross, translator), The Pocket Aristotle, Washington Square Press, New York, 1958

Northrop Frye, The Great Code: the Bible and Literature, Penguin Books, Toronto, 1983

Analysis of “The Machinist”

The Machinist is a 2004 Spanish/American/French/British psychological horror film written by Scott Kosar and directed by Brad Anderson. It stars Christian Bale as Trevor Reznik, an emaciated, insomniac machinist unable to cope with guilt feelings. His worsening mental state causes him to spiral into a psychotic break with reality.

This is one of Bale’s best performances in my opinion. His dedication to the role–outstripping that of Robert De Niro (who gained about 60 pounds for Raging Bull)–involved losing 62 pounds. Michael Ironside, Jennifer Jason Leigh, John Sharian, and Aitana Sánchez-Gijón all play supporting roles.

Here are some quotes:

“If you were any thinner, you wouldn’t exist.” –Stevie, to Trevor

Trevor Reznik: Stevie, I haven’t slept in a year.
Stevie: Jesus Christ!
Trevor Reznik: I tried him too.

“Congratulations, Reznik. You just made my shit-list!” –Tucker

Marie: Trevor, is someone chasing you?
Trevor Reznik: Not yet. But they will when they find out who I am.

“A little guilt goes a long way.” –Trevor

“How do you wake up from a nightmare if you’re not asleep?” –movie tagline

Trevor Reznik: I wish there was some way I could repay you.
Miller: Well, for starters you could give me your left arm.

Ivan: Oh, no. You look like you seen a ghost.
Trevor Reznik: Funny you should say that. The guys at work don’t think you exist.
Ivan: That’s why I can’t get a raise.

“You’re going straight to Hell on Route 666!” –‘Route 666’ Loudspeaker

“I’d like to report a hit-and-run.” –Trevor [repeated line]

[after realizing his fault] “I know who you are… I know who you are… I know who you are… I know who you are.” –Trevor

“Right now I wanna sleep. I just want to sleep.” –Trevor [last line]

The film begins, actually, towards the end of the story. Trevor is at the height of his psychosis, disposing of a body rolled up in a rug into the ocean at night. Someone with a flashlight shines it in his face, agitating him. Nothing else is revealed of the scene at the time: we’ll have to wait until the end of the film to find out. This refusal to let the truth be known will be a feature of Trevor’s psychology, as we’ll see later.

Trevor Reznik’s name is a pun on Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails; this is appropriate, given the downward spiral that Trevor is experiencing. The Machinist is also influenced by Dostoyevsky‘s novella, The Double, just as Black Swan is. Ivan is Trevor’s double…but which one is the good version of him, and which the bad? It isn’t who Trevor thinks it is.

Actually, there are a lot of doubles in this movie, a lot of pairings: Trevor and Ivan, Trevor and Miller (Ironside), Maria (Sánchez-Gijón) and Stevie (Leigh), Maria and the actual server in the airport diner, Supervisor Furman and Tucker, Maria and Nicholas, and even Trevor and Stevie, and him and Maria. I’ll explain each of these pairings now.

Ivan is Trevor’s double in that he is a hallucinated projection of everything Trevor wishes he could forget about himself. This is why, psychologically and metaphorically speaking (as opposed to the physiological cause–his insomnia), he’s emaciated: he wants to remove so much of himself that he would thin himself to death; hence Stevie’s remark that if he were any thinner, he wouldn’t exist. Trevor reacts to this joke in a spirit of levity, moving almost like a ghost, for he, with his death drive, would like to project so much of himself outward (i.e., out into Ivan) that he would disintegrate.

Trevor can be doubled with Miller in that, in causing the accident that costs Miller his left arm, Trevor is projecting his own psychological fragmentation onto Miller. Trevor is distracted by his hallucination of Ivan, which causes Trevor to lean on and press the activator (which then can’t be turned off), which in turn causes Miller’s sleeved arm to be stuck and pulled into the cutting zone of the mill, where his hand is then mutilated. Later, the same accident almost happens to Trevor, who flips out on his coworkers, imagining in his paranoia that they have tried to get revenge on him.

He wants to project his own violence onto others instead of admitting his guilt to himself. He would tear the ugly parts of himself away and give them to others, to his Ivan hallucination, to his coworkers; he’d even project his unconscious fantasies of self-injury and of the reducing of his body to nothingness (manifested otherwise by being hit by a car outside the DMV, and by his emaciation) onto Miller by ‘accidentally’ hacking off his arm.

Maria and Stevie are doubles in that both women serve as metaphorical mirrors of what Trevor would like to see smiling back at him, to remind him that there still is something good inside of him, making him worthy of love. These women give him his desired recognition of the Other that Lacan wrote of. As mirrored reflections of his need for love, both women are thus each a double of Trevor. Maria even repeats Stevie’s line that if he were any thinner, he wouldn’t exist.

These reflections are illusory, though, in that Stevie is a prostitute whose affections he is paying for (recall when she says, worrying about him dying of insomnia, “You’re my best client. Can’t afford to lose you.”; then he sarcastically says, “Gee, thanks.”); and Maria is every bit as much a hallucination as Ivan is. Thus, with Maria as a fantasy waitress compared with the real server in the airport diner seen towards the end of the film, both waitresses are doubles of each other.

Trevor’s boss, Supervisor Furman, is a somewhat gentler version of the foreman–nasty, scowling Tucker (Furman–foreman: note the pun). Their power and authority over Trevor and the other machinists reflect the worker alienation felt under capitalism. One worker calls out, “Master Tucker, motherfucker,” so they don’t like the foreman…but they dislike Trevor so much more. The existence of unions, the earnestness of the investigation of Miller’s accident, and Miller’s pay settlement can smooth over the rough edges of a working life under capitalism only so much: imagine how much worse it is in sweatshops in the Third World. Trevor’s job is, sadly, among the best American capitalism can offer the working class. Furman is thus like the ‘good cop,’ and Tucker is the ‘bad cop.’

Finally, Maria and her son, Nicholas, can be seen as doubles in that both are harmed by Trevor’s accidentally hitting and killing her boy. He dies, and she is emotionally scarred by the loss…both are victims of Trevor’s hit-and-run irresponsibility, and therefore personify his repressed guilt.

In this connection, it’s interesting to note Trevor’s ride with hallucinated Nicholas in “Route 666” in the amusement park scene. As I’ve explained elsewhere, 666 refers to the Roman emperor Nero, who had his mother, Agrippina the Younger, killed (and who, it was rumoured, committed incest with her), and who also–or so it was once believed–kicked his pregnant wife, Poppaea Sabina, causing her to have a miscarriage. The historicity of the kicking and incest are dubious, but we’re concerned with theme and symbolism here, not with historical accuracy.

Trevor is well-read; we see him in his apartment reading Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot early in the film. He also has a good vocabulary, far better than Miller’s. This all suggests that he’d be well-educated enough to know about such things as Nero’s wickedness, if not the historical inaccuracy and bias of Tacitus and Suetonius, the latter of whom gave this uncorroborated account of the kicking in The Twelve Caesars: “Though [Nero] doted on Poppaea…he kicked her to death while she was pregnant and ill, because she complained that he came home late from the races.” (Nero, 35, page 233)

My point in mentioning all of this is that Trevor–in fantasizing about going with Nicholas on the “Route 666” ride–is unconsciously associating his guilty self with the mother-killing, child-killing, incestuous Nero of legend (if not exactly of history). In killing the boy physically by hitting him with his car, Trevor has also killed the boy’s mother emotionally. Trevor, we learn early on, is also saddened by the death of his own mother; he transfers his unconscious Oedipal feelings for her onto pretty Maria, for whom he has romantic feelings.

Trevor can never sleep, for there’s no rest for the wicked (derived from Isaiah 57:20-21). Trevor does murder sleep. He’s tried Christ, as he tells Stevie while in bed with her…but he clearly identifies more with the Antichrist.

The guilt of killing a child and evading responsibility is overwhelming for Trevor, so he must try to erase the crime from his mind by using the defence mechanism of repression. The problem with repression is that the anxiety-causing memory never goes away; instead, it reappears in consciousness, though in an unrecognizable form.

[This is why psychoanalysts use the word unconscious, rather than the somewhat fuzzy word subconscious. We’re not talking about burying pain deep down ‘underneath consciousness,’ where one may hope it will never reappear. No!…the pain gets repressed, then it bounces back into consciousness, yet we don’t know it’s there–it’s unconscious, not known.]

In Trevor’s case, we go beyond what isn’t known: he doesn’t want to know. This refusal to know is what Wilfred Bion called -K. This is also why Trevor grows increasingly isolated, since growing in K involves social interaction and linking through exchanges of projective identification. Instead of interacting with real people, Trevor socializes mainly with hallucinated people.

Trevor is experiencing an extreme version of what WRD Fairbairn called the “basic schizoid position.” This means that Trevor is engaging in splitting: instead of relating to objects (i.e., other people) in a normal way, seeing them as grey mixtures of good and bad, he sees them in black-and-white absolutes of all-good people and all-bad people.

His relationship with Stevie, up until his complete psychotic breakdown, is what Fairbairn, replacing Freud‘s ego, called the Central Ego (Trevor) as linked to the Ideal Object (Stevie); this object is ideal because relationships with real people are ideal, that is, psychologically healthy.

His relationship with hallucinated Maria is Fairbairn’s Libidinal Ego (Trevor) with the Exciting Object (Maria), replacing Freud’s id. Trevor’s relationship with hallucinated Ivan is Fairbairn’s rough equivalent of Freud’s superego, the Anti-libidinal Ego, or Internal Saboteur (Trevor) linked to the Rejecting Object (Ivan).

Ivan is Trevor’s projected bad conscience; Ivan rejects Trevor’s every attempt to forget running over and killing the boy; Ivan also rejects Trevor’s other projections, like his post-it notes, imagining someone other than himself is writing them. This is why Trevor comes to hate (and imagines himself killing) Ivan, and imagines Ivan wants to kill Nicholas, when it’s Trevor who’s killed the boy. In hating and feeling hostility to Ivan, Trevor is hating his projected self.

Maria, as the Exciting Object of Trevor’s Libidinal Ego, is a double of Stevie in more than that both women give him solace as his symbolic, empathic mirrors. He has romantic feelings for pretty Maria, just as he has sexual feelings for Stevie. Part of these feelings is in how Maria is not only a mother, but is a reminder, a transference, of his own mother. Recall the scene in his fantasy date with her, on Mother’s Day, in the amusement park, when he takes a photo of her and Nicholas in front of the merry-go-round. He pauses for a moment, addled by a memory of a photo taken of him as a boy (Nicholas’s age) with his mother in front of the same merry-go-round, about two decades before.

This transference from his mother onto Maria, especially in light of his fantasy date with her in her home, the two of them having some wine, suggests unconscious Oedipal feelings in Trevor, that universal narcissistic trauma. This connection becomes more evident when he looks at a large glass bowl on Maria’s coffee table in the fantasy; it’s actually in his apartment, having belonged to his mother when she was alive. It’s also a yonic symbol.

These unconscious Oedipal feelings, transferred onto the mother of the boy he’s killed in the hit-and-run, compound his guilt and pain to the point that he loses the courage to face up to what he’s done. Killing her boy is like harming his own beloved mama; and since her son has been killed, it feels as if Trevor has killed himself. Small wonder he’s self-harming: not sleeping leading to a rapid loss of weight, and even deliberately walking out onto a road to be hit by a car (driven, incidentally, by a mother with her child beside her).

Added to all of this is Trevor’s repeated endangering of others whenever he drives: running red lights and nearly colliding with other drivers (at the same intersection where the accident occurred that killed the boy), just to chase Ivan’s car, that of a man who doesn’t even exist! Also, he still lets himself be distracted by such things as his car cigarette lighter instead of keeping his eyes on the road. One would think that he’s learned his lesson since the accident a year before, but these continuous acts of carelessness are examples of the unconscious reenactment of trauma that Freud, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, called “the compulsion to repeat.”

Prior to all of Trevor’s self-destructive acts, he showed off an overtly narcissistic persona, driving a 1969 red Pontiac Firebird, wearing stylish cowboy boots, sunglasses, and overconfidently allowing himself to be distracted by his cigarette lighter as he lights his cigarette, just before hitting the boy. Elsewhere, he is seen in a photo with his coworker, Reynolds, having proudly caught a huge fish.

This narcissistic False Self served him well until the accident. Now he, in his shame, must disavow and repress all these acts of ostentation, for it’s this cocky overconfidence that’s led to killing the boy and hurting the mother on whom he’s since transferred his narcissistic Oedipal feelings. That False Self has been his only defence against psychological fragmentation…and he’s now lost that defence.

This disavowing and repressing of narcissistic grandiosity and idealizing of the Oedipally-desired parent, as Heinz Kohut described in a diagram on page 185 of his book, The Analysis of the Self, is seen in Trevor’s denial that he’s in the fishing photo with Reynolds (that it’s grinning Ivan, rather than proud Trevor, in the photo), his denial that Ivan’s red sports car is really his (with the licence plate number reversed), and the delusion that Nicholas is still alive.

Kohut’s notion of the bipolar self is what he considered the basis of healthy psychological structure: the two poles are the grandiose self, as seen in healthy, cowboy-boot-wearing Trevor, and the idealized parental imago, as expressed in his memories of his mother, his internalized object of her in his mind. When one of the two poles is compromised, as in the case of Trevor’s mother dying, the other pole is emphasized in order to compensate, as we see in Trevor’s grandiosity, him as the cocky, stylish driver of the Firebird.

When both poles are compromised, however, there’s the danger of psychological disintegration, as when Trevor’s grandiosity is blown to pieces after hitting the boy. His only way to hang on is through his relationship with Stevie, his fantasy with hallucinated, guilt-easing Maria, and the projection of all his cockiness onto hallucinated Ivan.

When he imagines Stevie is part of the “plot” to persecute him (because he can’t accept that it’s him in the fishing photo, rather than his Ivan projection); then he finds no Maria working in the airport diner; then he learns that slitting the throat of a hallucination doesn’t kill it, he realizes he has no more illusions to hide behind.

The post-it note that says, “Who are you?” and the one with the hangman game are again projected onto an imagined outsider sneaking into Trevor’s apartment, instead of him simply admitting that he’s been writing them all himself. Stevie says that hit-and-run drivers should be hanged, reinforcing a guilt he keeps trying to deny. He keeps guessing wrong answers to the hangman game: TUCKER, MOTHER, MILLER,…until finally, he admits it’s KILLER–himself.

The hanged man in the game is a stick-man drawing, a mirror of emaciated Trevor (just as the stick-people of Maria and Nicholas in the Mother’s Day card are mirrors of his guilt, those whom he’s killed metaphorically and literally) in his unconscious wish to thin himself to death. His deliberate avoidance of the right answer, KILLER, is an example of Bion’s -K, the refusal to know the truth about himself. As a result of -K, he creates Ivan, a bizarre object, a hallucinated projection of himself.

Trevor’s slow but sure discovery of the truth (his going from -K to K), as horrifying as it is for him, is like Oedipus‘ gradual discovery of his patricide and incest with his mother, Iocaste (recall Nero’s rumoured incest with his mother, Agrippina the Younger, another link with Trevor’s Oedipal feelings), as contrasted with Tiresiaswish not to tell Oedipus the painful truth (this was Bion‘s elaboration–K–of the psychoanalytic truth of the Oedipus complex).

Emotionally shattered and physically scarred Trevor looks at himself in the mirror, seeing not only the reflection of his battered body (from having let himself be hit by the car outside the DMV), but also grinning Ivan. This is Lacan‘s mirror, in which he’s alienated from himself, the awkward, fragmented real Trevor as contrasted with Ivan, who is no longer seen as an evil projection, or as the Rejecting Object of Trevor’s Anti-libidinal Ego, but as Trevor’s ideal-I, the cocky, carefree narcissist he wishes he could still be.

Free of any guilt, Ivan can compel Trevor to turn himself in to the cops. Ivan is thus both his ideal-I and his morally judging superego. Trevor now knows who he is; he also knows who he once was–the guilt-free, cocky, grinning man now projected onto Ivan. Trevor can no longer pretend he’s the good guy, and that everyone else–especially Ivan–is bad.

Ivan is the good double of the bad original–Trevor…the KILLER.

When Trevor has, at last, come to grips with what he has done, and accepts his guilt, he can finally sleep, as he does at the end of the film. Accepting his guilt comes from his finally being able to process his emotional experiences, taking the agitating elements from the outside world–what Bion called beta elements–and using alpha function (the processing of those emotional experiences) to turn the beta elements into alpha elements, or thoughts that can be used in dreams, waking thoughts, etc. Trevor’s hitherto inability and unwillingness to do this processing (-K) is what’s caused his psychosis. [Click here for a thorough explanation of Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts.]

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

Hence, Trevor cannot sleep and dream, and he cannot wake up from the nightmare that is his psychosis. It is only when he sees his fantasies and projections for what they really are that he can finally sleep, and thus escape his waking nightmare.

Analysis of “Repulsion”

Repulsion is a 1965 psychological horror film directed by Roman Polanski and written by him, Gérard Brach, and David Stone (these latter two having written the screenplay). It is the first of Polanski’s ‘Apartment Trilogy’ of films, the second being Rosemary’s Baby and the third being The Tenant. Repulsion is considered one of his best films.

It stars Catherine Deneuve as Carol Ledoux, a socially withdrawn Belgian living in London with her older sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux). Carol is suffering from the effects of psychological trauma, the cause of which is never explicitly stated, though one finds it safe to assume that she’s been raped, in all likelihood during her childhood, the abuser having been her father.

Because of this trauma, she feels a repulsion towards men, especially those with a sexual or romantic interest in her. When Helen leaves with her boyfriend, Michael (Ian Hendry), on a vacation to Italy, Carol–all alone in her apartment–spirals into madness.

Here are some quotes:

Mrs. Rendlesham: Have you fallen asleep?
Carol: Oh, I’m sorry.
Mrs. Rendlesham: I think you must be in love or something.

“We must get this crack mended.” –Carol

Carol: I’m having dinner with my sister.
Colin: Is she a good cook?
Carol: I never even thought about it.
Colin: Well, at least it can’t be any worse than fish and chips.
Carol: I think we are having rabbit.
Colin: Rabbit? Oh. I thought they’d all been killed off.
Carol: No. She has a friend.
Colin: A rabbit?
Carol: No, I think the friend has rabbits.
Colin: Poor bunny.

“Just the sound of his voice makes my flesh creep! Money! Money! Money! That’s all he ever thinks about.” –Helen, after hanging up the phone with the landlord

“I better go and see what that old bitch wants. Now, you go back to work. I’ll talk to you later. And, Carol, do something about your hair.” –Madame Denise

“I wish I could find the proper words to say. They just keep going around and around in my head. I just – I want to be – to be with you – all the time.” –Colin

“There’s no need to be alone, you know. Poor little girl. All by herself. All shaking like a little frightened animal.” –landlord, to Carol

[Convent bells heard ringing] “I could be a very good friend to you, you know. You look after me and you can forget about the rent. Come on. Come on. Just a little kiss between us. Huh? Come on.” –landlord, to Carol

Carol works as a manicurist for a beauty salon. Added to this, she’s very pretty (with the young Deneuve playing her, beauty is unavoidable). When we consider her repulsion towards men’s sexual advances, we might wonder why she makes no attempt to spoil her looks through, for example, intentionally gaining weight (though her hair is a bit disheveled at times); we also might ask why she has chosen to work in a place that would be a daily reminder to her of the pressure put on women to be beautiful.

Perhaps part of the answer to this riddle is in how many rape victims carry in their minds the badge of ‘sex object’ or ‘slut‘ as part of their trauma; such labels can accompany the compulsion to repeat the traumatizing states as part of an attempt to process the pain. So her staying beautiful can perhaps be seen as a moderate position on the trauma continuum, at the more extreme of which some rape victims would engage in promiscuous sex.

On the other hand, the decision to have a job helping other women to be beautiful could be part of an attempt to project her ‘sex object’ status onto other women. Furthermore, her manicures (which include cutting fingernails) could represent an unconscious wish to castrate symbolically phallic fingers, a point that should be obvious in the scene when she injures a woman’s hand (here at 57:20).

She often has a dazed, far away look in her eyes, almost as if she were in a catatonic stupor. Such dissociation is common with trauma victims: these people are typically living in their heads rather than in the physical moment, either going over traumatic memories, again and again, in an attempt to process them, or they’re trying to find a mental escape from the pain.

The woman she’s serving at the beginning of the film assumes she’s daydreaming because she’s in love: oh, how wildly off the mark our assumptions can be! As for Colin (John Fraser), the man Carol is ‘dating,’ she completely forgets a date with him, and she would do anything to get rid of him. (After he kisses her, she’s so grossed out that she rushes into her apartment and frantically brushes her teeth.) Carol can’t even stand Helen’s boyfriend Michael. She hates the sight of his toothbrush in her glass in the bathroom (symbolic of a phallus inside a yoni), so she throws it in the garbage. The sound of him and her sister making love in the other room is intolerable to Carol. She will, however, find a use for (Michael’s?) phallic razor…

The three of them plan to have rabbit for dinner, but Michael and Helen decide instead to go out to eat. Later, we see the unsightly remains of the hairless, uncooked animal. It can remind one of a rape victim, in a way: a sweet, innocent living thing uncovered and ruined, all for the satisfaction of one’s appetite; then, once discarded after no longer serving any use, we see the remains. Small wonder Carol carries the rabbit’s head in her purse later in the movie. She can identify with its victimization.

She can’t stand being bothered by people, especially men, but she feels a strong attachment to, a need for the company of, her sister, who isn’t always particularly nice to her. Everybody needs at least one person to relate to, a kind of metaphorical mirror reflecting a face back to oneself, reminding us that we exist. Carol’s sister provides this for her, to anchor her in the real world.

But when Helen and Michael leave for Italy…

For such an emotionally fragile girl, even a mere week or two of being alone in her apartment can feel like an eternity; it can feel like total abandonment.

For Carol, Helen is thus a transference of their mother, who when available is what Melanie Klein called the ‘good mother.’ The unavailable mother, as transferred onto and symbolized by Helen on her trip to Italy with Michael, is the frustrating ‘bad mother.’ And if Carol’s older sister has become her replacement mother, then Helen’s boyfriend has become Carol’s replacement father, again, a Kleinian ‘bad father,’ which is all the easier to see, given Carol’s feelings towards her actual father, as seen in that family photo, with her as a child staring at him in a kind of fixated hostility.

The feeling of abandonment she feels from her ‘mother’ and ‘father’ leaving her for Italy puts Carol in the paranoid-schizoid position, where objects (i.e., other people as represented in one’s mind) are split up into absolute good and bad (and she is experiencing only the bad here), and where she feels extreme persecutory anxiety, the threat of being raped again…even though now it’s all in her head.

She stays in her apartment for an extended time, missing work for three days and worrying her boss. She’s been seeing cracks in the walls of the apartment, including shocking hallucinations of them. These cracks symbolize two things: first, they represent tears in the vaginal walls of a rape victim; second, they represent what Wilfred Bion called beta elements, or external sensory stimuli that assail the brain and must be processed, through alpha function, in order to become normal thoughts, or alpha elements (see here for more on Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts). Carol rejects these excitations as intolerable intrusions into her mental life, and so the accumulated beta elements form a beta screen, as symbolized by the walls.

This constant rejecting of Knowledge, of new experience (beta elements, Bion’s K), this building up of walls around herself (the beta screen), is–needless to say–unhealthy. For as I’ve discussed elsewhere, there is a dialectical unity of self and other. Just as Carol is rejecting other people, so is she ejecting–splitting off–parts of herself.

Bion wrote (<<pages 47-48 here) of how the constant ejection of beta elements, building a beta screen from them, and the splitting-off of parts of one’s own personality–the bad internal objects–leads to the creation of bizarre objects, hallucinatory projections of those split-off parts of the self.

Whenever Carol hallucinates of cracks in the walls, of men suddenly appearing in her apartment, of men raping her, and of men’s groping hands coming out of the walls and grabbing her, these are all examples of her bizarre objects. These hallucinations are manifestations of what Fairbairn called the return of bad objects (<<<see Part 5). On the first occasion of her hallucinating of a man’s presence in her apartment, it’s in the mirror reflection, a clear sign of a bizarre object projected from inside her.

Colin seems like a nice enough man; there’s nothing in his manner to suggest that his interest in Carol is merely lecherous. His two teasing male friends in the local pub note that he must be in love. What is it about Carol that could possibly make Colin fall in love with her, apart from her beauty? There are many other beauties the handsome young man could fall for…why this icy cold, rejecting androphobe? Could he be sensing her inner pain? Could he be empathizing with her, even without knowing what’s happened to her (i.e., the presumed child sexual abuse)? Does her pain make her all the more beautiful to him?

Even inside her apartment, she doesn’t feel safe. A woman speaks abusively to her on the telephone, driving her to cut the landline cord with the straight razor. Indeed, that razor will give her a special power, making her a kind of phallic woman, as we’ll see below.

Colin, unable to bear her rejections anymore, goes to her apartment and rings the doorbell. She gasps audibly at the thought of him entering; he, now knowing someone’s at home but won’t open the door, rams into it and breaks it open. It doesn’t matter that he’s really a nice guy; it doesn’t matter how many times he says he’s sorry. His breaking open the door and entering the room, where those cracked walls are–those torn vaginal walls–is a symbolic rape, triggering her traumas.

With an old lady neighbour outside, watching them from down the hall like a personified superego, neither of them can do much. His closing the door is like a disregarding of the morality of the superego; this allows Carol, holding a phallic candlestick, to sneak up behind him and club him to death with it.

She disposes of his body in a bathtub that she’s previously filled to the brim with water, having absent-mindedly left it (the full tub is a symbolic yoni filled with symbolic semen she’s neglected for what by now should be obvious reasons); then she barricades the door in an attempt to keep more potential rapists (real and imagined) out, to keep out those agitating beta elements.

At various points during the film, she looks out the window and sees either nuns in a convent tossing a ball about, or she sees a trio of elderly male buskers walking on the sidewalk together and playing music. Her noting these harmless, male- or female-only groups seems to suggest her preferred way for society to be: a peaceful sexual apartheid, a Herland for women, and a Himland for men.

Because Helen has been late with the rent, the landlord (Patrick Wymark) has been a nag about it. He rings the doorbell and has to fight his way past Carol’s barricade to get in. This forcible entry is another symbolic rape. Add to this the fact that the building is his private property, and as I’ve said above, the walls of her apartment are symbolically her vaginal walls, we can see what a threatening presence he is to her, as the man with all the power, intruding on her private world, her ‘privates.’

He is shocked at the mess he sees in her place, which is legally his place. The uncooked rabbit, that symbolic rape victim, arouses his disgust in particular, though not his empathy. He’s happy to get the rent at last, but he’d be willing to forget about it in exchange for a sexual favour from the pretty girl.

He’s chosen the wrong woman to make moves on. She has that phallic razor hidden in her hand; and while he’d like to give her a phallic entry, she ends up doing a phallic entry (symbolically speaking) on him, by first cutting the back of his neck with the razor, then slashing at him, over and over again, until she’s killed him.

Bion’s theory of containment, normally applied either to the soothing of a baby or the treatment of a psychotic, can also have a negative version, allied to K (Bion, pages 95-99), the refusal to grow in Knowledge through human relationships, as is happening with Carol, leading not to soothing or a therapeutic cure, but instead to a nameless dread. Bion used the feminine symbol for the container and a masculine one for the contained, implying, respectively, yonic and phallic symbolism.

This sexual symbolism for the negative container/contained relationship is perfectly expressed in Carol’s PTSD reaction to having been raped. The trauma of her agitating beta elements must be ejected, especially when a man is trying to have his way with her, a man who–as her landlord–has all the more power over her. It’s only natural that she’d want ‘to rape him back,’ so to speak, by digging that phallic blade into his skin, making ‘yonic’ wounds in it. She wants to reverse the negative container/contained relationship and make a man feel a pain men have made women feel over the millennia.

(In this connection, it’s ironic that one of the creators of this story, presumably made sensitive to women’s victimization, would twelve years after making this film be charged with sexually assaulting a minor in the US; he then left the country and has never returned, out of a fear of facing deportation and imprisonment, for having plea bargained with an admission of statutory rape.)

Carol’s lashing out at and killing Colin and the landlord, of course, has given her no catharsis, for her bad internal object (her presumed rapist father) remains, haunting her mind like a ghost. Her continued hallucinations of hands grabbing at her from walls, and of men raping her, are the PTSD reliving of her trauma, a pain that, outside of psychotherapy, will never go away.

In her psychotic state, Carol acts in ways that, apart from their absurdity, would seem to be feminist parodies of a wife’s household duties. She is seen ‘ironing’ a shirt, but the cord isn’t plugged in, a Freudian parapraxis suggesting an unconscious defiance of the traditional roles of the patriarchal family. Soon after, she puts on lipstick, but sloppily, and then she just goes to bed, rather than going out and being sociable; again, this implies an unconscious refusal to be pretty for men’s pleasure.

Earlier in the film, Michael has noted that something’s wrong with her, and he tells Helen that Carol should see a doctor. Helen, averse to the social stigma of mental illness being associated with her family, is offended at Michael’s suggestion. When the couple return to her flat, and she sees the state that Carol has left the place in (not to mention the two bodies), hyperventilating Helen must now realize that she should have listened to her boyfriend.

Trauma must be confronted; it cannot be remedied through the usual defence mechanisms of repression or splitting. When repressed, trauma resurfaces in new and unrecognized forms; for Carol, the trauma of having been raped by, presumably, her father, resurfaces as a general androphobia. When bad internalized objects are split off and projected outwards, they can return as bizarre objects, as we see in Carol’s hallucinations of rapists and groping hands.

We don’t heal trauma by trying to erase it from our minds; we heal it by facing it, by feeling it, then telling the inner child in us that what happened to us was not our fault. It was the fault of the perpetrator…100% his fault.

Whenever anyone–Carol’s boss, for example–asks her what’s wrong, she cannot put her trauma into words. All she can do is sit and stare, as she does when a little girl in that old family photo, her staring at her presumed rapist father. It was all his fault…yet she cannot come out and just say it, when talking about her trauma is crucial to curing it. She can only relive it in her mind, and feel repulsion at any male reminder of what happened to her.

Analysis of “Él”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus begins Gloria’s victimization.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of “Joker”

I: Introduction

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

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

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

II: Quotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III: Mirrors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV: Opposites Attract

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V: Comparisons With Other Films

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

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

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

VI: The Love Gun

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

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

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

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

VII: Thomas Wayne

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

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

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

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

VIII: Mommy and Daddy Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IX: Trauma Leads to Madness

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

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

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

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

He’s had a bad day.

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

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

X: Metamorphosis

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

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

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

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

XI: When Homicide Is Suicide

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

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

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

XII: Destructive or Constructive Revolution?

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

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

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

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

XIII: Bruce Completes Arthur

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

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

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

Arthur=Joe=Jack=Joker=Bruce=Batman

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

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

Nah.

You wouldn’t get it.

Analysis of “Midsommar”

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

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

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

Here are some quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**********

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

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

**********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Projection and Gaslighting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of “Punch-Drunk Love”

Punch-Drunk Love is a 2002 romantic black comedy written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. It stars Adam Sandler, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Emily Watson. It features the delightfully idiosyncratic music of Jon Brion and the bright, colourful, abstract visual sequences of artist Jeremy Blake. It is Mark Kermode‘s favourite Anderson film.

Barry Egan (Sandler, in an actually superb performance) is a lonely man with social anxiety and anger issues who becomes a victim of a phone sex extortion racket headed by Dean Trumbell (Hoffman); then he falls in love with Lena Leonard (Watson), who gives him a strength and courage he’s never had before, and he fights back against the extortionists.

Here are some quotes:

Barry: You’re a bad person. You have no right taking people’s confidence in your service. You understand me, sir? You’re sick!

Dean Trumbell: No no, SHUT UP! SHUT THE FUCK UP![Simultaneously]

Barry: You have no right to take people’s trust. [Simultaneously]

Dean TrumbellSHUT UP! Will You- SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT, SHUT, SHUT, SHUT, SHUT UP! SHUT UP! Now! Are you threatening me, dick?!

Barry: Why don’t you–? You go fuck yourself!

**********

“I didn’t do anything. I’m a nice man. I mind my own business. So you tell me that’s that before I beat the Hell from you.” –Barry, to Dean

“I have so much strength inside of me. You have no idea. I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine. I would say “That’s that”, Mattress Man.” –Barry, to Dean

**********

Dean Trumbell: NOW GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE, PERVERT!

Barry: DIDN’T I WARN YOU?!

Dean Trumbell: That’s that.

**********

“Lena. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I left you at the hospital. I called a phone-sex line… I called a phone-sex line before I met you, and four blond brothers came after me and they hurt you, and I’m sorry. Then I had to leave again because I wanted to make sure you never got hurt again. And, and I have a lot of puddings, and in six to eight weeks it can be redeemed. So if you could just give me that much time, I think I can get enough mileage to go with you wherever you go if you have to travel for your work. Because I don’t ever want to be anywhere without you. So could you just let me redeem the mileage?” –Barry

“So, here we go.” –Lena, to Barry [last line]

Barry owns a small business selling such novelty items as themed toilet plungers. At the beginning of the film, he’s all alone in his office talking on the telephone with someone working for Healthy Choice about a frequent flyer promotion; later that morning, we’ll see him talking with a client on the phone. (Remember landlines? This film uses phone calls as a recurring motif; it’s a symbol of social alienation, since people communicate this way, but they’re far away from each other–they’re connected, yet they aren’t.)

After his chat with the Healthy Choice guy, Barry steps outside, sees a dramatic car crash (the vehicle smashing and rolling over on the street), then another vehicle is driven to the sidewalk by his place of business, and a harmonium is dropped off there. He takes the instrument into his office, and from time to time we will see him play single-note melodies on it.

The harmonium, a pump organ, vaguely makes one think of a church organ. Since the nervous man’s playing of the instrument in his quiet solitude gives him some peace, we can see its having been given to him as an act of divine grace, which leads me to my next point.

We can see the arrival of Lena into his life, her deliberate leaving of her car with him by his place of business as an excuse to meet him, as also being an act of divine grace, for her love of him saves him from his social anxiety and loneliness, and gives him the strength to fight back against his persecutors. She is thus a kind of female Christ.

Among his persecutors are his seven bitchy sisters. They bully, insult, and emotionally abuse him at every opportunity they are given. When he can’t take it anymore and blows up, they pretend that his problems are exclusively his, and that they share no responsibility at all in provoking him.

I know from personal experience what Barry Egan is going through. An emotionally abusive family, typically headed by one or two parents with narcissistic or other Cluster B personality traits, tend to have golden children (Egan’s sisters, it would seem), invisible children, and scapegoats (Egan himself). The narcissistic parents either connive at or encourage the bullying of the scapegoat, using his or her faults as an excuse to justify the bullying.

The bullying can come in the form of mobbing or in slight digs at the victim, repeated over and over again. This is what Barry’s sisters do to him: swearing at him needlessly; mocking him for saying a perfectly normal word like “chat”; calling him “Gay Boy”; nagging him about and pressuring him into attending a birthday party of one of their sisters; and calling him a “fucking retard” when he finally blows up and breaks windows at the party.

Putting up with sibling bullies is like experiencing Chinese water torture. Each insult, each put-down, each criticism, every one bit of nagging all by itself can be endured; but put them all together, one after the other in rapid succession…drip, drip, drip…and one can’t help but go crazy sooner or later.

This kind of suffering is what Barry has had to endure from his non-empathic sisters; and when he reacts, they pretend to be surprised, when it should be obvious to them that their non-stop provocations are setting off an emotional ticking time bomb.

Barry knows he needs help. He asks Walter the dentist (a husband of one of his sisters, he’s played by Robert Smigel) if he knows any psychotherapists–that’s how desperate Barry is. That his sisters would know about his asking for psychiatric help, and about his breaking down and crying in front of the dentist–these are just more reasons for them to criticize him, instead of showing him some compassion.

He wants to escape. He learns of a promotion to gain thousands of frequent flyer miles if he buys enough pudding from Healthy Choice foods (This is a plot point inspired by David Phillips.). Flying in airplanes…flying in the sky…being in heaven…

This wish to be up in the sky, symbolic of heaven, dovetails with the ‘church’ harmonium and the entrance of Lena into his life. These three strands are full of Christian symbolism, that divine grace Barry has been craving, to have someone take him out of his world of suffering and give him peace and salvation. Lena’s love will give him the strength to go on living.

You see, it is she who approaches him, not the other way around, as is done with traditional sex roles. Thus she is a refreshing feminist change from the usual social requirement that the male always make the first moves.

Also, her approaching him, rather than vice versa, can be seen to symbolize divine grace in that she, as representative of Christ, is coming to him, who is representative of the sinner, rather than the repentant sinner searching for God. Similarly, the harmonium, symbolic of a church organ, is dropped off before him, as if it were a free gift. And the offer of frequent flyer miles, acquired through the buying of packages of cheap pudding, is rather like a free ticket to heaven.

Now, Barry is a sinner…of sorts. Besides his explosive temper tantrums, he has also made use of a phone sex service, though he doesn’t have any lustful thoughts at all as he chats with the lasciviously-tongued woman on the other end of the phone.

As of the phone-sex chat, he hasn’t yet dated and fallen in love with Lena, so he’s using the chat not for prurient purposes, but just to relieve his loneliness. As WRD Fairbairn pointed out, we all are object-seeking in our libido–not seeking of sex objects, not satisfying libido through pleasure-seeking (which Fairbairn considered a failure of object-relationships), but objects as in people with whom to have relationships, friendships, and love. No, just because Barry has called up a phone sex line, it doesn’t make him the “pervert” his four assailants and Dean Trumbell (Hoffman) call him.

Again, his chatting with Anna, the phone-sex girl, is another instance of his alienation, for he wishes to connect with someone (ostensibly in a sexual manner), but without seeing the person face to face; this represents the conflict between wanting to have object relationships and wanting to be separated from people. Hence, the film’s recurring telephone call motif.

Barry is terrified of meeting Lena and of the two of them getting to know each other, because his personality has been so split apart. Having a relationship with her would be what Fairbairn, in the endo-psychic structure he devised to replace Freud‘s id/ego/superego, called the Central Ego (Fairbairn’s replacement of Freud’s ego…Barry in the film) connected with the Ideal Object (Lena).

Instead, Barry’s Libidinal Ego (Fairbairn’s replacement of Freud’s id) tries to connect with the Exciting Object (Anna, the phone-sex girl), and his Anti-libidinal Ego (a bit like Freud’s superego) has to endure the Rejecting Object (his sisters, Dean, and Anna’s four thuggish brothers, who attack and rob Barry). Lena is his cure, his salvation, the one who will help him re-integrate his fragmented self.

Let’s consider her name. Lena has various meanings: “light,” “sunlight,” “moonlight,” “generous,” “kind,” “she who allures,” etc. It is interesting in this connection to remember Jeremy Blake’s video art sequences, with their colourful brightness, their images suggesting, if not explicitly evoking, sunlit horizons of dusk or dawn, starry moonlit nights, rainbows, etc. Lena is the light; she is the way, the truth, and the life, for Barry. Accordingly, Lena often appears surrounded in bright light, and she is typically associated in various ways with light.

Her surname Leonard means “lion’s strength.” She as a female Christ can be related to C.S. Lewis‘s Aslan, the Lion of Judah. She saves Barry and gives him his strength.

Now, when I say she saves him as a female Christ, I don’t mean that she saves him so much in the orthodox Christian sense of her ‘dying for Barry’s sins.’ (Only that scene in which the four brothers smash into Barry’s car, and she has blood dripping from her head–suggestive of Christ’s blood from the crown of thorns–associates her with the orthodox Christ.) I’d say that Lena is more of a Gnostic Christ, saving Barry by giving him gnosis, or a knowledge of his inner divine spark. With this enlightenment, he gains the strength to face his bullies.

He knows her by getting to know her during their dinner date. He knows her in the Biblical sense in her hotel room in Hawaii, their island paradise…the heaven he’s flown to on his first-ever airplane flight. And he knows her in Wilfred Bion‘s sense of gaining knowledge (K) through interpersonal communication, a soothing of his anxieties by her containing of them, etc. (Click here for more information on Bion’s and other psychoanalytical concepts.)

Recall this exchange of lines when they are on the bed in the hotel:

Barry: I’m lookin’ at your face and I just wanna smash it. I just wanna fuckin’ smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it. You’re so pretty.

Lena: I want to chew your face, and I want to scoop out your eyes and I want to eat them and chew them and suck on them.

[pause]

Barry: OK. This is funny. This is nice.

He expresses his love for her with, bizarrely, aggressive and violent language. She speaks of her love for him in a similarly graphic way, though not quite as extreme in its violence. This is her containing his inner rage, which he’s projected onto her, the way a baby might project its agitation onto its mother, who would then contain it and return it to the baby in a tolerable form. Lena is, through her capacity for reverie, playing the role of mother, soothing his rage and returning his feelings to him–he being in the role of infant–in a pacified form.

This kind of soothing and acceptance is what he has needed his whole life: not to be called a “fucking retard” for getting angry, but to have his rage contained, soothed, and forgiven, like Christ forgiving us for our sins. Accordingly, Barry confesses having busted up the restaurant bathroom, apologizes, and she accepts him all the same. He later apologizes for having left her in the hospital, and for his using the phone sex service, which has led to her injury.

He says “sorry” a lot in the film. He repents; she forgives.

Her loving him as he is, with all of his faults, gives him the self-love and strength he needs to face his troubles. He thus grows in Bion’s K, or in Christ’s gnosis…whichever metaphor you prefer.

Emily Watson is a British actress, and she makes no effort to hide her accent with an American one in her portrayal of Lena; so this means that Lena is an angel of the land of the Angles, another association of her with heaven. Her job involves her often going by airplane, so she flies in heaven like an angel.

Barry has seven sisters, their nastiness to him (indicative of such things as pride and anger) associating them with the seven deadly sins, as well as the seven days of the Creation, this being a creation not by the Biblical God, but by the Demiurge, whom the Gnostic Christians deemed evil for having created the physical world, which engenders sinful desires.

Barry’s other persecutors–those four blond young men who assault and steal from him–may not be his brothers, but they are brothers all the same, so with them we can extend the association, if only symbolically, of his bullying problems with his sisters. Barry shows no sexual interest with the phone sex girl, so the brothers’ calling him a “pervert” is a projection of their own sinfulness, of lust; thus we see here more of an association of sin with siblings, his and the four brothers.

Conflict and sin among siblings is a recurring theme throughout Genesis: between Cain and Abel; between Shem and Japheth, on the one side, and Ham, who shamed their father, Noah, on the other; between Esau and Jacob; Lot’s daughters, the sisters who got him drunk, then seduced him to get them pregnant; and Joseph’s envious brothers, who had him sold into slavery. Brothers and sisters are wicked in this film, where a sinful, fleshly, Demiurge-created, Old Testament-like world can be redeemed only through the light of gnosis, of spiritual knowledge.

Elsewhere, some people have made connections between Barry and Superman, though I find their linking of the two characters to be mostly tenuous, at best. A better link with a strongman would be between Barry and Popeye, if only through the use of the song, “He Needs Me,” originally sung by Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl. Popeye needs her, just as he needs his spinach to be strong. Barry needs Lena, just as he needs to redeem his Healthy Choice products (with green on the cover designs, a colour better associated with spinach than with…Kryptonite?) to join her on airplane flights.

The only legitimate link I can find between this film and Superman is at the end, when Lena, dressed in red, stands behind seated Barry, always in that blue suit, and puts her arms around him, making herself into his ‘Superman cape.’ But even this moment must be seen in its proper context. Barry alone isn’t Superman; he is brave and strong only with her there. He needs her, as Popeye needs Olive Oyl. Furthermore, in that scene, Barry is playing the harmonium, as if playing a church hymn. He is Lena’s Church; her love for him is like Christ’s love for His Church.

Superman may need Lois Lane’s love, and he’d be heartbroken if she died, but he doesn’t need her to give him his powers. Lena, however, does give Barry his strength; this is why a comparison of her to a Gnostic Christ makes so much more sense. She, Lena the light, gives him the enlightenment, the gnosis, that he needs.

She gives him the punch he needs to face his abusers. Her love makes him drunk with joy; she is his sacramental wine, as it were, so his Church is a midway point between Gnosticism and Catholic orthodoxy. Her blood, on her head from that car collision, is his wine, pushing him, in his drunken love, to punch the first of the brothers, and beat and threaten the others.

She is the grace, with the harmonium and the frequent flyer miles (which he must redeem, as Christ redeems the faithful Christian believer), that comes to him, lifts him out of his despair, strengthens him, and saves him.

Bringing Us All Together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of “Eraserhead”

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

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

Here are some quotes:

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

Henry: Oh, I’m on vacation.

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

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

Henry: Hello. I’m Henry.

Mrs. X: Henry’s at Lappell’s factory.

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

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

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

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

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

Henry[stammering] Why?

Mrs. X: Did you?

Henry: Why are you asking me this question?

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

Henry: I’m, I’m very… I love Mary!

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

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

Mrs. X: Henry!

Henry: I’m sorry.

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

Henry: Well, I… Mary!

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

Mrs. X: Answer me!

Henry: I’m too nervous.

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

Mary X: Mom!

Mrs. X: And you’re the father.

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

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

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

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

Henry: What are you talking about?

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

Henry: Why don’t you just stay home…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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