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.

Analysis of “Dawn of the Dead”

Dawn of the Dead is a 1978 zombie film written and directed by George A. Romero. It is, in a way, a sequel of sorts to his 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead, though it has none of the original cast or setting. Instead, it stars David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, and Gaylen Ross, with Tom Savini (who also did the gory make-up effects). Music for the Italian version of the movie (Zombi) was by Goblin (named “The Goblins” in the credits), in collaboration with Dario Argento.

Zombies are swarming the urban centres, and Stephen “Flyboy” Andrews (Emge), Francine “Fran” Parker (Ross), and two men from SWAT teams (Foree and Reiniger) escape in a helicopter and use a shopping mall as a kind of sanctuary, until a biker gang led by “Blades” (Savini) breaks in and brings in more zombies.

With his first zombie film, Dawn of the Dead is considered not only one of Romero’s best films, but one of the best horror films ever made, too.

Here are some quotes:

“Every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them. It gets up and kills! The people it kills get up and kill!” –Dr. Foster

“How the hell come we stick these low-life bastards in these big-ass hotels, anyway? Shit, man! This is better than I got!” –Wooley

*********

[coming across a Zombie storage room]

Roger: Why did these people keep them here?

Peter: ‘Cause they still believe there’s respect in dying.

*********

“We’re still pretty close to Johnstown. Those rednecks are probably enjoying this whole thing.” –Stephen

*********

Francine Parker: They’re still here.

Stephen: They’re after us. They know we’re still in here.

Peter: They’re after the place. They don’t know why; they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.

Francine Parker: What the hell are they?

Peter: They’re us, that’s all, when there’s no more room in hell.

Stephen: What?

Peter: Something my granddad used to tell us. You know Macumba? Voodoo. My granddad was a priest in Trinidad. He used to tell us, “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth.”

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

[Fran and Stephen are observing from the roof of the mall]

Francine Parker: What are they doing? Why do they come here?

Stephen: Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.

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

“The normal question, the first question is always, are these cannibals? No, they are not cannibals. Cannibalism in the true sense of the word implies an intra-species activity. These creatures cannot be considered human. They prey on humans. They do not prey on each other – that’s the difference. They attack and they feed only on warm human flesh. Intelligence? Seemingly little or no reasoning power, but basic skills remain and more remembered behaviors from normal life. There are reports of these creatures using tools. But even these actions are the most primitive – the use of external articles as bludgeons and so forth. I might point out to you that even animals will adopt the basic use of tools in this manner. These creatures are nothing but pure, motorized instinct. We must not be lulled by the concept that these are our family members or our friends. They are not. They will not respond to such emotions.” [the gathered crowd starts arguing] “They must be destroyed on sight!” –Dr. Millard Rausch, scientist

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

Roger: Aww, God! Oh, Jesus Christ!

Peter: What is it?

Roger: My bag! I left my goddamn bag in the other truck!

Peter: [stops driving the truck] All right, trooper, you better screw your head on.

Roger: [hyped tone] Yeah, yeah, yeah; c’mon, c’mon c’mon, let’s go!

Peter: [grabbing him by the collar] I mean it! Now you’re not just playin’ with your life, you’re playin’ with mine! Now… are you straight?

Roger: [subdued tone] Yeah.

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

[looking at the approaching bikers]

Peter: Just three of them, huh?

Stephen: Holy shit!

Peter: They’ll get in. They’ll move the trucks.

Stephen: There’s hundreds of those creatures down there.

Peter: Come on, man, that’s a professional army. Looks like they’ve been surviving on the road all through this thing. Well, let’s not make it easy for them.

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

[about to whack a zombie in the head with a machete] “Say goodbye, creep!” –Blades

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

[Peter and Francine are flying off of the mall rooftop]

Peter: How much fuel do we have?

Francine Parker: Not much.

Peter: All right. [last lines]

People in a TV studio in Philadelphia are arguing on air over what to do about the zombie menace. (One of the workers behind the scenes is played by Romero himself.) Martial law has been declared in the city, requiring all residents to give over any killed zombies to the National Guard.

The residents of a housing project haven’t been complying with the martial law requirement to give over their dead, so SWAT teams have been sent there to get the zombies and punish the lawbreakers. The SWAT teams’ aggression reminds us of a truism from the first movie: the zombies aren’t the only mindless killers; in fact, since the housing project is full of Puerto Rican and black residents, Wooley, a member of one of the SWAT teams, imagines he has the right to hurl racial slurs at the residents while brandishing his gun.

Amid the explosion of violence, a black woman is horrified to see her man having become one of the undead. Not wanting to accept his horrible fate, she tries, in all futility, to communicate with him; his only replies are bites on her shoulder and arm, tearing off huge chunks of flesh, leaving her screaming in pain.

As we know, zombie bites turn a victim into another zombie. This process of turning the normal (who, recall, are often hardly less murderous themselves to begin with) into the undead can be seen to symbolize what Melanie Klein called projective identification, which goes beyond mere projection (imagining others to have one’s own personality traits) by actually manipulating others into embodying what one projects onto them.

Wilfred R. Bion‘s extension of projective identification is normally applied to preverbal communication between mother and infant, in which the baby–without a thinking apparatus to process the external stimuli that agitates it–projects its frustrations onto the mother, who then soothes the baby by containing its agitated reaction to the stimuli; she processes its harsh feelings, and sends a tolerable form of those feelings back to the baby. In therapy, an analyst may also play this maternal role for a patient, who is in the infant’s role.

Sometimes, however, this containment can be a negative experience, causing one’s agitation to become worse, instead of the soothing a baby gets from its mother. This aggravation of the agitation, a nameless dread, is what’s happening with the infecting bites of the zombies.

Bion used a feminine symbol for the container, thus making it into a yonic symbol; he used a masculine symbol for the contained, making it phallic. In the movie, the yonic bite wounds can be seen to represent a negative container, and the phallic zombie teeth can symbolize the negative contained. Zombie bites are a rape of the flesh, as it were. So this negative container/contained relationship, originally a preverbal form of communication between mother and infant, has now been regressed to in the zombies (i.e., a fixation at the oral stage), who have lost the ability to use language.

They cannot speak or respond to verbal communication because the trauma of being bitten by other zombies, or of being exposed to radiation, has plunged them into the fragmentary, undifferentiated world of Lacan‘s Real Order, where experience cannot be expressed in language or symbol. [Click here for more information on psychoanalytic concepts.]

The above description is the psychology behind why zombies are mindless killers who can’t communicate or connect with each other, or with anybody, for that matter. Their growing presence has resulted in a breakdown of the social order, because one cannot have communities of people who don’t relate to one another. The root cause of such breakdown is psychological trauma.

Trauma results in even greater breakdowns in society because people communicate only by killing, in the gruesome, cannibalistic form of the negative container/contained relationship described above. The urge to kill has become epidemic, and it’s not just among the zombies.

Racist SWAT team members like Wooley delight in killing Puerto Ricans and blacks; “rednecks” (as “Flyboy” Stephen calls them) in the rural areas make zombie-hunting into a sport. When one speaks of the fight-or-flight response to traumatic experiences, in these people we can see an example of the former response.

As for “Flyboy,” Francine, and SWAT team members Roger and Peter, however, we see the flight response; for at least in Peter, we see a look of reluctance on his face when he has to shoot zombies…especially if they’re children.

The four find a shopping mall, and even though it’s crawling in zombies, they decide to make it their sanctuary. The sight of zombies wandering about the inside of the mall is an amusing one; it’s an example of how Romero put social commentary in his zombie films.

Mindless zombies plodding about in a shopping mall represent how we are all too often more interested in buying things than in connecting with each other. (Recall what George Carlin once said about Americans in shopping malls.) Zombies’ only form of communication is cannibalism (in the negative container/contained form discussed above), just like how we all too often communicate only in ‘biting’ remarks. We fetishize commodities, never contemplating the sweat of workers who make the things we covet, and we snap at servers because of the slightest inconvenience.

(Dr. Millard Rausch denies that the zombies engage in cannibalism because the zombies never eat each other, but eat only ‘normal’ people. This, of course, misses the point: the message of Romero’s movies is that we ‘normal’ people aren’t fundamentally different from the zombies, in spite of appearances. Therefore, it is cannibalism when zombies eat the ‘normal.’)

This inability to communicate outside of biting (whether it’s literal biting, or it’s cutting remarks), fetishizing commodities at workers’ expense, and wanting things more than people (except in wanting people to destroy in order to aggrandize oneself)…these problems are all symptoms of alienation, which itself is the social sickness that results from the capitalist mode of production.

That the zombie menace can be related to capitalism leads us to another issue: the epidemic nature of the menace, spreading everywhere, is symbolically a global spread, and it can thus be related to the imperialism of late-stage capitalism.

Zombies kill mindlessly. “Rednecks” hunt and destroy zombies mindlessly. Racists like Wooley shoot and kill mindlessly. Similarly, soldiers in imperialist wars shoot and kill mindlessly, too, their victims often civilians.

“Flyboy,” Francine, Roger, and Peter just want to get away from all the killing and dying. Once the shopping mall is secure from zombie infiltration (e.g., the entrances have been blocked with trucks), they’ll be able to live reasonably normal lives again.

If we can associate a potentially global zombie apocalypse with imperialism, then we can associate this shopping mall oasis with the notion of socialism in one country. Any country in the world whose government refuses to comply with contemporary US/NATO global neoliberalism (such countries include Cuba, the DPRK, Venezuela, and pre-coup Bolivia) are targeted for regime change. The zombie-like opposition in those countries will wreak havoc and destruction…unless the countries (i.e., Cuba and the DPRK) have a sufficient defence.

Our four protagonists want just such a level of assured protection from external dangers, not just zombie dangers, but also disapproving humans who might find out about their set-up. When the four of them seem to have got that assured protection, they start to enjoy the use of the commodities in the shopping mall.

It may seem that their enjoyment of these things, for free, makes them as much a target of Romero’s social commentary as are the zombies, “rednecks,” and trigger-happy SWAT team members. Perhaps Romero intended it that way, but I beg to differ. The four protagonists enjoy the stuff, but not in a mindless, zombie-like way, so why not? They’ve been through hell: let them enjoy themselves. Besides, they see the commodities as use-values, the way a communist society would, not as exchange-values, as in capitalist society.

It’s only when two of them, Roger and “Flyboy,” lose their nerve and get the killer instinct themselves that they have their downfall, get bitten, and become zombies. The trauma of a close call or two happening to Roger, that is, when a zombie just about bites him before being shot in the head by Peter, spraying blood all over Roger’s face (which is like projective identification), makes him act wildly, recklessly, and forgetful of his bag (his fight-or-flight response)…hence, he gets bitten.

When “Flyboy” is on the roof with Francine, teaching her how to fly the helicopter, they’re spotted by a biker gang led by “Blades” (Savini). The violent and destructive nature of this gang shows how easily it can be associated with fascism. In fact, one of the gang members is even wearing an SS helmet.

So, the gang’s attack on the mall, removing the shield of trucks and letting all the zombies in, can be seen to represent such things as the Nazi invasion of the USSR in June, 1941, Mussolini’s fascists attacking Italian leftists in the early 1920s, and, in current events, Michel Temer and Jair Bolsonaro replacing Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, and the far right-wing coup in Bolivia…along with similar attempts made by the Venezuelan opposition, led by US puppet Juan Guaidó.

Whenever there’s a crisis in capitalism, as symbolized in this film by the social breakdown from the zombie pandemic, there can be two responses: a socialist, progressive one (symbolized by the efforts of “Flyboy,” Francine, Peter, and Roger), and a violent, destructive, fascistic one (represented by the biker gang).

That some bikers and zombies kill each other doesn’t invalidate my allegorizing: establishment capitalists and fascists fought each other, too, in WWII (i.e., Churchill vs. Hitler). The ultimate goal of both sides, however, was and is the same–the destruction of an alternative to a society of alienated, mindless killers and destroyers.

So, the zombie apocalypse, or “dawn of the dead,” is the beginning of the end: allegorically speaking, it’s late stage capitalism succumbing either to socialism or barbarism. There’s no third way–choose wisely from the only two options.

The Ouroboros of Psychoanalysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here is where the Oedipus complex fits in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glossary of Psychoanalytic Terms

Introductory Remarks

Whenever I write up something here and I make reference to psychoanalytic terminology, I find myself hitting a wall, so to speak. Many of these concepts are obscure and not well-known to the public, and so I have to explain what they mean…every time I use them, and that meticulous repetition can be tedious.

To explain the terms, I typically add links to various online sources: Wikipedia, Encyclopedia.com–the Free Encyclopedia, etc. The problem with these sources is, what is said in the articles for each psychoanalytic concept is so convoluted, so verbose, and in so roundabout a way, that I feel my readers must be all the more frustrated…as am I.

So I’ve decided, in this blog post, to explain all those concepts myself, in as accessible and down-to-earth a language as I can make it. In future posts, whenever I find myself using a lot of these terms, I’ll add a link to this post, so my readers can have quick and easy explanations of these often abstruse ideas.

When it comes to classical Freudian psychoanalysis, my readers can go here for all the basic concepts, like free association, dream interpretation, parapraxis, the stages of psychosexual development, the id, ego, and superego, the life and death drives, etc. It’s all explained there.

There is much, however, that came after Freud, and it isn’t all that well known to the general public; so I’ll have to go over each concept, one by one, here. I hope this helps.

Glossary

Alpha elements are thoughts, emotional experiences, feelings, etc., that have been processed and converted from beta elements (see below). Alpha elements exist in a form acceptable to the mind, unlike beta elements, and can be used in dreams, waking thoughts, etc. Wilfred Bion devised these terms (see entry below).

Alpha function is what is used to convert unacceptable and unpleasant beta elements into alpha elements. Since a baby doesn’t yet have the developed mental apparatus for doing this converting and processing of agitating external stimuli (beta elements), its mother, usually and traditionally, will do this converting for it until the child can do the alpha function for itself. Again, this concept comes from Wilfred Bion.

Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object–Originally called the “internal saboteur,” this part of WRD Fairbairn’s endopsychic structure corresponds vaguely with Freud’s harsh, judgemental superego. Put in other terms, it can be called the “anti-wanting-I” (as Lavinia Gomez calls it, p. 63), and it refers to that part of the personality that rejects people (this subsidiary ego is connected with what Fairbairn called the Rejecting Object); it is angry, and it doesn’t want relationships. It’s “anti-libidinal,” because for Fairbairn, libido isn’t about seeking pleasure simply to satisfy drives and neutralize psychological tension, as it was for Freud; instead, Fairbairnian libido is about seeking relationships with other people (objects–see below), in friendship and love.

Attacks on linking occur when the normal building up of knowledge through object relations (i.e., links with other people) is stifled by an unwillingness to link, to learn. Wilfred Bion was concerned with the development of knowledge (what he called the K link, see below) through a sharing and trading, back and forth, of emotional experiences in the form of projective identification (see below), especially between mother and baby.

Through this process of sharing feelings, external stimuli (beta elements–see below) are transformed by alpha function into alpha elements (see above), which can now be used as thoughts to learn by and remember. Originally, a mother does this sharing with her baby, to help it build up a thinking apparatus so it later can do the thought processing for itself.

However, sometimes traumatic experiences, personal biases, prejudices, etc., can close one’s mind to new experiences, and this impedes the ability to do linking, hence “attacks on linking.” Taken to an extreme, these attacks on linking, through -K (a refusal to know–see below) can lead to psychosis, as Bion observed.

Beta elements are external stimuli that haven’t yet been processed into thoughts, or alpha elements (see above). If they are too upsetting to the receiver, as they pretty much always are for a baby, they are ejected and passed on psychically to other people, if possible, through projective identification (see below).

This is why the mother is so crucial to a baby, who isn’t yet capable of processing these agitating stimulations; she becomes a container (see below) for the baby’s beta elements, and for all the baby’s anxieties, fears, and frustration that stem from its inability to process the beta elements. She does alpha function (see above) for the baby through a process called maternal reverie (see below), transforming the upsetting emotional experiences into acceptable ones (alpha elements), and returns them to the baby, soothing and pacifying it.

I imagine beta elements with the metaphor of insects: mosquitoes, ants, horseflies, cockroaches, etc., that come at us, stinging or biting us, or crawling up and down our skin, irritating us. When either our mother uses alpha function for us as babies, or when we learn to do it for ourselves, the ‘insects’ vanish–they have become alpha elements, thoughts we can now deal with and use for learning and growing.

A beta screen is built up when there are excesses of unprocessed beta elements that have been ejected because the receiver of them finds them too troubling or traumatizing to deal with. Perhaps one cannot rid oneself of them by giving them to other people through projective identification (see below). In any case, too much of a beta screen can lead to psychosis, and to bizarre objects (see below), which are hallucinatory projections of one’s inner psychotic state.

Wilfred R. Bion was a British psychoanalyst born in India. Having dealt with psychotics for many years of his career, and having been a member of the object relations school (he was a follower specifically of Melanie Klein, whose notion of projective identification he developed considerably), Bion was concerned with the development of knowledge (K, see below) as conceived as a link between the subject (oneself) and objects (other people, or internalized representations of them in the subject’s mind–see below).

He developed a theory of thinking that originates with what he called “thoughts without a thinker,” and which grows over time, through projective identification (see below) with one’s mother until one can process one’s own thoughts through alpha function (see above) and thus be one’s own thinker of them, unlike a baby…or a psychotic, for that matter.

The bipolar self is a concept devised by Heinz Kohut (see below) for explaining how people can have a healthy, stable sense of self. He discussed it in his book, The Restoration of the Self. The two poles giving this stability are the idealized parental imago (see below) and the grandiose self (see below). If one pole is compromised, a person will rely heavily on the other pole. If both poles are compromised, though, one may develop pathological levels of narcissism as a defence against fragmentation (see below).

Bizarre Objects are what Bion called hallucinatory projections of fragments of a psychotic’s personality. When beta elements (see above) aren’t being processed and converted into alpha elements (see above) useful for thought, an accumulation of them creates a beta screen (see above), blocking out new experience and inhibiting the growth of knowledge (K-see below).

The psychotic’s personality fragments and splits off hated parts of himself, then he attempts to project those pieces outward. In his hallucinatory state, he begins to imagine that those split-off parts of himself have engulfed the objects surrounding him, for example, a phonograph.

As Bion describes it with a few examples here (page 48), if the split-off projection is preoccupied with seeing, the psychotic thinks the phonograph is watching him; if the projected fragment is preoccupied with hearing, the phonograph seems to be listening to him as much as he hears its recorded music. The phonograph is a bizarre object.

The central ego, linked to the ideal object, is one of the three subject/object configurations of WRD Fairbairn’s endopsychic structure. This configuration corresponds roughly to Freud’s notion of the ego.

In a healthy person, the central ego is predominant, because the ideal object represents real people in the external world with whom we should have relationships, as opposed to the fantasied relations that the two split-off, subsidiary egos and their corresponding objects (libidinal ego/exciting object–see below, and anti-libidinal ego/rejecting object–see above) have. As with Freud’s ego, Fairbairn’s central ego is connected with reality.

For Fairbairn, libidinal need is object-need (i.e., the need to form relationships with other people, as opposed to the superficial, empty pleasure-seeking found in Freud’s id and represented in Fairbairn’s libidinal ego/exciting object), so the “ideal object” is a real person to be friends with or to fall in love with.

The capacity for concern is DW Winnicott’s term for when an infant comes to an ambivalent understanding of its parents’ combined goodness and badness. It learns that there is a difference between “me” (the infant) and “not-me” (its mother), who has a life and needs of her own; so it must learn to be responsible. The term “capacity for concern” is Winnicott’s rough equivalent to Melanie Klein’s notion of the depressive position (see below), when a child repents of his or her hostile feelings towards the bad mother/father and seeks reparation (see below) with his or her parents.

A contact barrier is formed between the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind as a result of healthy alpha function (see above). Alpha elements (see above), or processed thoughts made from external stimuli (beta elements–see above), can cross the contact barrier and be used in dreams or in waking thoughts.

When alpha function is impaired, and beta elements are ejected rather than processed for thought, instead of constructing a contact barrier, what ends up being constructed is a beta screen (see above), which–taken to extremes–can lead to psychosis and the projection to bizarre objects (see above). This is another of Wilfred Bion’s concepts.

Container/contained, represented by the feminine Venus symbol and the masculine Mars symbol respectively (therefore making them yonic and phallic symbols), is Bion’s extension of Melanie Klein’s concept of projective identification (see below). It is applied mainly to either the relationship between the mother (container) and infant’s agitation (contained), or to that of the therapist (container) and the patient (contained).

This relationship is how the K link (see below) develops. A baby is assailed with beta elements (see above), and its mother must use alpha function (see above) to process the beta elements and convert them into thoughts, or into an emotional experience the baby can tolerate (alpha elements–see above), because the baby hasn’t yet developed the thinking apparatus needed to deal with agitating external stimuli. A baby therefore needs its mother to do its thinking for it.

Hence, the mother is a container of the baby’s projected agitation, fears, anxieties, anger, frustration, etc. (the contained). Through maternal reverie (see below), the mother soothes her baby and transforms its irritation into something it will find emotionally acceptable. The baby projects its stressful feelings, which result from external excitations (beta elements) it can’t understand or deal with; Mother introjects and contains those feelings, then transforms them into feelings the baby can handle; and finally, she sends these tolerable versions of the feelings back to the baby.

The depressive position is one of Melanie Klein’s concepts. It’s a mental state that comes into being after the splitting (see below) into absolute good and absolute bad of the paranoid-schizoid position (see below). During the first few months of life, a baby is content when the mother’s breast presents itself for feeding. This part-object is called the “good breast”; but when the breast doesn’t present itself to the baby when it wishes to feed, it’s the “bad breast.”

In its frustration over the unavailability of the “bad breast,” the baby engages in sadistic phantasy (see below), vengefully wanting to bite, devour, and destroy the breast. The baby doesn’t yet understand that the available, satisfying “good breast” and the unavailable, frustrating “bad breast” are both part of the same, good and bad mother. These breasts are perceived as separate, black-and-white opposite, part-objects. This splitting is the “schizoid” part of the paranoid-schizoid position.

Later, after much hate has been given by the baby to the “bad breast,” it begins to realize that the mother is one whole object, with both good and bad breasts–or more accurately, with both good and bad aspects in the same person. The baby now feels guilt and remorse for its former hate, and it fears retaliation from the “bad mother” (this being the “paranoid” part of the paranoid-schizoid position), but more importantly, it fears losing the “good mother,” who is now seen as connected with the bad. The baby now enters the depressive position, feels ambivalence towards good and bad Mother, and seeks reparation (see below) with her. Integration of the good and bad aspects of Mother, Father, or anyone, leads to mental health.

Envy, in the Kleinian sense, is something a baby feels towards its mother. It wishes, through unconscious phantasy (see below), to spoil all goodness within her. Wilfred Bion elaborated on Kleinian envy when he discussed why -K (see below), a stubborn refusal to grow in knowledge, should exist (Bion, page 96), as summarized below.

The infant splits off and projects fear into the breast with envy and hate. The breast in K would contain and soothe the baby’s fears through maternal reverie (see below); but in -K, the breast seems enviously to remove what’s good and valuable, and the baby’s fear grows into a nameless dread, a fear of annihilation (see below).

WRD Fairbairn was a Scottish psychoanalyst and a contributor to the object relations school. He broke away from Freud in many ways, especially with respect to drive theory as a basis for libido. For Fairbairn, people are primarily driven by an urge to have relationships with other people, so mere pleasure-seeking represents a breakdown of object-seeking libido (e.g., people turning to drugs, drinking, porn, and promiscuity, out of a failure to have real human relationships–see Fairbairn, pages 139-140).

Fairbairn accordingly replaced Freud’s id, ego, and superego with, respectively, the libidinal ego/exciting object (see below), the central ego/ideal object (see above), and the anti-libidinal ego/rejecting object (see above). Note how each of the three egos is connected with an object, since for Fairbairn, the primary goal of the subject, or self, is to link with objects (other people–see below). Failure to do so leads to either the pleasure-seeking discussed above, or to a rejecting, misanthropic attitude, or to some combination of the two.

Foreclosure, or forclusion in the original French, is Jacques Lacan’s word for the subject’s refusal to leave the dyadic, one-on-one Oedipal relationship of the Imaginary (see below) in order to enter the broader world of society’s shared signifiers, language, culture, customs, and laws as embodied in the Symbolic Order (see below). Lacan claimed that staying in this antisocial, narcissistic state can lead to psychosis.

Thus, forclusion is comparable to Bion’s notions of accumulated beta elements and the beta screen (see above), as well as -K (see below) leading to the projection of fragments of the self into bizarre objects (see above).

Fragmentation is a psychological falling-apart of the personality, a lapsing into a psychotic break with reality as a result of extreme, unprocessed trauma. Hated external stimuli (beta elements–see above) are ejected from the self; rejected parts of the self are split off and projected outwards, leaving a reduced, impoverished self that can no longer distinguish fantasy from reality.

Heinz Kohut was especially concerned with this problem and its relationship with narcissism, as is Otto Kernberg, though their approaches to the problem differed in a number of ways. Both recognized that pathological levels of narcissism are often a defence against fragmentation, generally in the form of constructing a false self, a mask to hide the true self (see below).

Good and bad breasts and/or parents are the result of splitting (see below) when an infant experiences the paranoid-schizoid position (PS–see below). A baby, during the first few months of its life, understands its mother to be only a part-object, the breast, rather than a complete person. When the baby wants milk and the breast appears, this is the “good breast.” When it doesn’t appear, it’s the “bad breast,” against which the baby feels anger, frustration, and vengeful sadism–biting the nipple, etc.

Later, when the baby realizes its mother is a whole person, having both available and unavailable breasts, it can feel ambivalence towards her coexisting good and bad aspects. It is now in the depressive position (D–see above), but it may engage in splitting again and return to PS at any time if she, or its father, behaves in frustrating or withholding ways; for one can oscillate between PS and D throughout one’s life.

A good enough mother (or father), in DW Winnicott’s use of the expression, is as good as a parent needs to be in order to provide small, tolerable levels of frustration to a child to help it learn how to adapt to the external world and do reality testing.

The grandiose self is one of the narcissistic aspects of what Heinz Kohut called the bipolar self (see above), the other pole being the idealized parental imago (see below). Both poles are necessary to form psychological stability.

A child’s grandiose self would say, “I am great, and I need you to validate that greatness for me; I am perfect, and I need you to confirm it,” or to mirror the grandiosity. When such validation is rarely or never given from parents who fail to be empathic, the child will try to compensate by over-relying on parental idealization for his needed stability. If the idealizing pole (“You, Mom and Dad, are my ideal mirrors of greatness! You are perfect, and I am a part of you!”) also fails, one may resort to pathological levels of narcissism to prevent a psychological falling-apart (see fragmentation, above).

A holding environment is what DW Winnicott recommended as a healthy environment in which a baby can grow and thrive with its mother. The idea is to create a facilitating environment that is attuned to one’s maturational needs. The idea is extrapolated from the mother/infant relationship to that of the therapist and patient. The emphasis is on empathy, imagination, and love between caregiver and infant. It can be compared, in some ways, to Bion’s theory of container/contained (see above) in both parent/infant and therapist/patient relationships.

A good enough mother (see above) facilitates the child’s transition to autonomy through the holding environment, allowing the baby to be completely unconscious of its need for a separate individual. Failure to provide holding can result in the child’s developing of a false self; successful holding results in the child’s cultivation of a true self (see below).

The idealized parental imago is Heinz Kohut’s term for one of the two narcissistic configurations of the bipolar self (see above). This pole is about idealizing one’s mother or father as a self-object (see below), and using this parent as an internalized object (see below) within the mind to give a child psychological stability. This pole would say, “You, Mom and/or Dad, are my heroes, my role models! Please, never fail me or disappoint me in embodying the perfection I see in you!” The other narcissistic configuration is the grandiose self (see above).

The idealizing transference is what Kohut used in therapy to repair a narcissistic patient’s damaged idealized parental imago (see above). The therapist (e.g., Kohut) would take on the role of the parent in this transference (see below).

Identification is the taking on of the character traits of someone else in order to emulate him or her. Typically, the term is used to refer to a child adopting his or her same-sex parent’s personality traits as part of the dissolution of the Oedipus complex. For example, a boy fearing punishment from his father (i.e., castration anxiety), because of his wish to take his mother from his rival father, results in him identifying with his father and renouncing his Oedipal desires.

The Imaginary is one of three orders that Jacques Lacan devised to describe differing mental states. The Imaginary is an early state associated with a child’s dyadic, Oedipal relationship with Mother, whose face (metaphorically, a mirror) reflects the child’s narcissism (i.e., his grandiose self–see above) back to him.

The Imaginary also involves a literal mirror reflection, in how a child establishes his ego through seeing and recognizing his reflection for the first time in the mirror stage (see below). Here, one is preoccupied with images: that of oneself in the specular image, and that of the Oedipally desired mother, who looks lovingly back at one, just like a mirror reflection.

Internalization and introjection are terms referring to the taking into the mind of external stimuli or objects, and incorporating them in one’s personality. The external elements, especially when they are one’s conception of other people (objects–see below), thus become internal objects, which live in one’s mind like ghosts haunting a house, and thus influence how one sees the world.

Jouissance, or “enjoyment” in the original French, is a term Jacques Lacan used to describe a transgressive overindulgence in pleasure, a desire that ultimately can never be fully satisfied, since one always wants a little more than can be given. Jouissance can be felt in a child’s enjoyment of his mutually reflective relationship with his Oedipally desired mother; but when Father forbids this dyadic relationship to continue as such, the boy must find replacements for her, which are never fully enough to sate his objet petit a (see below).

In jouissance, pleasure and pain are often intermingled, given the extremes to which one may go to experience something ‘beyond the pleasure principle.’ Indeed, the surfeit of pleasure felt in jouissance was something that Lacan compared to Marx’s concept of surplus value, for this is an excess of pleasure leading to pain, or what I would call passing from the biting head of the ouroboros to its dialectical opposite, the bitten tail. As the Buddhists have always understood, the fire of desire causes the fire of pain.

K/H/L links are part of Wilfred Bion’s terminology for how a subject relates to objects (see below); they refer, respectively, to knowledge, hate, and love, with knowledge being by far the most important, since Bion as a therapist was mainly concerned with how knowledge is accumulated as a means of ensuring mental health.

As Bion himself stated: “I prefer three factors I regard as intrinsic to the link between objects considered to be in relationship with each other. An emotional experience cannot be conceived of in isolation from a relationship. The basic relationships that I postulate are (1) X loves Y; (2) X hates Y; and (3) X knows Y. These links will be expressed by the signs L, H and K.” (Bion, pages 42-43)

In this formulation, X is the subject, or self, and Y is the object, typically another person. What this means is that in “x K y,” where x represents the infant and y the mother, the emotional experience between them results in the infant growing in knowledge, starting with a healthy container/contained relationship (see above) between the two, through mutual love between them (x K y, because x L y).

If the mother/infant relationship is stifled or strained, perhaps because of, or resulting in, x H y, the consequence is -K, or a rejection of knowledge, a refusal to grow and learn. For Bion, knowledge is not something one has, but is rather something one gradually accumulates through linking with others. “As I propose to use it it does not convey a sense of finality, that is to say, a meaning that x is in possession of a piece of knowledge called y but rather that x is in the state of getting to know y and y is in a state of getting to be known by x.” (Bion, page 47)

Furthermore, -L is not H: it is a lack of love. -H is not L, or liking: it’s a lack of hate (Bion, page 52). -K, a denial of knowledge and an aptitude for misunderstanding, can lead to psychosis if taken to extremes, but in other circumstances can be superior to K. Sometimes not knowing, in the form of exchanging emotional experiences through projective identification (see below) is better, if that emotional exchange is too painful to bear, as in the case of abusive relationships.

At other times, the emotional exchange between people is beneficial, even crucial, for growing in knowledge. To illustrate the point with an example from my personal life, I did most of my learning of music in relative social isolation: I would have learned and grown as a musician much better if I’d sung and played guitar in more bands.

Melanie Klein was an Austrian-British psychoanalyst and one of the founders of object relations theory. She did pioneering work with children, giving them toys and observing their playing to determine the nature of their psychological state. There was, however, controversy between her and Anna Freud over how to treat children.

Klein developed the theory behind splitting (see below) and integration, especially as observed in children, and she devised such concepts as the paranoid-schizoid position (see below), the depressive position (see above), and the good and bad breast (see above). Her work had a great influence on such later psychoanalysts as DW Winnicott and Wilfred Bion (see entries).

Heinz Kohut was an Austrian-American psychoanalyst; he conceived self psychology. His focus was on treating narcissistic patients, who, until his and Otto Kernberg‘s work with them, had been considered largely untreatable; there has, however, been controversy between him and Kernberg over how to treat narcissistic patients.

In Analysis of the Self, Kohut wrote about how to treat narcissistic patients, which involves transferences of the grandiose self (see above) and the idealized parental imago (see above). In The Restoration of the Self, Kohut wrote about what he called the bipolar self (see above). Parents, as a child’s self-objects (see below), are supposed to help the child achieve a healthy sense of self by nurturing the grandiose self through empathic mirroring, and by being role models for him or her (idealization).

If the parents, through a lack of empathy, fail as self-objects for the child, he or she is in danger of fragmentation (see above) or of developing pathological levels of narcissism. To develop healthy, restrained narcissism, a child must be let down in tolerable amounts (optimal frustration), little by little, so that he or she gradually learns that the world doesn’t revolve around him or her.

Jacques Lacan was a French psychoanalyst, one of the most influential since Freud. He is known for having incorporated into psychoanalytic theory such diverse influences as poststructuralism, Hegelian philosophy, the anthropological work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Ferdinand de Saussure‘s work in semiotics. Critics have thus accused Lacan of having an impenetrable, unreadable writing style, and of reducing almost everything to language.

His work constituted a “return to Freud,” through his emphasis on such things as the talking cure (“The unconscious is structured like a language.”), and through his metaphorical reinterpretation of the Oedipus complex. He conceived of three orders, the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real (see entries), linking them together in a Borromean Knot.

The libidinal ego, connected to the exciting object, is one of the three configurations of WRD Fairbairn’s endo-psychic structure. It corresponds roughly with Freud’s id. It is a subsidiary ego, along with the anti-libidinal ego/rejecting object configuration (see above), as against the central ego/ideal object (see above).

Because of splitting (see below) as a result of faulty object relationships, the libidinal ego seeks out connection through pleasure-seeking; thus, this split-off, subsidiary ego links with an exciting object (celebrities to idolize, porn, prostitutes, etc.) instead of seeking out relationships with people in the real world.

The manic defence has been discussed by such object relations theorists as Melanie Klein and DW Winnicott (see entries). It is a defence against feelings of guilt, sadness, and depression through pleasure-seeking and indulgence in feelings of excitement and elation (or mania).

Though it isn’t strictly a part of bipolar disorder (which used to be called manic depression), the manic defence can be seen as related to it, in the sense that one swings to, and tries to stay with, the manic pole in order to avoid suffering the depressive pole.

Manque, French for “lack” or a “want” of something, is a Lacanian term to describe the feeling of not having a desired thing, such as the feeling of a lack of existence. It can also be related to Lacan’s metaphorical interpretation of penis envy, in the sense of lacking the phallus as a signifier.

The mirror stage is what Jacques Lacan called the first time a small child sees and recognizes his or her reflection in a mirror. This milestone in a child’s development, helping him or her to establish a sense of ego, initiates him or her into the Imaginary Order (see above).

One sees oneself in the mirror, but one is not the specular image. The child sees a whole, unified image in the reflection, but he or she feels him- or herself, all awkward and clumsy, to have a fragmented body. Hence, there’s a sense of alienation from oneself, an estrangement between the ideal-I of the specular image (an ideal one strives to approximate as close as one can, throughout life) and the flawed, real person looking at the mirror reflection.

Maternal reverie is the capacity a mother has to introject her baby’s anxieties, fears, and frustrations (the baby’s contained), and to process them while soothing her baby, or to be a container for those feelings (see above). After processing the baby’s agitation, she transforms those negative feelings into ones the baby can tolerate, and sends them back to it. This process of being a thinker for her baby, done through the passing back and forth of emotional experiences with projective identification (see below), is how a baby develops an ability to do the containing, or the processing of external stimuli (beta elements–see above), and thus thinking for itself.

The mirror transference is part of Heinz Kohut’s therapy for narcissistic patients. The therapist acts as a mirror for the patient’s grandiose self, indulging his narcissism in a way that his parents failed to do when he was a child. Over time, the therapist will let the patient down little by little, in bearable amounts (optimal frustration) so that through transmuting internalization, the patient can develop a cohesive sense of self without the need of his formerly pathological levels of narcissism.

There are three forms of this transference, each involving different degrees of regression and the nature of the point of fixation. They are the merging transference (or fusion, a total immersing of the therapist into the psyche of the patient), the twin-ship/alter-ego transference (in which the therapist is felt to be like the patient–see below), and the mirror transference properly speaking (in which the therapist is felt to be in service of the patient’s needs).

Because of this whole absorption of the therapist into the patient’s identity in the merging transference, the therapist must have a considerable amount of patience and forbearance to endure this giving of himself over to indulge his patient.

A nameless dread is Bion’s term for the fears of annihilation that one may feel if overwhelmed by agitating beta elements (see above) and/or a lack of containment from one’s mother or therapist. Normally, a mother’s capacity for maternal reverie (see above) is used to soothe a baby’s anxieties by being a container for them (the contained–see above). If the baby’s agitation isn’t thus processed and sent back to it in a tolerable form, that agitation, fear, and anxiety worsen, threatening mental illness. The same danger can arise if a therapist fails to be a container of his or her patient’s unease.

The Name of the Father, or nom du père in the original French (punning on Non! du père) is a concept Jacques Lacan devised for describing how a child transitions away from the Oedipal, narcissistic, dyadic relationship with his mother in the Imaginary, and enters the Symbolic Order of society’s shared signifiers (see entries). The name, or nom, suggests the father introducing the signifiers, language, and law to his child. The non! is the father’s prohibition against his child’s desire to have Mother all to himself.

O is what Wilfred Bion called “the deep and formless infinite,” or Ultimate Reality; it’s what Western religion would call “God,” what Eastern religion might call “Brahman,” or “the Tao,” and what I would describe metaphorically as the infinite ocean. O is thus a mystical concept Bion believed is experienced only by abandoning memory, desire, and understanding. One arrives at it through intuition, a looking inwards, not through sensory experience.

Since O is the ineffable, a truth not adequately expressed in words, and because it has both blissful and, paradoxically, traumatic sides (whichever side one experiences depends on one’s openness to it and one’s spiritual maturity), it can be compared in many ways to Lacan’s Real (see below).

An object is anyone or anything in relation to the subject, or self. Usually in the context of psychoanalysis, an object is another person when related to the subject. Thus, objects can be actual people in the external world, or they are internalized representations of such people in the subject’s mind (internal objects–see above), thus subjected to such mental distortions as according to the subject’s disposition.

Object relations theory is about how the personality develops as a result of the subject’s relationship with objects (see above). The personality will take on the traits and disposition it has based on one’s relationship with one’s parents or primary caregivers when a child. So, someone with a friendly, loving disposition probably got this from loving parents, while someone with a harsh disposition probably got his attitude from harsh, abusive parents.

Object relations involves the introjection of traits from others, resulting in internalized objects of those people in one’s mind (see above). These objects live in one’s head like ghosts in a haunted house, influencing the way one thinks, feels, and experiences the world around us.

Important object relations theorists include Melanie Klein, WRD Fairbairn, DW Winnicott, John Bowlby, Wilfred Bion, Michael Balint, and Harry Guntrip.

The objet petit a is Jacques Lacan’s expression for the unattainable object-cause of desire. One strives to find it, to experience jouissance through it (see above), but one can never fully experience it to satisfaction. The petit a is “little a” in French, the a standing for autre, “other.” There is the autre of the mirrored, dyadic relationship with the mother, as well as the projection of the ego into the specular image, in the Imaginary (see above); but after the dissolution of the Oedipus complex due to the Name of the Father (see above), one replaces that autre with the Autre of society (“The unconscious is the discourse of the Other.”). The wish to find gratification of that original petit a continues, never satisfied, throughout life, in failed attempts to replace it with a transference to someone or something else.

The Oedipus complex needs to be dealt with here in a post-Freud context, because in order for it to be convincingly understood as a universal, narcissistic childhood trauma, we must go beyond the limitations of the classical Freudian concept of incestuous desire for the opposite-sex parent, and the murderous phantasies directed against the same-sex parent.

To expand the concept and show its universality, we must consider a number of its variations. First, there’s the negative Oedipus complex, which is an inverse version describing a love of the same-sex parent and a hate of the opposite-sex, rival parent. Then there’s little girls’ pre-Oedipal love of their mothers prior to the castration complex, which is supposed to make them switch to loving their fathers.

On top of all this, Melanie Klein’s description of splitting (see below) the parents into good and bad mothers and fathers (see above) complicates matters, so loving one parent and hating the other isn’t a uniform, unchanging feeling. Though the depressive position (see above) allows for reparation (see below), integration, and ambivalence for one’s parents, the bad parent’s integration with the otherwise Oedipally-desired one, and the integration of the good parent with the otherwise hated rival one, mean we must qualify all this Oedipal love and hate and give it nuance.

Finally, there’s Lacan’s metaphorical interpretation of the Oedipus complex. A child is in a dyadic, one-on-one relationship with the Oedipally-desired parent, represented here metonymically–for simplicity’s sake–as a little boy with his mother. He sits on her lap, and they look in each other’s eyes lovingly as they cuddle; he is surfeited in his jouissance (see above) with her. His narcissism is mirrored back to him in her loving eyes: this is him in the Imaginary (see above), and she is the autre, his objet petit a.

She is his idealized parental imago (see above), complementing and mirroring his grandiose self (see above), to use Heinz Kohut’s terminology. The boy lives with her as if no one else existed, like Norman Bates and his mother between the death of his father and her meeting the man who would inflame his jealousy to the point of poisoning them both with strychnine.

Speaking of men who ruin the boy’s Edenic relationship with Mommy, he soon realizes that she is in a sexual relationship with Daddy, who won’t allow him to stay in that one-on-one relationship with her. This prohibition is the Name of the Father (nom du père, or Non! du père–see above), an opposition to the boy’s narcissistic wishes, an opposition that he is too little to be able to overcome.

The threat of castration, manque (“lack“–see above), is a metaphoric one that forces the child out of the Edenic jouissance of the Imaginary and into the Symbolic Order (see below), from the autre to the Autre (other/Other–see below) of the larger social world, its language, shared signifiers, culture, customs, and laws. Here, the phallus is a signifier of what is lost in the Imaginary, and of entry into the Symbolic, all at the cost of the lost jouissance. Paradise is lost. One must now search in vain for the objet petit a in an attempt to replace the lost Oedipally-desired parent.

So the Oedipus complex, understood in this more nuanced, metaphoric sense, is a universal, narcissistic childhood trauma. One must give up that desired parent, as a mirrored extension of one’s grandiose self, in order to function in society. If one fails, or refuses, to do so, this foreclosure (see above), this refusal of the K-link (see above), can lead to mental illness, as seen in Norman Bates.

Omnipotence is an infantile mental state in which a child imagines him- or herself capable of anything through wishful thinking. He or she thinks this way before reality testing causes disillusion. As DW Winnicott explained, a good enough parent (see above) will indulge the infant’s omnipotence up to a point–i.e., a mother provides her breast quickly enough so the baby will imagine it has made the breast appear by his or her own power–then the parent will disillusion the infant little by little, in tolerable amounts, until the child can accept reality as it is.

Lacan’s notions of other and Other (autre and Autre in the original French) address how other people are experienced by the subject. The autre is another person as experienced as a mirrored reflection or extension of oneself in the Imaginary (see above). Typically, this other is the infant’s mother in the dyadic, narcissistic, one-on-one relationship.

The Other, on the other hand, indicates radical alterity. Such another person is not assimilable with the self, but is another subject in his or her own right. This sense of otherness results from the Name of the Father‘s prohibition (see above) of the child’s Oedipal indulgence, requiring the child to enter the Symbolic (see below) and accept the unconscious world of signifiers, societally-shared symbols, culture, and law. (“The unconscious is the discourse of the Other.”)

The paranoid-schizoid position (PS) is Melanie Klein’s expression for a baby’s experience of splitting (see below) its mother into good and bad breast part-objects, then a good and bad mother whole object (see above entries). When the baby is frustrated from the unavailable “bad breast,” it projects rage and sadism onto that breast (e.g., biting the nipple).

But what goes on without also goes on within, so a mother split into good and bad results in the baby’s internal world being split into good and bad, too. Furthermore, the baby fears reprisals from the mother whom it has injured in phantasy (paranoid anxiety). It also fears how its splitting may have annihilated the good mother (i.e., when she is absent for an indefinite period of time).

Several months later, the baby comes to realize that the good and bad aspects are part of the same mother, and the depressive anxiety of the depressive position (see above) drives it to seek reparation (see below) with its mother.

Phantasy (deliberately spelled this way) refers to unconscious imaginings one has in order to deal with the frustrations of the external world. One usually thinks of an infant’s violent phantasies directed against the “bad mother.”

Projective identification is Melanie Klein’s extension of regular psychological projection. With projection, one merely imagines one’s own personality traits, good or bad, to be seen in other people; but projective identification takes this idea one step further, in actually manipulating others to manifest those traits in the real world, not just in one’s imagination.

Wilfred Bion took Klein’s concept even further than that, using it to explain how a baby acquires the ability to think “thoughts [originally] without a thinker” and to process emotional experiences by trading these feelings (the contained) back and forth with its mother (the container–see above), whose capacity for maternal reverie (see above) uses alpha function (see above) to process the baby’s beta elements for it (see above) and turn them into alpha elements (see above).

Lacan’s Real is what cannot be symbolized, expressed, or processed through language (i.e., the network of differential, interrelated signifiers of the Symbolic–see below). The Real Order is undifferentiated; “it is without fissure.” The inability to process or verbalize experience in the Real is what gives it its traumatic quality. The Imaginary (see above) is a narcissistic world of reflected images (the mirror, Mother smiling back at her baby, etc.); the Symbolic is the social world of shared language, culture, custom, and law; and the Real is what one has no way of relating anything to–it’s the thing-in-itself, thoughts without a thinker, in many ways, like Bion’s O (see above).

Reparation is a Kleinian term for a baby’s reconciling with its mother (as an internalized object–see above) after realizing she encapsulates both good and bad aspects. In the paranoid-schizoid position (PS–see above), the baby split Mother into good and bad, because sometimes she was frustratingly unavailable (e.g., not providing the breast); accordingly, the baby in its rage attacked Mother in unconscious phantasy (see above). But now, through its fear of losing her as a complete internal object including both good and bad, it wants to make amends with her, as it were, in its mind.

A selected fact is what Wilfred Bion called any idea that one could use to link a patient’s ideas together in the process of psychotherapy. The patient, because of his attacks on linking (see above), has made a psychotic break with reality. In science, the notion of a selected fact, as used by Henri Poincaré, is to give coherence to a group of scattered data, and therefore to give order to the world’s complexity; whereas Bion’s use of the term is to give order and coherence to a patient’s scattered thoughts, to bring the patient from the paranoid-schizoid to the depressive position (see above).

A self-object is the self’s use of and relationship with an object (see above) for the purpose of establishing psychological stability or structure. The earliest and most basic self-objects are those an infant has with its parents, hence the idealized parental imago (see above). The analyst will be an important self-object for his or her patient in the narcissistic transference. Other possible self-objects can be one’s allegiance to a political ideology, to one’s nation, one’s admired writers, artists, etc.

Heinz Kohut coined this expression, using it as a key element in self psychology.

Splitting, or black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking, is a defence mechanism one uses to deal with the frustrating aspects of people and the external world. Splitting happens when one cannot reconcile the good and bad sides of people and things. Splitting the object also involves a splitting of the self.

Object relations theorists like Melanie Klein and WRD Fairbairn (see above entries) developed our understanding of splitting with Klein’s notion of the paranoid-schizoid position (PS–see above) and Fairbairn’s notion of splitting the Central Ego/Ideal Object (see above), resulting in two subsidiary egos, the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object, and the Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object (see above entries).

The Symbolic is one of Jacques Lacan’s three orders, along with the Imaginary and the Real (see above entries). One enters the Symbolic when the Name of the Father (see above) causes the dissolution of the Oedipus complex (see above) and its dyadic mother/infant relationship, bringing one into society and its shared symbols, language, culture, customs, and law. Engagement with the Symbolic Order is essential for mental health, freeing one from the narcissistic Imaginary Order. Failure or refusal to enter the Symbolic, what Lacan called foreclosure (see above), leads to psychosis.

Transference is the shifting of feelings from a relationship with one person (typically one from childhood, as with a parent) to one with another person (often, as in a patient with his or her therapist). These can be such feelings as love or hate. Freud found the transference useful as a crucial part of the treatment; for him, it wasn’t a resistance, but was rather the very work needed to be done.

Since transference in a therapeutic context involves the feelings the patient has for the analyst (e.g., the doctor reminding the patient of his or her Mom or Dad), countertransference refers to the analyst’s feelings about the analysand; it can give the therapist valuable insights into what the patient is trying to elicit in him or her.

A transitional object is what DW Winnicott called a comfort object (like a teddy bear, a doll, or Linus’s blanket), used to help a child make the transition–from having Mother as an extension of him- or herself–to recognizing the difference between “me” and “not-me,” to accepting that Mother cannot always be there for the child, that she and the child are separate entities. Thus, being disillusioned about not having omnipotence (see above) is bearable for the child.

The True Self and False Self are what DW Winnicott called different personality states of a healthy or unhealthy sort. For Winnicott, the False Self is a defensive façade causing one to lack the spontaneity, energy, and vitality of the True Self; accordingly, the False Self leaves one feeling dead and empty.

Elsewhere, the False Self is often used to describe the façade of excellence that a narcissist presents of himself to the world, in an attempt to impress others and thus trick the narcissist into thinking his False Self is his True Self.

The twin-ship/alter-ego transference is a narcissistic transference that Heinz Kohut used in his therapy for patients with a narcissistic personality disorder. It involves establishing a sense of similarity between the analyst and analysand, seeing the one as a “twin” or “alter ego” of the other; this likeness is without the sense of the analyst’s ego feeling engulfed and absorbed into that of the analysand, as felt in the merging transference (see mirror transference above).

Donald Woods Winnicott was a British psychoanalyst, and an important theorist in the object relations school (see above). He started as a paediatrician in the 1930s, but then came under the influence of Melanie Klein (see entry above). He helped develop such concepts of hers as the manic defence (see above), and he came up with a number of his own original ideas, such as the transitional object (see above) and transitional phenomena, the “me” vs. “not-me” relationship between an infant and its mother, and the True Self/False Self (see above).

Winnicott hosted a popular BBC radio program from the 194os to the mid-1960s, giving advice to mothers on how to raise healthy children. His concept of the “good enough mother” (see above) was a reaction against the excessive tendency he saw at the time to seek psychotherapeutic help for problem children.

Conclusion

Anyway, that’s all for now. As I learn more about psychoanalysis, I’ll make changes to this wherever I’ve said anything inaccurate. Remember that I’m no trained expert in the field; I’m just somebody who reads a lot. If anyone out there knows better about these topics and feels I could do with a better explanation here or there, pointing out my mistakes kindly in the comments will be appreciated. Thanks!

Further Reading

Melanie Klein, Love, Guilt, and Reparation and Other Works 1921-1945, The Free Press, New York, 1975

Melanie Klein, Envy and Gratitude and Other Works, 1945-1963, The Free Press, New York, 1975

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

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

D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality, Routledge Classics, New York, 1971

D.W. Winnicott, Holding and Interpretation, Grove Press, New York, 1972

Lavinia Gomez, An Introduction to Object Relations, Free Association Books, London, 1997

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

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

Heinz Kohut, The Restoration of the Self, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1977

Stephen A. Mitchell and Margaret J. Black, Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought, Basic Books, New York, 1996

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

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