“Staring at a cloud,” a New Poem by Jason Ryan Morton

My poet friend, Jason Ryan Morton, has written a new poem with the first line, “Staring at a cloud,” which I’m using as a tentative title, for practical purposes as far as distinguishing this one from my many posts on his other poems is concerned.

This one is a pleasant departure from so many of his other poems in that it is more positive and hopeful; not that there’s anything wrong with the others, of course, but I’m always in favour of variety. As usual, I’ll put his poem in italics to distinguish his writing from mine.

Staring at a cloud
I watched the sun fold
Into tiny pockets of light
Like the third eye
Of a blind man
Came the wisdom of the age
Focus on today
Relax and play
Let all the darkness slip away

Ware though my friend
Where goes the end
Peeking round the corner
Will only make you bend
But seek thyself
Find the truth
The only person who deserves your loyalty
Is you
Tis true in a way the day is born for you

Just staring at a cloud
As the sun sang a sonnet
Awaiting the moon for a kiss of purity
Today and tonight belong only to me.
The moon embraced me
Wiped the tears from my face
Tears of joy not tears of sorrow
Kissed Luna goodnight in my prayers
Awaiting another tomorrow

And now, for my analysis.

“Staring at a cloud” can be seen to represent a ruminating over past sorrows, or a grieving over trauma. Such contemplation of pain is a common theme throughout Morton’s poetry, as I’ve observed in my previous posts about it; but here, something surprising happens, and pleasantly so. He continues: “I watched the sun fold/Into tiny pockets of light.” Light has come to replace the darkness of the cloud. When grieving over trauma is completed, happiness can return.

The theme of the contrast of dark and light continues, though in a different form, when he says, “Like the third eye/Of a blind man.” The third eye, like that of Shiva, a mystical eye that gives a kind of illumination beyond that of physical sight, replaces the pitch-black, physical darkness a blind man can only see. Sometimes in our darkness and sorrow, a special kind of light and happiness arises.

The “wisdom of the age” is that of our age today, not the ages of times past; for he advises himself to “Focus on today/Relax and play”. Only in the here and now, the eternal NOW, or the Unity of Time as I described it here, can we experience true joy and happiness, then we can “Let all the darkness slip away”.

We get a few archaic expressions in the second verse, a link to the past that contrasts the first verse’s “Focus on today”. These include the use of “Ware” (an archaic form of aware), “thy,” and “Tis.” To focus on the present, one must also reconcile oneself with one’s painful past.

“Ware” makes a pun on “Where” in the following line; one is aware of what’s going on, yet unaware of such things as “the end.” There is a dialectical relationship between knowing and not knowing; to know the truth, one must accept one’s lack of knowing. Therefore, one shouldn’t go “Peeking round the corner”, which “Will only make you bend” (i.e., twist your mind and make you believe falsehoods, untruths).

Instead of trying to find knowledge from out there, one should “seek thyself” and “Find the truth”. We find the truth within, not through trying to gain the validation and approval of others. Don’t seek the light outside, which will often lead to darkness; find the light within.

The contrast of light and darkness continues with a refrain of “Just staring at a cloud/As the sun sang a sonnet,” this being my favourite line in the poem. One is reminded of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (lines 5 and 6 especially). The paradox of dark and light is given again in the switch from the sun to the moon, which he awaits “for a kiss of purity.” Again, the juxtaposition of light and dark is achieved with “Today and tonight belong only to me.”

We begin to see Morton’s leanings towards pagan mysticism and spirituality when he says, “The moon embraced me/Wiped the tears from my face.” Here, the personified moon is his goddess, even a lover, whose love causes him “Tears of joy not of sorrow,” for She has helped him heal from so much of his past pain. Therefore, in gratitude, he “Kissed Luna tonight in [his] prayers/Awaiting another tomorrow.”

I await another poem of this spiritually uplifting sort from my literary friend.

Analysis of ‘Gesang der Jünglinge’

I: Introduction

Gesang der Jünglinge (“Song of the Youths”) is a 1955-1956 electronic music piece by avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. It was realized in the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) studio in Cologne. The vocal parts were sung by then-12-year-old Josef Protschka. The piece is exactly 13 minutes, fourteen seconds long.

Ryan Simms called it “the first masterpiece of electronic music,” and Pascal Decroupet and Elena Ungeheuer called it “an opus, in the most emphatic sense of the term.” The work has influenced such musicians as the Beatles (“Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Revolution 9“; Stockhausen’s face is also seen on the Sgt. Pepper album) and Frank Zappa (check out his own electronic sound montage experimentation on We’re Only In It for the Money).

Gesang der Jünglinge is also an early example of the use of spatial effects in music; it was originally meant to be played in five-channel sound, but this was reduced to four, then mixed to mono and later to stereo for commercial recording release. Similarly, it was originally meant to have seven sections, but it was truncated to six due to time constraints.

Here is the composition (with Kontakte, from the record I bought in my late teens, introducing me to Stockhausen’s music), and here is the analysis of Gesang der Jünglinge by Samuel Andreyev, to whom I owe a huge debt for my own analysis of the work.

In 1954, Stockhausen wanted to compose a mass for electronic sounds and voices. He was hoping to have the piece played in the Cologne Cathedral, but his request for permission was refused on the grounds that having loudspeakers in a church would be inappropriate. So instead of composing the mass, Stockhausen created Gesang der Jünglinge.

II: Sound Continua and the Unity of Opposites

The three types of material used to make the electronic sounds are sine tones, impulses or “clicks” (i.e., short, staccato-like sounds), and filtered white noise. Paralleled to these electronically generated sounds are three kinds of sound made with the recorded voice of the boy soprano: vowels (corresponding with the sine tones), fricatives and sibilants (corresponding with the filtered noise), and plosives (corresponding with the impulses). Each of these goes on a continuum ranging from the purest or simplest to the most complex.

What’s particularly fascinating about Stockhausen’s meticulous manipulating of these sound continua (structured statistically) is how he managed to make seamless links between vocal and electronic sounds, as well as seamless links between, on the one hand, the electronic sounds–from sine tones to impulsions to filtered white noise–and, on the other hand, the vocal sounds–from vowels to fricatives/sibilants to plosive consonants.

Gesang der Jünglinge, therefore, demonstrates in musical form the unity between the opposing worlds of electronically generated sound and the sounds of the human voice (as recorded and manipulated in the manner of musique concrète). Added to this unity in diversity is Stockhausen’s total organization of all the other musical parameters, total serialism, which is an expansion of Arnold Schoenberg‘s twelve-tone technique (the serializing of the twelve semitones) to a formal ordering of such elements as frequencies, durations, timbres, etc. To hear such music, it might sound chaotic, but nothing could be more precisely organized; thus, through his use of total serialism, Stockhausen also achieved the paradoxical unity of “chaos” and order.

III: Catholic Mysticism

Now, a discussion of the unity of opposites as manifested in this composition can only meaningfully be approached through an acknowledging of Stockhausen’s sense of Catholic mysticism. This means addressing the text sung by young Protschka, which is derived from Song of the Three Children, verses 35-51, from the Apocrypha. In the Bible, the entire set of verses is meant to follow the Book of Daniel, chapter three, which tells the story of three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who are thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to bow to a giant, golden idol of King Nebuchadnezzar; God saves them from the flames, so they sing praises to Him.

Original text in German: 

Preiset (Jubelt) den(m) Herrn, ihr Werke alle des Hernn—
lobt ihn und über alles erhebt ihn in Ewigkeit.

Preiset den Herrn, ihr Engel des Herrn—
preiset den Herrn, ihr Himmel droben.

Preiset den Herrn, ihr Wasser alle, die über den Himmeln sind—
preiset den Herrn, ihr Scharen alle des Herrn.

Preiset den Herrn, Sonne und Mond—
preiset den Herrn, des Himmels Sterne.

Preiset den Herrn, aller Regen und Tau—
preiset den Herrn, alle Winde.

Preiset den Herrn, Feuer und Sommersglut—
preiset den Herrn, Kälte und starrer Winter.

Preiset den Herrn, Tau und des Regens Fall—
preiset den Herrn, Eis und Frost.

Preiset den Herrn, Reif und Schnee—
preiset den Herrn, Nächte und Tage.

Preiset den Herrn, Licht und Dunkel—
preiset den Herrn, Blitze und Wolken.
Original text in English: 

O all ye works of the Lord—
praise (exalt) ye the Lord above all forever.

O ye angels of the Lord, praise ye the Lord—
O ye heavens, praise ye the Lord.

O all ye waters that are above heaven, praise ye the Lord—
O all ye hosts of the Lord, praise ye the Lord.

O ye sun and moon, praise ye the Lord—
O ye stars of heaven, praise ye the Lord.

O every shower and dew, praise ye the Lord—
O all ye winds, praise ye the Lord.

O ye fire and summer’s heat, praise ye the Lord—
O ye cold and hard winter, praise ye the Lord.

O ye dew and fall of rain, praise ye the Lord—
O ye ice and frost, praise ye the Lord.

O ye hoar frost and snow, praise ye the Lord—
O ye nights and days, praise ye the Lord.

O ye light and darkness, praise ye the Lord—
O ye lightning and clouds, praise ye the Lord.

IV: Garbled Words

Now, you wouldn’t know that this text was being sung (apart from the obvious refrain, Preiset den Herrn, or “Praise the Lord,” which is heard at least once in all six sections of the piece) to hear how it’s presented in the recording, with neither the printed text in front of you nor fluency in German. These varying levels of comprehensibility vs incomprehensibility–seven, to be exact, which range from the one extreme to the other– are due to Stockhausen’s having cut up the text into such fragments as scrambled words, scrambled syllables, and even scrambled phonemes.

His clever use of such permutations of vocal sounds was the result of his study of phonetics with Werner Meyer-Eppler at the University of Bonn. The vocal sound permutations, recall, have been placed on continua paralleling analogous electronic sounds, to get that seamless sense of transition from the former kinds of sounds to the latter, and vice versa. So in the juxtaposition of fragmented words, syllables, and phonemes with these seamless transitions between vocal and electronic sounds, we have yet another instance of the unity of opposites in Gesang der Jünglinge, here a unity of brokenness and smoothness.

V: The Unity of Opposites in the Biblical Story

To explore further this idea of the unity of opposites, let’s recall the story. The three youths have angered the king by refusing to bow before his idol, so he has them thrown into the fiery furnace to be burned alive. Their faith in God, however, saves them, and so though they’re engulfed in the flames, they are completely unscathed. They emerge praising God in the manner shown in the text above.

What’s interesting about them being thrown into a fiery furnace is how the image immediately invites comparison to being thrown into hell, into the Lake of Fire (Revelation 19:20, 20:10, 20:1415, and 21:8). Damnation by faith in God, or salvation by blaspheming, as it were, the Neo-Babylonian god-king? Deliverance from the flames while sitting among them? These paradoxes of heaven in hell, and of hell in heaven, are pregnant with meaning.

Connected with these paradoxes in the story is one manifested in the vocal harmony at one point in the first section of Gesang der Jünglinge. We hear the recordings of Protschka singing a dense chord of the word Ihn (“Him,” referring to God). This chord is sustained for a while, though some of the notes fade in and out, at the end with only two left in the interval of the tritone. Stockhausen would have known that the tritone is the diabolus in musica, the “devil in music,” and he therefore at least unconsciously had Ihn, for God, represented musically this way. Is God the Devil? I’m sure he never meant to blaspheme the object of his religious devotion, but my point is that, in this moment, Stockhausen the mystic was acknowledging, if only unconsciously, more spiritual paradoxes. Like heaven in hell, it’s more of the unity of opposites.

It shouldn’t be too shocking to speak of God having both good and evil sides. After all, Isaiah 45:7 says, “I form the light and create darkness: I make peace, and I create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” We can connect this verse with the last part of the text Stockhausen uses in Gesang der Jünglinge, which says, Preiset den Herrn, Licht und Dunkel, or “Praise the Lord, light and darkness.” In the text, the three youths sing of how everything God has created should praise Him. Such elements include the light and the dark…symbolically, good and evil.

VI: Resolving the Paradoxes

We must now try to make sense of these paradoxes, to sublate the dialectical contradictions of heaven and hell, God and Satan, salvation and damnation. To do this, we must be able to imagine the mental state of the three youths as they are being taken to the fiery furnace.

They may have righteousness and conviction of their belief in God, but none of this means that they’re going into the fiery furnace with smiles on their faces and relaxed heartbeats. We mustn’t assume they’re in a state of total blissful calm. They have faith in God…but is their faith sufficient to please Him? They have no way of being sure of this, and as Paul wrote, “he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” (Romans 14:23)

There’s always some doubt, even among the most faithful. Just as all of the sounds used in Gesang der Jünglinge are on continua, so are faith and doubt on a continuum. The three youths would have feared that any doubt in their minds, however small, might have been enough to cause God to abandon them in the flames. Contemplation of such a possibility must have been terrifying to them; such terror is part of the true test of faith.

This fear would have been their hell in the flames; and yet when they realized that God wasn’t letting the fire burn them, they’d experienced heaven in the metaphorical hell of the fiery furnace. Danna Nolan Fewell said, “we hoped for deliverance from the fire; we had not expected deliverance within the fire […] God doesn’t extinguish the fire but joins them in it.” (Danna Nolan Fewell) So in this moment, we have heaven in hell, salvation in damnation, and even God in Satan’s (metaphorical) dwelling. Recall that among the trio of singing youths is a fourth “like a son of God,” suggesting an angelic presence in that hellish dwelling.

VII: Stockhausen’s Suffering

Stockhausen was inspired by these Biblical texts because he found himself identifying with the three youths. Just as they suffered and prevailed, so had he, though of course in very different ways.

WWII under the Nazi regime was difficult for young Karlheinz in many ways. His mother, having suffered from mental health issues, was deemed a “useless eater” by the Nazis, and therefore forcibly euthanized by them through Aktion T4. Later, his father, as a soldier during the war, was killed. Perhaps most traumatic of all, as a youth during WWII young Karlheinz had to do work as a stretcher bearer in Bedburg; he found himself often in close contact with cadavers!

Apart from these trying experiences in the war, Stockhausen would later have to endure negative receptions of his experimental, and therefore challenging, music. Still, he grew from all of these difficulties and became a stronger man, in his estimation, because of them. In these ways, he could be said to have gone through his own fiery furnace, and since then his faith in God grew stronger, and he sang to God, in his own way, through not only Gesang der Jünglinge but also such other mystical musical works as his gargantuan opera cycle, Licht, of which a full performance requires no less than 29 hours.

VIII: Heaven in Hell

To get back to my point about the paradox of heaven in hell, one way we can interpret the meaning, or lack thereof, in Stockhausen’s cutting up of the text into fragments of words, syllables, and phonemes is to think of the resulting extents of incomprehensibility as showing the difficulty, or impossibility, of verbalizing a traumatic experience. As I said above, even though the three youths are physically unharmed, they are still terrified by the possibility of being so harmed.

This inability to put trauma into words is part of what Lacan was talking about in his conception of the Real. The psychology of the Real is an inexpressible experience of non-differentiation. Gesang der Jünglinge achieves, by means of those sound continua I described above, a fluid sense of unity, a sense of non-differentiation between vocal and electronic sound.

Now, as I’ve written elsewhere, the non-differentiated unity that Lacan called the Real is not necessarily all hellish and traumatic. Like Wilfred Bion‘s O, this unity can be a heavenly, blissful experience, depending on one’s attitude to it. The difference lies in whether or not one is capable of, or willing to accept, a giving up of one’s ego. The three youths, as I see it, could and would give up that attachment, and so they were saved.

Still, it was a terrifying experience for them, as Stockhausen’s experiences of WWII were for him, so even though the youths are singing God’s praises through the harmonized chorus of Protschka’s angelic, overdubbed voice, the voice of a child (recall Luke 18:17), the recent terror of the fire makes articulation of those praises next to impossible, save Preiset den Herrn.

IX: Heaven and Hell in the Music

Another way to sublate the thesis (heaven) with its negation (fiery furnace as metaphorical hell) is to consider a number of ascending and descending electronic motions in the piece, as well as combinations of such ascents and descents. Samuel Andreyev, in his analysis (link above in the introduction), mentions these at around 30:00-31:08 in his video.

These ascending/descending impulse complexes can be seen to symbolize movements up to heaven or descents to hell (literal or figurative). Section A of the piece, going from 0:00 to 1:10, begins with an ascending impulse complex, a swarm-like flurry of impulsions of varying pitches, but nonetheless moving in an upward path.

At the apex of this ascension, arriving at heaven, so to speak, we hear the angelic voice of the boy soprano singing jubelt (“exalt”), the two syllables sung in a descending perfect fourth. Immediately before this word, though, we hear two soft impulsions of an ascending tritone–again, the diabolus in musica juxtaposed with an angelic exalting of God.

Next comes a chorus of overdubs of the boy’s voice, quite unintelligible except for the word alles, and interrupted twice by electronic sounds. Then we hear jubelt Ihn (“exalt Him”), the syllables sung in an ascending minor third (or is it a microtone between that interval and a major second?) and a descending minor ninth. Section A ends with that dense chord in which the sustained Ihn is sung, as discussed above: such a complex chord with notes fading in and out, and ending with a soft fadeout of the aforementioned tritone. Ihn–God, that is–is a complex, mysterious being, requiring no less than an extremely complex mass of sound to represent Him.

Early in Section B, we clearly hear Preiset den Herrn (the singing of Herrn ending with a descending tritone…that diabolus again!). We can also make out the word Scharen (“hosts”). Preiset den Herrn is soon heard again, with the same notes as before…including that tritone, and bear in mind that obvious instances of repetition are rare in Gesang der Jünglinge.

X: Juxtaposed Opposites in the Text

Though it is uncertain if the apocryphal Biblical text, on which Stockhausen’s German translation is based, was originally composed in Hebrew or Aramaic, since what exists of it is only in Greek, Syriac, or Latin translations, it does nonetheless have the hallmarks of ancient Hebrew Biblical poetry, namely, its use of parallelism (e.g., the “praise ye the Lord” refrain; also, “sun and moon” with “stars of heaven,” “O every shower and dew” with “O all ye winds”; and parallels of opposition, such as “fire and summer’s heat” with “cold and hard winter,” “dew and fall of rain” with “ice and frost,” and “nights and days” with “light and darkness”). [See also Carmi, pages 58-59.]

These oppositions are of particular interest in how they support my interpretation of Gesang der Jünglinge as a musical, mystical unifying of opposites. Sometimes, such pairings of opposites can be deemed merisms, meant to express the idea of not only the two extremes, but also everything in between. Noteworthy Biblical examples of this are in the early chapters of Genesis (e.g., “God created the heaven and earth,” meaning He created the whole universe; or “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” meaning knowledge of everything, that is, from the best to the worst). It would thus be reasonable to assume that the text’s references to extreme winter and summer weather are merisms for all the seasons of the year, from hottest to coldest; and “light and darkness” includes all the tints and shades in between–unifying continua of opposites.

These unifying continua of opposites in the text are, of course, paralleled in those in the musical structure and in those ranging back and forth between vocal and electronic sound. For this reason, it’s logical to regard the pairs of opposites in the text as merisms.

XI: The Electronic Sounds as Fire

Now, if Protschka’s superimposed vocal recordings are meant to represent the three youths, then it’s reasonable to hear the electronic sounds as symbolic of the boys’ surroundings: remember that the four speakers playing the music surround the audience, making them feel as if they are with the three youths in the fiery furnace.

These surroundings that the electronic sounds represent include the metallic casing of the furnace (i.e., some of the electronic sounds suggest the resonant ringing of voices bouncing off the metal–see 2:28-2:32 of this recording for a brief example of what I mean). The resonance of the boys’ voices inside the furnace can also be heard through the use of reverb on Protschka’s voice from time to time. And, most importantly, the electronic sounds can represent the sound of the flames.

Now, the electronic sounds don’t generally imitate the crackling sound of fire; I’d say, instead, that they simply represent it. As for those ascending and descending impulse complexes, they do tend to have a bubbling sound, suggestive of boiling liquids, and therefore associative with scalding heat.

To bring out this association more clearly, recall how, in the middle of the piece (about 6:20-6:40 in this recording), Protschka’s voice, one voice alone, sings the disjointed syllables of Kälte und starer Winter (“cold and hard winter”), with largely no electronic accompaniment at all (especially from und onwards), suggesting the loneliness and desolation of winter. No heat.

XII: On the Unity of Opposites…Again

The opposites of Sonne und Mond (“sun and moon”) are heard clearly, as are those of aller Regen und Tau (“every shower and dew”). These are the opposite lights of nights and days (Nächte und Tage, heard later; and while the moon isn’t technically a light, back in Biblical times, it would have been regarded as a “lesser light“), and of great waters above (rain) and lesser waters below (dew).

We can also clearly hear the opposites of Feuer und Sommersglut (“fire and summer’s heat”), as against the above-mentioned Kälte und starer Winter. Tau und des Regens Fall (“dew and rainfall”), as opposing Eis und Frost (“ice and frost”), are also heard clearly; melted vs frozen water. I can make out Dunkel (“darkness”) but not Licht (“light”); still, in all of these opposites generally, we have plenty of their implied unity via juxtaposition.

Now, another point should be made about this unity of opposites, be it implied or explicit. Though Christianity is generally understood to be dualistic in nature (a more moderate dualism than that of Gnosticism or especially Manichaeism, but sufficiently so in a general sense), none of this precludes the possibility, at least, of unifying these dualities while remaining essentially Christian. Stockhausen’s Catholicism could allow this without him having to make any syncretist forays into, say, Eastern mysticism. There are the dualisms of God vs Satan, good vs evil, and the spirit vs the flesh, but as George K Haggett says in his blog post on Gesang der Jünglinge, “In Catholic theology, the soul–a person’s incorporeal essence–is not as dichotomized from the body as it might be in popular imagination.”

Recall that Christ came and died in the flesh; the more radically dualistic Gnostics and Manichaeans were the ones who could not accept His having been crucified, and so they followed an alternative tradition of someone else being substituted for Him on the Cross, a tradition that even appeared in the Koran (see also note 663 in Abdullah Yusuf Ali‘s translation). Furthermore, at Mass, one takes Communion, eating the transubstantiated body of Christ.

In the concluding paragraph of Haggett’s blog post, he says, “the body and the soul are a one-ness, the more-than-integrated sacred and profane; they are sanctified flesh and blood, both breathed into life and breathing through it.” Recall that God breathed a very physical breath into Adam, and he became a living soul. (Genesis 2:7)

XIII: Conclusion: What Can This Piece Mean for a Secular Audience?

The unity of body and soul can be extended to a unity of materialist and idealist dialectics, too. This leads our discussion in a new direction: the religious, spiritual meaning of Gesang der Jünglinge has been dealt with; but is there a way this piece of music can be relevant to a secular audience? I believe there is.

Now, before I go into my secular interpretation of the piece, it should be acknowledged that Stockhausen was essentially a liberal; he was no staunch leftist by any stretch of the imagination. His controversial remarks about 9/11 may have angered conservatives, but his quip that the attacks were “the greatest work of art that exists for the whole Cosmos” was misunderstood (as a work of art of Lucifer, he meant a great evil work of art). Still, his hostility to Nazi imperialism is enough, I think, to warrant the interpretation below; for even if he himself wasn’t an anti-imperialist in his life, this piece in itself can easily be seen as such.

If we consider Nebuchadnezzar and his idol as representative of imperialism, and the ancient Judaeans in the Babylonian captivity as being oppressed under that imperialism, then the three youths’ refusal to bow before the idol is an anti-imperialist, revolutionary act, rather like any country today that refuses to bow before US/NATO imperialism (e.g., Russia, China, Venezuela, Bolivia, etc.). Remember that the idol is golden, sixty cubits tall (Daniel 3:1); as such, it is a symbol not only of the imperialist authority of a king, but also of the wealth of the ruling class, be this class the ancient slave-masters of such civilizations as the Babylonian empire, or the subsequent feudal landlords of Europe, or the capitalist class of today.

Anyone who dares challenge the authority of imperial rule, be it past or present, will be put to the test, as the three young men are, and will suffer persecution. When they are put to this test, though, they must not lose their nerve. Though the three youths are afraid, as they’re tied up and thrown into the fiery furnace, they keep their faith in God, just as the anti-imperialist of today, regardless of his or her religious beliefs (or lack of them), must keep faith in the eventual achievement of the revolutionary cause.

Just as the religious may have doubts that God will intervene and save them, so do secular-minded revolutionaries have doubts that they’ll succeed in overthrowing the ruling class. When in doubt, they should recall Rosa Luxemburg‘s words: “Before a revolution happens, it is perceived as impossible; after it happens, it is seen as having been inevitable.”

So, just as the three youths sing their praises to God while surrounded in flames that don’t touch them, so were the Russian workers and peasants in 1917 thrilled to be rid of tsarist rule, and rid of continued involvement in WWI; so were the Cubans in 1959 rejoicing over having removed that butcher Batista from power; and so were the Vietnamese joyful over having ousted the French colonialists.

Of course, just as the rejoicing three boys continue to be surrounded in flames (and the Judaeans continue to be held in Babylonia), so did the RSFSR have to fight off the capitalist White Army during the Russian Civil War; so has Cuba had to endure the cruel US economic embargo; and so did the Vietnamese have to confront the US army. Still, all three prevailed in these struggles, and while times are particularly dark for anti-imperialism now, we can listen to Gesang der Jünglinge, and the recordings of that boy’s sweet, angelic voice, for inspiration as the flames of oppression draw closer.

Analysis of ‘Rhinoceros’

Rhinoceros is a 1959 play by Eugène Ionesco, associated by Martin Esslin with the theatre of the absurd in his book on that topic. There is, however, much more to this play than just an exploration of absurdism. Other important themes in Rhinoceros include antifascism, conformity vs. individuality, mob mentality, culture and civilization vs. barbarism, logic (treated satirically), and morality.

As a young man in Romania, Ionesco found himself surrounded by people who were being seduced by fascist ideas. Though raised as an Orthodox Christian, Ionesco was part Jewish ethnically (on his mother’s side), and he was troubled by the growing antisemitism he saw everywhere leading up to WWII. Everyone in the play transforming into rhinoceroses except the protagonist, Bérenger (representing Ionesco), personifies this seductive fascist danger.

The original Broadway production in 1961 won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play, for Zero Mostel (as Jean). Joseph Anthony was nominated for Best Production of a Play, and Rhinoceros won a Special Award from the Outer Critics Circle Awards.

The play was adapted into a film in 1973, directed by Tom O’Horgan and starring Mostel as John (Jean in the play), Gene Wilder as Stanley (Bérenger), and Karen Black as Daisy. The film was poorly received, faulted by film critic Jay Cocks in Time magazine for having an “upbeat, frantic vulgarization” of Ionesco’s text; he also complained of O’Horgan having “removed not only the politics but the resonance as well.”

Here are links to the text in English translation, an English performance of the play, and the 1973 film.

Bérenger is an everyman, yet also a bit of a social misfit, among those of whom Lacan described in his dictum, “les non-dupes errent.” Bérenger, not duped into believing in illusory social convention, nonetheless errs throughout his life: he’s late for work and get-togethers with his friend, Jean; he’s slovenly, and he drinks.

Jean, on the other hand, is quite the opposite: he’s punctual–only late for his get-together with Bérenger because he knows his friend will be late, so he adjusts his time of arrival to be just before he correctly predicts Bérenger’s tardy arrival–well-dressed to the point of foppishness, and temperate with drinking. Jean is well-schooled in Lacan’s notion of le Non! du père.

Their characters thus can be seen as dialectical opposites of each other. Their doubles can be seen in the Logician and the Old Gentleman, whose dialogue often parallels that of Jean and Bérenger, respectively (PDF, page 10–see link above). Similarly, the Housewife (with her cat) can be seen to parallel pretty, desirable Daisy (with her…I beg your pardon). Just as Bérenger has a romantic interest in Daisy, so does the Old Gentleman try to be gallant with the Housewife at every opportunity.

And just as Jean’s attempts to teach Bérenger the ‘rules’ of how to behave socially–le nom du père–attempts that fail miserably to edify his uncouth friend, so do the Logician’s attempts at giving examples of syllogisms come off as laughable (PDF, page 9). Here we see Rhinoceros demonstrating the absurdity of the human condition.

What must be emphasized here is that in all of this seemingly conventional social intercourse, we have what would appear to be the sanest moment of the play. Only one rhino has appeared as of this point in the story, and so ‘rhinoceritis’ hasn’t yet taken over society. Yet the irrational conformity that the rhino takeover to come symbolizes is already apparent in these absurd discussions.

The doubling of characters suggests this conformity, as does the frequent repetition of cliché lines by different characters (“Oh, a rhinoceros!”, “Well, of all things!”, etc.–PDF pages 4-5). The integration into society, a sharing of cultural mores, customs, laws, and language, is the essence of what Lacan called the Symbolic Order, a sharing of signifiers, of what can be symbolized in language.

The Symbolic is, mentally, the healthiest order to dwell in, for it is here that one leaves the narcissistic, mirroring dyad of the Oedipal mother/son relationship of the Imaginary, leaving the one-on-one other for the Other of many people. Also, in the Symbolic one can give verbal expression to experiences, and one can differentiate aspects of the world; but because one cannot do such things in the undifferentiated chasm of the Real, this third order is so traumatizing.

So, the socially conventional world of the Symbolic is healthy, as things are, relatively speaking, at the beginning of the play. The sighting of the one rampaging rhinoceros is seen as a mere freak occurrence. The absurd discourses of the Logician and the Old Gentleman, and the repetition of dialogue already heard, are a foreshadowing of the far more absurd expression (unintelligible, trumpet-like grunts) and conformist uniformity of the rhino epidemic to come.

One of the defining features of fascism is the use of violence to achieve its ideological ends, as I’ve described elsewhere. Since the rhinos represent the growing fascist menace that Ionesco saw all around him in Romania, the killing of the Housewife’s cat by the second rhino represents, on one level, that fascist violence.

An absurd debate ensues about whether this was the same rhino as before, or if they were two rhinos, did one of them have only one horn, and the other, two horns, and was one an Asiatic rhino, and the other an African one (actually, a satire on racism)…as if such quibbling over minutiae were even relevant. Such debating is an example of the inanities of social discourse, indicating that even the Symbolic Order isn’t all that healthy.

So the not-so-healthy realm of social convention is where the rhinos have sprung from, just as the scourge of fascism grew from the more mundane class contradictions of capitalism. The rhino, with its phallic horn (or horns), kills the Housewife’s cat (symbolically, her pussy), suggesting the toxic masculinity of fascism, a connection I made elsewhere. The phallic rhino’s killing of her cat can thus be seen as a symbolic rape.

Bérenger and Jean argue about which rhino, the Asiatic or African, has one horn or two. Their arguing escalates into them angering each other and using racial slurs (i.e., Jean saying of Asians, “They’re yellow!” –PDF, page 15). Jean thus leaves his friend in a huff, not wishing to be his friend anymore. In this exchange, we see symbolically the beginning of the breaking down of social relations, a descent from the not-so-healthy to the even-less-healthy of Act Two.

With this breakdown of social relations, we see the shrinking of that Other of many people to the dyad of other, a move from the primacy of the Symbolic to that of the Imaginary. As of Act Two, Scene One, Bérenger still cares about Daisy (though I suspect it’s mostly lust), and he wants to apologize to Jean for having angered him earlier (though instead of getting a proper reconciliation between the two friends in Scene Two, Bérenger watches in horror as Jean transforms into a rhinoceros before his very eyes). Mrs. Boeuf still loves her husband, in spite of his having transformed into a rhino, though her jumping on his back and riding off with him highly presumes that she is soon to become a rhino, too.

These are the only instances of love as manifested among the characters in the play, and even these instances are dubious, as I explained above. Instead, the pervading feeling is one of alienation, a fertile breeding ground for the hatred of fascism. Much of this alienation is worker alienation, as is felt in the office scene of Act Two, Scene One. Bérenger is late for work and drinks because his job is boring and meaningless; only the sight of Daisy cheers him up. One can hardly find such a job as anything other than boring, with its drudgery and repetition.

Just as Bérenger has his way of dealing with the dullness of bourgeois life, so does Botard, a left-leaning, unionized coworker in the office. Botard refuses to believe in the existence of the rhinos until their attack on the office staircase makes disbelief no longer possible. He argues with Daisy, who has seen the rhinos, and with coworker Dudard, who cites the newspaper as evidence, something Botard dismisses with a “Pfff!” (PDF, page 19). His distrust of the media, though wrongheaded here, would be far more justified today.

What’s interesting is how leftist Botard–as much a buffoon as all of the other characters in Ionesco’s play–upon realizing the reality of the rhinos, comes to think of their presence as a plot, an act of treason (PDF, page 27). Though liberal Ionesco had as much contempt for “Stalinism” as he had horror of Nazism, and accordingly he put comically Marxian slogans into Botard’s mouth (“Just like religion–the opiate of the people!”–PDF, page 22) to express this contempt, nonetheless, fascism was…and still is…a tactic used by the capitalist class against the gains of the working class.

There were traitors in the Soviet Union in the 1930s allying with the Nazis to undermine and overthrow the first workers’ state, which necessitated Stalin’s purge. What most people don’t want to admit is that it was Stalin who wasn’t “capitulating,” and the sacrifice of 27 million Soviet Russians is what saved Europe from the fascist rhinos, not some liberal centrism. The appeasers of Hitler in Munich, encouraging him to go East to invade the USSR, were all turning rhino, and they would only oppose him when he was threatening their own imperialist interests.

The rhino’s smashing of the office staircase symbolizes more fascist violence; one might think of Krystallnacht. The office workers’ boss, Mr. Papillon, insists that they resume work as soon as possible after being taken out of the building with the help of the firemen and their ladders (PDF, page 27). To the bourgeois mind, work and the making of profits must never stop. Not even fascism, growing out of capitalism, can stop it.

In Scene Two, Bérenger goes to Jean’s apartment to apologize for having upset him. It is during this scene that Jean transforms into a rhinoceros before Bérenger. What is interesting about this scene is how Jean presented himself to be so much more the cultured, thinking man than Bérenger, yet now we see Jean retreating into barbaric animalism, and Bérenger defending human civilization.

Jean, the one who knows far better than Bérenger how to fit in with society, is now showing how his fitting in is little more than mere conformity, by going along with the current trend of joining the rhinos. Since rhinos represent fascists, Jean is demonstrating how any normal member of society can be susceptible to extremist, even despicable, attitudes merely because this is what most other people are doing.

The society of the Symbolic Other is degraded into the collective narcissism of the Imaginary other: instead of seeing Other people as entities unto themselves, one sees a collective other as an extension of one’s own ego, and oneself as an extension of that collective other. The narcissistic mirror reflects both ways.

Jean’s turning green, and his ranting about “natural laws,” reflect the ideology of the Romanian fascist Iron Guard, who upheld “natural laws” as a bulwark against what they saw as the “Jewish inventions” of the modern West’s humanist values. Similarly, the Iron Guard wore a green uniform, hence Jean’s skin turning green.

Since he and Jean are switching roles, Bérenger, as the new defender of culture, civilization, and humanistic values, is trying to discipline himself to drink less, while Jean is making more and more of those trumpet-like rhino grunts. What’s more, Bérenger tries to convince Jean to see a doctor, yet Jean muses, “Doctors invent illnesses that don’t exist.” (PDF, page 31)

The breakdown of relationships continues when Jean says, “There’s no such thing as friendship. I don’t believe in friendship,” which Bérenger finds “very hurtful” (PDF, page 31). Indeed, Jean speaks of being “misanthropic,” and liking it (PDF, page 32).

What we see here is the seductive threat of fascism, something not only small-c conservatives and right-wing libertarians can succumb to, but even liberals can. Consider the backing that such liberals as those in the Canadian government, the Democratic Party, and Hollywood liberals have given to a Ukrainian government littered with fascists, just because they don’t like Putin.

Surely this sort of thing is what Stalin meant when he said, “Social-Democracy is objectively the moderate wing of fascism.” Modern liberal democracy, more accurately called the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, puts on an affable, smiling face when all runs smoothly for the ruling class; but when the capitalists feel in any way threatened, that smile quickly turns into a fascist scowl. Put another way, people transform into rhinoceroses.

This is how we should think of Jean, who normally holds it all together so well, but who now turns into a rhino. At first, he’s against the transformations into rhinoceroses, as everyone else is at the beginning of the play. Then he grows more lenient to the idea, more ‘open-minded’ in his attitude. Finally, he transforms into one.

A similar mentality can be seen towards fascism ever since the end of WWII. First, we were horrified by Nazi victimization of the Jews (even though a considerable number of ex-Nazis were given prominent government jobs in the US and West Germany). Then, demonization of the Soviet Union during the Cold War allowed us to regard such people as right-wing nationalist Alexandr Solzhenitsyn as ‘champions of freedom.’ Then, Ukrainian neo-Nazi propaganda like the Holodomor hoax was uncritically accepted as ‘truth’; and now, NATO is backing up those very neo-Nazis in a dangerous escalation with Russia that could lead not only to WWIII, but also nuclear war. Rhinos, rhinos everywhere.

Lenience and open-mindedness can lead to one’s brain falling out.

In Act Three, Dudard visits a very distraught Bérenger in his apartment. He’s had a nightmare, and he is terrified of turning into a rhino. According to the stage directions, his apartment bears a striking resemblance to Jean’s (PDF, page 35), suggesting more doubling of characters, another variation on the play’s theme of conformity.

Yet again we have this character doubling in the form of Bérenger debating about the validity of the rhino transformations, but with Dudard this time, him now taking on Jean’s lenient and open-minded attitude. More doubling still is in Dudard’s fancying of Daisy, as Bérenger does. We sense the rivalry between the two men over her when she arrives with a basket of food, though Dudard pretends that he doesn’t wish to intrude on her get-together with Bérenger. And like Jean, Dudard will eventually become a rhino, too.

We learn over the course of the three characters’ discussions that Botard, Papillon, and the Logician have all become rhinos (PDF, page 44). It’s easy to see how their boss would transform: after all, fascism grows out of the ranks of the bourgeoisie. Left-leaning Botard’s change is a bit more puzzling, though far from inexplicable or impossible; opportunism can spread like a pestilence throughout the left (consider Trotsky‘s flirtation with Nazis in a hope to oust Stalin from power). The verbal absurdities of the Logician seem to anticipate the obscurantist, reactionary post-modernist French intellectuals, used by the CIA to lead leftists astray.

When only Bérenger and Daisy are left, and he is growing desperate, she starts showing signs that eerily remind us of the path that Jean and Dudard have just taken. She says that everyone has the right to change his mind about whether or not to turn into rhinos, even Botard (PDF, page 44). Rhinos’ grunts are heard on the telephone and on the radio (PDF, pages 49 and 50).

Bérenger wants her to help him repopulate the Earth (PDF, page 51), rather like Noah’s sons and their wives after the Flood wiped out all of humanity, but she is cool to the idea. She eventually comes to find the rhinos to be passionate; she imagines they have a language, something Bérenger scoffs at. Could the rhinos have entered the Symbolic, while he and she have left it? Indeed, she imagines it could be the remaining humans who now need saving. She imagines the rhinos to be singing. When he slaps her for sympathizing with them, it would seem that he is the barbaric one, and not the rhinos.

In her disillusionment with Bérenger and growing sympathy with the rhinoceroses, Daisy leaves him to join them, leaving him the sole remaining human. Being all alone with neither the Other of society (as radical alterity) nor the dyadic other of one person to mirror and be mirrored against (i.e., Daisy could be seen as a transference of Bérenger’s Oedipal feelings towards his mother), he has left the Symbolic and is in danger of being trapped in the traumatic, undifferentiated world of the Real (traumatic, because being surrounded by horned representations of fascism can only be thus; undifferentiated, because there’s no differentiation between all those who used to be human).

Significantly, Bérenger looks at himself in a mirror, the only place he’ll ever see a human face again. He acknowledges that he’s “not a particularly handsome specimen” (PDF, page 52). In near despair, he calls out to Daisy, begging her to come back to him. Like the crushed cat, he’s a “poor little thing,” being “left all alone in this world of monsters” (PDF, pages 52-53).

He can feel himself coming apart, in danger of psychological fragmentation, against which his only defence is the narcissistic illusion of the egoistic Imaginary. Hence, he continues to look at himself in the mirror as he talks to himself. He sees himself in the reflection, but he talks to the reflection as if it were another person. He’s lost everyone else who could act as a metaphorical mirror to himself, including Daisy, his love, his ‘other self,’ as it were, so all he has left for this mirroring purpose is himself. He’s like an infant seeing itself in a mirror for the first time, paradoxically recognizing itself and establishing its sense of self, yet also, in seeing itself ‘over there,’ sees itself as other, and is therefore alienated from itself…fragmented.

His defiance of the rhinos should be understood in this context. As representations of fascism, they are a real evil to be opposed to, but one must also consider Bérenger’s fragile mental state as one alone against the world. He would try to communicate with them, but he can’t speak their language (PDF, page 53)…he has left the Symbolic and its linguistic connection with society, culture, customs, laws, etc. He’s so confused, he’s not even sure if he’s speaking French (or English, as far as the play’s translation is concerned). Does his language even exist anymore, if he’s its only speaker, and no one else can understand him? Are the trumpeting sounds of the rhinos, the only shared form of communication left in the world, the only true language? And by extension, has fascism become no longer just an extremist ideology, but the truth?

His defiance, his “not capitulating,” is for obvious reasons noble on one level, but it’s also proud, narcissistic, on the other. He has gone full circle, from the slovenly drunkard who didn’t fit into society to the sole human who still doesn’t fit in. He wouldn’t capitulate to the lifestyle of a sober, well-groomed, and punctual contributor to society then, and he won’t conform now.

Like a narcissist, he goes from hating himself for being an ugly human (since being a rhinoceros has become the new aesthetic ideal) to being a proud defender of his difference from the rhinos. His honest humanity is, paradoxically, his False Self. He regrets being unable to change into a rhinoceros; then he puts on a false front of pride for not being one of them.

As Esslin comments: “His final defiant profession of faith in humanity is merely the expression of the fox’s contempt for the grapes he could not have. Far from being a heroic last stand, Bérenger’s defiance is farcical and tragicomic, and the final meaning of the play is by no means as simple as some critics made it appear. What the play conveys is the absurdity of defiance as much as the absurdity of conformism, the tragedy of the individualist who cannot join the happy throng of less sensitive people, the artist’s feelings as an outcast…” (Esslin, page 183)

Esslin continues: “If Rhinoceros is a tract against conformism and insensitivity (which is certainly is), it also mocks the individualist who merely makes a virtue of necessity in insisting on his superiority as a sensitive, artistic being. That is where the play transcends the oversimplification of propaganda and becomes a valid statement of the fatal entanglement, the basic inescapability and absurdity of the human condition. Only a performance that brings out this ambivalence in Bérenger’s final stand can do justice to the play’s full flavour.” (ibid, p. 183)

So, the absurdity of the human condition is universal in Rhinoceros. Every character without exception is flawed in one way or another. The human rhinos are absurd in their extreme conformism, and Bérenger is absurd in the narcissistic extreme of his individualism.

The paradox of the Symbolic is in how, though it represents the healthiest of mental states, it is also rife with social hypocrisy, hence “les non-dupes errent,” as exemplified in Bérenger and his gaffes. This paradoxical sane phoniness of society is extended into the illusion of freedom in modern-day liberal democracy, or the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, as, as I said above, it should be called; this ‘freedom,’ it should be noted, extends only as far as the border of the nation-state. Thus, it should be no surprise that ‘democracy’ degenerates into fascism, or some other form of authoritarian rule, whenever society feels itself to be endangered.

Slavoj Zižek elaborates: ‘This leftover to which formal democracy clings, that which renders possible the subtraction of all positive contents, is of course the ethnic moment conceived as “nation”: democracy is always tied to the “pathological” fact of a nation-state. Every attempt to inaugurate a “planetary” democracy based upon the community of all people as “citizens of the world” soon attests its own impotence, fails to arouse political enthusiasm.’ […] ‘What is at stake in ethnic tensions is always the possession of the national Thing: the “other” wants to steal our enjoyment (by ruining our “way of life”) and/or it has access to some secret, perverse enjoyment. In short, what gets on our nerves, what really bothers us about the “other,” is the peculiar way he organizes his enjoyment (the smell of his food, his “noisy” songs and dances, his strange manners, his attitude to work–in the racist perspective, the “other” is either a workaholic stealing our jobs or an idler living on our labor).’ (Zižek, page 165)

Now, how can Rhinoceros be relevant to today’s world?

Well, apart from the recent resurgence of fascist tendencies around the world (Golden Dawn and their ilk in Greece, Svoboda and the Azov Battalion in the Ukraine…and its backing by the US/NATO, Marine Le Pen‘s near-win in the French elections, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and “MAGA,” among many others), we can also see rhino conformity as a symbol for all the mask-wearers of today, as well as the authoritarian measures of governments all over the world to mandate universal vaccination.

The absurdity of the extremes of both conformity and of individualism as seen in Rhinoceros, to be fair, can be seen in the whole ‘rona debate, too. I oppose the vax mandates and the capitalist media manipulation and scare-mongering, to be sure; but I do so not from the excessive ‘individualism’ of the right-wing libertarians, who simple-mindedly call all these anti-covid authoritarian measures a form of “communism.” Similarly, one can receive the vaccines–either through personal choice or coercion…”no jab, no job”–and still be opposed to the mandates.

The absurdity of Bérenger’s “not capitulating” can be seen in anyone stubbornly refusing to wear masks and having to pay fine after fine, or refusing the jab and remaining unemployed, then evicted. In some countries, such as Canada with its defiant truckers, a real effort is being made to undo the mandates; but in such places as the small East Asian island I live on, the locals are so uncritically compliant with the government that it doesn’t even occur to them that resistance exists as a possibility. Here, I am a Bérenger among mask-wearing rhinos; my resistance is futile because it’s meaningless.

The lesson to be learned from Rhinoceros is to find a comfortable middle ground between conformism and individualism; les non-dupes errent, but they must still hang onto some sense of society to maintain their sanity. Remember how the individualism of ‘anti-state’ right-wing libertarianism often leads, ironically, to fascism. What many today call the “communism” of the emerging NWO is really the capitalism of Bill Gates and his flying monkeys in the media he pays to control the narrative about the pandemic.

By all means, don’t capitulate; but don’t stare at the mirror for too long, either.

Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, London, Penguin Books, 1961

Slavoj Zižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, Cambridge, Massachusetts, The MIT Press, 1992

How Does the Non-dupe Err?

I: Psychoanalytic Punning

Lacan wrote a lot of useful and relevant topics, but he did so, unfortunately, using a prose style that can only be described as…impenetrable.

To take his notion of The Name of the Father, for example, this is a concept best expressed in the original French, as I typically present it: le nom du père. I use the French not to be pretentious, but to get people to see the nuances that the English translation doesn’t convey. Those nuances help to tease out more of the meanings of the concept.

For example, Lacan made two plays on words with le nom du père that the English cannot parallel: these puns are le Non! du père and les non-dupes errent. Again, on the surface, such playing around with French may seem pretentious and self-indulgent on Lacan’s part, but all three of these similar-sounding expressions bring out a lot of hidden meaning in what he was trying to say.

The nom (“name”) in le nom du père represents the legalistic aspect of the concept. In nom, I hear an interlingual pun on νόμος, or “law” in Greek. The non in le Non! du père represents the prohibitive aspect. So, the father (or, the second parent, he or she who intervenes in the dyadic, Oedipal relationship with the first parent), in laying down the law against the child’s wish to indulge in the transgressive pleasure of jouissance with his mother, is saying, “No! You mustn’t indulge in your Oedipal fantasies with your mother…she is my wife!

Apart from the prohibition against incest with her, the child must also give up on his wish to remain in a one-on-one relationship with her, to have her as the only person in his life, to hog her all to himself, to have her as a metaphorical mirror of, and an extension of, his narcissistic self. The child must be integrated with the greater society, which is who the father, as the third person in this set-up, represents: to go from a relationship with one other to many Others.

II: Going With, or Against, Society

So, the father’s (or second parent’s, as against the Oedipally-desired first parent’s) introduction of laws, or what’s more accurately understood as social rules, customs, culture, and a shared language, helps the child in his or her initiation with society. Now, initiation into society includes a confrontation with its illusions and hypocrisies, which one may or may not be duped into accepting.

If one accepts the phoney social charade, or is even duped in to believing that it’s real, one tends, in varying degrees depending on one’s intelligence and talents, to succeed in life. One has learned, socially, how to play the game. If, however, one does not accept the charade, and one is not duped into believing that the charade is real, then one tends–again, to varying extents depending on how well or how poorly one’s competencies can compensate–to fail to climb the social ladder. These social successes or failures are what Lacan meant with his second pun on le nom du père, the paradox that is les non-dupes errent.

So in Lacan’s paradox, we can be both wise and foolish at the same time, but in opposing ways. If we’re the dupes of social convention, believing its illusions are real, we won’t err, because we’ll benefit from playing the social game. If we’re non-dupes, though, we will err from the straight path that leads to those benefits–generally material and those of social status–that come from social conformity.

We can call this paradox, if you will, the ouroboros of social conformity, to return to my dialectical symbolism of the coiled serpent, which I’ve used in many previous blog posts to describe the paradoxical unity of opposites. The serpent’s biting head is one extreme, the bitten tail is the opposite extreme, and the length of its coiled body represents all the intermediate points between the meeting opposites.

To apply this concept to les non-dupes errent, if we’re duped too much by the hypocrisies of social convention, our drive to do well will push us to succeed and rise high in society. Such has been the success of our phoney, lying politicians, our trendy, Top Ten pop stars, and our virtue-signalling Hollywood celebrities, among many others. Those who know how to play the game and manipulate the system to their advantage do well…because they’re so thoroughly duped by it, totally believing in the illusion; and provided they have a decent amount of ability (and good connections!), they’re motivated to work hard enough to succeed socially and materially.

These successful people have gone all the way up the coiled length of the ouroboros that they’ve not only reached the biting head of success, they’ve also gone past it, over to the bitten tail of being extreme dupes. They’ve not only been taken in by the deception, to its maximum; they’re addicted to the illusion, and when confronted with the unreality of their world, their cognitive dissonance is so great that they’ll fight tooth and nail to defend their cherished illusion.

Then, on the other hand, there are the non-dupes who err. These ones are so contemptuous of society’s hypocrisies, they despise the masquerade so much, that they refuse to participate in it. Refusing to go along, though, they also don’t get to enjoy the rewards of the system. As a result, they slide down the coiled length of the body of the serpent and reach the pain of its bitten tail. These ones are like Diogenes the Cynic, or in modern times, persecuted journalists like Julian Assange. In their martyrdom and suffering, though, they go past the bitten tail and reach the biting head, which for them represents the honour of keeping it real.

Of course, there are also those who are everywhere in the middle, on the coiled length of the ouroboros’s body. These ones are some combination of partly duped, partly erring, and therefore moderately succeeding or failing to varying degrees.

As for me, I’ve learned that les non-dupes errent has been, for good or ill, the story of my life.

III: Erring in a Toxic Family

When you’ve been raised in a family with a narcissistic parent, as I was, you live out a life with a phoney narrative built up around it. By the time you finally wise up to it (which tends to be around when you’re in your late thirties to early forties), the psychological damage has already been done.

The phoney narrative has a cast of characters that the narcissist narrator has established, a set of roles the members of the family are assigned and manipulated into playing: the narcissistic parent, who has absolute power and is idolized, practically canonized as a saint by the family; the codependent other parent, who, like everyone else in the family, doesn’t dare challenge the narrative for fear of reprisals from the narc parent; the flying monkey siblings, the chief of whom is the golden child (the dupe to end all dupes), who is favoured the most for having pleased the narc parent the most, and the lesser flying monkeys, who are the lost children, given less attention and feeling relatively invisible, but who are at least not the despised one.

The despised one, however–the scapegoat, or identified patient–is the one who defines the dysfunction of the family for being the one who flouts its rules and incurs the wrath of the narcissistic parent. This last family member is the non-dupe who errs. He or she sees past the masquerade that the rest of the family is putting on; he or she is the black sheep who sees through the family bullshit. His or her blunt honesty about the phoney situation, refusing to be duped, gets him or her in trouble; he or she errs into the realm of emotional abuse.

As I’ve discussed in a spate of blog posts, I was the scapegoat of my family. As the sensitive empath, I saw through the phoniness of their presentation of themselves as a ‘respectable,’ and ‘loving’ family. My attempts to expose their charade got me black-balled by them. I was not duped, and I erred from the path they all went on together. They, the duped, didn’t err: they all ended up with better-paying work than mine, and with the respect of their peers.

No good deed goes unpunished.

And as the Marquis de Sade observed in his prose, the wicked prosper. Such is the world we live in.

IV: The Non-duped in School

Similarly, in high school we see our classmates grouping together based on common interests, usually based on their musical tastes, through which these adolescents derive their fragile sense of identity. In the 80s, when I was a teen, there were the metal-heads, or rockers; there were the New Wavers; there were the Goths, and other fans of what was then considered ‘alternative rock’; and there were the fans of mainstream pop and rock, those who included the hero jock football players and their pretty, princess girlfriends.

Then you had people like me, who didn’t fit in with any of those categories, partly because I was too awkward to make it with any of them, and partly because I simply didn’t want to be one of them. I built my own identity around listening to prog rock, modern classical, and avant-garde music. In other words, I rejected the phoney conformity of my classmates. Not being duped by their fashionable posturing, I erred…into the realm of being bullied.

V: Meandering and the Media

Another area where, paradoxically, the dupe doesn’t err and the non-dupe errs is in that of the global media, 90% of which in the US is controlled by only six corporations who, therefore, get to decide, based on their class interests, what is and isn’t newsworthy; and elsewhere there are repeats of what is reported in such dubious sources as the Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse, based in New York, London and Paris.

Much of the global media, including The Guardian, CNN, and many others, is given huge donations from Bill Gates (Don’t get me started on him!), meaning that he can decide on the nature of their content, which will ensure maintaining a positive public image for him.

It is in these contexts that we can understand the contrast between the journalism of Assange and someone like Vanderbilt oligarch heir Anderson Cooper, who worked for the CIA for two summers while in college. The latter is a dupe who doesn’t err, while the former is, as mentioned above, a non-dupe who has erred.

For his work in maintaining the phoney political and social narratives of our time, being himself a dupe of them as well as duping millions of brainwashed CNN viewers around the world, Cooper has done well for himself financially and in terms of social standing. For telling the truth about our corrupt political world, though, Assange is incarcerated and in poor health.

VI: Roaming from the ‘Rona

The fact that the mainstream media is so reliably mendacious is the context in which we should place most reporting on the ‘rona. That millions have been plunged into poverty during this pandemic, while the oligarchs have seen their wealth skyrocket, should give us all pause. And this is all because of a virus that, if you were to catch it, would cause you in most cases to have from zero, to mild, to moderate symptoms, or in a small percentage of cases, more serious symptoms, or death in less than 1% of cases: this reality is more than enough to raise serious doubts of what we’re being told.

As I’ve stated previously, I’m no “anti-vaxxer”; rather, I’m opposed to the mandates. Those of us who are resistant to the machinations of those who are exploiting this pandemic for the sake of their own material gain, we are the non-dupes who err. We refuse the jab as an expression of our civil rights, and because we have legitimate doubts of its efficacy at best, and its safety at worst. Because we won’t be duped by the media, we err, that is, we lose work and the ability to go where we wish. The compliant ones, whom we see as the dupes, they don’t err: they can go about and work as they wish, imagining there’s no dog leash around their necks because they never attempt to walk beyond the length of its reach.

VII: Erring Commies

A final manifestation of the non-dupe erring that I’d like to discuss is he or she who has a realistic understanding of capitalism. The dupe of neoliberalism has a blind eye to how the hell we’re undeniably living in has been caused by the aggravation of class conflict through the unholy alliance of the bourgeoisie with the capitalist state that protects their interests. This dupe insists that the mere existence of a government and its regulations precludes the possibility of our woes having been caused by capitalism, the only ‘true’ form of which is, apparently, the “free market.” By playing the neoliberal game, however, these dupes tend to fall in line, believe in the spurious notion of the ‘American dream,’ work hard for their bosses, get promotions, and achieve at least a reasonable level of success. They don’t err.

We non-dupes, however, we communists, are standing in the rain, as Michael Parenti once observed. We put our jobs on the line; we’ve historically put our lives on the line. Contrary to the right-wing propagandists’ notion that communists hunger for power, we want the power to end hunger. If we’d truly lusted after power, we’d join forces with the Rockefellers and Kissingers of the world (as the dupes who don’t err do); instead, we non-dupes who err find ourselves in, or at least sympathizing with, countries that have to endure economic sanctions and embargoes, as well as threats of invasion.

VIII: Conclusion

So, though the non-dupe errs, he or she can be consoled with the fact that, straying from the straight path that leads to material success, he or she at least isn’t selling his or her soul to the system. Our suffering should be seen as a badge of honour, for we have an integrity and a sense of principles that the duped who don’t err will never have. We’ve erred past the bitten tail of the ouroboros, the realm of failure and defeat, to reach the serpent’s biting head, where we can proudly say that we’ve never allowed ourselves to be deceived.

Keep on erring, non-dupes. Progress is not possible without it.

Analysis of ‘The Passenger’

The Passenger (Italian–Professione: reporter) is a 1975 drama directed by Michelangelo Antonioni and written by him, Mark Peploe, and Peter Wollen. The film stars Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider, with Ian Hendry, Jenny Runacre, and Steven Berkoff.

The Passenger competed for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s been widely praised for its camerawork and its acting. Roger Ebert originally didn’t like it, but he revised his review in 2005, calling it a perceptive look at identity, alienation, and the human desire to escape oneself.

As of this blog post, the film has a rating of 88% on Rotten Tomatoes.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

One thing I found striking about The Passenger is how it can be compared and contrasted with Last Tango in Paris, and I’m not merely talking about how, in both films, Schneider plays opposite one of the greatest Hollywood male actors, playing his character’s love interest. In Tango, Paul (Brando) is also trying to escape from his painful past, and in a totally unrealistic way, by meeting with Jeanne (Schneider), not wanting to know her name or anything about her life, and her not knowing anything about him or his name.

The apartment in which Paul and Jeanne have their anonymous affair is an oasis from the pain of his past, which included not only the adultery of his wife, Rosa, but also her suicide. In The Passenger, David Locke (Nicholson) has an affair with the girl (Schneider), whose name we never learn, by the way; his wife, Rachel (Runacre), is having an affair with a man named Stephen (Berkoff), yet it is Locke who commits, so to speak, suicide by having the world believe he’s dead while he takes on a dead man’s identity.

Reality and the past catch up with Paul in the end; he is shot and killed. The same happens to Locke. Neither man can sustain his fantasy world for long.

References to French colonialism in Africa are made, if indirectly, in both films: in The Passenger, it is Chad; in Tango, it is Algeria. Related to this is the liberal hypocrisy of Jeanne and her fiancé wanting to name their children after communist revolutionaries (Fidel or Rosa), while she has such a love and admiration for her father–a colonel in Algeria in the 1950s whom revolutionaries like Frantz Fanon would have fought–that she won’t have Paul say anything bad about the colonel. In The Passenger, Locke is a liberal reporter who poses as a gun-runner for a Chadian liberation movement with Marxist leanings (one like FROLINAT), but all he does is take the money, without any concern for making sure that the Chadian rebels get their weapons.

The theme of duality pervades both films; see my analysis of Tango (link above) to find a discussion of duality in that film. In The Passenger, apart from the man/woman duality of the main characters that is also in Tango, there are the dualities of past vs present, the First and Third Worlds, the two Davids (Locke and Robertson, the latter played by Charles Mulvehill), and perhaps the most important duality of all, which is personified by the two Davids: liberal vs revolutionary.

We are meant to understand that Locke and Robertson are sufficiently similar looking for the one man to be possibly confused with the other (even if Nicholson and Mulvehill don’t look all that alike). Perhaps the African staff in their Chadian hotel consider all white men to look the same.

The similarity in these men’s looks is significant when we remember their political affiliations. Just as the identity of one David is swapped for that of the other, and just as one David is confused with the other, so is the liberal far too often confused with the radical leftist revolutionary, and the need to beware of such confusions is the political message that Antonioni was trying to impart here.

While being a ‘left-leaning liberal’ actually meant something (if not much) back in the 1970s, as opposed to the fact that it’s meant absolutely nothing since at least the 1990s (Bernie Sanders, AOC, et al are useless at opposing imperialism, and that’s speaking kindly of them), any real leftist knows that those 70s liberals’ activism was woefully inadequate at best, and at worst, an indirect aid to anticommunism. This is why Mao wrote “Combat Liberalism.” This is why Lenin didn’t trust the liberals. This is what Parenti meant when he distinguished the liberal analysis from that of the radical. And this is why even a moderate leftist like Phil Ochs satirized liberalism.

The real meaning of the film’s title (not the European one, mind you) is fully realized when seen in this political distinction between liberal and leftist. A passenger just sits passively while others do the work of moving. Locke is the (metaphorical) passenger, not the girl riding in his car, as many assume of the renaming of the film. Liberal opportunists are passengers: they go with the flow, blowing to the left…or to the right! depending on which way the political wind of the time happens to be blowing. The radical Marxist revolutionary, on the other hand, is the driver of the car, the steerer of the ship, one of its oarsmen, or the pilot of the airplane. The leftist actively brings about social and political changes; the liberal just goes along for the ride.

Conservatives–either out of stupidity and ignorance, or disingenuously out of a wish to exploit people’s confusion–like to conflate the liberal with the socialist. They’ll make idiotic claims like ‘hippies are communists,’ or assert that Biden and Harris are bringing about ‘toxic socialism,’ when the Democratic Party had already swung over to the political right back during the Clinton years (even Carter, with Brzezinski squirting his anticommunist poison in Carter’s ears, was hardly ‘left-leaning’ in any meaningful sense).

Locke personifies what I’ve characterized as the liberal mindset. His id would have him indulge in all kinds of pleasures: taking a huge wad of money (without even trying to supply the weapons he’s being paid for) and traveling around Europe (Munich and Barcelona), buying colourful clothes, and enjoying the charms of the girl. His ego would keep him safe from being found out by his BBC associate, producer Martin Knight (Hendry), Rachel, or the Chadian dictator’s secret police, those who kill him in the end. His superego, however, has him in an existential crisis wherein he’d report on the Chadian civil war in a manner sympathetic to the Marxist rebels, but Knight and the establishment media would have him keep his sense of “detachment,” have him remain ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ (translation: leaving the colonialist status quo unchallenged).

As a passenger, all Locke wants to do is keep moving: it doesn’t matter where he’s going, since he’s directionless, as long as he’s moving. His feeling stuck in “God-forsaken” Chad, his truck stuck in a sand dune, is symbolic of his existential crisis. Where can he go with his life as an establishment liberal reporter? He wants to feel as though he’s going somewhere, making some kind of advancement in his life. Not necessarily really going anywhere in particular, just feeling as if he’s moving. And that’s what makes him different from men like Robertson.

In the hot desert of Chad, he feels himself to be in a hopeless situation. He can’t find the guerrillas he wants to interview, to get a perspective opposing that of the dictator. He has recorded largely only the biased and dishonest point of view of the country’s ruling class; he’d might as well be supporting them. Here we see the existential crisis of the liberal who would be a revolutionary…if only he had the guts.

He feels dead in terms of the meaning of his life; it’s fitting that his truck is stuck in the desert sands. This sand is like the dust from which Adam sprang, and to which Locke will return when he dies (Genesis 3: 19; Ecclesiastes 3:20). All is vanity, the absurdist vanity of living in a meaningless world in which his only end will be death.

So when he finally returns to his hotel, exhausted and crestfallen, and he finds Robertson lying dead on his bed, Locke decides to die himself, by taking on Robertson’s identity. Adios a la pasada for Locke.

Though the past and present are bitterly opposed for Locke, there is nonetheless a link between the two that he can’t break, and this inability of his is foreshadowed in the scene when he’s switching his and Robertson’s passport photos. Locke has recorded a conversation between himself and Robertson, which he plays back while switching the photos.

The tape recording isn’t the only link with the past, though. In one of Antonioni’s famous long takes, we see bare-chested Locke at the table with the passports as the tape plays; he looks over to the side and the camera moves away from him to where the balcony shows a living Robertson and…Locke in a shirt! There is no cut in this camera shot. Antonioni has fused the present with the past in a manner bordering on the surreal; he had experimented with the border between the real and unreal, between certainty and uncertainty, in Blowup. The shot immediately after the balcony one, also without a cut, shows the flashback with Robertson return to the present with bare-chested Locke changing the passport photos. He’d cut himself off from his past, but not even the camera will cut away from it.

Earlier, Locke is sitting on Robertson’s bed, looking at the face of the corpse up close. This dead man, whose life was so different from the dead-end one that Locke wants to escape, is someone he now idealizes. He looks at the face, of this similar-looking man, as one would see oneself in a mirror; recall how Lacan spoke of seeing one’s ideal-I in a mirror, that perfect, unified image one sees, as opposed to the fragmented self one feels oneself to be.

Locke feels just this inadequacy compared to his dead twin; he feels even less alive than Robertson. Soon after, he finds Robertson’s pistol–not only representative of the dead man’s revolutionary leanings, but also a phallic manhood that Locke lacks. This ineffectual liberal now feels all the more inadequate.

But he can fake being a revolutionary, like those liberals who wear Che Guevara T-shirts and vote Democrat?

In trading Robertson’s identity for his own, Locke is establishing a narcissistic False Self and projecting his hated True Self onto Robertson’s corpse. Taking the pistol, Locke no longer feels psychologically castrated. Ironically, Robertson has said he’s in Chad “on business,” as if he were a bourgeois, when it is Locke who is the bourgeois, swapping identities with the revolutionary.

Antonioni’s films give great importance to location, including architecture, and The Passenger is no exception. In this film, we find a recurring motif of architecture, including churches or at least buildings whose names are associated with religion, like the Plaza de la Iglesia and the Hotel de la Gloria. Then, of course, there are the buildings of Gaudí, seen when Locke meets the girl, a student of architecture who knows Gaudí’s work.

Gaudí’s earlier career involved making buildings for bourgeois clients, though religiosity preoccupied his thoughts in his later life, through his focus on the Sagrada Família. The significance of these changes in Gaudí’s work for The Passenger is in how they can be said to parallel the change in Locke’s: his existential crisis, his search for meaning, can find a symbol in Gaudí’s search for God.

Now, none of this is to say that Locke’s search for meaning is anywhere near as noble or lofty as Gaudí’s; but in Locke’s narcissistic imagination, in his False Self as ‘gun-running revolutionary,’ he’d like to think of his search as comparable to a spiritual quest. Linked with this would-be quest is his meeting of the girl, who as a kind of guardian angel to him in her pressing of him to continue showing up for every meeting in Robertson’s little appointment book, is like a reincarnation of Robertson. When one considers Locke’s sexual relationship with the girl, that she can be seen as Robertson come back is in how, when Locke looked at his corpse up close, his face was so close to dead Robertson’s as to imply a wish to kiss him; after all, Robertson is his ideal-I, just as the girl, as his lover, is in a sense his other self.

While wearing that fake moustache in England, symbolic of a mask for his False Self, Locke sees the girl and will later remember her, as if it were fate bringing them together. In Munich, he is paid for papers with gun illustrations, in a church, of all places, one in which one can see the Stations of the Cross in the background. Since The Passenger is, in effect, the film documenting Locke’s life that Knight and the BBC would be making for their ‘deceased’ colleague, all these associations with spirituality and revolutionary heroism would seem to indicate that this ‘documentary film’ is an idealizing of his flawed life, in true narcissistic fashion.

He, of course, isn’t helping any revolutionary cause, nor has he found God. Like Paul in Last Tango in Paris, Locke is being completely irresponsible, throwing away his wife and his past, taking the rebels’ money without providing anything more than pictures of weapons, and having an affair with the girl. Like that fire he burns in his yard in his home in England (one of the flashback scenes) with Rachel wondering what he’s doing, Locke wants only to destroy the old, not build the new. What’s he running away from? Look back with the girl and see the road that Locke’s car has driven on: he’s in constant motion, getting away from the past, but with no discernible future or destination.

He can try to destroy the past, to run away from it, and (like Paul) try to live in a fantasy world, but he won’t succeed. Hitherto unfaithful Rachel becomes guilt-ridden over his ‘death,’ and wants Knight to contact the Robertson she understands to be alive. When Knight fails to find him in Barcelona, Rachel is all the more driven to find this mysterious man.

She isn’t the only one searching for “Robertson.” So are the secret police of the Chadian dictator, who–as Rachel learns at the Chadian embassy when she collects Locke’s things–wants to stop the illegal sale of guns to rebels in his country. Rachel is unwittingly helping these men find “Robertson,” whom she soon learns is really Locke. Incidentally, one of the secret police is a white man, presumably French (we hear him speaking to the girl in French at the Hotel de la Gloria when his associate is off to shoot Locke), strongly implying French neocolonial involvement in the Chadian Civil War, to root out the Marxists.

[As a side note, the Wikipedia article for The Passenger refers to the two men who follow and kill Locke as working with the rebels: on this assumption, the white one beats the crap out of Achebe (played by Ambroise Bia) because the rebels are mad that he gave the money to the wrong man. I disagree with this interpretation. I don’t think the rebels would react that violently to one of their comrades for what was an honest mistake, and would kill the thief of their money rather than angrily demand he give at least what he hasn’t spent back to them…and beat the crap out of him. Agents working for the Chadian dictator, on the other hand, would be that violent. Besides, I have the authority of Theodore Price, whose article on the movie includes references to the complete, uncut script, and who calls the men Chadian secret police.]

The film begins among the sands of Chad, a dictatorship persecuting the leftist resistance within it. The film ends in Spain, at a hotel surrounded in dust. Though Antonioni is too subtle a director to point this out, the viewer who knows his history will be aware that the Spain when The Passenger is set (1973) was also a dictatorship, that of Franco, who had leftists holed up and ‘reeducated’ in concentration camps, and who died the year of the film’s release, after which Spain only slowly crawled back into the realm of liberal democracy. The film thus, like music, has a kind of ABA structure: from dusty dictatorship to pretty democracy, and back again.

Before the penultimate scene with his death, Locke tells the girl a story about a blind man who regained his sight. The man was “elated” at first to be able to see, but he was soon disillusioned when he saw so much “dirt” and “ugliness” in the world. When blind, he easily crossed the road with a walking stick; with his sight, he became afraid even to leave his room. In three years, he killed himself.

This story seems to reflect, though one isn’t sure if Locke realizes it, that through those changes we make in our lives, we think we’re liberating ourselves, but we are only putting ourselves in different chains. Locke thought his trading identities with Robertson would free him from his past, but the pursuits of Knight and Rachel have proven that he’s escaped from nothing.

The girl leaves him in the hotel room and walks around on the dusty ground outside, as if to continue her work as his guardian angel, to be able to return if he needs her. The famous penultimate scene of his death, curious in being a long take largely without him in it, deserves special attention, obviously; I’d also like to give my personal interpretation of it.

Antonioni said that we don’t see Locke when he is killed because he was already dead when he chose no longer to be Locke. I’d like to expand on that idea by saying that, instead of seeing him, we see a POV shot of his spirit, even before the shooting, looking out onto the dusty square where the girl is walking about. His spirit approaches the bars on the window and passes outside; he has freed himself from the prison of a human body. Locke is rid of the lock on the door of his caged existence. Like Gaudí, he has found God, in a way, in the Hotel de la Gloria, its very name suggestive of religiosity.

Just as pious Gaudí was killed by a tram, so have vehicles arriving at Locke’s hotel brought his death: the car of the Chadian secret police, who followed Rachel to find him, her own vehicle with the police arriving too late. Locke is dead lying on the bed of his hotel room, as Robertson was found dead; both men have died thus in countries that are dusty dictatorships–ABA structure.

For dust Locke is, and unto dust shall he return.

His murder by the Chadian secret police is interesting in how he, having only received money, but having never provided weapons to the rebels, is actually innocent of being any kind of danger to the dictator of Chad. Pilate, learning from Jesus that His Kingdom “is not of this world” (John 18:36), also concluded that the man to be crucified was innocent of any revolutionary crime against the Roman Empire. Locke is thus a Christ figure, his holy spirit, as it were, slowly floating out of that room, through those bars, and out into the dusty square. In this way, Locke’s death is also comparable to that of the mystic architect.

Now, this making of Locke into a Christ figure is to be seen from the point of view of fascist, imperialist dictatorships. Men like Franco justified their authoritarian rule by claiming that they were saving their country from ‘satanic’ Marxism and preserving its Christian traditions. In this way, Christ-like Locke, like a good liberal who only pretends to be a revolutionary, is doing the Lord’s good work, keeping the strongmen in power by doing nothing to threaten their hold on it.

When Rachel finds her husband’s body on that bed with a bullet in him, she says she “never knew him,” echoing Peter’s denial of Christ three times before the cock crowed (Luke 22:34). This is the perfect ending to Locke’s ‘documentary,’ for in his narcissistic imagination, he’s died a martyr, and yet his spirit will always be with us.

This martyr-like status, of course, is just part and parcel of Locke’s narcissistic False Self. He couldn’t really be Robertson to save his life…literally. Locke deals in “words, images”; Robertson deals in “concrete things,” so the people understand him straightaway. Locke thus personifies Hegelian idealism, while Robertson personifies Marxian materialism.

Locke’s existential search for meaning is just a Camus-like absurdist one: Locke has tried to escape his liberal past by merely posing as a revolutionary; and like Sisyphus’ futile rolling up of that rock, Locke has failed miserably. We defy the Fates and attempt to give our lives value, and we’re happy in the attempt, as Camus says Sisyphus is, and as Locke briefly has been (think of that scene of him in the cable car in Spain, when he pokes his upper half out the window and stretches his arms out over the water…he feels as free as a bird); but the certainty of death assures us of the ultimate futility of our attempt.

So the lesson we must learn from The Passenger is, do we as leftists want to be engagé revolutionaries in the driver’s seat, or do we want to be mere liberal passengers, going along for the ride, hoping to share in the glory, but doing none of the heavy lifting? Certainly, when Antonioni filmed Chung Kuo, Cina, the Chinese Communists hated it, regarding him as a mere liberal, pandering passenger. Deeply hurt by this reaction, he made his 1975 masterpiece in response.

Now, what will we do in today’s neoliberal hell? Shall we try to throw away our pasts and live in a fantasy world, à la Paul and Jeanne in Last Tango in Paris? Shall we carry Robertson’s pistol around, feeling tough with it, but be too scared to use it? Shall we try to take the easy way out and avoid our painful reality? As Robertson warns us, “the world doesn’t work that way.”

The Ouroboros of Philosophy

I: Introduction

My concern here is not with presenting an encyclopedic understanding of philosophy and its history; I am in no way qualified even to attempt that. Instead, I will look at selected examples of philosophical ideas as manifestations of what I see the ouroboros as symbolizing.

As I’ve explained in a number of posts, I use the ouroboros to symbolize the dialectical relationship between opposites. The serpent, coiled in a circle and biting its tail, represents a circular continuum whose extreme opposites meet and phase into each other, the biting head being one extreme, and the bitten tail being its opposite. The coiled middle of the serpent represents all the intermediate points on the continuum, the moderate points between the extremes.

The dialectic, often being a dialogue of two disagreeing philosophers presenting their opposing opinions in a back-and-forth debate, has been the basis of so much of the history of Western philosophy that I find it illustrative to use my ouroboros symbolism to systematize the dialectic. Such a systematization is what I will attempt here.

II: Ancient Greece, and the Ancient East

Thales, interestingly, conceived of the universe as having originated in water. He believed this origin to be literally true, as Aristotle explained it in his Metaphysics:

“Most of the first philosophers thought that principles in the form of matter were the only principles of all things. For they say that the element and first principle of the things that exist is that from which they all are and from which they first come into being and into which they are finally destroyed, its substance remaining and its properties changing…There must be some nature–either one or more than one–from which the other things come into being, it being preserved. But as to the number and form of this sort of principle, they do not all agree. Thales, the founder of this kind of philosophy, says that it is water (that is why he declares that the earth rests on water). He perhaps came to acquire this belief from seeing that the nourishment of everything is moist and that heat itself comes from this and lives by this (for that from which anything comes into being is its first principle)–he came to this belief both for this reason and because the seeds of everything have a moist nature, and water is the natural principle of moist things.” (Aristotle, Metaphysics 983b6–11, 17-27…Barnes, page 63)

I, on the other hand–and as anyone who has read enough of my blog knows–interpret the water origin metaphorically, hence the name of my blog, Infinite Ocean. The rising and falling of the waves symbolize the opposing sides of the dialectic, the movements up and down each being a sublation of thesis (crest) and negation (trough).

It is from this notion of water that we move on to Heraclitus and his notion of endless movement. I discussed his ideas here. Diogenes Laërtius, in his Lives of the Philosophers, had this to say about the beliefs of Heraclitus: “All things come about through opposition, and the universe flows like a river. The universe is finite, and there is one world.” (Barnes, page 107)

To make a temporary digression from ancient Greece to ancient India, the endless, watery flow of everything in the universe has been used to describe Brahman, Atman being but a drop of this water. Furthermore, this universal Oneness, this monism that has been attributed to Thales, Heraclitus, and the Hindus is described as flowing and moving; yet this monism, pushed to its extreme, from its flowing to its extreme opposite, a Oneness of motionless stasis, is found in the philosophy of Parmenides and Zeno.

Parmenides insisted that notions of motion and plurality are illusions, the maya of the Hindus. All is one according to him; the universe has always been, is now, and always will be, an unmoving, unchangeable sphere. This Oneness is a reaction against Heraclitus (or vice versa) and against the philosophical pluralists, movements from the bitten tail of the ouroboros to its biting head, shifts from one extreme to their dialectical opposites.

In fact, Parmenides’ young pupil (and lover), Zeno, went so far as to defend his teacher’s rigid monism by devising a number of paradoxes to show the illusory nature of motion, change, and divisibility. His paradoxes, again, were a reaction, a dialectical shift from bitten tail to biting head, against the pluralists. Zeno’s point, as understood by Plato, was that if his paradoxes–for example, of infinitesimally divided walking distances precluding the possibility of getting anywhere, or Achilles never catching up to the tortoise, or a never-moving arrow in flight–are absurd, so much more absurd are the pluralists’ ideas.

As Plato expressed Zeno’s meaning: “My book attacks those who say that several things exist, aiming to show that their hypothesis, that several things exist, leads to even more ridiculous results, if you examine it properly, than the hypothesis that only one thing exists.” (Plato, Parmenides…Barnes, page 152) It isn’t about the ideas in themselves; it’s about ideas in dialectical opposition to others.

Parmenides’ and Zeno’s unchanging monism can, in a way, be compared to the eternal soul of Atman in Brahman, which in turn was reacted against in Buddhism’s adoption of the doctrines of anattā (or anātman) and impermanence. Again we see the dialectical movement of one doctrine, felt to have been pushed too far (e.g., Atman is believed to exist despite a lack of empirical evidence), over to its opposite (no soul or permanent self), a shift from the biting head to the bitten tail of the ouroboros.

The dialectical relationship between opposites, as I symbolize with the serpent’s head and tail, can also be seen in the yin/yang symbol of Taoism. The white dot in yin, and the black dot in yang, are like the teeth of the head stabbed into the tail. One opposite is experienced in the other.

III: From Doubt to Certainty

Another example of the ouroboros of philosophy can be found in the radical doubts of René Descartes. His doubting of the certainty of any kind of existence, including his own, found him passing beyond the bitten tail of extreme doubt to the biting head of cogito, ergo sum, which given more fully is dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum: “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.”

His very doubting, brought to such an extreme of doubts of existence, becomes the very existence, his own existence since he’s the one doing the doubting, that gives him a certain foundation for knowledge on which he can at least hope to build further certainties.

IV: Hegel and Marx

A few centuries later, we come to Hegel, who systematized the dialectic as a confrontation of, and resolution of, contradictions simplified in Fichte‘s triad of “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis,” a formula Hegel neither used nor liked. For my part, I prefer the terms thesis, negation, and sublation, which instead of being in the simplified form of a triad, go round and round in a circle of endless manifestations of contradictions to be clashed together and sublated, over and over again.

A simple but convenient example of Hegel’s dialectic can be found in his Science of Logic. He opposes being and nothing, which I would represent respectively as the serpent’s biting head and bitten tail. Then, his sublation of these contradictions, becoming, I’d represent as the coiled middle of the ouroboros.

Another example of the ouroboros of philosophy, as seen in Hegelian thought, can be found in his master/slave dialectic. Two men confront each other: a struggle ensues, and one attains mastery over the other. In my ouroboros symbolism, the master is the serpent’s biting head, and the slave is its bitten tail.

Over time, the slave’s creative efforts build up his sense of worth and usefulness to his master, as well as his own recognition of self-consciousness, a moving along the coiled body of the serpent from its tail to its head, to the point where his master finds himself utterly dependent on the slave for recognition of the master’s existence, and for the products the slave makes. Now the slave reaches the serpent’s biting head, and he trades places with his master. The other way to see this trading of places is to imagine the slave going in the opposite direction: right from the bitten tail over to the biting head, an excess of servitude phasing into its dialectical opposite, mastery.

The master/slave dialectic was a great inspiration for Karl Marx, who saw the Labour Theory of Value as the mechanism whereby the proletariat would one day overthrow the bourgeoisie. The workers need to know how it’s the total amount of their socially necessary labour time, not their bosses’ management, that creates value in commodities; and armed with this knowledge, they will be inspired to get organized and bring on a proletarian revolution.

Now, another dialectical shift from the biting head to the bitten tail can be found in Marx’s materialist reaction to Hegel’s philosophical idealism. Marx’s reversal of the notion that the world of ideas, of the spirit, brings about the physical world–typical of religious thinking–and making it instead that it’s the physical (i.e., having a brain) that creates the world of ideas (thinking), was him turning Hegel upside-down, standing him “on his head.” Though as Marx would have had it, Hegel’s dialectic was already “standing on its head,” and Marx simply put the dialectic back on its feet (Marx, pages 19, 102-103).

For Marx, the dialectic presents itself in physical manifestations throughout history, going from the ancient master/slave contradiction to that of the feudal landlord vs. the poor peasant. Within feudalism, though, a growing mercantile class, the first capitalists, would eventually overthrow their feudal lords and become the next ruling class, the bourgeoisie.

The suffering and struggling of those held down by the feudal lord, those including the rising capitalists, are thus symbolized in my system as those moving from the bitten tail of the ouroboros, along its coiled body in the middle, up to its biting head, where they would replace feudalism with capitalism. Such a bourgeois revolution was vividly depicted in Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities.

The bourgeoisie, now the head biting the tail of the proletariat, are no longer revolutionary. The working class has attempted revolution in, for example, the Paris Commune, the USSR, the Eastern Bloc, and Afghanistan‘s attempts at modernization in the late 1970s, but counterrevolution ruined all their hopes. We’ll have to see if a new socialist movement will rescue us all from late stage capitalism, and will sustain itself by repelling all future attempts at counterrevolution.

V: Schopenhauer

Schopenhauer‘s pessimism was inspired by the reading of translations of ancient Buddhist and Hindu texts. Interestingly, his idea of the thing-in-itself, the essence of everything as understood without the deceiving senses, is will, the striving to be alive (“On the Antithesis of Thing in Itself and Appearance,” 1; Schopenhauer, page 55). This conception is in contrast to the Eastern idea that the Oneness of everything, Brahman, Tao, etc., is the source of peace and bliss.

Now, this contrast I speak of is a dialectical one, for Atman, the soul of the willing individual, is to be identified with Brahman, the peaceful Oneness of the universe. The world is will, but it’s also representation, maya, a deception of the senses that, in its illusory nature, causes suffering. One ends suffering by negating the will-to-life, and thus tranquilizing it. When one understands Atman to be the same as Brahman, and to see plurality as an illusion, the ego is neutralized, the selfish desires of the will are extinguished, and one attains nirvana.

So life, for Schopenhauer, is essentially not worth living; being trapped in a body, with all its aches, pains, and ageing, is like being in a penal colony (“On the Suffering of the World,” 9, Schopenhauer, page 49). The extreme sadness such a realization engenders, though–the reaching of the serpent’s bitten tail–isn’t necessarily so bleak. One can pass the tail to the biting head of bliss by, paradoxically, extending one’s suffering, by suffering not all alone, but with other sufferers. Compassion is the basis of moral edification, according to Schopenhauer, and in compassion we find liberation from suffering, since compassion will drive us to end our suffering by ending that of those others we identify with in our pity for them.

The dialectical reaction against Schopenhauer’s pessimism can be seen in Nietzsche’s affirmation of the will-to-life, and his existentialism leads us to the next topic.

VI: From Absurdity to Meaning

In existentialism, one confronts the meaninglessness of life, the bitten tail of the ouroboros, by giving life meaning, one’s own personal purpose, a shift over to the serpent’s biting head. In Kierkegaard‘s Christian existentialism, this giving of meaning to life, as an escape from meaninglessness, is in the form of a leap of faith in God, believing in Him despite a lack of proof of His existence.

With the atheistic existentialism of such writers as Nietzsche and Sartre, though, one lacks the crutch of a leap of faith in God, so one must create one’s own, personal meaning in life. This, after Kierkegaard’s counsel has failed us, means a revolution around the body of the ouroboros, from the biting head after our leap of faith from the tail, going all the way back to that tail the long way, then to go past to the biting head again.

With Camus‘s absurdism, though, even the making of one’s own meaning rests on flimsy ground, since the contradiction between unescapable meaninglessness and man’s need to find meaning is equally unescapable. Camus’s advice, therefore, is to act in defiance against meaninglessness, to strive for flashes of meaning, however evanescent such flashes may be, since one must accept meaninglessness along with our defiance of it.

Just as Sisyphus must endlessly roll that boulder up the hill, only to see it roll back down and to have to roll it up again…and again, and again, and again, so must we go in endless cycles along the coiled body of the ouroboros, shifting past the biting head to the bitten tail, and back around the body to the head again…and again, and again, and again…

Small wonder the ouroboros is a symbol of eternity, Nietzsche’s myth of the eternal recurrence.

VII: Conclusion

So this absurdist advice can be seen as a variation on much of what I reviewed before: Zeno’s paradoxes of walking and getting nowhere, of swift Achilles never catching up to the tortoise, and of a flying, yet motionless arrow. Similarly, one is only certain of one’s existence through one’s extreme doubting; the sublation of two contradictions leads only to a new thesis to be negated and sublated, again and again and again. Will a socialist revolution lead to a classless, stateless, and money-less society? I continue to hope for it, in spite of the miserable state the world is in right now.

In Schopenhauer’s pessimism, the way to blessedness is through compassion, or suffering on a larger, more magnanimous scale; this in a way is strikingly similar to Kierkegaard’s leap of faith (i.e., a faith coupled with deeds of Christian charity), which is odd given Schopenhauer’s atheism…an atheism coupled with the inspiration of Eastern religion! And finding meaning is the solution to the impossibility of ever finding meaning? Again, it sounds like the bitten tail of atheism shifting over to the biting head of theism!

Reflecting on these observations, I find that the unchanging unity of all that Parmenides and Zeno insisted on is actually the ever-changing fluidity of Heraclitus. Parmenides’ stony sphere is really Thales’ water.

Atman = Brahman = anātman

Analysis of ‘Déserts’

I: Introduction

Déserts is a 1950-1954 piece by avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse, scored for fourteen winds (brass and woodwinds), five percussion players (including tympani, xylophone, snare drum, and woodblocks), one piano, and magnetic tape. Deserts, according to Varèse, refer to “not only physical deserts of sand, sea, mountains, and snow, outer space, deserted city streets… but also distant inner space… where man is alone in a world of mystery and essential solitude.”

He elaborated by saying that what he meant by deserts are these: “All those that people traverse or may traverse: physical deserts, on the earth, in the sea, in the sky, of sand, of snow, of interstellar spaces or of great cities, but also those of the human spirit, of that distant inner space no telescope can reach, where one is alone.”

The piece was originally meant to be the soundtrack to a modernist film that was never finished, a film of images of the deserts of the Earth, the underwater sea, and outer space, but most importantly, the deserts of the human mind: his loneliness and alienation, especially after the terrors of the decade that preceded Déserts‘s composition: concentration camps, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, etc.

The piece is divided into seven sections, an alternation of four “Episodes” of music performed live by the ensemble of winds, piano, and percussion, with one of three “Interpolations” of magnetic tape recordings coming between each pair of “Episodes.” So Déserts is structured thus:

1st Episode
1st Interpolation of Organized Sound
2nd Episode
2nd Interpolation
3rd Episode
3rd Interpolation
4th Episode

Déserts is one of Varèse’s most radical pieces of music (and that says a lot, given the already experimental nature of the music he’d already composed before the 1950s). For in this piece, he introduces the use of pre-recorded sounds, a result of an anonymous gift of a tape recorder, which revived his musical inspiration, allowing him to compose music that would further advance its frontiers and experimental potential.

Until the 1950s, Varèse had been frustrated with the limitations of the technology of the time to produce the kind of new music he’d wanted to create. He was tiring of using the instruments of the orchestra, particularly the string section, which he’d used only sparingly (Amériques, Arcana, Offrandes, or the double bass in Octandre). The use of two ondes Martenots (or theremins, depending on the version) in Ecuatorial was something of an advance, but he needed more.

Hence, when Varèse should have been at the height of his creative powers, he actually composed very little, that is, in the 1940s. There was an ambitious idea, Etude pour Espace, that was never finished (<this arrangement of part of Espace was done in 2009). There was the Dance for Burgess (i.e., for Burgess Meredith), and Tuning Up (which was only sketched by Varèse, and completed by Chou Wen-chung in 1998).

But the totally new sound possibilities given to him through the tape recorder gift brought Varèse back. He regained his Muse, and created not only Déserts, but also Poème electronique in 1957-1958, for magnetic tape exclusively.

To understand Déserts, one must understand Varèse’s music in general, and for the uninitiated, such a general understanding is especially urgent, given how daunting this music will sound when heard for the first time. Frank Zappa was one of Varèse’s biggest and most famous fans, and he himself (also a composer and conductor of orchestral music) admitted that he couldn’t give “any structural insights or academic suppositions” as to how Varèse’s music works or why he liked it. As a teen, Zappa liked it simply for how ‘weird’ it sounded. Varèse’s music, Zappa says, is “completely unique.” If a fan like Zappa couldn’t explain Varèse’s music, the uninitiated will need insights far more desperately.

So I’ll try my best to give those insights myself.

II: Varèse’s Musical Language

To begin by painting with large brushstrokes, Varèse’s music is characterized by huge, dissonant sonorities and an extensive use of percussion, which isn’t generally used to punctuate rhythm, but rather to exploit and explore all the varieties of timbre it can provide. The dissonant sonorities are usually given through stentorian horns and shrill, sustained notes on woodwinds.

Varèse radically redefined music to mean “organized sound,” with a foreword-looking disregard for traditional notions of flowing, lyrical melodies, tonality, classical forms (sonata-allegro, binary, ternary, rondo, etc.), rhythm, or conventional groupings of instruments. Those huge, dissonant sonorities that I described above have come to be termed “sound masses.”

These sound masses of loud, dissonant brass and woodwinds tend to be contrasted with softer sections of individual, or small groupings of, percussion instruments (snare drum rolls, the quick tapping back and forth between differently pitched wood blocks, etc.) or solo woodwinds (flute, piccolo, or clarinet) playing long, sustained notes before the next loud, dissonant outburst. This shifting, from the softer passages of individual instruments to the large, loud groupings of horns and woodwinds, has been compared to natural processes of crystallization.

Varèse had an interest in science, and this interest naturally had an influence on how he chose to structure his compositions. So in the softer passages, the individual sounds can be likened to atoms and molecules; and the large, dissonant sound masses can be likened to the solids, the crystals formed out of those atoms and molecules. Smaller groupings of instruments can be seen to represent the middle phases of the solidifying process.

Varèse conceived of music as “sound as living matter.” So when we hear the crystallization of his sound masses, we can think of them as his intention to create living beings, so to speak. We should remember this when we look into Déserts specifically, a work about deserts of the mind, of people who are alone.

The basic parameters of Varèse’s music are duration, intensity, frequency, and timbre (sometimes space is considered, as in Espace, though the full exploitation of spatial effects in music has been the domain of such successors of Varèse as Karlheinz Stockhausen: listen to a live performance of Gruppen to get my point). For Varèse, these four parameters are all given equal importance.

Duration for Varèse isn’t subservient to traditional notions of rhythm or metre. One doesn’t usually tap one’s foot to Varèse. Instead, duration is more about holding notes at varying, sustained lengths. A note may be held, or repeated in short dots of sound, over a period of many seconds, rather than played to a beat–be this the regular beat of conventional music, or the asymmetric rhythms of, say, Stravinsky. As with the other three parameters, Varèse’s use of duration is generally divorced from conventional notions of ‘expressivity,’ which is not to say that his music lacks expressiveness, but rather that Varèse expresses himself in an entirely different way from the expression of the past.

Intensity for Varèse is his use of soft and loud dynamics. Interestingly, changes in dynamics on an instrument also result in changes in that instrument’s timbre. Don’t assume Varèse never toyed with the interrelation between intensity and timbre.

Frequency for Varèse is much more than just pitch. Sounds can be anything from the lowest to the highest frequencies, not necessarily with definite pitches. Sounds are made up of complex wave forms with multiple frequencies (i.e., the fundamental and overtone series), not just a single wave form. So in frequency, just as in intensity, we can find an overlap with timbre, something Varèse was deeply interested in exploiting to the maximum.

But frequency in terms of pitch alone in Varèse’s music leaves plenty to elaborate on. There is melody in Varèse–not nearly as much as in the music of his contemporaries, much less than that of those before him–but there is some. Varèse’s use of melody is unconventional, of course, using wide leaps and such dissonant intervals as minor 9ths, major 7ths, and minor 2nds. He also sometimes made use of the idée fixe, as in Arcana and Amériques.

Harmonically, Varèse’s music is obviously not tonal. It isn’t necessarily always atonal, either, though. There are ever-so-brief occasions when a melody or harmonic combination may seem tonic…then a cluster of dissonances will remind us we’re listening to Varèse. Consider the opening clarinet melody in Intégrales, which sounds like the 3rd, 7th, and upper tonic notes of a dominant 7th chord; then dissonances in the brass and woodwinds quickly dispel the aural illusion.

The fact is that Varèse didn’t conform to any harmonic system, traditional or non-traditional: not tonality, not Schoenberg‘s twelve-tone system, not Bartók‘s axis system, not Messiaen‘s modes of limited transposition, not the polytonality of Stravinsky or Milhaud–nothing remotely like any of these. Varèse seemed to be content to let the notes fall in any old way, because he’d always been more interested in frequency as an expression of timbre than of pitch. His use of sirens, as representations of a continuum pitch beyond twelve-tone equal temperament, should help us better to know how to think about his choices of pitch, rather than any use of scales or chords.

And finally, we come to what was perhaps Varèse’s favourite musical parameter, timbre. His fascination with timbre is why he used such an extensive number of percussion instruments in his works. Recall that one of Varèse’s most famous pieces, Ionisation, is to be played only by percussionists; these instruments are supplemented by such noisemakers as high and low sirens, two anvils, and a whip. Piano is also used, but not in its conventional, melodic way: it’s used as just another percussion instrument.

In his Densité 21,5 for solo platinum flute, again, though we hear monophonic melody throughout, the focus is on intensity and timbre. He was exploiting all the sound possibilities to be produced on the instrument, including tapping effects on the low finger keys about a third of the way into the piece.

Finally, as can be heard in Poème électronique and the three interpolations of organized sound in Déserts, Varèse uses electronically altered sound recordings on tape as an example of his love of exploiting timbre to maximum effect. Always remember that for Varèse, music is the organization of sound. Don’t listen for pretty, lyrical melodies (though that sort of thing can appear from time to time in his work–there is, after all, that one early work of his, written in a Romantic idiom, that he didn’t destroy, Un grand sommeil noir for voice and piano); listen instead for fascinating and imaginative manipulations of sound.

III: Déserts

Varèse’s discussion, in the above quotes, of deserts on the earth, in the sky, of sand, of snow, of interstellar space, etc., all seem to be metaphors for the deserts of the lonely human mind. On some level, this being alone could be manifested in the solitude of hermits and mystics; but the connotations of deserts suggest emptiness, lifelessness, purposeless stasis, and a sadness from being alone. The mystic’s solitude could be seen as an attempt to escape that sadness.

I will attempt, in my personal interpretation of Déserts, to find symbolism for this loneliness, as well as for mystical attempts to attain peace, in the musical structure of the piece. To begin with, note how there is no integration of the ensemble playing with the three interpolations of musique concrète. Such a division between these two ways of producing organized sound symbolically suggests a mutual alienation between people…and there’s nothing like alienation to provoke feelings of loneliness.

Déserts is probably Varèse’s most radical example of experimental music, of a break from almost every conceivable notion of tradition in music. Apart from the by-now-typical unorthodox instrumentation (no string section, extensive percussion as an integral part of the soundscape), as well as the introduction of tape recordings, he breaks even further with tradition here.

There is virtually no melody in this piece, except for a few ever so brief moments of rising and falling notes, including the lead-ups to those discordant fanfares, as Samuel Andreyev so aptly calls them. If melody is musical line, that is, curvy contours of notes going up and down in diatonic or chromatic steps or leaps, then the musical lines in Déserts were mostly drawn with a ruler, so to speak. We constantly get notes sustained or repeated in one pitch. Once again, his main interest is exploring timbre, durations, and intensities, not musical themes in the conventional sense.

Granted, there are a number of moments in the piece when we hear a woodwind or brass instrument play an alternation of notes a half-step from each other, going up and down several times (for example, the B-flat clarinet in bar 205). There are also two moments, in bars 45-46 and later in bars 50-58, when notes of an octatonic scale are heard in two separate transitions: first, G, B-flat, C-sharp, D, B-natural, and F; then, A-flat, G, and B-flat. But such moments as these are far more the exception than the rule in Déserts.

So, with single notes sustained or repeated on individual instruments making up most of the thematic material (except for the percussion sections and the fanfares, which will be dealt with later), we can see in each of these individual notes a symbol of aloneness.

Added to these lonely notes is a number of mirror chords, that is, chords whose notes reflect the same intervallic relationships among them. One example occurs in the first twenty bars of Déserts: in the bass clef, there is a stack of perfect fifths–D, A, and E; then, in the treble clef, there’s another stack of perfect fifths–F, C, and G. These six notes are static, unmoving during the beginning, except for the later addition of a B-flat, a B-natural, and a C-sharp. The diatonic mirror chord–opening the piece with Fs and Gs in the tubular bells (or chimes), xylophone, piano, piccolo, and B-flat clarinet, and later adding the other notes–symbolizes the lonely person looking in a mirror, seeing only himself instead of looking at others.

IV: Conscious vs Unconscious Varèse

Now, Varèse’s musical philosophy was such that one didn’t need to compose pieces with traditional notions of melody, harmony, rhythm, or conventional orchestration to move one’s listeners emotionally. Nonetheless, there’s the listener’s perspective on the matter as well as that of the composer, and the latter cannot realistically be expected to be oblivious to the attitude of the former.

Varèse may have consciously been dismissive of the idea that only conventional musical arrangements will move the listener in the desired, intended way; but there’s conscious intent and unconscious intent, too. Varèse may have been consciously unruffled by the vehemently negative reactions to his works when premiered before conservative audiences (and Déserts received one of those sadly typical responses); but this doesn’t mean he wasn’t at least unconsciously affected by that negativity.

There must have been something in his unconscious mind reacting with a ‘screw you’ attitude to the rejections he was getting from his audiences during those early performances of his work. Such mutual feelings of alienation between composer and audience, however unconscious and repressed for him, must have come out in its culmination in Déserts, through its extreme experimentation, even by Varèse’s standards, in its paucity of melody and gentle lyricism. He as an avant-gardist must have been in a mental desert of his own, which influenced how he wrote the piece.

Those sound masses of loud, dissonant fanfares are his crystallizations of “sound as living matter.” They are the children he’s sired, so to speak. They come into being between the quieter sections (for the most part), and therefore each sound mass, as a ‘living being,’ stands alone, in solitude, in a state of loneliness, surrounded by relative quiet on either side in musical time, a relative silence suggesting desolation. The fanfares are loud, dissonant sound masses because, experiencing the birth trauma of their crystallization, they’re screaming in pain. Existence is pain, as the Buddha observed.

Varèse surely didn’t consciously have this meaning for the sound masses; they’re just ‘organized sounds.’ Indeed, he once said that his music doesn’t tell any kind of story or have any kind of programmatic meaning; it’s just his music. Still, my interpretation, or something at least similar to it, surely is what the listener is imagining when hearing the sound masses in Déserts. Varèse, having grown accustomed to violent reactions against his musical experimentation, must have been sensitive to, and been anticipating, such reactions. All the same, he persisted in composing as he did, not just for the sake of experimenting, as he consciously conceived it, but as I suspect, unconsciously as an act of defiance against his conservative critics. This must, at least in part, have been what he meant when he famously said, “the present day composer refuses to die.”

V: Mystical Varèse

The quieter sections for percussion, especially those at the end of the third and fourth episodes, give a most vivid sense of loneliness and isolation, the deserts of desolation. On the other hand, there are also moments that seem to allude to a sense of mystical solitude, an urge to rise to a higher spiritual plane of existence. This surely is what the All Music Guide means when it says of Déserts, “The orchestra part expresses the gradual advance of mankind toward spiritual sunlight.” I’ve noticed several passages that suggest such an interpretation.

First, there are the opening tubular bells in F and G. They suggest church bells, ringing to summon the faithful but lonely to enter and receive edification. Then, there’s the association one can make of those horn fanfares with the arrival of the nobility. Their dissonance suggests pain, as I mentioned above, yet pain and suffering are also ennobling.

Finally, there’s the slow, gradual ascent of the following notes (mentioned in this video at about 12:05), buried in the first mirror chord mentioned above and the first two fanfares: C-sharp, D, E-flat, E-natural, F, F-sharp, and G. The burying of these rising notes symbolizes the mystery of spiritual ascent. In fact, the video linked above also mentions (at about 11:45) this chromatic rising as within the second fanfare, whose pitches are also all rising together.

Added to this idea of rising spiritually is how certain instrumentation, especially at the beginning, all play the same notes (if in different octaves), and at the same time, or at similar times. I’m thinking of the opening F and G notes in the tubular bells, xylophone, piano, B-flat clarinet and piccolo. Later, in bars 48-49 (see 15:26 of this video), we hear trombones and tympani playing major third intervals together (D-flat and F) in 5/4 time. This playing of the same notes by different instruments, when understood in relation to the notion of spiritual ascendance, can be seen to symbolize compassion and sympathy, which Schopenhauer deemed to be the basis of all morality.

VI: the Interpolations

The three musique concrète sections make use of sounds derived from factory noises and percussion instruments. The electronic alterations of these sounds seem to consist of a heavy use of reverb, echo, and distortion.

The sounds can be described, for the most part, as abrasive, percussive, and glissading. All three interpolations have at least a few manifestations of all three of these kinds of sounds, while the first has predominantly abrasive sounds, the second has more of the percussive kind than the other two sounds, and the third has more glissandi than the other two. A considerable number of abrasive sounds can be heard in all three interpolations, even if that sound isn’t always dominant.

That many of the sounds are derived from factory noises is thematically significant, given the context that Déserts is about the ‘deserts of the mind,’ a world of being alone. I mentioned alienation above, which is an especially modern problem considering the experience of workers in the world of industrial capitalism. Think of all those lonely, alienated workers in factories: hearing factory noises in Déserts is thus poignantly appropriate.

The abrasiveness of the sounds in all three interpolations, especially the first, is also significant in terms of what it can be seen to symbolize. The scratching, scraping, screeching metallic sounds evoke the harsh life of the factory worker, compounding his lonely misery. Such observations make me understand Varèse’s use of dissonance as more than just a transcending of the limitations of conventional harmony: the discords of the instrumental music shriek pain, just as these scraping sounds do in the interpolations.

The abrasive sounds are drawn out and sustained; when the instruments return in the second episode, we hear an abundance of sustained, dissonant combinations of notes played on the woodwinds and brass. So the second episode begins with a continuation of sustained, harsh sounds; this continuation of sustained harshness from the first interpolation to the second episode suggests the emotional effect of factory life on all the lonely people, whom I’ve described above as being symbolized by the crystallizations of loud, screaming fanfares of brass and woodwinds. Indeed, the loudness is sustained for quite a while in the first half of the second episode, before a substantial moment of relative quiet. That pain from factory life persists in one’s mind.

The second interpolation starts with much of the abrasive sound of the first, before the percussive sounds predominate. These sounds, presumably electronically altered xylophone and wood blocks, among other instruments, suggest again the toil of the workers hammering nails, anvils, etc. So we have a continuation of the theme of the plight of the lonely worker. These hammering sounds are carried on in the beginning of the third episode by the percussionists, with loud banging on the tympani, then later tapping on the xylophone.

The third interpolation seems, to a great extent, to be a fusion of the abrasive, percussive, and glissading sound effects, these last of the three coming more into prominence later on. The electronically altered glissandi seem like screams and wails of pain and suffering, the pain of the factory worker who is alienated from his work, from his coworkers, and from his species-essence. The very use of the then-new technology of magnetic tape, to produce harsh sound effects, is itself symbolic of how new technology can be, and often is, used to cause suffering, as in factories, with bombs, and modern surveillance.

VII: Conclusion

The fourth and final episode has a few more screams of fanfare pain in between moments of relative quiet, those quiet moments representing, as I mentioned above, isolating spaces between each crystallization of a lonely person shouting in agony. This continuation of ‘screams’ from the third interpolation and the fourth episode again suggests the emotional effect of factory life on the workers.

The piece ends with a long passage of quiet, using soft, sustained notes in the woodwinds and brass with intervals reminding us of the opening ninths and fifths in the first episode. These similarities between the beginning and ending of Déserts mean that the work has come full circle: the attempt to overcome the static, purposeless, lonely life through mysticism and religiosity seems to have failed (i.e., no chiming tubular bells are to be heard at the end–no ‘church’ to give guidance to the lonely).

This sustained softness, of relative silence, emphasizes the sense of aloneness, the empty deserts of the mind. Varèse composed Déserts not long after the devastation of WWII, so its horrors would not have been far from his thoughts. During this time, he complained about the conformist, conservative, money-oriented world he was living in.

These themes of loneliness, emptiness, and alienation make Déserts an especially relevant piece of music for our times in the 2020s, when we’re all being made to wear masks, practice social distancing, endure lockdowns, receive vaccinations that many fear haven’t been sufficiently tested, and–as many suspect–aren’t effective against new variants, and to risk losing our work and our homes. Whether one supports or is opposed to these new measures is irrelevant to my point, which is that the controversy is dividing us and alienating us from each other even more. Late stage capitalism is a desert all of its own.

May music like Déserts, Varèse’s appeal for a purer world, inspire us all to end our loneliness, and come back together as a global, human community.

Analysis of ‘Blowup’

Blowup is a 1966 mystery thriller film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, with a screenplay by him and Tonino Guerra, and dialogue by Edward Bond, based on the short story “Las babas del diablo” (1959), by Julio Cortázar. It is Antonioni’s first entirely English language film.

The film stars David Hemmings, with Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, John Castle, and Peter Bowles. A performance by the Yardbirds is featured towards the end, while the non-diegetic music was composed by Herbie Hancock.

Blowup won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The partial nudity and sexual content of the film defied the prudish Production Code of Hollywood, while its critical and box office success helped bring about the Code’s demise. Blowup influenced such films as The Conversation and Blow Out. Sight and Sound ranked the film #144 in its poll of the world’s greatest films.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

To understand this enigmatic film, it helps to get acquainted with Cortázar’s enigmatic short story. The English translation, by Paul Blackburn, is also titled “Blow-up,” but the Spanish title means “The Drool of the Devil,” which refers not only to an older man in a car who seems to have lecherous designs on a teenage boy (more on that later), but also to the transient, evanescent existence of the drool, or spittle–“angel-spittle…devil-spit,” as Blackburn translates it at the bottom of page 109 (page 7 of the PDF, link above). This notion of transience, of evanescence, impermanence, the ephemeral, will be a dominant theme in both the short story and the film.

The narrator of the short story, French-Chilean translator/amateur photographer Roberto Michel–the filmic equivalent being London fashion photographer Thomas (Hemmings)–begins by struggling, in a state of great mental agitation, with how to tell his story. He’s even indecisive about whether to narrate it in the first or third person: he ends up alternating between the two throughout.

This switching back and forth between the first and third person narratives suggests a state of depersonalization, which is fitting given how traumatizing he finds the events following his taking of a picture of a teenage boy and his elder seductress (in a park on the Île Saint-Louis); his blowing up of the photo traumatizes Michel so much that he has a psychotic break with reality.

Indeed, several days after taking the photo, Michel blows it up in his room to scrutinize a detail of it, then he has a hallucination of the moving leaves of a tree in the photo’s background, of the woman’s hands moving, and of a man stepping into the picture. Michel speculates, to his horror, that this man is a pederast who has used the woman to help him seduce the boy, who has run away in terror as soon as the photo is taken. Michel’s photo shoot has saved the boy from the intended sexual abuse, apparently, but Michel has also lost his mind in the process of figuring out what (he thinks) has happened.

Michel’s loss of his grip on reality is the basis for understanding what happens in the film with Thomas, and his belief that his taking of photographs of a young woman (Redgrave) and her elder male lover in a London park–obviously the film’s equivalent of the short story’s boy and seductress–has prevented, or at least delayed, a murder (the gunman hiding in the bushes being the film’s equivalent of the pederast). Just as Michel, in his mental instability, is an unreliable (first or third) person narrator, so is Thomas’s perception of the details of his blown-up photos (and his account of his trip to the park at night, where he sees the dead body of the woman’s elder lover) unreliable.

Michel, prior to his taking of the picture of the woman and boy, is fully confident in his perception of visual reality; by the time he’s seen the blown-up photo, he’s lost that confidence. At the beginning of the film, Thomas is not only confident in his abilities as a photographer and in his visual perceptiveness, but he’s outright cocky and egotistical; by the end of the film, he has failed in his search for a deeper meaning in his photography, he’s become disillusioned with reality in general, and his dissolving into the green grass background represents the dissolution of his ego (more on that later).

So, if Michel has saved the boy from being raped by the pederast, why is he so upset over what he has seen? A hint can be found, I think, in his extensive, meditative description of the boy on pages 105-106 (page 5 of this PDF). Michel says “the boy was well enough dressed”; “it was pleasant to see the fingers of the gloves sticking out of his jacket pocket” (Could the glove fingers be phallic symbols?). The boy’s face, in profile, was “a terrified bird, a Fra Filippo angel, rice pudding with milk” (this last metaphor seeming to describe a creamy smooth cheek). The boy is “an adolescent who wants to take up judo,” suggesting he has a good body, or is at least working to build a good body. His home has “romantic landscapes on the walls”; he’s “mama’s hope…looking like dad.” Then there’s “the pornographic magazine folded four ways”.

From quotes such as these we can glean that Michel has revealed, through Freudian slips in the erotic connotations and imagery of his word choices, that it is he who has pederastic desires for the boy. As for the man in the car, who knows for sure what he is doing or thinking; perhaps, at the worst, he wants to watch the woman (his wife?) make love with the boy. Who knows? Does it even matter?

Considering Michel’s mental instability and hallucinating, we can have no doubt that he’s an unreliable narrator, so his belief that the man in the car is a pederast is on, at best, flimsy ground, if not outright baseless fantasy. Michel’s way of mitigating his guilty lust, therefore, is to project it onto the man; such an explanation would account for his mental breakdown (I’m not alone in the speculative opinion that he has repressed homosexual feelings), for even the hallucinatory projection wouldn’t eradicate the guilt from Michel’s unconscious completely. Repressed feelings always reappear in conscious thought, though in such unrecognized forms as projection and Freudian slips.

And just as Michel projects his guilty thoughts onto the man in his blown-up photo, so does Thomas on the imagined gunman in all of his blown-up photos, too. Thomas fantasizes that a gunman hiding in the bushes wants to shoot the woman’s elderly lover, but it is Thomas who has been shooting them…though with a camera instead of a gun.

We see photos of the woman looking apprehensively at Thomas, looking right into his camera, and of her looking in profile at the bushes, where the supposed gunman is; but I believe this second photo, and those that more explicitly show the gunman, are figments of Thomas’s imagination, at least in terms of how he interprets the meaning of those grainy, imprecise splotches of black and white in his photo blow-ups. He is projecting his intrusion, on the lovers’ privacy, onto the imagined gunman, as a way to mitigate his own guilty trespassing.

Now, why has Thomas–who until now hasn’t cared about how disrespectfully he’s treated his (generally female) models–suddenly become troubled about the situation with this woman in the park? Because unlike all those submissive “birds” who take shit from him all the time (i.e., his bossing them around, his objectifying of them, his inconsiderate tardiness for a shoot with Veruschka or his leaving a group of models in the lurch with their eyes closed), this woman complains of his unfair treatment of her. She demands to be treated with more respect; she fights for her rights. Unlike the models he dehumanizes, she demands, as a feminist would, to be treated like a human being, and this touches him.

Michel, at least unconsciously, treats the boy–Michel’s “angel…with his tousled hair” (page 113, or page 9 of the PDF–link above)–as an object, then his guilty conscience causes him to have a psychotic episode. Thomas objectifies the woman in the park, making her one of his models without her permission; and her assertion of her rights forces him to rethink his own relationship with the world…and with reality.

So Michel’s psychotic break with reality, based on a projection of his pederastic guilt onto the man in the car, is paralleled in the film with Thomas’s faltering sense of reality, based on a projection of his guilt onto an imagined gunman. This faltering sense of reality becomes the thematic basis for Antonioni’s film.

While Michel’s break with reality is blatant, with his hallucinations of his photo blow-up turning into a movie of sorts of a pederast’s attempt at a seduction, Thomas’s break with reality is far more subtle. Indeed, Antonioni’s film lies on the cusp between reality and non-reality. We don’t see anything surreal or hallucinatory, but we see realities that contradict–or at least seem to contradict–each other.

The theme of transience–of evanescence and impermanence, that short-lived spittle–is apparent in many forms throughout Blowup. The film begins with the credits against a background of the grass of the London park, Maryon Park in Charlton, to be exact; with Antonioni having had the grass painted a more vivid green, he’s given the park an Edenic quality (more on that later).

We see a car passing by, overflowing with boisterous people dressed as mimes. We will see them again, with that green grass, at the end, making the film come full circle.

Thomas appears leaving a flophouse with a group of impoverished men. He being as filthy and dishevelled as they are, we assume he’s as destitute as they are, since we don’t yet know anything about him, including the camera he has hidden in a crumpled-up paper bag.

Soon, though, we see him driving a nice-looking car after having sneaked away from the poor men. He isn’t destitute at all, with that fine automobile: we’ve seen the first of many examples of shifting, transient realities, or evanescent perceptions of them.

He arrives late for a photo shoot with Veruschka, as noted above, and he couldn’t care less about how annoyed and inconvenienced she is for having been kept waiting for so long. All that matters to Thomas is himself, not any of these “bitches.”

When he’s taking pictures of her, he gets closeups of her lying supine on the floor while he’s on top of her. Their positions, combined with his enthusiasm and excitement at her inspiring poses (as well as with his kissing of her a couple of times, and her outfit, which reveals along the side openings that she’s naked under it), means that this photo session is symbolic of, if not almost literally, him fucking her.

An important point must be made in connection with this juxtaposition of closeup camera shots and of his virtual shooting in orgasm. The taking of a photograph is a capturing of a millisecond moment, to be preserved in a permanent form…that is, one intended to be permanent, one desired to be permanent.

Buddhism teaches us that nothing is permanent, and that attachment to things, none of which can last forever, leads to suffering. Thomas the self-centred, sexist egotist, in practically screwing his model (including in the figurative sense of having made her wait an hour), is bursting with desire for her and for all the photos he’s taking, those evanescent moments he’s so attached to.

Still, he wants something more from his art than just taking pictures of (in his opinion) vapid fashion models. He wants to find a greater meaning. So he leaves a group of them–whom he’s been barking orders at and told to keep their eyes closed while they wait for him to return, which will be never–to wander off to an antiques shop…then, to that park.

Just as he treats his models like commodities (and fetishizes them accordingly, as described above), so does Thomas fetishize literal commodities, be they the use-values that his painter friend, Bill (Castle), paints and only later makes sense of what he’s painted (and won’t sell to Thomas), or the exchange values he finds, like the propellor, in the antiques shop. Just as he’s into his own ego, so is he into things; this craving, this attachment to what is perceived as having a state of permanent fixity–be they things or his own ego–is what he must overcome to rid himself of his unhappiness and emptiness.

He goes up into that park that he’ll later describe to Ron (Bowles) as “very peaceful, very still.” Indeed, there’s something symbolic of the Garden of Eden in this place, with not only its trees and pre-Fall serenity, but also the two frolicking lovers, who in this context correspond to Adam and Eve.

Such a scenario would make Thomas into Yahweh, “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3: 8) with his camera to intrude on the lovers. They hear his sound, and the woman is especially apprehensive, as if caught naked and wishing to hide as Adam and Eve did. The imagined gunman in the bushes is thus the devilish serpent, linking him with the devilish ‘pederast,’ and his spit, in Cortázar’s story.

Thomas has ruined paradise for the lovers, in his egotistical wish to steal their moment for his new collection of photos. Her complaining of his taking their pictures without their permission–to the point of following him to his home and continuing, with great agitation and even an offer of her body to him, to get the photos back–has planted the seed in his mind that his ill treatment of people, especially of women, is a judgement on him. In his egotism, he’d rather project his guilt than confront it.

This is why his projection of that guilt onto an imagined gunman is so important to him. This woman, Jane, has presented herself to him as a complete human being, as more than just one of those “birds,” his models. He realizes there’s a real person in that attractive body, with wants and needs just like him.

Everyone else is just somebody he uses to advance his career whichever way he can advance it; but Jane shows agency–she doesn’t just passively react to him and his whims, she moves right into his personal space and demands her rights be respected. He doesn’t normally experience this sort of thing, so she’s pulled him out of his solipsism. He has to acknowledge the existence of other people.

To give another example of the ephemeral in his presentation of the truth, Thomas–as he gets to know Jane in his home–speaks of a person on the phone as his wife. Then he admits to lying about that, saying they only have some kids out of wedlock. Then he admits this is a lie, too, but that she’s easy to live with…then he admits she isn’t easy to live with, and he doesn’t live with her. The ‘truth’ keeps changing, and changing, and changing. He has no qualms about lying to her at first, but her humanity is forcing him to admit to his lies.

Why she is so anxious to get the photos from him is never revealed–recall that his belief that a murder has been committed, that she’s supposedly trying to conceal, is just his interpretation of the sin committed. In fact, her dalliance with the elder lover, the one believed to be murdered, could simply be an affair she doesn’t want displayed in Thomas’s photos. After all, she tells him she doesn’t live alone. At her age, she thus is presumably married, and the man in the park is her paramour.

So once she’s left his home with the (wrong) negatives and he has received from her the (wrong) name and phone number he wants so he can contact her again (Note how their attempts at connection are vitiated by their dishonesty with each other, a symptom of alienation!), he goes to examine the park photos. He marks one of them, something he wants to see enlarged, and he blows up the photo.

This blowup leads to the enlargement of several photos, with which he constructs, in his mind, the narrative of someone hiding in the bushes. The details of these black-and-white photos are vague, blurry, and grainy, so the image of a man’s head and hand (supposedly holding a gun and pointing it at Jane’s lover) is far from certain.

The central point of Blowup is how huge the disparity is between reality and our perception of it. Thomas is trying to glean a hidden reality from split-second images forever caught in a state of fixity; but reality is never fixed or frozen…it is fluid, ever-shifting and changing. Those white spots that, to him, look like a man’s head and hand could actually just be the light reflecting off the leaves of the bushes.

When we see Jane’s photo in profile, her seeming to look in agitation at the bushes where the ‘gunman’ is hiding, for all we know, she could have just swung her head around for any old reason, and the photo just caught her head in that split-second position as a pure coincidence. Or that particular photo could be a figment of Thomas’s imagination, a mental duplicate of the real photo of her looking directly at his camera, at him, agitated that he’s taking pictures of her and her lover without their consent.

Thomas’s experience of Jane as a real, flesh-and-blood human being, and not a model (despite his attempts to make her into one), has caused him to feel a kind of remorse that has made his unconscious create another man in the bushes (recall that Thomas was in the bushes, too, as he took a few pictures) on whom he can project his guilt. He thinks his blowups are uncovering a deeper truth, but actually they’re making him stray further and further away from the truth.

Consider how those vague splotches of white, the ‘hand’ in particular, are further enlarged to reveal, in precise detail, a hand holding a pistol with a silencer on it, aiming it at Jane’s lover. How do we go from a blurry splotch of white, only vaguely suggesting a hand, to so exact an image of a hand holding a gun? The enlarged splotch should become only a larger one; no details can be revealed from it…that is, except in Thomas’s overactive imagination.

Thomas fails to understand from all of this that no photograph can capture an ever-flowing and ever-changing reality; a photo can only represent it, give an impression of it. Such an understanding is the basis of impressionist art: painters such as Monet knew that no painting could ever capture a scene in all truthfulness because of how such things as the wind blowing at leaves changes their position, or how light reflects off of things differently from second to second because of such changes in position. So Monet could only paint ‘impressions‘ of natural scenes–hence the blurry look of his and other impressionist works. Thomas’s wish to capture truth in a state of fixity is the basis of his deluded sense of reality, a delusion grounded in desire and attachment.

Speaking of Thomas’s desire, two teenage girls, aspiring models to whom he earlier wouldn’t give the time of day, suddenly appear at his door, hoping he’ll do a photo shoot of them. While Jane, in her pressing to have him acknowledge her rights, has affected him somewhat, he’s still largely the same self-centred man who uses girls for his pleasure, then kicks them out of his home as soon as he’s had his fun with them.

In his narcissism, he’s imagined that he saved the life of whoever the ‘gunman’ intended to kill; now, in his continuing narcissism, he’s going to enjoy these two teenage “birds” with little, if any, thought as to whether they are willing to give themselves to him (apart from a wish to further their modelling careers).

Since his sense of reality has begun to fade with his shaky, fantasied grasp of the meaning of the photos, we can easily assume that his romp with the two girls–on that large piece of purple construction paper, symbolic of a bedsheet–is distorted by his narcissistic wish to believe they want to have sex with him as much as he does with them. It’s far from likely that the sex was consensual, especially if the girls are underage. Consider how frightened the topless blonde is when he makes sexual advances on her; he thinks she’s playing hard to get…I don’t think so. She and the other girl switch from fear to giggles far too fast for it to be believable; I think he’s imagining the giggles, which may have been more like screams.

Still, just before he kicks them out, having blamed them for tiring him out, he sees something new in one of the photos, something suggesting he failed to protect the victim of the shooting of the ‘gunman,’ thus deflating his narcissistic fantasy that his impromptu photo shoot has made him a hero. Since Jane’s protestations against Thomas have led him to see a disturbing projection of his guilt, has his sexual encounter with the girls–bordering on, if not lapsing into, the realm of rape–provoked further unconscious guilt in him, which he’s now projecting onto the ‘gunman’ having succeeded in killing Jane’s lover?

In Cortázar’s story, Michel’s break with reality comes from, in my interpretation, a projection of his pederastic desire for the teen boy onto the man in the car. In Antonioni’s film, I see a parallel process going on with Thomas’s taking advantage of the teen girls, then finding his own grip on reality slipping further, all because of his projected, unconscious guilt. His phallic camera took shots of Jane and her elderly lover, his literal phallus took shots inside the girls, and now he projects his shots onto the phallic pistol of the imagined gunman.

Indeed, Thomas returns to the park that night, and he sees the corpse of Jane’s lover lying supine on the grass by a bush. I believe Thomas has imagined the body: I find it unlikely that the man was shot dead in the morning (presumably when Jane was trying to retrieve the camera from Thomas at the stairs of the park, our not hearing the gunshot being due to the silencer on the pistol), and that the body lay there all day, never noticed until Thomas finds it in the dark. (The park, lacking lampposts, would be much darker than what we see, which is because of the lighting of the film crew.) The darkness thus has facilitated his hallucination.

He goes back home after hearing a twig snap nearby (either imagined by him, or caused by something completely other than, presumably, the ‘gunman’ trying to sneak up on him); then he visits Bill’s home, where he sees him making love with Patricia (Miles). The juxtaposition of sex with killing is curiously recurrent in this film: just as Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit can be seen as symbolic of sex, and this leading to them losing their immortality, so do sexual encounters lead to some sense of death, or are at least associated with death, in Blowup. Certainly, Thomas’s sense of reality is dying, with all of this sex going on. Desire in an impermanent world leads to suffering, or the death of happiness.

He returns home, only to find it burgled: all of his enlarged photos (save the closeup of the ‘corpse’ by the bush), as well as his negatives, have been stolen. Presumably Jane, who’s realized he cheated her in giving her the wrong negatives, has sent someone to burgle his home, in my interpretation, to conceal her affair with the elder man, but in Thomas’s, to remove evidence of the murder she’s implicated in.

Thomas feels an attachment to his interpretation (i.e., that the splotch of light by the bush in the enlarged photo is the dead body of Jane’s lover), so the theft of his proof of the ‘murder’ is the frustration of that desire, the denial of indulging his attachment, which leads to suffering in the Buddhist sense. His grip on the reality he is so used to is slipping. Slavoj Zižek writes, “the body is, according to the code of the detective novel, the object of desire par excellence, the cause that starts the interpretive desire of the detective…” (Zižek, page 143)

Patricia, who noticed Thomas watching her when Bill was on top of her, comes to his home to ask him why he went to Bill’s home. In this scene, Thomas tells her about his conviction that a murder was committed in the park. He speaks to her with uncharacteristic respect: all other women, no more beautiful than she is, are called “love” or “bird” by him, or are barked at by him. He is so shaken by his interpretation of the photos, as depicting a murder, that they have transformed him.

They have transformed him, of course, because he has transformed them. In chapter one of Transformations: Change from Learning to Growth, WR Bion discusses such things as, on the one hand, a field of poppies or a psychoanalytic session, and on the other hand, a painting of the field of poppies or the therapist’s interpretation of the analytic session. The first two things are the actual experiences, the realizations; the second two are representations of those experiences or realizations. Going from realization to representation is what Bion called transformations, which is an effective way of thinking about what Thomas has done with the park incident (realization) with his photos and subsequent blowing up of them (representations). He has transformed what happened into what he merely thinks happened.

He thinks that by blowing up and analyzing the photos, he’s coming closer to the truth, but really he’s straying further and further away from it. In Cortázar’s story, Michel acknowledges he’s imposing his own ‘truth’ onto his photos (page 103, page 4 of the PDF: “the photographer always worked as a permutation of his personal way of seeing the world as other than the camera insidiously imposed upon it”; later, on page 107, page 6 of the PDF, “Strange how the scene…was taking on a disquieting aura. I thought it was I imposing it, and that my photo, if I shot it, would reconstitute things in their true stupidity.”). Thomas is, little by little, coming to the understanding that he’s been imposing himself on his ‘reality.’

He shows Patricia the one photo left behind, a vague, grainy closeup of what he sees as a head and upper torso lying on the grass by the bush. She says it looks like one of Bill’s paintings, and, recall, Bill himself doesn’t know what he’s looking at as he paints them, but only later finds meaning in them. Thomas, in imagining his photos have depicted a murder, is doing the exact same retrospective interpreting as Bill.

Thomas’s faltering sense of reality isn’t making him act wildly, like a madman, as is the case with Michel; rather, Thomas seems merely crestfallen as he realizes how wrong he’s been. Still, he tries to get proof elsewhere. He drives out to find Ron, but he first spots a woman who seems to be Jane outside a club where the Yardbirds are playing, so he goes in. (Incidentally, ‘Jane’ is standing by a sign that says “Permutit,” presumably for a hair salon, but the fortuitous choice of a name for the sign is associable with permutation, what reality in Blowup is all about.) He doesn’t find her in the club, but the gig is itself interesting to comment on.

The Yardbirds are performing their high-energy rendition of “Train Kept A-Rollin’” (actually renamed “Stroll On” in the film, with new lyrics by singer Keith Relf, because they couldn’t get the legal rights to the original lyrics), but the audience is watching the performance standing still, not at all bopping to the beat; one would think that, instead of watching a rock band, they were contemplating a Jackson Pollock painting in the MoMA. Only two people are seen dancing to the song.

It is only when Jeff Beck–frustrated that he’s getting buzzing noises from his amp (which exposes the Yardbirds’ music-making as the illusion that it is…and this film is all about exposing illusions)–smashes his guitar Pete Townshend-style and throws the broken-off neck into the audience, that the audience finally comes to life and grabs at it. The fetishizing of a commodity is of more appeal than actual music-making.

Since I have written about how Blowup presents reality as an ever-shifting phenomenon, as opposed to how we perceive it, or want to perceive it, as being in a state of fixity, it seems apposite to discuss the evolution of “Train Kept A-Rollin'” in this light. The song started out as a jump blues tune by Tiny Bradshaw in 1951, with lyrics based on “Cow-Cow Boogie,” from 1942. In 1956, Johnny Burnette and his band did a guitar-riff driven version, with an early example of deliberately distorted guitar. Next came the Yardbirds’ version, opening with Beck’s guitar imitating a train whistle and Relf singing two superimposed vocal tracks; in the film, we see Jimmy Page and Beck giving the song a powerful dual lead guitar sound. Their version would become the standard way of playing the song, later emulated by early Led Zeppelin (“the New Yardbirds“), Aerosmith (who begin the song at a slower tempo before speeding it up), and Mötörhead. Like reality in Blowup, this is a song that always changes.

Thomas finds Ron in a house where a party is going on and everyone is smoking marijuana. Perceptions of reality are once again being altered. Thomas wants to have Ron go with him to the park to see the body and take a picture of it, but Ron is far too stoned to be of any help. Veruschka is at the party, smoking dope with everyone else; she was supposed to be in Paris, yet she says, “I am in Paris.” One can be high on much stronger dope than pot, and still be aware of what city one is actually in. Thomas hearing her say she’s in the wrong city, and country, is not due to her being stoned: it’s another manifestation of his ever-weakening grip on reality.

Ron asks again what Thomas has seen in the park, and the answer, the penultimate word of the film, is “Nothing.” Thomas says this, knowing it’s pointless getting Ron to help him, but also because Thomas is slowly realizing he’s been making a big thing out of nothing.

Nothing can also be interpreted as “no thing” (no fixed state of being), wu, or sunyata, the nirvana-like void from which everything comes. Thomas’s realization that all that he’s been groping for is nothing, there is no corpse in the park (as he indeed discovers the next morning), and so there is no deeper meaning in the photos he took there, has led not only to his sad disillusion over the whole thing, but also his liberation from those illusions. In losing the corpse, he loses his attachment to it.

That deeper meaning he’s been trying to get out of his art has resulted in an absurdist failure. One cannot capture reality in a fixed form: it always shifts, changes, and therefore loses its original contextual meaning. Back in that Edenic, nirvana-like park, Thomas is beginning to accept this disappointing truth. Reality is impermanent, just like the impermanence of the ego. He’s also being humbled.

The carefree mimes have accepted absurdist, empty reality from the start, but they ‘play the game’ of life all the same. They don’t need rackets or a tennis ball: they’ll just pretend, as all of us should do in life, provided we all understand that it’s just an illusion. One can be happy in absurdity, as Camus observed.

As Thomas watches the mimed tennis match, he smirks and gradually accepts that things like rackets and tennis balls are a part of the maya of the universe, an illusion, because nothing has any sense of permanence.

When the ‘ball’ is knocked out of the court, and one of the mime players gestures to him to retrieve it, he does so, with an acceptance of the illusion that is life, but also with a new understanding that one should help others. He’s stepping out of his egoistic shell.

The mimes resume their game, which we no longer see, but now hear. Yes, we hear rackets hitting a ball. Once again, reality has shifted, this time from seeing to hearing. He smirks again, then frowns. Pleasure is fleeting.

We see a far shot of him on the grass, going over to pick up his camera. Hancock’s jazz soundtrack begins again, just as at the beginning of the film, which has come full circle, like a spinning of that huge propellor.

With Thomas’s acceptance of the fluidity of reality, including the fluidity and impermanence of his own ego, he attains a kind of nirvana. Hence the dissolving of his body into the Edenic green background, just before the end title.

Thomas, like Michel, tried to capture reality in a fixed, photographed state. Michel went mad and tried to pacify himself with visions of clouds and birds passing by. Thomas has come to accept what he can’t capture, because reality, like the train, kept a-rollin’.

Analysis of ‘Waiting for Guffman’

Waiting for Guffman is a 1996 mockumentary comedy film, done in the tradition of such mockumentaries as This is Spinal Tap and Best in Show, directed by Christopher Guest (who played Nigel Tufnel in Spinal Tap) and written by him and Eugene Levy. Both of them are in the ensemble cast, which also includes Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, and Parker Posey.

The title of the film alludes to Waiting for Godot, an absurdist play by Samuel Beckett. Though Guest and Levy wrote the story, the dialogue is mostly improvised, as it was in Spinal Tap and Best in Show. Waiting for Guffman, about people in a fictional Missouri town who want to put on a stage musical, includes a number of songs written by Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer (who, respectively, played David St. Hubbins and Derek Smalls in Spinal Tap).

The film was well-received, and was even nominated for AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

In terms of plot and character, there’s little to be compared between Guffman and Waiting for Godot; but the two do have a lot in common thematically. Both share themes of the philosophy of absurdism, of frustrated hopes (i.e., Guffman never shows up, either), and of the need to keep striving for value, meaning in life, and something better in spite of endless frustrations.

Absurdism grew out of philosophical existentialism (the atheistic kind in particular) and nihilism; it was given full form by Albert Camus in such books as The Myth of Sisyphus. We strive to find value and meaning in life, but in a cold, meaningless universe, such strivings are futile. Still, Camus insists, neither suicide nor religious faith can help us, for suicide only intensifies life’s absurdity, and religion–as an illusion–is philosophical suicide. Our only hope is to accept the absurdity of the human condition.

We may try to make our own meaning in life, as long as we understand that such constructions are fake and transient. The performers of the local town musical, Red, White, and Blaine (this last being the name of the town), are constructing just such a fake and transitory meaning, and they must learn to accept the vanity of what they’re doing.

Corky St. Clair (Guest)–a musical theatre director who, in spite of his blatantly stereotypically gay mannerisms, speaks of having a wife (“Bonnie”) no one has seen and for whom he buys “most of her clothes”–wants to stage a musical celebrating the town’s sesquicentennial. He also has hopes that Mort Guffman, a Broadway producer, will attend the performance, which, if good enough, may then be performed on Broadway.

There’s only one problem: while Corky and his group of amateur performers’ talent should suffice to charm the Blaine audience, they’re nowhere near good enough to make it on Broadway. Nonetheless, hope springs eternal.

The Blaine performers’ doomed aspirations are symbolic of the absurdity of the human condition in a cold, uncaring universe. Just as Godot (to Beckett’s dismay and annoyance) has been likened to God, and therefore the hope of Vladimir and Estragon, so is Guffman a saviour to these performers trapped in a dull town (i.e., “Nothing Ever Happens In Blaine”). Guffman, like Godot, or non-existent God, doesn’t care about these people, and so never arrives.

On a deeper, psychoanalytic level, Guffman–again, like Godot–represents what Lacan called the objet petit a, the unattainable object cause of desire, which arises from a sense of lack and which can never be satisfied, since one always wants more. Plus-de jouir is like surplus value: one never has enough.

All the people of Blaine feel that lack. They would love to be able to rise above the mediocrity they feel themselves trapped in. For Corky and his would-be actors, their liberation lies in Guffman. For the mayor (played by Larry Miller), rising above Blaine mediocrity is absurdly expressed as having people wait one or two seconds fewer for the weather to improve.

The average resident of Blaine hopes to see that rising-above in the musical’s glorifying of their humdrum town, a glorification based on myth-making that is “a tall tale that grows taller with each passing year.” This myths are collected by a town historian (played by Don Lake) who tells of Blaine Fabin, the founder of the city who is given a heroic status, when really his incompetence led his fellow settlers to mistake “salt in the air” for that of the Pacific Ocean; they settled in Missouri, originally thinking they were in California.

Gwen Fabin-Blunt (played by Deborah Theaker), a councilwoman for the town and descendant of Blaine Fabin, imagines her family’s historical importance comparable to that of the Kennedys. The town is proud of being “The Stool Capital of the World,” seemingly unaware of the other, more embarrassing meaning of stool. A supposed close encounter of the third kind adds excitement to the town mythology. All of these exaggerations, if not fabrications, represent yet again a doomed wish to add value and meaning to a dull, vain existence.

Apart from his pretensions as an “off-off-off-off Broadway” man, Corky makes pathetic attempts at keeping up appearances as not only straight, but outright macho. He speaks of having wanted to be “a construction worker” when he first arrived in Blaine after living in New York for many years. Later, he speaks of having left the navy. His playing of the manly characters in the musical, all without hiding any of his stereotypically gay mannerisms, comically epitomizes this absurd contradiction between the Corky he’d like to be seen as and the real Corky.

Ron and Sheila Albertson (Willard and O’Hara) ought to be content as travel agents who not only act in Corky’s productions but are also seen as local celebrities (or at least see themselves as such), but their plus-de jouir pushes their ambitious selves to fantasize about Hollywood. Ron is particularly narcissistic, imagining his impressions to be spot-on when he has to tell you who he’s aping; elsewhere, he fancies himself to have the potential to be a football or baseball star. Brando didn’t like memorizing his lines any more than Ron does, but at least the former had genuine talent as an actor.

Dr. Allan Pearl (Levy) is a nerdy dentist who fancies himself an actor, singer, and comedian. He rationalizes his delusions of talent by recalling his grandfather’s work in the Yiddish theatre of New York, and imagining this talent is in the family blood. Allan wasn’t the class clown as a kid in school, but he sat next to and studied him. Like Ron, Dr. Pearl mistakenly thinks he does good impressions.

Libby Mae Brown (Posey) is a cute and charming but rather dim-witted girl who works at the Dairy Queen. In spite of her doing a deliberately provocative audition in what seems an attempt to get a part in the musical the…erm…easy way, Libby is actually one of the only ones in the cast (along with narrator Clifford Wooley, played by Lewis Arquette) with more than a modicum of talent. A deleted scene shows an alternate audition in which she acts out, in a monologue, a visit to her dying brother in hospital, a scene combining wish-fulfillment with the disturbing suggestion of autobiographical content.

Other deleted scenes suggest, if not explicitly indicate, that not only is the Albertsons’ marriage failing, but so is that of Dr. Pearl’s with his wife (played by Linda Kash). Such disintegrating marriages, deemed too “dark” to be shown in the film, also suggest another connection with Waiting for Godot, in which Vladimir and Estragon, whom some analysts of the play speculate to be a gay couple (as I did when I studied it in university), are also a couple in danger of breaking up. Of course, their conjectured homosexuality connects Godot with Guffman via Corky’s more-than-probable homosexuality.

Other discontented characters in Waiting for Guffman include Lloyd Miller (played by Bob Balaban), the local high school music teacher who normally does musical productions for the town. He has been upstaged by Corky for Red, White, and Blaine, and Corky’s disorganized, undisciplined methods of preparing his performers is especially irksome for Miller; this has all put Miller’s nose out of joint. Elsewhere, a councilman named Stave Stark (played by Michael Hitchcock) would love to have a role in the musical, but hasn’t a prayer of getting in; he also seems to have gay cravings for Corky.

One irony about Waiting for Guffman, in regards to Camus’s philosophy about the ‘absurd man,’ is how the Albertsons, Dr. Pearl, Brown, and Wooley are actors in the musical, one of Camus’s examples of how the absurd man can revolt against the meaninglessness of life, and live with passion for the present moment. Still, our actors, spurred on by Corky’s ambitious promise of a shot at Broadway when he tells them Mort Guffman will watch the performance, have their hopes of becoming stars raised through the roof.

They all should just content themselves with doing the best show they can, shrugging off their mistakes with a few humble chuckles. But Corky’s pride pushes himself and his actors into imagining there’s a greater significance to their musical dramatization of a drab, forgettable town, and in doing so, he sets them all up for a huge disappointment.

All the errors we see during the auditions, the rehearsals, and the final performance symbolize the absurdity of the human condition, a literal theatre of the absurd. Everyone hopes to present a great show of dramatic or musical art, but instead we get half-realized vocals, an infelicitously chosen scene–delivered with minimal emotion–from Raging Bull, Sheila Albertson’s grating voice, and spastic Dr. Pearl.

The only member of the cast with the humility to admit he isn’t much of an actor is Johnny Savage (played by Matt Keeslar), a young auto mechanic who shows no real commitment to the musical, but who Corky hopes will play the masculine roles that, due to Savage’s last-minute quitting, Corky will have to play himself. Savage’s good looks are obviously the only reason would-be seducer Corky wants him in the play. Again, Corky’s doomed hopes at wooing Savage (e.g., giving him his phone number, the homophobic scowls of suspicion Savage’s father [played by Brian Doyle-Murray] gives Corky) reflect once again the recurring theme of failure in the film.

Neither Savage nor his father are keen on the play, but in a deleted scene showing a visit Corky makes to the Savages’ home, the boy’s mom (played by Frances Fisher) has high hopes for him, pretentiously saying he could be “the next Keanu Reeve” before realizing she needs to add an s. Again, we see the absurdity of trying to rise higher.

Corky tries to rise higher by asking the mayor and city council for $100,000, which is a sum the city can’t hope even to approach raising. His absurd fantasy of using this money to turn a humble, local theatre production into a Broadway extravaganza again symbolizes how we can’t endow vain life with value and meaning; instead, we should live in the moment, enjoy what we can, and not expect our efforts to endure on any cosmic scale. Corky should just put on a humble musical, and have fun doing it. Instead, he quits.

Now Miller thinks he has his chance to take over the production and discipline the cast into acting and singing on a competent level. No sooner does he tell them it’s his show than they all rush out to find Corky and get him back. As they cheer and applaud his return, him grinning from all the love they’re giving him, we see in the background a very short and very pissed-off Miller. Once again, hopes to be something better are quickly smashed up.

At the beginning of the performance, however, Miller conducts his low-budget orchestra (i.e., the horn and violin players double on percussion) to play the overture–with his comically eccentric baton movements–and at the end of it, he smiles at the applause he hears. He has lived in the moment and has enjoyed the success, however modest, of his accomplishment.

The overture opens with the clarinet playing a theme from “Nothing Ever Happens in Blaine/on Mars,” a chromatic rising and falling of five notes, from (in relation to the tonic) the perfect fifth to the major seventh, then back down. After this, a sentimental theme leads to a cowboy/Western pastiche, complete with cowbells, suggesting the first scene with the covered wagons. Then, there’s the theme to “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” which merges into that of “This Bulging River” (a deleted number).

There’s a fear that Guffman won’t show, since the seat reserved for him, at the front-centre of the audience, is the only unoccupied seat. Corky reassures his cast that “these New York types like to come late.” A man does occupy the seat early on in the play, and it’s assumed that he is Guffman. This assumption, carried right to the end of the performance, adds a tension to the film that doesn’t exist (to the same extent, at least) in Waiting for Godot, in which Pozzo is only briefly mistaken for Godot…twice.

By the climactic ending of the overture, it feels as if it’s been going on for hours (the passages of it alternating with the cast frantically getting their costumes on). It ends with the trumpeter banging on a kettledrum while he holds a high note on his horn. In any case, Miller is satisfied.

Wooley begins the show as the narrator, first gabbing about the delicious beans he’s eating at a campfire. It seems fitting that the “tall tale” he’s about to tell be introduced with talk of the flatulence-producing food he so enjoys.

Similarly fitting is Dr. Pearl’s portrayal of Blaine Fabin, whose “keen and perceptive eyes” couldn’t tell the difference between California and Missouri. Because his prescription glasses are anachronistic in the time period of Blaine, Pearl isn’t allowed to wear them for this scene, though he needs them to correct his lazy eye; so his cross-eyed awkwardness parallels Blaine’s incompetence perfectly.

While the Albersons vainly imagine themselves, through their experience, to be far more competent and professional than Pearl (to the point of Ron often teasing and baiting Pearl), we immediately see from the very first scene how amateurish the couple’s acting really is. They seem focused on just saying their lines correctly, while showing only superficial emotion–there’s no sense of either of them digging down into the depths of the characters they play.

“Stool Boom” offers the musical’s attempt at a Broadway-style number. Here again we see the comically discordant contrast between the ambitious aspirations of Corky et al and the banal subject matter of manufacturing stools. Add to this the embarrassing double meaning of stool, emphasized in “stool boom,” reminding us perhaps of the after-effects of eating the narrator’s beans. It all reminds us of what bullshit…and Blaine-shit…this musical really is, emphasized again by how the song lyrics have an excess of rhymes for stool.

Tension is maintained throughout when the man in the reserved seat (played by Paul Benedict)–presumed to be Mort Guffman, recall–watches the musical with a stolid expression at first, and only later is smiling.

Now, I’ve discussed the musical largely in terms of how inept it is; but there’s one moment in it that is actually quite touching, and that is the song “A Penny for Your Thoughts.” Musically, it’s very sweet. Guest and Levy were right to have the performance, in spite of its many comical flaws, not be a total disaster. Tension is further created in moments like the singing of this song, with the thoroughly acceptable execution of Brown’s dance moves, raising hopes that the presumed Guffman will like the show and offer the cast a shot at Broadway.

Another interesting point about this song is how, in its idealization of love and marriage, it contrasts with the reality of such disappointing marriages as those of the Albertsons and the Pearls. Pearl’s wife is deeply moved by the song…presumably because she secretly knows her marriage with Allan isn’t so ideal. Recall also the irony of how, during the song, we cut to Sheila in the dressing room helping Ron with his hair, while he has no intention of helping her with hers.

Far more of the improvisations filmed were excluded from the movie’s final cut than were included. (I’d love to find a DVD including every improvisation! Please let me know in the comments if one has been released.) This cutting out of scenes, of course, was unavoidable, for the sake of pacing.

One part that I wish had been included, though, was the song “Nothing Ever Happens in Blaine” (which is heard in the final credits, seen in the DVD ‘deleted scenes’ section, and discussed in a rehearsal scene with Miller teaching half the singers to sing “Blay,” while the other half sings “Blaine,” and one half sings “say,” while the other half sings “same”). It’s a short number that flows effortlessly into “Nothing Ever Happens on Mars.” The excluded song is also the only one–a small island, as it were, in a sea of songs glorifying Blaine to excess–that is actually honest about how dull and inconsequential the small town is. With the “Mars” variation, Blainians can save face knowing their boring home isn’t the only one.

Wooley the narrator ends the performance with a series of tired clichés about Blaine’s ups and downs, looking back into the past and ahead to the future, and to top it all off, with a cheap appeal to American patriotism. We narcissistically tend to identify with where we came from, by accident of birth.

After the performance comes the moment of truth. Corky goes up to “Guffman” and, after admitting to the rough spots in the performance, asks him point blank if they have a shot to go to Broadway, to which the man answers in the affirmative, to Corky’s relief and delight. The tension of hope builds when Corky introduces “Guffman” to the cast, who are all thrilled and honoured to meet him.

When he, however, tells them his name is Roy Loomis, and that he is visiting Blaine to witness the birth of his niece’s baby, Corky and the cast are crushed. Corky is given a telegram saying Guffman’s plane was grounded by snowstorms in New York. (Was this a made-up excuse for not coming? I wonder.)

As is generally the case for humanity, the cast’s hopes for significance in the world have been frustrated. The absurdity of the contradiction between the human search for meaning, value, and significance on the one hand, and the cold, uncaring, and meaningless universe on the other, is symbolized by the cast’s futile, though painstaking, efforts. The other hopelessly unfulfillable desire is that of the Other, as Lacan called it, to be recognized by the Other, to be desired by the Other. The cast wanted Guffman to want them, and he didn’t return the feeling.

Film critic Mark Kermode has noted how Waiting for Guffman “skates a very thin line between comedy and cruelty.” Like Waiting for Godot, the film is, properly understood, a tragi-comedy. Though the especially dark improvisations were cut from the film, we are as heartbroken as the cast is to have seen their hopes raised so high, and then brought crashing down so cruelly. For as inept as these characters are, we do care for them and hope they’ll succeed.

Their hopes have been dashed, but some of them keep hoping for at least some level of significance; for such is the human condition, to keep needing to find significance and value in a meaningless, uncaring universe. We see the absurdity of their attempts in some final scenes three months after the performance.

Brown is in a Dairy Queen in Alabama, where she’s moved after her father was paroled. Her ambition is to create a healthy…low-fat…Blizzard. Pearl is singing and telling unfunny jokes to retired Jewish seniors in Miami; he still has his dental practice (see the deleted scene), for that’s how microscopic his chances are of making any money as an entertainer, despite his delusions of talent. The Albertsons still dream of Hollywood stardom, but having moved to LA, they can only find work as extras.

Corky is back in New York, where he not only imagines he has a chance to play ‘Enry ‘Iggins from My Fair Lady, but has also opened up a Hollywood-themed novelty shop. Here, he’s selling such eccentric items as Brat Pack bobblehead dolls (We see ones of Anthony Michael Hall and Andrew McCarthy.).

Of particular interest, in terms of their comical relation to philosophical absurdism, are Corky’s My Dinner With Andre action figures and his Remains of the Day lunchboxes. What could possibly be more ineffectual than action figures (usually used by kids to act out movie fight scenes) of two men who spend the entire film just sitting at a restaurant table and chatting about philosophical matters?

My mistake–there is one thing more ineffectual: lunchboxes, which “the kids are just having such a good time with,” based on an extremely sad movie about an emotionally repressed British butler (Anthony Hopkins) and a housekeeper (Emma Thompson) who cannot hope to have a relationship due to his excessive preoccupation with rules, decorum, and the perfect fulfillment of his duties as a server…and his later regret at applying this devotion to a master with Nazi sympathies.

I have serious doubts that anyone other than Corky thinks the items of his store have any appeal. Still, he tries and hopes to find value and meaning in his life, as the other former cast members do. That’s all anyone can do in a meaningless universe, to find meaning in it, however futile that search may be. I’ve made my own attempts at it, with wavy ideas that rise into crests of only temporary validity, then sink into troughs of invalidity…or put another way, that are a serpent‘s biting head of wisdom and bitten tail of folly.

Let’s stop it.

We can’t.

Why not?

We’re waiting for Guffman.

The Ouroboros of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall

In the third volume of Capital, Marx explains, using a formula, how there’s a tendency of the rate of profit to fall. The numerator is the surplus value (s), and the denominator is the total capital (C) invested. This total capital is the sum of variable capital (v), or wage labour, plus constant capital (c), or money spent on the means of production (machines, equipment, raw materials, etc.–Marx, page 317). The quotient of s over C (or s over c + v) is the rate of profit. If constant capital rises, the denominator rises while the surplus value doesn’t, and there is a fall in the rate of profit.

Sometimes, in order to gain a (however temporary) competitive advantage, a company will invest in higher technology (i.e., new machines) to boost production. This means a rise in constant capital as against surplus value, resulting in a lower rate of profit.

Since value in a commodity comes from the socially-necessary labour time put into it, having a greater involvement of machinery in production means less human labour is going into it, so less value and a lower price. The lower price means people buy this company’s commodity more than that of the competition, hence this company’s competitive advantage.

Still, this advantage is only temporary, since the competition will learn of the new machinery/technology and will soon be compelled to use it in their own production, and the price of all commodities in this branch of industry will go down. With the lowering of the cost price will come a fall in the rate of profit.

Now, the fall in the rate of profit is only a tendency, happening gradually over a period of decades. It isn’t a straight, diagonal drop; there are many small bumps upward that accompany the overall drop. These upward bumps are caused by countervailing factors in the capitalist class’s attempts to reverse the fall in the rate of profit. These countervailing factors include such things as opening up branches in foreign countries, particularly in the Third World, for the sake of exploiting cheap labour.

Nonetheless, the fall in the rate of profit is never fully reversed, and the result of the unemployed and underemployed (because machines are gradually replacing them) not having the money to buy so many commodities means there is overproduction. This problem snowballs into the economic crises that plague us every ten to fifteen years.

Though Marx predicted that one crisis too many would result in a socialist revolution, crises don’t stop capitalists from being capitalists. For all of the blather we hear from right-wing libertarians that the “free market” is antithetical to the state, we Marxists know that the capitalist (not the “corporatist“) class always has used and always will use the state to further their interests. Hence, the bailing out of the banks by Bush, Obama, and Trump, and Keynesian economics‘ use of government intervention and spending to prevent or mitigate economic crises from 1945-1973.

So in these crises, we see a rise in the money of the ruling class along with the further immiseration of the poor. Along with that contradiction come others: the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (TRPF) can be accompanied by a rise in the mass of profit; and the TRPF results from the temporary rise in profits as a result of those boosts in production from the early improvements in machinery/technology.

Thus, the rising vs falling of profits, as well as the accumulation of wealth vs immiseration of the poor, are to be understood in terms of dialectics. If, Dear Reader, you have been following my posts on the symbolism of the ouroboros, you’ll know that I use the serpent’s biting head and bitten tail to represent dialectically meeting extreme opposites on a circular continuum, which in turn is symbolized by the serpent’s coiled body.

So, as profits go up temporarily with boosts in production for particular businesses against their competition, we see a movement along the serpent’s body towards its head. We see similar movements towards the head when companies try to offset the TRPF by keeping wages down, intensifying worker exploitation, ensuring a sizeable reserve army of labour, imperialist inroads into foreign markets, etc.

Still, the reaching of the serpent’s head biting its tail will inevitably come, and the bitten tail of an economic crisis will come. The working of our way to an economic recovery is the movement from the bitten tail to the middle of the coiled body of the ouroboros; then the irresistible temptation to raise profits through increases in constant capital will lower the value of products through a lesser proportion of variable capital, and a move toward the biting head will come again. The cycle, a downward cycle leading to worse and worse crises, always repeats itself.

So, when is that ‘one crisis too many’ going to happen?

The socialist revolutions of the twentieth century happened in backward, pre-industrialized, Third World countries, not in the developed West of Marx’s predictions, where the flourishing of the productive forces were supposed to bring forth such abundance that communist society would be possible. Instead, the scheming capitalist class has figured out ingenious methods to adapt capitalism and help it survive even the most apocalyptic of crises.

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

With the Great Depression came FDR’s New Deal and the beginning of the dominance of Keynesian government interventions to save the capitalist system from itself. Many desperate people at the time were considering communism. A lot of people confuse the ensuing post-war capitalist accommodations (strong unions, high taxes for the rich, extensive state regulation of the economy) with socialism (rather than associating it with social democracy and welfare capitalism). On the contrary, the idea was to keep the Western working class from sympathizing with Marxism-Leninism by making capitalism seem ‘more comfortable.’

At the same time, a ruthless anti-communist propaganda campaign was going on during the Cold War, manifested in such varying forms as the spurious writing of ‘historians’ like Robert Conquest, books like The Black Book of Communism, the CIA‘s infiltration of the media, Ayn Rand‘s hack writing, and the Austrian School of economics.

So many people don’t realize how thoroughly they have been brainwashed with anti-communist propaganda, and this is especially true of those who grew up during the Cold War years, having heard, as naïve, impressionable children, about how ‘evil’ and ‘tyrannical’ the Soviet Union and Mao‘s China were. It’s gotten so bad that many today equate any kind of political corruption with some form of communism.

The political right extended their notion of ‘toxic socialism’ to include any form of government intervention, particularly those involving social programs and welfare, but in the context of a capitalist state. Hence such right-wing libertarians as Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, etc., started recommending a rollback of those left-leaning programs in favour of the “free market” around the time of the oil crises of the 1970s.

Whenever times are difficult, one tends to want to change from the hitherto dominant system; in the case of the 70s, it was a change from the Keynesian/welfare capitalism to what would become our neoliberal nightmare today. Sadly, far too few people were well-versed enough in history to know that what Rand, Friedman, Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, and Friedrich Hayek were espousing was simply a return to the Gilded Age capitalism that had started the chain of events that ultimately led to the Great Depression in the first place.

The changes were small at first, since the focus of the 1970s and 80s was dissolving the Soviet Union and making all the socialist states return to capitalism. Reagan busted unions in the form of firing striking air traffic controllers, and he and Thatcher cut taxes for the rich and deregulated the economy. None of this constituted the ‘small government’ that libertarians fetishize, since Reagan bloated military spending at the same time. It’s not ‘big’ vs ‘small’ government; it’s government for the rich vs for the people.

Meanwhile, the Soviet/Afghan War that Brzezinski, during the Carter administration, had goaded the USSR into fighting was bleeding the Soviet economy dry. This problem, combined with the weakness of Gorbachev, means the Western imperialists knew what was coming; hence George HW Bush’s speech on September 11th, 1990, that we were entering a “new world order”…not that of the conspiracy theorists, since “new world order” can mean many things to many people, but the heralding of our post-Cold War, neoliberal, “free market” era.

Funny thing: around this time came another recession, which should have reminded us of the unstable nature of capitalism, and of the TRPF. But the fall of global communism was seen as a triumph for ‘freedom and democracy’ over ‘tyranny and totalitarianism,’ even though Russians unsuccessfully tried three times to save/restore the Soviet system, first through a brief coup ousting Gorbachev, second through an uprising against the Russian parliament, repressed by Yeltsin’s tanks, and third through an attempt to elect the Communist Party of the Russian Federation in 1996, but through the Clinton administration’s machinations, the extremely unpopular Yeltsin was reelected.

Isn’t democracy a wonderful thing?

Polls have since consistently shown that not only Russians but also East Europeans and East Germans, in large numbers if not majorities, have been nostalgic about the socialist systems of government that they lost over three decades ago. While things were generally bad throughout the twentieth century (and obviously throughout all of history, for that matter), if you were paying attention, Dear Reader, you’d have noticed that things started to get really…really shitty around the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Without much of a major socialist alternative in the world to challenge global capitalism, the neoliberals knew they could do anything they wanted…to anybody. Accordingly, Clinton introduced NAFTA, he gutted welfare, ended the Glass-Steagall legislation that many think was a huge factor causing the 2008 financial crisis, enacted the Telecommunications Act that allowed mergers and acquisitions in American media, leading to most of it being owned by only six corporations, and had NATO bomb Kosovo, leaving a huge US military base there.

9/11 was a dream come true to defence contractors like Raytheon, Boeing, and Lockheed-Martin, since the US needed a new enemy, after the fall of communism, to justify the inflated budget of the military-industrial complex. Such is the logic, however diabolical, of capitalism: production and sales have to be kept up to counteract the TRPF. World peace? Ecological health? Social justice? All of these things be damned if they disrupt the steady flow of profit. Opposing those good things, for the sake of profit, may be evil, but it isn’t irrational.

The promotion of perpetual war, against Al Qaeda and ISIS, and threats of war against Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, has come to such a point that the American army has become a huge refuge for the unemployed, all for the sake of keeping defence contractors’ profits up. Not that the ruling class cares about the needs of the unemployed, of course.

What is particularly galling about not only the 2008 financial crisis–the worst since the Great Depression–but also the current financial crisis, surely an outright economic meltdown, is that while millions of people are being plunged into poverty, homelessness, and despair, the ruling class is doing better and better. The billionaire class grew tremendously in the 2010s, while for the rest of us the economy only ever so slowly pulled itself out of the mire. The same has been happening over this past year.

This is what I mean when I speak of the ouroboros of the TRPF: the problem moves in an endless downward spiral. There’s the reckless, unrestrained pursuit of profit, whose rate falls, resulting in a crisis (movement along the serpent’s body to its biting head). The crisis plunges us all into misery, but the capitalist class is bailed out by the bourgeois state instead of punished for its excesses, so it’s free to resume its rapacious pursuit of profit (movement from the serpent’s bitten tail along its coiled body towards its biting head once again). There is no learning from mistakes, only continued, unchecked greed.

This lack of learning, however, doesn’t mean the capitalist class isn’t getting nervous about the rising anger of the people. Our overlords have used one devious tactic after another to distract us and goad us into fighting with each other instead of fighting them. These tactics range from resorting to fascism (Bolsonaro, the far-right in Ukraine, Anez in Bolivia, Trump’s tendencies, etc.) to exploiting the Covid-19 pandemic to isolate (lockdowns) and alienate people from one another (social distancing) on the one hand, and to generate profits from it (the sale of masks and repeated vaccinations) on the other.

Regardless of where we, as leftists, stand on the coronavirus controversies (yet another way for the ruling class to divide us)–Do we believe it’s real, or a rebranding of the flu?–we should at least agree that the capitalist class and their media are exploiting the issue for their own private gain. From Pharma man to ‘farmer,’ Bill Gates, who has no background in medicine, way too much money, and therefore way too much influence over the WHO, CDC, etc. shouldn’t be trusted. Meanwhile, millions of Americans are losing their jobs (and with that, their already-shitty-as-it-is medical insurance), their homes, and their already teetering mental health.

Are we going to allow yet another movement along the ouroboros’s body until it reaches its biting head again? Will this or the next crisis lead to “the Great Reset” of what suspiciously sounds like a return to some form of feudalism, or will it lead to a socialist revolution? This bullshit stops when we all put our feet down and say, “Enough!”