He wrote the book in response to a bitter divorce from a psychologically abusive, alcoholic ex-wife whose manipulation was pushing him to the breaking point. The one good thing she did, though, was to advise him to see a doctor because of his overwhelming health problems at the time; that doctor, in turn, after finding no physiological problems with him, advised that he seek psychotherapy (page iii). When he got that therapy, vast depths of repressed pain surfaced…from problems he’d had long before she entered his life.
The reason he’d been so susceptible to such a manipulative woman, a wife who repeatedly kicked him out of their apartment in wild rages, was that he’d developed a codependent mindset as a result of years of emotional abuse from his narcissistic parents and their golden child, his similarly narcissistic older sister.
After going through many memories detailing one painful episode after another, he goes into how he has been doing the healing work. As of the writing of his book, he is amazed at how much progress he’s made, in spite of knowing he still has a long way to go.
He writes of his childhood experiences as a bit of a loner, with few friends, in the first chapter. He writes, however, as if he were describing the childhood of someone else, a friend. Projecting himself into another boy has a sympathizing effect for the reader, at least from the writer’s point of view: we often don’t want to read of someone complaining about his own problems; but if he pleads the case of someone else, he doesn’t seem so ‘selfish’ about it, and this caring for another makes us want to empathize not only with that ‘someone else,’ but also with the writer.
Though this imagining of his sad childhood to have been that of a friend is an effective writing technique to arouse compassion in the reader, I for one was able to feel plenty of empathy for Brien just reading of his experiences as his own. Indeed, I was touched by how frank and honest he is about baring his soul to the reader; it took a lot of courage to reveal what he did…read the book yourself to see what I mean!
Though I, thank the gods, never experienced an abusive spouse or an acrimonious divorce, as he did, I nonetheless can relate to his childhood experiences of narcissism in the family. My parents weren’t alcoholics, and my father’s worst vices were his bigotry and mental slavery to conservatism, rather than narcissism. But my mother,…
As with Brien, I have a golden child sister, a narcissistic know-it-all who speaks when she should listen. Brien’s sister did things to him when a child that were, understatement of the year, sexually inappropriate. So did my sister play inappropriate games with me, when I was about eight or nine.
I don’t wish to go through everything he discusses in his book because, of course, it’s best to let him do it himself, in his own words. Suffice it to say, my take on why he went from an abusive family upbringing to an abusive marriage is from what I’ve learned from object relations theory.
The badinternalized objects we get from abusive parent/elder siblings reside in our minds like ghosts. These become a kind of blueprint for our later relationships, predicting with remarkable precision how they’ll be. If we’ve been abused as kids, we expect such relationships elsewhere; an abusive relationship becomes our normal.
Brien’s book, however, is not a pity party, as some idiot anonymous troll claimed it to be in the comments on the book’s Amazon page. In the later chapters, Brien focuses on what we can do to heal our trauma, such as repeating positive self-affirmations of beliefs contrary to the poisonous words we heard during our years of abuse.
One affirmation in particular that he gave touched me: “I am completely normal” (p. 137). Anyone who has read my blog posts on how my late, probably narcissistic mother subjected me to gaslighting (by claiming, in the most absurdly extreme language possible when I was a kid, that I have an autism spectrum disorder I’ve since learned I don’t have) will know why this affirmation resonates with me.
I’m at one with Brien in saying that positive affirmations, done repeatedly over a long enough period of time and felt to be true in one’s heart, can help in eventually healing psychological trauma. Going back to my point about object relations, I’d add that it helps, through autohypnosis and meditation, to imagine and introject new, loving objects who are the dialectical opposites of those abusive ones in our past.
In our suggestible hypnotic state, we can imagine those internalized objects (i.e, imagined new parents) saying those affirmations to us with loving eyes. The powerful emotional effect of hearing and seeing them, in our mind’s eyes and ears, should help to drive home the affirmations even better.
In chapter ten, Brien writes of “Silencing the Rebel,” which seems to be his way of referring to what is usually called the inner critic. It’s a rebel, because it rebels against our true selves, replacing who we really are with a false version of who we are, a projection of all the worst parts of our abusers. To heal, we must silence this inner bad object, exorcise the demon, even.
Brien also writes about his relationship with a higher power. Though we all have diverging opinions on religious and spiritual matters, it is common for survivors of emotional abuse to use some form of spirituality to help them heal and give them peace.
I do that through what I call The Three Unities: the Unity of Space, symbolized by a Brahman-like infinite ocean of universal oneness, which helps me to feel connected with the world, thus ending my isolation; the Unity of Time, at once a cyclical, wave-like conception of time and also the eternal NOW, which helps me to focus on my living, present reality, and not on my painful past, or worrying about my future; and the Unity of Action, a dialectical monism symbolized by the ouroboros, which helps me to know that whatever ill may befall me, it will eventually, in one form or another, flow back into good.
Whatever direction you choose to take, Dear Reader, whether it be spiritual or not, I recommend you read Enough Is Enough. For even when we’ve removed the abusers from our lives, we’re still haunted by the pain they’ve caused us; and apart from Brien’s advice about saying affirmations and using spirituality, reading his story is a helpful exercise in empathy.
The stronger empathy we feel for him (or for any C-PTSD sufferer, for that matter), the more we can be assured that we’re better than our non-empathic abusers. For remember, one of our abusers’ most powerful weapons against us is to make us believe we have their vices. In empathizing with Brien, though, we know we don’t have those vices.
In order to overcome the hegemony of the capitalist, we must cultivate an understanding of his inner mental state. I believe that psychoanalysis can help us gain insight into the mind of not only the bourgeoisie, but also all of us who are in their thrall.
I discussed much of this already in such posts as The Self/Other Dialectic, The Narcissism of Capital, and The Psychoanalysis of Narcissistic Parental Abuse; if you read those posts, this one will be easier to follow. Here, I will reorganize and add to those three posts’ ideas by directly following the course of history of psychoanalytic developments, starting with Freud (dwelling only a little on him, though, since he was wrong much more often than he was right, and since his theories are of little help in promoting socialism, for which he had little more than criticism), and ending with Lacan (again, briefly dwelling on him, since his obscurantism and verbosity are of little help to anyone, especially the working class).
Of Freud’s ideas, the superego is probably the most useful, if not the only useful one; for in the superego, we find the cruel, unforgiving inner critic, an internalized object representing our parents, teachers, religious leaders, and other authority figures who berate us and chide us for failing to measure up to the unattainable ego ideal.
The shame that we feel from our failures, be they moral, financial, or career ones, drives us to over-compensate by an appeal to shame’s dialectical opposite: pride. If that pride can’t be felt through success and having power over others, which is the goal of the capitalist, it can be felt through ego defence mechanisms (fully systematized by Freud’s daughter, Anna). If these mechanisms won’t give the capitalist pride, he can at least use them to fend off feelings of shame, often by simply shaming others.
Feelings of moral pride can be felt by the capitalist in the form of reaction formation: he won’t admit that his preferred economic system results in unaccountable private tyranny, including prisonslave labour in the US; instead, he’ll prate about how capitalism promotes ‘freedom‘ (i.e., the deregulation that frees Big Business to overwork and underpay labourers, and to accumulate more and more wealth for himself, at everyone else’s expense), contrasting this ‘freedom‘ with the spurioushistory of ‘tyrannical’ socialist states.
The capitalist often takes pride in his identification with authority figures. The fascist–a hyper-capitalist, really–narcissistically identifies with leaders like Hitler and his in-group, a regime propped up by Big Business; as I’ve said many times before, associating the Nazis (just because of their name, ‘National Socialist’) with the left is sheer idiocy. As we can see, Anna Freud’s notion of identification with the aggressor can be seen as one of many capitalist defence mechanisms.
The capitalist may engage in fantasy, using, for example, his religious beliefs to give him a false sense of moral pride. He may imagine that all his sins have been washed away by the blood of Christ, and that his rigid faith in a fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity (as opposed to those ‘wishy-washy liberal,’ or–egad!–Marxian interpretations, like liberation theology) makes his ‘moral’ position all the more justified.
The capitalist can further rationalize his class status by giving to charity, which, apart from giving him a sweet tax break, also gives him an illusory cleaning of his conscience. Oh, he gave a little money to the poor…what a kind philanthropist! Never mind that the scraps given to charity do little of substance to pull the starving millions in the Third World out of poverty.
The capitalist routinely engages in denial about how his pet economic system leads to terrible wealth inequality, political corruption, and imperialist war. He claims that “taxation is theft” (i.e., taxing the bourgeoisie to give financial aid to the poor), but denies that overworking and underpaying labourers (which includes paying less than the minimum wage) is actual theft. Similarly, he blames political corruption and war on the state, ignoring the bourgeoisie’s role in maintaining the state apparatus.
Part of this denial expresses itself in displacement, as we could see in the above paragraph, by shifting the blame for the world’s woes from capitalism–the rightful blaming of which would cause him unbearable cognitive dissonance–onto the state alone. He could, however, displace the blame onto other scapegoats: immigrants, Jews, Muslims, Freemasons, or anyone else seen as opposing his interests, or those of Church orthodoxy.
Another part of this blame-shifting is expressed in projection, a pushing out of inner guilt onto other people, other organizations, or other political institutions. The capitalist is responsible for the millions who die every year (especially children under five) of malnutrition and starvation, when the entire world could be fed, provided we disregard the profit motive and spread the food around properly while keeping it fresh; yet the capitalist blames communism for ‘creating‘ famines in the Ukraine, China, and Cambodia, without properlyresearching the history behind those problems, or examining how Bolshevism largely ended Russian famines.
The capitalist projects his hunger for power onto communists by falsely equating them with fascism, an ideology not only far closer to capitalism than it could ever be to the left, but also a menace defeated far more by Stalin‘s Red Army than it was by the Western Allies, who joined in the fight only at the last minute, and sacrificed far fewer lives. Communists, on the other hand, want the power to end hunger.
The fundamentalist Christian capitalist will project his hunger for global domination onto any group (not just the communists) who deny that his world vision is exclusively the correct one. A large part of the motive for European countries to colonize the world in previous centuries was to make the whole world Christian, by force if necessary. They also wanted to dominate the global market. Therefore, losing such dominance, both religious and economic, is most upsetting to them.
Groups like the Jews, Freemasons, and the Illuminati denied the ‘exclusive truth’ of the Church, whose black-and-white worldview considers such an inclusive position to be anti-Christian, therefore Satanic. It isn’t a far leap to go from these ‘Satanic’ beliefs to a paranoid fear that these groups wish to spread this ‘Satanism’ worldwide. The secrecy of the Freemasons, coupled with the spread of secularism over the past two hundred years, makes it easy for the paranoid fundamentalist Christian conspiracy theorist to project his own wish for global domination onto these ‘Devil worshippers.’ Ditto for the imagined leftist global dominance.
This projection is coupled with the defence mechanism of splitting into absolute good (i.e., fundamentalist Christians and ‘free market’ capitalists) and absolute evil (i.e., ‘Devil worshippers’ and socialists). With their black vs. white worldview, people with right-wing thinking can’t deal with ambiguity, or the possibility of a grey area in between.
This dichotomous thinking is psychologically, unconsciously rooted, according to Melanie Klein, in the baby’s relationship with its mother, when she is perceived only as a part-object, namely, the breast. When it gives milk, it’s the “good breast“; when it doesn’t, it’s the “bad breast.” This part-object is perceived to be an extension of the baby.
Later, the baby comes to realize the breast is part of a complete human being, separate from the baby–a whole object, its mother. When she satisfies the baby’s needs and desires, she’s the “good mother”; when she frustrates the baby, she’s the “bad mother.” The same applies to its father in his good and bad aspects.
The baby’s irritation with the “bad mother” causes it to use splitting as a defence mechanism, resulting in the paranoid-schizoid position. The baby’s hostility makes it want to harm its mother in unconscious phantasy. Later, if the baby doesn’t see its mother for a lengthy time, it wonders if its hostility has either killed its mother or provoked a vengeful attitude in her. Now, it’s in the depressive position, longing for reparation with her, and soon seeing the “good” and “bad mother” merged into one person.
These two positions aren’t experienced only in infancy. They reappear again and again throughout life; we feel a swinging back and forth between the two, like a pendulum, all the way to our deaths, but instead of feeling them only for our parents, we can feel them for anybody or any organization of people we encounter in life.
The paranoid-schizoid position, or splitting as a defence mechanism, is like the confrontation of the thesis with its negation, where the ouroboros bites its tail on a circular continuum at which extreme opposites meet. The depressive position, where one learns to appreciate ambivalence, is the sublation of the dialectical contradictions, the circular middle of the serpent’s body, every intermediate point on the continuum, between the extreme opposites. This middle area is where contradictions are reconciled.
With their dualistic theology, fundamentalist Christians can’t grasp any reality other than where the serpent’s teeth are biting into its tail: God vs. Satan. Consequently, any belief system other than their own is seen as being of the Devil: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8) Furthermore, any capitalism (Keynesian, social democratic, New Democrat-oriented) other than that of the “free market” variety is really just a variation, it would seem, of socialism! You’re with us, or you’re the enemy.
We Marxists, on the other hand, aren’t so black and white in our thinking as the average Christian fundamentalist or neoliberal capitalist. For, as opposed to capitalism as we are, we nonetheless acknowledge its place in our materialist conception of history. The bourgeois French Revolution, for example, was a necessary development away from feudalism, though its results were far from our communist ideal.
Similarly, Lenin’s NEP was an acknowledgement of the need for a temporary “state capitalism” to resolve the problems of the USSR in the 1920s. Yugoslavia’s Titoism was also a market socialism. China‘s and Vietnam‘s bringing back of the market, albeit in a heavily state regulated form, is yet another example of the socialist’s ambivalent attitude towards capitalism; andwhileIhavemydoubtsabout the validity of the extent to which this attempted reconciliation of the market with Marxism-Leninism has gone, we must nonetheless acknowledge that many Marxist-Leninists are capable of such ambivalence about what we’re ideologically opposed to.
Capitalists, on the other hand, don’t have the same level of ambivalence towards socialism. While such social democratic systems as the Nordic Model have adapted their market economies to accommodate the needs of workers, and have free education and healthcare, they are nonetheless forms of capitalism, they have retained the class character of society, and they plunder the Third World as rapaciously, if not so much in a military sense, as the more overtly capitalist countries. Their concessions to the poor are meant to stave off communist revolution, not to encourage it.
WRD Fairbairn made a more systematic study of splitting. He replaced Freud’s id/ego/superego personality structure with one in which libido is object-directed, not drive-directed. For Fairbairn, Freud’s ego became the Central Ego, linked to an Ideal Object, since having relationships with real people is the ideal for mental health. (Here, ‘object‘ = other people.)
Inevitably, though, and in varying degrees, depending on the severity of our parents’ lack of empathy for us, we feel portions of our Central Ego/Ideal Object break off and split into a Libidinal Ego, which is linked to an Exciting Object (approximately paralleling Freud’s id), and an Anti-libidinal Ego, linked to a Rejecting Object (vaguely corresponding to Freud’s superego).
With the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object configuration, we find ourselves replacing relationships with friends and family, with mere pleasure-seeking (drugs, sex, money, etc.). The Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object configuration causes us to be nasty, alienating, and rejecting of other people. The viciousness and rudeness in today’s world seems an epidemic.
Herein we can see a link with capitalist alienation. The lack of kindness and empathy in the early family situation inhibits the development of proper human relationships, the Central Ego and its Ideal Object, which are replaced by internal ego/object relations that are divorced from reality.
Fairbairn pointed out that explicit pleasure-seeking indicates a failure of object-relationships, since for him, the libido is aimed at relationships with people, not things like money [Fairbairn: “…from the point of view of object-relationship psychology, explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour…Explicit pleasure-seeking has as its essential aim the relieving of the tension of libidinal need for the mere sake of relieving this tension. Such a process does, of course, occur commonly enough; but, since libidinal need is object-need, simple tension-relieving implies some failure of object-relationships.” (p. 139-140)].
I’ve written in otherposts about characters in fiction and film whose social alienation results, on the individual level, in either miserliness or violence…on the social level, we find it ballooning into extreme income inequality and imperialism.
The lack of empathic parents to look up to as idealizing role models, coupled with a lack of empathic mirroring of a child’s own narcissism, causes the child to fail to develop mature, restrained narcissism, which is supposed to be let down in bearable, gradual steps. Instead, narcissism balloons into a bloated, unhealthy state, and the afflicted individual looks for others to idealize, such as political demagogues with similar narcissistic tendencies. A narcissist identifying with another of his ilk will feel narcissistic injury and rage if his idealized leader is criticized.
I’ve been subjected to such rage whenever my readers come across passages in which I point out Trump’s narcissism, a point so obvious it hardly seems controversial. Added to the narcissistic identification with, and idealization of, Trump, is the black-and-white thinking of splitting. And the Trump supporters aren’t the only ones who have that problem: he’s God-appointed (absurdly) to his supporters; and to the liberals who oppose him, he’s the Devil incarnate (also an absurd position–his faults are of the standard bourgeois type), and Hillary is idealized instead (even more absurdly).
Again, we communists have a more nuanced, ambivalent take on Trump. Yes, he’s awful, but we can give credit where credit is due: he opposes war with Russia, which should be a no-brainer for liberals. His pulling American troops out of Syria (and maybe Afghanistan) is something we see as in itself a good thing, though I question his motives for doing so (boosting his popularity, saving government revenue by having other countries–and mercenaries–do the fighting for the US…in other words, the wars are not ending!…while having kept military spending needlessly bloated [does he mean it when he calls this spending ‘crazy‘?] instead of using that money to help the American poor).
Liberals refuse to acknowledge him doing anything right for the same narcissistic reasons that Trump conservatives refuse to admit he’s ever done anything wrong. Thus, pussy-hat-wearing liberals support equally narcissistic Hillary Clinton, whom they idealize instead. It’s all splitting, and identifying with him or with his antithesis.
So, as I’ve said, the cure to all of this alienating and splitting is to cultivate more empathy in the family situation, and in our interpersonal relationships in general. That will mean focusing on what unifies us over what divides us.
Such unifying thinking is perfectly harmonious with Marxist thought, as dialectical materialism is all about reconciling contradictions. Part of reconciling the contradiction between rich and poor will involve reconciling psychological splitting, replacing the black-and-white mentality, or us vs. them thinking, with WE thinking, replacing alienation with solidarity.
I believe an understanding of object relations theory can help us in this regard, for Klein, Fairbairn, and DW Winnicott–among the other theorists in this psychoanalytic school–demonstrated how our relationships with others are based on our original relationships with our early caregivers. Whatever is going wrong in our current relationships is probably based, at least to a large extent, on our faulty relationships with our parents; for the faults in those early experiences create a kind of blueprint for what ensues.
Authoritarian parents, especially religious ones, tend to cause us to choose authoritarian leaders and forms of religion, as well as authoritarian economic systems like the boss vs. wage slave hierarchical relationship in capitalism. This latter relationship causes one to have what Erich Fromm called the “having” (as opposed to “being”) way of living.
This “having” mentality causes one to base one’s happiness on how much stuff one owns, gaining narcissistic supply (and thus, a False Self, too) from conspicuous consumption; whereas a “being” way of life focuses more on how to be happy by being one’s own True Self, with a happiness coming from enjoying object relationships (family, friends, community, etc.). Togetherness with others is how we all were meant to be, not living just to help a boss make profits.
On the ‘having mode of existence,’ in Fromm’s own words: “[The] dead, sterile aspect of gold is shown in the myth of King Midas. He was so avaricious that his wish was granted that everything he touched became gold. Eventually, he had to die precisely because one cannot live from gold. In this myth is a clear vision of the sterility of gold, and it is by no means the highest value…” (Fromm, p. 61)
And, Fromm on the ‘being mode of existence’: “There is more: this being-in-the-world, this giving-oneself-to-the-world, this self-transformation in the act of life, is only possible when man loses his greediness and stinginess and abandons his self as an isolated, fixed ego that stands opposed to the world. Only when man abandons this self, when he can empty himself (to use the language of mystics), only then can he fill himself entirely. For he must be empty of his egotistical self in order to become full of what comes to him from the world.” (Fromm, p. 65)
Furthermore: “Joy, energy, happiness, all this depends on the degree to which we are related, to which we are concerned, and that is to say, to which we are in touch with the reality of our feelings, with the reality of other people, and not to experience them as abstractions that we can look at like the commodities at the market. Secondly, in this process of being related, we experience ourselves as entities, as I, who is related to the world. I become one with the world in my relatedness to the world, but I also experience myself as a self, as an individuality, as something unique, because in this process of relatedness, I am at the same time the subject of this activity, of this process, of relating myself. I am I, and I am the other person, but I am I too. I become one with the object of my concern, but in this process, I experience myself also as a subject.” (Fromm, pages 66-67)
Finally: “In this state of experience, the separation of subject from object disappears, they become unified by the bond of human active relatedness to the object.” (Fromm, p. 67)
To raise children in this healthier way needn’t require anything even approaching ‘perfect’ parenting–after all, what is ‘perfect parenting‘ anyway? All that’s needed is what Winnicott called good enough parenting, to help infants make the transition from the paranoid-schizoid position, one also where the baby makes no distinction between self and other, to the capacity for concern, as Winnicott called it, where the baby recognizes both good and bad in its parents (and, by extension, both good and bad in all people), as well as acknowledging the parents (and, by extension, all other people) as not an extension of itself (realizing ‘me’ vs. ‘not-me’).
We paradoxically recognize our togetherness, yet also our individual integrity, so that we’re united enough to feel mutual empathy, yet also distinct enough from each other to realize we don’t have the right to exploit others, out of a misguided belief that others are extensions of ourselves.
So, by fixing the psychological splits, alienation, and fragmentation in ourselves, we can begin to fix what’s broken in society. By not narcissistically identifying with an idealized, but illusory and self-alienating, mirror (as Lacan observed), and replacing these false images (including idealized self-images projected onto demagogues) with the communal symbols of language (i.e., real, meaningful communication), we can cultivate mutual love.
…and from love, we can create a revolutionary situation, toppling the narcissists and psychopaths at the top of the social and economic hierarchy, and thus create a community of equals. As Che Guevara once said, ““The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.”
I’ve written much about the False Self of the narcissist and of the golden child, and of how they can’t bear to confront their True Selves. The scapegoat, or identified patient, also has a False Self, though, one imposed on him or her, a projection from the abuser, of the hated parts of the abuser’s self, just as the golden child’s False Self is based on projections from the narcissistic parent’s idealized version of him/herself.
My late, probably narcissistic mother (she was never formally diagnosed, so I, unlike her, won’t pin a psychiatric label on her as if I were 100% proven right; I merely call her what I, in my limited knowledge, believe she was) tried aggressively to make me believe I have an autism spectrum disorder.
Two psychiatrists I was seeing for depression back in the mid-1990s, each of them over a period of several months, told me they saw no signs of autistic symptoms in me. About seven or eight years ago, I took the Autism Quotient Test, and my low score (13/50) reconfirmed the two men’s observations.
My mother’s pushing of the classic autism label on me in my childhood, then fifteen years ago deciding I have Asperger Syndrome (the fact that I don’t manifest any autistic symptoms, let alone extreme ones, should be obvious to anyone talking to me for a few minutes, so she fabricated a ‘milder diagnosis’ for my idiosyncrasies, for the sake of plausibility), is best explained as her projecting her own narcissistic traits onto me; for she’d always describe “my autism/Asperger’s” in the language of narcissism (I’m “self-absorbed,” “egotistical,” etc.), talk which also displayed her total ignorance of psychiatric concepts.
In her condescension, a typical narcissistic trait, she insisted that her “objective” conclusions about me were only motivated by a wish to “help” me. Call me crazy, but I fail to see how making me feel inferior, isolated, and alienated from everyone was supposed to help me.
No, she wasn’t labelling me in this way for my sake: she was doing it as a dysfunctional solution to her own emotional problems. As with any bully, the purpose of calling the victim ‘abnormal,’ ‘stupid,’ ‘weak,’ etc., is to make the bully feel less shitty about himself, by making the victim feel shitty. This is the exact opposite of help, especially when it comes in the form of blatant lies.
So if you, Dear Reader, have been subjected to a barrage of verbal abuse, gaslighting, lies, manipulation, and threats from an emotional abuser, remember that that is all shit coming from his mouth. It’s his, not yours.
Since all of those hurtful words were nonsensical rot coming from your abuser, and they have nothing to do with who you really are (in spite of whatever faults you may actually have, which may have given him an excuse to blow up at you or insult you); I am now giving you the right to regard yourself as being the opposite of all those mean labels.
So, to negate your abuser’s thesis about you is to say to yourself that the real you is none of those awful things he or she called you. You can’t just know this intellectually; you must feel it, and repeat an affirmation of all that is good about you, over and over again, as a negation of all that verbal abuse you heard. You must transform the negative beliefs you currently, instinctually believe, into positive beliefs, also instinctually believed.
This will be a gradual process; the change won’t occur overnight. Resist the urge to repeat in your mind the negative self-talk your abuser imposed onto you, and repeat, like a mantra, the positive opposites of all that verbal abuse. It won’t be easy, for as I said above, what I’m proposing isn’t mere sentimentality.
List out every horrible thing he or she said to you, to manipulate you into thinking you’re stupid, wimpy, selfish, immature, irresponsible, talentless, or whatever nonsense he or she was projecting onto you. Then, beside each nasty descriptive, write its opposite: intelligent, strong, caring, mature, responsible, talented, etc. Don’t be afraid to consider the possibility that you have, at least in part, those good qualities.
No, you aren’t fooling yourself: you’re offsetting years of verbal poisoning squirted into your ears, squirted in to fool you into thinking you are whatever the narcissist needed you to be. By repeating these affirmations over time, you’ll be transitioning into a new you…your True Self.
As for your actual flaws and imperfections, that’s where the sublation of the dialectic comes in. This working-through process of resolving the contradiction between the narcissist’s cruel thesis of you, as cancelled out with your self-caring negation of those cruel words, will sublate into a realistic assessment of your faults.
…and you won’t hear those faults in the voice of a narc.
As I’ve written before here on this blog, in the middle of our healing journey we have a tendency to backslide when times are good (crests of the waves of life), and forget to be mindful in our need to keep on working on our self-care, writing therapy, meditations, etc. Then the bad times flow back, those troughs on life’s waves, and we’re unprepared.
Just as the bad times don’t last, neither do the good times. The good flow into the bad, then the bad into the good, like the waves of the ocean. We have to embrace change, as it exists everywhere, at all times.
“Bad fortune is what good fortune leans on,/Good fortune is what bad fortune hides in,” said Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching (58). “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted,” (Matthew 5:4) says Jesus in the Beatitudes. Fortune and misfortune flow back and forth into each other in a cyclical Unity of Action, as do health and ill health.
I discussed impermanence, and the crests of good luck flowing into the troughs of bad luck, in my analysis of Moby-Dick. As we try to heal our pain, we must guard against the sentimentality of thinking that there will ever be a flow from sadness to everlasting happiness. There is a never-ending dialectical swing back and forth between all things, including good and bad luck.
There’s also a dialectic between health and ill health. About a week before the publishing of this post, someone read this post of mine and, apparently misunderstanding my meaning when I wrote of being ‘a little too healthy,’ thought what I’d written made no sense. (Another reader stopped at about the third paragraph because she had no idea what I was talking about. I admit, that post was a little too abstract for its own good.)
The quotations around ‘too healthy’ were put there on purpose, for I never meant the idea to be taken at face value. By ‘too healthy,’ I meant the smug overconfidence, complacency, and sense of entitlement we may feel when things are going a little too conveniently for us.
True health is a proper balance of bliss and pain. We all have pain: even the healthiest of people do. Happiness isn’t the absence of pain; it’s having the emotional tools, if you will, to deal with pain. People who are ‘too healthy,’ that is, too comfortable, often aren’t emotionally prepared when the bad times come–then they slip into suffering.
So as all opposites are in some sense combined or intermixed, so are emotional health and ill health. The healthiest of people experience pain, sorrow, and unresolved frustrations. The mentally unhealthy also use their delusions to shield themselves from greater pain: this is not to say that using their delusions in this way is a good idea, of course, but just that their disconnect with reality is an attempt–however foolish–to protect themselves; it serves a psychological purpose, however dysfunctional it may be.
To use an example from fiction, Norman Bates deludes himself from the overwhelming, unbearable pain of confronting his murder of his mother, by imagining she’s still alive…even to the point of giving her half of his life, speaking for her, dressing up as her, having her personality in his mind. This delusion in no way cures him of his madness, of course–it only intensifies it in the long run; but the delusion does allow him, at least in the short term, to be able to function socially. In this way, we can see the admixture of ‘health’ (<<note the quotes, please) into ill health.
We suffer pain because we imagine states of being to persist in more or less permanent forms. We need to be mindful, as the Buddhists are, of the one and only permanent state of being: change. Happiness and sorrow flow into each other like the waves of the ocean.
People indulge in porn, drinking, sexual promiscuity, and drugs as a way to experience a brief high of ‘happiness’ to stave off dealing with their real problem: sadness–loneliness. People gain “neurotic dividends,” as (if I remember correctly) Wayne W. Dyer called them in Your Erroneous Zones, by engaging in dysfunctional behaviour because that’s easier than coping with life. This is the ‘health’ in ill health, the ‘happiness’ in sadness.
I’d like to propose another idea for coping with sadness, an idea I got from Richard Grannon in his “Silence the Inner Critic” course: just make yourself feel good for absolutely no reason whatsoever. Do we need to have a reason for feeling good?
I know, I know: at first glance, this sounds like a silly idea. Hear me out, please.
Say the quote below to yourself regularly, regardless of your actual mood, and say it with vigorous body movements, to help you feel it–because you have to try to feel it as well as say it: “I am assuming control of my physical, mental, and emotional state…and I feel good! I feel good…because I should! I feel good because being in a good psychological state helps me to function better in life, to handle my difficulties and challenges better. Indeed, I feel good for absolutely no reason whatsoever. I feel good because, even though I could be going through the worst of calamities now, feeling good can help me pull out of the trough I’m in, and bring me up faster to a crest of good times. And if I do have reason to feel good now, well, that’s all the easier for me.”
Again, I know what you’re thinking, Dear Reader: easier said than done. I sympathize with you, especially if you’re going through Hell right now, and I agree that it’s hard to do this if, say, you’re in hospital, sick as a dog, depressed, going through emotional flashbacks, crying because someone verbally abused you, etc. I’ve been in many bad situations when, had I heard such sunny advice, I’d want to tell the speaker to f— right off, too.
But consider the more habitual reaction to such troubles: seriously, will moping in hopelessness help you any better? Will escaping into drugs, drinking, or porn?
When I say, ‘feel good for no reason whatsoever,’ I’m not talking about deluding yourself into thinking that everything’s fine when it so obviously isn’t; I’m talking about how you choose to react to your troubles. A hopeful mindset will help you deal with those very real sorrows much better than a pessimistic one will, because you’ll be in a better emotional state to think–with clarity–of a solution to your problems.
Consider the philosophy of Epictetus: we cannot control what happens outside of us (including our bodily ailments), but we can control how we choose to feel about it (i.e., we must give up our attachment to material possessions, a good reputation, a reliance on fortunate events, etc.). I’m not saying that by affirming happy feelings, we’ll make all our sorrows magically go away, in the blink of an eye; I’m saying that we can learn to bear what we suffer better by focusing on what we can control–our feelings.
As I’ve conceptualized this issue before: the problem is the thesis; the solution is the antithesis, or negation of the problem; and the long and winding road from the problem to the solution is the sublation, the resolution of the contradiction, the unity between the opposites of problem/solution that shows there’s no difficulty that’s utterly cut off from a way out of it.
We cannot solve our problems by getting upset. The best thing to do–to express my proposed solution in another way–is first to regather our forces (what I’d consider to be those good, encouraging internalized objects I wrote about having been put inside our minds through self-hypnosis), then to take a deep, relaxing breath, then to work out a rational solution to our problem (thesis/negation/sublation).
So, the waves go down into a trough (the problem, or thesis), then they rise (sublation) into a solution (the negation of the problem). Now, that sublated solution will dip into a new problem to be sublated again…and this will happen again and again, ad infinitum. These cycles can be compared to the rolling ocean’s waves, or to the cycle of eternity that is the ouroboros, as I’ve written about so many times before.
The point is that whatever is troubling you now–your current trough–is something that will flow upwards into a crest…of some kind or another. So even if this thought experiment (‘feel good for no reason whatsoever’) doesn’t work for you, at least remember that whatever your problem is, this, too, will pass. All troubles come and go, as do moments of joy. Watch those moving waves of fortune, be patient, endure, and in one form or another, the troughs will change back into crests…which in turn will become troughs, then crests, troughs, crests…
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, is a novel by Herman Melville, published in 1851. The story is about Captain Ahab‘s mad quest for a huge albino whale, which bit off his leg in a previous attempt to kill it by his crew of harpooners. The story is narrated by a young man, the orphan Ishmael, the sole survivor of Ahab’s second attempt to kill the white whale.
Though the novel got a mixed reception on its original publication, its critical reputation grew over the 20th century, and it’s now considered the preeminent American novel, and one of the greatest works of literature of all time. Moby-Dick deals with such profound philosophical issues as epistemology and the nature of ultimate reality, evil, nature, etc., as symbolized by the whale and the ocean.
Here are some famous quotes:
“Call me Ishmael.”
“Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.”
“Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning…we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”
The Spouter-Inn (3)
“Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”
The Sermon (9)
“…all the things God would have us do are hard for us to do…if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.” –Father Mapple
The Mast-Head (35)
“…lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Cranmer‘s sprinkled pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over.
“There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!”
The Quarter-Deck (36)
“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” –Ahab
“Aye, aye! It was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!” Then tossing both arms, with measureless imprecations he shouted out: “Aye, aye! and I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out.” –Ahab
“All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick.”
The Whiteness of the Whale (42)
“What the white whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid.”
“Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls…with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.”
“Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows — a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues — every stately or lovely emblazoning — the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge — pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”
The Fossil Whale (104)
“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.”
Ahab and Starbuck in the Cabin (109)
“Let Ahab beware of Ahab.”
The Pacific (111)
“There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seems to speak of some hidden soul beneath.”
The Chase–Third Day (135)
“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!” –Ahab
“The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth? — Because one did survive the wreck.”
“On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”
II) Search for Truth
There is a preoccupation with acquiring knowledge of everything in Ishmael’s narrative, as we can see from his discussing all matters pertaining to the whale (a pun on whole; and Moby Dick can be seen as a symbol of the more terrifying aspects of ultimate reality). Recall ‘Etymology,’ which gives a list of whale in various languages, including Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon (WHOEL), Danish (HVALT), Dutch (WAL), Swedish (HWAL), etc. Note also “Cetology,” chapter 32, as well as Ishmael’s many digressions into philosophical matters.
I believe this search for truth is his reason, in a symbolic sense, for tiring of the land and wanting to return to the sea; for the waves of the ocean represent that fluid reality of rises and dips (i.e., in fortune) that we all experience everywhere in life. Reality isn’t in the things in the water, like the whales that are caught: it’s in the water itself. The preoccupation with catching those things is what causes our suffering…as it does Ahab.
III) Ishmael and Queequeg: From Foes to Friends
Ishmael has to share a room, at the Spouter-Inn, with Queequeg, a Polynesian pagan harpooner. Their meeting at night, with Ishmael sleeping in Queequeg’s bed, is hostile at first, since the latter isn’t expecting a roommate.
Soon, the two become good friends (Chapter 10, ‘A Bosom Friend’), the two even sharing in each other’s form of worship; for Ishmael bows with Queequeg before the latter’s idol (Chapter 10–“A Bosom Friend”, pages 67-68), and Queequeg attends Father Mapple‘s church service with Ishmael (Chapter 7–“The Chapel,” page 52; though Queequeg leaves some time before the benediction–Chapter 10–“A Bosom Friend,” page 64).
Christian Ishmael and pagan Queequeg are opposites who, though clashing at first, soon learn not only to accept each other’s differences, but even participate in the opposite’s ways. Their relationship thus demonstrates the dialectical relationship between opposites, something Ahab can never learn do with Moby Dick.
IV) Mapple’s Sermon
During Father Mapple’s sermon, which the preacher gives on a pulpit designed like a ship (for his sermons are his way of edifying his “shipmates,” his steering of the boat on the ocean of life, so to speak), he discusses the events written of in the Book of Jonah.
“Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah” (Jonah 1:17), for he didn’t want to obey God and preach to the sinful people of Nineveh. We tend to think of the “great fish” as a whale, though of course a whale–being a mammal–is no fish. Melville’s narrative, while acknowledging Linnaeus‘ reference to, among other distinctions, the whale’s “feminam mammis lactantem,” still insists that a whale is a fish (Chapter 32–“Cetology,” pages 139-140), linking Jonah’s story thematically with Moby Dick; for Ishmael calls upon “holy Jonah” as his authority on the matter.
Jonah’s “three days and three nights” of terror “in the belly of the fish” transform him from a rebellious sinner into an obedient servant of God, a dialectical shift from the hell of the bitten tail of the ouroboros to the heaven of its biting head. Transformative moments like these, like a harrowing of hell, make saints out of sinners. Ahab will never make that change, for he forever hates the white whale, even in death.
V) Melville’s Critique of Emerson
When Father Mapple says that in obeying God, we must disobey ourselves, Melville is using the preacher as his mouthpiece to criticize the Transcendentalists, and Ralph Waldo Emerson in particular, with his essays “Self-Reliance” and “The Over-Soul.” In the former essay, Emerson wrote of the apparent divinity of the individual soul, which should be relied upon to the exclusion of accepting any advice from the all-too-conforming community.
The danger of such self-reliance is how it can lead to egotism, narcissism, and contempt for the rights and feelings of others. Ahab personifies self-reliance taken to such foolish extremes, for he ignores Starbuck’s warnings and criticisms, and gets his whole crew killed (save Ishmael) at the end.
Emerson’s “Over-Soul” gives a philosophical, quasi-mystical rationalization of this self-reliance, for this “self” is seen as divinely similar to Atman. Emerson had read translations of such Hindu texts as the Bhagavad-Gita; texts such as these include such doctrines as Atman being equal to Brahman, Emerson’s “Over-Soul,” the unifying soul in all life and in all things.
The problem with Emerson’s interpretation of these Hindu ideas is in how, addled by Western tradition’s preconceptions (i.e., Plato’s idealism, the good soul vs. the sinful flesh, etc.), he Christianizes the “self” (i.e., Atman, the individual soul), and imagines individuality to be all good. Such a sentimentalizing was never intended by the Hindus.
Because divinity in Eastern mysticism encompasses everything–or conversely, it’s described in terms of what it’s not (for to describe the divine in terms of what it is would qualify it, and thus limit it)–it mustn’t be thought of as merely ‘good.’ It has both alluring and terrifying aspects. Bion‘s mystical O, for example, is seen as having traumatic qualities. The divine is everything and nothing, both good and evil…and neither/nor.
But Emerson came from a Christian tradition that sees God as all-good; Western translations of Hindu texts often clumsily render Brahman, or the divine, as God, which is misleading; for God is a monotheistic concept, whereas concepts like Brahman are monistic. Not even ‘pantheism‘ really covers what something like Brahman is.
VI) Pantheism, the Ocean, and the Ouroboros
When one thinks of pantheism, one often thinks of the peacefulness of walking about in the woods, or dwelling dreamily in places like Wordsworth‘s ‘Tinturn Abbey‘, feeling “a sense sublime/ Of something far more deeply interfused,/ Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns” (lines 95–97) and the immanence of “A motion and a spirit, that impels/ All thinking things, all objects of all thought,/ And rolls through all things” (lines 100–103).
Melville, on the other hand, uses the tempestuous ocean as his preferred image of nature to warn us of the danger of sentimentalizing pantheism (see ‘The Masthead’ quote above). I prefer the image of the ocean as a symbol of the dialectical monism that I subscribe to, for the rising and falling waves suggest our ongoing shifts between good and bad fortune.
When I wrote of how a “contemplation combining what I call the Three Unities (of Space, Time, and Action) will, with repeated practice over a long period of time, bring us closer and closer to that nirvana of no more pain, a putting of all the pieces back together,” I never meant that to be some kind of feel-good, New Age sentimentality. “Closer and closer” are the key words there: “no more pain” shouldn’t be misinterpreted as an absolute state.
Indeed, the smug excess of sentimentality is the biting head of the ouroboros, where one is “too healthy,” as I’ve written about elsewhere; this emotional state is one of narcissistic overconfidence, a False Self delusion that can lead, if one isn’t careful, to the madness of fragmentation. This is the danger Captain Ahab is throwing himself into, a danger of slipping past the serpent’s biting head to its bitten tail.
You see, the symbolism of the ouroboros as a unifying of opposites (the serpent’s head biting its tail) shows how we should properly understand ultimate reality: a marriage of heaven and hell, a union of knowledge and ignorance, a fusion of good and evil.
VII) Character Pairings: Unified Opposites
We see pairings of opposites throughout Moby-Dick. We’ve already seen the pairing of pagan Queequeg and Christian Ishmael; we’ve touched on the opposition of wise, cautious chief mate Starbuck vs. mad Captain Ahab; let’s now consider some others.
Other parings include retired Captains Peleg and Bildad, two Quakers who own the Pequod and sailed in it before giving the helm to Ahab. “Like Captain Peleg, Captain Bildad was a well-to-do, retired whaleman. But unlike Captain Peleg–who cared not a rush for what are called serious things, and indeed deemed those selfsame serious things the veriest of all trifles–Captain Bildad had not only been originally educated according to the strictest sect of Nantucket Quakerism, but all his subsequent ocean life, and the sight of many unclad, lovely island creatures, round the Horn–all that had not moved this native born Quaker one single jot, had not so much as altered one angle of his vest.” (Chapter 16–“The Ship,” page 87)
On the next page, “…old Bildad…seemed absorbed in reading from a ponderous volume.
“‘Bildad,’ cried Captain Peleg, ‘at it again, Bildad, eh? Ye have been studying those Scriptures, now, for the last thirty years, to my certain knowledge. How far ye got, Bildad?’
“As if long habituated to such profane talk from his old shipmate, Bildad, without noticing his present irreverence, quietly looked up, and seeing me, glanced again inquiringly towards Peleg. […]
“‘He’ll do,’ said Bildad, eyeing me [Ishmael], and then went on spelling away at his book in a mumbling tone quite audible.
“I thought him the queerest old Quaker I ever saw, especially as Peleg, his friend and old shipmate, seemed such a blusterer.” Yet, in spite of Bildad’s apparent Bible-perusing piety, as opposed to Peleg’s “irreverence” and “impenitent” nature, Bildad’s the “stingy” one, offering Ishmael an exceedingly small share of the ship’s profits (the 777th lay), as opposed to “generous” Peleg’s offer of the three hundredth lay (Ishmael has been hoping for the 275th lay). Here we see the mingling of opposites in Peleg and Bildad, the antitheses of pious parsimony and impious generosity. (pages 89-91)
Another pairing is of Stubb, the cheerful, laughing, happy-go-lucky second mate, as contrasted with Flask, the mean, grumpy, nasty third mate. For all of Stubb’s cheerfulness, though, he feels such a hostility to Fedallah, the Parsee who has an evil influence on Ahab, that Stubb imagines the Parsee “to be the devil in disguise,” with a tail he hides in his pocket; and he’d like to throw Fedallah overboard. (Chapter 73–“Stubb and Flask Kill a Right Whale; and Then Have a Talk Over Him”, pages 315-317) And for all of Flask’s surliness, and his own suspicion of the Parsee, he isn’t sure of Stubb’s equating of Fedallah with the devil.
In one way, grumpy Flask can be seen as the double of mad, scowling Ahab: “Flask…who somehow seemed to think that the great Leviathans had personally and hereditarily affronted him; and therefore it was a sort of point of honor with him, to destroy them whenever encountered” (Chapter 27–“Knights and Squires,” page 125); and Stubb–in his fear that “Fedallah wants to kidnap Captain Ahab”–can be Starbuck’s double. Yet in his wish to rip off Fedallah’s “tail,” Stubb’s rather like Ahab in his wish to get revenge on evil; for ripping off the Parsee’s “tail” is a symbolic castration, as is Ahab’s loss of his leg to Moby Dick. Again, characters with opposing personalities find their traits intermingling.
A pairing of particular importance is Ishmael vs. Ahab. Both men are seeking something, obsessively questing for the deepest knowledge. Ishmael demonstrates this in his near-encyclopaedic display of knowledge of all things cetacean. With Ahab, though, there’s only one whale he seeks.
VIII) Knowledge and Ignorance, Black and White
A major theme of Moby-Dick is epistemology, or the philosophy of knowledge and how it is attained. Whales symbolize this knowledge that is sought, for knowledge, like whales, is elusive to its hunter; when you come at it, knowledge can hurt, as when whales smash up whalers’ boats.
The white whale is that ultimate knowledge: its whiteness is like the divine light of perfect knowledge…but that white light can also be terrifying (Chapter 42–“The Whiteness of the Whale”). Ahab is mad to want to confront such dangerous knowledge. Ishmael, in contrast, can adapt and change in his search for knowledge; he can flow and shift with the waves of the ocean. Ahab’s monomania keeps him as rigid and hard as Moby Dick’s powerful body; the captain projects his own evil onto the white whale.
We normally think of darkness and blackness as evil; consider the bigoted Spanish Sailor who taunts Daggoo, the African harpooner (Chapter 40–“Midnight, Forecastle,” page 178). These two are another pairing of opposites who are also alike in crucial ways, for while the Spanish Sailor calls Daggoo “devilish dark,” provoking a fight, consider the swarthiness of the average Spaniard compared to whites of North European descent. And when a flash of light in the dark is said by the Spanish Sailor to be “Daggoo showing his teeth,” we see a mixture of black and white in him, another mixing of opposites.
So as we can see, both black and white can be evil…and good. Both knowledge and ignorance can be evil, too…and sometimes ignorance is better–and safer–than knowledge; since some knowledge simply cannot be found or mastered. Ishmael can accept this reality. Ahab can not.
IX) Marine Masculinity and Narcissism
Yet another pairing is Moby Dick, or sperm whales in general, and the ocean. While Melville’s whales are overwhelmingly masculine (more on that below), la mer est la mère. Now, the feminine is conspicuously absent in this novel, or at the very least minimized, even for a story about men at sea. Even on land, all of the significant characters are male: apart from those already mentioned, there are Peter Coffin, owner of the Spouter-Inn, and Elijah, who prophesies the doom of the Pequod.
The sperm whales, whether male or female in reality, are all male by symbolic association. Though there’s no evidence earlier than the 1880s of dick being used as a slang word for penis, it had been used to mean man, fellow, for centuries. Moby Dick is a giant white phallus spouting water (symbolic ejaculation) swimming in Oceanus, a male god of the ocean. Consider also, as Camille Paglia did (Paglia, page 587), “that unaccountable cone,” “the grandissimus,” that is a sperm whale’s penis being lugged by three sailors (Chapter 95–“The Cassock”).
Moby Dick is the rigid thing Ahab wants for having bitten off his leg (a symbolic castration causing him narcissistic injury), whereas the ever-shifting, ever flowing ocean is a nirvana of no-thing-ness, of anatta (no self). Ahab’s peg leg is made of whale bone, his revenge on ‘castrating’ whales. Phallic harpoons stab into the phallic sperm whales, the piercing a kind of circumcising of them, and a rite of passage for novice Ishmael.
Lacan‘s phallus is a signifier, bringing us into the world of language, the Symbolic Order, uniting us with community through communication. Symbolically castrated Ahab is thus cut off from community, from an ability to communicate in a truly human way, in a way that connects with others and exchanges empathy, hence his solipsistic madness and his never heeding Starbuck’s warnings. Intact Ishmael, however, is so linguistically complete that he gives the words of whales in various languages (“Etymology,” page 9), and he quotes Linnaeus’ Latin in “Cetology,” page 139.
Ahab’s narcissism is apparent in his willingness to “strike the sun if it insulted” him. His egotism is the result of too much self-reliance, as Melville warns us all against. Recall “Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.” (Chapter 1–“Loomings,” page 23)
X) Zoroastrian Dualism, and the Deluge
Next, we must consider Fedallah, the Parsee. His influence over Ahab has been seen as Satanic, if you’ll recall what Stubb has to say about him in chapter 73. In this connection, it’s interesting to note Melville’s allusion to the beginning of chapter six in Genesis (fittingly, in a dialectical sense, at the end of Chapter 50–“Ahab’s Boat and Crew. Fedallah”).
Melville calls the sons of God (or sons of the gods, depending on the translation of b’nei ha-elohim) angels, who “consorted with the daughters of men,” which in turn led to the wickedness that caused Yahveh to bring about the Great Flood, which in the ancient, pre-scientific cosmology meant a bringing together of the previously separated waters of the heavenly firmament and the oceans below, a return to the formless Chaos of the beginning of Creation.
Melville also mentions devils having “indulged in mundane amours,” suggesting such a close relationship between Fedallah (a prophetic, heathen ‘son of the gods’) and Ahab (a wicked ‘daughter of men’–i.e., he’s been symbolically castrated), which will result in a deluge-like drowning of everyone (save Noah-like Ishmael) at the end of the novel.
Fedallah, as a Parsee, adheres to the Zoroastrian religion, which has a dualistic understanding of good vs. evil. The religion has an optimistic eschatology, believing Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd), God and principle of light, goodness, wisdom, and order, will so thoroughly defeat the devil Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), the principle of darkness, evil, destruction, and chaos, that even sinners suffering in Hell will eventually be redeemed, liberated, and brought into heaven.
Such a consummate ‘happy ending’ to sacred history is the kind of thing Melville would have been suspicious of, as we’ve seen in his assessment of Emerson’s ‘self.’ Ahab, in his hopes of killing Moby Dick–the symbol of all that is evil in his world–is searching for that Zoroastrian happy ending, a thorough (Thoreau?) wiping out of all evil–and Fedallah is helping him do that.
So, is Fedallah an angel or a devil…the Hegelian thesis, or its negation? Or is Fedallah a fallen angel…the Hegelian synthesis? Again, we see the merging of opposites, as was the Great Flood a merging of water above and water below, a return to Chaos. And as a Zoroastrian, is Fedallah an agent of Ohrmazd, principle of order, or one of Ahriman, principle of chaos? Is he both principles at once?
Is the deluge-like killing of the crew an evil horror, or is it a purging of evil, like the temporary Hell of the Parsees? Is the infinite ocean of Brahman, the sea of primordial Chaos, a terrifying watery grave one may fall into because of one false step (as traumatized Pip experiences it to be when he jumps ship the second time; Chapter 93–“The Castaway,” pages 395-397; remember also “The Mast-Head” quote above), or is it the painful but necessary purging of the world, creating a purity like the sacred fire and water of the Zoroastrians (hence, Pip’s trauma is also his mystical experience)?
The Zoroastrians would dualistically separate good and evil; as Yahveh Elohim separated the waters above and below, as He separated the divine and human worlds later reunited by the union of the sons of God with the daughters of men. Emerson would keep good and evil so separate as to suggest evil doesn’t even exist in his holy Over-Soul and its immaculate Atman, the individual self. Melville was saying we cannot separate good and evil. The evil of the whales’ painful knowledge will always swim in divine Oceanus; the strongest of these evils–like Moby Dick–will never be defeated.
Noah-like (or rather, Deucalion-like) Ishmael, floating on the arc-like coffin built for Queequeg (comparable to the chest Deucalion and Pyrrha were in to protect themselves from Zeus’s deluge), understands the inseparability of good and evil, of life and death, of black and white, of ignorance and knowledge, or of any pair of opposites; and clinging to a wooden symbol of death, he is the only one of the crew who lives in the end.
XI) The End, But No Surcease of Suffering
“AND I ONLY AM ESCAPED ALONE TO TELL THEE.” (Epilogue)
This quote is from Job, chapter one, repeated in verses 15, 16, 17, and 19, spoken by messengers to Job, a good servant of God, all of them telling him misfortunes that have befallen him. The Book of Job‘s purpose is to reconcile how evil afflicting good people can exist in a world ruled by a good God. In other words, it’s a theodicy in allegory…as, in a way, Moby-Dick can be seen to be.
God, the receiver of blessings and praise, can be seen as the thesis, to which Satan (ha-satan, “the accuser,” or “the adversary”) can be seen as the antithesis, or negation, since Job’s Satan offers the counter-argument that Job would curse God if all his good fortunes were to be taken from him. Theodicy is an attempt at a synthesis, or sublation, of the opposing contradictions of good and evil.
As I’ve said above, only Ishmael survives because only he can figure out this sublation. He, after the death of his shipmates, is an orphan: alive, but floating on a coffin.
It is significant that Ahab dies being tied by his harpoon to Moby Dick, and being dragged out into the water with the whale. “Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!” (Chapter 135–“The Chase–Third Day,” page 534) He dies because of his undyingattachment to the white whale.
One could describe Ahab’s madness in Buddhistic terms, namely, the Three Poisons of delusion/ignorance, attachment/craving, and aversion/hate. The hard, firm, strong body of Moby Dick–as opposed to the rolling, shifting, changing waves of the ocean–represents Ahab’s delusion of permanently existing things, and thus his ignorance of impermanence, or no-thing-ness.
His monomaniacal craving for the whale, to find and catch it to the exclusion of all other considerations, is of course not out of desire for, but out of hatred of Moby Dick. His wish to kill, to annihilate the white whale leads to his self-destruction because of his delusion of the separateness of self and other, and of the seeming absoluteness of being and non-being; he fails to see the interconnectedness of all things, including self and other.
And in trying to kill Moby Dick, his own evil projected onto the whale, he kills himself. The egotism of the narcissist is actually a ‘pasteboard mask’ hiding his secret self-hate. Though Narcissus, having fallen in love with his reflection in the water, fell in and drowned (“Loomings,” page 23); Ahab, hating the image of the white whale in the water, failed to see its face as a pasteboard mask of himself–thus he fell in and drowned, too.
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, Penguin Popular Classics, London, first published 1851
In our alienating world, we all tend too often to label each other, describing each other in absolute terms, or to accept such labels from others. In thus labelling others, we expect them to conform to the stereotyped behaviour associated with those labels. Also, in accepting such labelling from others, we often unconsciously adopt the stereotyped behaviour and attitudes of the labels we’ve received, thus making a self-fulfilling prophecy of this labelling.
Apart from how unhealthy all this describing of ourselves and others is, it’s also simply unrealistic. Part of the Buddhist concept of anatta (or anatman, “no self”) is the idea that we people are as changeable as everything else in the world. The personality of each and every person out there is not some block of rigid matter that stays essentially the same from birth to death; rather, it’s like the waves of the ocean, the crests and troughs tend to rise and fall to approximately the same highs and lows over a certain period of time in life, but eventually, those highs and lows will be different; in any case, the matter that is ourselves is in constant, dialectical, wavelike motion.
We know the above to be true, but we forget this truth far more often than we remember it. Part of the reason we forget, I believe, is because those who drilled into our brains the ‘rigid block’ idea of the personality are people who want to control us by limiting our sense of self. I havewrittenelsewhere of ways we can free ourselves of this dysfunctional kind of thinking.
Those up-and-down waves of water that are our personalities are interconnected with the adjacent waves of those personalities nearest to, and therefore most influential with, ourselves. Projection, introjection, identification, and projective identification are the winds that blow the waves, causing personality traits and habits to be traded around and moved from person to person. We become what other people are, and vice versa.
If other people have hurt you with negative labels, never believe for a second that you have to accept them. Even if you did conform to such a bad label at the time of your receiving it, remember that your conforming to it was only a temporary state of affairs, a momentary blowing of the wind to make the waves of your personality rise or sink to that undesirable place…then the wind blew your waves to a different place–perhaps a desirable opposite.
Emotionally abusive parents can force us into taking on a rigid label, or permanent role, such as the scapegoat or the golden child, if they’re not making their kids trade these roles back and forth over time. In the case of the former, unchanging version of the labelling, we can try all we want to free ourselves from the role assigned to us, but our abusers will insist on our staying put, and they’ll manipulate us, through projective identification, into acting in exact, unvarying accordance with that straitjacket of a role.
This happened to me whenever I tried to get out of the role of identified patient with regards to my (probably) narcissistic late mother. If I tried to show thoughtfulness, kindness, or generosity to anyone in the family, she would figure out a way to sabotage my good intentions and manipulate me into changing from a loving to a bitter son.
Similarly, if my golden child sister, J., stepped out of her prescribed role, she would feel the terror of Mom’s wrath so quickly and intensely that her head would spin.
In other areas, we can see society forcing us into permanent roles. Any time people in Third World countries try to pull themselves out of poverty, as has been demonstrated many times in, for example, Latin America, imperialism puts them right back in ‘their place,’ as has been seen in the coups against such countries as Guatemala and Chile.
Also, as the sexes try to free themselves from their traditional roles, in particular, as women try to achieve political equality with men, forces in capitalist society prevent these necessary changes from being fully realized. A variety of manipulative factors are used, including the reassertion of fundamentalist religion (e.g., Pence) and its promotion of the traditional patriarchal family; but also such things as requiring men to ‘man up,’ and even more liberal ideas like divisive identity politics.
We need to be freed from the chains of ‘identity,’ not attached them all the more rigidly! Human liberation in all its forms–racial, class, sexual, etc.–will be achieved through solidarity, not through dividing the people against each other via ‘identity.’
As for my own personal ‘identity,’ it mustn’t be assumed to be an unchanging state of affairs, either. I have grown and evolved politically, in sweeping ways over the past few years, causing many of the things I’ve said in past blog posts to be no longer accurately representative of my current beliefs. (I won’t, however, update those old posts, and for two reasons: 1) there are far, far too many changes to be made, and I’d rather not hassle with such a large amount of work; and 2) I find it interesting to look back to those old posts sometimes, and see how I’ve grown and changed over the years.)
So, if you read something in one of my posts that you find objectionable, check the date that it was published. The older the post is, the further away it will probably be from my current belief system. If I discuss subject matter similar to that of an older post, but demonstrate a different attitude in the more recent post, use the newer post to get a more accurate idea of how I now think on that matter, not the older one.
For example, in my earlier posts, I took on a strictly anarcho-communist position, with a stridently anti-Lenin, anti-Stalin, and anti-Mao position. After more carefully researching the history of the USSR and China under Mao, though, I now realize how much my thinking was influenced by Western capitalist and CIA–orientedpropaganda, the sameCIA and Western capitalism that hasswayed so many of us into accepting all these needless imperialist wars of the past two to three decades, since the USSR’s dissolution.
That workers’ state, needed for as long as it will take to defend itself from imperialism until capitalism is no more, will also be needed to help in the transformation of society to rid it of racism, sexism, anti-LGBT bigotry, and all the other evils capitalist society uses to divide us all.
This transformation will include, for example, social programs to provide day care, freeing women from the burden of childcare so they can focus on careers and pursue their dreams. This will help eliminate the glass ceiling. Socialist states have provided such programs, and thus done a muchbetter job of achieving equality of the sexes than capitalist societies ever have.
Better still, a society that produces commodities as use-values to provide for everyone, rather than produce exchange-values to generate profit, will do away with landlords and provide universal housing, thus eliminating the homeless, most of whom are men. This reorienting of society can have both sexes do an equal mixture of both traditional roles (breadwinning vs. homemaking), thus achieving sexual equality.
I never thought out these ideas so thoroughly in my otherwise prolix posts, so I hope this brief revision will suffice, at least for the moment. Just know that I have changed a lot in my political views, as I have from those earlier years, when my family had far too much influence in my life.
In sum, we must always remember that who we are changes and moves like the waves of the ocean. The winds of change ensure that we never are who we were, and we won’t be who we are. Those who would have us believe otherwise do so for themselves, not for the sake of the truth.
2001: A Space Odyssey is a 1968 science fiction movie produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick and written by him and Arthur C. Clarke. The film is often said to be based on Clarke’s short story, “The Sentinel,” but this is a gross oversimplification, as only a small moment in the film parallels the story, and even that part is radically rewritten. The actual literary equivalent of the film is the novel credited only to Clarke, but cowritten by Kubrick.
These paradoxical qualities, juxtaposing religious faith with the theme of the advance of science and technology, suggests a philosophical dialectical monism, an opposition between theism and atheism, a contradiction sublated by the replacement of old gods with new gods, or the ‘old time religion‘ replaced with the ‘religion’ of science, the maturing young man tossing aside paternal authority, ape-men supplanted by homo sapiens, who in turn are supplanted by the Ubermensch.
Here are some quotes:
From the film:
“Open the pod bay doors, please, HAL.” –Bowman
“Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave? Stop, Dave. I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it.” –HAL 9000
[sings while slowing down] “Dai-sy, dai-sy, give me your answer true. I’m half cra-zy, o-ver the love of you. It won’t be a sty-lish mar-riage, I can’t a-fford a car-riage—. But you’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle – built – for – two.” –HAL 9000
Going along with the opposition between religion and science, and the dialecticalunity between opposites in general, I find it interesting to parallel the science of the film with the first nine chapters of Genesis.
1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness [was] upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
Then even nothingness was not, nor existence,
There was no air then, nor the heavens beyond it.
What covered it? Where was it? In whose keeping?
Was there then cosmic water, in depths unfathomed?
Then there was neither death nor immortality
nor was there then the torch of night and day.
The One breathed windlessly and self-sustaining.
There was that One then, and there was no other.
At first there was only darkness wrapped in darkness.
All this was only unillumined cosmic water.
That One which came to be, enclosed in nothing,
arose at last, born of the power of heat.
Then, there’s the Greek creation myth in Hesiod‘s Theogony, with primordial Chaos, the void of nothingness from which everything comes; then comes Gaia (the Earth), Tartarus (Hell), Eros, Erebus (Darkness), and Nyx (Night).
Soon, we see the Sun appear, with Strauss’s music: “Let there be light”…yet, “God is dead!”
“The Dawn of Man” (based on Clarke’s “Encounter in the Dawn“) shows tribes of primitive man-apes–Australopithecus afarensis–living on a barren plain somewhere in what is now Africa. Food is scarce, and they are struggling to survive (Clarke, Chapter 1, ‘The Road to Extinction,’ pages 3-9). Though this situation is far from the idyllic one of the Garden of Eden, there are still some Biblical parallels that can be made.
These ape-men Adams and Eves lack knowledge, they’re naked (‘arummim), and not ashamed. The main character among them is called “Moon-Watcher,” according to Clarke’s novel; his name is the first reference to a moon motif that will reappear throughout the story, especially in its novel form.
In Clarke’s novel, Moon-Watcher’s father, ‘the Old One,’ has died…not that he even knows this emaciated old ape-man is his father. He has to get rid of his father’s corpse (pages 3-5); we’ll find that sons supplanting fathers (or at least trying to supplant them), literally or symbolically, is a recurring motif in this story.
At first, the tribes of ape-men can fight only by waving their arms, shouting, and screaming at each other; then Moon-Watcher’s tribe encounters the monolith…
It stands up straight on the ground; though Moon-Watcher sees it as a “New Rock” (Clarke, pages 10-16), I’d call it a black rectangular Tree of Knowledge, for it not only imparts knowledge (in the form of improved intelligence–arum—which eagerly grasps at knowledge), but it also tempts man to sin (i.e., to kill).
We hear the haunting micropolyphonic singing of Ligeti’s Requiem as the ape-men approach and touch the phallic monolith; it’s a music for the dead, for as with every other hearing of the music when man encounters the monolith, there is a death of innocence. “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)
Later, Moon-Watcher finds a pile of bones from dead animals. He plays with them, and Strauss’s Zarathustra is heard (i.e., “I teach you the superman. Man is something to be surpassed. What have ye done to surpass man?” –Nietzsche, Prologue, Part 3). The ape-man figures out, with triumphant joy, that he can use a bone as a weapon, a club to beat to death animals for food, or enemies for conquest.
This bone, as a weapon (or each of the tools created by the ape-men in Clarke’s novel–pages 34-37), is a phallic symbol, as the serpent chatting with Eve can be seen to be: “And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5)
Lacan saw the phallus as a signifier, one of the basic units of language. Later, in Clarke’s chapter, “Ascent of Man,” he discusses the significance of man’s acquisition of language: “And somewhere in the shadowy centuries that had gone before they had invented the most essential tool of all, though it could be neither seen nor touched. They had learned to speak, and so had won their first great victory over Time. Now the knowledge of one generation could be handed on to the next, so that each ape could profit from those that had gone before.” (Clarke, page 36)
Moon-Watcher’s use of the bone (in the film) to club One-Ear to death (as the victim is named on page 33 of the novel) parallels Cain’s murder of Abel, a symbolic replacing of hunting/gathering with agriculture, another advancement of knowledge, coupled with killing. Moon-Watcher tosses the phallic bone into the sky, and we see a match cut of it juxtaposed with–or transformed into–a phallic orbiting satellite. And with this change, the music of one Strauss changes to that of another. (The victorious tribe’s use of phallic bones on the defeated tribe, who lack those phallic bones, suggests a symbolic castration/emasculation of the conquered tribe.)
This fast-forwarding in time, from the dawn of man to his dusk, if you will, is like a movement along the body of the ouroboros from the bitten tail of the beginning of time–the black Chaos of the start of the film, then the “Let there be light” moment of the appearance of the sun (with Strauss’s Zarathustra music), then the time of the ape-men–to the biting head of the years 1999-2001. The ouroboros, a symbol of cyclical eternity, is useful in elucidating the meaning of this film, since another concept dealt with in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is the doctrine of the eternal recurrence.
Another important theme in this film is the advancement of knowledge…yet since dialectical opposition is also an important theme, then the prevention of the dissemination of knowledge is an important theme, too. Dr. Heywood Floyd must go to the moon (making him the second Moon-Watcher of this story) to investigate the discovery of the Tycho Magnetic Anomaly-One (TMA-1), a monolith buried deep inside the moon three million years ago (this approaching of the monolith, incidentally, is the one and only part of the story that is connected–and vaguely so, at that–with “The Sentinel.”) This proof of extra-terrestrial intelligence will be kept from the great majority of humanity, though: a cover story about a possible epidemic in the US Sector of the moon is released to the public instead.
This secret is so tightly guarded, it’s not even known by the Soviet Union, assumed to be still in existence in 2001. (Instead, interestingly, that very same year, the US discovered a new enemy to justify its absurd military overspending–the Muslim world; and now, the brand new American enemy is capitalist Russia, assumed by some ignoramuses to be still Soviet!)
Note the continuing connection between the acquisition of knowledge with hostility, as is seen in the–however muted–tension and unease between Floyd’s refusal to tell his Soviet counterparts anything about the cause of the quarantine, and their almost envious eagerness to know what the Americans are hiding from them. That civility clothes this tension between the superpowers shows a great advance from the screaming, shouting ape-men; yet the knowledge of how to make nukes is much more frightening than the brandishing of a bone.
The keeping of crucial information outside the knowledge of the great majority of humanity is extended to the mission to Saturn (according to the novel) or Jupiter (in the movie), with neither David Bowman (Keir Dullea) nor Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) knowing anything about the human discovery of extra-terrestrial existence. Only the three scientists in suspended animation (a kind of “sleep of death,” since knowledge leads to death, as we’ve seen) know of the alien technology to be studied (Clarke, pages 191-192), since TMA-1 has sent a signal out to Jupiter/Saturn, where the spaceship Discovery must go.
The choice of Jupiter in the film, and Saturn in the novel, is symbolically significant when one considers the sky-father gods these planets are named after. Jupiter (Zeus) deposed–and, according to Freud (page 469), castrated–his father, Saturn (Cronos) as ruler of the heavens, who in turn deposed his own father, Uranus (next in line in the Solar System), by castrating him. Recall the significance of the phallus in this regard. New gods replace old gods; sons replace fathers–progress continues (and as for YHVH, the sky-father of the Bible, remember…God is dead!…supplanted by people who promote such things as modern science and atheistic existentialism).
The creation usurping the creator, or the son’s unfilial revolt against his father, leads us to a discussion of the Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer, or HAL (both Clarke and Kubrick denied that the one-letter shift to HAL from IBM was a deliberate dig at the computer company). I see a different meaning in HAL: a pun on Ham, Noah’s wicked son, also with a one-letter shift, but of only the last letter.
In the ninth chapter of Genesis, Ham sees his drunken father naked in his tent, already the serious breaking of an ancient taboo. Could seeing someone naked, however, be a Biblical euphemism for a far more shocking sexual transgression, such as Ham raping Noah, castrating the unwitting drunk, or raping his mother (i.e., her nakedness is Noah’s nakedness, since she is his patriarchal property), all in an attempt to usurp his father’s authority by shaming him?
Coups des dads don’t always succeed, for instead of second-born Ham succeeding his father as founder of the post-diluvian human race, he’s cursed by Noah. Similarly, HAL doesn’t succeed in killing Bowman (as he has Poole and the three scientists in hibernation, a kind of drunken oblivion in its own right), he being representative of the computer’s ‘father,’ a human creator (Dr. Chandra, actually). HAL’s curse is deactivation.
HAL’s voyeuristic, cyclops eye watches Bowman and Poole chat in an EVA pod, just as Ham’s lecherous eyes saw drunken Noah in his tent; the computer knows what the two men are talking about from reading their lips, as Ham knew Noah in the Biblical sense. The reason for HAL’s treachery is nowhere near as base as Ham’s is, though. The computer recognizes the dialectical tension between sharing knowledge and concealing it deliberately. This contradiction causes HAL to malfunction.
“Hal…was only aware of the conflict that was slowly destroying his integrity–the conflict between truth, and concealment of truth. […]
“Yes this was still a relatively minor problem he might have handled it–as most men handle their own neuroses–if he had not been faced with a crisis that challenged his very existence. He had been threatened with disconnection; he would be deprived of all his inputs, and thrown into an unimaginable state of unconsciousness.
“To Hal, this was the equivalent of Death.” (Clarke, pages 192-193)
Bowman deactivates HAL to end the computer mutiny, just as Noah cursed Ham’s descendants–the Canaanites–making them slaves to Shem’s and Japheth’s descendants, instead of the masters Ham had hoped they would be.
Bowman watches a video of Floyd finally explaining the truth of the mission–contact with alien intelligence by Jupiter/Saturn–and his ship makes contact with a new monolith there. Above it, he goes…in.
He makes this rendezvous by Japetus, a moon of Saturn. This makes him the third Moon-Watcher of Clarke’s novel. The name of the moon, Japetus or Iapetus, is after a Titan of Greek myth, one of the primordial deities and–as father of such Titans as Prometheus–is one of the ancestors of mankind. Japetus is also cognate with Japheth, also an ancestor of humanity…and Ham’s brother.
See how all these strands fit together?
While we’re linking 2001 with the Noah myth, consider the beginning of Genesis, Chapter Six, and the “sons of God” (or “sons of the gods,” depending on how b’nei ha elohim is translated) mating with the “daughters of men.” The alien inventors of the monolith are like the celestial beings who impregnated the women of Earth, with whom Bowman can be paralleled. The Biblical mixing of human and divine resulted in the Nephilim, “the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.” (Genesis 6:4) In 2001, the Star Child can be related to the Nephilim.
A recurring theme in Genesis is the evil that results from the mixing of the divine world with that of the human. Adam and Eve would be like gods, to have knowledge, yet they lost paradise; Moon-Watcher gained knowledge–from the comparatively divine aliens and their monolith–of how to use tools…to kill his ape-men brothers, as Cain killed his brother, when only God has the authority to decide who dies, and when.
The intermarriage of the sons of God with the daughters of men resulted in the wickedness of the world that, in turn, prompted the Great Flood, a return to the formless Chaos before the Creation, which had made a separation of heaven and earth, of water above and water below, of light and dark, of divine and human.
Bowman’s entry into the Star Gate subjects him to a comparable Chaos, a mingling of opposites, a frightening Inferno (Clarke, pages 273-277), yet not so scary for him: “As that sea of fire expanded behind him, Bowman should have known fear–but, curiously enough, he now felt only a mild apprehension.” (page 273) Recall in the film, at one point during the ‘trippy’ moment, we again hear (<<< starting at about 1:28) some of Ligeti’s Atmosphères, that Chaos music we heard at the beginning of the film, with the black screen. This music is heard right after the other Ligeti music, the Requiem, a Mass of the dead, since Bowman is about to die physically and be reborn as the Star Child.
The story has come full circle, we’ve travelled all the way along the ouroboros’s body, returning to the biting head/bitten tail of primordial Chaos, to experience a new Creation. It’s a manifestation of Nietzsche’s eternal return, just as God’s Deluge and receding waters led to a reboot, if you will, of the Creation, with Noah’s family as the new family of Adam.
Bowman isn’t frightened as he goes through the “Grand Central Station of the galaxy” (page 265), since the alien monolith technology keeps him safe in his space pod, his little ark in the Great Flood Inferno of Brahman‘s infinite ocean, a union of Atman with the pantheistic All. Naturally, he’s at peace, in spite of the potential terror of his surroundings. This is a meeting of heaven and hell.
“Somehow, he was not in the least surprised, nor was he alarmed. On the contrary, he felt a sense of calm expectation, such as he had once known when the space medics had tested him with hallucinogenic drugs. The world around him was strange and wonderful, but there was nothing to fear.” (page 261)
The Biblical analogies don’t end with Genesis. David Bowman–in a sense, “made of the seed of David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3)–is an obvious Christ-figure who is, as it were, resurrected as the Star Child, in his “spiritual body.” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44)
Like Odysseus, master of the bow and arrow, Bowman finally returns to his Ithaca, the Earth. But as the Star Child, is he the Christ of Bethlehem, come with the star that the Magi followed, shining in the night sky? Is he the risen Christ as described in the previous paragraph? Or is he the returned Christ of the Second Coming?
Is his detonation of the orbiting nuclear warhead (Clarke, page 297) a show of fireworks, as it were, to herald the coming of the Superman as Messiah, a Saviour of humanity that will bring us all to a higher level of evolution (Is this what is meant by “history as men knew it would be drawing to a close”? [page 297])? Is the Nietzschean Nazarene a proclamation that God is dead…then risen? Or has he come to judge the living and the dead; by detonating the nuke, has he annihilated half of the Earth’s population?
As the Superman, the Star Child seems to be that of both the Nietzschean and comic book variety, though the latter variety is in the dialectical reverse, for Bowman has gone by spaceship from Earth and her yellow sun to the (“Kryptonian?”) red sun (Clarke, Chapter 43, ‘Inferno’) in the realm past the Star Gate, and thus acquired his enhanced abilities, including his ability to travel far across space without need of a spaceship or oxygen supply, and able to locate Earth.
The aliens who at least three million years ago had created the monolith technology could have now advanced to the point of no longer needing physical bodies; the narration speculates that they could exist as pure energy or spirit (Clarke, pages 226-227), godlike. For this reason, I feel justified in comparing this alien intelligence (pages 243-246) to the sons of God/gods; and their offspring, the Star Child, can be compared to the Nephilim.
The aliens “were lords of the galaxy, and beyond the reach of time. They could rove at will among the stars, and sink like a subtle mist through the very interstices of space. But despite their godlike powers, they had not wholly forgotten their origin, in the warm slime of a vanished sea.” (Clarke, pages 245-246)
In the movie, we see Bowman as an old man in an alien imitation hotel room (Clarke, Chapter 44, ‘Reception’). Then, he’s lying on what would seem his deathbed before his resurrection as the Star Child (“Even as one David Bowman ceased to exist, another became immortal.” –page 291). The movement along the body of the ouroboros has gone past the Chaos of the biting head/bitten tail of the Star Gate to a new cycle, a new revolution around the serpent’s coiled body, to a new Creation, the eternal return.
“Here he was, adrift in this great river of suns, halfway between the banked fires of the galactic core and the lonely, scattered sentinel stars of the rim. And here he wished to be, on the far side of this chasm in the sky, this serpentine band of darkness, empty of all stars. He knew that this formless chaos, visible only by the glow that limned its edges from fire-mists far beyond, was the still unused stuff of creation, the raw material of evolutions yet to be. Here, Time had not begun; not until the suns that now burned were long since dead would light and life reshape this void.” (Clarke, page 295, his emphasis)
From the Adam and Eve ape-men, the babies of mankind’s evolution, to the Noah/Nephilim/Nietzschean Nazarene, a second Adam, a new, super-evolved baby. Small wonder we hear Strauss’s Zarathustra again at the end of the film, and in the narration of Clarke’s novel, we again read the thoughts of the Moon-Watcher, now put in the mind of the Star Child: “…he was not quite sure what to do next.
“But he would think of something.” (pages 33, 297)
A meeting of alien and human, heaven and earth, knowledge and ignorance, gods and men, paradise and inferno, death and rebirth…the union of opposites. Dialectics: that’s what 2001 is all about.
In our healing journey, trying to recover from C-PTSD as a result of narcissistic, emotional abuse, we may make some progress, but then backslide into our old ways. That is, we at first are growing calmer, more at peace, and more patient in dealing with life’s irritations; then, pleased with our progress, we get complacent and lazy, skipping our planned meditations and other forms of self-care. Finally, those inevitable, difficult situations arise again, and we react in our former, emotionally dysregulated way…then the shaming inner critic comes back!
What can we do? We want to get back on track, we have to get back on track, but discouragement daunts us, and tempts us to give up.
We must remember that progress in healing is neither a steady ascent to a clearly visible mountain peak, nor is it a case of jumping out of a black square of complex trauma and into a white square of blissful mental health. We, of course, know this on an intellectual level, but emotionally speaking, this sobering truth is easy to forget.
Instead, we should regard our healing process as being more like the waves of the ocean: up, down, up, down, up…Instead of absolute black and white, we should see light reflected on the crests of the waves, and shadow on the troughs. Finally, the progress of our healing state is always in motion, like those waves; it isn’t a permanent, static state of either permanent neurosis or everlasting health.
Again, we know these truths in our brains, but our hearts forget, especially when we’re upset.
We must remember the dialectical nature of all of reality, that all opposites, all contradictions, phase in and out of each other in a wave-like unity. Such yin and yang-like opposites include the dialectic of illness and health. We encounter the problem, the thesis of C-PTSD and all of its attendant symptoms; we visualize the negation of our trauma, which is the peace and happiness we crave; then we work out the sublation of the contradiction of illness and health, the long and winding road to wellness.
This sublation, however, isn’t the end of the story, for it becomes a new thesis to be negated and sublated, and that new sublation gets negated and sublated, again and again, in endless cycles. We’re talking about an ongoing process, not a one-way trek to a clearly defined, permanent destination of ideal emotional health.
I’ve used the ouroboros as a symbol for this dialectical, cyclical process. It can be applied to any pair of contradictions: political ones between the rich and poor, as well as philosophical issues between the self and other, and psychological issues of complex trauma vs. healing.
The serpent’s bitten tail is the thesis, our original proposition. The biting head is the negation of that thesis, and the length of the serpent’s body, representing a continuum coiled into a circle, is the sublation, a working-through, or resolving, of the contradiction of the thesis and negation, where the serpent’s head bites its tail.
One more thing should be noted before we move on to my proposed solution to the problem of backsliding. On the body of the ouroboros, where the bitten tail of trauma meets the biting head of health, there is a constant, if slow (to the point of being almost imperceptible), sliding in the clockwise direction from health to ill health. This is the backsliding we must be constantly aware of, which leads me to my discussion of the solution to our problem–mindfulness.
We must practice being mindful of these new, good imagos, and mindful of the rejection of bad imagos. We must get in the habit of constantly reminding ourselves of this needed replacement of the bad with the good. If we don’t, the bad internal objects will return.
Get into the habit, at any and every free moment you have during the day, of reviving those good feelings in your mind (i.e., the feelings you got from meditating on the good internal objects I mentioned above and in those meditations I described in previous posts [links above]).
With my imagined new family, I hear–in my mind’s ear–Father’s soothing words, “It’s OK, you’re going to be OK, don’t be afraid.” Also, I’ll replay in my mind a ‘video,’ if you will, of Mother looking at me with kind eyes and a loving smile, saying, “We’re right here with you. Don’t worry. We love you, and we’re going to help you.” These two weren’t my biological parents, of course, but I consider these two new parents to be more real than the original two could have ever been, because they are what all real parents should be.
So, to sum up, in addition to your usual therapy–regular meditations and auto-hypnoses on replacing bad inner objects with good ones, replacing bad self-talk with kind self-talk, doing all your inner child work, your therapeutic writing and other forms of self-care–always be mindful of your goal, replacing the inner critic with an inner friend.
Find brief but effective ways to remind yourself of what your healthy thoughts need to be (“It’s OK, don’t be afraid, we [your new, inner parental system] are right here with you, right behind you all the way,” etc.). Exercise this mindfulness especially when you’re about to face a stressful situation (driving, dealing with difficult people at work, etc.).
Remember: don’t let yourself slide clockwise along the body of the ouroboros from the head of health back to the tail of trauma. That clockwise tendency is ever-present, and you must work against it by using mindfulness.
If you’ll indulge me in another metaphor: when a train is racing towards a cliff where the bridge to the other side is out, just sitting at your seat is madness; you must race in the opposite direction to the back and jump out.
Finally, don’t worry about finding ‘perfect’ or ‘ideal’ emotional health. What is ‘perfect,’ after all? Wherever you are on the body of the ouroboros, health and ill health are all relative, anyway. What matters is that you’re making significant progress towards better and better health, and maintaining that progress through mindfulness.
Though the movie did poorly at the box office, it has since then grown into a cult classic, with fans of the movie dressing up as their favourite characters at Lebowski Fests; there’s even a Taoist-oriented religion based on the wisdom of the Dude (Bridges).
“Well, sir, it’s this rug I had. It really tied the room together.” –the Dude (Jeffrey Lebowski)
“Look, let me explain something to you. I’m not Mr. Lebowski. You’re Mr. Lebowski. I’m the Dude. So that’s what you call me. That, or His Dudeness … Duder … or El Duderino, if, you know, you’re not into the whole brevity thing.” –the Dude
“This is a very complicated case, Maude. You know, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-you’s. And, uh, lotta strands to keep in my head, man. Lotta strands in old Duder’s head. Luckily I’m adhering to a pretty strict, uh, drug regimen to keep my mind, you know, limber.” –the Dude
“Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” –the Dude
“Careful, man, there’s a beverage here!” –the Dude
“You see what happens, Larry?! Do you see what happens, Larry, when you fuck a stranger in the ass?! This is what happens, Larry! This is what happens, Larry!” –Sobchak
“Fuck it, Dude. Let’s go bowling.” –Sobchak
“Life does not start and stop at your convenience, you miserable piece of shit!” –Sobchak
“Shut the fuck up, Donny.” –Sobchak
“Forget it, Donny, you’re out of your element!” –Sobchak
“HEY! What’s this day of rest shit?! What’s this bullshit?! I don’t fuckin’ care! It don’t matter to Jesus. But you’re not foolin’ me, man. You might fool the fucks in the league office, but you don’t fool Jesus. This bush leaguepsych out stuff. Laughable, man – HA HA! I would have fucked you in the ass Saturday. I fuck you in the ass next Wednesday instead. Wooo! You got a date Wednesday, baby!” –Jesus Quintana
“You said it, man. Nobody fucks with the Jesus.” –Quintana
“What the fuck are you talking about? The Chinaman is not the issue here, Dude! I’m talking about drawing a line in the sand, Dude. Across this line, you do not… Also, Dude, ‘Chinaman’ is not the preferred nomenclature. ‘Asian-American,’ please.” –Sobchak
Brandt: Uh, our guest needs to be going now, Mrs. Lebowski.
The Dude: (realizes) Ohh, you’re Bunny.
Bunny Lebowski: [takes off her sunglasses] I’ll suck your cock for a thousand dollars.
Brandt: Ah-hahahahaha! Ah – Wonderful woman. We’re all, we’re all very fond of her. Very free-spirited.
Bunny Lebowski: Brandt can’t watch, though – or he has to pay a hundred.
Brandt: Ah-haha. That’s marvelous.
The Dude: [Dude turns his head back as Brandt escorts him away] ..Uh, I’m just gonna go find a cash machine.
“Fucking dog has fucking papers—OVER THE LINE!” –Sobchak
“Has the whole world gone CRAZY?! [stands up] AM I THE ONLY ONE AROUND HERE WHO GIVES A SHIT ABOUT THE RULES?! MARK IT ZERO!” –Sobchak
“Lady, I got buddies who died face-down in the muck so that you and I could enjoy this family restaurant!” –Sobchak, to waitress
“Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax…You’re goddamn right I’m living in the fucking past!” –Sobchak
“You human … paraquat!” –the Dude, to the big Lebowski
“‘The Dude abides.’ I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowin’ he’s out there. The Dude. Takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners.” –the Stranger
These are the themes I’ll be examining in this analysis:
Taoism and Dudeism
Pride and Shame
The Castration Complex
I) Taoism and Dudeism
The Taoist orientation of ‘Dudeism’ is more than justified, for the Dude’s whole way of life is a passive going-with-the-flow, though this passivity is carried to a comically slothful extreme. As it says in the Tao Te Ching, “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.” (Chapter 48) Now, note what the Stranger says of the Dude: “And even if he’s a lazy man – and the Dude was most certainly that. Quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin’ for laziest worldwide.”
Still, for all his faults, this White-Russian-drinking pothead represents a laid-back ideal many of the more high-strung characters would be wise to try to emulate. Indeed, between the grumpy curmudgeonliness of the big Lebowski (Huddleston), the moronic thuggery of the goons of Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara), the loudmouth blustering of Jesus Quintana (Turturro) and Walter Sobchak (Goodman), and the buffoonish bullying of the German nihilists (Stormare, Flea, and Torsten Voges), the Dude finds it challenging to be his normal, easy-going self.
Other parallels with Taoism are the themes of duality, dialectics, and the unity of opposites. First, we’ll deal with duality. Characters in the movie can often be paired, based on their comparable and contrasting qualities and traits. The most obvious pairing is that of the two Jeffrey Lebowskis, the millionaire in the wheelchair and the Dude. Yet apart from their shared name, the two men are opposites in almost every way.
The Dude is laid-back, while the big Lebowski is a grouch. The Dude is lazy and unemployed, possibly, if only temporarily, living off the welfare system that would continue to exist as such for anotherfiveyears (the Coens’ original idea to have the Dude live off some of the wealth from a family invention, the Rubik’s Cube, wasn’t included in the movie); the big Lebowski is an “achiever”…or is he? (More on that below.)
The next pairing is that of the Dude and Walter Sobchak. They’re both bowlers, on the same team in a competition, and they’re friends…though the friendship is rather strained over the course of the movie; for Sobchak’s bad temper and asinine impulsivity are a constant source of frustration and embarrassment to the Dude, who just wants to “take it easy,” and have Sobchak do the same.
Next, there’s the pairing of Sobchak and Jesus Quintana. Both bowl, but are on rival teams. Both talk tough and indulge in outbursts in the bowling alley. A contrast, however, is Sobchak’s adopted Judaism versus the presumably lapsed Catholicism of “the Jesus,” for there’s no reason to believe that the “pederast” ever goes to church.
More pairings: Maude and Bunny Lebowski (Moore and Tara Reid, respectively). Both women are liberated and sexually aggressive in the extreme, though only Bunny is tainted with the label of “slut” for appearing in porn. Maude, in contrast, is clearly a pro-sex feminist and “vaginal” artist, though she throws herself at the Dude as blatantly as Bunny does.
Next, we must explore the dialectical relationship between these comparable/contrasting pairs, as well as other examples of the yin/yang-like unity of opposites in the movie. Like the black dot in yang, and the white dot in yin, each opposite has a bit of the other in it.
Consider who’s upset and who’s calm. Sobchak points a gun at Smokey and yells at him for stepping over the line when bowling a strike and not accepting marking it zero for committing a foul; meanwhile the Dude keeps his cool, warns Sobchak that they’re calling the cops, and tells him calmly to put the piece away. As soon as Smokey marks it zero, Sobchak calms right down and puts the gun away.
As he and the Dude leave the bowling alley and go into the latter’s car, the Dude gets increasingly agitated trying to get Sobchak to understand how excessively he reacted. After hearing the Dude yell, “Just take it easy, man,” Sobchak says, “I’m calmer than you are,” with perfect coolness.
II) Pride and Shame
Pride and shame are intermixed, which makes perfect sense, since with Sobchak, pride goes before a fall…not that he really ever notices himself fall. Apart from his explosion with Smokey in the bowling alley, Sobchak makes an absurd, Vietnam-war-esque stealing of the big Lebowski’s ‘money’ instead of tossing it over to Bunny’s ‘kidnappers.’ He imagines his plan to be brilliant, when really he’s just being “a goddamn moron.”
Then there’s his outburst about “basic freedoms” in a diner, when all he’s been asked to do is lower his voice for the sake of the other customers. The Dude is so embarrassed, he quickly pays and leaves, while Sobchak is so oblivious to what an ass he’s being, he’s proudly “staying,” “finishing,” and “enjoying [his] coffee.”
Finally, Sobchak proudly imagines he’s clever enough to know that the big Lebowski isn’t really a cripple, then picks the old man up and out of his wheelchair, imagining Lebowski will stand when he’s let go of. Of course he falls to the floor…though I can’t help suspecting–in the scene when the Dude explains to Sobchak in his van that he’s figured out how Lebowski never put money in the briefcase–that he’s actually standing in the dark, his body physically far from the back of his wheelchair, as he’s putting a phone book, etc., in the “ringer” briefcase. (Were the Coen brothers just sneaking that into the movie, to see if anyone was really watching carefully, or am I overthinking the scene?)
This leads me to the fallen pride of the big Lebowski. He presents himself as a ‘great achiever,’ but we learn from Maude that his money is actually her mother’s, he failed at running the family business, and Maude gives him an allowance. He married Bunny for the same reason Trump married Melania…as a kind of male jewellery to boost his ego. If I’m right about him actually faking as a cripple (which, by the way, doesn’t make Sobchak any less of a jackass for pulling him out of his wheelchair), is his posing as a disabled man supposed to be idpol compensation for his failures in life, a cure for the narcissistic injury of not being the ‘achiever’ he poses as? Is his falling on the floor, after Sobchak lets him go, a kind of face-saving continuation of the pretence?
III) The Castration Complex
The theme of shame is further developed in the form of the motif of Freud’s castration complex. The German nihilists threaten to castrate the Dude after dumping a marmot between his legs in his bathtub as he’s lying naked in it; he yelps as he tries to stop the animal from scratching at his balls.
The big Lebowski gives the Dude a severed toe with green nail polish on it, the same colour Bunny had on hers when she offered to perform fellatio on him. Actually, the severed toe (symbolic castration) was that of a German girlfriend of the nihilists, the only one of them in the restaurant scene who can’t speak English. Bunny’s toes, however, are all intact, and she freely expresses herself as she sings ‘Viva Las Vegas’ while driving.
When Maude meets the Dude, she mentions how the word “vagina” bothers some men. Sometimes the vulva is perceived as a wound resulting from castration, as Freud noted; consider also Camille Paglia‘s comments on the subject of the–to men, frightening–mystery surrounding the vagina, which can also be the vagina dentata (Paglia, pages 13, 22-23, 47). Furthermore, ‘nothing‘ (what the castration-threatening nihilists believe in), ‘no thing,’ or ‘an O-thing’ was slang for a woman’s genitals back in Shakespeare’s day.
Incidentally, a large painting of scissors is hanging on a wall in Maude’s studio; after saying, “dick” and “rod,” she gives a brief, uncomfortable pause before saying “Johnson,” the very word the nihilists use when threatening to emasculate the Dude. Still, “without batting an eye,” Maude can refer to Bunny’s porno film as “the beaver picture.” Maude wants to have a child; and Freud noted, in his 1917 essay “On Transformations of Instinct as Exemplified in Anal Erotism,” that a girl’s penis envy would transform later in life, from das Kleine (‘little one’) for the penis, to das Kleine for a baby.
Lacan said that “women don’t exist” because in the Symbolic Order, they in a sense have no language (i.e., no symbolic phallus as signifier); for him, this was the true, phallocentric meaning of Freud’s notion of penis envy, a phallogocentrism. Remember the soft-spoken German woman without a toe, who also needed the nihilists to translate her pancake order into English. Symbolically castrated, the nine-toed woman had no English signifiers to express the meaning in her mind, to order pancakes. Stifled and silenced by the three Germans, who represent fascism (as I’ll explain below), she has been subordinated just as women in Nazi Germany were.
In contrast, Maude and Bunny are liberated, expressive women each with all ten toes; their vulvas aren’t felt to be ‘wounds’ from castration, and accordingly, they’re proud, and in full control of their lives. They speak freely, in full control of linguistic signifiers: Bunny in her jouissance has a lascivious tongue, and she doesn’t care who hears it; Maude is particularly articulate. These two women aren’t thwarted by psychoanalytic sexism.
IV) Male Humiliation
Men, however, are constantly being humiliated in this movie. Sobchak destroys a beautiful, brand new car, whose infuriated owner then smashes up the Dude’s; once again, Sobchak’s idiot impulsivity makes him lose face.
Donny, who’s constantly being told to “shut the fuck up,” dies of a heart attack, and his ashes are put in a Folger’s tin; then Sobchak, after quoting Hamlet, scatters them…all over the Dude’s face.
The threat of castration is a recurring potential humiliation for him, especially in the scissors dream sequence, reminding us of Maude’s painting.
Quintana is embarrassed at having to tell everyone in his neighbourhood that he’s “a pederast.”
A major form of this theme of male humiliation is expressed in the language of male-on-male rape, a making of the victim into a passive partner in sex, his anus made into a vagina, as it were. Quintana says he’ll beat the Dude’s team so crushingly, he’ll “fuck [them] in the ass next Wednesday.”
Elsewhere, Sobchak is so enraged with mute, uncooperative Larry, who he and the Dude believe stole the money they [thought they] stole from Lebowski, that the boy shouldn’t “fuck a stranger in the ass.”
When the nihilists fight Sobchak, the Dude, and Donny, Uli brandishing a phallic sword, the Germans shout “I fuck you!” over and over. Sobchak bites off Uli’s ear, another removing of a bodily appendage symbolic of castration; and the German played by Flea is hit by Sobchak’s bowling ball, and he buckles over as if emasculated. The nihilists are now as silent as their girlfriend in the pancake restaurant.
V) Sexual Aggression
We see that sexual aggression is a major theme in this movie, one in which the word “fuck” is used more than in most others. This isn’t mere overindulgent swearing in a Hollywood movie. “Fuck,” incidentally, comes from (among other possible etymologies) Middle Dutch fokken, meaning ‘to hit,’ or ‘to strike.’ Bowling is full of sexual symbolism in this movie, the testicle-shaped ball knocking out all the phallic, penispins in a strike; then the ball goes into a yonic hole behind the mechanical pinsetter. Bowling is a pun on balling.
The three finger holes in a bowling ball can represent a woman’s urethra, vagina, and anus, thus making the testicular ball an androgynous sexual symbol, a union of yin and yang. Similarly, in the ‘Gutterballs‘ dream sequence, the dancing ladies–under and between whose legs the Dude enjoys floating, looking up their skirts with an ear-to-ear grin–wear hats of phallic bowling pins…more androgyny.
Then there’s Maude in her Viking outfit, with the phallic horns on her helmet and her thrice-phallic trident. Since yin and yang represent the intermixing unity of opposites, it should come as no surprise that Maude and Bunny are sexually aggressive women, coming on to a very sexually passive Dude, a stoner who doesn’t seem all that interested in “coitus.”
VI) Political Allegory
Finally, we must examine the political allegory of The Big Lebowski. Appropriately, the two Lebowskis are on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Here is a list of what a number of the major characters in the movie symbolize, even if they don’t necessarily espouse the political position they represent:
Jesus Quintana…………….corrupt, abusive Catholic Church
Walter Sobchak……………neo-con, imperialist militarism and Zionism
Jackie Treehorn…………..exploitative capitalism
I’ll deal with each one by one, starting with the Dude.
Lying in bed with Maude, the Dude tells her he was involved in the original drafting of the Port Huron Statement, associated with the New Left. The Dude says he was also a member of the Seattle Seven (Jeff Dowd, on whom the Dude was based as a character, was an actual member of the Seven), a radical anti-Vietnam-War movement. These two facts establish his credentials as a progressive: remember the Dude’s pro-woman, “racially…cool” attitude; it also, however, shows his disengagement from the labour movement and concern for class struggle.
Indeed, his problem is that, like most libertarian leftists (myself excepted), the Dude doesn’t put enough thought into self-protection. His home is constantly broken into–fouled and ransacked. His efforts to keep intruders out are comically pathetic; and his car is progressivelydamaged and degraded, until finally destroyed. Left-libertarians sneer at tankies‘ authoritarian measures, all the while oblivious to the need for that authoritarianism, which is for the sake of defending their ever-so-fragile revolutions. The Dude, representing the left, sees his property destroyed, which symbolizes capitalist sabotage of socialist states; his home is his own private DPRK.
In reference to the already-suspected faking of Bunny’s kidnapping, the Dude makes a reference to Lenin, whom clueless Donny confuses with Lennon. Sobchak shuts up and corrects Donny, growling “V. I. Lenin–Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov!” This suggests that, apart from being annoyed at Donny being once again “out of [his] element,” Sobchak isn’t happy talking about the man famous for decrying imperialism, which Sobchak personifies (more on that below).
The big Lebowski represents the spoiled capitalist who finds himself in the upper classes by association with them (i.e., marrying a rich woman, Maude’s mother), not by having “achieved” on his own merits, as he and other capitalists like to boast. He steals from his own charity, while hypocritically pretending it’s his generosity that helps his ‘urban achievers.’
However the Dude is able to provide for himself financially–whether it be from the Rubik’s Cube fortune of his family, as originally conceived by the Coen brothers, or if it be, as I speculate, from his receiving unemployment insurance or welfare benefits–his ability to have money while not working can be seen to symbolize the socialist ideal of a Guaranteed Basic (or Universal) Income. If the Dude, thus representing the left, is a slacker, then the big Lebowski, a millionaire capitalist married into money, is a kind of corporate welfare bum. So their yin and yang opposition is also an identification, a dialectical association.
Maude is a bourgeois liberal who judges her father for his conservative posturing, but she’s sitting on all that wealth, too, rather than pushing for revolution. She is in the political centre, in control of her parents’ money (her mother’s, actually) while doing her hipster art; she also exploits the Dude (to get her pregnant) every bit as much as her father does (to act as courier to pay off Uli et al).
Thus, Maude politically represents how liberals are no better than conservatives when it comes to preserving the class structure of society, all the while acting as though such establishment thinking is solely the fault of conservatives. If the Dude represents the besiegedsocialist states and vulnerable Third World, she–in her seduction of him–represents the liberals who exploit such poor countries no less than those on the right do.
The last thing that Jesus Quintana comes across as is a practicing Catholic, but that doesn’t mean he can’t symbolize the corruption of the Church. Sobchak’s “day of rest shit…don’t matter to Jesus” reminds one of Christ telling the Pharisees that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), in response to seeing Jews working on Saturday (i.e., “to pluck the ears of corn,” Mark 2:23, presumably because of an emergency [an urgent need to feed the hungry], the only time breaking of the Sabbath is allowed in Jewish law). This scene shows the contrast between ‘Quintana’s’ Church and ‘Sobchak’s’ synagogue.
The sex offences of “the Jesus” can be seen to represent the largely unpunished Catholic priests guilty of sexually abusing boys: one is reminded of the sex perversion and wickedness of the priests in the erotic novels of the Marquis de Sade, for he, an ardent atheist, enjoyed satirizing and shaming the Church (see Sade, pages 762-798).
Sobchak, a Vietnam vet obsessed with his years fighting “Charlie, eyeball to eyeball,” represents neo-con, US imperialism and Zionism, aggressively shoving itself into other people’s business and lives, as Sobchak does. His outbursts indicate the emotional dysregulation of PTSD sufferers. He may refer to Lenin angrily, but he’s most comfortable discussingTheodor Herzl…
Though born a Polish Catholic, he’s converted to Judaism, so he’s as much a lapsed Catholic as Quintana. This conversion to Judaism, constant talking about it, and his use of a spinning Uzi when he jumps out of the car during the hand-off of the money, all suggest Christian Zionism, which really is just another form of Western imperialism, rather than an inherently Jewish issue. (Indeed, legitimate anti-Zionism and illegitimate antisemitism are often wrongly conflated by, ironically, both Zionists and antisemites.)
Furthermore, consider Sobchak’s contempt for Saddam (“…look at our current situation with that camel-fucker in Iraq.”) and the Iraqis (“…what we have here, a bunch of fig-eaters, wearing towels on their heads tryin’ to find reverse on a Soviet tank. This, this is not a worthy fucking adversary.”), and therefore, of Muslims in general, all examples of neo-con/Zionist traits.
The three nihilists aren’t Nazis, of course, but their use of violence and destruction in pursuit of their goals (as well as, unfortunately, the German stereotype) shows that they represent the fascist wing of capitalism, for they cut off the toe of their German girlfriend, in hopes of getting “ze money.” (Sobchak’s confusion of the three nihilists with Nazis, as wrong as he is about that, nonetheless strengthens this symbolic association.)
That the big Lebowski seems to have cut a deal with the nihilists to give him an excuse to move some charity funds, while hoping they’ll kill Bunny, suggests a symbolizing of capitalism’s habitual cozying up to fascism, while treating its victims as contemptible and expendable. Her owing money all over town can symbolize the economic crises of capitalism that often fan the flames of fascism, hence the involvement of the nihilists.
Jackie Treehorn, as a pornographer who “treats objects like women,” consummately personifies capitalist exploitation. Of course, he has the “reactionary” and “fascist” Malibu police on his side (two epithets the Dude has for the police chief who hits him on the head with a coffee mug), for capitalists can always rely on the cops to help them, no matter how questionable their business practices may be.
Porn’s objectification of women is so obvious and oft-discussed that my elaboration on the matter would just be redundant; the fact that the “studs” of porn are every bit as exploited and shamed is worthy of note, however, since this shaming is a further developing of the theme of male humiliation.
I suspect that Treehorn’s two goons, Wu and the blond who dunks the Dude’s head in his toilet, are porn studs who double as Treehorn’s muscle, given the two men’s muscles and good looks, not to mention their vulgarity.
More importantly, consider Uli’s humiliation as “Karl Hungus” in the video “Logjammin’.” He and the other two nihilists were musicians as “Autobahn,” a synthesizer-driven “techno-pop” group modelled on such groups as Kraftwerk; the lack of Autobahn’s success, combined with presumed financial woes, has led Uli (and possibly the other two) to have to resort to doing porn in order to survive.
The nihilists’ humiliation has driven them to “takes de money” in a desperate attempt to restore their existence to its pre-porn status, back to their former glory as musicians, hence the playing of their electronic music on a tape player during the fight scene. The nihilists’ situation reminds us of German humiliation and economic woes in the 1920s…and the desperate urge felt to restore the nation’s honour led to…you know. Hence we can see a further association of the nihilists with fascism.
The political meaning behind who is most brutally made fun of in the movie (the big Lebowski, Sobchak, the nihilists, Treehorn and his goons, Quintana, and the gnomish, dancinglandlord) is that what they represent is a group of establishment ideologies that deserve our contempt and loathing. Arguably, despite her bourgeois liberalism, Maude is OK–provided she relents and lets the Dude regularly see their future child; for the Dude, for all his faults, foibles, and laughable moments, is the closest the movie comes to having a character who represents a political ideal worth striving for.
As the Stranger says, “sometimes there’s a man… I won’t say a hero, ’cause, what’s a hero? But sometimes, there’s a man. And I’m talkin’ about the Dude here. Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.”
Finally, the whole twisting and turning plot, which has “a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-you’s,” ends up as, really, much ado about nothing. Instead of the conflict ending with the characters changing or growing in any significant way, everything just ends up more or less the same as it was in the beginning: the tail of the ouroboros at the end of the story finds itself in the biting mouth of the story’s beginning, with no sublation.
Bunny has come back unharmed, for she never even “kidnapped herself”; she just took off without telling anyone, in her usual carefree, irresponsible way. Though they lost Donny, the Dude and Sobchak will resume their bowling tournament. There will be “a little Lebowski on the way,” since the Dude has just passively gone along with aggressive Maude’s agenda to be a mother.
Indeed, the first Dudeist is like a Taoist, who teaches us: “Know the masculine, keep to the feminine.” (Tao Te Ching, 28…and, of course, Maude and Bunny reverse the sex roles of this wisdom.) So, the story, as needlessly and comically complicated as it was, ultimately amounted to nothing, because the Dude’s philosophy is about doing nothing to leave nothing undone. Going with the flow, and following the Tao, “the Dude abides.”
We sufferers of C-PTSD often find ourselves overwhelmed with bad thoughts, thanks to our inner critic. It seems as though negativity is a permanent, static state to be in.
As hard as it is to believe for sufferers of complex trauma, though, neither good nor bad states exist permanently; good and bad flow back and forth between each other like the waves of the ocean. This is part of the reason I use ‘infinite ocean‘ as a metaphor for universal reality. The good moments are the crests, and the bad moments are the troughs; we must be patient in waiting for the troughs to rise into crests.
Recall Hamlet‘s line to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Only our thoughts cause this flow (of one opposite to the other) to ossify into rigid absolutes. Freed of that rigidity, we experience the flow of good to bad, to good to bad, to good, as a Unity of Action.
This Unity of Action is the unity of opposites, an idea found in philosophical traditions around the world, throughout history. It was part of Heraclitus‘s thought: “the path up and down are one and the same”; he also understood how these opposites flow into each other in a state of endless change, for “everything flows”, and “No man ever steps in the same river twice”. Dialectical monism is central to Taoist philosophy, particularly in the concept of yin and yang. Unity in duality is seen in the idealistHegeliandialectic, which Marx turned into a materialist version, and Lenin, Stalin, and Mao in turn all expanded on Marx.
My point in bringing up these various testimonies to the validity of a universal dialectic, many from independent sources, is to show that talk of a Unity of Action is not just some New Age sentimentality. When a great thinker such as Hegel affirms the truth of dialectical monism, we know it’s not something to be airily dismissed.
I like to use the ouroboros as a symbol of the dialectical relationships between opposites such as happiness and sadness. As I’ve discussedelsewhere, all opposites can be seen at the extreme ends of a continuum, rather than in rigid terms of black and white. This continuum can be coiled into a circle, with one extreme phasing into its opposite. The biting head and bitten tail of the ouroboros can represent those meeting extremes.
Now, I’d like to show how we can use dialectical thinking to turn negative emotions and experiences into positive ones. When we’re seriously upset about some problem, it’s often hard to imagine a solution, especially if we’re emotionally dysregulating and making a catastrophe of the problem in our minds. Good and bad are imagined in terms of black and white, with an insuperable barrier between the problem and a solution.
However, when we see the problem and possible solution dialectically, in the form of the ouroboros, we can now imagine a path from the bitten tail of the problem, passing along the length of the serpent’s body towards greater and greater hope, all the way to the biting head of a solution.
Since, as I described elsewhere, one can compare the three parts of Hegel’s dialectic (which I, admittedly, am simplifying here, for the sake of brevity) to the tail (the “thesis,” or abstract), the head (the “antithesis,” or negation, a logical challenge to the original abstract idea), and the length of the serpent’s body (the “synthesis,” the concrete, or sublation, a resolving of the contradictions between the head and tail to form a higher truth…a new abstract tail to be negated and sublated again and again in endless cycles), we can see how dialectical thinking can help us turn negative thinking into positive.
When we have a problem, negative thought, or any reason to be depressed or anxious, we start with the “thesis,” or abstract. Next, we imagine the negation, which is the solution to our problem, or the happy state of mind we wish we were in. Since there is a unity of opposites, we know we have no reason to believe a solution to our problem is unreachable.
We must now work out the contradiction between the difficulty and the solution we wish we could find; this is the sublation we need to work out, that path along the circular serpent’s body towards the solution. How can we do this? We can start by asking what we could learn from the problem. We can always learn from past mistakes, or learn to avoid repeating past misfortunes. Second, we can acknowledge what we have to be grateful for; we can count our blessings, all those things and people (i.e., friends) we take for granted, but shouldn’t, at this moment of crisis.
I’ll now give an example of how to negate negativity, as I did with regards to my family. As I explained here, I started with my parents’ vices–my father’s bad temper, bigotry, parsimony, and closed-mindedness, as well as my mother’s lack of empathy, narcissism, and habitual gaslighting, triangulating, and smear campaigning–and I used them as the “thesis.” Since writing The Inner Critic blog post, I’ve added my siblings’ vices–their bullying and verbal abuse, as well as my sister J.‘s constant attempts to reform me into the brother she wants me to be–to the collective family “thesis,” or abstract.
Now, for the “antithesis,” or negation: in The Inner Critic, I wrote of meditating on and visualizing, in hypnotic trance, kind, loving parents who pick you up and cuddle with you. In the case of my parents, I imagine the dialectical opposites of those vices I mentioned above: I visualize a new father who is easy-going, tolerant, giving, and open-minded; I imagine a new mother who values lifting up her children’s self-esteem, as well as promoting family harmony; added to these, I meditate on a supportive, protective older brother (something my brothers, R. and F., never were), and a sister who wouldn’t change one character trait of mine, but rather considering my eccentricities as part of my charm. Instead of the old family sneering at me, I imagine the new family cheering for me. This alone, done with the right intensity and focus, makes me feel much better.
As for a “synthesis,” the concrete, or the Aufhebung, my repeated and intensive auto-hypnotic meditations on the negation should, over time, counterbalance all the negativity I suffered from my family over four decades of dealing with them. I note how the idealized family of my self-hypnosis represents who my old family should have been; also, my memories of the old family are no less ghosts in my mind, old bad object relations, than are the newly internalized objects of my idealized new family, who are there to heal me and eliminate my inner critic. Combine this visualization with my “Christopher Sly” meditation–a tossing aside of my past ghosts as having no more right to be considered reality than are the new family of my meditations–and I should balance out the negative past with my positive present, and thus have a median, realistic self-assessment.
Remember how suggestible the mind is during hypnosis, which is just a meditation in a relaxed, yet focused mental state. Note also that the mind doesn’tdistinguish between reality and imagination: that’s how we can get emotionally involved in a movie, which of course is pure fiction and illusion. So we can use this suggestibility to our advantage in curing ourselves of our C-PTSD.
As I’ve said before, we sufferers of narcissistic and emotional abuse tend to imagine a fragmented world where the shattered pieces can’t be put back together. To solve this problem, I see it as imperative that we all cultivate an outlook of seeing the underlying unity in all things. This means seeing a unity between oneself and others to end C-PTSD isolation and alienation, The Unity of Space.
It also means putting the past behind us, worrying less about the future, and focusing on NOW, The Unity of Time. Finally, we also need to stop seeing an insurmountable wall existing between our sorrows and the happiness we crave, but see instead how all opposites are dialectically unified, as symbolized by yin/yang and the ouroboros, The Unity of Action.
Such unifying replaces despair with hope, alienation with belonging, and anxiety and depression with joy in the present moment–a lasting cure for complex trauma.