Analysis of ‘Midnight Cowboy’

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

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

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

Here are some famous quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe: Now, Cass, take it easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘The Dead Zone’

The Dead Zone is a supernatural thriller novel by Stephen King that was published in 1979. It’s about a man, Johnny Smith, who has psychic powers of precognition and clairvoyance, which give him visions of the past or future of whomever he touches.

David Cronenberg directed a film adaptation, with Christopher Walken as Smith, in 1983. A TV series with Anthony Michael Hall as Smith was produced in the 2000s. I’ll be referencing the novel and Cronenberg’s film.

Here are some quotes, from the novel:

“But the people didn’t elect buffoons to Washington. Well—hardly ever.” (p. 199)

“Did I grow a third eye?” –Johnny, p. 98

Nothing is ever lost, Sarah. Nothing that can’t be found.” (p. 402)

“It’s been my experience that ninety-five percent of the people who walk the earth are simply inert, Johnny. One percent are saints, and one percent are assholes. The other three percent are the people who do what they say they can do.” –Roger Chatsworth, p. 285

“PRECOGNITION, TELEPATHY, BULLSHIT! EAT MY DONG, YOU EXTRASENSORY TURKEY!” –hate letter to Johnny, p. 181

Well, we all do what we can, and it has to be good enough…and if it isn’t good enough, it has to do.” –Johnny’s letter to Sarah, p. 401

“…some things are better lost than found.” –Dr. Sam Weizak, to Johnny, p. 223

From the film:

‘”Bless me”? Do you know what God did for me? He threw an 18-wheeled truck at me and bounced me into nowhere for five years! When I woke up, my girl was gone, my job was gone, my legs are just about useless… Blessed me? God’s been a real sport to me!’ –Johnny Smith

“I need your support, I need your expertise, I need your input, and most importantly, I need your money.” [laughter] –Greg Stillson

“I have had a vision that I am going to be President of the United States someday. And nobody, and I mean nobody is going to stop me!” –Stillson

“Let’s send Greg Stillson to the United States Senate – and mediocrity to hell!” –Stillson […]

Johnny Smith: I’ve been tutoring this boy named Stuart. In the vision, I saw him drown. But that’s not the point. In the vision, something was missing.

Dr. Sam Weizak: How – how do you mean?

Johnny Smith: It was like… a blank spot, a dead zone.

Dr. Sam Weizak: First of all, tell me, did the boy, in fact, drown?

Johnny Smith: His father wanted him to play hockey. I talked him out of it. The boy’s alive.

Dr. Sam Weizak: Ah. Yes. Don’t you see how clear it is? Not only can you see the future, you can…

Johnny Smith: I can change it.

Dr. Sam Weizak: You can change it, exactly. Here. Yes, John. That is your… your “dead zone.” The possibility of… of altering the outcome of your premonitions. It’s fascinating. Let me make a note. […]

Johnny Smith: [touching the mother of serial killer Frank Dodd] You knew? Didn’t you?

Henrietta Dodd: You… you’re a devil, sent from Hell!

Henrietta Dodd (played by Colleen Dewhurst), mother of cop/serial killer Frank.

In spite of his special powers of knowing what most people couldn’t know, Johnny also has a limit to that unique knowledge, a realm of unknowing that he calls the dead zone: ‘The tumor lies in that area which I always called “the dead zone.”‘ (p. 396) This leads us to a central theme in the novel, a dialectical understanding of the relationship between knowing and unknowing. The biting head of the ouroboros (where dialectical opposites meet) of extrasensory knowledge leads to the bitten tail of unknowing.

Connected to this yin-and-yang concept of knowledge and ignorance is the relationship between organized religion–an authoritarian establishment often associated with superstition and fundamentalist bigotry towards any other forms of knowledge contradictory to its dogma–and intuitive mysticism and spirituality. Johnny’s mother, Vera, adheres to the former; Greg Stillson peddles the former as a Bible salesman in the 1950s; and Johnny demonstrates the latter with his psychic powers.

In this connection, consider what the Tao Te Ching says: “To realize that our knowledge is ignorance, this is a noble insight. To regard our ignorance as knowledge, this is mental sickness.” (71) Also, “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.” (56) Vera’s overconfidence in the ‘truth’ of her Christian fundamentalism, with her attendant neuroticism, demonstrates how she thinks she knows the truth, but doesn’t. Johnny’s admitted “dead zone” of unknowing, along with his unassuming nature, evading the spotlight, shows how he knows, because he doesn’t know.

Added to this virtue is Johnny’s loving, empathic nature. Those who insist on fundamentalist interpretations of Biblical prophecy, obsessing over how Scripture supposedly warns us of 20th and 21st century evils, things its writers couldn’t possibly have known, ought to recall what Paul wrote to the Corinthian church: “…though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2)

Sarah Hazlett (née Bracknell–played by Brooke Adams) and Johnny Smith (Walken).

Johnny has oceans of this love: he has it for his father, his mother (as irritating as her fundamentalism may be), and for his girl, Sarah, whom he would have married, if not for his car accident and four-and-a-half-year coma, a kind of extended stay in the belly of the great fish, making Jonah‘s sojourn a mere pit-stop in comparison.

In relation to the rest of the events of the story (and to Jonah’s, and to Jesus’ death and resurrection, to which Johnny’s coma is symbolically associated), the timing of Johnny’s coma is unusual. The coma occurs towards the beginning of the novel/film, before his hesitancy to use his abilities for the good of the world; whereas Jonah’s wish to escape having to obey God’s command preceded his time in the belly of the great fish. The same goes for Jesus’ harrowing of Hell, between his death and resurrection: this harrowing occurs towards the end of the four Gospels, after his temptation by the devil in the wilderness, and after his spiritual struggle in Gethsemane, as we know.

Johnny’s name is a pun on Jonah; it also shares a J with Jesus (Yeshua being a variant of Joshua). Johnny is a teacher, with a good heart, like Jesus (who was often called ‘rabbi’), and also like carpenter Jesus, he’s a man of modest means. Contrast Johnny with Trump-like, narcissistic Stillson, whose ambition is to become the US president one day, and to prove his daddy wrong, that he’s better than Daddy claimed he is (‘…his father was…bellowing, “You’re no good, runt! You’re no fucking good!”‘p. 9).

Heinz Kohut wrote of how the narcissistic personality grows from a lack of parental empathy, and this is clearly what Stillson lacked in childhood. Johnny, in contrast, has deeply loving parents, instilling a self-love in him that cultivates humility. Just as there’s a dialectical relationship between knowing and unknowing, so is there such a relationship between humility/self-love and narcissism/self-hate.

Greg Stillson (played by Martin Sheen), the man who would be president.

As it is within, so is it without: Johnny gives out love as best he can to the world, even when cruel, bad luck takes away his job and the love of his life (ironically and dialectically, right after his amazingly good luck on the Wheel of Fortune); Stillson, on the other hand, abuses a dog (when selling Bibles!–pp. 5-7), and bullies those around him to make them comply with his ambitions (e.g., Chapter 18). Even in the alternate future Johnny prevents, with Stillson achieving his presidential ambition, he chooses nuclear genocide over diplomacy with the Soviets. Johnny projects and introjects good, Stillson, evil, regardless of good or ill fortune.

In the end, though Johnny dies, his spirit is felt by Sarah: his Christ-like spiritual body (i.e., his hand–p. 401) touches her. In the novel, we don’t read of Stillson’s suicide, as we see it in the film; he is, however, spiritually destroyed by the scandal caused by his using a child as a human shield against Johnny’s rifle. In the end, Greg is still just the son of his contemptuous father. Johnny, however, is more of a son of God, not just through his abilities, but also through his selfless sacrifice for humanity.

Indeed, in many ways, Johnny’s life can be paralleled with Christ’s, though the order of events seem scrambled, reversed, or even of a contrary nature when compared to the narrative of the Gospels. As I’ve stated above, Johnny’s ‘death-and-resurrection’ coma occurs towards the beginning, rather than at the end, of the story. His final act of sacrifice to save humanity involves trying to kill a malefactor (Stillson) rather than save one, as Jesus does when he says, “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

When Johnny is shot, a bullet hits him in the hand (in the movie), suggesting the stigmata. According to the novel, the last bullet to hit him goes “into the left side of his midsection” (p. 384), comparable to the spear stuck in Christ’s side (John 19:34), the last piercing of his skin. Stillson’s use of the child as a human shield suggests the self-centredness of the other crucified malefactor: “If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.” (Luke 23:39)

Johnny and Sarah never stopped loving each other.

Sarah’s relationship with Johnny, still a love relationship after she married Walt Hazlett during Johnny’s coma, is an illicit one, since she commits adultery by sleeping with Johnny. Her adultery invites comparison with Mary Magdalene, who visited Christ’s tomb when he, risen from the dead, spoke her name (John 20:16). The comparison is clearer when Sarah feels the hand of Johnny’s spirit on her neck (p. 401)

So Johnny is the Jesus of anti-authoritarianism, symbolically in his ‘death-resurrection’ coma happening at the beginning of the story, rather than at the end, as in the Gospels; in his salvific assassination attempt on Stillson; in the superiority of Johnny’s psychic powers to the dogma of Christian fundamentalism.

“He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” (1 John 4:8) Johnny may have a dead zone, but he still has more in him than mortal knowledge, for he is full of love for humanity.

And even Vera’s unknowing has its limits, for she is right that Johnny should use his divine gift to help humanity. He is reluctant to at first, and in this way his struggle parallels Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, or Jonah’s attempted flight from God.

But Johnny eventually relents, helping the police catch a serial killer/rapist, who as it turns out is a cop himself, Frank Dodd! Here again, we see the anti-authoritarian Jesus in Johnny, exposing a killer among the authorities, the cops–something that upsets Sheriff Bannerman, who has held Dodd in high regard up to this point. This anti-authority Johnny is in this respect like anti-authoritarian Jesus, who exposed the moral hypocrisy of the Pharisees, the legal and religious authorities of his time. (Matthew 23)

Frank Dodd’s suicide, as envisioned in the film.

Dodd, as a serial killer/rapist, is of the Norman Bates/Ed Gein variety: he lives at home with his mother, Henrietta, from whom he’s received his pathologies, in particular, the notion of “those cheap slutty women that’d be happy to give a nice boy like my Frank an incurable disease” (p. 252). Henrietta is so obsessed with ‘protecting’ her son from “those cheap slutty women” that she “put a clothespin on it so [little Frank would] know how it felt…when you got a disease. A disease from one of those nasty-fuckers, they’re all nasty-fuckers, and they have to be stopped…” (p. 240)

The attitude that Dodd got from his mother, that ‘all women are whores,’ while his mother is apparently the only feminine angel (she who pierced his dick with a clothespin when he was a child!), is an example of psychological splitting, a common defence mechanism, but one here that is taken to a pathological level.

Thus we see in Dodd, as we see in Stillson, a common origin of authoritarian thinking: toxic parenting (consider Philip Larkin‘s famous poem in this regard). The Biblical injunction to “honour thy father and thy mother” is transferred, by the victims of toxic parents, onto a similarly pathological honouring of authority figures–police, politicians, and religious leaders, even to the point of revering scriptural conceptions of divinity.

Now, Johnny has quite a flawed mother, one whose religious excesses he even compares to Henrietta’s pathologies: “there was something in her eyes, narrowed to glittering slits in their puffy sockets, that reminded him unpleasantly of the way his mother’s eyes had sometimes looked when Vera Smith was transported into one of her religious frenzies.” (p. 251)

Johnny having one of his visions.

But Vera’s faults don’t cause Johnny to split his internal and external worlds into narcissistic idealizing and devaluing, as Stillson’s and Dodd’s parents do. Johnny’s psychic gift symbolizes his empathy, for it connects and unifies him with the external world, rather than alienates him from it. His precognition and clairvoyance also link the past, present, and future for him. Finally, the paradox of his knowing and unknowing, his psychic authority (coupled with his spiritual anti-authoritarianism), the living death of his coma, and his saving of the world by trying to murder Stillson, all show how his actions unify opposites.

Thus, Johnny symbolizes the ideal that I call The Three Unities, those of Space, Time, and Action, a spirituality free of the authoritarianism of organized religion. This dialectical monism is similar to Wilfred Bion‘s concept of O, an ineffable, inscrutable notion of Ultimate Reality that is attained only through an “abandonment of memory, desire, understanding, sense impressions — and perhaps also the abandonment of ego itself.” (Grotstein) This abandonment of understanding almost sounds like a giving-up of knowledge…the dead zone for accessing divine knowledge? Attaining knowing through a cloud of unknowing? How dialectical!

To return to the Christian symbolism of the story, I find it interesting to compare Johnny’s suffering with Jesus’ passion. As I’ve stated above, Johnny’s coma is a symbolic death and resurrection. Jesus’ physical suffering–his scourging, the crown of thorns, the nails through his hands and feet, and the torture of slowly dying on a cross (hence the term excruciating)–is the temporal opposite of Johnny’s psychological suffering–losing Sarah, losing four and a half years of his life, losing his teaching job, and losing his ability to walk normally–which comes after his coma.

This reversal of events symbolizes how Johnny’s a kind of ‘anti-Jesus,’ if you will (not an antichrist, of course!), in that his miraculous acts, his self-sacrifice, and his love of humanity don’t result in a new religion exploiting his memory to establish yet another authoritarian institution. His dead zone, emphasized in the story to the point of being its title, shows how important it is to stress the limitations of one’s talents and knowledge, which is the true basis of humility.

If we pretend we don’t have those limitations, we become like the “slick” Dodd (p, 240), or “The Laughing Tiger” Stillson (p. 293), men whose overweening pride collapses into shame, as when Dodd confesses (p. 255) and kills himself, and in the aftermath of Stillson’s use of a child as a human shield. Tragic irony for the hubristic.

(By the way, another bit of paradoxical irony is seen in how narcissistic Stillson is compared to Trump, and in many ways correctly so, of course: yet, where Stillson as president endangers humanity by wanting to start nuclear war with Russia, Trump’s relative reluctance to show hostility to Russia is what makes the political establishment dislike him. As I’ve argued elsewhere, though, our reasons for disliking him should be the same reasons for disliking that political establishment: they’re all authoritarian narcissists, and they’re all dangerous…but hey! What do I know?)

Stephen King, The Dead Zone, Signet Books, New York, 1979

Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching, Shambhala, New York, 1961

Analysis of ‘Scanners’

Scanners is a 1981 Canadian science fiction/horror film written and directed by David Cronenberg and starring Stephen Lack, Michael Ironside, Jennifer O’Neill, and Patrick McGoohan. It is about people with mind powers (empathy, telepathy, telekinesis, etc.) who are wanted by a company, ConSec, that hopes to exploit their powers. Elsewhere, there’s a rogue scanner (Ironside) who also wants scanners to build an army and rule the world; any scanner who won’t join him…he kills, as he does any other enemies.

Here are some quotes from the film:

Cameron Vale: You called me a scanner. What is that?

Paul Ruth: Freak of nature, born with a certain form of ESP; derangement of the synapses which we call telepathy. […]

“My art… keeps me sane.” –Benjamin Pierce, gesturing at plaster head

“You are 35 years old, Mr. Vale. Why are you such a derelict? Such a piece of human junk? [pause] The answer’s simple. You’re a scanner, which you don’t realize. And that has been the source of all your agony. But I will show you now that it can be a source of great power.” –Paul Ruth

Darryl Revok: This was a test campaign used in 1947 to market a new product. The product was a drug, a tranquilizer called ‘Ephemerol’. It was aimed at pregnant women. If it had worked it would have been marketed all over North America. But the campaign failed and the drug failed, because it had a side effect on the unborn children. An invisible side effect.

Cameron: It created Scanners. […]

[striking at Cameron with scanner abilities] “All right. We’re gonna do this the scanner way. I’m gonna suck your brain dry! Everything you are is gonna become me. You’re gonna be with me Cameron, no matter what. After all, brothers should be close, don’t you think?” –Darryl Revok

“I’m here, Kim. We’ve won, we’ve won.” –Cameron Vale, in Revok’s body

Cameron Vale.

What is particularly interesting about this film is the relationship between inner, psychic reality and outer, socioeconomic and political reality. There’s also how politics and economics affect family life, and vice versa.

ConSec, as a private security firm that wants to capitalize on scanners as a potential weapon, is a representation of capitalist, imperialist war profiteering, reminding one of Lockheed-Martin et al. That Vale’s and Revok’s father, Dr. Paul Ruth (McCoohan), has few qualms about using his sons for profit shows how politics and economics damage family life.

Ruth is the inventor of ephemerol–a drug he put on the market for pregnant women back in the 1940s, but which also had the surprising side effect of creating scanners. He gave his pregnant wife the strongest doses of ephemerol, making his two sons the most powerful scanners.

Ruth seems to know that Vale and Revok are his sons, but it doesn’t seem to matter much to him, for shows little fatherly attitude to them–he just wants to use Vale to hunt down Revok; and what’s more to the point is why he abandoned his sons when they were little, leaving Vale to become a derelict, and leaving Revok to become a psychopath. His fear of the ‘Ripe’ program creating new scanners gives him a jolt, but until this realization, he’s been content to use scanners like his sons for the sake of ConSec profiteering.

Dr. Paul Ruth.

It’s often hell enough being an empath of the ordinary kind, always intensely feeling the emotions of others, especially their pain. But Vale’s sensory overload, his agony from hearing the whispers of others, from further off in a shopping mall, where two middle class women at a table look down on him as a ‘bum’…that’s excruciating. So connected to others he is, yet so alienated. So close to others…yet, so far away.

The point is that scanners are extremely sensitive, gifted people. The trauma of being separated from their parents and any normal, loving human contact is unbearable for them. It’s easy to see how Vale and Revok would go mad with their powers, though in almost opposite ways.

Revok went so insane he tried to kill himself by drilling a hole in his head. The mark is like a third eye of Siva; in fact, black-and-white video of him, interviewed by a psychiatrist, shows an eye drawn on the bandage where the drill mark is. His pain is his higher mystical knowledge, as it were. Later, instead of trying to destroy his own mind, he succeeds in destroying that of another scanner in the famous head explosion scene.

This scene perfectly exemplifies, in symbolic form, projection of Revok’s death drive onto someone else. All of his fragmentation and psychological falling apart, all of his inner pain thrown at another scanner.

Darryl Revok is about to blow the mind of a fellow scanner.

ConSec staff try to control Revok by giving him a shot of ephemerol, the very drug that has given him his powers in the first place. (Vale has been calmed down with the same drug when Dr. Ruth has him in his custody.) A pun on ephemeral, the drug temporarily inhibits scanning ability; this paradox of giving and inhibiting the psychic powers exemplifies the dialectical relationship between opposites that I symbolize with the ouroboros. From the serpent’s biting head of maximum scanner powers, we shift to the serpent’s bitten tail of their suppression.

Similarly, there’s a dialectical relationship between the extreme sensitivity and empathy of scanners and their psychopathic opposite, as seen in Revok. When younger, he must have felt the agonizing of that extreme sensitivity and empathy, and the pain drove him to put that hole in his head. This self-injury was him crossing the serpent’s biting head of empathy over to its bitten tail of psychopathic lack of empathy.

Benjamin Pierce (played by Robert A. Silverman) was similarly violent to his family because of the torment that scanner empathy gives him; now, he uses his art to stop the pain from driving him mad. When Cameron Vale learns how to control his scanner powers, he too can function without going mad; but Pierce knows that, apart from his art, the only way to avoid pain is to avoid contact with people–that closeness, in a world of alienation, causes his empathy to torment him. The serpent’s head of closeness, what we would normally find an emotionally healing thing, for Pierce too easily slips over to the serpent’s bitten tail of new wounds.

While ConSec’s exploitation of scanners as human weapons for profit is easily allegorized as capitalist commodification, Revok’s building up of a scanner army, not only to rival ConSec, but also to rule the world, can be allegorized as a form of fascism (i.e., the superiority of scanners, a new master race). Note how Revok’s company, Biocarbon Amalgamate, is a rival, not the opposite, of ConSec; Revok is also running his ‘Ripe’ program through ConSec. Note what this ‘love-hate relationship,’ if you will, between the rival companies also implies, symbolically, about the relationship between capitalism and fascism.

Kim Obrist.

The real opposition to this pair of rivals is a group of scanners led by Kim Obrist (played by O’Neill), who meet in private. When Vale finds them, though, he unwittingly leads Revok’s assassins to them, too…as he had led them to Pierce.

Obrist’s group of scanners sit together in a circle, in a meditative state, and use their powers to connect with each other. The scene is proof of how empathy doesn’t have to be painful; when used among friends, it can cause a sense of communal love to grow. Indeed, the sight of them together meditating in that circle, looks almost like a mystical experience for them. Closeness to others can be a good thing, after all.

So, if ConSec represents capitalism, and Revok and his assassins represent fascism, then Vale and Obrist’s group of scanners can be seen to represent socialism…though, it must be emphasized, a libertarian, anarchist, form of socialism, since their group is poorly protected. Indeed, Revok’s assassins come in and kill everyone except Vale and Obrist; it’s like when Franco‘s fascists took over Spain and crushed the communists and anarchists within a mere three years.

Vale and Obrist learn of Revok’s rival company, whose ‘Ripe’ program is giving pregnant women ephemerol to make new scanner babies. Revok also has a corporate spy, Braedon Keller (played by Lawrence Dane), who is giving Revok information about ConSec, as well as trying to stop Vale and Obrist. Revok even has Keller kill Ruth: this goes to show you how capitalist success makes a failure of one’s home.

Keller, about to kill Dr. Ruth.

The whole point of the contrast between the communal oneness of Obrist’s scanners, as against ConSec and Revok, is to see how empathy should be used to hold us together, not drive us mad and tear us apart. Cooperation and mutual aid, not competition and destruction of perceived enemies, are what will move humanity forward.

We see how, in ConSec’s profit motive, capitalism manipulates our feelings to make us enemies of each other; here sensitivity is distorted into feelings of persecutory anxiety, a move from the ouroboros’s head of empathic feeling to the serpent’s tail of psychopathic lack of feeling. When the ConSec security guards try to apprehend Vale and Obrist, she makes the man pointing a gun at her think he’s threatening his mother with it; he breaks down and weeps. Here again we see the tense relationship between upholding the capitalist system and one’s family relations.

(Recall what Marx, in The Communist Manifesto, had to say about the family in relation to capitalism: “Abolition of the family! Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists.

“On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution.

“The bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course when its complement vanishes, and both will vanish with the vanishing of capital.

“Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty.” [Marx, page 52])

Back to the movie. When Revok has Vale and Obrist in his custody, he hopes to make a last gasp at connection with someone, his own brother. Of course, his plan to dominate the world with his future scanner army is too insane an idea for Vale to accept, so Revok feels as betrayed by him as by all the others.

Revok, sucking Vale dry.

The ensuing final confrontation between the two most powerful scanners is symbolically a sublation of opposing ideologies–socialism and fascist domination–and thus it is, in a way, comparable to the USSR’s Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany.

The war ended in a victory for communism over fascism, but a costly and even ambiguous one; for those on the west of divided Germany still had ex-Nazis in their government, and the US incorporated some ex-Nazis in their government, too, via Operation Paperclip. Small wonder Dr. Strangelove was a Nazi stereotype in Kubrick’s satirical 1964 movie, and small wonder East Germany called the Berlin Wall the “antifascist protective rampart.” When opposing forces come that close together, there’s bound to be tension.

Similarly, with Vale and Revok, we feel a chilling tension when the latter says, “brothers should be close, don’t you think?” as he begins sucking the former dry. This feeling of intense closeness, in a hostile world full of alienation, is the central theme of Scanners. This is why the scanners’ heightened empathy, with the attendant sensory overload, is so agonizing for them.

As Revok continues to “suck [Vale’s] brain dry,” pulling Vale into him, we see the dialectical resolving of contradictions. In this particular case, we see not only the symbolic sublation of fascism vs. socialism, but also of self vs. other, for it is through Revok’s introjection of Vale, and Vale’s projection of himself into Revok, that one sees oneself in others, and vice versa. This is Bion‘s container/contained, dramatized; it’s also apparent in the logo used for ephemerol.

At first, Revok seems to have the upper hand: Vale is cringing, his veins are popping out blood, and he even tears a gory scar on his cheek. Revok is grinning maniacally.

Revok seems to have the upper hand.

Then, Vale regains his composure, even as he’s covered in blood and set on fire psychically by Revok. Vale’s eyes explode in splashes of blood, while Revok’s show only the whites. By the end of the confrontation, we’re not sure who’s won.

Indeed, when Obrist wakes up and comes into the room, she sees Vale’s body lying in a silhouette of ashes, yet her scanning ability seems to detect Vale’s presence. Crouching in a corner and with a coat covering him, Revok is seen; but with Vale’s eyes instead of Revok’s dark ones, and without Revok’s forehead mark (his ‘third eye of Siva,’ as I like to call it), he says in Vale’s voice, “We’ve won.”

Obviously, Vale and Revok are one…but who won? Whose personality is dominating Revok’s body? Is that really Vale’s voice we’re hearing, or is Revok psychically forcing Vale to say he and Obrist have won, to trick her?

Revok is Siva, the destroyer. Ruth is Brahma, the creator (of all scanners). Vale is Vishnu, the preserver, the sustainer of his life throughout the film, in all his struggles to survive. By dying and resurrecting, with his mind put into Revok’s body, Vale is also a Christ figure, the spirit conquering the flesh. I, however, am a materialist, and I see mostly Revok’s body. So who won?

Has Revok really been eliminated at the end of the film?

And as far as my political allegory for the film is concerned, who were the real postwar winners, the political left, or the right? Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito were defeated, but many fascists survived 1945. Only some Nazis went on trial at Nuremberg. Francoist Spain carried on unchecked until Franco’s death in 1975. Pinochet’s authoritarian, right-wing government, with the help of the CIA, replaced Allende’s in 1973. Israel, irony of ironies, has become a racist apartheid state. And fascism in Europe and Brazil has been on the rise in recent years, as against a largely impotent left.

And even if Vale is in control of Revok’s body, he and Obrist will still have to deal with ConSec, which hopes to make weapons out of that new generation of scanners about to be born. So, if that’s Vale’s real voice saying, “We’ve won,” what justification does he have to be so overconfident?

Dialectical thinking mustn’t be reduced to the cliché triad of thesis/negation/sublation, as even I’ve done in other posts, for the sake of brevity. With every sublation comes a new thesis to be contradicted, for the idea of dialectics is to give us all a sense that reality is a fluid, ever-changing thing, not permanent blocks of stasis. The sublation of socialism defeating fascism had merely lead to a new contradiction, the Cold War, which was resolved in the dissolution of the USSR and the rise of neoliberalism. If we’re lucky to triumph over this new variation in class war, there will be new contradictions to resolve under the dictatorship of the proletariat, such as the danger of a resurgence of capitalism.

The microcosm of such contradictions is in the family situation, where so much alienation is spawned, as we see in Ruth’s so troubled sons. He cared so little about the monsters he’d created, and their fusion in one body, one mind, could very well be a new battleground, all inside one body. Will Obrist be able to accept it? Will Vale and Revok be able to?

With the end of Siva/Revok, is Vishnu/Vale’s reincarnation the start of a new cycle of creation/preservation/destruction, a new thesis to be negated and sublated? It seems that way. Vale considers Revok to be a reincarnation of Brahma/Ruth: could Vale’s judgement be a projection, now that he’s reincarnated in the Ruth-reincarnation of Revok? The cycle of dialectics spins round and round, forever, it seems, with not only irresolution of class conflict, but also irresolution of family conflict.

And this irresolution in the family, who “should be close,” is the true horror symbolized in this film.

Karma and Narcissistic Abuse

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

Whatever energy, positive or negative, that we send out into the world, in one way or another, it comes back to us. For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction: even physics, in its own way, acknowledges the reality of karma.

The funny thing about narcissists, though, is their adamant refusal to acknowledge the consequences of their own actions. They can mistreat you, over and over again, and when you react in any way that displeases them, instead of being introspective and contemplating how it is possible that they either caused your displeasing reaction, or at least contributed to it in some way, they will assume your reaction is just further proof that you ‘deserve’ all the mistreatment you get.

This is what that collective of narcissists called my family-of-origin did to me. My siblings bullied me as a child, and my mother subjected me to the most cruel gaslighting. My father did far less of either evil to me, but he also did far too little to protect me from either evil. If you’re interested, Dear Reader, in the whole story, detailed with examples, you can read all about it in these posts.

To get to my basic point, though, my late (probably narc) mother lied to me, starting when I was about nine or ten years old, as I can remember, that I supposedly have an autism spectrum disorder.

That I have no such thing was established, beyond a reasonable doubt, by three things: 1) two psychotherapists I’d been seeing during the mid-1990s told me they saw no signs of autism in me; 2) I did the Autism Spectrum Quotient Test, and got a score of only 13/50, far below the minimum of 26-32/50, which would at least raise questions of having a form of autism; and 3) Mom described ‘my autism’ in such absurdly extreme terms (I seemed “retarded” to the mythical shrinks observing me as a little kid; would I “even make a good garbageman?” and, they apparently recommended locking me away “in an asylum and throwing away the key!”) that her improbable account of my early childhood is totally unreliable.

This notion, that I was “born” with my irritating problems (for that’s how ‘autism’ has been understood in my family–a vice to be groaned about and sneered at, not a condition to be pitied in someone) served two purposes for the family: they could avoid taking any responsibility for the effects their bullying and gaslighting were having on me; and they could project their personal issues onto me, then go about their lives kidding themselves that they have few personality problems of their own.

The kind of projection I’m talking about is a special one worthy of examination: it’s called projective identification, first discussed by Melanie Klein, then developed by Wilfred Bion. Projective identification goes a step further than normal projection in that one tricks the receiver of the projections into actually manifesting the projected traits, thus creating the illusion that those traits were never projected, but rather are innate in their receiver.

Bion further elaborated on this process through his conception of container and contained, each respectively represented by the feminine and masculine symbols. The container, symbolized by a yoni, receives the projections, which are the phallic contained.

When treating psychotic patients, Bion found them projecting their hostility and aggression onto him, which he then manifested himself. He found that if he could use his skill as a therapist and receive the aggression patiently, then neutralize it, the energy could be returned to the analysand in a softer form, thus calming the analysand. [See also Mitchell and Black, pages 103-105.]

A mother, in a state of what Bion called reverie, could do the same thing with her baby’s projection of its frustrations; that is, she could be a patient, long-suffering container–like Bion for his analysands–of the baby’s projected anger, anxiety, and frustration, the contained. When the baby’s hostile energy is neutralized in the container of the kind, loving mother, it can be returned to the baby in a benevolent form, giving the baby peace and a capacity for mental growth.

A capable mother, like a skilled therapist, can be such a container. Many mothers, however, don’t have this ability. They fail to contain their babies’ projected anxieties and fears, thus unwittingly worsening them instead of easing them.

I have no way of knowing for sure, of course, but I suspect my maternal grandmother–dealing with the stresses of World War II in England, the death of my maternal grandfather, and her move to Canada soon after with my then-7-or-8-year-old mother–was never able to be my mom’s container. With neither her idealized father nor a mirroring mother to give stability and structure to her bipolar self (<<not bipolar disorder!), my mom–I believe–developed a pathological, even malignant, level of narcissism as a defence against fragmentation, which is a disintegration of the personality.

And without a mother to be a container of her projected anxieties and hostilities, my mother needed to search elsewhere for that container. At first, I believe that my father, older brothers R. and F., and my older sister J., were those containers…then I was born.

I believe she used the autism lie, always describing the condition in the language of narcissism (an antiquated definition of the word autismauto [“self”] + ism–denoted excessive self-absorption or self-admiration back in the first half of the 20th century, when Mom was a child, and–I suspect–she was often called ‘self-absorbed’ and ‘autistic’ [by this old definition] by her mother), to project her feelings of shame–on contemplating her own egotism–onto me. Thus, we can see how her insistence on my being ‘autistic’ served her own emotional needs rather than mine.

One should never use an impressionable child as a container for one’s own projections, especially if they’re harsh and shameful. As I noted above, only a skilled therapist or a loving, empathic mother can be such a container for, respectively, a deeply disturbed analysand or for a frightened, frustrated baby. Nonetheless, I’m convinced my late mother did exactly this psychic violence to me when I was a kid.

Not knowing what I was doing, I received the contained from her, accepted it as a part of me, and returned her now neutralized energy back to her, allowing her to function normally and enabling her use of a False Self of altruism and benevolence.

R., F., and J. quickly learned how to use me as their container, too; and I received all their viciousness, me being powerless to repel it (recall, I was a child at the time), and like Mom, they became able to function normally. The three of them now go about with False Selves, secure in their delusion that I’m containing all their pathologies.

To put the above crudely, I took all their shit, and in spite of that fact, they’re all full of shit.

You see, here’s the thing: a narcissist never fully rids himself of what’s internally wrong with him, no matter how much projecting he does onto his victims. When I left Canada for Taiwan over twenty years ago, they lost their container, and now needed a new one they could project onto on a daily basis. My cousins, L. and especially G., became Mom’s new targets, and R., F., and J. eagerly went along with Mom’s machinations.

Still, she didn’t have all that much regular contact with her nephews; on top of that, she knew I was going to marry my then-girlfriend in the early 2000s, meaning I’d presumably stay here in East Asia for the rest of my life. So Mom fabricated a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome (AS) for me, so I’d still be her container, along with L. and G. I also suspect she was hoping that by labelling me with AS, I’d feel emotionally dependent on her, then return home to Canada one day, so she’d have me around her every day again.

It was how strident she was being with this fake AS labelling, something she–lacking the psychiatric expertise to be authoritative about–insisted was a preordained, proven fact, that made me, for the first time, question her motives. This, combined with how consistently uncaring her attitude was about how much she was hurting me, is what turned me against her.

So, during the 2010s, I grew distant from her and her flying monkeys, R., F., and J. All I was doing at the time was being an agent of karma; they’d created this intolerably toxic environment for me, so I simply sought an escape from it. Because they fail to recognize the karmic effects of their own actions, they misattribute my coldness to them as yet another personal fault of mine, rather than a fault of theirs, however indirectly their fault was projected onto me.

I’ve explained the exact circumstances that led to my unwillingness to talk on the phone to my Mom when she was on her death bed in this post (Part 6: Is My Mother Dead?). The family considers my reaction to her dying as monstrously unfilial, when they know nothing she did that led up to my reaction (Part 5: More Elaborate Lies). Given all she’d done to me over the decades, the enormity of it all, it isn’t difficult to see how my punishment of her was quite mild: I just didn’t want to talk to her.

When I was bullied by R., F., and J. as a child, I was never allowed to fight back in any way (much of this being Mom’s stopping me and justifying them). Despite J.’s occasional paid lip service to the idea that I should assert myself and tell them off whenever they upset me, none of them ever heard me out, especially hypocritical J. You can’t assert yourself to people, or tell them off, if they won’t listen to a word you say.

This non-listening mentality of theirs was nurtured by Mom, who told them, in some form or another, that I was just one of those stupid “autistic” people, who know nothing outside themselves (or however she’d worded it, in any case, that was the message she gave R., F., and J.). It’s never occurred to any of them that they’ve known little outside their own inner social circle, the one Mom circumscribed for them, their folie à quatre.

As for my own karmic burdens, I’ll let my wife, Judy, define my faults, not R., F., or J. The difference? Judy has actually been good to me throughout our relationship of over two decades now; not a perfect relationship, of course, but one a mountain’s height above even the very best my family ever was to me, and I thank my lucky stars for Judy. I’ve been far less than an ideal husband to her, though, so she has the right to complain about me.

I won’t go into the details of how I’ve been a flawed husband (to put it mildly), since obviously that is a private matter. But this confession, however brief, should suffice to show that I’m not kidding myself about being a blameless man. Judy, such a wonderful wife, and deserving of so much better a husband than me, has the right to judge me, not R., F., or J.

Bullying older siblings and toxic parents have no moral authority over their victims (and that goes double for amateurish self-proclaimed ‘psychiatrists’ like my late mother), however morally flawed those victims may be. I’ve gone over the usually minor things I did as a kid to frustrate them in older posts–links in the third paragraph above (slamming doors, eating all the cereal, maladaptive daydreaming, taking too long to wash the dishes, etc.); all of these can easily be explained as karmic reactions–and very mild ones, at that!–to all the hurt they caused me (verbal abuse [all of the family], insults [all of them], name-calling [all of them], gaslighting [Mom], physical threats [F.], shoving [F.], actual hitting me [F.], certain inappropriate games [J.]…remember, I was a kid when much, if not most, of this was happening).

That they would be so upset that I merely stopped communicating with them, given all I’ve explained above, is an indication of their narcissistic injury. That R. would be so upset about my reciting, obviously with the family in mind, of “This Be the Verse” on YouTube (a video I never sent him, one he never had to watch) shows that the family can dish it out but can’t take it. That he found my bitter recitation “disturbing” merely means he was disturbed by the truth of what I’d said.

[Recall, from a previous post, how Mom had bragged several times, decades after the incident, that–when R. was a little kid–she’d pulled his pants down and spanked him in a public place for behaving badly, humiliating him. How was he behaving badly, I wonder? Was he shouting and being bratty? Possibly. But recall her propensity for lying. In her version of what happened, she’d naturally want to present herself in the best possible light and him in the worst, justifying her actions instead of admitting her reaction was excessive. Maybe he’d just done something to cause her to feel narcissistic rage–I don’t know what really happened, of course, but her blowing up at him over a trivial slight is a real possibility. That’s what I mean by my disturbing truth.]

To get back to the present time, I’m guessing that J. is going through a deep depression at the loss of not only our mother almost three years ago, but also of her husband (about a decade and a half ago), and of her younger brother…this last one due to her (as well as R.’s and F.’s) unwillingness to consider my side of the story.

Her sadness over losing me isn’t so much about losing a ‘loved’ family member: if she really loved me so much, why did she so often want to change huge chunks of who I am in order to be the ideal little brother she wanted me to be? (Love is about accepting people as they are, J., not demanding that they be custom-made for you.) She’s mainly upset that her fantasy family is no more. Every time she looks at a family photo with me in it, she is reminded of how she and the others failed to keep us all together.

(Insofar as I mean anything at all to her, I’ll bet she’s mad as hell at R. for the snarky comment he made on my YouTube video, which of course just deepened my estrangement from the family. It would amuse me–in a Schadenfreude kind of way–to imagine those two fighting over the issue.)

In my siblings’ inability to be introspective, they assume the problem is all about me being a jerk. They’ll never consider the possibility that the sadness they feel over their falling out with me is just karma finally coming back to haunt them.

And now, Dear Reader, enough of my complaining: let’s talk about you. If you are in as impossible a situation as I was with regards to your toxic family or ex-partner, don’t feel guilty about taking care of yourself. Get help if you’re being mistreated; if that doesn’t help, get out! Any suffering they’re going through from your absence, assuming they are as awful as you feel they are (i.e., don’t jump to any rash conclusions about your family if you’re a teenager!), is just their bad karma biting them in the ass.

Writing about your pain is a good idea, too. It’s great therapy, especially if you can’t afford a therapist (let alone find one who speaks your language, as is the situation with me here in East Asia!). The toxic people in your life never respected your side of the story, so in your writing, feel free to focus as much on your side of the story as you like. That’s what I’ve done above, while acknowledging their side of the story, and my own real faults, as appropriate. Your ‘bias’ is just the karmic reaction to their bias.

It is no crime to refuse to be the container of toxic people’s projections. In many ways, removing yourself from their lives is the best thing for them; for it will force them to look at themselves in the mirror and wrestle with their own demons, instead of force-feeding them to you.

Analysis of ‘The Entity’

The Entity is a 1982 supernatural horror film based on the 1978 novel of the same name by Frank De Felitta, which in turn was based on the Doris Bither case. Bither claimed to have been repeatedly raped by a trio of spirits–two holding her down while the third raped her–over a period of many years, the assaults eventually becoming less and less frequent until, apparently, they finally stopped altogether.

The film stars Barbara Hershey as Carla Moran, who is based on Doris Bither. It also starred Ron Silver as psychiatrist Dr. Phil Sneiderman; Alex Rocco played Carla’s boyfriend, Jerry Anderson, David Labiosa plays her son, Billy, Jacqueline Brookes played parapsychologist Dr. Elizabeth Cooley, and George Coe played psychiatrist Dr. Weber.

Here are some quotes:

“Welcome home, cunt.” –The entity, to Carla

Carla Moran: I mean I’d rather be dead than living the way I’ve been living. Do you understand that?

Phil Sneiderman: Yes, I can understand that. Yes. I also understand that I care very much what happens to you. Very much. And I know that in your heart you know the difference between reality and fantasy. Carla, look at me, Carla – our reason, our intelligence: That’s the only thing that distinguishes us between any other species of animal, Carla – I care about you! Carla, don’t close yourself off now. It’s real important, real important that you maintain contact with at least one person that really cares about you.

Carla Moran: I don’t know what you’re saying.

Phil Sneiderman: I’ll tell you what I am saying! That you and I can make that contact.

Carla Moran: [softly] I don’t want to make that contact. […]

Cindy: Beautiful day outside, isn’t it? Nothing like good old southern California for lots of sunshine!

Carla Moran: I was raped.

“All right. All right, bastard. I’ve finished running. So do what you want. Take your time – buddy. Take your time. Really, I’m thankful for the, uh… rest. I’m so… tired of being scared. So it’s all right, it really is, it’s all right. You can, uh, do anything you want to me, you can, uh, torture me, kill me, anything. But you can’t have me. You cannot touch me.” –Carla

Thematically, we’re dealing with the conflict between acknowledging internal and external reality, which is symbolized by an external force–oh, so literally–coming inside Carla. What is this entity, and where did it come from? Outside of her, as seems most obvious; inside her, as the psychologists assume…or both? That is to say, is it a thrusting back and forth…”a little of the old in-out, in-out”?

On its first attack, the entity punches her in the face with an invisible fist, yet very visible blood is seen on her mouth. As it rapes her, and during its every attack, we hear this pounding music, suggestive of stabbing phallic thrusts. Then the music stops, the entity leaves her, and she’s screaming…but no man is ever seen on top of her.

The second attack involves no assault on her body, but rather on her house, which shakes as if during an earthquake. Her house thus symbolizes her internal mental world…and her vagina. The house shakes, her room shakes, the room’s walls shake…vaginal walls.

She, her son, and two daughters race out of the house and into her car. They go to the house of her friend, Cindy Nash (Maggie Blye), and sleep there for the night. Needless to say, Carla is reluctant to go back home; she’s also hesitant about seeing a psychiatrist, whose probing [!] might bring out some traumas from her past that she doesn’t want to have to deal with.

Carla Moran and her son, Billy.

Back at home at night, finally, she and her kids hear a frightening sound, that of scraping against metal. Suspecting her invisible attacker, they search for the source of the sound, which seems to be a pipe from under the house. A pipe…how appropriately phallic.

Still, the entity seems to attack only in the yonic symbol of her internal world, her home. Then, when she’s driving, it takes control of her car; riding in her car, it rides her…and drives her crazy after making her almost crash into other cars. The entity thus no longer resides only in her internal world; it is also in her external world, though inside her car. Here we can see the dialectical tension and unity between internality and externality.

Finally, she goes to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Phil Sneiderman. He insists the whole thing is just a delusion she’s having, brought on by repressed traumas she has been trying to project onto the external world. Still, she can’t imagine how she’s been able to cause certain of her bodily injuries, which seem too inaccessible to be self-injury. It must be an external force!

Sneiderman goes into her home and looks around (since her home symbolizes her vagina, his entering has obvious sexual symbolism). He learns about her childhood, with an overzealously religious father who said “thee” and “thou” so often, she as a little girl thought his speech was modern English! He also held her inappropriately. A-ha! thinks Sneiderman.

Carla and Dr. Sneiderman.

Her later relationships with men–who, except for Billy’s father, are typically considerably older than she–have been short-lived. She seems afraid to commit to a long-term relationship; her current one with her boyfriend, Jerry, seems to be following this pattern (indeed, he’ll leave her as soon as he’s aware of the entity’s raping of her).

Sneiderman is touched by Carla, though. His countertransference, that is, his personal feelings as a therapist for his patient (as opposed to vice-versa), is going wild. She’s a beautiful woman. Now, he may be a professional therapist, but he’s also a man. He says he cares for her, but there’s surely more to his feelings for her than that.

I don’t mean to suggest that his feelings for her are merely physical. His countertransference is causing him to make wild speculations about her unconscious motives for having her “delusions” of being raped by a trio of incubi (i.e., the two “smaller” entities holding her down…her daughters, as Sneiderman would have it?–and the big one raping her…Billy, as Sneiderman thinks…or the ghost of her dead father, or of Billy’s father, as I speculate?); but he’s no creep. Her beauty, combined with her vulnerability and pain, with which he empathizes, are the roots of his desire for her, which he suppresses and rationalizes as concern for her well-being.

Nonetheless, his overemphasis on her problem as being internal is what turns her away from him. During her sleep one night, the entity has her, its invisible fingers pressing against her breasts (a prosthetic body was created for Hershey to achieve the invisible rape effect). It causes her to enjoy an erotic dream, causing her to orgasm. Her unconscious likes the sex!

Carla, being raped by the entity.

When she wakes up, she’s so ashamed of the pleasure she’s been manipulated to feel that she smashes all the mirrors in her room. She’d hate to think the woman she sees in the reflection is the real her, so alienated does she feel from the image, especially as against her own body, which she feels herself to have so little control over. The last thing a rape victim wants is to be made to feel that she “wanted it.”

In this connection, the evident phoniness of the prosthetic body–however painstakingly the special effects technicians worked to make it look real–seems symbolically appropriate: is this the real her, or is it a fake her?–ditto for the woman in the reflection. Which is her reality–inner, or outer?

Along with this observation, there’s another interesting image to compare the prosthetic nude body to: earlier, in the scene where she’s raped in the bathroom, we see her undress through two mirror reflections, with real breasts and buttocks exposed. If the mirror reflects an outwardly projected reality, an external reality, while her actual body being raped is shown with the prosthetic body, representing her internal reality, what does this say about which is real–the internal, or the external? Her, or what’s projected?

She tells Sneiderman how ashamed she feels about having orgasmed during the dream; he tells her his Freudian interpretation, that she’s afraid of her desires. This interpretation offends her, especially when he carries it to the extreme of suggesting she has incestuous desires for her handsome son, Billy, who’s the “spitting image” of his “exciting” father. Thus, she stops the treatment with the psychiatrist.

Carla, having her erotic dream.

(It should be noted that her dream, as it was in the novel, was supposed to be of her having committed incest with Bill; this was removed from the film for fear that the controversial content would have been fiercely objected to. In other words, Sneiderman’s interpretation isn’t as outrageous as it seems. I wonder if the entity is Billy’s father, the drunk, dope fiend who died in a motorcycle accident, for which she “thanked God.” If so, is the entity raping her in revenge for her being glad he died? Is it tormenting her by tricking her into thinking the dream was a wish-fulfillment?)

She sleeps over at her friend Cindy’s home again; the entity attacks the house, soon enough after Cindy and her husband leave, that they notice the attack and return. Carla has tears of joy in her eyes when Cindy confirms that the attack was real. This is what trauma victims so desperately need–validation, not being told “it’s all in your head.” The attacks of the entity, external ones, symbolize the real traumatic events that have occurred to cause the victim to relive her internal mental hell, over and over again.

Another thing has been noted, first when Billy tries to get the invisible rapist off of her, then when the parapsychologists do tests in her home: the entity shoots electricity and laser-like lights in the air. It’s like the hurling of lightning bolts. This leads us to a discussion of Zeus symbolism.

In Greek myth, Zeus–hurler of lightning bolts–used to prey sexually on pretty maidens, his ravishing of them eerily similar to what the entity is doing to Carla. His Roman name, Jupiter, is a derivation from Dieus Pater, or ‘day/sky-father‘ (outside, in the sky). Here, we can see a symbolic link between the entity and Carla’s lecherous father, who I assume is dead by the time the story begins, thus making it possible his ghost is the entity.

The entity’s ‘Zeus’ lightning.

Now, the fact that, on the one hand, she calls the entity (i.e., ‘Jupiter’) a “bastard,” while also thanking God–another sky-father–for the parapsychologists’ protecting of her from the entity (she also thanked God for the death of Billy’s father, recall), suggests the splitting of ‘Father’ into absolute good and bad objects. (I’m also reminded of the last line in Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Daddy“: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”)

So, anyway, we now go from investigating Carla’s problem from the internal perspective (Sneiderman) to the external one (Dr. Cooley and her associates, who are as careful as possible in their assessment of Carla’s story, trying to be scientific about it). Sneiderman dismisses them as superstitious “schmucks,” though some today regard his Freudian analysis as being the superstition. Sneiderman does all he can to thwart the parapsychologists, imagining he’s the one who has the scientific authority to deal with Carla’s problem properly, when really it’s just a matter of his sexual jealousy.

Her boyfriend, Jerry, goes to her home one night, only to find her being raped by the entity. Again, we see that prosthetic body being felt up. It’s interesting to note that the prosthetic is used only later in the film, when she is doubting Sneiderman’s notion that her problem is internal, or ‘all in her head.’ As I said above, the unreality of the prosthetic body can be seen to symbolize the perceived falseness of the internality interpretation.

Now, it’s the parapsychologists’ turn to prove the externality thesis, being the negation of the internality thesis. They plan to prove that the entity has mass by freezing it in liquid helium. If they can capture the entity, they’ll prove its physicality and show it isn’t just a “psychic projection.”

The parapsychologists, with Dr. Cooley in the centre.

The dialectical battle between the internality thesis and the externality negation of Sneiderman’s interpretation is symbolized by his struggle to convince Carla to give up on her reliance on Dr. Cooley et al. He fears the parapsychologists are indulging her delusions, making them worse. While his countertransference is clouding his judgement, though, there is a legitimate argument to be made that Cooley is exploiting Carla in order to promote and validate parapsychology.

The entity appears in the parapsychologists’ controlled environment, made to look like Carla’s home. In this place, Carla is being used as bait to lure the entity into being frozen in the liquid helium. They capture it in a mountain of ice, awing every observer; but the entity breaks free, depriving them of their coveted proof. Though Sneiderman’s associate, Dr. Weber, witnesses the phenomenon, he refuses to admit that it’s explicit proof of paranormal activity, which angers Cooley. (Technically, other explanations are possible.)

So, neither the internality thesis of the psychoanalysts nor the externality antithesis of the parapsychologists have demonstrated conclusive proof of their theories; both, however, have presented persuasive cases, to at least a large extent. So, what shall be our conclusion?

A sublation of the internality/externality contradiction seems the best answer. The entity symbolizes an externally-produced trauma introjected into the victim. Thus, Carla’s trauma is in her head, but not born there.

The source of her trauma is both inside AND outside her.

The worst thing anyone can say to a trauma victim is, “It’s all in your head. Get over it!” No: something real and evil was imposed on the victim, though most of us can’t see the cause, which is symbolized in the movie by the invisible entity raping Carla. A study of object relations theory can reveal how we all internalize imagos of our parents; these internal objects become blueprints, as it were, for all of our subsequent relationships.

The abuse Carla suffered from her father became a blueprint for all her future failed relationships: her teen husband and father of Bill; the father of her daughters, the man who left her; and Jerry, who couldn’t tolerate living with a woman being repeatedly raped by an incubus. The entity can represent any, or all, of these men as her internalized objects.

The best way to understand the human personality is not as one isolated from the world, but as one related to other people, with whom we all project and introject positive and negative energy and influences. Thus, what we are is both internal and external energy flowing into and out of us, over and over again throughout our lives. This passing of energy in and out of us, back and forth between people, is well expressed in Bion‘s elaborations on projective identification, what he called container and contained. The container receives projections, which are the contained.

The weeping, frustrated infant projects its hostility onto its patient and loving mother, who receives its energy while soothing it. Bion called this attitude of the mother a state of reverie; in taking the baby’s negative energy and transforming it into good, the baby can then receive it back and find peace. Similarly, a therapist can be a container for a psychotic patient, receiving and tolerating his hostility and attacks, helping him to be calm.

Sneiderman and Carla.

Appropriately, the container is the feminine symbol, the yoni, and the contained is a phallic, masculine symbol. Thus, the entity’s rapes of Carla are a vivid symbol of a violently extreme version of this movement from the external to the internal. The transference and countertransference between Carla and Sneiderman also reflect container/contained, especially since his desire for her makes him yet another entity to be feared by her.

As her therapist, he should be her container, receiving and accepting all of her projections, anxieties, and frustrations. He should be patient and forbearing, so all that fear and frustration can be transformed, tamed, and returned to her, healing her. Instead, he lets his countertransference interfere with his capacity to help her effectively, thus exacerbating her problem and alienating her from him. She doesn’t need to hear classical Freudian hooey…she needs his empathy, to have her experiences validated.

Sneiderman won’t be her container, but the parapsychologists all too eagerly want to be the entity’s container…though the aggressiveness with which they go about it causes them to lose it. Carla touches on a possible solution when she’s arguing with Sneiderman about whether or not to be committed to a mental hospital: she says she’ll cooperate with the entity.

Now, obviously, cooperating with a rapist is never defensible; but if we see the rapes as symbolic of the container/contained relationship between inner and outer reality, between subject and object, self and other, we can begin to understand why, after the movie ends, the attacks on Carla become fewer and fewer. By containing the entity’s projective identifications, by tolerating them, she can tame them and return its hostile energy back to it, calming it.

So at the end of the movie, when she walks into her house and hears the entity say, “Welcome home, cunt” (note the juxtaposition of its last two words, as indicating the house as a symbolic yoni), we see a look of resigned acceptance on her face. She knows that the only way to defeat the entity is to play its game, with a dynamic interplay of container/contained, a shifting back and forth between internality and externality (symbolized by her entry into the house, then exiting it soon after).

She can have victory only through surrender–winning through losing. As with the mother and her bawling baby, Carla must be in a state of reverie, as when she orgasmed during her erotic dream, to calm the rage of the entity. Her submission to a spectral rapist, though, is what gives The Entity such a frightening ending; for what woman in her right mind would ever be willing to submit to such traumatic horror?

The Psychoanalysis of Capital

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.

Freud and his daughter, Anna, who both elaborated on defence mechanisms.

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 prison slave 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 spurious history 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 fantasy of this Christian faith could be Catholic or conservative Protestant, whose work ethic, clearly in the service of capitalism, results in a financial success strongly implying God’s favour and reward with grace. Thus, instead of helping “one of the least of these my brethren,” he can rationalize his abandoning of the poor by saying their ‘failure’ in life comes from a slothful loss of faith, and thus proves their non-elect status.

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 properly researching 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.

Melanie Klein, who wrote much about splitting.

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; and while I have my doubts about 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, who replaced Freud’s drive-oriented id/ego/superego personality structure with an object-seeking one.

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 other posts 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.

Heinz Kohut, who investigated and treated narcissism.

The lack of empathic parenting can also lead to pathological levels of narcissism as a defence against fragmentation. Heinz Kohut did a systematic study of narcissistic personality disorders, as well as how to treat them with empathy in the idealizing and mirror transferences. Treatment of narcissism is important for socialists, as this pathology attracts its sufferers to positions of corrupting power.

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.

D.W. Winnicott.

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.

We’ll go from capitalist materialism (via dialectical materialism) to this state of community life by, as I’ve argued elsewhere, going beyond the pairs of opposites, noting the unity between self and other, and putting all the pieces together by realizing how everything flows from one dialectical opposite to the other.

Erich Fromm.

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.”

Erich Fromm, The Essential Fromm: Life Between Having and Being, Continuum, New York, 1995

Analysis of ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’

In the Court of the Crimson King: an Observation by King Crimson is a 1969 progressive rock album by King Crimson, the band’s debut. Its dark, lugubrious, and portentous sound, combining woodwinds and the Moody Blues symphonic sound of the Mellotron with rock, helped define the art rock genre that would soon be represented by such bands as Yes, Genesis (the Peter Gabriel/Steve Hackett era), Jethro Tull, ELP (whose L was Greg Lake, King Crimson’s original bassist/singer), Gentle Giant, and Van der Graaf Generator.

Pete Townshend endorsed the album, calling it “an uncanny masterpiece,” and while it initially got a mixed critical response, it was commercially successful (making an unusually good ranking, for a King Crimson album, on the charts), and it’s now considered a classic.

Here is a link to all the lyrics.

The cover, a painting by Barry Godber (1946–1970), shows a closeup of a terrified face, reminding me of Edvard Munch‘s The Scream. The inside cover, a dominant blue to contrast the dominant pink of the outer cover, shows a face with an evil grin to contrast with the outer face.

The album was released in October 1969, when opposition to the Vietnam War was at its height. I’ve always thought, mistakenly, that “King Crimson,” coined by lyricist/light-show man Peter Sinfield, was meant as a synonym for the Devil; apparently, a ‘crimson king‘ is historically understood to mean a ruler mired in blood, one governing during a period of great civil unrest and war. Somehow, though, the Devil metaphor doesn’t seem too far off the mark. Certainly, US imperialism was, and is now even more so, a devilish crimson king for our time.

The first song on the album, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” is prophetic to us now, from its title alone. “Schizoid” should be understood to mean the fragmented character of the modern personality. We’re all split, not in the schizophrenic or split personality senses, but in the sense of dividing the inner representations of our objects (e.g., other people in relation to oneself, the subject) into absolute good and bad–friends and foes, rather than the actual mixes of good and bad in each of us and them.

This dichotomous attitude, taken to an extreme, has led us to all of these horrible wars–the Vietnam War of the time of the album’s release, and all the wars we’ve had in this schizoid 21st century. The psychological fragmentation of modern man is symbolized in these lyrics–disjointed, standalone images of violence: “Cat’s foot, iron claw…Blood rack, barbed wire…Death seed, blind man’s greed.”

Neurosurgeons scream for more/At paranoia’s poison door.” I suspect, given the song’s focus on “paranoia” and being “schizoid,” that neurosurgeons is meant more metaphorically than literally. This seems especially plausible, since Freud shifted from neuropathology (via a study of neurosis) to psychoanalysis. Hence, for neurosurgeons, read psychiatrists, who have often forsaken their duty to their patients for the sake of profit. Also, there has been all that psychiatric complicity during the ‘War on Terror.’

“Politicians’ funeral pyre/Innocents raped with napalm fire” is an obvious reference to the Vietnam War, though of course the use of napalm can equally apply to any modern war from WWII till Nam, and a number of wars fought since this album was made.

The fast middle section of the song, mostly a change from 4/4 to 6/8, is called “Mirrors.” Given how Lacan‘s mirror gives us a falsely unified sense of self, to the point of alienating oneself from the reflected image, the title of this frantic, dissonant (i.e., Ian McDonald‘s alto sax solo) section–and with its awkward time changes during the fast-picked, alternating 4/16 to 6/16 “down-up” guitar part, doubled by the sax, towards the section’s end–reflects that spastic alienation from oneself, as “I Talk to the Wind” (the following track) reflects alienation from other people (more on that later).

The last verse demonstrates the root cause, the “Death seed,” of all this madness, killing, and suffering: “blind man’s greed,” also known as capitalism. The blindness of these greedy men comes from the capitalist’s denial that his economic system is responsible for the woes of the world–typically blaming the problem on the state, while proposing a ‘free market‘ solution instead…as if we haven’t had enough deregulation and tax cuts for the rich as it is. “Poets starve” because the profit motive has no use for art unless it can make money, thus cheapening art and turning poetry into the titillating superficiality of performers like Nicki Minaj.

Imperialist war makes “children bleed”: consider what happened to Phan Thị Kim Phúc, or what’s happening to Yemeni children now, to see my point. The super-rich have so much money, they don’t know what to do with it; so on the one hand, they avoid taxes by putting their money into offshore bank accounts, and on the other, their addiction to money drives them to cause more wars for the sake of profits for Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, et al. Hence, “Nothing he’s got he really needs.”

Because of all these horrors, the song’s chaotic, dissonant ending shouldn’t surprise anyone: ever-increasing neoliberal, capitalist imperialism will inevitably lead to barbarism. Small wonder guitarist/bandleader Robert Fripp once introduced the song in a 1969 concert, dedicating it to Spiro T. Agnew. Here’s a live version of the song, done by the Cross/Fripp/Wetton/Bruford lineup of 1973, which I really like. 

The very title of the second track implies social alienation. “My words are all carried away,” and not listened to. Capitalism brought the madness expressed in the first song because it also brought the alienation described in this song. While I prefer a more uptempo version sung by Judy Dyble, the sadder, slower version on the album seems more thematically appropriate.

Where has “the late man” been? He’s “been here” and “there” and “in between.” He hasn’t been with “the straight man”: he was late. He didn’t care enough about his commitment to meet the straight man to arrive on time. Alienation causes this apathy.

It also causes one to be “on the outside, looking inside,” seeing “confusion…[and] disillusion.” Those who alienate us “don’t possess,” “don’t impress,” “can’t instruct…or conduct” us…they just “upset” us and waste our time.

Epitaph,” with its “March for No Reason,” evokes such things as the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the nuclear arms race. “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” is an allusion to Macbeth, and to that crimson king’s famous speech, upon learning of the death of his queen, when he speaks of the meaninglessness of life, and our day-after-day misery.

The lyrics of “Epitaph” put our present-day troubles into historical context. The words of the writers of scripture have little meaning for us today, for the wall of their etched words “is cracking at the seams.” “The instruments of death” are historic and modern ones, and the sunlight is our knowledge of such Vietnam War atrocities as the My Lai Massacre.

We’re “torn apart with nightmares and with dreams,” for the latter are rarely fulfilled, while the former all too often come true. Media “silence drowns the screams,” for we know of far too few of the atrocities of war, especially the wars of our schizoid 21st century.

We feel “confusion…as [we] crawl a cracked and broken path” paved by the lies of those who fraudulently got the US into the Vietnam War…and now the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and “I fear tomorrow” Iran, China, and Russia.

Part of what makes this album great, sadly, is that it’s even more relevant today than it was when it was released. We’re in a new Cold War with Russia, with NATO troops along the Russian border (and in the Arctic), ready to fight. The trade war with China could escalate, especially with tensions in the South China Sea. If we can prevent these problems from getting worse, “we can all sit back and laugh, but I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying.”

Fate has “iron gates,” for it seems to have an implacable will. “The seeds of time were sown” between those gates, “and watered by the deeds of those who know”–Lake’s voice seems ironic with that last word–“and who are known.” Those in authority, the ruling classes, have dominated history and our collective fate; we know them all too well. What they know–how to manipulate us, keep us divided, and make us kill each other–“is a deadly friend” without ethical rules. Our fate “is in the hands of fools,” especially today, when MAD is being disregarded in the temptation to use nukes.

The song’s ending is one of the most emotively powerful ones, if not the most powerful, of the whole album, with Lake’s expressive voice, “Crying,” and backed by Ian McDonald’s weeping Mellotron string section tapes, as well as the kettledrum rolls by drummer Michael Giles.

[As a side note, I’d like to mention that these three songs each have their own ‘new versions’ on Side One of King Crimson’s second album, In the Wake of Poseidon. Fripp wanted to rework the first album his way, with “Pictures of a City” paralleling “Schizoid Man,” “Cadence and Cascade” paralleling “I Talk to the Wind,” and “In the Wake of Poseidon” paralleling “Epitaph.” In fact, on Side Two, towards the end of “The Devil’s Triangle” (adapted by Fripp and Ian McDonald from “Mars, the Bringer of War,” from Holst’s The Planets), a little bit of the “ah…ah-ah-ah…ah-ah-ah” singing from “The Court of the Crimson King” can be heard in the background.]

Now, let’s come to Side Two.

Moonchild” begins with “The Dream,” which is the section with Lake’s singing. She is “dancing in the shallows of a river,” “dreaming in the shadows of a willow,” “gathering the flowers in a garden,” and “playing hide and seek with the ghosts of dawn.” Throughout the darkness of the gloomy night, her frolicking and “waiting for a smile from a sun child” represents our long-held hope for peace and a better world. The long instrumental improvised section, however–with its almost Bartókian night music, seemingly going on for hours in a sad minor key until McDonald’s vibraphone switches to a major key, bringing on a happy daybreak of hope–is fittingly titled “The Illusion.”

The Court of the Crimson King” includes “The Return of the Fire Witch” and “The Dance of the Puppets.” A witch casts spells, mesmerizing and transforming those under her spells; fire is desire, craving, attachment, greed, hate, and delusion. Since the Fire Witch is in the court of the crimson king, her spells keep the fire of our desires aflame, and distract us from his evildoing, keeping us ignorant of it. Similarly, the puppets’ dance keeps us mesmerized and distracted, so we’ll ignore the bloodshed, carnage, and oppression the crimson king is responsible for.

The other songs of the album have dealt with the wars, as well as the suffering, greed, alienation, fear, and misguided hope we all feel; this last song deals with the bread and circuses, the entertainment and titillation used by the bloodthirsty ones in power to keep us at bay.

“The rusted chains of prison moons/Are shattered by the sun.” The prison of dark night, of lunacy, no longer keeps us in chains when we see the sunlight of truth. “I walk a road, horizons change”: I explore what’s out there in the freedom of my thoughts, and my whole perspective changes because of this sunny enlightenment. “The tournament’s begun”: the powers-that-be are ready to contest my freedom by attempting to put me back to sleep, back in the “rusted chains” of my former lunacy, a mental illness that comes from being denied the truth. 

To lure me back into hypnotized compliance, the “purple piper plays his tune/The choir softly sing/Three lullabies in an ancient tongue…” The three lullabies seem to represent the Trinity of the authoritarian Church, tricking me into thinking all these wars are for the glory of Christ (e.g., as against Muslims, etc.).

A king’s court is full of servile flatterers, and the contemporary equivalent–the media as part of the superstructure of the ruling class–is no improvement. All this lulling, hypnotizing music of the piper, the choir, and the orchestra symbolizes the deceitful narrative we get in the mainstream media, a problem every bit as real back in the days of the Cold War–with Operation Mockingbird–as it is today, with similar mind games going on to make one wonder if Operation Mockingbird ever really ended.

“The keeper of the city keys,” who controls who can enter and leave, and thus controls us in general, “put shutters on the dreams,” preventing us from realizing them. The “pilgrim” wishes to go on a far-off journey to a far better, holier place than our corrupt city, and “I wait outside” his home, thinking of how I can help him escape, but my “insufficient schemes” can’t get us out of town.

The “black queen” of Thanatos, the death drive that inspires war and lulls us into joining her with her “chants” and ringing “cracked brass bells,” more mesmerizing music to fan the flames of desire and hate, “To summon back the Fire Witch.” We take pleasure in satisfying our desires and in causing death.

The ruling class seems to do good in one place–that is, it “plants an evergreen/Whilst trampling on a flower,” or doing evil elsewhere. Distracted by all this, “I chase” empty pleasure, “the wind” (which I aimlessly talk to, knowing it won’t hear, much less satisfy my yearnings). In Shakespeare’s day, a juggler was a “trickster, deceiver, fraud” (Crystal and Crystal, page 248); lifting his hand, the juggler makes the mesmerizing, “orchestra begin/As slowly turns the grinding wheel” of the empire of bloodshed.

“The Return of the Fire Witch” section has a pretty flute solo by McDonald. We’re lulled in the bower of bliss of our desires, not noticing the death and destruction elsewhere in the world.

The “mornings [, when] widows cry,” are “grey” because the Moonchild’s illusory hope for a sunny morning never came true: the widows’ husbands came home from Vietnam (and the other wars of recent memory) in bodybags. “The wise men [who] share a joke” are the academics of today who are full of witty, clever observations, but are cut off from the common people because they’re all in ivory towers. 

I read the newspaper propaganda, the “divining signs,” because I want to be reassured in my prejudices of what’s going on in the world, “to satisfy the hoax,” and not face the truth. This propaganda is part of what the “jester” does as he “gently pulls the strings/And smiles as the puppets dance”–all part of the ruling class’s control of the media, the minds of the public, and therefore the political direction of the world, pushing us further and further towards even more bloodshed, inequality, and despair.

“The Dance of the Puppets” section, like the “Fire Witch” one, has a sweet melody played by multi-instrumentalist McDonald; again, we’re tricked into thinking all is well, so we never hear the screams of the suffering.

The dissonance heard coming towards the end of the song (including Giles’s magnificently precise and fast drum licks) suggests the pain and sorrow hidden behind the pleasant melodies of the “Fire Witch” and “Puppets” sections. In fact, the song ends almost as chaotically and abruptly as “21st Century Schizoid Man,” fittingly bringing the whole album full circle, and reminding us of the horrors that are hidden, because the crimson king uses silence to drown the screams. 

Analysis of ‘Viridiana’

Viridiana is a 1961 Spanish-Mexican film by Luis Buñuel, loosely based on the novel Halma by Benito Pérez Galdós, and starring Silvia Pinal in the title role, as well as Fernando Rey, Margarita Lozano, and Francisco Rabal. As usual, Buñuel criticizes the Church and bourgeois society in this film. It is about a novice soon to take her vows as a nun, but who finds it increasingly difficult–due to external pressure, or internal?–to reconcile herself with the moral ideals of the Church.

Viridiana was the co-winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival.

Here are a few quotes in English translation:

Viridiana: I know my own weakness, and whatever I do will be humble. But, however little it is, I want to do it alone.

Jorge: I always knew that you and I were going to end up playing cards together!

Verdiana was the name of a generous, charitable saint who secluded herself for 34 years to focus on her faith. The Viridiana of this film is similarly, if not so extremely, reclusive, but just as generous and charitable. Her name comes from a word meaning ‘green’: I think of an old meaning of green, from back in Shakespeare’s time, meaning ‘youthful, inexperienced, immature’; but also, ‘fresh, recent, new’ (Crystal and Crystal, page 205), strongly implying ‘pure.’ There is, indeed, a strong sense that this novice embodies all of these definitions, in more ways than one.

She also happens to be a beautiful young blonde, most desirable to men; her choice to become a nun seems to be, at least in part, motivated by a fear of sexually predatory men. Her virgin purity makes her all the more attractive to her uncle, Don Jaime (Rey), who finds that she reminds him of his late bride, who died before he could even consummate their marriage.

When devotion is carried too far.

His preoccupation with her beauty and purity reminds me of Heinrich Heine‘s poem:

Du bist wie eine Blume,
So hold und schön und rein;
Ich schau’ dich an, und Wehmut
Schleicht mir ins Herz hinein.

Mir ist, als ob ich die Hände
Aufs Haupt dir legen sollt’,
Betend, dass Gott dich erhalte
So rein und schön und hold.
You are like a flower,
So lovely, fair and pure;
I gaze at you and wistful
Melancholy slips into my heart.

It’s as though I ought to place
My hands upon your head
And pray God to ever keep you
So pure, fair, and lovely.

This notion of extreme purity leads to an exploration of the themes of modesty, humility, and every other point on the circular continuum I symbolize with the ouroboros, including the dialectical opposites of pride (the serpent’s biting head) vs. shame (the bitten tail). Viridiana is so particular about her maidenly modesty, it’s a source of narcissistic pride for her. Thus, even the mere suggestion of male physical closeness feels like a violation to her.

This excessive modesty comes from her stern Catholic upbringing, once again Buñuel’s satirical target. She has no interest in visiting her Uncle Jaime, whom she’s met only once; but she’s pressured into visiting him by her mother superior. She’d rather stay secluded and cloistered, suggesting she regards the Church as more of a family than her biological one. I suspect she had an unhappy family upbringing, driving her to the Church for a replacement.

Viridiana, the Mary wanna-be.

The Virgin Mary seems to be an idealized parental imago for Viridiana, the perfect mother who represents an ego ideal to which she aspires. We get a sense of this when she prays the Angelus with the homeless people. Mary is “full of grace” (κεχαριτωμένη), which the Catholic Church interprets as a kind of purity existing from birth, the Immaculate Conception. Viridiana would thus want to identify with Mary, for narcissistic reasons.

Any man even making a pass at her threatens this purity she so covets, causing her narcissistic injury. Viridiana, I suspect, has transferred her feelings of maternal love to Mary, just as Don Jaime, admiring Viridiana’s beauty and purity, transfers his love of his deceased bride onto her, especially since the two women look so alike. Indeed, transference is a major theme in this Freudo-Marxist film.

Normally, one thinks of transference in the psychoanalytical setting; the patient transfers the feelings of a powerful emotional bond, especially one from childhood, onto the therapist. Viridiana has made this kind of transference onto Mary, her ‘therapist.’ Similarly, Viridiana has become, however unwittingly, Jaime’s ‘therapist.’ They are using their transferences in an attempt to heal, though these attempts ultimately fail.

On the first night of Viridiana’s visit, we see her in her bedroom, taking off black stockings to reveal her delicious legs; Buñuel’s lustful camera does a closeup on them, another example of his irreverence towards Church authority. She unpacks a large wooden crucifix and a crown of thorns. She’s so devoted to her faith, she’d rather sleep on the hard floor, as Jaime’s servant, Ramona, notes.

Sleepwalking Viridiana tosses yarn into the fire.

Now, Ramona is an interesting character to compare and contrast with Viridiana. Jaime’s servant is dutiful, bashful, and modest, but also lacking in the novice’s religious pretensions. This is another of Buñuel’s jabs at the Church. And who, I’m curious, is the father of Ramona’s naughty, nosy daughter Rita? Jaime has been kind enough to take mother and daughter in: is the girl an illegitimate child, as Jaime’s son, Jorge, is? Again, we see Buñuel’s alternative morality to the hypocritical one of the Church.

I suspect that Ramona has a secret love for Jaime, an Oedipal feeling, perhaps, transferred from her father onto her master, but a feeling she’s too shy to express openly. In any case, after he hangs himself and she meets Jorge, she transfers her love from father to handsome son…and feels that love more overtly, this time.

The morning of the second day of Viridiana’s visit, she goes to a servant milking a cow. She tries pulling on one of the cow’s teats; but they are long, even phallic in length. She can’t bring herself to handle them, as doing so, it seems, far too much resembles masturbating a man to orgasm (i.e., the squirting out of the milk). Her pious modesty is so extreme, she cannot do anything even vaguely redolent of sexuality.

Then, naughty Rita agitates her by saying she saw her in her nightgown the night before, having sneaked a peek from a nearby terrace. Viridiana blenches at even having been spied on by a pre-teen girl.

That night, Jaime has been fetishizing the bridal clothes of his deceased wife; he puts his too-large foot into one of her high heels (symbolic intercourse wish-fulfillment), then stands before a mirror while almost trying on her girdle. Apart from the erotic overtones of these actions, we sense his pathetic yearning for his lost love, his unfulfillable wish to be at one with her.

Then he sees Viridiana sleepwalking in that white nightgown, with her pretty bare feet and lower legs exposed. She is doubly vulnerable before him, in a relative state of undress, and unaware of it. The thought of his predatory eyes on her will terrify her when he tells her what he’s seen the next morning.

During her sleepwalking, she’s also psychologically naked and vulnerable, for her unconscious is let loose, expressing her hidden desires, if only symbolically. Kneeling at his fireplace, she empties a basket of yarn and needles into the fire, representing an unconscious wish to be rid of clothing, the antithesis of a nun’s modesty. She has a bad habit, it seems.

Don Jaime (Rey) and his niece, Viridiana (Pinal)

Then she gathers ashes in the basket and takes them to his bedroom, then sprinkles them on his bed; the ashes, we learn the next day, are a symbol of penitence…and death. What has she to repent of…secret, repressed sexual desires? Death associated with his bed suggests once again the marriage of the life (e.g., sex) and death drives.

The next day, Don Jaime, so captivated by Viridiana’s beauty, her purity (So hold und schön und rein), and of course her resemblance to her deceased aunt, asks her to dress up in her bridal gown, another shocking thing to do, in Viridiana’s view. The deceased bride, having worn white to the wedding, was in all probability a virgin (especially given the conservative mores of the time); but Viridiana–though complying–still feels uncomfortable doing it, as she feels like a sex object.

She of course is being objectified and ogled by her uncle, who has Ramona drug Viridiana’s coffee. Ramona, wholly devoted to her master, will do whatever he wants her to do, even as wicked a thing as helping him take advantage of his unconscious niece! Why? I suspect because Ramona secretly wishes Jaime desired her in the same way…also, allowing Viridiana to be deflowered–and thus, shamed–would serve Ramona because of sexual jealousy. Hence, she doesn’t mind telling Viridiana of Jaime’s shameful wish to marry his niece. Still, he’s a good man, in Ramona’s mind.

Don Jaime, Viridiana, and Ramona (Lozano)

Viridiana is already uneasy enough knowing her uncle is the father of an illegitimate child (Jorge), for such is her lofty moral ideal. Her purity is part of what makes her so attractive to him; she looks so sexy in that virginal white dress…and she knows exactly how he feels about her.

Being in that dress with him at night is, of course, a reenacting of his wedding night with her aunt, when she died of a heart attack before he could consummate the marriage. This lonely, reclusive man has yearned to have that night given back to him, and now he can have it back through Viridiana.

Even before Ramona has given her the drugged coffee, Viridiana can sense her uncle’s lust; wearing that bridal gown strongly implies a soon-t0-be-lost virginity, which is anathema, horrifying to her. By helping Jaime satisfy his desire, though, Ramona can satisfy hers vicariously through Viridiana. Meanwhile, little Rita is frightened by a bull she claims entered her bedroom; the animal represents a sexually predatory male…is this an omen of what’s to come between Jaime and Viridiana?

While sexual assault (of anyone, woman, man, or child) is of course never defensible, especially to a communist like Buñuel, Viridiana’s predicament can be seen unconsciously, symbolically as a wish-fulfillment in that it desecrates the Catholic ideal of sexual purity in a woman. Destroying this impossible ideal by demonstrating its unattainability can liberate women sexually, by making them give up on it. Indeed, Viridiana will be so liberated at the end of the film.

Note that Jaime never carries out his plan to deflower her. While she’s unconscious, and Mozart‘s Requiem Mass is playing (symbolizing a fusion of the libido and death drive), he kisses her on the lips, unbuttons her top to reveal her creamy cleavage, then kisses her there (and naughty Rita spies on them); but moral scruple makes him come to his senses, and he stops. He mustn’t stain such divine purity.

Jaime burns with lust…and love…for his niece.

So hold und schön und rein.

The next morning, when he tells her he took advantage of her while she was out cold, even when he later insists he never actually penetrated her, she can’t be certain of which statement is the truth, and which the lie–has he, or has he not raped her? So she, “for mere suspicion in that kind, will do as if for surety,” and imagine the worst. But how can she be unsure of what’s happened? Surely she knows that she will feel vaginal soreness, pain from a ruptured hymen, that there will be blood, if he’s had her.

He lies about having intercourse with her while she slept (later admitting he’s lied) so she’ll think her ‘stained’ body will make her unworthy of being a nun, then she’ll have nowhere else to go but to live with him. She’s afraid of male sexual predation to a far greater degree than the average woman, religiously devoted or not—why?

I don’t think we’re supposed to believe she was sexually abused at an earlier period of her life (though she, in all likelihood, has endured men’s leers and groping hands on many occasions throughout her life); for if she was raped, given the strict Catholic morality of her world, she surely would have already considered herself too ‘unclean’ to be a nun.

Now, for her, the meaning of sexual assault is expanded to mean “that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28) Furthermore, given the way rape victims tend to be slut-shamed, especially in Viridiana’s prudish world, she will feel as guilty, however unjustifiably, of having ‘tempted’ her attackers as they are of attacking her.

So hold, und schön, und rein…und schlafend.

So her fears about whatever Don Jaime has done while she’s been unconscious are not based on a fear of possibly having been penetrated, nor do they seem to be a kind of PTSD reliving of what may have happened to her sometime before the beginning of this film. His having touched her, kissed her, and partially undressed her are rape enough. 

And how far did he undress her? She has no idea. We know he only unbuttoned her top: he saw her cleavage, but not her whole breasts. Still, how does she know he didn’t undress her further? Does he know what her whole naked body looks like? Did he fondle her nakedness? Taste it? How many of her anatomical secrets does he know of?

Even the few of those secrets that Don Jaime knows would be enough to make any woman cringe, because they have been divulged without consent (consider the complaints against lecherous Bill Cosby to see my point). But for a woman as proud of keeping her secrets hidden as Viridiana is, her uncle’s–however slight–‘breaking and entering,’ as it were, is all the more outrageous and unbearable.

She feels the shame, but don’t forget that he does, too. After all, he’s the sinner, not she…and no one is more aware of his exclusive guilt than he is. He’s so tearfully desperate to get her forgiveness that, when he doesn’t get it, he hangs himself.

What we must remember is that he doesn’t merely lust after her–he’s fallen in love with her (which is not to excuse him for his scurrilous scheming), out of her resemblance, in her looks, her walk, her voice, in every way, to his beloved late bride. He’s transferred that deep passion onto Viridiana.

Buñuel has been said to have valued sex over love: this seems to be a vulgar, bourgeois interpretation of his frank depiction of sexuality in his films, and it’s utter nonsense. Buñuel uses sex to enhance love, to free it from the bourgeois chains of Church morality.

Jorge (Rabal), his girlfriend Lucia (Victoria Zinny), and Buñuel.

Another theme in this film is that of solitude. Viridiana prefers being cut off from the larger society: if not hidden from it in the convent, then in the outbuilding section of late Jaime’s estate, which he’s left to her and Jorge. Her religious solitude, as I’ve said above, echoes that of the saint who shares her name; but is this solitude out of spiritual conviction, or social alienation?

Jaime’s solitude is certainly out of alienation, for he, as a bourgeois, rentier capitalist, is inevitably affected by the estrangement that capitalism causes. He has some goodness, though, as all the characters in Viridiana are each a mix of good and bad. For example, Jaime has taken in Ramona and Rita, and he even saves a bee from drowning.

His illegitimate son, Jorge, has a sexual interest in Viridiana that bothers both her and his jealous, live-in girlfriend, Lucia, who soon leaves him; but he isn’t the type to rape a woman. The worst he does is to walk into Viridiana’s bedroom without her permission. He kisses Ramona on the lips only because he knows, from the longing in her eyes, that she is aching for his kiss.

Still yearning to be a good Christian even though she feels unworthy of being a nun, Viridiana takes in a group of beggars to live in the outbuilding part of the house. As pitiable as these wretches are, though, they’re far from virtuous; they make one of them, a bald fellow without his upper front teeth, into a pariah because his varicose veins seem to them to be a symptom of leprosy.

Out in the field with Viridiana, they pray the Angelus with her while Jorge’s hired workers are renovating the house and surrounding area; in other words, the first group is engaging in faith, while the second group is actually working. Here is another example of Buñuel taking a jab at the Church, which values grace through faith over good works. She and the beggars are praying a useless prayer to her idol, Mary, while Jorge’s men are making themselves useful–working, because il faut cultiver notre jardin.

One of the beggars, El Cojo (‘the lame one,’ played by José Manuel Martin), fancies himself a faithful Catholic and not only helps Viridiana in leading the Angelus prayer, but also paints a portrait of the Madonna; still, he’s a bad, even violent fellow, for he threatens the ‘leper,’ and later Jorge, with a knife, and even tries to rape Viridiana toward the end of the film. Again, Buñuel demonstrates the emptiness of faith as against good works.

The Least (of His Brethren’s) Supper.

When she, Jorge, Ramona, and Rita leave the house on business (the servants have also left, out of disgust with the beggars), the beggars decide to go in the house and have a party. They’ll clean up after, and no one will be the wiser…or so they imagine.

This party symbolizes a proletarian seizing of the means of production…though it’s a poorly planned ‘revolution,’ more like anarchist Catalonia, or the Ukrainian Free Territory under Makhno, than anything like the Bolshevik takeover of Russia. Accordingly, their ‘insurrection’ doesn’t last.

During their dinner, they take a group photo at the long table. Buñuel deliberately has the actors pose in a manner parodying Leonardo DaVinci’s Last Supper, with the blind Don Amalio (played by José Calvo) in the middle, in Christ’s place. When Enedina (played by Lola Gaos) takes the photo, her lifting up of her dress is the ‘flash!’

After that, the ‘leper’ puts on a record of Händel‘s Hallelujah Chorus, and he dresses up in some of Jaime’s bride’s clothing, repeating the suicide’s cross-dressing, though in a comical, rather than pathetic, way.  His dancing around to the music is more of Buñuel making fun of religious piety. He tosses to the floor the feathers of a dove, symbolic of the Holy Spirit, he found earlier.

The ‘leper’ in drag.

Furthermore, this juxtaposition of these would-be lumpenproletariat revolutionaries with Christian music and iconography represents how the infantile disorder of ‘left’ communism is as unrealistic as is Viridiana’s idealization of Marian Catholicism. Just as there is no way to be a morally perfect woman, there is also no way to have a perfect communist revolution, all in one fell swoop. The beggars have no vanguard to educate and organize them, so their ‘revolution’ is practically still-born.

And so, because these people are, in varying degrees, degenerates, their party degenerates, too. A man takes Enedina behind the sofa and has her. An older beggar, Manuel, who has a penchant for gossip, tells Don Amalio about the screwing around, but he won’t lead the jealous blind man over to the sofa to beat the man for taking his woman; so Don Amalio smashes his cane on the dinner table, destroying the dishes.

As we can see, their ‘revolution’ is a bit too Makhnovist for comfort. Jorge, Viridiana, Ramona, and Rita return early to find out what’s been happening. El Cojo and the “leper” subdue Jorge while Ramona goes off in the car to get the police; this leaves Viridiana to the mercy of El Cojo’s lust. She fights the good fight to get him off of her.

All her efforts to be a good Christian, to show charity and compassion to the beggars and to give them moral instruction, have been for naught. Jorge, however, promises money to the “leper” if he’ll beat El Cojo on the head with a small shovel to stop him from raping her. Though El Cojo is stopped, she, overwhelmed with trauma, faints…just as she was unconscious when Jaime–almost–had her.

Viridiana’s neurotic moral perfectionism, vs. Jorge’s laid-back, realistic morality.

Note how, only when unconscious, will she allow any man to touch her. This shows how, only in her unconscious mind, will she allow herself any expression of sexuality. The conscious wish to be an imitator of Christ, of Mary, is clearly a reaction formation against her deepest, most repressed desires, expressed when she was sleepwalking.

The wish to lead a life of chastity rubs against its dialectical opposite, the secret wish to be sexual. Jorge, in contrast, is neither extreme: he accepts the ephemeral nature of sexual relationships, and is none too upset when Lucia leaves him. At the same time, he doesn’t force sex on anyone, unlike El Cojo, the ‘good Catholic.’

Viridiana’s trauma from the attempted rape has, for what it’s worth, one good side effect: she’s been liberated from her attachment to an impossible moral ideal–perfect chastity. As painful as this has been for her, at least she can now get off her high horse and join humanity…and become truly humble, not affectedly so.

She looks at herself in a small mirror, Lacan‘s mirror, as a tear runs down her cheek. That nun she’s seen in the reflection was an illusion, not the real her, but an idealization that has alienated her from herself. Her ability to be ‘pure’ cannot be eternal and unchanging. She must accept this painful truth.

She joins Jorge and Ramona in the main part of the house. He’s pleasantly surprised to see Viridiana at the door. Since Ramona is already his lover, Viridiana’s involvement is implying a ménage à trois, surely to the chagrin of the Francoist censors, but this ending was allowed nonetheless. Instead of listening to pompous religious music, the three would rather hear some fun popular music, Ashley Beaumont’s Shimmy Doll

Their sitting at table together to play cards suggests an equality the beggars couldn’t attain: that of male and female, of master and servant. Jorge’s moderate ‘socialism,’ if you will, is rather like Dengism; one incrementally moves from capitalism to communism, as Xi Jinping‘s government is doing. His sexuality is similarly neither prudish nor overly licentious. No idealistic rushes to extremes here, but rather a cautious creeping ahead.

Jorge doesn’t like the degenerate beggars any more than the other workers in his home. He considers Viridiana’s charitable duties to them pointless; he does, however, tolerate them for a while…until they commit their crimes on him and her. He also takes compassion on a dog, Canelo, and he offers money to the “leper” to stop lustful El Cojo. Though Jorge, representing industrial capitalism, is the bourgeois owner of the house given to him by his father, he’s clearly more generous than the average capitalist.

So, Jorge’s morality is a comfortable middle ground between Viridiana’s Catholic idealism and the reckless anarchism of the beggars. It’s like a Marxist sublation of the Christian thesis of an unattainable moral perfection, and its Makhnovist negation. This is the alternative morality Buñuel is proposing, and it’s a refreshing alternative to all the rubbish we’ve had thrown in our faces for so long.

Analysis of ‘L’Age d’Or’

L’Age d’Or is an hour-long French surrealist film made in 1930 by Luis Buñuel and written by him and Salvador Dalí. Since Buñuel had a falling out with right-wing leaning Dalí, his collaborator on Un Chien Andalou, leftist Buñuel was now free to finish this new movie by attacking the bourgeoisie and the Church as much as he liked.

The movie’s title, “The Golden Age,” is surely ironic given his attitude towards capitalism, then in a great state of crisis with the Great Depression, as well as with the rise of fascism in Italy, Germany, and his native Spain, where clashes between right-wing tradition and the left were soon to reach a boiling point.

Though not as famous as Un Chien Andalou, L’Age d’Or is nonetheless considered another landmark in surrealist cinema, and because of Buñuel’s liberation from the fascist-tending Dalí, this film perhaps deserves even more attention.

Here’s an interesting quote from the film, in English translation: “I have waited for a long time for him. What joy to have our children murdered!” –young girl, to her lover

As with Un Chien Andalou, L’Age d’Or is a set of vignettes that seem unrelated; if seen, however, as a series of free associations and dreams put up on the silver screen, one can play the role of psychoanalyst and link the apparently random visuals to show a coherent chain of themes, revealing the meaningful world of the unconscious.

Scorpions, crawling phalli that sting you with an ejaculation of death!

The film begins with a kind of short documentary on scorpions. These vicious, phallic, predatory arachnids–which attack with lightning speed, are unsociable, and prefer hiding in darkness to being seen in the light of day–set the tone of this film, with its themes of quick, impulsive violence and sudden deaths. Therefore, it shouldn’t be dismissed as an unintelligible opening to the film.

“Several hours later,” we see a beggar-soldier up high on the rocks of an inlet, watching some archbishops chanting among the rocks. (An instrumental rendition of Mozart‘s Ave Verum Corpus is playing; knowing Buñuel, the inclusion of this music, significantly excluding the Latin text, is ironic.) The man goes back to his hideout to tell his fellow beggar-soldiers that the Majorcans have arrived, so their leader (played by Max Ernst) tells them to get up and go fight them. Part of the scherzo of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is played during this scene; scherzo in Italian means, ‘joke,’ suggesting the pitiful condition of these beggar-soldiers.

Here we see a representation of the revolutionary proletariat, starving and weakened, yet ready to fight the bourgeoisie and Church authoritarianism. The archbishops are on the rocks, for the Church was built on a rock.

“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter [Πέτρος], and upon this rock [πέτρα] I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)

The hardness of the inlet rocks suggest the stony rigidity of Church dogma, as opposed to the mystical peace of the sea, as I’ve described it elsewhere. Indeed, it’s easy for many to go from the heavenly bliss of having been ‘touched by God’ to the hell of being forced to obey the dictates of religious authority…a dialectical shift from freedom to slavery.

Upon these rocks, they’ve built their church.

This preoccupation with Peter, the Rock and the first Pope, is a statement on the establishment of the papacy, the head of the authoritarian hierarchy of the Church that Buñuel so despised. Hence the use of rocks and rocky ground as motifs in the film, as well as any variation on them and their hardness–mud (a mixture of water with loam, silt, or clay–tiny, granular rocks), dirt (tiny rocks and sand), statues of marble (limestone), brick buildings reduced to rubble, even the hard, rocky background of the warring scorpions. The clergy and bourgeois are our stinging human scorpions.

A fleet of boats carrying bourgeois arrives on the inlet, the people aboard disembark, and they go up and down the rocky hill (symbolically rising and descending a hierarchy) to meet with the chanting archbishops, who are now a group of skeletons. When Nietzsche’s message in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Gay Science has reached the ears of the ruling class, they carry on with their ceremonies as if God were still alive. After all, such religious authority is still politically useful.

As the bourgeois are about to begin their ceremony, they suddenly hear a woman’s scream of pleasure. They look over and see her and a man making love in the mud. They go over and separate the two lovers.

The two are fully clothed at the time, so what’s the problem? Oh, yes, we always forget: public expressions of affection aren’t to be encouraged in polite, bourgeois society, especially during a religious ceremony.

The man and woman, making love in the mud during the ceremony.

Since the man and woman aren’t married, their lovemaking is tantamount to adultery. The repeated frustrating of their attempts to be together reminds one of the myth of those fated adulterers, Tristan and Isolde: indeed, both when they’re separated, then reunited about twenty to thirty minutes later in the film, we hear Wagner‘s Liebestod

This urge to be together in love, a union constantly being thwarted in the film, represents capitalist alienation. Since Church hierarchy helps the ruling class keep the people in their place, it’s appropriate in this film to see the symbolism of the rocky Church juxtaposed with symbolism of the people’s plight.

The ceremony involves a huge brick as a symbol to commemorate the Church’s rule–that brick, a rectangular rock, essentially–a man-made rigidity. The removal of the young woman from the man’s arms is followed by a scene of her at home; then we see a toilet, we hear a flushing, then slimy mud slobbering on the ground, suggestive of diarrhea flushed away, just as his love has been flushed down the toilet by a prudish Church, an ecclesiastical excrement that projects its own filthiness onto others.

The movie narrates the establishment of the rock of the Church of “imperial Rome,” once a pagan dominion, now a Christian one. We communists know what to think about the imperial world, past and present.

The man (Gaston Modot), after his lover has been taken from him.

The present-day Rome of the movie shows us a number of odd but explicable visuals. A man walking out of a café brushes dirt off his suit jacket: as with the two muddy lovers, capitalist society and Church morality makes all ordinary people feel soiled and unclean.

“Sometimes, on Sunday,” we see the demolition of a few houses on a street. Families’ homes reduced to rubble, to a mess of rock: this is what Peter the Rock does to families and communities with his repressive religious authority, backed by the bourgeoisie. 

Recall Marx’s words: “On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form, this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among proletarians, and in public prostitution…Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty.” (Marx, page 52)

A man walks on a sidewalk, kicking a violin, then smashing it under his shoe; the profit motive commodifies, cheapens, and ultimately destroys art.

The rock of St. Peter’s Church, weighing down on the heads of the people.

Elsewhere, in a park we see a statue of a man wearing a crucifix, holding a large book (presumably the Bible), and oddly, he has a long, flat, almost rectangular block of stone balancing on his head (reminding us a bit of the rectangular clay cube we saw during the religious ceremony). A man is passing by the statue with an almost identical rock balanced on his head. The rock of the Church rules over idealized religious figures, so naturally that rock will rule over the average man, too.

On the streets of Rome, we see the man being escorted by two agents. Separated from his love, he has already demonstrated an angry, aggressive, even violent disposition (kicking a small dog, stepping on an insect). This viciousness is what we all too often resort to when we’ve been denied love. Class antagonism makes scorpions of all of us.

WRD Fairbairn described this splitting of the personality with his replacement of Freud‘s id/ego/superego structure–a structure of pleasure-seeking drives,–with an object-seeking endopsychic structure. Fairbairn’s approximate equivalent to the id is  the Libidinal Ego, linked to an Exciting Object. In the film, we see this configuration whenever the escorted man stops at the sight of advertisements of such things as silk stockings, etc., which remind him of his lover.

Fairbairn replaced Freud’s ego with the Central Ego and Ideal Object: these are respectively represented in the film by the man and his beloved whenever they are together, for they represent an ideal relationship between two people in the real world. 

Fairbairn replaced the superego with something only vaguely similar, the Anti-libidinal Ego (originally, the Internal Saboteur) and its Rejecting Object. This configuration is the internalized part of us that hates and rejects others. We see this aspect of the man whenever he’s violent to others.

WRD Fairbairn, who replaced Freud’s id, ego, and superego with an object-seeking endopsychic personality structure: the Central Ego/Ideal Object, the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object, and the Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object.

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

For Fairbairn, a healthy libido seeks objects (i.e., people other than oneself, the subject), rather than seeking mere pleasure (as Freud had maintained); pleasure-seeking becomes a main pursuit only when there’s been a failure in object relationships. In Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, Fairbairn elaborates: “…from the point of view of object-relationship psychology, explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour…Explicit pleasure-seeking has as its essential aim the relieving of the tension of libidinal need for the mere sake of relieving this tension. Such a process does, of course, occur commonly enough; but, since libidinal need is object-need, simple tension-relieving implies some failure of object-relationships.” (Fairbairn, p. 139-140)

When one cannot enjoy loving relationships with others (i.e., the Central Ego/Ideal Object configuration), one resorts either to mere pleasure-seeking (drugs, alcohol, prostitutes, pornography), a province of the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object; or one becomes hostile, rejecting, and adversarial, the domain of the Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object.

Back to the movie. As the man is escorted down the street, he is confronted with, and momentarily mesmerized by, a number of advertisements: apart from their reminding him of his girl, they also represent our being manipulated by the allures of commodity fetishism and the media, a tried-and-true tactic used by the ruling classes to hypnotize us, and make us forget about taking our world back for our own rightful use.

The young woman (Lya Lys) the man yearns to be with again.

Erich Fromm once said in To Have Or to Be, “The puzzling question why contemporary human beings love to buy and to consume, and yet are so little attached to what they buy, finds its most significant answer in the marketing character phenomenon. The marketing characters’ lack of attachment also makes them indifferent to things. What matters is perhaps the prestige or the comfort that things give, but things per se have no substance. They are utterly expendable, along with friends or lovers, who are expendable, too, since no deeper tie exists to any of them.” (Fromm, page 34)

Back to the film. In the young woman’s home, she and her mother are planning a large party that evening. Some more incongruous, but explicable (in terms of Freudo-Marxism), things are seen. One of them is a cow on the young woman’s bed, which she shoos away. Apart from the cruel commodification of farm animals (especially in today’s world), we can see in the cow a representation of the Third World proletariat, always seen as animals from the bourgeois and First World perspective. We try to ignore their plight, and put them out of our sight…thus, out of mind. 

Other such odd scenes include, during the party, a large horse-drawn wagon going across a large room filled with guests in tuxedos and evening gowns. Later, a maid screams leaving a fire in the kitchen. The guests show no interest in either of these strange occurrences, which represent how the ruling class refuses to acknowledge the very existence, therefore also the suffering (for existence is suffering, according to the Buddhists), of workers and peasants. The girl’s father has flies on his face: the bourgeois pretend to be above us, but underneath it all, they are filthier than we could ever be.

Back on the streets, the man manages to get rid of the two men escorting him by showing them a document proving he’s a member of ‘the international goodwill society.’ We see a memory of his, when he has been assigned a mission from this society to protect the men, women, and children of his ‘Fatherland.’ He speaks of his mission to the two agents in a visibly insincere tone, as if making fun of the mission; this suggests that this is his False Self, a socially acceptable front he puts on so he can mix in capitalist society…however unwilling he is to do it.

The cow in the young woman’s house.

The insincerity of his commitment to this mission is evident (as it will be again, later) when he hails a taxi near a blind man, leaves the agents, and just before getting into the cab, kicks the blind man. Here we see a fusion of Freud’s moralistic superego, which inspires hypocrisy, with the antisocial nastiness of Fairbairn’s Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object configuration.

The man arrives at the party in a clean, new suit, and he’s delighted to see his love there. The Anti-libidinal Ego in him, however, causes him to be rude to some of the other guests, him brusquely shooing them away or grudgingly tolerating them, as he does her mother, for a while. The ruling classes reject the poor, and they often reject each other, so bad is capitalist alienation in our society.

This alienation extends even to family relationships (recall the quote above, from The Communist Manifesto). Outside the house, we see an armed man and his son, a little boy. At first, they seem affectionate, but then a small prank by the boy provokes his scorpion father to shoot him, to sting him with the phallic rifle. Similarly, back inside the house, one would expect the amorous man to want to get the good graces of the mother of the woman he loves; but a mere spilling of wine on his clothes, from a glass the kind old lady gets for him, provokes his Anti-libidinal Ego to slap her. The scorpion in him strikes again!

Finally, he and the girl go outside to have some time alone together (for they are as antisocial as the scorpions), to get away from all the other pesky guests, who go elsewhere outside to hear an orchestra perform the Liebestod…appropriate music for the two lovers.

‘Tristan,’ as it were, sucking on those clitoral fingers.

Their lovemaking includes sucking on each other’s fingers, which are symbolic of genitalia. Indeed, this scene is like a non-pornographic version of the sixty-nine position. This mutual introjection/projection of digits also suggests their wish to be at one with each other, physically and spiritually. In other words, their desire for each other is much deeper than mere lust. 

Yet again, our twentieth century Tristan and Isolde are frustrated in their efforts to be together when a man comes over and tells ‘Tristan’ he has a telephone call. Annoyed, he leaves her to receive the call. 

Meanwhile, she–her Central Ego being deprived of its Ideal Object–begins fellating the phallic toes of a nearby statue, her Libidinal Ego getting off on an Exciting Object. When we lose human relationships, we’re reduced to using things, including things that have an idealized human form, like the statue, or like objectified pornographic models, who today are photoshopped so consummately, we see no bodily imperfections.

‘Tristan’ is in Anti-libidinal Ego mode again, the dialectical opposite of his lover, and on the phone, he’s being barked at by the Rejecting Object, the man from ‘the international goodwill society.’ He’s angry with ‘Tristan’ for his dereliction of duty, for having neglected his mission to protect the people.

‘Isolde,’ as it were, performing fellatio on a statue’s toes.

When the angry caller, the minister of the interior and head of “the international goodwill society,” is complaining about the deaths of the people, we see an army of people rushing in to a city area and causing the death and destruction. Should we connect this violence with the beggar-soldiers towards the beginning of the film, those weakened men who go off to fight the arriving Majorcan bourgeois? Is this violence, from which ‘Tristan’ was supposed to defend the people, actually a proletarian revolution? Were ‘the people’ actually bourgeois?

As a surrealist film, L’Age d’Or can be considered more dreams projected onto the silver screen, as Un Chien Andalou and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie were. Thus, it can be seen as Freudian wish-fulfillment for Buñuel; and so this violence, which so upsets the bourgeois telephone caller, can represent the insurrection of a strengthened working class, led by a revolutionary vanguard of the kind that defeated the Nazis, rather than the weakened beggar-soldiers from earlier, men who seem more like the anarchists of Catalonia, who weren’t strong enough to fight off Franco’s fascism.

‘Tristan’ no longer wishes to listen to the caller. He yanks the telephone cord off the wall, and so leaves without letting the caller finish the conversation. The screen is black and void for a few seconds, we hear a gunshot; then we see the caller’s shoes on the floor, then his dead body (after having shot himself in the head)…on the ceiling.

As with Hitler’s suicide, this is how those at the top die: never wishing to come down to the level of the people, they destroy themselves, for all they are is a black void of nothingness without the backing of the masses.

The bourgeois at the top ultimately destroy themselves.

‘Tristan’ returns to ‘Isolde,’ and we hear more of the Liebestod. They hold each other, and we can see their love is more than merely physical. Though they’re as bourgeois as all the others at the party, they feel stifled by the capitalist system, too. They don’t want to have to keep maintaining the system; they just want to be together. He shows uncharacteristic tenderness to her, asking if she’s cold; for the moment, he isn’t a scorpion.

They’re now, if only momentarily, in a mentally healthy state. Their Central Egos are enjoying each other’s Ideal Objects, a proper relation with the external world, rather than the unhealthy, inner phantasy world of splitting, the world of the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object configuration, or that of the Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object.

Though Fairbairn’s reworking of Freud’s id/ego/superego structure wouldn’t come until about twenty years after L’Age d’Or was made, we can still see how Fairbairn’s theories can explain the actions, thoughts, and feelings of the man and woman.

When she speaks of the joy of having murdered their children, and when we see blood all over his face, as he says, “Mon amour,” we can interpret the ‘murdered children’ and blood as their ridding of, and projection of, their bad internal objects, those ‘children’ they created in their minds, which caused the lovers to replace each other with Exciting Objects to suck on the toes of, or Rejecting Objects to do violence to.

Finally reunited with his love, he can release his bad internal objects, symbolized by blood on his face. His wounds are thus, paradoxically, a symbol of his emotional healing.

The conductor of the Liebestod gets a headache and has to stop the performance (understandable: he’s been playing the interminable, syrupy chromaticism of Wagner). Holding his head in agony, he walks out of the performing area, leaves the audience, and finds the garden where the lovers are.

The girl sees the aching old man and feels compassion for him; but this is a misguided pity, for it’s directed at someone she doesn’t know, making her abandon her lover, who should have all of her attention at the moment. Fromm had some relevant points about this kind of situation:

“In this situation there is one other thing we do: we are sentimental. Sentimentality is feeling under the condition of complete detachment...You have feelings, but you do not refer really, concretely to something that is the reality. You are sentimental. Your feelings overflow. They appear somewhere…They are stimulation words, which make you weep, which make you howl, which make you do anything, and yet it is a performance in which the feeling is not really related to something with which you are concerned, but which is an empty thing.” (Fromm, page 31)

The young man, overcome with jealousy at seeing his lover go over to the conductor and kiss him, is furious. He gets up and hits his head on an overhanging flowerpot, making him hold his head in pain as the conductor is. We hear drums playing a military beat in triple time, suggestive of wartime aggression, and expressive of his anger. He leaves the garden, goes into the house and into a bedroom on an upper floor. He grabs random things and throws them out the window: a burning fir tree, a bishop, a plow, the bishop’s staff, a giraffe statue, and pillow feathers.

The jealous lover, his mind in the Anti-libidinal Ego mode, grabs onto a phallic plow, symbolic of the libidinal desire he’s rejecting.

This splitting of the lovers symbolizes the split in the personality when the search for healthy object relations is frustrated. The Central Ego/Ideal Object (‘Tristan’ and ‘Isolde’) configuration gives way to, on the one side, the Libidinal Ego (‘Isolde’) and the Exciting Object (the conductor), and on the other side, the Anti-libidinal Ego (‘Tristan’) and the Rejecting Object (everything he throws out the window, largely phallic symbols–a rejection of his erotic desire to be with her–and symbols of the Church that Buñuel hated so much).

Finally, the last vignette of the film takes us from Rome to Paris, on the last of the 12o Days of Sodom (of which Sade‘s novel, by the way, took place in the Black Forest). We’ve encountered the oppositions between the Libidinal and Anti-libidinal Egos, and between the life (e.g. sex) and death drives (as explored in my two previous Buñuel analyses); now we see these oppositions dialectically fused in the sexual sadism of the four libertines, as graphically depicted in Sade’s most notorious novel.

The duc de Blangis walks out of the Château de Silling (Selliny, as given in the film’s subtitles) on a snowy, wintery day at the end of February. Oddly, his long dark hair and beard, white-robed attire, and ‘pious’ manner make him look like Christ, the dialectical opposite of the sadist of the novel. This is obviously another of Buñuel’s attacks on the hypocrisy and abuses of the Church.

One of the eight female victims of the libertines also emerges from the castle, with blood on her chest (in Sade’s novel, there are eight girls and eight boys as victims, as well as the libertines’ four daughters, who are also sexually abused). Blangis goes back to her, seeming to comfort her (representing the outside display of the Church’s love for its flock), then takes her back inside the castle, the Hell of her torments. We hear her scream (representing the inside, hidden reality of historical Church abuses, including the largely unpunished sexual abuse).

The Duke of Jesus…er, Blangis.

Blangis comes back outside, but now he’s beardless. His beard was a mask of virtue; with it removed, his wickedness is revealed–he has a frown of shame on his face. The loss of his hair also reminds one of Samson‘s lost source of strength; knowledge of the Church’s crimes weakens it. All this time, we’ve heard the banging of military drums, suggestive of war and death…an appropriate juxtaposition with a corrupt Church.

The film ends with the sight of scalps of hair hanging on a cross, blasphemously transforming it into a phallus with symbolic pubic hair. The Church is a stinging, phallic scorpion. The jaunty, merry music heard during this display adds to its absurdity.

Just as Martin Luther advised us to laugh at the devil, Buñuel advises us to laugh at the absurdity of the demonic Church; for there is nothing that makes the Church so angry as when we attack it to its face, and tell it that through dialectical materialism, we are more than a match for it.

How are we more than a match for Church and capitalist authoritarianism? Those scalps, hanging on the cross and blowing in the wind, seem to be those of six of the victims. As the loss of Blangis’s beard suggests a loss of his power, the accumulation of scalp hair, that of his victims, suggests the rise of the oppressed, Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, but in materialist form. We suffer, we rise, then we conquer. The scorpions that stung before will now be stung. The bourgeois will lie dead on the ceiling of their arrogance.

Analysis of ‘Un Chien Andalou’

Un Chien Andalou (“An Andalusian Dog”) is a 1929 French surrealist short silent film directed by Luis Buñuel and written by him and Salvador Dali. It launched the careers of these two Spaniards, though they’d been expecting a scandalized reaction from their bourgeois Parisian audience; Buñuel even had his pockets filled with rocks to throw at an audience he’d thought would be so outraged that they’d want to attack the filmmakers. Instead, the bourgeois audience loved the twenty-minute short.

Buñuel’s and Dali’s intention had been to shock their audience with images of blatant sexuality and violence; Buñuel called the film an “impassioned call for murder.” As a communist, Buñuel despised the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie and the Church; accordingly, he went out of his way to expose, ridicule, and offend that sanctimonious establishment in all the films of his career. 

Sadly, Dali went in the opposite political direction of Buñuel, instead following that of fellow Spanish shocker Camilo José Cela, embracing Franco‘s fascism after having had a falling out with Buñuel before they could finish L’Age d’Or, originally meant to be another collaboration, but a movie Buñuel would finish without Dali. What a shame it is when talent is misused for reactionary purposes.

Two of the most famous images in Un Chien Andalou were inspired by dreams Buñuel and Dali had had, the former dreaming of a cloud cutting through the moon like a razor slicing an eye, and the latter dreaming of ants crawling on a man’s hand.

As a surrealist film, it was meant to be only one of random, shocking images with no consciously intended story or meaning. Indeed, if Buñuel and Dali were to come back from the dead and read this analysis, they doubtless would scoff at the meanings my interpretation here will impose on their fanciful flashes of black and white vignettes.

Nonetheless, the unconscious has meanings and intentions of its own, however non-rational and obscure they may be. Surrealism as an art form expresses unconscious meaning, a reality above our normal reality, hence the name of the movement. Since psychoanalysis is centred on an understanding of the unconscious, explored through dreams, free association, and the transference, a classical Freudian psychoanalytic interpretation is not only a possible way of making sense out of Un Chien Andalou: it’s the way, the royal road, even, for understanding the movie. 

Il était une fois, a man (Buñuel) sharpens a razor, then goes out onto a balcony and looks up at the moon. A greyish cloud is about to cut across the full moon, just as his razor will cut through the black iris of a young woman (Simone Mareuil).

The contrast of the black sky surrounding the white circle of the moon is like a photographic negative of her white eyeball surrounding her black iris. The greyish cloud is the silver, phallic razor.

This opening scene establishes the theme of the yin-and-yang-like, dialectical relationship between opposites, here symbolized by black and white, the thesis and negation, and by the sublation of the opposites with the grey cloud and razor. We will see many manifestations of the conflict and interaction between opposites in this film.

The man in the nun’s habit, riding a bicycle.

Huit ans après,” a man (Pierre Batcheff) is riding a bicycle down a street approaching her apartment building. He’s wearing a nun’s habit, and a box hangs by a strap around his neck. Here we see a fusion of masculinity and femininity, not only through his crossdressing, but also through the yonic symbolism of the box, which dangles like a penis…or a breast.

She goes to the window to watch him. He falls and lies on the curb in front of her apartment building; she empathizes, and rushes down to help him. Back in her apartment, she arranges the nun’s habit on a bed while he, in a dark suit, stands by a door looking at the palm of his hand. The juxtaposition of a nun’s habit on a bed suggests the meeting opposites of piety vs. sexual indulgence (as does her unlocking of the box). We’ll get more of the opposition between piety and lust soon after.

He’s looking at his hand because ants are crawling out of a yonic wound on his palm–more androgyny. The emerging ants suggest a projection outward of what’s wrong with him inside, the myrmidons (Greek: μύρμηξ, ‘ant’) of destruction. His fixed stare at the projection suggests a wish to see the bad inside him get out.

Next, we see her lying on the beach, with a closeup on her hairy armpit, which dissolves into a spherical sea urchin lying on the sand, its roundness reminding us of her eye just before it had been ‘raped,’ as it were, by the phallic razor. The armpit is a yoni, like the eyeball and the cloud-raped moon; the spiny, dark sea urchin is associated with both the yoni and a testicle, suggesting more androgyny, more unity of opposites.

The androgynous woman, holding the man’s box.

The urchin dissolves into the bird’s-eye-view of the head of a short-haired woman dressed rather mannishly–yet more androgyny. Holding a phallic cane, she pokes at a severed hand, which symbolizes castration, a reminder of the ‘yonic’ wounds of the slit eye and the wound on the man’s hand. With both injured hands, we once again see a unity of male and female through the castration complex.

The androgyny of the man and this woman in the street suggests Freud’s notion of the inherent ‘bisexuality’ of both sexes: ““we shall, of course, willingly agree that the majority of men are…far behind the masculine ideal and that all human individuals, as a result of their bisexual disposition and of cross-inheritance, combine in themselves both masculine and feminine characteristics, so that pure masculinity and femininity remain theoretical constructions of uncertain content.” (Freud, ‘Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes,’ p. 342)

Let’s now contrast the scenes of both gender-benders on the street, what unifies them and what makes them opposites. He rides a bike alone, but she stands surrounded by people. He has the yonic box, she the phallic cane…though a policeman later gives her the box to put the hand inside–symbolic of sexual union as well as androgyny.

He falls to the ground, causing the woman in the apartment to feel compassion for him and help him; the androgynous woman is hit by a car, while the man in the apartment grins, sadistically enjoying watching her get hurt, possibly killed, and neither he nor the woman with him in the room go down to help the injured woman. Note the merging of pleasure and pain, not only in his sadism, but also her smile of pleasure from having the hand in the box (representing intercourse and androgyny), and this happens just before she’s hit by the car.

The man (Batcheff) and woman (Mareuil) watch the androgynous woman, just before she’s hit by the car.

Now the man looks lustfully at the woman in the apartment. After having been aroused by the injury/death of the androgynous woman below, he’s now desiring this woman in the room with him. He grabs her breasts and imagines her nude, her breasts dissolving into her buttocks. We go from symbolic rape (the razor slicing the eye) to literal, attempted rape.

Remember that, as a surrealist film, Un Chien Andalou depicts the world of the unconscious, a realm of unbridled id impulses. Here, the pleasure principle rules, an ending of tension or excitation. Now, excitation can be ended by either pleasure (libido) or death, Thanatos. “We have decided to relate pleasure and unpleasure to the quantity of excitation that is present in the mind…and to relate them in such a manner that unpleasure corresponds to an increase in the quantity of excitation and pleasure to a diminution.” (Freud, page 276, his emphasis)

The man’s enjoyment of watching the androgynous woman hit by a car is an indication of his death drive, directed outwards, wished on another. His libidinous pawing at the first woman’s breasts suggest a fusion of the life instinct, Eros (of which the sex drive is a manifestation) with Thanatos (his rapist aggression), another fusion of opposites.

In light of this fusion of the life (i.e., sex) and death drives, it is significant that Buñuel chose, in 1960, Wagner‘s Liebestod (“love-death”) as part of the soundtrack for the movie. This was music he’d also used in L’Age d’Or, incidentally. The fused sex and death drives seem to be represented in many of his films, including these two early ones, as well as in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (see my analysis for that movie), Viridiana (<<her uncle’s suicide happening so soon after his having her dress in his dead wife’s bridal gown, then drugging her so he could have her in bed), and even Belle de Jour (consider this scene).

The man attempts to rape the woman while carrying his unconscious ‘baggage,’ if you will.

Unconscious id impulses are represented in the man’s attack on the woman; unconscious ego defence is seen in her attempt to defend herself with a tennis racquet when he has her cornered. So she, symbolically, is the ego, and he represents the id.

He grabs onto ropes linking Moses’ tablets of the Ten Commandments with pairs of pumpkins, seminarists (Dali himself being one of them), and pianos, each with a bloody, slaughtered donkey lying on the inner strings. These together represent his superego in their attempt to restrain him. He pulls on them and falls, then gets up and pulls again, all that weight slowing him down as he tries to get closer to her in the corner.

Note how the id, ego, and superego are all unconscious here. While the ego and superego are partly conscious, as opposed to the completely unconscious id, much, if not most, of the ego and superego are either unconscious or at least preconscious; so much of their activity is unknown, at least at the time, to the mind controlled by them. To understand the true feelings of the aggressive man here, since this is a surrealist film, we should see his scurrilous aggression thus as unconscious phantasy in his mind, not his actual treatment of the woman.

The decalogue tablets and seminarists represent the ego ideal that he is required by society to approach as best he can. Of course, neither the Bible nor the Catholic priesthood have ever set a good example for preventing rape, as seen in priests’ largely unpunished sexual abuse of children over the years, or in such Bible verses as these: “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.” (Numbers 31: 17-18)

Two seminarists (Dali on the right) being dragged by the man in his attempt to rape the woman.

The pianos represent society’s use of culture in taming the beast; their weight slows the man down much better than clergy or tablets could. The slaughtered donkeys represent the killing of man’s bestial nature in order to civilize him. The pumpkins seem testicular to me, perhaps a reminder from society that sex is for procreation, not for mere pleasure, especially not for a man’s pleasure at the expense of a woman.

In any case, she fortunately gets away from him, slamming the door on his hand (a symbolic castration of a phallus) and reopening the yonic would from which the ants emerge, another projective ridding of the myrmidon killer within him…or is it an ejaculation (a fusion of sex with death), a masochistic pleasure from a previously rape-inclined sadist? “A person who feels pleasure in producing pain in someone else in a sexual relationship is also capable of enjoying as pleasure any pain which he may himself derive from sexual relations. A sadist is always at the same time a masochist.”  (Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, page 73)

On the bed in the room she’s entered is the man, now wearing the nun’s habit and box, and behaving much better. Is this the moralizing influence of religion that’s taming his lust, or is it the feminine inside him, making him more respectful to her?

Speaking of moralizing influences, “around three in the morning,” she hears a door-bell (represented by two hands poking out of holes in a wall and shaking a Martini-shaker–symbolic of masturbation) and lets a man in who, as it eventually turns out, is also played by Batcheff. Wearing a lighter-coloured suit this time, he berates the first man for wearing the habit, demanding that he remove it, then throwing the clothing out the window. This second version of the man, now making the first version of him (in his darker suit) stand in the corner shamefacedly, represents the superego, the inner critic, chiding the dark-suited id.

(Compare the superego-man, making the id-man stand in the corner, to the id-man rapist making the ego-woman stand in the corner. These are, respectively, the conflict between the pleasure principle and the ego ideal, and the conflict between the pleasure and reality principles, intensified with the ego ideal being dragged by the id-man.)

The man, in his nun-habit again, lying in bed.

What form of morality is being promoted in getting rid of the nun’s habit? Is it a conservative morality, telling the crossdresser that ‘real men’ never wear women’s clothes? Or is it a progressive morality, telling the man to do away with the shackles, as it were, of the hypocritical trappings of religion? Given Buñuel’s attitude towards the Church, the latter explanation seems more likely.

The lighter-suited man, “sixteen years earlier,” shows an interest in art supplies and books lying on a table, and he gives the darker-suited man in the corner two books to hold in his hands as he stays in the corner. This love of art and culture, like the dragged pianos mentioned above, and its imposition on the man standing in the corner, suggests the use of sublimation as a way of redirecting id drives down more socially desirable paths.

The id-man in the corner, though, would rather be destructive than creative (yet another juxtaposition of opposites), and so the books he’s holding transform into phallic pistols, which he causes to ejaculate bullets at the lighter-suited superego-man, killing him. He falls down dead…but in a forest, his body brushing against the nude back of the woman: another juxtaposition of opposites–the life instinct’s libido and the death drive.

Let’s compare this death with that of the androgynous woman and the fall off the bike of the man in the nun’s habit. In many ways, these first two accidents were mutually antithetical, as described above. This new death is comparable and contrasting to the previous two incidents, suggesting a sublation of the previous two.

Pierre Batcheff, the ‘id-man,’ as I’m calling him.

This superego-man is played by the same actor, Batcheff, as the id-man, but the superego-man isn’t a crossdresser. The antithetical androgynes are male and female; the third man’s lighter-coloured suit is a bit effeminate looking, though. The first two fall on a street (i.e., a man-made ground); the third one falls on the ground of Mother Nature, in a forest.

Only the woman in the apartment helps the crossdressing man; several people, mostly men, go to help the fallen androgynous woman; and a group of men, including a man with a cane, reminding us of the androgynous woman’s cane, find and pick up the body of the dead third person. The Liebestod is played during all three incidents.

Sublation, or Aufhebung, is a better word to use than ‘synthesis’ to describe how contradictions are resolved in dialectical thinking. One doesn’t merely combine the opposites: one refines one’s originally proposed idea by considering the opposition’s point of view. Some of the original ideas of the thesis remain; aspects of the negation are acknowledged; some contradictory aspects cancel each other out in the sublation. Then the refined idea becomes a new thesis to be negated and sublated, all over again.

This process can repeat itself again and again in a cycle, like the ouroboros: the thesis is the bitten tail, the negation is the biting head, and the coiled body of the serpent is the sublation. This dialectic can be symbolized by these three incidents in the film.

The ouroboros can symbolize the dialectic: the bitten tail is the thesis, the biting head is the negation of that thesis, and the coiled length of the serpent’s body–symbolizing a circular continuum of everything between the extremes of the biting at the top–is the sublation.

Another thing to note about all the film’s dialectical opposites is their physicality, their materiality. Conflict and contradiction are expressed in the forms of violence (as in The Omen) and sexuality (as in Caligula), a most material expression; so these aren’t the idealist dialectics of Hegel, but the materialist ones of Marx. (“Seize ans avant” suggests an association with historical materialism, too.)

This Marxism is Buñuel’s leftism shining through, though Dali’s right-wing tendencies would limit how far Buñuel could go with his leftism. Hence, there’s very little criticism of the bourgeoisie here. His “impassioned call for murder” (I find it fairly safe to assume that, by “murder,” Buñuel meant communist revolution–that is, killing off the bourgeoisie) fell largely on deaf ears.

In the next scene, the woman that the man tried to rape enters a room and sees a death’s head hawkmoth on a wall. This, a mature creature fully bloomed into life as an imago, but with a marking like a skull on its thorax, is yet another symbol of the merging of the life and death drives.

She sees the man who tried to rape her. He rubs his mouth, erasing it from his face. Disquieted by this, she applies lipstick to herself, as if wishing to draw his mouth back on his face by sympathetic magic, or what Melanie Klein called projective identification. Instead, her armpit hair appears on his face, as if a beard! She sticks her tongue out at him several times, then leaves.

There are multiple possible meanings here. Since she’s resisted his sexual advances, he, annoyed with her, wishes no longer to communicate with her. No longer having his empathy-prompting feminine symbols (the nun’s habit and yonic box), he’s gone from lecher to woman-hating incel. Her applying of lipstick, intended to be a projected drawing of a mouth back on his face, represents a wish to restore communication.

His erased mouth is another yoni, a rejection of the feminine. Her phallic lipstick, applied to her yonic mouth, suggests a wish for sexual union and restored androgyny. Above, I showed how her armpit hair suggests her pubic hair. Instead of projecting a mouth (symbolic yoni) onto his face, she accidentally projects her symbolic pubic hair…and pubic hair can be male or female. In having her hair on his face, he’s mirroring back to her how unattractive he now finds her. Hurt, she rejects him, too.

The removal of her armpit hair and her applying of lipstick suggest something that has upset feminists for a long time: the lofty standards of beauty women are societally expected to attain. (In contemporary pornography, it is standard to remove the models’ pubic hair, too.) In sticking out her phallic tongue at him several times, she’s defying his misogyny while reaffirming androgyny.

The woman and her boyfriend on the beach in the final scene.

In the final scene, she leaves her apartment building not to see the street, but a beach. A handsome young man by the shore turns and sees her; he seems to be her boyfriend, for she grins in delight to see him, and she hangs affectionately on his shoulder. They kiss.

I have elsewhere associated the sea or ocean with a state of nirvana. I’ve also associated a nirvana-like state with the biting head of the ouroboros, yet also with the danger of hellish samsara close by, on the sands of the beach, as when Luther confronts Swan on the beach at the end of The Warriors.

The woman and her boyfriend enjoy walking on the beach together, in each other’s arms; but they find the nun’s habit and box, broken and messy with sand, having washed on the shore after the superego-man threw them out the window. They represent the misogynistic id-man’s rejected feminine side as well as his rejected religious upbringing. The hostility they represent seems a danger to the man, who tosses the things aside so he and the girl can continue their blissful walk along the shore.

Au printemps,” a time of renewed life, shows the two lovers buried almost to their chests in the sand, presumably dead. Again, Eros and Thanatos unite: “these guardians of life…were originally the myrmidons of death” (Freud, page 312). The Myrmidons, incidentally, were created by Zeus from a colony of…ants!

The razor rapes her eye, as the passing cloud rapes the moon.

Freud had more to say about the interaction between the opposing life and death drives, that is to say, the pleasure principle on the one hand, and the drive to return to an inorganic state, on the other: “The pleasure principle…is a tendency operating in the service of a function whose business it is to free the mental apparatus entirely from excitation or to keep the amount of excitation in it constant or to keep it as low as possible…it is clear that the function thus described would be concerned with the most universal endeavour of all living substance–namely to return to the quiescence of the inorganic world. We have all experienced how the greatest pleasure attainable by us, that of the sexual act, is associated with a momentary extinction of a highly intensified excitation…The pleasure principle seems actually to serve the death instincts.” (Freud, 336-337, 338)

As we can see, Un Chien Andalou isn’t just a random jumble of vignettes, even if its creators insisted that it was. Like any great work of art, there are consistent themes to be explored: its surrealism merely means that one must be something of a psychoanalyst to uncover its secrets. Using free association, one looks at the freely given images and associates them to reveal the unconscious meanings within. 

…and what are those unconscious meanings? The interaction and unity of opposites: male/female, life/death, pleasure/pain, sex/violence, projection/introjection. I harp on the interconnection of opposites quite a lot, but that’s because in all this dialectical intermixing, we find a deeper truth, a truth that encapsulates everything. That universal truth is what makes films like Un Chien Andalou so great.

Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality (The Pelican Freud Library, #7), Penguin Books, London, 1977

Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology; The Theory of Psychoanalysis (The Pelican Freud Library, #11), Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, 1984