Analysis of ‘The Lighthouse’

The Lighthouse is a 2019 psychological horror film co-written and directed by Robert Eggers, derived from a story by him and his brother, Max Eggers. It stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, who play two wickies in the late 19th century. They take care of a lighthouse on an island off the coast of New England, but a storm causes them to be stranded and isolated there, and soon they end up losing their minds and trying to kill each other.

The Lighthouse is considered one of the best films of 2019, having been nominated for Best Cinematography at the 92nd Academy Awards. Unusually, it was shot in black and white, with a nearly square, 1.19:1 aspect ratio, causing the sides of the screen to be black, which adds to the intended claustrophobic feeling.

Here are some quotes:

“Should pale death, with treble dread,
Make the ocean caves our bed,
God who hear’st the surges roll
Deign to save our suppliant soul.” –Thomas Wake

“And I’m damn-well wedded to this here light, and she’s been a finer, truer, quieter wife than any alive-blooded woman.” –Thomas Wake

Ephraim Winslow: Say, why is it bad luck to kill a gull?
Thomas Wake: In ’em’s the souls of sailors what met their maker. You a prayin’ man, Winslow?
Ephraim Winslow: Not as often as I might. But I’m God-fearin’, if that’s what you’re askin’.

“And if I tells ye to yank out every single nail from every moulderin’ nail-hole and suck off every speck of rust till all them nails sparkle like a sperm whale’s pecker, and then carpenter the whole light station back together from scrap, and then do it all over again, you’ll do it! And by God and by golly, you’ll do it smilin’, lad, ’cause you’ll like it. You’ll like it ’cause I says you will! Contradict me again, and I’ll dock your wages.” –Thomas Wake

“Doldrums. Doldrums. Eviler than the Devil. Boredom makes men to villains, and the water goes quick, lad, vanished. The only med’cine is drink. Keeps them sailors happy, keeps ’em agreeable, keeps ’em calm.” –Thomas Wake

Thomas Wake: What?
Ephraim Winslow: What?
Thomas Wake: What?
Ephraim Winslow: What?
Thomas Wake: What?
Ephraim Winslow: What?
Thomas Wake: What?
Ephraim Winslow: What?

Thomas Wake: Damn ye! Let Neptune strike ye dead Winslow! HAAARK! Hark, Triton, hark! Bellow, bid our father the Sea King rise from the depths full foul in his fury! Black waves teeming with salt foam to smother this young mouth with pungent slime, to choke ye, engorging your organs til’ ye turn blue and bloated with bilge and brine and can scream no more – only when he, crowned in cockle shells with slitherin’ tentacle tail and steaming beard take up his fell be-finnèd arm, his coral-tine trident screeches banshee-like in the tempest and plunges right through yer gullet, bursting ye – a bulging bladder no more, but a blasted bloody film now and nothing for the Harpies and the souls of dead sailors to peck and claw and feed upon only to be lapped up and swallowed by the infinite waters of the Dread Emperor himself – forgotten to any man, to any time, forgotten to any god or devil, forgotten even to the sea, for any stuff or part of Winslow, even any scantling of your soul is Winslow no more, but is now itself the sea!
Ephraim Winslow: Alright, have it your way. I like your cookin’.

“Why’d ya spill yer beans?” –Thomas Wake

Ephraim Winslow: You think yer so damned high and mighty cause yer a goddamned lighthouse keeper? Well, you ain’t a captain of no ship and you never was, you ain’t no general, you ain’t no copper, you ain’t the president, and you ain’t my father — and I’m sick of you actin’ like you is! I’m sick of your laughing, your snoring, and your goddamned farts. Your goddamned…Goddamn yer farts! You smell like piss, you smell like jism, like rotten dick, like curdled foreskin, like hot onions fucked a farmyard shit-house. And I’m sick of yer smell. I’m sick of it! I’m sick of it, you goddamned drunk. You goddamned, no-account, son-of-a-bitch-bastard liar! That’s what you are, you’re a goddamned drunken horse-shitting — short — shit liar. A liar!
Thomas Wake: Y’have a way with words, Tommy.

O what Protean forms swim up from men’s minds, and melt in hot Promethean plunder, scorching eyes, with divine shames and horror… And casting them down to Davy Jones. The others, still blind, yet in it see all the divine graces and to Fiddler’s Green sent, where no man is suffered to want or toil, but is… Ancient… immutable and unchanging as the she who girdles ’round the globe. Them’s truth. You’ll be punished.” –Thomas Wake

Dominant themes in the movie involve symbolism related to various aspects of Greek myth, and to variants of the Oedipus complex, among other psychoanalytic concepts. Thomas Wake (Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) are seen going on a boat to the small island whose lighthouse they are to tend. The tints and shades of grey we see add to the gloomy, dismal atmosphere. Elderly Wake will be a father figure to Winslow, whether the latter wants this relationship or not.

Wake bosses Winslow around, threatening to dock his wages if he’s insubordinate. In this tension, we see not only the conflict of a symbolic father/son relationship, but also the alienation felt between workers, the contradiction of those in superior and inferior positions.

The filming in black and white reinforces the feeling of psychological splitting, or of what’s often called black-and-white thinking. As a father figure to Winslow, Wake is experienced by his ‘son’ symbolically as both the good and bad father. For not only is there the domineering aspect of Wake, but also a comradely side, that is, when the two men begin drinking together and merrily singing sea shanties.

This splitting adds nuance and complexity to the symbolically Oedipal feelings Winslow has for Wake. Sometimes the young man hates his ‘father,’ and sometimes he loves him; that is, sometimes there’s the normal Oedipus complex, and sometimes there’s the negative version of it.

Now, such is the relationship between Winslow and his symbolic father…but what of his relationship with a symbolic mother? She is expressed in a number of indirect ways. She can be seen in the sea–Thalassa, the sea-goddess (Put another way, La mer est la mère.). She can also be seen in the shrieking mermaid of whom Winslow has masturbatory fantasies. She is a variation on the Harpy-like, squawking sea-gulls, since the Harpies, half-woman, half-bird, are also like the half-woman, half-bird Sirens…and mermaids can be seen as having evolved from the Sirens. But Mother is best seen in the light of the lighthouse, a lunatic-inspiring lunar ball shining in the night–therefore, a symbol of Selene, the moon-goddess.

We see the Oedipus complex symbolized here in how Winslow craves a chance to go up to the top of the phallic lighthouse to experience up close the ecstasy-inspiring light that Wake is always enjoying, but which Wake will never permit him to enjoy. This prohibition symbolizes what Lacan called the nom du père, or the Non! du père, the father’s law against his son’s being the phallus for his mother.

Instead, Winslow has to make do with satisfying his Oedipal feelings for Mother by transferring her elsewhere, to either the mermaid he fantasizes and hallucinates about, or through masturbating to the scrimshaw mermaid he’s found hidden in a hole in the mattress of the bed he’s using, a bed formerly used by the man he’s replacing as Wake’s subordinate, a man who–according to Wake–went mad believing there’s “enchantment in the light.”

Winslow’s finding of the mermaid scrimshaw in the mattress is symbolic of the return of repressed Oedipal feelings, which resurface in unrecognizable forms (Who would consciously associate his mother with a mermaid?).

Now, just as Winslow’s symbolic father has been split into good and bad, into the pleasant and frustrating aspects of Wake’s personality, so is the symbolic mother thus split. We’ve already seen the good mother in the Oedipally-desired forms of the light of the Fresnel lens and the mermaids; but the bad mother is equally apparent in many forms, such as when Thalassa is stormy, and when she is in her Harpy-like, sea gull form.

Winslow often has to tend to the yonic cistern, stirring the slimy liquids inside it with a phallic stick. As he does this and other onerous duties, he encounters an irritating, one-eyed gull that obstructs his path or stares at him with that confrontational eye.

He is warned by Wake not to harm any of the gulls, as they apparently house the souls of dead sailors, and thus hurting or killing them will bring bad luck. The one-eyed gull isn’t only to be associated with the female Harpies, and hence only with the bad mother; its one eye also invites an association with the male Cyclops. When Odysseus blinded Polyphemus, he incurred the wrath of the Cyclops’s father, Poseidon; similarly, when Winslow kills the gull, especially in that violent, malicious way, he incurs the wrath not only of the gulls (whose Harpy association is in turn connected with the winds), but also of the sea-god.

My point is that we see both the gulls and the sea as male and female at the same time. The one-eyed gull is a female Harpy and a male Cyclops; the sea is female Thalassa and male Poseidon, or Neptune, as Wake calls him. This male/female combination, symbolic of Mother and Father, gives us Melanie Klein‘s terrifying combined parent figure, the phallic mother. For just as there’s splitting into opposites in this film, so is there a dialectical unifying of them, too.

The combined parent figure is also seen in Winslow’s hallucination–towards the end of the film, when he’s been punching Wake on the floor–that Wake is the mermaid, her thumb in Winslow’s mouth and him erotically sucking on it. Then, Winslow sees not her, but an effeminate-looking Wake looking up at him and grinning mockingly. On several occasions, Wake sees Winslow as androgynous, too, saying the boy is “pretty as a picture,” and “with eyes bright as a lady.”

This merging of opposite sexes is just one example of the merging of opposites seen in the film. The names of Wake and Winslow, with their shared Ws, as well as their shared name of Thomas (i.e., when we learn that Ephraim Winslow is really Thomas Howard), means that the two of them can be seen as doubles of each other.

This doubling of Wake and Winslow, or Thomas and Thomas, means that the line separating the two men is blurred. Each man is a metaphorical mirror of the other. Just as Winslow has a symbolically Oedipal (i.e., murderous) attitude towards Wake, so does Wake have a kind of ‘Laius complex‘ towards his symbolic son. Both men have urges to kill, or at least injure, each other.

Just as Thomas Howard, motivated by murderous urges, allowed the real Ephraim Winslow to die during their logging job in Hudson Bay, Canada; so can it very well be that Wake has killed his previous subordinate, using the ‘madness’ story to cover up his crime. This could be regardless of whether or not Winslow has hallucinated seeing the head of his predecessor in the lobster trap.

Both men project their crimes, their madness, and their vices onto each other. They accuse each other of smelling bad: Wake says Winslow “smell[s] of shit”; Winslow gripes about Wake’s frequent farting, and that the old man smells of “piss” and “jism” (a projection of Winslow’s own masturbating with the mermaid scrimshaw).

Wake uses an ax to hack up the dory Winslow was hoping to escape in, then he chases Winslow with it; afterwards, Wake claims it was Winslow who was wielding the ax. Wake judges Winslow for engaging in “self-abuse” with the scrimshaw; yet when Wake is up with the Fresnel lens at the top of the lighthouse, he’s undressed and sits in awe of his “wife,” suggesting a symbolic sexual union with “her.” His hogging of the light to himself suggests a jealous lover, the father refusing to allow his son to indulge in his Oedipal appetites.

When Winslow, or Thomas Howard, really, confesses to his criminal negligence in not saving the life of his foreman in Canada, the real Ephraim Winslow (a man whose white hair suggests a man old enough to be Howard’s father, and who bossed Howard around as Wake does, and as a father would his son, thus engendering more murderous Oedipal fantasies), Wake describes the confession as ‘spilling one’s beans,’ which invites comparison with Wake’s farting. Both men have filth that they wish to expel (recall the possibility that Wake killed Winslow’s predecessor).

So the many points of similarity between the two men suggest a fading of each man’s individuality, a merging of their identities, just as there’s a merging of seagulls with Harpies, Sirens, and mermaids, and there’s a merging of Thalassa with Poseidon, Oceanus, and Pontus (i.e., male and female sea deities). In fact, even Wake is equated with Poseidon when he curses at Winslow, invoking Neptune, for not liking his cooking, and when the old man is seen naked on the outer balcony of the lighthouse with Winslow (who hallucinates a double of himself), in a dramatic posture imitative of Neptune.

This merging of identities, this blurring of boundaries between people, is symbolized by the Chaos-like, crashing waves of the ocean, especially during the storm. Liquids, like water and alcohol, are formless: they have only the shapes of their containers. So the Chaos and formlessness of the ocean water has its parallel in the wild madness associated with liquor. Poseidon’s identity is thus merged with that of Dionysus.

To cope with their isolation and the misery that is associated with their work, Wake and Winslow indulge in the manic defence of getting drunk. The Harpy-like seagulls, getting revenge on Winslow for killing the one-eyed gull, bring on the winds and rain that ruin the men’s provisions, rather similar to how the Harpies shat on blind Phineus‘ dinner table. The two men dig up a crate of liquor, and their Dionysian revelry intensifies.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche wrote of the difference between individuating Apollo and his opposite, Dionysus, whose wild ecstasies, ritual madness, and dismembering, mutilating Maenads destroyed all sense of individuality, returning us all to that original, formless Chaos: ‘…we might say of Apollo that in him the unshaken faith in this principum [individuationis] and the calm repose of the man wrapped up in it receive their most sublime expression; and we might call Apollo himself the glorious divine image of the principium individuationis, through whose gestures and eyes all the joy and wisdom of “illusion,” together with its beauty, speak to us.

‘In the same work Schopenhauer has depicted for us the tremendous terror which seizes man when he is suddenly dumfounded by the cognitive form of phenomena because the principle of sufficient reason, in some one of its manifestations, seems to suffer an exception. If we add to this terror the blissful ecstasy that wells from the innermost depths of man, indeed of nature, at this collapse of the principium individuationis, we steal a glimpse into the nature of the Dionysian, which is brought home to us most intimately by the analogy of intoxication…’

‘…Under the charm of the Dionysian not only is the union between man and man reaffirmed, but nature which has become alienated, hostile, or subjugated, celebrates once more her reconciliation with her lost son, man…Now the slave is a free man; now all the rigid, hostile barriers that necessity, caprice, or “impudent convention” have fixed between man and man are broken. Now, with the gospel of universal harmony, each one feels himself not only united, reconciled, and fused with his neighbor, but as one with him, as if the veil of māyā had been torn aside and were now merely fluttering in tatters before the mysterious primordial unity.’ (Nietzsche, pages 36-37)

Drunken Wake and Winslow, dancing and singing sea shanties, are experiencing this ecstatic madness, this “union between man and man.” Yet, as with the dialectical relationship between all opposites, the heights of heaven and pleasure are quickly coupled with the depths of hell and pain. The shift from individuated, differentiated Apollo to undifferentiated Dionysus is paralleled by the result of what Lacan called foreclosure, a repudiation of the Name of the Father and of the Symbolic Order (i.e., the Oedipal refusal to give up Mother, as we see in Winslow’s continued craving of the Fresnel lens light), that result being the madness of the undifferentiated Real Order.

Now, excessive drinking has been known to worsen mental illness; and Winslow–in his guilt over what happened to the real Winslow, stealing the dead man’s identity (a symbolic identification with the Father) and not taking responsibility for his negligence–has already been seeing things. The punitive superego, derived from the internalized objects of his parents, is driving him mad with guilt. Wake’s and Winslow’s partying will lead to Maenad-like violence soon enough.

Their drunken hugging…and near kissing…quickly shifts to homophobic fisticuffs. In this contrast, we see the symbolizing of the love/hate, Oedipal relationship between father and son. Part of the hate aspect of that relationship is the son’s fear of castration by his father; and Wake’s earlier confiscation of Winslow’s filched knife is symbolically such a castration, as is Wake’s docking of Winslow’s wages. Further unmanning of the young man is seen when, after he complains of everything he can’t stand about Wake, the old man puts him in his place by describing him as a spoiled crybaby.

Finally, Winslow turns the tables on Wake by beating him to a pulp, during which the young man hallucinates seeing the mermaid again; then he sees Cthulhu-like tentacles, symbolic of the chthonic area of Mother Earth, wrapping themselves around his neck. He hallucinates some more, seeing Wake decked out effeminately (i.e., the symbolic combined parent figure), but he keeps punching the old man. Having been called “dog” by Wake (and the real Winslow) for so long, Thomas Howard now makes Wake into his more-or-less literal dog, forcing him to be led about on a leash.

This turning of the tables, a switching of master and servant, reinforces the doubling of both Thomases. The burying of Wake alive, in the chthonic underground of Mother Earth, symbolically recalls the Cthulhu/chthonic tentacles, and is another representation of the combined parent figure.

Winslow steals Wake’s keys (more symbolic castration, but this time the ‘son’ is the perpetrator, like Cronus, and the ‘father’ is the victim, like Uranus). Wake tries to kill Winslow (like Laius trying to kill baby Oedipus by exposure), but Winslow successfully kills Wake (like Oedipus killing Laius where the three roads meet). These switches of father/son role-play once again reinforce the sense that there’s no real boundary between the two men.

Winslow finally gets to the Fresnel lens, and experiences firsthand the light of the symbolic Mother. His Oedipal fantasy has been fulfilled at last. The transgressive jouissance he enjoys, a sinful, forbidden pleasure spilling over into pain, is him seeing those eye-like, revolving circles-within-circles, the eyes of a loving mother looking back at him, returning his desire to him, and satisfying it. He puts his hand into the lens, symbolic of entering her sacred yoni.

He screams in his mad ecstasy, then falls down the spiral staircase; for no one can enjoy such excessive pleasure without suffering the consequences. For the sin of his “hot Promethean plunder,” he suffers the same fate as the naked Titan chained to a mountain. A gull tears at his innards, just as an eagle ate the liver of Prometheus.

Never mess with the sea-gods. Don’t be unnatural with Mother Nature.

‘Where Do the Words Go,’ a Poem by a Friend

Here’s another poem by Clelia Albano, author of “I Can’t Breathe.” (I’m putting her words in italics to distinguish them from mine.)

Where do the words go when they are detached from things, when a slip
of the tongue subverts the sprout of a thought.
Have they a separate existence
from ours?
Do they take a walk through the promenades of parallel worlds?

– I don’t want to get too deep –

My eyes sting, imagination is in standby.
Neither a good food nor relaxing music can help me.
Where are the words I repent I uttered, the words I eagerly whispered.
Where are the words of my dead,
the words of my mother, the words
I screamed, I spelled out loud as
a child, the ones I learned coupled with drawings of leaves, nuts,
strawberries, bottles, ships, cats
and dogs, frogs, trees, tables and chairs, mom and dad, roses and stars,
houses and cars…
Do I exist without words?

And now, for my analysis.

This is a poem about the regret we feel when we say things we shouldn’t have. In my analysis of a new poem by Jason Morton, I wrote of how words can help us break free and can heal us. But sometimes, of course, words hurt. No matter how hard we try, we cannot choose words too carefully.

Words fly out of our mouths like projectiles, hurting those whose ears hear them. Or, to use a more classically allusive simile, words are like all those evils that all-too-curious Pandora released from the jar (pithos). Once they’re gone, we can never retrieve our words. They’re lost to us.

“Where do the words go”? Clelia asks, “they are detached from things” that would keep them safe from hurting others, the pithos of our would-be closed mouths. It’s too late “when a slip of the tongue subverts the sprout of a thought,” the sprout being the unconscious, which Lacan said is structured like a language.

Do words have “a separate existence/from ours?” Are they in “parallel worlds?”…that is to say, are they so far removed from our world that they’ll be eternally inaccessible to us? She would so much like to retrieve all the words she wishes she never said.

Going “too deep” might involve discovering parts of her unconscious that frighten her. Her eyes “sting” from the regret she feels over seeing the pain in the eyes of others because of her words. Her “imagination is in standby” because she doesn’t want to imagine the pain she has caused those she cares about, with the words that flew out of her mouth too quickly.

No food or music can soothe the guilt she feels from the pain she unintentionally caused others, from those words “eagerly whispered.” There aren’t only her words, though, but also “the words of [her] dead” (long-lost family and friends) and from her mother, words that hurt her, too, and which may have provoked her own regretted words, “the words [she] screamed.”

Now, these lost words aren’t only harsh ones. Sometimes they’re of pleasant things, coupled with things like “leaves,/nuts, strawberries, bottles, ships, cats/and dogs, frogs, trees, tables and chairs, mom and dad, roses and stars,/houses and cars.” As a poet, she loves words, and when they fly out, she can feel that she’s lost them forever, too. Perhaps if she got them back, she imagines that she’d have the opportunity to revise them and make them even better.

As writers, do we “exist without words?”

As a blogger, I find it inconceivable that we can exist without them.

Analysis of ‘Last Tango in Paris’

Last Tango in Paris is a 1972 erotic film co-written and directed by Bernardo Bertolucci (the other writers being Franco Arcalli and dialogue writers Agnès Varda and Jean-Louis Trintignant). It stars Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider as two lovers sharing an apartment and having an anonymous sexual relationship.

The film is controversial for its violent sexuality, in particular for a scene in which Paul (Brando) anally rapes Jeanne (Schneider). Upon release in the US, it got an X rating from the MPAA, even with the most graphic scene cut. It was, however, universally well-received in France, and was praised by Pauline Kael and Robert Altman. Brando received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role and Bertolucci was nominated for Best Director.

Here are some quotes:

“Fucking GOD!!!” –Paul, with his hands over his ears at the overwhelming sound of a passing train overhead (first line)

“That’s your happiness, and my hap-penis.” –Paul, when Jeanne puts her hands on his crotch

Jeanne: I fell in love with him when I heard him playing piano.
Paul: You mean when he first got into your knickers.
Jeanne: He was a child prodigy; he was playing with both hands.
Paul: I bet he was!

“Olympia is the personification of domestic virtue: faithful, economic and racist.” –Jeanne

Jeanne: Free? I’m not free. You want to know why you don’t want to know anything about me? Because you hate women.
Paul: Oh, really?
Jeanne: What have they ever done to you?
Paul: Well, either they always pretend to know who I am, or they pretend that I don’t know who they are, and that’s very boring.

“It’s beautiful without knowing anything.” –Jeanne

“Go get the butter.” –Paul

“Family secrets? I’ll tell you about family secrets.” –Paul, to Jeanne, preparing to sodomize her

“No, you’re alone. You’re all alone. And you won’t be able to be free of that feeling of being alone until you look death right in the face. I mean that sounds like bullshit. Some romantic crap. Until you go right up into the ass of death. Right up in his ass. ‘Til you find the womb of fear.” –Paul, to Jeanne

Paul: Put your fingers up my ass. Are you deaf? Go on. I’m gonna get a pig. And I’m gonna have the pig fuck you. And I want the pig to vomit in your face. Then I want you to swallow the vomit. Are you gonna do that for me?
Jeanne: Yes! Yeah!
Paul: I want the pig to die while you’re fucking him. Then you have to go behind it. I want you to smell the dying farts of the pig. Are you gonna do all of that for me?

“A little touch of Mommy in the night. Fake Ophelia drowned in a bathtub.” –Paul, to Rosa’s corpse

“Our marriage was nothing more than a foxhole for you. And all it took for you to get out was a 35-cent razor and a tub full of water. You cheap, goddamn, fucking, godforsaken whore, I hope you rot in hell. You’re worse than the dirtiest street pig that anybody could ever find anywhere, and you know why? You know why? Because you lied. You lied to me and I trusted you. You lied and you knew you were lying. Go on, tell me you didn’t lie. Haven’t you got anything to say about that? You can think up something, can’t you? Go on, tell me something! Go on, smile, you cunt!” [crying] “Go on, tell me… tell me something sweet. Smile at me and say I just misunderstood. Go on, tell me. You pig-fucker… you goddamn, fucking, pig-fucking liar.” [sobbing] “Rosa… I’m sorry, I… I just – I can’t stand it to see these goddamn things on your face!” [peels off her fake eyelashes] “You never wore make-up… this fucking shit. I’m gonna take this off your mouth, this – this lipstick… Rosa – oh GOD! I’m sorry! I – I don’t know why you did it! I’d do it too, if I knew how… I just don’t know how… I have to… have to find a way…” –Paul, to his dead wife at her wake

Paul: You ran through Africa and Asia and Indonesia, and now I’ve found you… and I love you. I want to know your name.
Jeanne: Jeanne. [she shoots him]

“I don’t know his name…” –Jeanne, in French (last line of the film)

As suggested by the two Francis Bacon portraits of a man and a woman seen during the opening credits, the theme of duality is ever-present in this film: male vs female, English vs French languages, an American (Paul) vs a Frenchwoman (Jeanne), old vs young, life vs death, knowing vs unknowing (or, as Wilfred Bion would have said, K vs -K), lies vs truth, illusion vs reality, Jeanne’s cheating on her fiancé, Thomas (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud), vs Paul’s wife, Rosa (Veronica Lazar), cheating on him, and Paul’s hotel vs the apartment he and Jeanne rent for their sexual relationship.

Paul is an American widower living in Paris and mourning his wife, Rosa, who has recently committed suicide after having been discovered in an affair with a man staying in Paul’s hotel, named Marcel (played by Massimo Girotti). By chance, Paul and Jeanne find themselves renting the same apartment. As the two of them converse, they both switch back and forth between French and English. The scene climaxes (pardon the expression) with them having sex.

After that, Jeanne rushes off to find her fiancé, Thomas, a young film director with exuberant feelings about his moments of artistic inspiration, to the point of looking, to put it bluntly, foolish. As such, he makes the perfect cuckold, a sharp contrast to jaded, macho, pouting Paul.

The engaged couple kiss ecstatically, and Thomas tells her about a TV project, ‘Portrait of a Girl,’ he’s filming with her. He hasn’t told her about it yet, because he wants it to be a surprise. The cameras are rolling as they speak. She is annoyed that he’d do this without asking her consent first.

This TV film they’re making is supposed to be about her life, but how much of it really is autobiographical, and how much of it is made up, is anyone’s guess. One finds it safe to assume that Jeanne doesn’t want to reveal all that much of her personal life to the general public.

Now, whatever extent this TV film is a break from reality is nothing compared to the break from the real world that Paul wants to establish with Jeanne in the private, cut-off world of their affair in the apartment. He doesn’t want them to know each other’s names, nor are they to discuss anything true about their pasts.

Their room, as he sees it, is a sanctuary from the pain and suffering of the world outside. He’d rather the two of them have animal grunts instead of names, so in one scene he grunts like a gorilla, and she makes a high-pitched, bird-like, extended rhotic trill. Theirs is an Edenic rejection of civilization. How appropriate that they’re both nude when they make these animal sounds: they’re like Adam and Eve before eating the forbidden fruit…or at least they’re trying to be like them.

Recall that Adam and Eve didn’t have their names yet. He named her Eve only after the Fall (Genesis 3:20), and he was ‘named’ Adam only insofar as, in the original Hebrew, he was ‘adam (“man”) from the ‘adamah (the dirt, or dust, of the ground–Genesis 2:7). Theirs was a world of unknowing prior to the Fall, since the forbidden fruit was from the Tree of Knowledge. Ignorance is bliss: Paul is trying to create a paradise out of unknowing. The two naked lovers are in a Garden of Eden of their own (given his dominance over Jeanne, note the irony in my allusive choice of words). This ‘paradise’ is something Paul imagines will help him get over his grief over Rosa’s suicide.

Put another way, Paul is using Jeanne to play a role in his Edenic fantasy, just as Thomas is using her for his film fantasy. Both men get irritated if she does anything to defy their wishes to carry on acting out these fantasies: at a train station, Thomas actually throws punches at her for refusing to carry on with the film. She would be free to live her own life…but they don’t want to let her do so.

In one of her attempts at defiance of Paul’s rule that he and she never learn anything about each other, she goes through his jacket pockets to find some identification on him. Nude except for a scarf wrapped around her neck, Jeanne looks like Eve picking one of the forbidden fruits off the Tree of Knowledge (i.e., his jacket, hung up by the entrance to the bathroom, as if it were a cluster of leaves).

Since Paul is making the rules, forbidding any gaining of knowledge, he represents not only Adam, but also Yahweh. On his way to the bathroom, Paul approaches her after she’s looked through his jacket pockets, and in a way he seems like Yahweh “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8). Paul enjoys her, as Adam enjoyed Eve, and he rules over her, as Yahweh did…and Adam did (Genesis 3:16).

Naturally, Jeanne resents Paul’s dominance and accuses him of hating women. She complains that she is merely his whore, though she–being a non-native English speaker–mispronounces the word as “wore.” This mispronunciation can be seen as a Freudian slip, for he and she, during their sexual unions prior to this scene, “wore” each other, as it were, each other’s bodies as clothes on their own nakedness; but this ‘wearing’ of flesh as metaphorical clothing especially applies to Paul in his ‘wearing’ of her body, his using it as a kind of commodity.

Indeed, the movie itself uses Maria Schneider as a commodity: if she isn’t nude, she is in tight blue jeans spreading her legs, or topless and arching her back in them to accentuate her ass as she does a scene masturbating. She’s the one showing off her body, not Brando (except when he moons the female emcee of a tango contest towards the end of the film). Schneider complained much of how poorly she was treated during filming, especially the “butter” scene.

Though the infamous scene of Paul sodomizing Jeanne was, of course, just simulated sex, Schneider was actually traumatized during the filming; she “was crying real tears” and complained of feeling “humiliated and…a little raped.” The scene was not originally in the script, and she would have refused to do it had she known she could.

If she’d felt “a little raped” during a scene of simulated sex, that sounds suspiciously like a PTSD flashback reaction to a memory of a real rape. For Schneider’s sake, I hope I’m wrong in speculating that about her real life history.

As unpleasant as the experience of filming that scene was for her, though, in terms of adding to the plot and symbolism of the story, I see the “butter” scene as full of meaning. As I said above, Paul is using Jeanne to help him, in the form of his anonymous Edenic fantasy, to process his grieving over Rosa’s suicide. Paul has absolutely no right at all to use Jeanne in this way, but he does anyway.

He weeps like a baby over Rosa’s death. This infant-like weeping is significant, for in Rosa, her mother, and Jeanne, I suspect Paul is doing a transference onto them of his Oedipal feelings for his own mother. His macho, sexist exterior is a reaction formation, a false self hiding the dependent baby within. Normally, we think of a transference happening between a patient and his or her therapist (i.e., feelings of childhood relationships transferred onto the analyst), and Paul is, in a way, using Jeanne to be his therapist; but transference can be achieved between any two people.

He lives with Rosa’s mother (played by Maria Michi) in his “flophouse” hotel, and just as he isn’t particularly nice to Jeanne, so is he abrasive with Rosa’s mother and was, I suspect, to Rosa herself (Could his nastiness have driven her into Marcel’s arms, then to her death? It seems that way.).

His bad attitude toward women is probably rooted in his relationship with his mother; object relations theory explains how our early childhood relationships with our parents and primary caregivers are like blueprints for how our relationships with people will be later in life. When Paul speaks to Jeanne of his mother, he says that she was, on the one hand, a drunk, and he implies that she was promiscuous (implying, in turn, his own Oedipal jealousy–he remembers her having been “arrested nude”); and on the other hand, he says she was “poetic,” and she inspired a love of nature in him. Such a dual attitude suggests a psychological splitting of her into the ‘good mother’ and the ‘bad mother.’

So Paul’s frustrations with the ‘bad mother’ end up being transferred onto Jeanne, Rosa’s mother, and probably Rosa herself when she was alive. He certainly treats Rosa’s corpse like a bad mother when he tearfully rants at her, calling her every four-letter name imaginable, then sobs like a baby.

To deal with all of his frustration, Paul must project it, as a baby would onto his mother when, for example, she doesn’t provide the breast for him. A baby pushes his negative feelings onto his mother, making her contain them, then return them to him in a detoxified form. Bion‘s theory of containment uses a masculine symbol (implying a phallus) for the baby’s contained feelings of agitation, and a feminine symbol (implying a yoni) for his mother as a container. Hence, the sex act is a perfect symbol for this notion of containing and detoxifying agitating emotional experiences. (See here for a more thorough explanation of Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

Unfortunately for Jeanne, though, her anus is the symbolic container, not her vagina; so the sodomy represents negative containment. This kind of containment does not lead to the soothing, detoxifying kind that is supposed to happen for a baby whose mother has a capacity for reverie, or for a psychotic patient whose psychotherapist is playing the soothing, maternal role. Rather, it leads to a nameless dread, the trauma Jeanne is experiencing. As I said above, Paul is using Jeanne as a kind of therapist on whom he can thrust all of his pain, but she cannot be expected to play such a role.

As he is sodomizing her, he has her repeat his reflections on “family secrets,” which sound suspiciously like traumatizing experiences he had as a child because of his family, and maybe his church, too. He reflects on the social lie that the family is “a holy institution meant to breed virtue in savages,” that the “holy family” is a “church of good citizens,” but really, “the children are tortured until they tell their first lie,” ” the world is broken by repression,” and “freedom is assassinated by egotism.” So this so-called “holy family” is really just “you…fucking…family.” When he comes, he grunts, “Oh, God…Jesus,” implying the hypocrisies not only of the bourgeois, church-going family, but also the myth of the Church’s Holy Family. Outside, the phallic overhead train is seen flying by.

This linking of the hypocrisies of the family of “virtue” with those of the “church of good citizens” seems to shed light on the meaning of his condemnation of “fucking God,” both at the beginning of the film, with the thundering noise of the phallic overhead train, and in his refusal to allow Rosa’s mother to have any priests at Rosa’s funeral.

I believe we should take literally Paul’s references to “fucking God” and “you fucking family”: this isn’t just gratuitous swearing. There’s the phoney virtue of the Father-God of the sanctimonious Church, some of whose priests (“Fathers”) rape children and go unpunished (Did this happen to Paul as a boy, hence his anal rape of Jeanne to have her contain his trauma…or did one of his parents sexually abuse him?).

Then there’s the “fucking god” of Greek myth, Zeus, or Jupiter (Dieus-pater), the sky-father god who hurled thunderbolts as noisy as that overhead train that seems to fly by–in the sky, as it were. Zeus, who also ravished nymphs and pretty maidens, seems to resemble Paul’s “whore-fucker” father…and he seems to resemble Paul himself. The sky-father isn’t the God of the Church, but the rapist Zeus.

Belief in God is often seen as a transference of feelings for one’s father onto the heavenly deity. Along with the love one feels for, and the need one has for security from, the father-God, also comes the sense of the god’s authoritarian dominance, rooted in the authority of one’s father.

Recall how Paul describes his father as “tough,” a “whore-fucker,” and “super-masculine,” all of which sound like projections of his macho self, but which could also be him identifying with his father. He claims that he may not have been telling Jeanne the truth about his past, but even his lying can have included unconscious, Freudian-slip confessions of truth…if he even is lying.

Added to all of this is the surprising civility he shows to Marcel: shouldn’t he be throwing punches at the man who seduced his wife? Marcel is older than Paul, though actor Girotti was older than Brando by only six years. Brando was about 48 when making this film, but Paul–in his truthful revealing of himself to Jeanne at the end of the story–says he’s 45, allowing for a greater age difference between him and Marcel, who could be even older than Girotti, and therefore older than Paul by several more years.

My point in mentioning these age differences is that, if Paul has transferred his Oedipal feelings for his mother onto Rosa, then he easily could have also done such a transference from his father onto Marcel. The fear of his “tough,” “super-masculine,” and (symbolically) castrating father (who bullied him into milking a cow and getting cow-shit on his nice shoes before taking a girl to a basketball game) has been transferred, however unconsciously, onto Marcel, thus preventing Paul from fighting the older man…and as we know, Paul is easily provoked to violence.

Paul punches a door, in what looks like a childish temper tantrum, in response to Rosa’s mother asking why Rosa killed herself (her mother didn’t know she’d had an affair with Marcel, hence Paul’s anger). He grabs, throws around, and slaps a man for not wanting to sleep with an old prostitute, one who knew Rosa and is desperate for the money; Paul shouts at the would-be john, calling him a “faggot.” But he won’t fight Marcel.

Paul is far more upset about Rosa’s suicide than her adultery. My interpretation, that he has transferred his Oedipal feelings from his parents onto Rosa and Marcel, can explain this: unconscious fear of his father, transferred onto Marcel, inhibits and restrains his anger at the adultery; unconscious fear of abandonment by his mother, transferred onto Rosa, explains how Paul not only mourns, but has fallen to pieces, over her suicide.

He enters the room where her body is being kept, and he makes two Shakespearian allusions: “a little touch of Mommy in the night,” and Rosa is a “fake Ophelia drowned in a bathtub,” surrounded in flowers. Rosa’s mother has arranged this gaudy presentation of her body, heavily made up, and Paul is disgusted at the over-the-top display. Henry V, in the Bard’s play, is a paternal figure going about the camp, concerned with the morale of his army, who are about to fight the French the next morning; Paul’s allusion, of course, is sheer sarcasm. Ophelia’s suicide, provoked by her mad boyfriend, Hamlet, is like Rosa’s suicide, provoked by her mad husband.

Paul lets out a long, four-letter rant at his wife’s corpse. He sobs like a baby frustrated with its mother for denying it what it needs (and recall that he’s transferred his feelings for his mother onto Rosa). His hostile attitude toward Rosa is like a baby going through what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position, in which Mother is seen as all bad. Then, weeping even more profusely, Paul apologizes to Rosa and lets his body fall onto hers; he’s like a baby going through the depressive position and wanting reparation with the mother it has hated. This scene seems to show Paul finally processing his grief with a degree of success, unlike his attempts to have Jeanne contain his pain.

Because he feels he has largely processed his grief and exorcized his demons, Paul no longer needs his anonymous sexual Garden of Eden with Jeanne, and so he not only stops using the apartment, but he also removes all the furniture there, all without telling her. She finds the abandoned room and sobs in frustration and desolation.

There has never really been a connection between the two, outside of the sex. In an earlier scene, Paul leaves the apartment, shutting the door in her face, and not even saying goodbye to her. He hasn’t wanted to know her name, nor have her know his, because he hasn’t wanted them to know each other at all, beyond physically. This unknowing has been his definition of Eden: not eating of the Tree of Knowledge, so to speak, what Bion called -K. Ignorance is bliss, as I said above.

The K-link is a link between subject and object, or between the self and other; it has its origin in the mother/infant relationship, developed through the container/contained exchange of emotional experiences as described above. But Paul doesn’t want to grow in K with Jeanne; accordingly, when she describes her sexual experiences, she notices that he never listens to her. He orders her around, with never a ‘please’ or a ‘thank you’ when he wants her to get the butter or the manicure scissors.

There’s no mutuality in their relationship, so there’s no growth in K as shared, exchanged knowledge of emotional experiences between two people. Even though he has her stick her fingers up his ass, this is no equalizing reversal of his having sodomized her, for it is he who’s wanted it, not her. He isn’t containing her pain, as he’s had her contain his during the anal rape.

Just before she puts her fingers up his ass, we hear him rationalizing his alienating of her by saying that we’re “all alone.” Only going “right up into the ass of death,” looking death straight in the face, to “find the womb of fear” (his words sound like an expression of his facing his infantile Oedipal trauma), will we “be free of that feeling of being alone.”

Jeanne tells Thomas about the apartment and tells him on the phone there that they should consider it as their new home when they’re married. He arrives and looks around; she mentions a room too small for a bed, but one in which a baby could sleep. This leads to a discussion of baby names.

Both of them would name their future son or daughter after communist revolutionaries: Fidel or Rosa [!], the latter being not as well-known, but also “not bad,” in Thomas’s opinion. Here we see the hypocrisy of the bourgeois liberal, posing as progressives, masquerading in the trappings of radical chic. One might think, for example, of a critic of Cuba who still wears a Che Guevara T-shirt: the unsuccessful revolutionary is “not bad,” whereas the successful one is considered bad.

We can see this hypocrisy earlier in the film, in Jeanne’s judgement of her nurse Olympia as “racist,” on the one hand, but also in her love and admiration for her late father, the colonel in Algeria who died in 1958 (of whom she forbids Paul to speak disrespectfully), presumably killed in battle during the Algerian fight for independence from France (which included such Marxist revolutionaries as Frantz Fanon), ending in an Algerian victory in 1962, ten years before this story.

A true progressive leftist would condemn her father’s defence of imperialism and colonialism, but Jeanne has loved her father “like a god” (she even wears his uniform and points his phallic pistol in a scene in her home, an act of identification with him), an interesting point to be made in connection with the ‘fucking gods’ in Paul’s life, as discussed above. Her love of “the colonel,” thinking he looked handsome in his uniform, is no less an Oedipal fixation than is Paul’s towards his parents and their transferences, Rosa and Marcel, as well as Rosa’s mother and even Jeanne herself.

Jeanne’s mother is no less racist than that “personification of domestic virtue,” Olympia (who notes that their old dog, Mustapha, could recognize an Arab by his smell, as well as tell the difference between the rich and the poor): her mother calls the Berbers “a strong race, but as servants–disastrous,” a typical bourgeois imperialist attitude. Jeanne has no more words of criticism for her mother than for her father, yet she would name her son after Castro.

Ever wanting to capture Jeanne in his world of filmic fantasy, Thomas imagines getting shots of her dancing about the apartment, her arms spread out like an airplane’s wings…but the vivacity he sees in her eyes perhaps raises his suspicions that she’s been seeing another man–in this very apartment? (Recall all those times previously, when she’s had to rush off after filming.) As a result, he wants to find another apartment for them. He says goodbye and shakes her hand, as if they were mere business partners, or friends, rather than lovers.

I suspect she has seen suspicion in his eyes, raising her fears. These fears, combined with how badly Paul has treated her, strengthen her resolution: she must break it off with Paul. He, of course, won’t have that: she is a mere possession in his eyes, and she isn’t allowed to live her own life without him.

Not only does he want to start the relationship all over again, he also wants them to know each other. They’ve left the Garden of Eden that was their rented apartment, and now he’d have them eat of the Tree of Knowledge, so to speak. Jeanne is not impressed with what he tells her of his dull life. Paradise is lost. Paul’s quest for knowledge (K), like that of Adam and Eve, as well as of Oedipus, will destroy him.

Paul and Jeanne go into a place where a tango competition is almost finished. He says that the tango is a rite. The stylized movements of the dancers certainly give off that ceremonial effect: they are precise and graceful, but their Apollonian discipline and precision look artificial.

Paul and Jeanne, however, are Dionysian drunks at their table, drinking champagne and whiskey and making a toast to a “life in the country,” which Jeanne finds distasteful. Earlier, Thomas filmed her at her country home with Olympia, and so the idea of a life in the country with Paul suggests an intrusion by him into her world.

Paul decides they should join the dancers, and their drunken clumsiness among the tangoing couples is a scandal to see. Since the tango symbolizes the sexual union of a man and a woman (hence, the film’s title), Paul’s and Jeanne’s Dionysian tumbling exposes the artificiality of the sexual relationship as symbolized by the precise, Apollonian tango dancing. She wants to break it off with him, yet she grins as she goes piggyback on his shoulders onto the dance floor.

They sit again at a dark area on the other side of the dance floor. Paul makes another Shakespearian allusion: “If music be the food of love, play on,” originally said by Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night, in his sadness over his unrequited love for the lady Olivia. In fact, the play’s central theme is unrequited love, which is exactly Paul’s predicament at the moment.

Lacan once provocatively said that there’s no relation between the sexes: love is an illusion; it doesn’t last (Will Jeanne’s and Thomas’s love last?). Indeed, for all the hype surrounding this film as an X-rated, erotic film, there isn’t all that much sex in it–how symbolic of the lack of a relationship between the sexes. There’s Paul’s and Jeanne’s first fuck when they meet in the apartment, there’s Schneider showing off her nakedness several times, there’s the profanity, the butter scene, Jeanne’s fingers up Paul’s ass after he bathes her, and there’s the hand job she gives him during the tango competition. In a film over two hours long, that’s about it: little more than morsels of porn.

She runs out onto the streets, and he chases her. At one point, just before she reaches her apartment building, he’s ahead of her, but he steps out of her way, reminding us of when Brando stepped out of Vivien Leigh‘s way towards the end of A Streetcar Named Desire (then Kowalski, it’s strongly implied in the 1951 film version, rapes Blanche). Paul races after Jeanne into her apartment, fighting his way inside as she tries to close the door on him, his forcing his way in being symbolic of raping her.

Inside her apartment, he puts on the cap that’s part of her father’s old uniform. She, standing in front of a drawer that holds her father’s old pistol, frowns at the sight of Paul in the hat. He may have transferred his Oedipal feelings onto Rosa and Jeanne, but Jeanne would never transfer her love of her father onto Paul. His mock saluting feels like more disrespect to her father.

He wants to know her name. As with Adam, the day of gaining knowledge is also the day Paul will die (Genesis 2:17). No sooner does she say, “Jeanne,” than she also pulls the trigger and puts a bullet into his gut.

This wound is his experience of negative containment. His gut is the yonic container, the bullet her ejaculated pain, now contained in him, and he’ll feel that nameless dread for these last few seconds of his life as he staggers out onto the balcony. She’s returned to him what he gave her in the anal rape.

She holds the phallic pistol dangling at waist level, just by her crotch. She is thus the phallic woman, gaining the strength and power she needs to liberate herself from this dominant man. The gun also symbolically makes her what Klein called the terrifying combined parent figure, the mother with a phallus (recall Paul’s words, “the womb of fear”).

Camille Paglia sees the mother “as an overwhelming force who condemns men to lifelong sexual anxiety, from which they escape through rationalism and physical achievement” (Paglia, Preface, page xiii). Paul has tried, but ultimately failed, to escape the ghost of his mother through his “super-masculine” bravado. How fitting that Paul would be killed by Jeanne, on whom he’s transferred his feelings for his mother.

On the balcony, he sticks the gum he’s been chewing on the balustrade; one last projection of his. Next, we see him lying dead out there…in a fetal position. I told you that, behind his macho façade, he was a baby.

She must get her story straight for the police. Conveniently for her, he never got around to telling her his name, so that won’t slip out when she’s telling them she doesn’t know him at all.

But in a larger sense, is she really free of male dominance? Will the mostly (if not all) male police accept her story? And what of her marriage to Thomas, who never wants to stop filming her? Recall how he hit her when she refused to carry on with his filmic fantasies, a direct parallel with Paul’s Edenic use of the rented apartment to disavow all knowledge of the outside world.

“When something’s finished, it begins again”…doesn’t it?

Analysis of ‘In Bruges’

In Bruges is a 2008 British/American black comedy written and directed by Martin McDonagh. It stars Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes.

As the film’s title indicates, the story is set in Bruges, Belgium, where two Irish hitmen, Ray and Ken (Farrell and Gleeson, respectively), are sent by their boss, Harry (Fiennes), on a ‘vacation’ of sorts, until Ken is given instructions by Harry to buy a gun there and kill Ray for accidentally killing a boy while doing a job.

The film earned Farrell the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, while Gleeson was nominated in the same category. McDonagh won the BAFTA Award for Best Original Screenplay and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Here are some quotes:

[first lines] Ray: After I killed them, I dropped the gun in the Thames, washed the residue off me hands in the bathroom of a Burger King, and walked home to await instructions. Shortly thereafter the instructions came through. “Get the fuck out of London, youse dumb fucks. Get to Bruges.” I didn’t even know where Bruges fucking was. [pause] It’s in Belgium.

“Bruges is a shithole.” –Ray

“I like it here.” –Ken, to himself, at the top of the tower and overlooking the city

Overweight Man: Been to the top of the tower?
Ray: Yeah… yeah, it’s rubbish.
Overweight Man: It is? The guide book says it’s a must-see.
Ray: Well you lot ain’t going up there.
Overweight Man: Pardon me? Why?
Ray: I mean, it’s all winding stairs. I’m not being funny.
Overweight Man: What exactly are you trying to say?
Ray: What exactly am I trying to say? Youse a bunch of fuckin’ elephants.
[overweight man attempts to chase Ray around but quickly grows tired]
Ray: Come on, leave it fatty!
[the overweight women calm down the overweight man]
Overweight Woman #2: [to Ray] You know you’re just the rudest man. The rudest man!
Ken: [coming back from the tower] What’s all that about? [Ray shrugs] They’re not going up there. [to overweight family] Hey, guys. I wouldn’t go up there. It’s really narrow.
Overweight Woman #2: Screw you, motherfucker!
Ray: Americans, isn’t it?

“What are they doing over there? They’re filming something. They’re filming midgets!” –Ray

Canadian Guy: I don’t care if this is the smoking section, all right? She directed it right in my face, man! I don’t wanna die just because of your fucking arrogance!
Ray: [thinking the tourist is American] Uh huh, is that what the Vietnamese used to say?

[beating the Canadian guy, whom he believes to be American] “That’s for John Lennon, you Yankee fuckin’ cunt!” –Ray

Ken: You from the States?
Jimmy: Yeah. But don’t hold it against me.
Ken: I’ll try not to…Just try not to say anything too loud or crass.

Jimmy: There’s gonna be a war, man. I can see it. There’s gonna be a war between the blacks and between the whites. You ain’t even gonna need a uniform no more. This ain’t gonna be a war where you pick your side. Your side’s already picked for you.
Ray: And I know whose side I’m fighting on. I’m fighting with the blacks. The whites are gonna get their heads kicked in!
Jimmy: You don’t decide this shit, man.
Ray: Well, who are the half-castes gonna fight with?
Jimmy: The blacks, man. That’s obvious.
Ray: What about the Pakistanis?
Jimmy: The blacks.
Ray: What about…Think of a hard one. What about the Vietnamese?
Jimmy: The blacks!
Ray: Well, I’m definitely fighting with the blacks if they’ve got the Vietnamese. [pause] So, hang on. Would all of the white midgets in the world be fighting against all the black midgets in the world?
Jimmy: Yeah.
Ray: That would make a good film!
Jimmy: You don’t know how much shit I’ve had to take off of black midgets, man.

Ken: [looking at a surreal Bosch painting] It’s Judgment Day, you know?
Ray: No. What’s that then?
Ken: Well, it’s, you know, the final day on Earth, when mankind will be judged for the crimes they’ve committed and that.
Ray: Oh. And see who gets into heaven and who gets into hell and all that.
Ken: Yeah. And what’s the other place?
Ray: Purgatory.
Ken: Purgatory…what’s that?
Ray: Purgatory’s kind of like the in-betweeny one. You weren’t really shit, but you weren’t all that great either. Like Tottenham. [pause] Do you believe in all that stuff, Ken?
Ken: About Tottenham?

Ken: And at the same time, at the same time as trying to lead a good life, I have to reconcile myself with the fact that, yes, I have killed people. Not many people. And most of them were not very nice people. Apart from one person.
Ray: Who was that?
Ken: This fellow Danny Aliband’s brother. He was just trying to protect his brother. Like you or I would. He was just a lollipop man. But he came at me with a bottle. What are you gonna do? I shot him down.

“The little boy…” –priest, after having been shot by Ray

“It’s a fairytale fucking town, isn’t it? How can a fairytale town not be somebody’s fucking thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, and all that beautiful fucking fairytale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s fucking thing, eh?” –Harry, to Ken on the phone in the hotel

“I know I’m awake, but I feel like I’m in a dream.” –Ken, pretending Ray has said it

“Do you know what that is? Yeah, I know you know it’s a train. Do you know what train? Well, it’s a train that Ray just got on, and he’s alive and he’s well, and he doesn’t know where he’s going and neither do I. So if you need to do your worst, do your worst. You’ve got the address of the hotel. I’ll be here waiting. Because I’ve got to quite like Bruges, now. It’s like a fucking fairytale or something.” –Ken, at the train station, on the phone with Harry

Natalie: [Harry gets angry and is destroying the phone; his wife approaches him, saying:] Harry. Harry! It’s an inanimate fucking object!
Harry: [to wife] You’re an inanimate fuckin’ object!

“When I phoned you yesterday, did I ask you, ‘Ken, will you do me a favour and become Ray’s psychiatrist, please?’ No. What I think I asked you was, ‘Could you go blow his fucking head off for me?'” –Harry, to Ken

“You’ve got to stick to your principles.” –Harry, before shooting himself in the head

“There’s a Christmas tree somewhere in London with a bunch of presents underneath it that’ll never be opened. And I thought, if I survive all of this, I’d go to that house, apologize to the mother there, and accept whatever punishment she chose for me. Prison… death… didn’t matter. Because at least in prison and at least in death, you know, I wouldn’t be in fuckin’ Bruges. But then, like a flash, it came to me. And I realized, fuck man, maybe that’s what hell is: the entire rest of eternity spent in fuckin’ Bruges. And I really, really hoped I wouldn’t die. I really, really hoped I wouldn’t die.” –Ray, last lines

Central themes in this film are sin, grace, and, legalism, or the demand to measure up to moral standards, the failure to do so resulting in punishment (e.g., death). Added to these themes is the dialectical relationship between sin, grace, and legalism.

More dialectics are seen in how Bruges, a quaint, “fairy-tale” kind of town, full of old churches, can be seen to embrace elements of both heaven and hell. Frequent references are made to paintings by Hieronymus Bosch on such subjects as hell and the Last Judgement.

Ray’s one hit job is to shoot a priest in the confessional. Ironically, Ray gives his confession before killing his confessor. After putting bullets through the chest of the priest, who is staggering out of the confession box, Ray hears him say, “The little boy…” before dropping down dead. Once on the floor, the priest no longer is obscuring Ray’s vision: one of his bullets has grazed a boy’s forehead.

The Greek word for sin is hamartia, which conveys the image of “missing the mark.” The irony in Ray’s sin is in his hitting the mark all too well. One of the bullets has gone right through the priest’s body, then flies past and hits the boy. In grazing his forehead, it has ‘missed the mark’ (i.e., not gone through the middle of his head), but hit him well enough to kill him. In killing the innocent, Ray has sinned.

This missing the mark vs. hitting it all too well should also be understood dialectically, for it symbolizes the dialectical relationship, discussed above, between sin and theological legalism, the strident demand to fulfill lofty moral standards. Recall that in ancient Greek tragedy, hamartia also means ‘tragic flaw,’ which in Harry’s case refers to his proud insistence that killing a child, even accidentally, is punishable only by death…even if he were to commit the sin himself.

Sins of all shapes and sizes are committed in quaint, churchy, fairy-tale Bruges. These sins range from the mildest (rudeness, four-letter words, etc.) to the harshest (murder and suicide), and everything in between (anger, fighting, racism, tactlessness towards dwarfs, drug use and trafficking, soliciting prostitutes, theft, etc.).

Ray, guilty of most of these sins, finds Bruges to be a “shithole,” even to the point of imagining an eternity in the town to be the very definition of hell, as he muses at the end of the film. It’s only natural that he’d think that way: all those churches have been reminding him of his sins.

St. Paul, in Romans, chapter seven, wrote of how the Mosaic Law inevitably leads to sin, since no one can reasonably be expected to follow the Torah to the letter all the time. This excess adherence to the Law, or hitting the mark all too well, inevitably leads to missing the mark, as described above when Ray has literally hit the mark by killing the priest, and has metaphorically missed the mark by killing the boy in the church, the bullet grazing his forehead.

As I’ve stated in many posts, I use the ouroboros to symbolize the dialectical relationship between opposites. The serpent’s biting head is one extreme opposite, its bitten tail is the other extreme, and its coiled body is a circular continuum between those opposites. Excessive adherence to legalism, or hitting the mark too well, is the serpent’s biting head, which shifts over to the bitten tail of missing the mark, sinning, accidentally killing a boy, or a dwarf, leading to suicidal ideation, if not committing it, the unforgivable sin of despair.

Ray and Ken go to the Belfry of Bruges, the top of which gives a beautiful, heavenly view of the town. Ray isn’t interested, so Ken goes up alone. Three obese American tourists ask Ray about the building; but he advises them not to try going in and up the narrow, steep staircase, bluntly saying they’re too fat to fit inside. The man among the three is infuriated, and he pathetically swings punches at Ray, who of course can easily dodge them; then the man quickly tires. In his anger at Ray’s rudeness, he has missed the mark.

Now, going up those stairs reminds me of Milton‘s words: “Long is the way/And hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” (Paradise Lost, Book II, lines 432-433) While it is unfair to judge the overweight by claiming that their obesity is merely because of indulgence in the deadly sin of gluttony (there is the factor of a genetic predisposition to obesity, or overeating could be a manic defence against facing one’s unhappiness), we can see the obesity of these three tourists, unable to climb that staircase “that out of hell leads up to light,” in terms of the movie’s theme of sin.

Later, Ray notices some people making a film, and one of the actors is a dwarf. Ray is fascinated, almost fixated, on the dwarf. He imagines that, because of the difficulties dwarfs face in life, that they must have a high suicide rate; he cites Hervé Villechaize as an example.

The dwarf, Jimmy (played by Jordan Prentice), as can clearly be seen by the end of the movie, is a double of the boy Ray has accidentally killed. He has transferred his guilt feelings towards the boy onto Jimmy, by on the one hand suggesting a concern that Jimmy might one day kill himself (Ray would try to stop Jimmy from dying, since he cannot bring back the boy he killed), and on the other hand annoying him by tactlessly dwelling on the subject with him and making him self-conscious (i.e., going from hurting the boy by killing him, to hurting a dwarf by reminding him of his condition). By discussing suicide with Jimmy, Ray is also projecting his own suicide ideation onto him.

Among those on the movie set, someone else has caught Ray’s eye, a young Belgian woman, Chloë (played by Clémence Poésy), whom he finds attractive. Since she sells drugs and robs tourists sometimes with her ex-boyfriend, Eirik (played by Jérémie Renier), she is a fellow sinner, so Ray can feel all the more comfortable with her. Iniquity loves company.

The very nature of having a job as a hitman is inherently alienating; and as I’ve discussed many times before, the mafia can be seen as symbolic of capitalists. Harry, Ray’s and Ken’s mob boss, wants the latter to kill the former, thus reinforcing their sense of worker alienation; but Chloë’s entrance into his life can be a cure to his estrangement from society…and to his suicidal ideation. (While we’re on the subject of Harry representing the evils of capitalism, there’s a deleted scene in which we learn the reason for him wanting Ray to kill the priest: he was opposed to a housing project Harry was working on, so killing him would help the business go through unobstructed.)

Being judgemental of others typically leads to more sin, as we see in the restaurant scene, when Ray gets into a fight with two Canadians over Chloë’s smoking, then Ray mistakes the Canadians for Americans by collectively judging the latter nationality for the killing of Vietnamese…and John Lennon.

Unless one becomes as little children, one shall never enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus says in Matthew 18:3. Children are the innocent, the angelic, and therefore inviolable, as Harry sees them. This in part is surely why the only time in the film that we see the bad-tempered mob boss actually smiling is at his children at home.

Jimmy, though a double of the boy Ray killed (see above), doesn’t share children’s innocence the way he shares their short stature, as is revealed in his bizarre, racist prediction of a war between blacks and whites…in which, of course, all people of colour, including Asians and even those partly white, are lumped together with “the blacks.” In his physical association with children (especially in that schoolboy uniform we see him in towards the end of the film), and in his not-so-innocent attitude, we see another dialectical unity between sin and grace.

As unapologetically uncouth as Ray is, he is tearfully remorseful over his killing, however accidental, of the boy in the church. Here we see a dialectical relationship between penitence and impenitence, and thus between sin and grace once again, since it is penitence that leads the sinner to grace. To “sin boldly,” as Luther advised, is to admit to oneself how badly one needs the redemption of Christ.

In this connection, we can see Ken as a Christ figure. First, Ken defies Harry’s order to kill Ray, thus repudiating his boss’s legalism (‘capital punishment’ for Ray, as Harry would see it, but murder to everyone else, hence we see dialectics in Harry’s ‘illegal legalism,’ if you will). Ken doesn’t go through with shooting Ray, just as the latter is about to shoot himself, then gets upset at the sight of the gun in the former’s hand! Ken then takes away Ray’s gun, and later puts Ray on a train to leave Bruges so Harry can’t find him; for Ken wants Ray to have a chance at redemption, to try to live a good life.

As Christ said to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” (John 8:11)

When Harry arrives in Bruges, he argues with Ken over whether Ray should be forgiven. One is reminded of Portia‘s famous speech in The Merchant of Venice: “The quality of mercy is not strained…” Ken is prepared to be shot and killed by Harry; at the top of the belfry, Ken won’t pick up a gun and try to stop Harry from killing him. He’s shot twice by Harry, in the leg and in the neck, but he isn’t killed…Harry hasn’t hit the mark he wanted to (he also compares Ken to Robert Powell in his portrayal of Christ in Jesus of Nazareth). Harry begins helping Ken down the staircase.

When Harry is tipped off by Eirik as to where Ray is (just outside with Chloë), Harry runs out of the belfry. Ken limps his way back up that difficult, narrow staircase, reminding me of the flagellation of bleeding Christ in His passion, when He wears the crown of thorns and struggles to carry His cross during the Stations (in particular, 2, 3, 7, and 9). Ken returns to the top and lets himself fall off the edge, so he can warn Ray in time about Harry. Like Christ, Ken dies so a sinner can live.

Harry chases Ray back to his hotel, which is co-owned by a pregnant woman named Marie (played by Thekla Reuten). She refuses to step aside and let Harry run up the stairs and shoot Ray in his room. We should note that the story is set near Christmas: in an earlier scene, Marie is seen decorating a tree.

Since it is taboo for Harry to harm a child, he cannot force his way past Marie. Here we see more Christian symbolism: she is like Mary, pregnant with the Christ-child, soon to give birth to the Saviour who will redeem us from the harshness of religious legalism. Even a “cunt” like Harry won’t brutalize a pregnant woman. (In keeping with Marie’s association with the Virgin, we never see the father of the unborn baby.)

Ray escapes the hotel by jumping onto a boat going down the nearby canal. Harry runs out, sees Ray on the boat, and fires, hitting Ray just below his heart. Harry has hit the mark all too well…but Ray isn’t dead.

He gets off the boat and staggers over to the film set, where a dream sequence is being filmed using costuming inspired by imagery from Bosch’s paintings of hell and the Last Judgement. Recall Ken’s remark about Bruges being like a dream, claiming that Ray said it; recall also Hamlet‘s words, “To die, to sleep;–/To sleep, perchance to dream,” when the Dane is contemplating suicide.

Harry follows Ray to the film set, and fires a few more bullets in Ray’s back. Ray echoes the priest’s words, “The little boy,” only he’s looking at Jimmy in that schoolboy uniform…with his head blown to pieces from one of the dumdums that ‘dumdum’ Harry got from Yuri (played by Eric Godon).

Because Jimmy’s head has been blown apart, Harry doesn’t know that he’s accidentally killed a dwarf instead of a little boy. When Ray killed the boy in the church, the bullet grazed his head: Ray almost missed the mark; actually and ironically, he missed missing the mark. Harry’s shot has hit the mark all too well–if only he’d missed it! Again, we see the dialectics of sin and innocence.

Harry’s moral legalism about killing kids is his undoing, his tragic flaw, his hamartia, his missing of the mark by hitting it all too well. He can never forgive himself for what seems to be the killing of a boy, and so he puts his gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger before Ray can get a chance to tell him he’s killed a dwarf…actually, one lacking in innocence, as we’ve seen above.

Harry’s rash judgement of himself is illustrative of the cruel nature of the moralistic superego, which gives us all a merciless inner critic. Kleinians consider the superego to be a split-off part of the ego, with a projected death instinct as well as a life instinct. If not modified and integrated with the rest of the personality, the superego can grow from being very severe to being associated with extreme disturbance and even psychosis. Such pathology can be seen in Harry, who imagines his morality to be superior in wanting child-killers to be killed, even those who don’t mean to kill children…but he’s also OK with killing priests who oppose his business interests.

As Ray is carried off on a stretcher, he imagines Bruges to be the very definition of hell (all those Bosch-costumed actors do nothing to dissuade him from such a conclusion). Yet he also sees Chloë and Marie, two angelic figures that should remind him of how Bruges is actually the dialectic dream of the “sleep of death,” a marriage of heaven and hell. Like “in-betweeny” Purgatory.

He ought to have Marie pray for him now, at the hour of his death.

Analysis of the Electra Myth

I: Introduction

The story of Electra has been one of the most popular and oft-repeated in Greek myth. All three of the great ancient Greek tragedians–Aeschylus (i.e., The Libation Bearers, part two of his Oresteia), Sophocles, and Euripides–wrote plays based on her story of avenging her father’s murder; Richard Strauss also wrote a one-act opera, Elektra, with a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal that was loosely based on Sophocles’ version.

I’ll be basing this analysis more on the versions by Sophocles, Euripides, and Strauss than on Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers, since Aeschylus’ is the second part of a trilogy of plays that ought to have its own, separate analysis, and since its plot is to a considerable extent repeated (and even parodied) in Euripides’ version. Besides, Aeschylus’ Electra is a supporting, rather than lead, character.

As I discuss the themes of this narrative, it should be noted that I validate Freud‘s rejection of Jung‘s term for the female version of the Oedipus complex, the “Electra complex.” Yes, Electra loves her long-dead father, Agamemnon, and of course, she hates her mother, Clytemnestra; but her love for her father is in no way incestuous–it’s purely out of filial piety and devotion. Her mother isn’t a rival to her father’s love: Electra hates her for having plotted his murder with her lover, Aegisthus.

Accordingly, as I did for the most part with my analysis of the Oedipus myth, I won’t be discussing the female Oedipus complex, or “Electra complex,” or whatever one wishes to call it. I will, however, incorporate a number of post-Freudian psychoanalytic concepts, in particular, Kleinian notions of psychological splitting.

II: Backstory

One must begin with a discussion of the backstory of the Electra myth. Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, was bound by oath to help retrieve the beautiful Helen of Sparta, wife of his brother, Menelaus, after she was abducted by Paris and taken to Troy, thus starting the Trojan War. To ensure safe sailing from his home to Troy, Agamemnon was told he had to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia.

It is safe to assume that he took no pleasure at all in offering the girl to Artemis. As the sacrifice was being carried out, he must have been shaking, and his eyes must have been dropping apologetic tears for a daughter he so dearly loved. Still, he was bound by oath to help his brother get Helen back, and keeping one’s honour was considered more important than life in those days.

In some accounts of the story, the girl was really killed, but in other versions, she was spirited away from Aulis, by Artemis herself, just in time; and she lived from then on among the Taurians. Either way, though, it was still believed by Clytemnestra that her husband had had their daughter killed.

Added to this outrage, Clytemnestra had been without a man to share her bed for years, as the Trojan War had kept Agamemnon away from home for ten years. So she found a paramour in Aegisthus, with whom she’d plan to kill her husband when he finally returned. His having brought home a concubine, the prophetess Cassandra, did nothing to redeem him in his wife’s eyes, of course.

So when he returned from Troy with Cassandra, and took a bath–no one ever listening to her prophecies that he’d be murdered soon (Agamemnon, lines 877-1121, pages 44-55), since she was cursed never to have her accurate prophecies heeded–Clytemnestra threw a net over him, and Aegisthus hacked him up with an axe (in some versions, his wife killed him herself). Cassandra was killed, too, by Clytemnestra.

Electra’s brother, Orestes, was sent away in exile, cared for by an elderly tutor, out of fear that the boy’s mother and her new husband, usurping King Aegisthus, would have him killed to prevent him from coming of age and killing the king and queen to avenge Agamemnon. Also, while timid, boot-licking Chrysothemis, Electra’s sister, has continued to live well in the palace, spiteful Electra has lost the privileges of being a princess, and now lives no better than a peasant (In Euripides’ play, she even marries a peasant, though the marriage is never consummated.).

III: The Story Begins

Sophocles’ drama opens with the tutor and Orestes discussing the plan to trick Clytemnestra and Aegisthus into believing her feared son has been killed in a chariot race. This ruse will allow Orestes to enter the palace safely, unsuspected and anonymous.

Euripides’ play begins with Electra’s peasant husband–a kind man not only sympathetic to her plight, but also respectful of a princess’s virtue, not wanting to soil her virginity–who describes her predicament (Electra, lines 1-53, pages 237-239).

Strauss’s opera opens with the thundering leitmotif representing fallen Agamemnon, a second-inversion D-minor triad whose notes are played in succession, but with the root beginning and ending it: D-A-F…then D again. A number of servants ask where Elektra is, then mention how harsh they find her; only one servant sympathizes with her, and this servant is flogged for disagreeing with the rest of them.

We soon hear the Elektra chord, a dissonant one that combines two triads in different keys–one in E major, and the other in C-sharp major–to make up a complex polychord, an eleventh chord. The bitonality of this chord suggests Elektra’s psychological splitting, her bifurcated, black-and-white thinking regarding her parents. Agamemnon is all-good to her, while Klytaemnestra is all-bad.

It is healthy for a child to regard his or her parents as being combinations of good and bad; such is the integration seen in what Melanie Klein called the depressive position, but Elektra’s splitting is what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position–paranoid out of a fear of persecution from the hated, frustrating parent. (This persecutory anxiety will be fully developed when Orestes is hounded by the Furies at the end of the story, as I explain below.)

This splitting happens in her internal world as well as her external world, for we all make internal representations of our parents in our minds, and these internalized objects have a profound influence on how we perceive and react to the world around us. So Elektra’s grief over the murder of her father, and her rage at her mother and Aegisth spill over into her relationships with everyone–hence her nastiness to all the servants.

Elektra is one of Strauss’s most modernist and dissonant works (along with Salomé), using a chromaticism that stretches tonality to its limits. This use of dissonance reflects the tormented world in not only Elektra’s mind, but also in Klytaemnestra’s, in the queen’s guilt, bad dreams, and fear of being murdered by Orest (“Ich habe keine guten Nächte”).

IV: The Turning Point

Strauss’s opera follows Sophocles’ tragedy in having Orestes send the palace a false report of his death, whereas in Euripides’ play, there is no such ruse (in The Libation Bearers, Orestes has only those in the palace know of the ruse–his mother, his old nurse Cilissa, Aegisthus, etc., but not his sister–lines 627-629, page 96); Electra learns early on that her brother is alive and has returned to kill their mother and Aegisthus.

Having Electra temporarily believe that Orestes is dead works better in my opinion, for it raises the dramatic tension. While Euripides’ having Electra marry a peasant emphasizes her degradation to the lower classes, she’s already plenty degraded in Sophocles’ play and Strauss’s opera without the poor husband, however still living in squalor; and her lonely misery is heightened to near despair when she learns of Orestes’ ‘death.’

She desperately tries to get Chrysothemis’ help in the plot to kill Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, even claiming (in the opera, “Wie stark du bist”) that her sister has a strength and courage she so obviously lacks; then, when Chrysothemis still timidly refuses to help, lonely Electra, despising her sister, feels her despair intensify (Electra, lines 100-1040; line 1140, pages 99-100; page102).

Then Orestes arrives.

At first, he maintains that he’s just a messenger passing on the sad news of Orestes’ death, reinforcing her sorrow; but when he realizes she is his sister–dressed in rags instead of properly adorned as a princess, and wishing to hold the urn containing his supposed ashes–he reveals his true identity to her (lines 1202-1249, page 106).

This is the peripeteia (reversal of fortune) and anagnorisis (recognition) in Sophocles’ play and Strauss’s opera, the latter of which emphasizes the shock with screaming dissonances in the music that then calm down in a decrescendo, resolving in a sweet tune rocking back and forth between a suspension fourth and a major key, up and down in waves from fourth to major third, D-flat and C.

The diametric opposition between her despair and her relief, expressed in the music between the extreme dissonance and gentle harmonic resolution described above, can be seen dialectically in the manner I often compare with the ouroboros, a phasing from the serpent’s bitten tail of despair to its biting head of relief; since the head biting the tail represents, as I interpret it, extreme opposites on a circular continuum, the ouroboros’ coiled body.

While, in Part XII of my analysis of the Oedipus myth, I discussed how there is little to be seen as different before and after the peripeteia and anagnorisis, that is, of Oedipus losing all doubt that he’s fulfilled the prophecy of patricide and incest with his mother; in the Electra myth, the despair before, and joy after, the recognition scene are truly like black and white.

This split between sorrow and joy that is made in the recognition scene is a parallel with the psychological splitting that Electra feels between the family she loves (Agamemnon and Orestes) and the family she hates and despises (her mother and sister). This splitting must be examined further.

V: The Ultimate Toxic Family

“In marriage there ought to be some safety,
but nothing is ever secure, and love can go bad
in a moment, and husbands and wives will look at each other
in utter loathing. And parents will come to despise their children
as Althaea, Meleagar’s mother, grew to hate
her son–and she threw his life’s log
onto that burning grate.” –second chorister, The Libation Bearers, lines 569-575, page 94

One interesting thing about Electra and Orestes is that, for all their loyalty and filial devotion to their father, they seem to have little, if any, regard for what he did to their sister, Iphigenia. All that matters to them is Clytemnestra taking on a lover and killing their father. She is thus the ‘bad mother’ and he the ‘good father,’ without any thought as to how she could have some good in her, and he could have some bad in him.

Clytemnestra’s marriage to Agamemnon was forced, as Robert Graves noted in his Greek Myths (112, c and h, pages 413-414). Such an unhappy marriage can easily motivate finding another lover, especially with Agamemnon away in Troy for ten years. He brought home a concubine in Cassandra, which hardly made him any less of an adulterer than Clytemnestra. If Iphigenia was taken away to the Taurians, and thus not killed in a sacrifice, no one in Mycenae seems to have known. Clytemnestra’s killing Agamemnon was no less revenge for Iphigenia than Orestes’ killing of his mother is to avenge Agamemnon. So what is Orestes’ and Electra’s problem?

In two film narratives of the Trojan War–Troy in 2004, and the TV miniseries, Helen of Troy, in 2003–Agamemnon is portrayed (by Brian Cox and Rufus Sewell, respectively) in a particularly negative light, and in the second of these, Clytemnestra (played by Katie Blake) is portrayed sympathetically in her avenging of the killing of Iphigenia. One’s perspective on who is good and who is bad, as well as how good and how bad, can vary considerably.

Still, Orestes and Electra, in the classical dramas and in Strauss’s opera, are obstinate in seeing only good in their father, and only bad in their mother, to the point of actually killing her; and this hostility is especially evident in Electra, since Orestes in Euripides’ play is hesitant about killing Clytemnestra until Electra pushes him to keep his resolve (lines 960-981; pages 280-281). In The Libation Bearers, Orestes briefly wavers, but his cousin and friend, Pylades, quickly inspires a return of his resolve (lines 797-803; page 104)

On the other hand, Orestes’ hostility to the bad mother, and to the ‘bad breast‘ part-object (as Melanie Klein called it), is symbolized in Clytemnestra’s dream of giving suck to a dragon (or serpent, depending on the translation, the animal representative of matricidal Orestes) that bites her breast and drinks her milk mixed with her blood (Aeschylus, lines 500-508, 514-522, pages 91-92; also line 830, page 106). The serpent/dragon baby bites the nipple as a hostile baby would, in its oral-sadistic/cannibalistic reaction, to the ‘bad breast’ of its mother. As a phallic serpent or dragon coming out of her womb, newborn Orestes as such, still connected to her with the uncut umbilical cord, thus makes her the phallic mother, the frightening combined parent figure that Klein wrote about.

Now, whatever splitting into absolute good and bad that goes on with regards to the external world, also goes on in the internal world, that is, in the internal objects of the ones doing the psychological splitting. As I mentioned above, we all have internal mental representations of our parents, so if we see them as all bad out there in front of us, their inner representations will also feel all bad in our minds. Electra and Orestes, in their murderous hatred of their mother, are no exception to this rule.

In Sophocles’ play, Clytemnestra is killed first (about lines 1408-1416; page 113), and at the end of the play, Aegisthus is led offstage to be killed after the play is finished (about lines 1470-1510; page 117). In Strauss’s opera, it’s understood that both parents, in the same order as given in Sophocles, have been killed offstage before the end.

In Aeschylus’ and Euripides’ plays, Aegisthus is killed first (announced by a messenger in lines 756-759; page 272 of Euripides’ Electra, and in lines 773-786, pages 102-103, announced by a servant in The Libation Bearers). Clytemnestra is killed at the climax of both plays (Aeschylus, lines 793-857, pages 104-108; Euripides, lines 1155-1161, pages 288-289). Then Orestes and Electra have to deal with the guilt over what they’ve done. Aeschylus’ Orestes has foreseen his own despairing guilt before even committing the matricide: “Let me kill her, and then end my own life.” (line 398, page 87)

In The Eumenides, part three of Aeschylus’ trilogy, Orestes will be put on trial for matricide. At the end of Euripides’ play, Castor of the Dioscuri gives Orestes guidance (lines 1228-1344, pages 292-296) as to how to deal with his upcoming predicament, being hounded by the Erinyes until they drive him mad with guilt, which brings us to the next point.

VI: Guilt

The Erinyes, or Furies, are demonesses personifying one’s guilty conscience (Graves, page 431), or vengeance for committing heinous crimes like matricide. Though generally indeterminate in number, they are often represented as a trio of female spirits, suggesting an association with the chthonic earth mother Goddess in triad (Graves, page 38, note 3), in her wrathful aspect. Looked at in this light, they can be seen to symbolize that bad mother internalized object, the frightening archaic mother, whose identification with the ego in turn lays the foundations for the guilt-tripping superego.

One can kill one’s mother in body, but the spirit of the mother in one’s mind lives there like a ghost haunting a house, and it stays there for life. This haunting in Orestes’ mind (and in the mind of Electra, who in Euripides’ play helps him kill Clytemnestra–lines 1210-1214, page 291; see also the translator’s preface, page 233) is what drives him mad with guilt.

WRD Fairbairn, in his paper, “The Repression and the Return of Bad Objects,” wrote of how these bad internalized objects are like evil spirits possessing us (Part 5, ‘The Dynamics of the Influence of Bad Objects,’ page 67). This kind of ‘possession’ (i.e., the Furies) is what’s happening to Orestes. It’s also happening to Elektra, who at the end of Strauss’s opera, dances a wild, mad dance of triumph until she falls down dead of exhaustion…and, no doubt, of unconscious guilt.

VII: A Drama of Class War?

Since at least some of the servants celebrate the killing of the king and queen (Euripides, lines 841-848, page 275; Aeschylus, lines 688-689, pages 98-99, line 927, page 110; also, at the end of Strauss’s opera), and since Electra has been demoted from princess to pauper (Euripides, lines 998-1004, page 282, this demotion being especially degrading for her in her marriage to the peasant), it is tempting to treat the story as an allegory of class war. I’m not about to do that, though: the crowning of Orestes as king, as well as the reinstating of Electra as a princess dressed in finery, would mean only that the servants have new rulers. No change in the ancient class structure of masters and slaves would occur with the regicide at the story’s climax.

Nonetheless, there is something for the proletarian to learn, in his or her revolutionary fervour, from the outcome of this regicide. Orestes and Electra plotted only the killing of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra: no thought was given as to how to rebuild life in Mycenae, to establish Orestes as the new king.

Similarly, some proletarians today think only of revolution for revolution’s sake: tearing down the hated old order, but not thinking about how to improve the lives of the people by building socialism. As a result of their nihilism, these leftists leave everything in chaos, making it easier for fascism to creep in; or if other, constructive leftists take over the state and try to build a better world, the destructive, sour-minded leftists criticize the new government and exaggerate its imperfections, demanding yet another revolution, leading to more chaos and vulnerability to fascist reaction.

The regicide that Orestes and Electra have committed can be compared to such post-revolutionary chaos in how he, instead of simply being crowned the new king, is hounded by the Erinyes; even after his trial in Athens, in which he’s acquitted of the charge of matricide, he’s still chased by those demonesses until he arrives among the Taurians and gets help from his long-lost sister, Iphigenia.

Just as there’s splitting between the all-good parent and the all-bad one, so is there splitting between the corrupt political world in its state of being (thesis) and the nihilistic world of nothing left, once revolution has destroyed the corrupt world (negation). And just as a healthy parent/child relationship is created by integrating the good and bad felt in one’s parents (the depressive position), so is there a healthy political world when it is being built out of the ashes of the old one, growing socialism in a state of becoming (sublation).

As we face the global economic collapse that the coronavirus panic has been eclipsing, we cannot–as I pointed out in my Joker analysis–just engage in wanton violence and rioting in the streets, the splitting of thesis and negation, “with joy and horror, dancing together,” as Orestes says at the end of The Libation Bearers (line 905, page 109), and with no sublation. We must rebuild our world, replacing the failed system of producing commodities for profit with a new system, producing commodities to provide for everyone. If we fail to create this new way, only fury will be following us everywhere.

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

Aeschylus, 1, The Oresteia: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1998

Sophocles (E.F. Watling, translator), Electra and Other Plays, Penguin Classics, London, 1953

Euripides, 2, Hippolytus/Suppliant Women/Helen/Electra/Cyclops, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1998

Analysis of the Echo and Narcissus Myth

I will be basing my analysis of this myth largely on the poetic narrative in Ovid‘s Metamorphoses. Though Ovid uses the Roman names for the gods, I’ll be using the Greek names.

Echo and Narcissus represent two extremes of the human personality. Echo is all for other people, to the detriment of herself, and Narcissus is all for himself, to the detriment of others…and of himself.

As the personification of excessive ego-libido, though, Narcissus isn’t the only character in this story who is tainted with this vice. Zeus and Hera, in their own ways, are excessively egotistical and exploitative, too, being the king and queen of heaven, and having all the privileges and arrogance of a ruling class.

Zeus’ presumptuous arrogance lies in, among other things, his belief that he is entitled to enjoy any pretty young mortal woman or nymph he likes. He jumps them and ravishes them without any consideration for whether or not they consent to his lustful acts.

Of course, Hera doesn’t approve of his affairs, but no part of her anger comes from any consideration that Zeus is a rapist; rather, her wrath comes from the narcissistic injury she feels at not being enough to satisfy his lust. (Recall, also, that she is his elder sister as well as his wife, and she would proudly deny that women enjoy sex as much as a man; accordingly, she is annoyed when Tiresias tells her women enjoy it much more than men do.) Instead of feeling any compassion for Zeus’ rape victims, she punishes them for tempting him away from her, thus blaming the victim.

As for Echo, the Oread is merely obeying Zeus’s command by distracting Hera with her long-winded stories, giving the nymphs he has enjoyed time to get away, so he’d not be caught in the act of adultery with them. Echo may be talkative, but this in itself is a minor fault. Hera’s punishment, forcing Echo never to say anything other than the final words of anyone speaking immediately before her mimicking, is too much to bear.

Hera’s punishment, an excessive one motivated by narcissistic rage against someone who couldn’t refuse Zeus’ command, is a form of emotional abuse. Echo’s loquacity is a fault, but one’s right not to have to suffer emotional abuse should not be dependent on one not having any significant faults.

Taking away Echo’s ability to speak her own words, making her only repeat those of others, is tantamount to taking away her very individuality, her identity. To exist as a person is dependent on one’s ability to express what one feels inside. Talking is, in itself, a kind of psychotherapy.

Just as narcissism is derived from Narcissus, so is “Echoism” derived from Echo. Coined by psychoanalyst Dean Davis and popularized by psychologist Dr. Craig Malkin, Echoism is the polar opposite of narcissism. Echoists are extreme codependent people-pleasers. Just as narcissists live in a solipsistic world in which other people are mere extensions of themselves, Echoists are so much extensions of others that they have no sense of themselves at all.

Small wonder Echo–in her pining away, in her despair over Narcissus’ rejection of her love–disintegrates…her body vanishing, her only remaining existence being her voice, never even speaking its own words, but only imitating the words of others. The Echoist’s personality is engulfed, swallowed up, by the personalities of other people.

As for Narcissus, we see not only his ego-libido (self-love)–in the form of what Freud called secondary narcissism, a regression from the object-libido (love of others) one is supposed to develop after outgrowing the ego-libido of infantile primary narcissism–but we also see malignant traits in him, directed towards other people. His contempt for others is shown in the cruelty with which he rejects not only the love of Echo, but that of all of the admirers–male and female–of his good looks.

Narcissists are known for their viciousness and cruelty to others, and their namesake is, of course, no exception. Ameinius, a man who feels an unrequited homosexual passion for Narcissus, kills himself out of grief, but not before praying to have his cruel love-object understand the pain of never being able to have the object of his desire. According to Ovid, Nemesis hears his prayer; according to Robert Gravesversion of the narrative, Artemis answers it (Graves, page 287).

And so, Narcissus goes for a drink from that fateful pool of water. His admiration of his reflection is like Lacan‘s notion of the mirror stage, only Narcissus’ experience is an extreme version of the self-alienation we all as infants first experience on at least some level.

He sees his ideal-I in the watery reflection; it’s him, yet it isn’t him. Infants develop a sense of an ego when they first see themselves in a mirror, the reflection showing a unified, coherent totality of a self, as opposed to the awkward, clumsy, fragmented self the baby feels himself to be. One feels oneself to be so incomplete, yet the specular image seems so whole, so together, so perfect…and so over there, not here, even when the reflection is as close to oneself as it is to Narcissus. So close, yet so far away.

The ideal of perfection seen over there is something one strives to equal for the length of one’s life, just as Narcissus aches to hold in his arms the body he sees in the watery reflection, but can’t hold (Mary M. Innes translation, page 92). He can’t, just as none of us can attain the ideal we see in the mirror, that fantasied self-image, for the ego we see over there is a lie.

The lie that Narcissus sees in the water is his narcissistic False Self; his True Self is the wretched young man looking down into the water. As Tiresias has prophesied, Narcissus will live to an old age…if he never comes to know himself. Too late for that; the boy was better off vainly admiring his seemingly perfect False Self, never knowing the limitations of his True Self.

As Narcissus suffers from a love that will never be returned to him, so does Echo. Yet where her identity fades into nothingness, all that’s left being a voice imitative of others, his death is really a transformation into another pretty object to be admired–the narcissus flower of white petals and a yellow centre (Innes, page 94…though, in Graves’s version, he plunges a dagger into his chest, and the narcissus flower springs up from his blood soaked on the ground–page 288).

Her disintegration symbolizes how the codependent victim of narcissistic abuse is slowly chipped away at, caused to erode, to lose one’s sense of self to one’s domineering environment, only repeating the feelings of others, never one’s own feelings. His transformation into a flower symbolizes how, even in death, a narcissist can still be loved and admired, even by such victims of his as Echo (who mourns for Narcissus to the end), as well as by his flying monkeys and enablers.

Echoism and narcissism thus represent two uncomfortable extremes on a personality spectrum. A balance between ego-libido and object-libido (love for other people) should be striven for. One must have neither too much nor too little a sense of self. There must be neither all-I nor all-you…but we.

Of course, this split between extreme self-love and self-hate might not be so pronounced in our society if the ruling class–each Zeus and Hera of today’s world–weren’t so vain themselves. For it is their self-absorption that causes the alienation resulting, in turn, in the pathologies of the masses.

The Three Unities

I: Introduction

At the start of almost every day, before I get out of bed (unless I don’t have time to), I practice a meditation of at least fifteen minutes (sometimes as long as half an hour). I lie on my back and start with several slow, deep, diaphragmatic breaths. As I do this, I pay attention to how all the parts of my body feel while relaxing them, starting with my feet, then my lower and upper legs, my pelvic area, my stomach, back, and chest, my hands and arms, up to my shoulders, neck, face, and head.

I’ll feel a tingling, vibrating feeling all over, relaxing me. Then I’ll imagine the waves of the ocean all around me and passing through me, for I imagine myself to be a part of that oceanic water. As the waves move up and down through me, as it were, my body moves slightly to and fro with those undulations. I try to keep my body fully relaxed the whole time, not letting my legs, for example, tense up as I feel myself swaying with the ‘waves.’

If I do this meditation/auto-hypnosis correctly, not letting myself be distracted by other thoughts (e.g., not ruminating on past pain, or keeping intrusive thoughts out of my mind) and keeping myself focused on those ‘waves,’ over time I start to feel the benefits. This is a mindfulness meditation, keeping me focused on the eternal NOW, what I like to call The Unity of Time (more on that below). A soothing vibration is felt all over my body, calming me.

The benefits of this meditation are felt gradually, cumulatively over time, as long as I continue to do it regularly, without any long breaks of not doing it for weeks, which would cause me to go back to my original angry, tense, impatient C-PTSD self. The benefits are far from having made me into some kind of Buddhist saint, of course, but they have calmed my raging spirit to a notable extent.

I’d like to explain now my theory, behind which I believe I gain benefits from this meditation, a theory that I call The Three Unities. I got the words from a 16th century interpreter of Aristotle, but I don’t use them to describe how a well-written drama should be presented. For me, they describe the reality of the world behind its surface differences. They are The Unity of Space, The Unity of Time, and The Unity of Action. I’ll start by describing the first of these.

II: The Unity of Space

Everything inside and outside of us, everywhere in the universe, is one, down in its particle and wave properties. The Hindus call this unity Brahman, that aspect of which is Atman inside each of us, and we must realize that unity and identity of Atman and Brahman inside and outside ourselves. The meditation of waves of water flowing through us and around us symbolizes that unity of Atman and Brahman, the infinite ocean that is everything and everyone.

Each of us–as infants–has no sense of a self that is separate from others until we see ourselves in the mirror for the first time. Prior to that, we’re awkward, fragmented beings that have little sense of where ourselves ends and “not-I” begins. The problem, as Lacan and the Buddhists observed, is that the whole idea of an ego, a self, is a lie. No thing has a permanent, fixed reality. There’s just the universe, of which each of us is a small drop of water in its infinite ocean, its waves flowing into crests of brief existence and troughs of brief non-existence, or crests and troughs of any pair of opposites.

Just as we’re alienated from each other, so are we alienated from ourselves, from our reflection in the mirror, be that the literal, specular image, or the metaphorical mirror reflections of our parents’ faces looking back at us, or any face looking back at us. The specular image gives the illusion of a united, clearly defined totality, creating an idealized self-image we wish we could live up to, but ultimately never will. The reflected image shows ourselves, but being apart from us in space, looks like someone else.

Just as the reflected image in the mirror is an illusion, so is the metaphorical mirror image of other people facing us an illusion. The whole notion of division between the self and others should be understood dialectically; there’s a bit of the self in other people, and vice versa, as I discussed the idea here. The more we realize that we are all interconnected, the more empathy we’ll feel for each other, the less isolated we’ll feel from each other, and the more inner peace we’ll feel.

The object relations theorists have an excellent way of helping us understand how there’s a little of us in other people, and a little of others in ourselves, that the line separating ourselves and others is blurred. We carry internal objects of each other in our minds all the time. To see how this is so, we must understand to what extent we project onto others, and introject energy from other people.

When I speak of projection, I don’t limit it to imagining others possessing our own, projected personality traits; I refer to projective identification, a coinage of Melanie Klein‘s that describes actually making other people internalize one’s projections so they will manifest these internalizations in their behaviour, attitudes, etc.

Wilfred R. Bion extended Klein’s concept to refer to a back-and-forth exchange of projective identification, starting with the mother/infant relationship as a pre-verbal form of communication. A baby doesn’t yet know how to process agitating external stimuli, because he hasn’t developed the needed thinking apparatus; so he projects those irritating excitations, those ‘thoughts without a thinker,’ onto his mother, who as his container introjects and internalizes them, the contained. She processes these feelings for him, then sends a detoxified version of them back to him, which he can now endure. In time, he’ll learn how to do this detoxifying and processing himself, without need of help from her. (Read here for more thorough explanations of Bion’s and other psychoanalytic ideas.)

When dealing with psychotic patients, Bion found himself having to play the role of mother in their treatment, detoxifying their upsetting external stimuli, since his patients’ mental illness had made them regress to the role of infant. Anyway, in a larger sense, we all play the roles of mother and infant with each other to some extent, trading energies and detoxifying for each other when we can’t do it alone. In this sense, there’s a bit of ourselves in each other, being traded back and forth.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the personality should be understood in a relational sense, not as an isolated entity. To get back to the core of who and what we are, we should de-emphasize the Freudian idea that libidinal satisfaction is about drives (i.e., pleasure-seeking), but rather that libido, as WRD Fairbairn observed, is object-directed (by objects, I mean other people with whom the subject–oneself–has relationships of friendship and love).

We tend to get broken off from other people as a result of insufficient parental empathy, that is, childhood emotional neglect. The frustrated child engages in splitting as a defence mechanism, regarding people as either all-bad or all-good, instead of an integration of both good and bad. This splitting is what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position (PS), while the integration of good and bad she called the depressive position (D). These positions arise in infancy, but we all oscillate back and forth between them throughout life, an oscillation that Bion notated as PS<->D.

All of life is an oscillation back and forth between dialectically-related opposites, an undulation back and forth between crests and troughs: PS<->D, self and other, good and bad, projection and introjection, etc. Such is the nature of dialectical monism, or unity in duality, yin and yang, the ouroboros‘ biting head and bitten tail, the extreme ends of a circular continuum (the serpent’s coiled body).

When we’re cut off from ideal relationships with real people, connections that Fairbairn called the Central Ego (approximate to Freud’s ego) connected with the Ideal Object, we develop two split-off, subsidiary egos: the Libidinal Ego (similar to Freud’s id) connected to the Exciting Object, and the Anti-libidinal Ego (somewhat comparable with Freud’s superego) connected to the Rejecting Object. The former of these two subsidiary egos tends toward pleasure-seeking, the manic defence (the Exciting Object being such people as pornographic models/actresses, prostitutes, teen idols, rock/pop/movie/sports stars, etc.) against feelings of sadness and guilt; the latter subsidiary ego rejects and hates people, judging them (and the self), imagining one doesn’t need them, and imagining they all reject the self (i.e., a projection of the self’s contempt for others).

As we can see from Fairbairn’s endo-psychic structure (meant to replace Freud’s), it is in our nature to relate to others. If we can’t do so in the ideal way, that is, with real people (Central Ego and Ideal Object), we’ll create fantasy relationships of either a pleasurable kind (Libidinal Ego and Exciting Object) or fantasy relations of a hostile kind (Anti-libidinal Ego and Rejecting Object). Either way, in our alienation from other people, we’ll relate to something of some kind, because we’re always connected in some way; it’s just a question of whether or not these connections are healthy.

Lack of parental empathy, even (or especially) to the point of abuse, can lead to an even more serious personality problem: pathological narcissism. Healthy levels of narcissism are restrained with a reasonable level of humility–again, those undulating crests and troughs. Heinz Kohut‘s notion of the bipolar self is another example of how the personality should be conceived of as relational, for the two poles consist of narcissistic parent/child relationships: the grandiose self and the idealized parental imago, two exaggerations of the worth of one’s self and of others, originally, one’s parents. Traumatic damage to one pole can be compensated for by the other, but damage to both poles leads to self-hate, leading in turn to the danger of psychological fragmentation, a danger dysfunctionally averted by pathological narcissism.

Instead of the healthy swaying up and down between pride and humility, as seen in normal, mature levels of narcissism, in the pathological form, we see a splitting of extreme self-love (as publicly displayed in a narcissistic False Self) and extreme self-hate (the repressed or disavowed, projected True Self). Instead of shades of lighter and darker grey, we have only black and white.

Even desire itself, that first cause of selfishness, links us with other people. As Lacan explained, “Man’s desire is the desire of the Other.” That is, we desire recognition from others, and we desire to be or have what others desire. However well we behave, or however badly, we’re still connected with the world. And we always desire more and more, making the fulfillment of that desire hopeless.

We link with others, as Bion observed, through Knowledge (especially), Love, and Hate–his K, L, and H-links. When knowledge of the truth gets too agitating, those traumatizing things-in-themselves he associated with O, we refuse linking with them, the attacks on linking resulting in -K, a rejection of knowledge. To connect with the All, the Unity of Space, we must try to allow all linking to happen.

Now, whatever is within ourselves is also without; so the black-and-white splitting that occurs inside ourselves as a defence mechanism also occurs outside, in other people, split-off and projected onto them. To return to the more peaceful, greyish state of integration of good and bad, this must be perceived in both the inner and outer worlds–hence the need to grasp the reality of the Unity of Space. We’re all one, flowing up and down in waves.

III: The Unity of Time

There are really two parts to this unity: the eternal NOW, as mentioned above, and the cyclical nature of time, as symbolized by the ouroboros, a symbol of eternity.

Time–that is, past, present, and future–is just a man-made construct that we use for practical reasons; but this construct is a lie, an illusion, just like the ego, the self. There is only ever NOW: the past no longer exists, and the future doesn’t yet exist; sill, we treat them as if they exist, in our ever-worrying, ever-ruminating minds.

The Unity of Time also expresses itself in cycles, as pointed out above: after every ending is a new beginning, the ouroboros’ head biting its tail, and its coiled middle body representing a new time-cycle. This cyclical reality is seen not only in the obvious examples of the seasons, and of night and day, but also in such things as Nietzsche‘s doctrine of the eternal recurrence, and in the Hindu concept of the yuga. Those up-and-down undulations of the infinite ocean of Brahman symbolize the cyclical Unity of Time. Focusing on those metaphorical waves while meditating can keep one focused on the present moment, mindful of the eternal NOW.

IV: The Unity of Action

All phenomena that appear around us and in us, however random and chaotic they seem on the surface, can be interpreted in terms of dialectics, which resolve contradictory opposites into unities. These resolutions of contradictions can be of the Hegelian, idealist sort, or of the Marxist, materialist sort. Contradictions arise and resolve, the resolutions becoming new contradictions to be resolved, throughout history, in endless cycles.

The working-out of dialectical contradictions is a complex one, but for convenience’s sake I’ll break it down to the well-known, three-part schema that is Fichte‘s thesis, antithesis, and synthesis (words that Hegel neither used nor liked). More accurate words for Hegel’s dialectic would be the abstract (a hypothetical idea to be tested out), the negative (an opinion that opposes the abstract), and the concrete (a resolution of the two opposing ideas, resulting in a new, refined and improved hypothesis, which becomes a new abstract to be negated and concretized all over again).

I prefer the words thesis, negation, and sublation to refer to this three-part simplification of the dialectic, this last word–in its original German–having such paradoxical meanings as “to lift up [to a higher level],” “to abolish,” “to preserve,” “to transcend,” and “to cancel [each other out].” I use the ouroboros as a symbol of a circular continuum to show the relationships of these three parts to each other. The thesis and negation occur where the serpent’s head bites its tail, and the sublation is anywhere and everywhere along the serpent’s coiled body, everywhere doing combinations of some sort of the thesis and negation, in an attempt to resolve them. Thus, the ouroboros symbolizes how all the infinite complexities of action in the universe can be seen to be unified.

I’ve already written up a number of blog posts that give examples of how this ouroboros symbolism can be applied to politics (from a Marxist perspective), to psychoanalysis, to film, literary, and myth analyses, and even to show how one can recover from narcissistic and emotional abuse.

In the larger philosophical scheme of things, we should remember Heraclitus‘ famous words, “Everything flows.” This idea must be interpreted correctly, like yin and yang, not so obtusely misunderstood as meaning, “Everything bad is good at the same time,” or some nonsense like that. Good flows into bad, and vice versa, like the crests and troughs of the ocean.

I bring this point up in reaction to a comment that a woman made on a FB page (“Narcknowledge”); she for some mysterious reason hated my presence on that page, and she began trolling me for every blog post I shared there. In reaction to my Everything Flows post, which has the yin/yang symbol among its pictures, she commented, “I hate that whole yin/yang thing…What good comes out of leukaemia?”…etc.

Leukaemia, the coronavirus, TROLLS, the oppression of the Palestinians and Yemenis, income inequality caused by neoliberal capitalism, and US imperialist wars–among countless other possible examples–are all unqualified evils. Good, however, can flow as a response to these evils, in the form of opposition to them: getting medical help, showing solidarity with the victims, socialist revolution…and not feeding the trolls. That’s how to think of ‘that whole yin/yang thing.’

V: Conclusion

Anyway, to conclude: meditation on these three unities–contemplating them all simultaneously by visualizing oneself as part of the flowing water of the universal ocean, staying in the present moment, and feeling the crests and troughs as symbolic of the cyclical ups and and downs of life–can give us peace by helping us intuitively grasp the deeper mystical truth of the world.

Analysis of ‘A Cure for Wellness’

A Cure for Wellness is a 2016 psychological horror film written for the screen by Justin Haythe and directed by Gore Verbinski, based on a story they wrote together. It stars Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, and Mia Goth.

Haythe and Verbinski were inspired by Thomas Mann‘s novel, The Magic Mountain, which also features a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. This inspiration in turn suggests the influence of Nietzsche‘s having spent many summers in Switzerland, often hiking in the Alps, in the hopes that the climate and fresh air would be therapeutic for his ill health.

The film got mixed-to-negative reviews because of its perceived-to-be excessive length, and its ending, which some deemed disappointing–though its visuals and performances were generally praised. Perhaps if one thought of it less as a horror film, and more as a drama with thought-provoking, philosophical themes, one would see more value in it, as I hope to demonstrate. Indeed, there seems to be the potential for the film to become a cult classic.

Furthermore, though this film came out in 2016/2017, a reconsideration of it (as of this post’s 2020 publication) would be timely, given the current coronavirus outbreak. The American response to the crisis has been markedly inferior to that of China and Cuba: on the one hand, not enough is being done in terms of helping the overworked, underfunded health services; and on the other hand, too much fear-mongering seems to be going on in the media, often motivated by governments with authoritarian agendas. The film deals with similar issues: the capitalist world cares too little about the sick, while Dr. Volmer (Isaacs), director of the sanitarium in which the story is set, seems overly solicitous of patients’ health…and for not-so-noble reasons.

This analysis is dedicated, and with a shout-out to, my Facebook friend, Gunnar Angeles, who, as a fan of the film, has been eager to have me write something up on it. I hope you like it, Gunnar.

Here are some quotes:

“There is a sickness inside us. Rising like the bile that leaves that bitter taste at the back of our throats. It’s there in every one of you seated around the table. We deny its existence until one day the body rebels against the mind and screams out, ‘I am not a well man.’ No doubt you will think only of the merger. That unclean melding of two equally diseased institutions. But the truth cannot be ignored. For only when we know what ails us can we hope to find the cure. I will not return. Do not attempt to contact me again. Sincerely, Roland E. Pembroke.” –Lockhart (DeHaan), reading Pembroke’s letter while sitting at a boardroom table

“Dad? Dad!” –9-year-old Lockhart (Douglas Hamilton), on seeing his father jump off a bridge

“You ever have a twelve inch black dick in your ass? Prison, Mr. Lockhart.” –Hollis

“No-one ever leaves.” –Hannah von Reichmerl (Goth)

Pembroke (Harry Groener): Is that why you came all this way? Ambition? Then you have it worse than any of us.
Lockhart: What’s that?
Pembroke: The sickness. Your father saw the truth long before the rest of us. The pointlessness of the entire endeavor. We’ve all done terrible things. So many terrible things…[submerging into the pool water]

“There’s something in the water. There’s something in the fucking water!” –Lockhart

Hannah: You made me believe I could leave here one day.
Lockhart: Why would anybody wanna leave?” [brainwashed, and grinning with dentures]

“I’m not a patient!” –Lockhart (repeated line)

Volmer (Isaacs): For the human physiology, the effect of the water can be quite toxic…unless, of course, it is properly filtered. The baron devised the process, using the bodies of peasants that belonged to his land. He managed to distill the water to its life-giving essence. Of course, he paid a terrible price for his ingenuity. His only mistake was to use subjects who were unwilling. Luckily, times have changed. The last two hundred years have been the most productive in human history. Man rid himself of God, of hierarchy, of everything that gave him meaning, until he was left worshipping the empty altar of his own ambition. That is why they come, men like you. You’re quite right, Mr. Lockhart: no one ever leaves. What you fail to understand is that no one wants to.

Pembroke[brainwashed] I’ve never felt better.

[last lines]
Hollis (Lisa Banes): [as Lockhart begins cycling away with Hannah] Are you insane?
Lockhart[last line of the film; with a crazed grin on his face] Actually… I’m feeling much better now![Lockhart continues biking into the night]

The film’s paradoxical title already introduces a theme before the story has even begun: the dialectical relationship between illness and health. (Recall Dr. Volmer’s words: “Do you know what the cure for the human condition is? Disease. Because only then is there hope for a cure.”) Put another way, sometimes those who would harm us the worst are those who claim to be most concerned for our health.

The protagonist, a young American businessman named Lockhart, is aptly named, for his name sounds like a pun on ‘locked heart.’ Indeed, the trauma he suffered as a child, watching his father commit suicide by jumping off a bridge, when combined with his experience of the cutthroat world of capitalism, has closed his heart from enjoying close relationships with other people. His ‘locked heart’ will be opened soon enough, though, when he meets Hannah.

The board of directors of his company want him to go to the Swiss Alps to find and bring back a fellow executive, an elderly man named Pembroke, who is desperately needed by the company to help sign a merger and deal with a criminal investigation of malfeasance–something that’s Lockhart’s fault, but something they plan to make Pembroke take responsibility for.

The only half-decent relationship Lockhart has with anybody is with his mother, and even this relationship is tenuous. She makes a figurine of a ballerina who “doesn’t know she’s dreaming,” and gives it to him. Just before his trip to Switzerland, his mother dies, something he recalls in a long dream during, ironically, the one good, long sleep he’s had in ages.

His giving of the ballerina figurine to Hannah is symbolic of his love of his mother transferred onto the girl. His growing relationship with Hannah–from his having a beer with her in a pub, to her giving the now “awake” figurine back to him (a return of that love, which in turn breaks him out of his mad acceptance of the “cure” that Volmer has, through gaslighting, manipulated him into taking on)–unlocks his heart and makes him want to rescue her from her rapist father.

The true cure to illness has always been, and always will be, loving relationships…but back to the beginning of the story.

Pembroke is staying in a large sanitarium, a castle-like building with a strange history, as Lockhart’s driver there tells him. A baron who lived there several centuries ago, in order to preserve a “pure” bloodline, wanted to marry his sister. She was infertile, and so he tried to create a kind of medicine to cure her. His experiments involved killing off local peasants by using their bodies to filter out toxins from water in a local aquifer, water that otherwise has life-extending properties; the peasants grew so enraged at him, after finding all the poorly-hidden corpses, that they rose up against him. They cut out the baby from the woman’s now-fertile womb, they threw it in the aquifer (though it survived!), they burned the woman at the stake, and they burned the baron’s castle to the ground.

Already in this story of incest among nobility do we see the dialectical relationship between illness and health. Throughout history, from ancient Egypt to the Habsburgs and later, royalty has rationalized inbreeding among them to preserve a ‘pure bloodline.’ Yet everyone knows, as all of these royals should have, that inbreeding results in birth defects, producing the opposite of a perceived ‘pure bloodline,’–instead of getting the healthiest, ‘noblest’ offspring, one gets the least healthy of them.

Pembroke has written a letter to the New York company, saying he won’t return because his aspiration to be ‘cured’ renders insignificant his aspiration for more wealth. This wish to find a ‘cure’ to what ails him is like a religious experience; indeed, one interpretation of the health centre is that it’s a metaphor for a religious cult. Recall Jesus’ words: “They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick.” (Luke 5:31)

That no one who enters the sanatarium ever leaves should give us pause about this ‘paradise.’ Recall the sign over the entrance to Dante‘s hell: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter.” (Canto III, line 9) This hope is a hope of leaving the world of suffering, the hope of getting well. There’s no exit, Sartre‘s hell of other people, where one’s self-concept is trapped in the opinions of others. The ‘ill people’ in the sanitarium can never see themselves as well if Volmer doesn’t say they’re well, and so, they can never leave. In this relationship between heaven and hell, this dialectical unity of opposites, we also see the unity between sickness and wellness.

Accordingly, Pembroke never gets better, nor does anyone else in the sanatarium. People there drink lots and lots of water, but they become…dehydrated, more unity in opposites. The aquifer water, toxic to humans, nonetheless causes the eels swimming in it to extend their lives–dialectical unity of life and death. Anyone who has read enough of my posts knows by now know that I use water, with its dialectically flowing waves, to symbolize a nirvana-like state, a kind of heavenly eternal life. But bliss is only one aspect of this ineffable state of being, and this film presents water in its blissful and traumatizing aspects, heaven and hell, health and sickness, eternal life and death.

This two-sided nature of Ultimate Reality is something I’ve noted in the ocean in my Moby-Dick analysis, as it’s been noted in Wilfred Bion‘s concept of O, in Lacan‘s Real Order, and in primordial Chaos as I’ve interpreted it here.

So the sanatarium is a Spenserian bower of bliss for the elderly patients: they seem to enjoy a blissful life of having their ‘ailments’ cured, they amuse themselves on the front lawn by playing badminton and cricket, by doing t’ai chi, or by doing crosswords, as Victoria Watkins (Celia Imrie) does. None, except her and Lockhart, suspect that something insidiously evil is going on.

The fact that most of the patients, except special-case Hannah, are elderly is interesting. They are all senior citizens; she is mentally even younger than her physical, teen years. Their naïve, uncritical acceptance of the ‘cure,’ as well as hers suggests a dialectical relationship between her being so young and their being so old, something aptly expressed in Shakespeare’s As You Like it:

Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. (Act II, Scene vii, lines 163-166)

So, the gullibility of the elderly patients is a dialectical match for the sweet innocence of Hannah, who we eventually learn is Dr. Volmer’s daughter. He is in fact a kind of father figure to all the patients of the sanatorium; he takes on a paternalistic attitude to Lockhart, too. He rarely gets angry from Lockhart’s rebelliousness, but the doctor typically shows a subtle condescension to him, in his insistence that Lockhart, the identified patient who’s always acting up, isn’t well.

Hannah hates being holed up in Volmer’s ‘castle,’ as evinced by her constant frowning and pouting, like an annoyed little girl. When Lockhart challenges her always only doing what she’s “supposed to do,” she finally gets the courage to rebel; so her riding with Lockhart on her bicycle down the mountain is like her experiencing adolescent willfulness.

Rebelling against her father–who, as Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream says, “should be as a god” to her–is like Nietzsche saying, “God is dead!” Thus begins Hannah’s down-going.

This rebellious adolescent phase is intensified when she and Lockhart enter a pub patronized by a gang of antisocial teens. She has her first beer and dances to music on a jukebox while one of the boys dirty dances with her, hoping to do the obvious with her.

Prior to this dancing, she goes into the girls’ washroom. The girls of the gang ask her for a tampon; she seems a “freak” to them for not responding. She doesn’t even seem to know what a tampon is, implying that she hasn’t had her first period yet. We eventually learn that the distilled liquid in the small blue bottles lengthens one’s life by slowing the aging process…hence her infantilized state, both physical and mental.

She does, towards the end of the film, finally have her period, while standing in the swimming pool, her blood attracting a swarm of eels. She’s terrified by all the blood, and she goes to get help from Volmer. Her fearful ignorance of menstruation reminds us of Carrie, whom I described in my analysis of the novel as a psychological baby in a teen’s body. Hannah, too, is such a baby, and Volmer is like a secular Margaret White to her–overprotecting, domineering, emotionally abusive.

Volmer’s ending of a fight between Lockhart and the boy who’s been trying to seduce Hannah in the pub shows the doctor’s authoritarian dominance; for everyone in the pub, including those nasty teens, is intimidated by him, just as the naughtiest son often is by his father. This is how we should think of the sanatorium’s director: as a domineering father whose religious-cult-like authority must never be defied or challenged.

Lockhart’s continued defiance, however, constantly gets him in trouble with Volmer, causing him at one point to have one of his upper front teeth pulled out in an agonizing way reminding us of that scene with Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man.

This tooth-pulling also reminds us of Trelkovsky’s predicament in The Tenant. In my analysis of that movie, I associated the loss of his tooth with castration, which in Lacanian psychoanalysis is symbolic of any bodily mutilation, or of lack, giving rise to desire.

Lack as the cause of desire leads to what the eels can be seen to symbolize, especially since they swim around in that water, that ‘healing’ water I associate with nirvanic bliss, or the eternal life of heaven. The water is life-extending for the eels, but toxic to humans; so the advantage it gives the eels is a human lack covetously desired by Volmer. Since the water is dialectically both immortalizing (as it were) and killing, the eels swimming in it can be seen to represent this destructive, hellish aspect; for theirs is an immortality denied to us.

The eels, as I see them, are symbolic castrated phalluses. This phallic association is especially apparent when one considers scenes with them in which erotic elements are juxtaposed (Consider also how young Freud did research attempting to find the location of male eels’ sexual organs!). When Lockhart is in the tank and sees the giant eels swimming around him, a man supposed to be supervising him has a sexual encounter with a nurse who bares her breasts while he masturbates; she also feeds him drops of that life-extending fluid. In another scene, Lockhart dreams of naked Hannah in a bathtub with eels slithering around her body.

The castrated phallus symbolizes the lack that gives rise to desire, which in turn causes suffering and perpetuates samsara, the negation of nirvana. In this sense we see the dialectical relationship between illness and health, between heaven and hell. Though Nietzsche spent all those years in the 1880s in the health-affirming Alps, by 1889 he still had a mental breakdown from which he never recovered.

Since the long-living eels swimming in the aquifer water are crucial for Volmer in proving its life-extending properties–prompting him to filter it with human bodies to create the fluid for this “mad immortal man” who “on honeydew hath fed,/And drunk the milk of Paradise” (Coleridge, “Kubla Khan,” last two lines)–we see that his “cure for wellness” involves a regression from an ill state (or just a seemingly ill one) to an even worse one. The human filters regress from ‘illness’ to death.

We see many manifestations of regression in this film. The elderly patients regress to a dependent state similar to childhood (see the Shakespeare quote above). We see in infantilized Hannah a regression from her physical teen years to her being mentally like a little girl (recall the reference to Carrie above).

Elsewhere, we see in all those CEOs in the sanatarium taking “an enforced vacation” a regression from modern-day capitalism to–symbolically speaking–feudalism, since we learn that Volmer is actually the baron of two hundred years ago (whose family, the Von Reichmerls, were the owners of the land on the mountain where the sanatarium is), kept alive all this time with the fluid.

Under feudalism, serfs (e.g., peasant farmers, etc.) worked for their feudal lord on his land in exchange for his protection. Everyone knew his place, and no one questioned this class system. The absolutism of the Church and of kings and queens thrived under this system until such revolutions as those in France overthrew the feudal lords and monarchies and replaced them with a new set of class masters, the bourgeoisie. In this film, however, the revolutionary change of masters has regressed…gone backward.

Capitalism is an economic system desperately needing to be overthrown, but feudalism (even in the symbolic sense that I’m describing it in this film) is no improvement. What’s worse, not only are these aged ex-capitalist human filters working–as it were–for their feudal master, the baron who calls himself Volmer, by letting him kill them in their filtering of the aquifer water, the now-purified of which is his “milk of paradise,” so to speak; but they are letting him do this in all willingness. His sanatarium, his “stately pleasure-dome” (Coleridge, line 2) is also like a feudal Brave New World, and his water is the soma his patients all get high on. People enjoy their oppression too much to revolt.

He has them drink his water, which dehydrates them, makes their teeth fall out, and ultimately kills them. The patients’ bodies filter the toxins in the aquifer water, distilling it so he can drink only its healthier aspects, his liquid of (potential) immortality. This exchange of drunken liquids is symbolic of the narcissist’s manipulative use of projective and introjective identification. The abuser’s bad parts are projected out onto his victims; he keeps only the good parts. He doesn’t merely imagine that his victims embody his vices: he manipulates them to internalize his bad projections and to manifest them in real life, as symbolized by Volmer’s patients drinking his water. They believe the lie that he is selling, his ‘cure.’

Remember Pembroke’s words to Lockhart as the former is in the pool? He says, “It’s our fluids that must be purified.” Pembroke seems spiritually enlightened early on in the film, in the letter he’s written to the company; but these words of his in the pool remind us of those spoken by Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) in Dr. Strangelove: “I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion, and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” The cure for wellness is madness, as we see in Volmer’s near driving of Lockhart mad with the cure.

Just as there is a disproportionately large number of narcissists and psychopaths in the capitalist class, so were there far too many of them among feudal lords, monarchies, and ancient slave-masters. Royals’ and nobles’ tendency towards inbreeding reflects narcissism both in their arrogant wish to maintain a ‘pure bloodline’ (i.e., not ‘contaminating’ it with the blood of the ‘inferior’ classes), and in their belief that indulging in incest was a privilege permissible only to them. After all, Uranus procreated with his mother Gaea, Cronus slept with his older sister, Rhea, to bear the Olympian gods, and Zeus married his older sister, Hera. The kings of heaven could commit incest, so why not allow the kings of earth to do so, too?

For narcissists like Volmer, man is something to be overcome. Volmer will teach us the superman.

The baron’s wish to commit procreative incest with both his sister and his daughter, Hannah (who he notes, with delight, even looks like her mother), reflects his narcissistic wish to procreate with a lover as close to being himself as possible. He’d procreate asexually, if he could.

The removal of his false face to reveal his ugly burns symbolizes the contrast between the narcissistic False Self and the True Self. His claim that he’s done all for Hannah’s sake is, of course, a lie and reaction formation: he’s done everything for himself (just as the abusive parent who imposes Munchausen Syndrome by proxy on her child), for she is just a metaphorical mirror of his narcissistic self. His love for her is just Narcissus pining away at his reflection in the pond, his ideal-I.

The baron ties Hannah’s arms to the upper bedposts, then tears her top open, exposing her breasts. As she struggles to get free, he speaks of how her mother, his sister, “was also somewhat resistant” to have sex with him “at first,” then “she grew to like it,” a typical rapist’s rationalization. That he must have also tied up his sister before raping her is a safe assumption.

Lockhart helps rescue her, then she returns the favour when the baron almost kills him. By cracking her father’s skull open with a shovel, Hannah is being the phallic woman, demonstrating her newfound strength, as contrasted with all of his symbolically castrated patients. Lockhart burns the building down, one of many examples in this film suggesting Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence, as expounded in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. There are many examples of the eternal recurrence implied in the film; I’ll give a few examples.

At the beginning of the film, we hear that “Delaware” is “dead,” but then Lockhart says it’s “resurrected.” One of his parents died, then the other does. The patients were literal children decades ago, now they’re experiencing a “second childishness.” The baron killed off his peasants to make the “cure,” and now he is killing off a new, capitalist kind of ‘peasant.’ He committed incestuous rape with his sister, and now he at least attempts to do so again with Hannah. His castle was burned down centuries ago; it’s burned down again.

Pembroke writes a letter describing his ‘religious experience,’ and not wanting to return to New York; Lockhart writes a similar letter, if less willingly. Lockhart has gotten away from his New York bosses early into the film; he gets away from them again at the end of the film. He and Hannah ride on their bike down the mountain in the middle of the film; they do so again at the end.

Also, the baron renounced God so he could marry his sister, much to the dismay of the Church; Lockhart and Hannah, in killing him and burning down the sanatarium, have renounced Volmer, the God of the “cure” so they can be free of him, much to the dismay of his staff and the rest of his ‘cult.’ As Lockhart rides down the mountain with Hannah, grinning his grin of dentures, he can proclaim, “Volmer is dead.” The narcissism of man is something to be overcome.

Thus begins Lockhart’s down-going.

Analysis of the Oedipus Myth

I: Introduction

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

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

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

II: Sin and Punishment

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

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

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

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

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

III: Oedipus Is Born

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

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

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

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

IV: Swollen Feet, and the Sphinx

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

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

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

V: The Riddle

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

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

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

VI: Unnatural Knowledge

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

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

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

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

VII: Pride Comes Before a Fall

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

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

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

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

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

VIII: Ignorance Is Bliss

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

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

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

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

IX: Carnal Knowledge

Allow me to digress for a few paragraphs…

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

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

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

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

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

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

X: Arousing Pity and Fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

XI: Hamartia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

XII: Peripeteia and Anagnorisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what peripeteia has there really been?

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

XIII: Matrilineal or Patrilineal Succession?

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

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

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

XIV: Oedipus’ Eye-Gouging as his Fragmentation

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

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

XIV: Oedipus at Colonus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

XV: Antigone

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

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

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

XVI: Conclusion

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of the Ancient Greek Creation Myth

I: Introduction

As is typical of Greek myth in general, there are conflicting versions of the stories of the primordial deities and the roles they play in the creation. I’ll be basing most of this analysis on Hesiod‘s Theogony, with some references from sources like Homer, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes as well.

I am less interested in presenting an ‘accurate’ account of the creation (What is an ‘accurate account’ of it? It’s myth, not science; and as I said above, there are contradictory versions of it.) than I am in exploring possible symbolic and allegorical meanings in it. This is my interpretation of such meanings, for what that’s worth. I’m no expert in mythography or anthropology, so take what I’m writing with a generous grain of salt.

The narration may unfold with the passing of time, that is, from generation to generation in the family tree of the gods; but this allegory here is not about presenting events in a temporal sense. It’s more about understanding the relationships and contrasts between different states of being. Also, I’m not bringing up every single god and goddess, Titan and Titaness; there are simply too many names to enumerate here, and I’m more interested in the direction the narrative takes, and the symbolism and themes I see in it, than I’d be in going over every single detail found in Hesiod, etc.

II: The Nirvana-Void

Hesiod begins, after the customary invocation of the Muses, with Chaos, which in modern English would be better rendered as the Chasm, a void of formless nothingness, the ground from which everything comes. Note the dialectical relationship between nothing and everything (or being), which Hegel sublated as becoming in his Science of Logic (Hegel, Chapter One, ‘Being,’ pages 82-83).

A comparison with other religious and mystical traditions is useful. The void of nothing/everything in Hinduism is Brahman, a union with which is salvation, or liberation from worldly suffering, to the Hindu. It’s interesting in this context to compare the ancient Greek concept of Chaos with the Hindu creation myth, from the Rig Veda, 10.129; both consider everything to have paradoxically arisen from a void (“nothingness was not, nor existence”), resulting in darkness, “unillumined cosmic water,” then “desire descended on [the One].”

For Buddhists, this nothing/everything is the Dharmakāya (“the body of reality”), the Buddha-nature existing in everything; and the void of liberation from samsāra is nirvana. For Taoists, the dialectical interrelation of yin and yang is the Tao.

To return to ancient Greek traditions, the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said that “everything flows“; so the basic unifying principle behind everything, those particles of which everything is composed and which can also be regarded as waves–Chaos, Brahman, the Tao, Bion‘s O (the thing-in-itself), or in a sense, even Lacan‘s Real Order, can be symbolized as the waves of an infinite ocean.

Small wonder Homer, in Book XIV of The Iliad, had Hera say that all the gods descended from Oceanus: “I go now to the ends of the generous earth, on a visit/to Okeanos, whence the gods have risen, and Tethys our mother/who brought me up kindly in their own house, and cared for me/and took me from Rheia, at that time when Zeus of the wide brows/drove Kronos underneath the earth and the barren water.” (Homer, page 299, lines 200-204) Recall also that the gods are personifications of everything, including abstract concepts, hence polytheism‘s tendency towards pantheism.

Now, this oneness behind everything isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There is no sentimentality to be found here. Bion’s O, and especially Lacan’s Real, have traumatizing aspects, too. The visionary ego death that Aldous Huxley wrote about in the use of drugs in Heaven and Hell has, as his essay’s title suggests, both blissful and terrifying aspects, depending on one’s physical, or especially mental, health (Huxley, pages 88-91). The ocean in Moby-Dick has both good and bad aspects, too, and Melville warns the pantheists not to ignore the dark side of the infinite seas (‘The Mast-Head,’ 35).

So, pantheism is best qualified with dialectical monism in order to avoid a sentimental oversimplification of the truth. The All should not be so naïvely seen as it is in Wordsworth‘s “Tintern Abbey“; Kubrick‘s vision of Chaos (as I interpret it in my analysis) at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey is much more accurate. This is the tohu wa-bohu of Genesis 1:2, the “waste and void” state of the world when God creates heaven and earth.

III: Darkness, Light, and Desire

In keeping with the darker side of Chaos, it gives birth to Erebus (“darkness”), Tartarus (“hell”), and the goddess Nyx (“night”). This begetting of negativity is comparable to Otto Rank‘s notion of birth trauma, after which the frustrated baby experiences psychological splitting as a defence mechanism against a scary world of suffering it cannot understand.

This splitting will in turn result in the antitheses of those dark deities, namely Aether (“light,” “upper sky”) and Hemera (“day”). According to a passage in Aristophanes‘ comedy, The Birds, Nyx laid an egg in Erebus, giving birth to Eros (“love,” but more accurately rendered “desire”):

“First, Void, and the Night. No glimmer of light pierced Tartarus’ boundless dominions;
Nor Earth nor Air nor Firmament there. Then Night of the ebony pinions
Brought forth in her nest within Erebus’ breast an Egg, by the Whirlwind sired;
From whence was born, as the months rolled on, great Eros, the ever desired,
With wings on his shoulders of scintillant gold, as swift as the storm in his flying,
Who mated with Space in a darkling embrace, in the bosom of Tartarus lying.
‘Twas thus that our breed was engendered, the seed hatched out by this epochal union,
No gods were above us till turbulent Love had effected a cosmic communion.
From mystic espousals, atomic carousals–a vast, cataclysmic commotion–
Arose the Divinities, Heaven’s infinities, Earth, and the billows of Ocean.
So, nothing can be as primeval as we. Our sonship to Eros, moreover,
Is proved by our flight and our constant delight in befriending a passionate lover.”
(Aristophanes, The Birds, starting from about line 690, pages 255-256)

Soon comes Gaea, the earth-mother goddess who gives birth to Ouranos (“heaven”). Mother and son become wife and husband. This incestuous union, seen in light of my analogy of the above-mentioned gods of darkness and light with a baby’s use of psychological splitting, can thus also be seen as analogous with the fulfillment of the infantile Oedipal fantasy.

The point of all my allegorizing is to show how this creation myth can be seen to represent changing psychological states. We go from the peace of mind of the Chasm, that restful embryonic state in the dark womb, what Romain Rolland called–in his correspondence with Freud–the “oceanic feeling” of bliss, to the trauma of entering the physical world–birth.

The dark deities can also be seen to represent the unconscious, with Chaos representing the collective unconscious. The mythographers’ and poets’ narrations can thus be seen as dramatizations of unconscious urges and strivings, feelings that can be traced back to primal, archaic, infantile emotional states.

The splitting into dark vs. light, night vs. day, etc., all these separations indicate a lack, in one half in a realm, of the other, opposite half (as opposed to the original unity in Chaos), a lack (manque à être) that gives rise to desire, as Lacan observed, a desire personified by Eros.

Note how the descendants of Nyx tend to be of dark, gloomy, negative things–not all of them, of course, but most of them, in varying degrees: Moros (“doom”), Thanatos (“death”), Momus (“blame,” “reproach,” “disgrace,” “satire,” and “mockery”), Oizys (“pain,” “misery,” “anxiety,” “grief,” and “depression”), Nemesis (“retribution”), Apate (“deceit,” “fraud”), Geras (“old age”), and Eris (“strife,” “discord”). The rest of Nyx’s offspring are mostly neutral, at best; only Philotes “(“love,” “affection,” “friendship”) is positive.

Eris’ offspring in turn are also generally negative: Ponos (“hardship,” “toil”), Lethe (“forgetfulness,” “oblivion,” “concealment,” “unmindfulness”), Limos (“starvation”), the Algea (“physical and mental pains”), the Hysminai (“battles,” “conflicts,” “combats”), the Machai (“wars”), the Phonoi (“murders”), the Androktasiai (“manslaughters”), the Neikea (“quarrels,” “arguments”), the Pseudea (“lies”), the Amphillogiai (“disputes”), Dysnomia (“lawlessness”), and Atë (“ruin,” “mischief,” “delusion,” “folly”).

IV: Lack and Desire

As we can see, things go from a blissful (or at least relatively blissful) state to a hellish one rather quickly. It’s like the dialectical relationship between opposites that I’ve symbolized in previous posts with the ouroboros: where the serpent’s biting head is one extreme opposite, its bitten tail is the other extreme, and the coiled middle of its body is every intermediate point on a circular continuum. We thus could see the biting head as blissful Chaos, the bitten tail as the hellish existence of most of Nyx’s and Eris’ children, and the coiled middle, going in the direction towards the head, as the other gods’ and Titans’ striving, through desire, to replace the lack and attain happiness once again.

Now, the nature of the desire felt between Gaea and Ouranos in their sexual union is a transgressive desire (i.e., mother/son incest). Such transgressive indulgence in pleasure is what Lacan called jouissance. It’s transgressive in its excess, a kind of ‘surplus-value‘ of pleasure (to borrow a Marxian term), enjoyment for its own sake.

To use my ouroboros symbolism again, this excessive pleasure is the serpent’s head biting its tail, leading to enjoyment’s extreme opposite, the pain of the bitten tail. The offspring of Gaea’s and Ouranos’ thrilling sexual union are the Titans (Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Tethys, and Cronus), Cyclopes (who will give Zeus his thunderbolt), and Hecatoncheires (“the hundred-handed ones”)…these latter two trios being an ugly bunch, so Ouranos hates all his children and imprisons them in a secret place in Gaea’s body, angering her.

The earth-mother goddess gives her Titan son, Cronus, a flint-sickle knife with which to attack Ouranos, since Cronus is the only Titan willing to get revenge on his wicked father. Cronus uses the knife to castrate his father: he throws the severed genitals into the sea; a foam grows around them in the water, and Aphrodite emerges nude from the foam.

Is there a more vivid representation of Lacanian lack, through the image of castration, giving rise to desire (as symbolized by the birth of Aphrodite), anywhere in myth, art, or literature? In an interesting reversal, instead of the father threatening the Oedipally-minded son with castration, the son does so to the father.

V: From Blessedness to Suffering

My allegorizing of the mythic narrative here, though, isn’t concerned with time sequence. In fact, I see the process of creation here as happening in reverse order to its allegorical meaning–that is, if that meaning is to be understood as a progression from sinful desire to spiritual liberation. We go from the perfect blessedness (as I interpret it) of Brahman-like Chaos to the world of suffering because, as Blake put it, “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.

In the Greek narrative, we’re moving away from nirvanic bliss and deeper into the suffering of physical life–in ‘reverse order,’ as it were–so it would seem appropriate to have sons castrating fathers instead of vice versa (an Oedipal wish-fulfillment, with castration anxiety projected onto fathers; and Ouranos, lacking a father as a rival, shares a bed with his mother, Gaea, so we have even more Oedipal wish-fulfillment). Thus, we have the Laius complex instead of the Oedipal one. (I explored these ideas in my analysis of Eraserhead.)

With the beauty and desirability of nude Aphrodite emerging from the foam around Ouranos’ severed genitals, we must juxtapose a dialectical opposite: the vengeful Erinyes, or Furies, which have come from the blood of those genitals, as have the Giants and the Meliae. Desire comes from lack, pleasure comes with pain, and desire causes suffering.

VI: Family Feuding

With Cronus’ ascent to the throne as the new king of heaven comes the same hostility to his children as Ouranos has had. The intergenerational conflict returns in cycles, so we’ll see a wickedness in Cronus similar to that of his father…much worse, actually; for instead of merely imprisoning those who are a threat to his power, or who are a source of loathing and disgust to him, Cronus decides to eat all of his newborn children! Recall the shocking paintings that have depicted this atrocity.

His wife and older sister, Rhea (note the incest parallel with Gaea and Ouranos, and later with Zeus and his older sister, Hera…more transgressive jouissance), is as upset with his devouring of their children as Gaea has been with Ouranos’ imprisoning of their children; so Rhea, too, plots with her youngest son, Zeus, to get revenge on Cronus and free the eaten children (by feeding Cronus an emetic and making him throw them all up). Another parallel with the revenge on the first-generation father, noted by Freud (page 469) and John Tzetzes (as Robert Graves noted), is Zeus’ castration of Cronus, often censored from Greek creation mythologies.

So, what we’ve had since the creation of Eros is a whole lot of procreation (since the ancients believed that all things are created through intermingling in the form of sex), leading to a whole lot of family strife, power struggles, and ultimately, war. For in order to depose Cronus and establish Zeus as the new king of heaven, there must be a ten-year war (the Titanomachy) between the Olympian gods (Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, those just regurgitated by Cronus, and Zeus) on the one side, and Cronus and the Titans (including Atlas) on the other side. (Themis and Prometheus are the only Titans who fight on Zeus’ side.)

Zeus gets help from the Cyclopes through their giving him lightning as a weapon, and from the three Hecatoncheires, whose three hundred arms hurl huge rocks at the Titans, ultimately burying them. They’ll all be imprisoned in Tartarus forever (though some accounts say Zeus eventually frees them).

Next comes the Gigantomachy, Zeus’ and the Olympians’ battle with the Giants. Typhon, a huge whirlwind, a serpentine giant, and–according to Hesiod–the son of Gaea and Tartarus (from whom we get the Romanization of the Chinese taifeng>>>typhoon), is the next to challenge, and to be defeated by, Zeus.

VII: Stability and Authority

So Zeus is now the king of heaven, and his brothers–Poseidon and Hades–are respectively the kings of the sea and the underworld, the lower levels of the flat, tiered cosmos as imagined by the ancients. But Zeus has the same fear of being deposed, a fear projected from his own unfilial attitude to Cronus, who in turn has been equally unfilial to Ouranos. Zeus’ solution to the problem is to carry it further than just eating his children. His wife at the time, the wise Titaness Metis, is pregnant with their child, so he eats both child and mother!

This eating of threats to one’s power, this imprisoning of them, is symbolic of repression of unwanted or unacceptable feelings into the unconscious; but as psychoanalysts know, the repressed always returns, though in an unrecognizable form. In Zeus’ case, that return of the symbolic repressed will come in the form of Athena, coming out of his aching skull fully-grown with her armour and weapons. He needn’t fear, though, for she is all for the father, representative of the shift from matrilineal to patrilineal forms of societal organization. Read the Oresteia to see my point about that shift. The following passage from The Eumenides, spoken by Apollo, should clarify it:

“The mother of what is called her child is not its parent, but only the nurse of the newly implanted germ. The begetter is the parent, whereas she, as a stranger for a stranger, doth but preserve the sprout, except God shall blight its birth. And I will offer thee a sure proof of what I say: fatherhood there may be, when mother there is none. Here at hand is a witness, the child of Olympian Zeus–and not so much as nursed in the darkness of the womb, but such a scion as no goddess could bring forth.
“But for my part, O Pallas, as in all things else, as so with this man; for I have sent him as suppliant to thy sanctuary that he might prove faithful for all time to come, and that thou, O Goddess, mightest win him as a new ally, him and his after-race, and it abide everlastingly that the posterity of this people maintain their plighted bond.” –Apollo, Eumenides, pages 335, 337)

All of the myths leading up to Zeus’ accession to the throne have reflected matrilineality: goddesses sometimes bear children through sexual union with a male, other times through parthenogenesis, reflective of the prehistoric ignorance of the male role in reproduction. Since succession is matrilineal at this point, Gaea is free to take on more lovers than just Ouranos; so she has mated with another son of hers, Pontus, a god of the sea (more transgressive, Oedipal pleasure [according to Hesiod, Pontus has no father]!), and has these children: Nereus, Thaumas, Phorcys, Ceto, and Eurybia. Furthermore, god-kings are humiliated, castrated, and deposed, while queen goddesses–though furious with the wickedness of their male consorts–remain bodily intact.

But now that Zeus is king of the heavens, having married his older sister, Hera, he can freely do as he pleases without fear of direct retribution against himself, while he hypocritically judges the wickedness of others, especially that of mortals. This reflects the new patrilineal way, and the authoritarianism of the patriarchal family. Zeus is incestuously married, he has castrated and deposed his father, and much to Hera’s annoyance, he seduces and ravishes pretty mortal maidens.

Yet, “he’s the greatest god of all,” as Claudius observed (here at 33:32).

VIII: Conclusion–The Creation as an Allegory for Our Times

We can see, through this narrative, just how far we’ve erred from the blissful, oceanic state of the beginning. From the formless, peaceful oneness of the Void, we’ve gone to the dualism of splitting into the dark and light, then to transgressive indulgence in pleasure leading to jealousy and hate, and from there to violence, war, and the imprisonment of the humiliated and defeated.

Finally, stability is established, but through authoritarian rule, and with all the double standards that allow the ruling classes–be they the masters of slaves in the ancient world, as I described in my Caligula analysis, or the feudal landlords of 500 to 1,000 years ago, or the bourgeoisie today–to indulge in all manner of sinfulness, for which we, the small people, will be punished as soon as we are caught.

How do we regain that primal bliss? I don’t have any definitive answers, of course, but for what it’s worth, I imagine that going backwards in the narrative I just analyzed is going in the right direction. I don’t mean physically or literally going in that direction, of course; I’m talking about revisiting the psychological traumas that the various points in the narrative symbolize. Efforts have been made to reverse the patrilineal double standards against women–efforts far more successful in the socialist states than in the capitalist West, though socialist progress has since been thwarted by imperialism. I would advise reviving that progress.

Added to the sociological healing must also come the needed psychological healing. Optimal frustration (as Heinz Kohut called it) of the narcissistic tendencies (those linked with Oedipal traumas) must be coupled with integration of the split parts of the personality, a shift from what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid to the depressive position. Bliss is actually a marriage of heaven and hell, of dark with the light.

When heaven and hell are ‘divorced,’ so to speak, as in the case of psychological splitting, one tends to project the hellish part outward in order to avoid a pain we must face. We must feel our trauma if we’re to heal it.

Many would rather escape to a world of pleasure than face that pain. The resulting manic defence means indulgence in sex, drugs, etc., that is, the transgressive, excess pleasure of jouissance, which is a pleasure that spills over into pain, for no two opposites, including pleasure and pain, are permanently, decisively separated.

The Olympian gods of our ruling class may, however, separate pleasure (reserved for themselves alone) from pain (to which only the poor are subjected). The acquisition of wealth is a zero-sum game, coupled with extremes of poverty. In this connection, it’s useful that Lacan was inspired by Marx’s notion of surplus value in expounding on the surplus-pleasure of jouissance, or excess pleasure for its own sake. This pleasure, spilling over into pain, is exploitative.

Zeus rapes maidens, just as the Epsteins and Weinsteins of our world, as well as some Catholic priests, sexually assault the innocent. The oligarchs of today are our gods, living up high on the Mount Olympus of their wealth and power, while we struggle at the bottom of that mountain.

Those up on Olympus must be brought down. Those traumas of ours, repressed and imprisoned in the Tartarus of our unconscious, must be freed by being acknowledged, or else they’ll sneak out, often in surprising and unwelcome forms. The lack that gives rise to desire, that symbolic castration of Ouranos and Cronus, must also be acknowledged, or else desire will fly out of control, leading to more conflicts and wars, both political and psychological.

The blissful Chasm is a world of unified dark and light, lacking and having, a communion of free-flowing people, interconnected, integrated, communicative…peaceful. Let’s go back to the beginning.