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, when 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.

“The Pack (a Promise of Forever),” a Poem by a Friend

A friend of mine, a poet named Jason Morton whose writing can be found here, wrote this poem, which I’d like to look at now. The italics are mine, to separate his writing from mine:

The pack ( a promise of forever )

The rising dawn catches sunlight in your eyes,
Like a placid river with rough currents disguised,
Shadows of forever a eternity is what I offer,
Follow me, the path is clear,
Clean in streams of consciousness,
Will you rise with me?
Will you fight for me?
Will you live for me?
Will you die for me?
Loyalty means everything,
I live and die for my pack,
Mother and father, brothers and sisters,
None will ever defeat us!
When the world ends,
Eternity will still be here,
I will be your Guardian,
And protect you from heavens ego and hells fiery cold

abandonment,
And if all time should die,
And we no longer even exist as souls,
Our memory will leave an indentation upon
The vast emptiness where once loyalty was key.

We see here the promise of religion, in particular the Christian one. A promise of eternal life is made in exchange for loyalty to the Church. It could also be seen as the promise of a narcissistic family, promising their eternal ‘love’ in exchange for loyalty to the narcissistic group, or even such a promise of any group of people engaging in groupthink, such as the feeling of security and belonging in what Althusser called the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs).

With “the rising dawn” comes the light of goodness seen in someone’s eyes, a goodness seen to be useful to the cult (for all of the above-mentioned groups–Church, toxic family, radical political organization, or any other ISA–can be seen as different kinds of cults). That good light is outwardly peaceful, “a placid river,” yet obscuring potentially aggressive tendencies, “rough currents.”

The offerer of “shadows of forever” would present himself as identical in principle to the one offered “a eternity” (<<this a is intentional–more on this later), the cult being “streams” presenting themselves as a kind of mirror to the “placid river.” This false equating is a manipulative trick meant to lure one into the cult. This call to join the cult is akin to what Althusser called ‘hailing’ someone, making him subject, however unconsciously, to an ideology, to make him conform to the system.

The offerer would die for the pack, and so should the one offered entry into the group. “Mother and father” sound like the Mother of God and God the Father; “brothers and sisters” thus can be monks and nuns. All of these people could also just be members of a toxic family, or members of some other collective engaging in groupthink, the leaders and the followers being of both sexes.

There’s a promise of eternal life and glory: “None will ever defeat us!”; yet in the backs of our minds we know nothing is permanent–even the offerer knows this (“if all time should die/And we no longer even exist as souls”).

The offerer seems to be Jesus, calling Himself “your Guardian,” and saying He’ll “protect you from heavens ego,” that is, the self-righteous vanity of God the Father, as Jesus would die for our sins, instead of God just forgiving us without need of the quasi-pagan sacrifice. Note how “heavens” has no apostrophe to indicate a possessive; this suggests a dual meaning, the possessive joined with the plural, for there are many heavens (just as there are many hells, hence the deliberate lack of an apostrophe there, too), depending on which definition of it your religion or ideology uses.

“Clean in streams of consciousness” sounds like the free flow of thought, as though joining the in-group will allow someone freedom of thought. The deliberate “a eternity,” however, apart from suggesting how inarticulate and uneducated the offerer is, also evokes–in its choppy, disjointed sound–the lack of a flow, a breaking-off from the endless movement of eternity, giving away the offerer’s lie. Eternity won’t always be here, and the offerer knows it.

But when we die, it won’t matter (sarcasm); for there will be “an indentation upon/The vast emptiness where once loyalty was key.” Loyalty to an ideology, be it religion, family, or government, is vanity. Our existence is an indentation on emptiness, for we never really mattered as individuals; we only mattered in our helping to perpetuate the ideology.

Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing, to paraphrase Matthew. An ironic warning coming from a flock of sheep, isn’t it?

Don’t join the pack.

My Classical Music Compositions

Back in the mid-2000s, I got my hands on some music-composing software called Finale. With it, I was able to take musical ideas I’d had floating around in my mind and physically manifest them, all at the click of a mouse. I could also print out the sheet music.

Now, I’m in the running for the worst keyboardist in the world, but I know enough about music notation and theory that I could use this software to click notes on sheet music shown on my computer screen and thus compose music.

As of my getting the software, I’d already composed three pieces the hard way, by writing them out on paper and having a professional musician record them for me. These compositions were a harpsichord sonata, a solo piano piece, and a divertimento for strings.

Now, with this software, I could redo these pieces and make them sound more accurately how I wanted them to sound than how the musician had recorded them. And, of course, I could write new pieces…more complex ones, with more varied instrumentation, thanks to all the synthetic musical sounds that Finale offered.

Before I discuss the later compositions, I’d like to describe these first three. My Harpsichord Sonata #1 in C Major, being my very first stab at classical (I’d previously written, or attempted to write, rock and pop songs at the guitar or keyboard), is my simplest and most naïve-sounding piece. It’s a kind of autodidactic piece–I was learning how to put together a kind of bare-bones composition using all the traditional forms. Accordingly, it has a neoclassical style, imitative of Baroque and Rococo music.

When I’d written it out, the left hand was largely single notes (reflective of my actually mediocre abilities at the keyboard). When I redid it with the software, I changed those single notes, generally, into chords. The four movements are: I) Allegro; II) Adagio; III) Menuetto e trio: moderato; and IV) Presto.

The first movement is in sonata form, mostly in 6/4 time, with one bar of 4/4 thrown in the first subject group of the exposition, just to be a little tricky, and with a few time changes at the very end of the coda. The second movement is a slow one in binary form, largely influenced by Scarlatti‘s harpsichord sonatas.

The third movement is a minuet and trio, the middle ‘trio’ section being three contrapuntal melodies meant to sound a little like Bach (it is NOT a fugue, but I did include the BACH notes [B-flat, A, C, and B-natural] in measure 223); the ‘trio’ also has a number of time changes. The fourth movement is a fast rondo.

Allegro bizzarro, the title inspired by Bartók‘s Allegro barbaro, is in sharp contrast to the conservatism of the harpsichord sonata. This solo piano piece is a twelve-tone work, using Arnold Schoenberg‘s system, so it’s atonal. The melody and harmony are based on this tone row: A-flat, F, B, E-flat, G, D, A-natural, B-flat, C, D-flat, E-natural, and G-flat. It isn’t “bizarre” because of the atonality and dissonance: it is so because of the wide interval leaps and the sudden jumping from one idea to another. The loud tone clusters heard first in measure 24 were influenced by Cecil Taylor‘s Indent.

The Divertimento for Strings is a kind of sublation, if you will, between the traditionalism of the harpsichord sonata and the modernism of Allegro bizzarro. In this piece, there is a mix of melodious tonality and dissonance, the former appearing especially at the beginning. It’s in three movements: i) allegretto con moto; ii) andante misterioso; and iii) presto furioso.

The happy opening theme is a bit of a parody of the music of a mainstream Hollywood rom-com, or something like that; it’s also inspired by the main theme of the old Magma song, “Üdü Wüdü.” Then these happy themes meander into something eerie. The first movement is meant to give off the feeling of things going normally, then they get stranger and stranger, the slimy underbelly of normal everyday life being exposed, rather like in a Hitchcock movie. Other musical influences include Bartók (at about 2:55), a bit of Beethoven (at about 1:41), Nelson Riddle‘s soundtrack for Lolita, a bit of Hans Werner Henze (this tense chord, at the very end), and more Magma at the end.

The second movement, in binary form and suggestive of a drug trip, makes use of parallel quintal and quartal harmony. The opening was influenced by something that Frank Zappa wrote for the 200 Motels soundtrack, and the haunting melody in the contrabasses is influenced by the opening of The Firebird and the first movement of Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. The second half turns the themes more or less upside-down.

The third movement is an aggressive rondo influenced by ELP‘s version of the fourth movement of Alberto Ginastera‘s Piano Concerto No. 1. I use much octatonic scale in this movement; there are also reprises of themes from the first two movements, though given here in a darker form.

As for the pieces I wrote while using the Finale software, I started with two: a Piano Quintet, and a piece originally intended as a gift for my widowed sister, J., dedicated to her husband who had just passed away from terminal cancer. This piece is called Kevin Brown’s New Home, implying that he’s in heaven now (not that I believe in that kind of thing anymore). The piece was deliberately kept simple and accessible because I know that J. has no love for complex, experimental music. It was meant to sound sweet, a little sentimental, and emotionally cathartic, to help her process her grief.

The Piano Quintet, written in a kind of neoromantic idiom, is in four movements: i) andante tempestoso; ii) tema con variazioni; iii) scherzo e trio; and iv) presto agitato. In the first movement, you can hear the influences of Händel, the chromaticism of Wagner (<<in this YouTube video, starting at about 4:30), and a bit of Tchaikovsky (in this recording, at about 0:28; in my piece, this influence is heard in the cyclical theme that is heard in all four movements).

Recall that all of this music is just me clicking a mouse to put notes on a staff on a computer screen; the piano and string quartet notes (as in all my other compositions here) are MIDI–it’s not my playing at all. There’s no way in hell that I could ever play piano with the speed you hear in this piece!

The slow second movement is a theme and variations. The third movement is a scherzo and trio, this latter part in the middle being fugato (violin, viola, and cello). The last movement is a fast rondo.

Next, I wrote a Wind Quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet in B-flat, French horn in F, and bassoon). It is in four movements: i) allegro vivace ma non troppo; ii) adagio dolce e cantabile; iii) scherzo e trio; and iv) rondo: allegro vertiginoso. The first movement is a jaunty piece influenced by the Gentle Giant song, “Proclamation.”

The slow second movement is one of the musical moments I’m proudest of. Sure, it has lots of those verboten parallel fifths, but what the hell…

Influences include a little bit of Frank Zappa’s “Little House I Used to Live In” (here from about 13:39-14:50). There are also subtle, almost imperceptible Balinese and Japanese musical influences. On top of that, there’s a chord progression from a Diane Tell song, and a bit of Stravinsky, too (the very, very ending of this symphony).

The third movement, after its pointillist, hocketing, Klangfarbenmelodie opening, has a bit of a King Crimson influence (<<at 4:12). The trio middle section (flute, oboe, and bassoon) is also fugato. The last movement is heavily, even shamelessly, influenced by King Crimson’s “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part III.”

My next piece was a Piano Sonata whose melody and harmony are all based on equal divisions of the octave: the tritone, the notes of the augmented triad and diminished seventh chord, the whole-tone scale, and of course the twelve semitones. The three movements are i) Allegro africano; ii) Andante arpeggiato; and iii) Allegro sinistro.

I created scales out of the equal octave divisions by adding paralleled notes to them. So, I used the two octatonic scales for the diminished seventh chord, and as for the augmented triad, I’d make artificial scales with notes like, for example, C, D-sharp, E, G, G-sharp, B, C; or C, C-sharp, E, F, G-sharp, A, C. With the tritone, I’d make artificial scales like B, C, C-sharp, F, F-sharp, G. As for the twelve semitones, I felt free to use the traditional diatonic scales, but I’d do parallel harmony with them, as well as quartal and quintal harmony, to prevent the music from sounding too much like traditional tonality.

The first movement, as the title implies, is influenced by African rhythms. My use of other cultures’ musical ideas is fully respectful as well as recast in a way that makes it totally unlike stealing, so I’ll ask those listeners of an SJW nature to refrain from shouting “cultural appropriation,” OK? There’s a bit of an influence from Messiaen‘s Catalogue d’Oiseaux (at about 7:33), too, as well as one from a track from the Miles Davis album, Bitches Brew.

The second movement, as the title indicates, is all arpeggios (except for the very ending). I got the idea for the main theme from having played a quintal chord of C, G, D, A, E, and B on an old Korg synthesizer I owned in Canada back in the early 1990s. It was set to arpeggio when I played the notes, rendering more or less the theme that you hear, based on how I remembered it. As for the chord progressions, I derived one from Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (“Louange à l’éternité de Jésus“). The third movement, a rondo, was inspired by Jerry Goldsmith‘s soundtrack to Escape From the Planet of the Apes.

My next compositions were a second harpsichord sonata, a percussion piece (with contrabass), and a symphony. The Harpsichord Sonata # 2 in D Major is in three movements: I) Les Noirs; II) Les Femmes; and III) Tambourin.

Les Noirs is a celebration of originally black American musical styles: funk, blues, and jazz. You can hear the influence of Narada Michael Walden‘s “Play With Me,” from Jeff Beck‘s Wired album, right at the beginning. Other influences include the Mahavishnu Orchestra‘s “Miles Beyond (Miles Davis).” It’s in sonata form (sort of), the second subject group of the exposition being a 12-bar blues reprise of the opening chords, but with a ‘walking bass line,’ if you will, in the left hand playing.

Les Femmes is a kind of homage to that old Genesis sound, with the 12-string acoustic guitars all playing arpeggios together; thus, you will hear the influence of songs like “Entangled,” “Ripples,” “Stagnation” (<<starting at about 2:10), “Can-Utility and the Coastliners,” and “The Musical Box.” Tambourin is a fast rondo combining themes from the first two movements.

Music for Percussion and Bass is in five movements: i) Allegro alla marcia; ii) Allegro insidioso; iii) Andante–ninna nanna; iv) Allegro balinese; and v) Rondo: allegro frenetico.

The short first movement was influenced by Frank Zappa’s “Uncle Meat Main Theme.” The jazzy second movement has a lot of octatonic scale. The third, a kind of lullaby, is influenced by Javanese gamelan music, as the fourth is by Balinese gamelan music. The last movement, another fast rondo, is influenced by the complicated riffs of jazz fusion, the middle section suggestive of the labyrinthine middle percussion section of Gentle Giant’s “Design.”

Next came my Symphony In One Movement. Actually, it’s more like eight movements all run together into one. These eight sections are a short introduction, a sonata-form section, a slow section in binary form, a scherzo, a theme and variations (also in binary form), a kind of “mirrored” section in which the themes are played in forward and reverse order, a rondo, and a short recap of the themes from the previous seven sections. The piece begins and ends with birdsong.

In the seventh section, if you listen carefully, you’ll note that the middle section was inspired by, or more accurately, is a variation on a quote from, the middle section of Gentle Giant’s “Interview.” The scherzo middle trio section is another fugato (B-flat trumpet, French horn, and trombone).

My final two pieces were a “choral” work called Hymn (actually, the singing sounds are MIDI synthesized musical sounds from Finale, as usual), and a string quartet.

The themes of Hymn are meant to symbolize aspects of, for example, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist mysticism, all as compared and contrasted with a recurring theme symbolizing my dialectical ouroboros philosophy. Melodically and harmonically, much of it is influenced by Messiaen (i.e., the use of the octatonic scale and the harmonic resolutions with the major sixth chord).

The String Quartet once again makes use of equal octave divisions (and the above-mentioned scales) as a basis for melody and harmony. It is in four movements: i) Largo lugubro; ii) Fugue; iii) Allegro con moto; and iv) Presto veemente.

The, indeed, lugubrious first movement is influenced by the first movement of Bartók’s first string quartet, especially the beginning. Structurally, it symbolizes the circular continuum, ouroboros philosophy I’ve discussed so many times before: the themes start slow, then are played faster and more densely (i.e., simultaneously) until the end cyclically returns to the beginning.

The fugue second movement is influenced by Glenn Gould‘s string quartet. The third movement is in sonata form, and the fast last movement, another rondo, is influenced by the fifth movement of Bartók’s fourth string quartet.

All of this music was originally published on Jamendo, under my original name, Martin Gross. I have no access to the website for some unexplained reason, so I’ve had to repost my music here. If any of you are interested, I also have three pop music albums published on Jamendo, but under the name Mawr Gorshin.

Analysis of “Él”

Él is a 1953 Mexican film directed by Luis Buñuel and based on the novel, Pensamientos, by Mercedes Pinto. Él is ‘him’ in Spanish; in the US, though, the title of the film is This Strange Passion.

The film stars Arturo de Córdova as the insanely jealous Francisco Galván de Montemayor, a wealthy, middle-aged bourgeois who falls in love with young Gloria Vilalta (Delia Garcés), steals her away from her fiancé, Raul Conde (Luis Beristáin), and marries her, only to be paranoid that other men are trying to seduce her and steal her from him.

The film begins in church during a foot-washing ceremony, at which both Francisco and Gloria are present. Francisco watches as Padre Velasco (Carlos Martinez Baena) washes and kisses the feet of a fair-haired boy. Francisco’s eyes wander over to the high-heel-clad feet of Gloria, and his eyes move up to see her pretty face, one expressing discomfort at his gaze.

His gaze at her feet and/or at her high heels, as seen here and in later scenes, suggests that he has a foot fetish. (He is seen putting her shoes away in a hotel during their honeymoon; at dinner at home in a later scene, he looks at her feet under the table. Soon after both instances of contemplating her feet/shoes, he flies into wild jealous rages.)

A Catholic foot-washing ceremony is meant to be a humble imitation of Christ’s washing the feet of his disciples (John 13:14-17). Francisco’s fetishizing of Gloria’s feet, however, doesn’t inspire him to be her humble servant; instead, his fetishizing leads to his possessiveness. He treats her feet, and therefore all of her, as a commodity to be jealously guarded, just as a traditional patriarchal husband invidiously watches over his wife.

The source of his foot fetish can be found when connected with another preoccupation of his: his wish to reclaim land and property once owned by his grandfather–land, where feet and shoes come into contact. This land was his family’s land, and he wants it back. His jealous possessiveness of Gloria can thus be linked to his jealous possessiveness of his family’s land and property; and in this way, she can be linked symbolically to his family.

Right after being upset with his lawyer for not being helpful enough in his suit to reclaim his land, prudish Francisco gets upset with his servant, Pablo (Manuel Dondé), for being involved in an indiscreet sexual encounter with a pretty young maid in Francisco’s employ, Martha, whom he demands that Pablo dismiss immediately. The quick juxtaposition of these two sources of Francisco’s frustration suggest a close connection between them in his unconscious: the possession of his family’s land and property; and the sexual possession of one of his female employees. Combine these with his wish to have Gloria all to himself, and you might be able to guess where I’m going with this.

When he calms down, he lies on his bed and looks up at a picture of the Virgin Mary. He tells Pablo to straighten it. She, as the Mother of God, is his maternal ideal, and he’d never want her looking bad in any way. The juxtaposition of this with what immediately preceded also links it symbolically with those earlier concerns.

We never learn anything substantial about Francisco’s family apart from his grandfather’s land and property. All we know is that Francisco is obsessed with getting his hands on it, as he wants to get his hands on Gloria. People (even family) and things are just possessions to him; nobody but he can have them. He wants them so badly that he’s willing to take them from others…but how dare they try to take them from him!

He sees Gloria at the church again, and appropriately, we hear the fugue section of J.S. Bach‘s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor playing on the organ. The word fugue literally comes from Latin words meaning “to flee” (fugere) and “to chase” (fugare). So we have a fitting soundtrack–with counterpoint following after, or chasing, the original, fleeing melody–for Francisco’s chasing after fleeing Gloria.

When he learns that Raul, an engineer, is engaged to Gloria, Francisco immediately begins scheming to take her from his friend. He invites the couple to a dinner party at his home, with such guests as the padre, a kind of good father substitute for Francisco. Raul and Gloria will come with her mother, who will insist on coming; Francisco says he’ll court the mother, Doña Esperanza Vilalta (played by Aurora Walker; the English subtitles of my DVD actually say, “make love with the mother”). After marrying Gloria, he’ll have her mother as both his mother-in-law and as his symbolic good mother, too, as we’ll see later.

At the dinner table, Francisco speaks of his idea of falling in love. To him, this passion is “nurtured from infancy” [!]; as the years go by, one grows up and sees many women pass by, but that one woman destined to be his will be found, and his love will shoot straight at her like an arrow. She must be his, willing or no.

Thus begins Gloria’s victimization.

Up until Francisco’s taking of her away from Raul, the latter man has had no moustache, as Francisco has (and a moustache is often seen as a symbol of manliness). Raul seems to have given her up without much of a fight…which is rather odd. Now, no longer having her, Raul has a moustache, and he continues to have one throughout the film, as do all the men Francisco is afraid will take her away from him. Now-moustachioed Raul is seen at a construction site, the machines and vehicles working on the land.

Buñuel’s films typically have surrealist elements, which means there’s a sense of the unconscious mind influencing the visuals and the story. One unconscious association humanity’s had in its mind for centuries is the notion that the land is our Mother Earth. The unconscious represses any desires deemed forbidden, but those desires are never eliminated–they reappear in new forms, though.

Raul and his construction workers, digging into the earth with their shovels, trucks, bulldozers, and cranes, are symbolically penetrating Gaea…they “make love with the mother.” He, with his moustache now, looks more like a man, a father.

Francisco, so much older than Gloria, has chosen a woman so much younger out of a reaction formation against choosing a woman of, say, her mother’s age, an age I suspect he’d unconsciously much prefer. His paranoia of other men taking Gloria away from him is really him projecting his own guilt over having taken her away from Raul.

When he takes her by train to Guanajuato for their honeymoon, Francisco is already demonstrating his possessiveness, that of her and of the land he wants back. They look over the city where his family’s property is; he says he likes looking at it from on high. It’s as if doing so makes him feel superior to it and the people living there. He wouldn’t humbly serve the land, as Jesus would humbly wash the feet of those walking on it: he’d subjugate and dominate it, even if he no longer has any legal right to it. He’d similarly possess Gloria.

As all of his fits of jealous rage go on, Gloria is desperate for help. Since Francisco has a spotless reputation (a narcissistic False Self all too often believed by enablers to be the true one), no one believes her when she complains of his abuse. Not even her own mother believes her.

Indeed, while he unjustly accuses Gloria of being a “tramp,” he has a pleasant relationship with her mother. The two women are split objects in his mind: the former is a bad object, the latter, a good object. Similarly are the men in Francisco’s life split into absolute good and bad objects–the padre is good, and all the young men (Raul, Ricardo [played by Rafael Banquelis], the lawyer Gloria dances with), with their moustaches and slicked back, black hair, are bad objects.

When Gloria tries to get help from the padre, not only is he as unsympathetic to her plight as her mother is, he also reveals an eye-opening secret about Francisco: prior to his marriage to Gloria, he has never had sexual relations with a woman.

She is shocked to hear this: surely a man of his age–handsome, wealthy, and charming (if only superficially so, which should be enough for him to get laid)–has lain with a woman at least a few times! Her mother, at that dinner table before he seduces Gloria, has said it should be easy for him to find a woman; her mother can’t imagine a single girl resisting him. (Now, imagining her mother thinking so highly of him is a wish-fulfillment. So much of this story is really just a dramatization of Francisco’s unconscious.) What could have been stopping him from having sex for all of these years?

As noted above, he has said, at the dinner table before seducing Gloria, that his love is something that has been “nurtured from infancy.” His love is what Lacan called the objet petit a, the unfulfillable object-cause of his desire. Now, what is that object-cause?

This desire, having been “nurtured from infancy,” is something Lacan traced back to the mother’s breast, a Kleinian part-object. In other words, Francisco’s “strange passion” is derived from an unresolved, but repressed, Oedipus complex.

Dear Reader, if you’ve read enough of my analyses, you’re probably getting sick and tired of me harping on about all that Freudian hooey; but consider when Buñuel made this film–in the early 50s, when notions of a man unconsciously having a thing for his mother was still in vogue, so this kind of interpretation, as dated as it is now, is nonetheless appropriate for a film of the time. Besides, I do believe I’ve provided a reasonable amount of evidence so far…and more evidence, especially persuasive evidence–I believe–will be revealed towards the end of the movie.

So to recap, Gloria and her mother respectively represent transferences of the bad mother and good mother, these being internal objects in Francisco’s mind; and the padre is a transference of the good father internal object, while every moustachioed young man that Francisco is jealous of represents his bad father internal object.

I suspect that the reason of Francisco’s seeing Gloria, as love at first sight, is that she physically resembles his mother when she was a young woman. Gloria’s mother would resemble his mother as an older woman, and all those young men with moustaches and slicked-back hair resemble his father as a young man. This will make more sense when we come to the end of the film.

What’s curious is that, during the entirety of his marriage to Gloria, he never gets her pregnant. In fact, one suspects they’ve never once had sex. Part of his sexual prudishness seems to be sexual dysfunction. Small wonder he shoots her with a pistol full of blanks: the gun is an obvious phallic symbol whose ejaculations are ineffectual. He is sexually inadequate, and he knows it: he cannot be the Lacanian phallus for his symbolic mother. This is why he’s so paranoid that she’s seeing other men, the symbolic bad fathers of his psyche. That whacking of the stick against the posts of the handrail on the stairs fittingly suggests the symbolism of a guilty teenage boy’s masturbating; the only way he can have sex is with himself.

I consider the Oedipus complex to be the root of his problems because, as Don Carveth argues, it is a universal narcissistic trauma. Francisco wants to have Mother (in the symbolic, transferred forms of Gloria and her mother) all to himself: he wants her as a narcissistic mirror reflecting his entire world all back to himself, because he wants everything to be about him.

This narcissism is important in how it links with his bourgeois wish to reclaim his grandfather’s old land and property. The bourgeoisie are narcissistic by nature, imagining themselves entitled to all the land, property, and means of production they steal and hog to themselves, never sharing it with the global proletariat. Even when his lawyers tell him he has no way to prove he has a legal right to that land, Francisco throws temper tantrums and childishly fancies he has documentary proof that he actually lacks.

Many people mistake capitalism as being, in its essence, about markets. To be sure, the market is extremely important as a generator of profits for the accumulation of capital, but capitalism’s essence is about ownership of private property–factories, office buildings, apartment buildings, farmland, foreign lands gained by imperialist conquest…land. Just as Francisco’s possessiveness of Gloria and his grandfather’s old properties and land are interrelated, so are the capitalist’s possessiveness of private property and the patriarchal husband’s jealous clinging to his wife interrelated. And the psychological root of this jealous possessiveness is the child’s narcissistic Oedipal relationship with his or her desired parent, whom he or she doesn’t wish to share.

If we follow the symbolism of the film as I’ve interpreted it, we can see all three of these strands–ownership of land, possessiveness of one’s wife, and the narcissistic Oedipal relationship with the mother–played out in the scene when Francisco takes Gloria up to the belfry and they look down on the people walking in the streets of the city. Just as he has earlier expressed his contempt for the common “morons” one sees in the cinema or at the race track, he, from the belfry, looks down on those people below as if he were God judging them from the heavens. She calls him “self-centred,” which of course the narcissistic man is.

He thinks it’s “marvellous” to be up with Gloria in the belfry, where we see a huge bell and its clapper above their heads. A comparison I’ve made elsewhere, in my analysis of Belle de Jour (another Buñuel film), is that a bell symbolizes the vagina, and the clapper the hymen. So his ideal is to be above human mediocrity, with his wife as immaculate a virgin as Mary. As I said above, the Madonna is his maternal ideal, and he wants Gloria to embody this ideal; hence, she must be as chaste as he, and he must jealously guard her virtue from other men. She would be the perfect symbolic mother of his repressed, narcissistic Oedipal fantasies, and he would be lord over her life and over the land, which is our Mother Earth. Hence the connection between capitalism, the traditional patriarchal family, and narcissistic, Oedipally-minded child.

So afraid is Francisco of his wife getting any phallus other than his own, he attempts one night to infibulate her. If he succeeds, though, he won’t be able to penetrate her any better than any other man will. This would prove his sexual impotence, since if he can’t have her, he doesn’t want even the possibility of another man having her.

She wakes and screams, and it is only natural that she leaves him the next day, running off with Raul. In a panic, Francisco goes after her. He has several hallucinations, each increasing in intensity: he imagines a maid laughing at him; he thinks he sees Raul on a street corner buying a newspaper; he sees Gloria in a car putting on lipstick; and he thinks he sees her and Raul entering the church of the film’s beginning.

He goes in and finds them at their pew; but when he’s about to confront them, the young man and woman are actually two different people. Then, after hearing the cough of an old man walking behind him, Francisco imagines all the churchgoers laughing at him…even the altar boy and the padre!

This last man, who hitherto has been Francisco’s chaste, paternal ideal, is now no better than all the ‘bad fathers.’ With neither symbolic parent to be his ideal parental imago (i.e., both have traumatically disappointed him), and with his grandiose self (his narcissistic False Self exposed as such) abased and humiliated, the structure of his bipolar self has been destroyed, he undergoes psychological fragmentation, and he goes mad. He attacks the priest, is subdued by the churchgoers, and will be taken away…eventually to be put in a monastery.

Raul and Gloria, now married and with a fair-haired son of about 8-10 years old (who looks rather like the boy whose feet the padre washes at the film’s beginning), visit the monastery years later and ask about Francisco. We learn that their boy’s name is also Francisco! Why would Gloria want to name her son after a man who has caused her so much suffering? Why would Raul, who loves her in a way her former husband has never ben able to, be so insensitive to her as to want to name the boy after her former tormentor?

To me, the only logical answer to why the boy has this name is to regard the whole story as a particularly subtle use of surrealism on Buñuel’s part. As I see it, this boy is the real Francisco (and his resemblance to the boy whose feet are washed by the priest at the film’s beginning suggests a narcissistic wish-fulfillment to have his symbolic good father be subservient to him), and the older version of him is an unconscious wish-fulfillment, a dream of him having the age, manly moustache, and financial success necessary to win his mother away from his father.

The head monk asks them if the boy is their son, to which Raul gives no answer. The Wikipedia article for Él interprets his silence as implying that he may not be the father: I dispute this, for I see no reason to think Gloria has had the boy by any other man, especially by impotent Francisco. Raul’s silence probably comes from the tension he must feel from his son’s still-unresolved Oedipal attachment to Gloria (normally, a boy of his age should be going through the latency period).

(With regards to her name, I’ll mention in passing that, with the entrance of Iocaste in Stravinsky‘s 1927 opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex, the men’s chorus sing “Gloria, gloria, gloria!” at the end of Act One.)

Finally, we see old Francisco as a monk, after the family has left the monastery. He no longer has his moustache: he’s lost his manliness, a symbolic castration. In giving up his symbolic mother, Gloria, and adhering to the nom, or Non! du père, Francisco is now the personification of the moralistic superego. He must remain chaste for the rest of his life.

Will he be happy doing so? He claims he’s found true peace, but the frown on his face gives us doubts. Repressed desires always resurface in one form or another. His zig-zagging walk down that path to the dark doorway, an implied inability to stay on ‘the straight path,’ reinforces our doubts.

Analysis of “Midsommar”

Midsommar is a 2019 folk horror film written and directed by Ari Aster. It stars Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren, William Jackson Harper, and Will Poulter. It is considered one of the best horror films of 2019, with its unconventional way of disturbing and unsettling the audience.

Normally, a horror film thrives on the use of darkness to evoke the creepy mood. With this film, most of the horrors occur in broad daylight, as the film’s title suggests. Much of the film actually has a sad tone–unusual again for a film full of sunny skies–since the story is essentially about the slow but sure breakup of a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship.

The disturbing aspect of this breakup, though, is how it’s actually being manipulated and aggravated by a pagan cult. It’s equally obvious that Pelle (Blomgren) is drawing Dani Ardor (Pugh) away from Christian Hughes (Reynor) as it is that Maja (played by Isabelle Grill) is drawing Christian away from Dani; but I suspect the cult has been orchestrating this breakup to a far greater extent than is assumed by the average viewer of the film.

Here are some quotes:

[in Swedish] “This high my fire. No higher. No hotter!” –Siv

“He’s my good friend and I like him, but…Dani, do you feel held by him? Does he feel like home to you?” –Pelle, talking to Dani about Christian

“He draws, and we, the Elders, interpret. You see Yosh, Ruben is unclouded by normal cognition. It makes him open, for the source.” –Arne

“Ruben was – a product of inbreeding. All of our oracles are deliberate products of inbreeding.” –Arne

“I think I ate one of her pubic hairs.” –Christian, of Maja

[in Swedish] “I can feel it! I feel the baby!” –Maja, right after having sex with Christian

“Christian?” [snaps fingers twice] “Christian… Hi. Hello! There you are! Listen: You can’t speak. You can’t move.” [smiles] “All right?” [smiles] “Good.” –Ulla

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Siv: On this, the day of our deity of reciprocity, we gather to give special thanks to our treasured Sun. As an offering for our Father, we will today surrender nine *human* lives. As Hårga takes, so Hårga also gives. Thus, for every newblood sacrificed, we will dedicate one of our own. That is: four newbloods, four from Hårga, and one to be chosen by the Queen. Nine in all, to die, and be reborn, in the great Cycle.

Stev: The four newbloods, have already been supplied. As for our end, we have two already dedicated…And two who have volunteered. Ingemar and Ulf. [they step forward] You have brought outside offerings, thus volunteering your own bodies. You will today be joined in harmony with Everything. And to Pelle, who has brought new blood, and our new May Queen, you will today be honored for your unclouded intuition. And so, for our ninth offering. It is traditional that our fair Queen shall choose, between a preselected newblood, and a specially ordained Hårgan.

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The shifting of the seasons, from the dead of winter to the sunny skies of midsummer is important in terms of symbolism. It represents the dialectical relationship between opposites, one of unity in duality, as seen in the gradual transition from one opposite extreme to the other. We shift from the death and cold of winter to the renewed life and warmth of summer. As observed in my analysis of A Christmas Carol, we see here a case of ‘out with the old, in with the new’…only here, the seasons are reversed.

What should be noted here is that, just as there’s a shift from the winter’s death and cold to summer’s life and warmth, so is there a shift from the life and warmth…well, relatively speaking, of course…of Dani’s and Christian’s relationship, to the death and absolute cold of the relationship’s official end in summer–to say nothing of Christian’s winter life and midsummer death. Here again we see the unity of opposites.

Furthermore, as I mentioned above, most of the killing (and discovery of it) happens under sunny skies (except for the murder of Josh [Harper]); while the dark moments deal mostly with Dani’s fears or realizations of abandonment (her sister’s suicide/murder of their parents, more a tragic than horrific moment; Dani’s drug trip experience in the dark bathroom, with her hallucinating the sight of her dead sister in the mirror; her dream of her ‘friends’ driving out of the commune at night and leaving her there).

Her sister Terri suffers from bipolar disorder, the cycles of excitement and depression being symbolically paralleled here with the bright highs of summer and the black lows of winter; so it’s fitting to start with both the extreme cold and dark night of winter, along with the extreme depths of Terri’s worst depressive episode ever. In Terri’s scary email to Dani, she types, “everything’s black.”

Dani is already extremely vulnerable emotionally, her anxiety being such that Christian finds it hard to cope. She takes Ativan to soothe her anxieties, and she’s afraid that all her emotional baggage is pushing Christian away; whereas if he were a decent boyfriend, he’d be much more compassionate than he is.

Of course, Christian’s friends are hardly inspiring of compassion for Dani. Mark (Poulter), a particularly insensitive ass, bluntly tells Christian that he should dump her. Then, there’s Pelle…

Right from the film’s beginning, we see Pelle–the Swede who’s inviting the group to his commune’s midsummer celebrations, and who is the only one who’s happy, even excited, to have Dani tag along–sitting with Christian, Josh, and Mark, when they’re telling Christian he should break up with Dani. Pelle doesn’t say much about the souring relationship at the time (except mentioning the beautiful Swedish women Christian will meet in Hälsingland–i.e., Maja), but given what we know of his motives by the end of the movie, we now can see that it’s obvious his mind is turning already.

Knowing the pagan commune’s use of spells, I speculate that Pelle, right from the beginning, may have been using magic (i.e., the pictures he draws, including the one of Dani) not only to accelerate the couple’s breakup, but also even to drive Terri to the murder/suicide, orphaning Dani so he can ’empathize’ with her, bring her into the cult…and finally have her.

The worst of Dani’s fears of abandonment are realized when she learns that Terri has wiped out their entire family by flooding the house with carbon monoxide while their parents are sleeping. The premeditative nature of this killing, how Terri must have planned it, is almost like a human sacrifice (!). Dani is all alone in the world…except for her doing-the-bare-minimum boyfriend.

But with the onset of winter comes the birth of the sun god; that is, the sun is farthest away from the northern hemisphere, and it will be coming back, slowly but surely, until midsummer, when it’s at its closest. This slow return symbolizes the slow return of hope for Dani, who, though still traumatized, is little by little learning to put her life back together, if in the dubious form of joining a cult.

Christian’s aloofness isn’t helping, though. When he originally intends to go to Sweden with Pelle, Josh, and Mark, he hopes to blow off Dani and have fun in bed with beautiful Swedish girls. It’s only after seeing Dani sob (in an extended scene from the director’s cut, deleted from the theatrical release) that he reluctantly invites her along, lying that he’s meant her ‘last second invitation’ as a “romantic” surprise.

His inviting of Dani has made things awkward for the two of them, as well as for Mark and Josh (though Pelle, of course, is thrilled she’s coming). She can feel the annoyance of the former three men, who–apart from Josh’s work on his thesis–have been hoping for a buddy trip, chasing skirt. This awkwardness is indicative of the alienation in modern society, which will be sharply contrasted with the communal closeness felt among the pagan cult in Hårga…a closeness that will feel too close.

Indeed, part of the cult’s manipulation of its visitors will be a dividing of the four of them through triangulation, and this divisiveness is already beginning because of Pelle’s influence. We often see him drawing: for her birthday, he gives her a drawing of her wearing a wreath; I’m convinced that these drawings are spells, Pelle’s visualizations of such things as her as the next May Queen…which, indeed, is what she’s fated to become.

There’s a dialectical relationship between this growing alienation among the four visitors and the all-too-close bond Dani is developing with the cult, which actually is enmeshment. Similarly, the coming together of her and Pelle, the coming together of Christian and Maja, and the slow breakup of him and Dani, are also dialectically related–more unions of opposites.

To develop this theme further, it’s interesting how the visitor who has been traumatized by a murder/suicide in her family is the only one to be able to adapt to the death cult ways of the commune. The one who has viewed death with the greatest horror is also the one who becomes most accepting of it at the end. What’s more, it’s interesting how, of the four visitors, it’s Josh–the only African-American among a cast of people of European descent–who is by far the most passionate about learning about Scandinavian pagan traditions.

[NOTE: please don’t misinterpret my meaning here. I’m not trying to say that it’s somehow ‘odd’ or ‘out of place’ for a black person to be interested in European culture. Far from it! We should all, regardless of ‘race’ or colour, be encouraged to learn about cultures outside of those of our ethnic background. For indeed, many blacks have been famous for not only loving, but also excelling, at presenting various aspects of ‘white’ culture. A few examples, off the top of my head, include Jessye Norman in opera, Wynton Marsalis when interpreting Haydn, and Paul Robeson playing Othello and singing “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.”]

My only point in speaking of Josh’s thesis in terms of the ethnic difference between him and Scandinavia is to give another example of this film’s theme of the unity of opposites: in terms of ethnic and cultural background, Josh, of the four visitors, is furthest away from Nordic tradition, yet he’s nearest to it in his emotional investment. It’s not about whether African-Americans ‘should or shouldn’t’ be interested in European culture (Why shouldn’t they be interested?); it’s that, technically speaking, he is passionate about it, making him, in this sense, more Nordic than Dani, Christian, and Mark could ever be; and in this we see a sameness in difference…as there should be a unity and harmony between all cultures, including those (actually or only seemingly) most dissimilar. I’m not prescribing what cultures one is ‘supposed’ to be interested in; I’m only exploring theme.

In contrast to Josh’s love of all things Scandinavian, white Christian, who also wants to do his thesis on the Hårga, is totally half-assed in his interest in the culture; worse, he is leeching off of Josh’s passion, justifiably angering him. In fact, Josh’s fascination goes so far as to have among his research books one involving the Nazi use of the Uthark (seen in an extended version of the scene of the car ride into Hälsingland)! Pelle claims that Josh carries the book around only to annoy him, but one would think that Josh himself would be annoyed to have it around. Once again, opposites attract.

Yet another example of the union of opposites is in Christian’s attitude towards Dani. He’s a bad boyfriend, to be sure, but not completely bad. He’s conflicted about her: part of him wants to end the relationship, but part of him wants to hang onto it. He expresses fears of regretting dumping her, and then not being able to get her back. He’s emotionally distant, yet tries…however clumsily…to be considerate. This ‘to be or not to be’ her boyfriend is thus another paradoxical unity of opposites.

Even when he is offered Maja for mating, he asks to watch the sex ritual instead of participate in it (in another deleted extension, that of his scene with Siv). And after he comes inside Maja, he runs out of the building naked, full of fear and remorse. He’d still be with Dani, yet not be with her.

When the visitors arrive in the Hårga community, pretty diegetic music is heard playing on flutes as they walk through a huge, yellow circular entrance designed like the sun. It’s a quaint, charming scene, and the people living here seem sweet. The charm is superficial, though, since we’ll see soon enough what will happen to Mark, Josh, and Christian, as well as to UK visitors, Simon and Connie.

One can debate whether or not ancient Norse pagans actually committed any or all of the shocking acts seen in the film (senicide, blood eagles, skinning of human flesh, and human sacrifices); but staying within the framework of the story of the film, we need to wonder about a community in the modern world doing things they know that no one outside would ever accept.

Such extreme acts, deemed understandable only in a pre-scientific world–where human sacrifice, rather than such things as modern agricultural practices, is believed to ward off bad luck and ensure good harvests–when combined with the pagan cult’s superficial charm, can only mean that the Hårga commune is collectively sociopathic and narcissistic. They fancy their ways to be superior to those of the modern scientific world; they arrogantly think they have the right and duty to manipulate and end human lives. Yet, on first meeting them, we find them so charming and sweet.

Again, we see here a meeting of opposites: so sweet, kind, and gentle, yet so cruel and merciless. This is a collectively narcissistic community. Membership (enmeshment, actually) has its privileges (e.g., being the May Queen, a kind of golden child), but being outside of the inner circle only brings death. Horrors happen under sunny skies.

Normally, when we think of sexual predation, we think of lecherous men prowling after pretty, nubile young women. Indeed, Mark–who’s such a jackass, he can’t even refrain from engaging in locker-room talk in Dani’s presence…so inept around women, and probably a virgin–is all eager about chasing Swedish women. But when one of the Hårga women (Inga, played by Julia Ragnarsson) shows an interest in him as a mate, he gets scared, not just because he’s such a dork, but because he can sense the predation.

Maja, of course, is especially predatory, what with the spells she uses on Christian (the runic charm she puts under his bed, and her pubic hair in his food), and the unsettling way her eyes are always on him. This sex role reversal is another union of opposites: men chase women, but women hunt after men. The hunter becomes the hunted.

Simon and Connie cannot hide their shock at the senicide, so when they say they want to leave immediately, not only is their murder necessary to silence them and protect the cult from the police; it’s also revenge for the narcissistic injury the cult feels after Simon and Connie make them lose face by his calling the senicide “fucked!”

Mark’s pissing on the ancestral tree, another loss of face for the cult, is more narcissistic injury requiring his death, as is Josh’s forbidden taking of photos of the cult’s holy book. The visitors have no respect for the commune’s traditions, so they must die.

That tense scene of the four visitors sitting together at the dinner table exemplifies another union of opposites, that of social alienation vs. enmeshment. Resentment builds between Dani and Christian when she says she can imagine him leaving without telling her (as Simon has done to Connie) because of a “miscommunication.” Mutual resentment builds between Christian and Josh over the former leeching off the latter’s thesis. Mark fears being murdered because of his pissing on the tree. All four feel alone, divided from each other…and yet they’re surrounded by a commune of people so together, they all share one will.

…and Dani, quite soon, will be part of that one will.

As part of his slow seduction of her, Pelle comforts Dani, after her shock at the senicide (which reminds her far too much of Terri’s murder/suicide–the death of their aged parents), by mentioning his own parents…who died in a fire (!). We must remember this fiery death in light of the sacrifice at the end of the film, a ritual murder Pelle fully, willingly participates in. He would tell her of his parents’ death to have her believe he empathizes with her, that he would hold her in a way Christian never will…yet Pelle is using her pain to lure her in; and as I speculated above, he may have used a spell to kill her family.

Pelle is the central villain of the movie. He has used his slick charm to engineer all the major events of the story. His plan from the beginning has been to break up Dani and Christian so he can have her, and so his sister Maja can have Christian. Maja has liked him ever since Pelle sent her a cellphone picture of him back when Pelle and the four were still in the States. The human sacrifice, killing Pelle’s “American friends,” was planned from the start, too. Pelle has the charm and sweetness Christian lacks, but Christian is the central victim, and Pelle is the central victimizer. Opposites, here of good and bad, are united again.

Dani’s aloneness–no family, an emotionally uncommitted boyfriend, and Josh and Mark, who resent her tagging along–makes her a perfect choice to join the pagan cult. She has no one else, but the people of Hårga are happy to have her. She dialectically shifts from being the social reject to being all lovingly accepted as May Queen–note the love-bombing she gets when she wins the Maypole dance. Note especially the passionate kiss Pelle gives her; having been drugged, she calls out “Mom?” when seeing a hallucination of her mother among the love-bombers, the only one who isn’t happy for her…but they are all her family now. She can leave behind her painful old world.

On many occasions, I’ve used the ouroboros as a symbol for the dialectical relationship between opposites: the serpent’s biting head and bitten tail represent the meeting, extreme opposites on a circular continuum that in turn is represented by the snake’s coiled body, where every intermediate point between the extremes is. Dani is shifting from the bitten tail of loneliness to the biting head of inclusion in the cult. Christian, on the other hand, has been slipping from the head of acceptance among his buddies, along the length of the serpent’s coiled body towards the tail as his friends are killed, to the bitten tail of being the new outcast, where Dani was, now that she has been crowned May Queen, and is loved by the cult, while he just stands by alone and watches.

Christian is the lonely, vulnerable one now. The cult doesn’t even want him to marry Maja: they just want his sperm to impregnate her. The combination of this fact with the cult’s accepting of Dani, the only survivor of the visitors being female (Ingemar was hoping to mate with Connie, but her sticking with Simon has sealed her fate.), makes me believe this cult must be matrilineal. Males are more expendable here than females (just as we know that in the patriarchal family, the sexes are reversed in this regard). Hence, seven out of the nine sacrificial victims are male; in fact, strictly speaking, the only ones burned alive are male (Christian, Ingemar, and Ulf), for the other victims (including Connie and the elderly woman who jumped from the cliff) were already killed long before.

This is an upside-down world (recall that upside-down shot during the car ride to Hälsingland), where sex roles are often reversed, moments of emotional dark occur during sunny brightness, and extreme opposites are intermingled. The only solution to social alienation that the movie offers is total enmeshment in a cult. This enmeshment is perfectly symbolized by Reuben, the deformed ‘oracle’ who is a result of inbreeding. A healthy society is a balance of closeness with independence: not too close, yet not so apart as to result in alienation. Dani is going from one extreme to the other.

As for Christian’s ‘moment of truth’ with Maja, we cannot afford to be so naïve to think that, just because he gets to enjoy her, that this means he’s really enjoying her. He has always been reluctant about it; part of him, even if just a small part, still wants to be with Dani. The only reason he has sex with Maja is that he’s being manipulated into it. Men’s greatest weakness by far is lust.

Drugged with aphrodisiacs and psychedelics that, frankly admitted by Ulla, will break down his defences, Christian enters the room where the fertility ritual is to take place. Maja is lying naked and beautiful in a bed of flowers, surrounded by naked older women who sing a hypnotic tune in B major, with two sets of three harmonies (which, if I’m hearing them correctly, are based on triads of I vi[a first inversion 6th chord] I, I II[major] I); an eerie instrumental variation of the tune is heard earlier in the film whenever Maja is working her love magic on Christian.

This scene perfectly exemplifies erotic horror, one of the best fusions of the sexy and the scary that I’ve ever encountered. Maja is so tempting, so exciting…and yet, so terrifying for those very reasons. (Now we can understand why Mark changes his mind about Inga, the Hårga girl he’s been so attracted to–the one intelligent thought he has anywhere in the film.) Maja is luring Christian into a trap. She takes the femme fatale to a whole new level. Omne animal triste post coitum. And this fusion of pleasure and terror is yet another union of opposites.

Such books as Frazer‘s Golden Bough, Graves‘s two-volume Greek Myths, and Hyam Maccoby‘s Sacred Executioner discuss ancient pagan rites of human sacrifice, later distorted into myths, which included orgiastic fertility rites. (I briefly discussed these in Part V of this post.) This is exactly what we’re seeing happening to Christian: he has a fuck, then he goes up in flames.

Now, we wouldn’t hesitate to describe as sexual assault a man giving a woman alcohol and drugs, then taking advantage of her while she’s wasted; but is that not exactly what’s being done to Christian? He has been thoroughly manipulated and drugged into having sex with Maja, and he has clearly demonstrated reluctance. During the sex, his agape eyes show no sign of pleasure: he’s all in a state of doped-up shock. Let’s dispense with the sexual double standards, look at what’s happened to him with an open mind, and take the following point seriously.

There should be no surprise that naked Christian runs out of the building disoriented and scared: what has happened to him can be seen as a kind of rape. It doesn’t matter that he orgasmed inside Maja; when women are raped, they sometimes orgasm–coming doesn’t make these women any less rape victims. The only reason we assume Christian ‘wanted it, so it isn’t rape’ (a particularly cruel thing to say to female rape victims just because they’re dressed provocatively) is because we stereotype men as lechers, and society assumes that sex is something only men do to other people, especially to women, instead of something done to them, especially when done by women to them.

When I say the above, I’m not trying to claim any kind of solidarity with woman-hating MRAs. I only bring this up, once again, to explore the theme of an upside-down world in which opposites are unified. Normally, we think of male sexual predation on women; here, the sexes are reversed.

Christian’s running outside, frontally nude and totally exposed to anyone looking, underscores his vulnerability. Ascendant Dani was emotionally vulnerable; falling Christian is now physically vulnerable (especially when he is drugged into mute paralysis). He has given up his usefulness to the cult in impregnating Maja. In the language of narcissism, he has gone from idealized to devalued…and he’ll soon be discarded.

At the end of Dani’s initiation as May Queen, the women accompanying her take her to a place within earshot of the sex rite. The empathic chanting of the women surrounding Maja and Christian make the rite especially audible to Dani. This must be deliberate. One of the women supposedly tries to dissuade Dani from going over and seeing what’s going on, but this ‘dissuasion’ is clearly reverse psychology: the women want her to see Christian ‘cheating’ on her; they let her walk over there.

Throughout the film, Maja’s moves on Christian have been public and therefore easily made known to Dani. Her suspicions have been growing the whole time; before she looks through the keyhole and sees her boyfriend fucking Maja, she’s already 99% certain that her suspicions have been correct. You can see it on her frowning face as she approaches the building.

After seeing the betrayal, she runs into the sleeping area, bawling in a jealous rage and feeling the triggering of her trauma of abandonment. The other women follow her. As Dani is bawling, the other women face her, and in the collective form of a symbolic mirror, they empathically reflect her bawling and pain back to her. This ritualistic empathizing, however, shouldn’t be mistaken with real empathy, or with Bion‘s psychotherapeutic notion of containment; the women aren’t properly soothing her. They are manipulating Dani, channeling her jealousy and pain, validating it so she’ll have a motive strong enough to betray Christian as a sacrificial victim, which of course she does.

Midsummer is the highest point at which the sun god rises, before his descent and death in fall and winter. Such gods as Balder were killed in midsummer, as Christian, Ingemar, and Ulf will be. Capital punishment has been deemed by many to be the secular equivalent of human sacrifice, and such ceremonial murder is also correlated with social hierarchy, a ladder that narcissists like to ascend. Christian is being executed for the crime of unfaithfulness (as Dani sees it). Being discarded by the cult, he is also the scapegoat, dressed in a bearskin, just as May Queen Dani is the golden child, adorned in a dress of flowers.

Dani has relived the trauma of Terri’s murder/suicide in viewing the ättestupa, and now she’ll have to relive it again by watching the burning building, with a front row seat, so to speak. (Ingemar’s and Ulf’s volunteering as sacrificial victims makes this into a kind of murder/suicide, too.) Her surname, Ardor, means ‘burning passion,’ which is appropriate, for watching the burning yellow building, shaped like the capital A of her surname, is like her looking in a mirror. It’s an agonizing passion for her to watch at first, but it’s ultimately cathartic–hence, her smile at the end.

The ’empathic’ wailing of Pelle, Maja, and all the others in the cult should now be seen for what it really is: not only is it fake, but also psychopathic. This commune is a case of group insanity. Narcissists are deficient in empathy, but they can fake it; what’s more, they kid themselves into thinking their empathy is real–hence, the cult’s wailing, meant to assuage their guilt.

So, what will become of Dani? Has she finally found the love and belonging she has so craved her whole life? It may seem so for now, but our feelings change with the seasons. Given time, that smile of hers will change into a frown, just as the sun, at its height, will wane as fall and winter come. It’s only a matter of time before she grows disillusioned with this death cult.

She has been idealized; she may, in time, be devalued and discarded, just as Christian has been. She, too, may slide from the ouroboros’ biting head (idealization), along the length of its coiled body (devaluing), down to its bitten tail (discarding). Four years ago, she and Christian were in love; that love faded away. She will mate with Pelle…the summer of their love may fade away into another winter of emotional distance.

After Pelle has fathered a few children by her, and she in her anxieties wants to get out of the cult, she won’t be able to…not alive, anyway. She is in a trap. She has exchanged alienation and loneliness with enmeshment. Pelle’s parents died in a fire…Christian has died in a fire…will Dani, too, die in a fire, one midsummer’s day…or midwinter’s night?

Analysis of “Punch-Drunk Love”

Punch-Drunk Love is a 2002 romantic black comedy written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. It stars Adam Sandler, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Emily Watson. It features the delightfully idiosyncratic music of Jon Brion and the bright, colourful, abstract visual sequences of artist Jeremy Blake. It is Mark Kermode‘s favourite Anderson film.

Barry Egan (Sandler, in an actually superb performance) is a lonely man with social anxiety and anger issues who becomes a victim of a phone sex extortion racket headed by Dean Trumbell (Hoffman); then he falls in love with Lena Leonard (Watson), who gives him a strength and courage he’s never had before, and he fights back against the extortionists.

Here are some quotes:

Barry: You’re a bad person. You have no right taking people’s confidence in your service. You understand me, sir? You’re sick!

Dean Trumbell: No no, SHUT UP! SHUT THE FUCK UP![Simultaneously]

Barry: You have no right to take people’s trust. [Simultaneously]

Dean TrumbellSHUT UP! Will You- SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT, SHUT, SHUT, SHUT, SHUT UP! SHUT UP! Now! Are you threatening me, dick?!

Barry: Why don’t you–? You go fuck yourself!

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“I didn’t do anything. I’m a nice man. I mind my own business. So you tell me that’s that before I beat the Hell from you.” –Barry, to Dean

“I have so much strength inside of me. You have no idea. I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine. I would say “That’s that”, Mattress Man.” –Barry, to Dean

**********

Dean Trumbell: NOW GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE, PERVERT!

Barry: DIDN’T I WARN YOU?!

Dean Trumbell: That’s that.

**********

“Lena. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I left you at the hospital. I called a phone-sex line… I called a phone-sex line before I met you, and four blond brothers came after me and they hurt you, and I’m sorry. Then I had to leave again because I wanted to make sure you never got hurt again. And, and I have a lot of puddings, and in six to eight weeks it can be redeemed. So if you could just give me that much time, I think I can get enough mileage to go with you wherever you go if you have to travel for your work. Because I don’t ever want to be anywhere without you. So could you just let me redeem the mileage?” –Barry

“So, here we go.” –Lena, to Barry [last line]

Barry owns a small business selling such novelty items as themed toilet plungers. At the beginning of the film, he’s all alone in his office talking on the telephone with someone working for Healthy Choice about a frequent flyer promotion; later that morning, we’ll see him talking with a client on the phone. (Remember landlines? This film uses phone calls as a recurring motif; it’s a symbol of social alienation, since people communicate this way, but they’re far away from each other–they’re connected, yet they aren’t.)

After his chat with the Healthy Choice guy, Barry steps outside, sees a dramatic car crash (the vehicle smashing and rolling over on the street), then another vehicle is driven to the sidewalk by his place of business, and a harmonium is dropped off there. He takes the instrument into his office, and from time to time we will see him play single-note melodies on it.

The harmonium, a pump organ, vaguely makes one think of a church organ. Since the nervous man’s playing of the instrument in his quiet solitude gives him some peace, we can see its having been given to him as an act of divine grace, which leads me to my next point.

We can see the arrival of Lena into his life, her deliberate leaving of her car with him by his place of business as an excuse to meet him, as also being an act of divine grace, for her love of him saves him from his social anxiety and loneliness, and gives him the strength to fight back against his persecutors. She is thus a kind of female Christ.

Among his persecutors are his seven bitchy sisters. They bully, insult, and emotionally abuse him at every opportunity they are given. When he can’t take it anymore and blows up, they pretend that his problems are exclusively his, and that they share no responsibility at all in provoking him.

I know from personal experience what Barry Egan is going through. An emotionally abusive family, typically headed by one or two parents with narcissistic or other Cluster B personality traits, tend to have golden children (Egan’s sisters, it would seem), invisible children, and scapegoats (Egan himself). The narcissistic parents either connive at or encourage the bullying of the scapegoat, using his or her faults as an excuse to justify the bullying.

The bullying can come in the form of mobbing or in slight digs at the victim, repeated over and over again. This is what Barry’s sisters do to him: swearing at him needlessly; mocking him for saying a perfectly normal word like “chat”; calling him “Gay Boy”; nagging him about and pressuring him into attending a birthday party of one of their sisters; and calling him a “fucking retard” when he finally blows up and breaks windows at the party.

Putting up with sibling bullies is like experiencing Chinese water torture. Each insult, each put-down, each criticism, every one bit of nagging all by itself can be endured; but put them all together, one after the other in rapid succession…drip, drip, drip…and one can’t help but go crazy sooner or later.

This kind of suffering is what Barry has had to endure from his non-empathic sisters; and when he reacts, they pretend to be surprised, when it should be obvious to them that their non-stop provocations are setting off an emotional ticking time bomb.

Barry knows he needs help. He asks Walter the dentist (a husband of one of his sisters, he’s played by Robert Smigel) if he knows any psychotherapists–that’s how desperate Barry is. That his sisters would know about his asking for psychiatric help, and about his breaking down and crying in front of the dentist–these are just more reasons for them to criticize him, instead of showing him some compassion.

He wants to escape. He learns of a promotion to gain thousands of frequent flyer miles if he buys enough pudding from Healthy Choice foods (This is a plot point inspired by David Phillips.). Flying in airplanes…flying in the sky…being in heaven…

This wish to be up in the sky, symbolic of heaven, dovetails with the ‘church’ harmonium and the entrance of Lena into his life. These three strands are full of Christian symbolism, that divine grace Barry has been craving, to have someone take him out of his world of suffering and give him peace and salvation. Lena’s love will give him the strength to go on living.

You see, it is she who approaches him, not the other way around, as is done with traditional sex roles. Thus she is a refreshing feminist change from the usual social requirement that the male always make the first moves.

Also, her approaching him, rather than vice versa, can be seen to symbolize divine grace in that she, as representative of Christ, is coming to him, who is representative of the sinner, rather than the repentant sinner searching for God. Similarly, the harmonium, symbolic of a church organ, is dropped off before him, as if it were a free gift. And the offer of frequent flyer miles, acquired through the buying of packages of cheap pudding, is rather like a free ticket to heaven.

Now, Barry is a sinner…of sorts. Besides his explosive temper tantrums, he has also made use of a phone sex service, though he doesn’t have any lustful thoughts at all as he chats with the lasciviously-tongued woman on the other end of the phone.

As of the phone-sex chat, he hasn’t yet dated and fallen in love with Lena, so he’s using the chat not for prurient purposes, but just to relieve his loneliness. As WRD Fairbairn pointed out, we all are object-seeking in our libido–not seeking of sex objects, not satisfying libido through pleasure-seeking (which Fairbairn considered a failure of object-relationships), but objects as in people with whom to have relationships, friendships, and love. No, just because Barry has called up a phone sex line, it doesn’t make him the “pervert” his four assailants and Dean Trumbell (Hoffman) call him.

Again, his chatting with Anna, the phone-sex girl, is another instance of his alienation, for he wishes to connect with someone (ostensibly in a sexual manner), but without seeing the person face to face; this represents the conflict between wanting to have object relationships and wanting to be separated from people. Hence, the film’s recurring telephone call motif.

Barry is terrified of meeting Lena and of the two of them getting to know each other, because his personality has been so split apart. Having a relationship with her would be what Fairbairn, in the endo-psychic structure he devised to replace Freud‘s id/ego/superego, called the Central Ego (Fairbairn’s replacement of Freud’s ego…Barry in the film) connected with the Ideal Object (Lena).

Instead, Barry’s Libidinal Ego (Fairbairn’s replacement of Freud’s id) tries to connect with the Exciting Object (Anna, the phone-sex girl), and his Anti-libidinal Ego (a bit like Freud’s superego) has to endure the Rejecting Object (his sisters, Dean, and Anna’s four thuggish brothers, who attack and rob Barry). Lena is his cure, his salvation, the one who will help him re-integrate his fragmented self.

Let’s consider her name. Lena has various meanings: “light,” “sunlight,” “moonlight,” “generous,” “kind,” “she who allures,” etc. It is interesting in this connection to remember Jeremy Blake’s video art sequences, with their colourful brightness, their images suggesting, if not explicitly evoking, sunlit horizons of dusk or dawn, starry moonlit nights, rainbows, etc. Lena is the light; she is the way, the truth, and the life, for Barry. Accordingly, Lena often appears surrounded in bright light, and she is typically associated in various ways with light.

Her surname Leonard means “lion’s strength.” She as a female Christ can be related to C.S. Lewis‘s Aslan, the Lion of Judah. She saves Barry and gives him his strength.

Now, when I say she saves him as a female Christ, I don’t mean that she saves him so much in the orthodox Christian sense of her ‘dying for Barry’s sins.’ (Only that scene in which the four brothers smash into Barry’s car, and she has blood dripping from her head–suggestive of Christ’s blood from the crown of thorns–associates her with the orthodox Christ.) I’d say that Lena is more of a Gnostic Christ, saving Barry by giving him gnosis, or a knowledge of his inner divine spark. With this enlightenment, he gains the strength to face his bullies.

He knows her by getting to know her during their dinner date. He knows her in the Biblical sense in her hotel room in Hawaii, their island paradise…the heaven he’s flown to on his first-ever airplane flight. And he knows her in Wilfred Bion‘s sense of gaining knowledge (K) through interpersonal communication, a soothing of his anxieties by her containing of them, etc. (Click here for more information on Bion’s and other psychoanalytical concepts.)

Recall this exchange of lines when they are on the bed in the hotel:

Barry: I’m lookin’ at your face and I just wanna smash it. I just wanna fuckin’ smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it. You’re so pretty.

Lena: I want to chew your face, and I want to scoop out your eyes and I want to eat them and chew them and suck on them.

[pause]

Barry: OK. This is funny. This is nice.

He expresses his love for her with, bizarrely, aggressive and violent language. She speaks of her love for him in a similarly graphic way, though not quite as extreme in its violence. This is her containing his inner rage, which he’s projected onto her, the way a baby might project its agitation onto its mother, who would then contain it and return it to the baby in a tolerable form. Lena is, through her capacity for reverie, playing the role of mother, soothing his rage and returning his feelings to him–he being in the role of infant–in a pacified form.

This kind of soothing and acceptance is what he has needed his whole life: not to be called a “fucking retard” for getting angry, but to have his rage contained, soothed, and forgiven, like Christ forgiving us for our sins. Accordingly, Barry confesses having busted up the restaurant bathroom, apologizes, and she accepts him all the same. He later apologizes for having left her in the hospital, and for his using the phone sex service, which has led to her injury.

He says “sorry” a lot in the film. He repents; she forgives.

Her loving him as he is, with all of his faults, gives him the self-love and strength he needs to face his troubles. He thus grows in Bion’s K, or in Christ’s gnosis…whichever metaphor you prefer.

Emily Watson is a British actress, and she makes no effort to hide her accent with an American one in her portrayal of Lena; so this means that Lena is an angel of the land of the Angles, another association of her with heaven. Her job involves her often going by airplane, so she flies in heaven like an angel.

Barry has seven sisters, their nastiness to him (indicative of such things as pride and anger) associating them with the seven deadly sins, as well as the seven days of the Creation, this being a creation not by the Biblical God, but by the Demiurge, whom the Gnostic Christians deemed evil for having created the physical world, which engenders sinful desires.

Barry’s other persecutors–those four blond young men who assault and steal from him–may not be his brothers, but they are brothers all the same, so with them we can extend the association, if only symbolically, of his bullying problems with his sisters. Barry shows no sexual interest with the phone sex girl, so the brothers’ calling him a “pervert” is a projection of their own sinfulness, of lust; thus we see here more of an association of sin with siblings, his and the four brothers.

Conflict and sin among siblings is a recurring theme throughout Genesis: between Cain and Abel; between Shem and Japheth, on the one side, and Ham, who shamed their father, Noah, on the other; between Esau and Jacob; Lot’s daughters, the sisters who got him drunk, then seduced him to get them pregnant; and Joseph’s envious brothers, who had him sold into slavery. Brothers and sisters are wicked in this film, where a sinful, fleshly, Demiurge-created, Old Testament-like world can be redeemed only through the light of gnosis, of spiritual knowledge.

Elsewhere, some people have made connections between Barry and Superman, though I find their linking of the two characters to be mostly tenuous, at best. A better link with a strongman would be between Barry and Popeye, if only through the use of the song, “He Needs Me,” originally sung by Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl. Popeye needs her, just as he needs his spinach to be strong. Barry needs Lena, just as he needs to redeem his Healthy Choice products (with green on the cover designs, a colour better associated with spinach than with…Kryptonite?) to join her on airplane flights.

The only legitimate link I can find between this film and Superman is at the end, when Lena, dressed in red, stands behind seated Barry, always in that blue suit, and puts her arms around him, making herself into his ‘Superman cape.’ But even this moment must be seen in its proper context. Barry alone isn’t Superman; he is brave and strong only with her there. He needs her, as Popeye needs Olive Oyl. Furthermore, in that scene, Barry is playing the harmonium, as if playing a church hymn. He is Lena’s Church; her love for him is like Christ’s love for His Church.

Superman may need Lois Lane’s love, and he’d be heartbroken if she died, but he doesn’t need her to give him his powers. Lena, however, does give Barry his strength; this is why a comparison of her to a Gnostic Christ makes so much more sense. She, Lena the light, gives him the enlightenment, the gnosis, that he needs.

She gives him the punch he needs to face his abusers. Her love makes him drunk with joy; she is his sacramental wine, as it were, so his Church is a midway point between Gnosticism and Catholic orthodoxy. Her blood, on her head from that car collision, is his wine, pushing him, in his drunken love, to punch the first of the brothers, and beat and threaten the others.

She is the grace, with the harmonium and the frequent flyer miles (which he must redeem, as Christ redeems the faithful Christian believer), that comes to him, lifts him out of his despair, strengthens him, and saves him.

Analysis of “It’s a Wonderful Life”

It’s a Wonderful Life is a 1946 film directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, and Henry Travers. It’s traditionally watched on the TV by the whole family at Christmastime, even though only about one hour of the two-hour, fifteen-minute film takes place at that time of the year (it wasn’t even originally intended as a Christmas film), and Christmas is only peripherally depicted during that time.

It is one of the most loved films of all time, even though it was viewed with suspicion by the likes of the FBI, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and Ayn Rand, who regarded it as subtle communist propaganda for its vilifying of Mr. Potter (Barrymore) as an example of the quintessential, greedy capitalist.

Though Capra had left-leaning scriptwriters like Dalton Trumbo and Clifford Odets write drafts (which weren’t used) for the screenplay, he was actually an anti-FDR conservative who was using It’s a Wonderful Life to appeal to people to strengthen their Christian faith. In Capra’s own words, he was trying “to combat a modern trend toward atheism.”

Here are some quotes:

Mary: What’d you wish, George?

George: Well, not just one wish. A whole hatful, Mary. I know what I’m gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that. I’m shakin’ the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here and go to college and see what they know… And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…
*************

“What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey. That’s a pretty good idea. I’ll give you the moon, Mary.” –George

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

George: Mary… [picks up Mary’s robe, which is lying on the ground] Okay, I give up. Where are you?

Mary: Over here in the hydrangea bushes.

George: Here you are. Catch. [He is about to throw her the robe, but reconsiders mischeviously] Wait a minute. What am I doing? This is a very interesting situation! (This line was repeated by Jimmy in the 1940 film “No Time for Comedy”).

Mary: Please give me my robe.

George: Hmmm…A man doesn’t get in a situation like this every day.

Mary[Getting annoyed] I’d like to have my robe.

George: Not in Bedford Falls, anyway.

Mary[thrashing around in the bushes] Ouch!

George: Gesundheit. This requires a little thought here.

Mary: George Bailey! Give me my robe!

George: I’ve heard about things like this, but I’ve never thought I would be in one…..not in Bedford Falls anyway.

Mary: Shame on you. I’m going to tell your mother on you.

George: Oh, my mother’s way up the corner there.

Mary: I’ll call the police!

George: They’re way downtown. They’d be on my side, too.

Mary: Then I’m going to scream!

George: Maybe I could sell tickets.

**********

“Now, hold on, Mr. Potter. You’re right when you say my father was no business man. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I’ll never know. But neither you nor anybody else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was…Why, in the twenty-five years since he and Uncle Billy started this thing, he never once thought of himself. Isn’t that right, Uncle Billy? He didn’t save enough money to send Harry to school, let alone me. But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter. And what’s wrong with that? Why…Here, you’re all businessmen here. Doesn’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers? You…you said…What’d you say just a minute ago?…They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait! Wait for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they’re so old and broken-down that they…Do you know how long it takes a working man to save five thousand dollars? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about…they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you’ll ever be!” –George

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

Mr. Potter: George, I am an old man and most people hate me. But I don’t like them either, so that makes it all even. You know just as well as I do that I run practically everything in this town but the Bailey Building and Loan. You know, also, that for a number of years I’ve been trying to get control of it. Or kill it. But I haven’t been able to do it. You have been stopping me. In fact, you have beaten me, George, and as anyone in this county can tell you, that takes some doing. Now take during the depression, for instance. You and I were the only ones that kept our heads. You saved the Building and Loan, I saved all the rest.

George: Yes, well, most people say you stole all the rest.

Mr. Potter: The envious ones say that, George. The suckers.

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

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” –Clarence Odbody

“You see, George, you’ve really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?” –Clarence

[Inscribed in a copy of Tom Sawyer] “Dear George, remember no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings, Love Clarence.”

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

Zuzu[after a bell on the tree rings] Look, Daddy. Teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.

George: That’s right, that’s right. Attaboy, Clarence!

What the film is really about is how humble people often achieve things far more important than the pretensions with which the rich and powerful impress us. The film begins with the recruitment of a rather bumbling, slow-witted angel (Travers), Clarence Odbody, who must convince George Bailey (Stewart) not to kill himself by making him realize that his humble life, fraught with difficulties as it may have been, is still a life that has achieved terrific things and touched many hearts.

We will see that Clarence, as simple as he is, also achieves a great thing by saving George from his despair. Small people can, and often do, do big things: this is the real message of the movie. In contrast, the rich and powerful big shots often, if not typically, do very little good for the people. These are the Potters of the world, who do much more harm than good.

It’s these Potters that the right-wing ideologues want to defend from ‘vilification.’ What people like J. Edgar Hoover and Ayn Rand didn’t want to admit to is how easy it is to see capitalists like Potter as selfish and mean-spirited: all one has to do is see the effects of their selfishness and greed when they lobby to privatize healthcare, when they support imperialism in the Middle East, when landlords jack up the rent and make housing unaffordable, throwing people out on the streets, only then to put up spikes and criminalize feeding them. One doesn’t have to be a communist to see what’s wrong with the Potters of the world. But I digress…

Back to the movie. Ever since he was a boy, George Bailey has dreamed of doing great things: traveling the world, building things, etc. But he knows the danger of letting his small, humble, and boring, but beloved town of Bedford Falls be taken over by Potter, so he cannot leave and pursue his dreams…especially not when his father dies.

He has a close, affectionate relationship with his family and friends. As a boy in winter, he saves his younger brother, Harry, from drowning in a lake, losing the hearing in his left ear in the process. George is always losing things of his own so he can give to others.

I’m impressed with the kindness and gentleness of his father, who never yells when his sons act inappropriately or wish to do so. (I wish my own, Potter-like father could have been more like George’s.) When the boy gets mad at mean old Potter, his dad deals with his anger in all patience; years later, when Harry is about to go to a party, their dad firmly tells him not to have any gin…but in a gentle voice.

In spite of the Baileys’ harmonious household, though, there’s the stereotyping of the black housemaid, Annie (Lillian Randolph), as a “mammie” (recall, in this connection, the racial stereotyping of Sam in Casablanca). Paul Robeson would hardly have approved, so it becomes harder and harder to link this film with communism. This all goes double for George twice wishing he had a million dollars, then saying, “Hot dog!

Much of the right-wing ire against this movie is centred around Mr. Potter as a banker; yet the Bailey Building and Loan is also a bank. The contrast isn’t between capitalism and communism–it’s between big, but unethical business and small, but ethical business.

Real communist sympathy would have been represented with a crushing of Potter’s banking empire, a symbolic revolution; but he isn’t even charged with theft of the Baileys’ $8,000 after George’s dim-witted Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) foolishly leaves the money wrapped in Potter’s newspaper. This theft is an unresolved injustice that somehow escaped the notice of the strictly moralistic Production Code, the members of which always insisted on showing good prevailing over evil in cinema, to edify the audience.

No threat to the existing capitalist order is even implied in this movie. The closest that the Bailey Building and Loan comes to being anything like socialism–in providing cheap homes for people like Mr. Martini (William Edmunds) and his family in Bailey Park, so these poor people don’t have to live in Potter’s slums–is, if anything, that compromise between socialism and capitalism known as social democracy…and recall that Capra didn’t even like FDR’s New Deal.

So the right-wing opposition to this film should be seen not in the light of the film itself, but in the light of the attitude of the right-wingers themselves. No form of capitalism is capitalistic enough for them; the ‘free market’ is never ‘free’ enough for them. So any act of generosity from the Building and Loan is deemed ‘communist’ in their tunnel vision.

Many attempts, typically disingenuous ones, have been made by capitalists to present a ‘kinder, gentler’ version of their economic system. One can debate the merits or demerits of their efforts (such as Ocasio-Cortez‘s Green New Deal, or Elizabeth Warren‘s attempts to create a ‘more ethical’ form of capitalism), but the point is that they’re still working within a capitalist framework. Private property remains intact in their systems; commodities are produced to make a profit; capital is still accumulated. All of these things are preserved in It’s a Wonderful Life. The Building and Loan isn’t even remotely socialist, so when right-wingers complain about the film’s ‘communist propaganda,’ they are being dishonest.

The whole point of the film, rather, is to see value in humble things, and to enjoy oneself even in humbling situations. At the high school graduation dance, two Othello and Iago-like boys–the former annoyed that Mary (Reed) would rather talk with George than listen to his endless prating–play a prank on Mary and George while they’re dancing the Charleston: the boys open a crack in the dance floor to expose the swimming pool underneath. When the two dancers fall in the water, instead of getting upset, they just laugh and continue dancing in the water. Their unbreakable high spirits inspire all the others, even ‘Othello’ and ‘Iago,’ to jump in the pool, too.

As George and Mary are walking home in their neighbourhood, they pass by a dilapidated old house. They make wishes and throw rocks, the breaking of windows supposedly making their wishes come true. Mary loves the house, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its terrible state of disrepair. She’d love to live in the house with a family and fix it up. (In fact, this is what she’s wished for: to marry George and raise a family in that house, which of course is a wish come true).

This love of what is low and modest, a wish to redeem it and make it into something good, is a Christian message: “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” (1 Corinthians 1:27).

While it is true that communists also wish to raise up what is base and humble, it was never Capra’s intention to spread socialist ideas, for the reasons I mentioned above. Recall that anti-communists complain about the “totalitarian” tendencies of the Soviet Union, not what it did to help the poor, because the capitalist is notorious for not caring about the poor.

Mr. Potter’s greed and meanness can be seen in Christian, and not so much anti-capitalist, terms, too. Recall what it says in 1 Timothy 6:10, “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Also, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25)

So, the battling between George and Potter, from Capra’s religious and conservative point of view, is not a battle between socialism and capitalism, but between the materialist atheist and the Christian who cares about his community. In his despair, George prays, even though he hasn’t normally been a religious man. The ultimate answer to his prayer, in the form of Clarence, gives George the faith in God that Capra was hoping to inspire in people.

That people like J. Edgar Hoover and Ayn Rand (she who considered selfishness to be a virtue [OK, she called it “rational egoism,” but let’s be honest, that expression was always just a euphemism for rationalized selfishness], and who was an atheist), were opposed to this film–when its perceived communism was actually altruism–is an indication of how strong the link actually is between capitalism and selfishness. Recall in this connection a quote on capitalism that is often attributed to John Maynard Keynes.

Still, Capra’s film isn’t trying to make the capitalist seem evil and selfish. Consider Sam Wainwright (Frank Albertson), the fellow who always says, “Hee-haw!” He’s a well-loved character throughout the film, and he becomes a successful businessman. His success is envied by George, who wants to leave his dead-end Building and Loan (even if not to join Sam’s company “on the ground floor”), but Sam is in no way portrayed as an evil capitalist.

The right-wing critics of the film, being of the Gordon Gekko type, just don’t like seeing greed and selfishness, as personified in Potter, portrayed in a truthful manner. While many Christians are of the right-wing sort that defend the depredations of the “free market” and of imperialism, including the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, other Christians are of the genuinely altruistic sort that recognize the evil of greed (see the Bible quotes above), the Church having included it among the seven deadly sins.

When a bank run almost ruins the Building and Loan, which happens right at the beginning of George’s and Mary’s honeymoon, the couple is forced to sacrifice their money to prevent their customers from going over to Potter in desperation and get only 50 cents on the dollar. George saves his bank at the end of the working day with only $2 left. Once again, the humble triumph, and proud Potter loses.

Instead of going on a beautiful vacation for their honeymoon, George and Mary have it in their crummy, leaking house during a heavy rainfall. Cabbie Ernie (Frank Faylen) and Police Officer Bert (Ward Bond) do their best to make the newlyweds’ dinner as sweet and romantic as possible, even singing a kind of serenade by the window, out in the rain. Again, modest resources are used to make the honeymoon the best it can be.

When World War II breaks out, it’s George’s younger brother Harry who wins the glory by saving the lives of men on a troop transport by shooting down kamikaze planes; but the contributions of George, Mary, and their mothers, as humble and unenviable as they are, still matter. Potter tempts George with a nice, high-paying job, which would grant him his dream of traveling in Europe, etc., but he quickly comes to his senses and won’t betray the Building and Loan.

When Christmas is approaching, and George loses the $8,000, he has to grovel before bitter old Potter, who–noting George’s life insurance–says he’s worth more dead than alive. Thus begins his suicide ideation. By focusing on his problems rather than his successes (i.e., all the friends he’s made by helping them), George takes his frustrations out on the very people whose happiness he should be most concerned with…his family. Later, he’s at the bridge, ready to jump, and Clarence saves him from suicide by, ironically, faking a suicide attempt of his own. By being saved by George, Clarence saves George.

Then, Clarence has George see a world in which George has never existed. Bert and Ernie don’t know him. Bedford Falls, taken over by Potter, is now “Pottersville,” a sin city littered with strip joints, bars, etc. (In this transformation of the town, we see not only how small people can do great things, that is, we feel the absence of those humble people and their achievements, but we also see the rotten fruits of the greed of rich big shots like Potter. So much for “rational self-interest.”)

Alienation permeates the town. Nick (Sheldon Leonard), the bartender/owner of the pub that was originally his boss Martini’s, is mean not only to George and Clarence, but also to former druggist Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner), a panhandler now, since George as a boy never stopped him from accidentally putting poison in a prescription. Finally, George’s own mother doesn’t recognize him, and Mary, a spinster at the local library, faints when he calls her his wife.

At the end of the ordeal, he sees the value in his life, and wants to live again. In spite of all his misfortunes, he’s thrilled to see “Pottersville” changed back to Bedford Falls. He doesn’t care that he’s going to jail: he just wants to see his family again.

And the movie ends not with an uprising against Potter and his business empire (which, by the way, would have been soooooooooo gratifying!), but with all of George’s friends and neighbours donating money to compensate for the $8,000 that Potter could easily have given back.

This isn’t a socialist ending: it’s an outpouring of charity. In fact, it’s an example of liberal thinking, that is, as liberalism was understood to be back in the mid-1940s. It’s a case of Christian, family values.

It isn’t communism; it’s just a kinder, gentler conservatism.

The irony in all these right-wingers’ attempts to smear the movie as socialist is that they have managed only to smear themselves. Only a Potter would see Potter as slandered.

Analysis of ‘mother!’

I: Introduction

mother! is a 2017 psychological horror film written and directed by Darren Aronofsky (who also did Black Swan). It stars Jennifer Lawrence in the title role, with Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer. It is about a wife (mother) and husband (Him–Bardem) whose idyllic home is intruded on by increasing numbers of guests, whose outrageous behaviour drives the agitated wife into madness and despair, causing her to burn down the house that the guests are treating more and more disrespectfully.

The story is an allegory of how the human race is slowly destroying our ability to live on Earth. The house represents the Earth, mother is the goddess of the Earth, and Him (the only character whose name is capitalized) is God. The Biblical parallels continue with man (Harris) representing Adam, woman (Pfeiffer) representing Eve, their two adult sons representing Cain (Domhnall Gleeson) and Abel (Brian Gleeson), and the infant son of Him and mother representing the Christ child.

These two allegories resulted in a polarized reaction from audiences, some of whom praised the environmental message, while others found the Biblical parallels and violence offensive.

II: Quotes

“Baby?” —mother, after waking up (first line of the movie)

“I wanna make a Paradise.” —mother

“My wife *loves* having company.” —Him

mother: Stop, they’re ruining everything!

Him: These are just things. They can be replaced.

[to Mother] “The inspiration! Where have you been hiding?” [to revolutionaries] “Finish her.” –herald

“Make them go!” —mother, to Him

Him: I’m his father.

mother: And I’m his mother!

[to the followers of Him] “Murderers!” [to Him] “Murderer! It’s time to get the fuck…” [scratches his face as his followers gasp] “…out of my house!” —mother

mother: *What* are you?

Him: Me? I, am I. You? You were home.

mother: Where are you taking me?

Him: The beginning. [pause] It won’t hurt much longer.

mother: What hurts me the most is that I wasn’t enough.

Him: It’s not your fault. Nothing is ever enough. I couldn’t create if it was. And I have to. That’s what I do. That’s what I am. And now I must try it all again.

“Baby?” –next mother, after waking up (last line)

III: So Much Allegory and Symbolism

Since the ecological allegory has been discussed so many times before, I don’t have all that much to add to it. Instead, without denying the ecological interpretation, I’ll be doing a different one, since this movie is so rich in symbolism that many overlapping, intersecting, and even contradictory interpretations can coexist. And if you, Dear Reader, are familiar with my writing, you’ll know of my dialectical treatment of contradictions, making all interpretations valid, since any one interpretation can flow into the other, then back again.

Because the characters’ generic-sounding names will make the distinction between them difficult, I’ll usually be calling them by different names, those indicative of who the characters represent. Hence, mother is “Gaea,” Him is “Yahweh,” man is “Adam,” woman is “Eve,” the oldest son is “Cain,” the younger brother is “Abel,” and the baby is “Jesus.” This renaming will remind us of the original allegories, helping us see how those ones intersect with mine to uncover new meanings.

IV: In the Beginning

“Yahweh” smiles as he places a crystal object on a mantel, which causes his and “Gaea’s” home, previously burned down by his ex-wife, to be instantly and miraculously restored. “Gaea” wakes up in bed, noting that he isn’t lying beside her. She calls out, “Baby?”

What’s interesting about her saying this, referring to Him (the first and last word said in the whole film), is how it contrasts with their ages. “Yahweh” is old enough to be her father; “Adam” (who, incidentally, is just barely old enough to be the father of Him) later will mistakenly think she is “Yahweh’s” daughter.

Yahweh is a storm and sky-father god like Zeus and Uranus, the latter being Gaea‘s son and husband. Uranus was also castrated, which corresponds with “Yahweh’s” sexual impotence early in the film, a symbolic castration that prevents Him from getting “Gaea” pregnant.

This symbolic swapping of the ‘parent/child’ relationship introduces the theme of the dialectical unity of opposites in the film. Another example of this swapping can be seen in how, usually, the sky is a father god and the earth is a mother goddess; but in ancient Egyptian myth, Nut is the sky goddess and Geb is the earth god. Since, in Biblical myth, God will destroy all life on Earth when the apocalypse comes, and “Gaea,” having already spoken of preparing for the apocalypse, burns down the house at the end of the film, mother can thus be seen in this way as a sky mother goddess.

“Gaea” looks around the house for Him, reaching the front door, opening it, and looking out at the Edenic scenery surrounding the house. She’s wearing see-through bedclothes, with her nipples showing; this suggests Eve’s unashamed nakedness, which leads me to my next point about the swapping of opposites.

Since this married couple are the first man and woman we see in this Edenic setting, “Yahweh” and “Gaea” can also be seen to represent Adam and Eve, every bit as much as man and woman do. The creators swap roles with the created. This parallel between the two married couples continues when we see the sons of both violently killed. “Abel” is killed by jealous “Cain,” and “Jesus” is an Abel in his own right, killed by the Cains of the crowd of “Yahweh’s” fanatical followers; were they jealous of the love of Him toward his newborn baby, and in ingesting its mutilated body in a ghoulish variation on the Eucharist, are they hoping to be similarly loved…by being “Jesus”?

V: Hell is Other People

When “Gaea” is startled by Him, behind her at the front porch, we can see a foreshadowing of her anthropophobia, her fear and intense dislike of people. She would be only with Him and their future baby, not with anyone else.

Her anthropophobia leads to the central conflict of this movie, something sidestepped in the ecological interpretation. Her life with Him is Eden, a paradise…heaven; but as Jean-Paul Sartre observed, hell is other people. In this movie, Sartre’s dictum applies in both its correct and incorrect interpretations. The popular misconception of Sartre’s meaning is shown in how, the more that people intrude on “Gaea’s” life, the more hellish it is; but the correct meaning, the hell of never escaping from how others’ perceptions of us shape our self-concept, is present in the film, too.

People throughout the movie say disparaging or invalidating things to “Gaea,” and they give her dirty looks, all to depreciate her worth. They don’t listen to her or respect how she feels. This makes her dislike herself so much that she burns herself with the house and all the other people. The split external object becomes the introjected split internal object.

VI: The Other as a Mirror of the Self

Her growing dislike of herself is necessarily linked to her dislike of the others, because other people looking in our faces are metaphorical mirrors of ourselves. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the structural growth of the personality is relational with other people; there is a bit of the other in the self, and vice versa.

“Gaea” would rather remain in a one-on-one, dyadic relationship with Him than engage with society in general, because her interactions with Him–that is, she and “Yahweh” looking into each other’s eyes lovingly–are, metaphorically, a narcissistic mirroring of each other that she can’t replicate with the world.

She is stuck in the Imaginary Order with Him; “Yahweh” is her symbolic mirror, a (non-visual) kind of counterpart for her who reflects her narcissism back to her (and his narcissistic vanity, as we know, is off the charts!). Since he’s old enough to be her father, her relationship with Him can be seen as symbolically Oedipal.

VII: The Need for More People

This symbolic Oedipus complex can be seen in reverse, too, since “Gaea” calls out to her son/lover Uranus at the beginning and end of the film, saying, “Baby?”; but “Yahweh” wants to break free of the limitations of the dyadic relationship with her, since he can’t use language and write poetry while stuck in the Imaginary. He must enter the Symbolic Order‘s world of language, its shared signifiers, customs, and societal laws.

To do so, he must bring people into the house.

So, with this idea that characters’ roles can be reversed–the ‘parent/child’ relationship between “Gaea” and “Yahweh” (or Uranus), and the creator/created relationship between ‘the gods’ in the house and the “Adam” and “Eve” visitors–now we can see that the arrival of man not only symbolizes God creating Adam, but also that man represents Yahweh “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8), beginning the chain of events that will bring about the Fall, symbolized by the coming mayhem in the movie.

So “Adam,” whose stories inspire Him, is also in this context the Name of the Father (le nom, or Non! du père–recall that man is just old enough to be the father of “Yahweh”), whose nom gives “Yahweh” the words he needs to write again, but whose Non! forbids “Gaea” to keep “Yahweh” all to herself.

Lacanian psychoanalysis explains how the Name of the Father dissolves the Oedipus complex, taking boys out of the one-on-one relationship with Mother (and girls out of the dyadic relationship with Father) as symbolized with the ‘parent/child/marital relationship,’ if you will, of “Gaea” and “Yahweh”/”Uranus,” and thus freeing them of the constraints of the Imaginary to bring them into the social world of the Symbolic. [For a more thorough explanation of Lacanian and other psychoanalytic concepts, click here.]

VIII: Rejecting Society Leads to Madness

“Gaea,” however, doesn’t want to leave the dyadic, symbolically Oedipal world of the Imaginary. In her refusal to accept the Symbolic, its society, signifiers, and language, she expels, or forecloses, the fundamental signifier of the Name of the Father, and this Lacanian foreclosure will lead to her having a psychotic break with reality. Her psychosis explains the increasingly surreal, hallucinatory attacks on her house that we see later on in the film. We see them because, in seeing the film entirely from her perspective (camera shots show either her face, her point of view, or what’s seen over her shoulder), she hallucinates them.

Before any serious disruption of her peaceful life with Him by all those people has even begun, we see hints that she is already mentally disturbed. She notices a heart beating within the wall: it’s the heart, we eventually learn, of the previous “Gaea” who burned down the house at the beginning of the film. Her identification with her predecessor in the wall suggests a connection between mother! and Charlotte Perkins Gilman‘s “Yellow Wallpaper,” a first-person-narrated short story about a Victorian-era woman slowly going mad.

Environmentalist and Biblical allegories aside, mother! shouldn’t be taken too much at face value. One should give serious consideration as to how much of what we see is just “Gaea’s” imagination running wild. After all, this isn’t the first of Aronofsky’s films to feature a woman going insane. “Gaea” may be upset about all of the damage being done to her house, but she’s also the one who burns it down to the ground.

Sometimes, in her growing social anxiety, “Gaea” drinks a yellow powder mixed in water, which gives at least some relief to the shakiness and nausea that result from her anthropophobia. I’m guessing that this medicine is, or at least represents, a kind of psychiatric drug that, while not outright eliminating her hallucinations, at least makes them manageable.

When she knows she’s finally pregnant, she seems to think she doesn’t need the drink anymore, so she flushes it down the toilet. As we soon learn, though, when all those people arrive to celebrate “Yahweh’s” new poem, her hallucinations fly out of control.

IX: Eve

Having “Adam” sleep in their home makes “Gaea” uneasy enough as it is, but the arrival of “Eve” makes her all the more agitated. It doesn’t take long for “Eve” to reveal herself as nosy, prying, and obnoxious.

Still, let’s reconsider woman‘s personality in light of what we know about “Gaea,” whose perspective is all we have telling the story. We sympathize with “Gaea” because all the events are given from her point of view, making her into the main victim; but the increasingly surreal nature of what we see through her eyes must be hallucinations and delusion, thus making her an unreliable narrator.

So, objectively speaking, is “Eve” really as irritating as “Gaea” perceives her to be? The same legitimate question can be asked of mother‘s perception of Him, “Adam,” “Cain,” “Abel,” and all the other intruders of her home. I’m not saying that “Gaea” is completely in the wrong, and that all the others are beyond reproach; it’s just that she must be exaggerating what’s wrong with them in her mind, as well as portraying herself as blameless.

X: Knowledge

So, with all these considerations in mind, we can now see “Eve” in a whole new light. Since the Biblical Eve was tempted by the serpent to eat of the Tree of Knowledge (“Good and Evil”tov wa-ra, being a merism reflecting everything from the best to the worst; therefore, it’s a tree of the knowledge of, potentially, everything), and she in turn tempted Adam with the forbidden fruit of the tree, we can see not only “Eve’s” nosiness, but also her giving “Gaea” the glass of lemonade (the forbidden fruit drink, if you will) as instances of her wanting to share knowledge and have knowledge shared with her.

Recall in this context the swapping of ‘parent/child,’ or ‘creator/created’ roles: “Eve” is old enough to be “Gaea’s” mother, just as “Yahweh” and “Adam” are old enough to be her father. With this mother/daughter roleplay in mind, we can see how “Eve” is like a mother to “Gaea,” seeking to give and receive knowledge (Wilfred Bion‘s notion of the K-link) by connecting socially with her ‘daughter,’ so to speak. “Gaea,” however, rejects such a communal exchanging of knowledge (-K) because she doesn’t like socializing.

“Gaea” says she’s uncomfortable talking to “Eve” about her relationship with Him, which on the surface seems like a perfectly reasonable objection, given “Eve’s” forward, prying questions; but how much of this questioning is truly inappropriate, and how much of it is hallucinated, a product of “Gaea’s” paranoid imagination?

According to Bion’s expansion of Kleinian object relations theory (again, click here for more info on Bion‘s, Klein‘s, and other psychoanalytic concepts if you’re unfamiliar with them), a baby develops an ability to think by learning how to process emotional experiences with its mother, who (through maternal reverie) processes the agitating external stimuli (beta elements) first, then sends them back to her baby in a tolerable form (alpha elements). The baby thus gradually grows in K, learns how to process and relate to the external world for itself, and grows to be a mentally healthy person.

But if–either through bad parenting, or through one’s aggravated refusal to accommodate external excitations–one won’t accept this indispensable need to grow in K through linking with society (a problem explained, in Lacanian terms, as foreclosure–see above), external stimuli are projected outwards with split-off pieces of one’s personality; and these pieces become what Bion called bizarre objects, hallucinatory projections of one’s psychotic inner state. This degenerative process explains what’s happening to “Gaea”: the hostility and violence she sees all around her is a projection of her own misanthropy.

XI: The Fall

“Eve’s” meddling in the private affairs of the house extends to “Adam” when they enter “Yahweh’s” room and accidentally cause his crystal to fall from the mantel and break. He is so upset that he yells, “Quiet!” at the chattering couple. Since this crystal, we later learn, was in the heart of the previous “Gaea,” we realize that “Yahweh,” being as upset as he is about the broken crystal, must have really loved her. She was more than someone he was merely using; which is not to say he never mistreated her (or that he isn’t mistreating the current “Gaea”), but that he isn’t as wicked as he seems. In spite of his obvious flaws, “Yahweh” sincerely loves the current “Gaea,” too, as he will love future “Gaeas.”

She opens a door and, to her embarrassment, stumbles upon “Adam” and “Eve” making love. Since they are her symbolic parents, seeing them this way represents the childhood trauma that Freud called the primal scene. Later, “Gaea” returns to tell them they have to leave, but uncooperative “Eve” opens the door to reveal herself in her bra; like Biblical Eve, she is “naked…and…not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25)

XII: The Downward Spiral

So far, we have seen a slipping-away from “Gaea’s” paradise, which–understood in the terminology of Hindu cosmology–would be called the Satya Yuga, a Golden Age from which would begin a decline to progressively corrupt and wicked ages, ending in the Kali Yuga, in which–according to Hindu thinking–our sinful world is now, close to total destruction and a cyclical rebirth to a returned Golden Age.

I would describe this cyclical decline, from Edenic paradise to fiery Armageddon, in the symbolism of the ouroboros, as I’ve done many times before. The serpent’s biting head is the Satya Yuga, its bitten tail is the Kali Yuga, and “Gaea” and “Yahweh” are, as of this point in the movie, just behind the serpent’s head, at the end of the Satya Yuga. They will continue to slide down the length of the ouroboros’ slippery circular continuum of a body, till they get to that bitten tail…then to the biting head again, at the very end.

XIII: Brotherly Hate

The shit really hits the fan when “Cain” and “Abel” barge into the house, fighting over what “Cain” believes is “Adam’s” unfair will favouring “Abel” over him. “Cain” hysterically shouts that “Adam” and “Eve” don’t love him. The brothers fight, and we all know who kills whom.

This sibling rivalry and jealousy parallels the jealousy “Gaea” feels whenever “Yahweh” neglects her in favour of their guests. As I’ve said above, “Yahweh”–about twenty years older than her–can be seen as a symbolic father of hers. Her jealousy of the guests can thus be seen as Oedipal. She wants Him all to herself, and doesn’t want to share. “Cain” feels the same way about “Adam” (as Biblical Cain felt about God and His favouring of Abel’s sacrifice over his), and he is so upset about what he perceives is a favouring of his younger brother that he kills him. “Gaea,” at the end of the film, will kill all the “Abels” in the house.

The Oedipal Eden is the dyadic parent/child relationship: one child and his or her opposite-sex parent, or, in the case of the negative Oedipus complex, one child and his or her same-sex parent. The point is that one wants to live in an ideal world of oneself with one idealized other as a mirror of one’s own narcissism, this other being an extension of oneself in the Imaginary Order.

“Yahweh,” however, wants the radical alterity of the Other, or a society of many other people in the Symbolic Order. So he leaves the house with “Adam,” “Eve,” and the corpse of “Abel,” while “Cain” leaves the area alone with a bloodied forehead.

“Gaea” is traumatized from having witnessed the murder, and she’s terrified of being alone in the house, without Him. On the surface, it appears that “Yahweh” is being insensitive to her by leaving her alone; she later accuses Him of having “abandoned” her. But without “Cain” around to help carry the body (he would be too ashamed even to show his face), “Yahweh” feels obligated to help. He is being negligent to her, to be sure, but she is exaggerating his negligence in her mind.

With her alone in the house that night, there is a moment of relative calm. “Cain” briefly returns, frightening her (after all, he “did the first murder”–Hamlet, Act V, Scene i). “Yahweh” returns, and things seem better for the moment.

XIV: The Treta Yuga

The second quarter of the movie begins, representative of the Treta Yuga, a decline from the Satya Yuga. These Yugas may not be paralleled point for point with their four counterparts in the film, but neither are the Biblical parallels. That things are clearly changing for the worse, quarter by quarter, until there begins a repeat of the cycle at the end (as a previous cycle ended at the very beginning of the movie), is justification enough to compare the four quarters of mother! to the Yugas.

A kind of funeral gathering is held in the house for grieving “Adam” and “Eve.” “Yahweh” tries to comfort them with a poetic speech, saying that, in a way, one never really dies. He says, “there’s a voice crying out to be heard, loud and strong. Just listen.” [The guests, especially “Adam,” weep out loud.] “Do you hear that? Do you hear that? That is the sound of life. That is the sound of humanity. That is your son’s voice.” He means that their weeping is “Abel’s” weeping…thus, he is still alive.

The growing number of guests entering the house makes “Gaea” extremely uncomfortable. A young man and woman plan to use “Gaea’s” and “Yahweh’s” bedroom to have sex, reminding us of when the sons of God lay with the daughters of men. “Gaea” kicks the lovers out of her room.

“Gaea” has her yellow-powder drink, and tells some other guests not to occupy the upstairs to chat. The man and woman who were going to have sex in her bed are now painting the walls of the first floor of the house; “Gaea” tells them to stop. A man tries to pick her up, and calls her “an arrogant cunt” when she rejects him. She begs guests not to sit on the unstable kitchen counter by the sink.

How much of the above is really happening and how much is hallucination, is hard to say (her yellow drink seems less effective; perhaps, because of overuse, she’s building a tolerance to it?). Presumably the more outrageous things that happen are more her imagination than reality. In any case, the sink breaks down because those sitting on the counter won’t respect her wishes; the spraying of water everywhere symbolizes the Great Flood. “Gaea” can’t take the guests anymore, and screams at all of them to leave the house.

She argues with “Yahweh” over how he’s been neglecting her in being over-accommodating to the guests. He insists he needs them to help Him write, as I’ve explained above with the Lacanian interpretation. She taunts Him over his impotence; this symbolic castration is their shared manque (recall, in this connection, how she, as Gaea, is symbolic mother to Him as her lover, Uranus). Her taunt drives Him to grab her, and they finally have sex.

Thus ends the Treta Yuga, and we have another moment of temporary calm. She soon discovers that she is pregnant, with no need of any tests: she just knows, and she’s right. “Gaea,” the earth mother goddess has become the Mother of God; for with “Yahweh” as the baby’s father, her intuitive prescience of her pregnancy suggests an Immaculate Conception, a coming miraculous birth.

XV: The New Testament–New Words, New Desires

So, with “Gaea” as Mary, we begin the Dvapara Yuga, or the New Testament, as it were. And the New Testament is symbolized by the new poem that “Yahweh” writes; and since their baby symbolizes Jesus, “Yahweh” can now be seen as God the Father. He has an explosion of inspiration: the words just flow from his pen.

Since there isn’t the limitation of a two-person relationship anymore, that of the mutually mirroring world of the Imaginary, but now a three-person relationship (that three being representative of all of society’s people in general, the many-peopled Other instead of the two-person other), “Yahweh” can exploit the language of the Symbolic. He can finally write.

Now, the signifier (i.e., the word) takes precedence over the signified (the meaning) because one cannot express meaning without something visual or auditory to represent it (think of looking up an obscure word in the dictionary, only to find it defined by other obscure words that now have to be looked up, too!). The chain of signifiers is like a long surface of cracked ice over a flowing river of signifieds; meanings (and potential future meanings) flow under that chain of signifiers that we’re compelled to follow. This following is expressive of human desire, because we always want more…we’re never satisfied.

The urge to keep that meaning flowing, from signification to new signification, is the basis of the idolatry of the many followers of “Yahweh.” A kind of priest representing Him blesses them, saying, “His words are yours.” In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with Him, and the Word was Him. Accordingly, “Yahweh” blesses his followers with a mark, a brown smudge on their heads, that mark being a kind of signifier.

XVI: The Beginning of the End

With idolatry comes zealous loyalty to Him, hence the religious wars that are symbolized by the fighting, violence, and destruction we see when the next group of guests comes. Before they come, “Gaea” reads the new poem and weeps, knowing the tragedy that is prophesied; when the writing ends, the signifier chain of desire ends, with nothing more to fulfill it, and that’s the end of the world. Before even reading the poem, she has already said that she’ll prepare for the Apocalypse…and recall her flushing the yellow powder down the toilet, the only thing that will keep her hallucinations under control.

Her embrace of fatalism shows that something much larger than “Yahweh” merely manipulating “Gaea” is happening. He must do what he’s doing, or else he can’t write. She must have a baby, or she won’t be mother; also, she must allow herself to lose her mind, for such is the drama of history as set in the poem. Creation must be for there to be destruction, and vice versa; the same goes for life and death. All opposites are dialectically linked.

Marx once said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” As we see our world dying from the ravages of imperialist war and global warming, do we want to sit back and be fatalists, or do we want to do something about it?

Since “Yahweh” is a poet, a writer of verses with a large, fanatical following, we can see Him not so much as representing God, but as representing the manipulative religious authorities who pretend, with their pretty writing, to have the moral answers to all our spiritual problems.

XVII: If I May Digress for a Moment…

Similarly, “Gaea” doesn’t so much represent our mother Earth (that would be the house and surrounding trees and grass, which she burns to a crisp at the end) as she does the liberal Hollywood establishment that preaches about the dangers of climate change, but does little, if anything, about it. These green capitalists don’t have the answers.

I’m sure that Greta Thunberg is a sweet girl with a good heart and the best of intentions; but the green capitalists are leading her by the nose. The greatest pollutant threatening our ecology is imperialist war…all those bombs being dropped. The green capitalists have nothing to say about this problem, because they need to continue generating profits to build, for example, electric cars using the lithium they can steal from Bolivia.

The liberal rails away about how insane the business leaders are when they pollute the air, water, and land. A radical Marxist analysis, however, recognizes the diabolical logic, the evil intentions, behind these businessmen’s schemes. Knowing this logic leads to a real answer to our problems, that will to change history instead of merely interpreting it: not with the violence of war, but of socialist revolution.

XVIII: Gaea’s Baby, Gaea’s Madness

Back to the movie. “Gaea’s” pregnancy, her preparations for the birth, and her growing paranoia about the new flood of guests to come into her house remind us of Rosemary Woodhouse and her nosy neighbours, the Castevets, who drive her to near madness with their conspiracy over her baby. Recall how the heartbeat of the previous “Gaea” through the wall, as well as the ‘bleeding’ yonic mark on the wooden floor, agitates her, suggesting the growing madness of the woman in The Yellow Wallpaper. “Gaea” is having a psychotic breakdown. We sympathize with her, but we mustn’t rely on her perception of events.

When I say we she’s an unreliable narrator, am I saying that the environmental allegory is invalid? Am I agreeing with the right-wing climate change deniers? Of course not. I’m simply saying that the bourgeois liberal reaction to the problem is hopelessly wrong-headed: in fact, her burning down of the house at the end implies that even Aronofsky knows that the liberal reaction is wrong. This is why, in spite of its wrong-headed nihilism, I still consider mother! to be a great film. As I’ve argued in a number of my other film analyses, there is an undercurrent of truth to be discovered in these films…if one looks carefully enough behind the bourgeois Hollywood covering.

XIX: Narcissism

Narcissism expresses itself in a number of ways throughout this film, not just in the overt way in which we see “Yahweh” basking in the adulation of his fans, while generally neglecting “Gaea.” It’s also expressed in the group narcissism of his fans, who idealize and identify with Him. He displays the grandiose self, while they have done a transference, making Him, “Yahweh” as God the Father, into their symbolic idealized parental imago.

Then there’s the third manifestation of narcissism: the timid, covert form exhibited by “Gaea” herself. She wants “Yahweh” to mirror her narcissism back to her in a dyadic relationship; when she gives birth to “Jesus,” she’ll want to replace Him with the child. As Robert Graves once said, “Woman worships the male infant, not the grown man: it is evidence of her deity, of man’s dependence on her for life.” (Graves, page 110)

Covert narcissists often make themselves out to be victims, and this self-pity is much of the basis for “Gaea’s” hallucinatory exaggerating and catastrophizing of the presence of “all these people.” To be fair to her, “Yahweh” is ego-tripping and focusing on his fans at her expense…to an extent. Similarly, at least some of the guests are probably doing some inappropriate things…again, to an extent. But I am convinced that her paranoid imagination is making up the rest of the problems.

XX: Hallucinations and Trauma

Allegory aside, are we really supposed to take seriously the idea of police and army raids on the house, with gunfire, explosions, tear gas, and flames everywhere? Are we expected to believe that a religious cult will grow around a popular poem? “Gaea” is hallucinating!

Speaking of religion, I suspect that the real reason she is seeing and hearing all these Biblical references is that she, as a child or teenager, was sexually abused by Catholic priests, maybe even gang-raped by them, in the manner described in Sade‘s Justine. This would provide the traumatic basis of her social anxiety. After all, the environmentalist allegory is about the rape of the Earth.

All those people pouring through the doors–front, back, and sides–and breaking through the windows symbolizes a gang rape of the house she identifies with, multiple penetrations of the vagina, mouth, and anus. Her hallucinating of such aggressive entries suggests a reliving of PTSD trauma.

XXI: I Am Not What I Am

She identifies with the house, but she isn’t the house. This méconnaissance is symbolically an example of the self-alienation felt in the mirror stage (i.e., the house walls and bleeding floors, where she senses the presence, the heartbeat, of the previous “Gaea,” are a metaphor for her reflection in a mirror, her self-perception through externality), the disparity between the ideal-I that she is facing and her imperfect self facing the ideal.

“Yahweh,” of course, has his méconnaissance, his narcissistic ideal-I, too, as the God-like poet, versus his real, imperfect, vain self, whose neglect of his wife is precipitating her growing madness. He does show some caring for her, though, even if it is woefully inadequate. He helps her find a place alone and safe, his boarded-up study, where she can go into labour, and she does, ending the Dvapara Yuga. We have another moment of calm.

She holds and guards baby “Jesus” like the Madonna. Now that she has her son, he can fulfill her need for a one-on-one, mirrored relationship. As an extension of herself, “Jesus” is all-important to her…”Yahweh,” not so much now. In fact, “Yahweh” is becoming inimical to her, especially since he wants to show “Jesus” to all his loyal followers, whom she so intensely fears and hates.

In their arguing over whether or not he can take the baby and show it to his followers, his appeal to her as the baby’s father is easily rebuffed by her far more sacred status as his mother, so “Yahweh” must respect this…at least while she’s awake. His taking of “Jesus” from her arms while she sleeps, and taking him out of the study to show to his cult thus begins the most horrifying Yuga of them all: the Kali Yuga, named after the demon, not the consort of Siva (who is also known as the Divine Mother, and the Mother of the Universe)…though the mother goddess’s burning down of the house is certainly in keeping with Siva‘s and Kali’s destructiveness.

XXII: Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?

“Gaea” wakes up and frantically races after “Yahweh,” demanding to have “Jesus” back. The hallucinatory nature of this scene is obvious in how absurd it is to imagine a religious cult passing around a baby over their heads, the way fans at a rock concert would carry a rock star after he did a stage dive.

Probably what has really happened is that “Yahweh” wanted to show their baby to some guests, a perfectly reasonable thing that any proud new father would want to do; but “Gaea’s” anthropophobia forbids it, and so she hallucinates the horrific scene that we see. Perhaps, in reality, a guest has been clumsy with the baby, dropping him, his death caused by his head having hit the hard floor; but instead, “Gaea” hallucinates an act of cannibalism, a gory parody of Holy Communion…and she explodes.

After she attacks a few of “Yahweh’s” followers, she’s hit on the head by the priest (who has echoed the words of the eulogy “Yahweh” gave for “Abel”: “a voice still cries out to be heard,…” etc., thus further paralleling his death with that of “Jesus”). Then the crowd of fanatical “Yahweh” worshippers beat on “Gaea” in such an obscene way, tearing at her clothing and exposing her breasts, that it can be symbolically associated with a gang rape.

Again, I see this attack as another hallucination, a reliving of the gang-rape trauma I speculate as the basis of her fear and hatred of large groups of people. That the priest hits her with the first blow reinforces my speculation that priests were her gang-rapists, hence the association of Biblical concepts with the rape-like attacks on her house/Earth.

“Yahweh” intervenes and stops her attackers. I believe he is feeling sincere, though feebly expressed, love for her in his tears, apologies, and angry demand, “What are you doing?”. His Christian wish for her to forgive them for the–as I speculate–accidental killing of “Jesus” pushes her over the edge, given how she has hallucinated about the cannibalistic eating of their baby. She sees Him now as being as evil as all of them: she projects her psychosis onto all of them.

XXIII: Apocalypse

After burning down the house, as he carries her, she says that what hurts her the most is how she can’t be enough for Him. Such is Lacanian desire, to have the recognition of others: one wants what one imagines others must want, out of a wish to be acknowledged by them. Desire is of the Other. This is true of “Yahweh,” too: he, wanting their recognition, desires what his readers desire, so he gives to them as best he can, giving “Adam” and “Eve” accommodations, helping carry “Abel’s” body, and eulogizing him.

This desiring what others desire, recognition, something ultimately unfulfillable, is linked to Sartre’s dictum, “hell is other people.” We cannot fulfill our desire in fulfilling theirs, we won’t get the recognition we want, and so their judgement of our inadequacies is our hell, our fiery inferno, for we can’t escape judging ourselves based on their judgements.

Desire is the fire that Buddhists blow out with nirvana. Our endless quest to satisfy that unfulfillable desire, however, spreads the fire that ultimately destroys everything.

“Yahweh” removing the crystal from her heart–which I believe is a continuation of her hallucinating, even to the point of being a wish-fulfilling dream (i.e., she wants to die, and the green capitalism that she personifies leads to more destruction, not less)–is the ultimate evil of the ending of the Kali Yuga. “Yahweh” at this moment is like those capitalists who tear up the Earth to enrich themselves with her natural resources.

His toothy grin, seen when he puts the new crystal on the mantel, looks wicked in the extreme, given the context of what just preceded. But this is the beginning of the next Satya Yuga, the superlatively joyful beginning of a new Golden Age: what else would “Yahweh” be doing but smiling?

The restoration of the house, and the appearance of a new “Gaea,” waking and calling out “Baby?” is really the same woman reliving the trauma all over again, what Freud called “the compulsion to repeat” what is painful, a manifestation of the self-destructive death drive. She doesn’t look like the previous “Gaea” because she is alienated from herself, with her heart buried in that wall.

XXIV: Alienation and Capitalism

She is alienated from herself, just as she is alienated from humanity, hence her fear and hate of all those around her. This alienation is something most, if not all, of us share, because the real root of the problem of ecocide is the same as that of alienation: capitalism.

Those liberals who think we can solve the problem of climate change merely by ‘reforming’ capitalism are fooling themselves, and they are doing so at everyone’s–and the planet’s–peril. War is the greatest polluter of them all; the green capitalists ignore this. When Thunberg meets and greets Obama, whose administration was responsible for bombing seven countries in 2016, that should tell you something. Trump has been even worse.

War is big business, making profits for Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, etc. If you want to solve climate change, end all these wars. Defund the Pentagon. The powers-that-be, of course, won’t let the people do that, which is why the US can never get even a moderate progressive to have a shot at being elected president. We can’t legislate the super-rich out of their wealth. Only revolution will stop them from destroying the planet.

Conservatives, of course, ignore the ecological problem entirely, imagining that all the fuss is just part of an agenda to bring more ‘intrusive government’ into our lives, while they cheerfully and hypocritically support right-wing governments that do plenty of intruding into people’s lives. It doesn’t occur to the climate change deniers (assuming they aren’t outright lying) that the real political agenda is to avoid paying taxes and taking responsibility for the mess that their endless quest for profits has caused.

XV: Conclusion

At the same time, though, we’ll never solve the ecological crisis in a spirit of misanthropy. “Gaea” is no more in the right, when she rejects people and pushes them away, than “Yahweh” is, in his narcissistic addiction to being worshipped by his fans, all the while ignoring her emotional needs.

We must acknowledge a mixture of good and bad in both “Gaea” and “Yahweh,” to see them both as basically well-intentioned, but also as seriously flawed; not to see one as all-good and the other as all-bad, which is the essence of splitting, an inhibiting of healthy object relationships that is the cause of alienation. First, we must mend our relationships with others, having a healthy sense of ambivalence in people (that ability to see both good and bad in everyone); then we can all rise up in solidarity and defeat the capitalist class, who always put profits over people and the planet.

Only then can we save our home from the fire.

Analysis of ‘Se7en’

Se7en is a 1995 neo-noir thriller written by Andrew Kevin Walker and directed by David Fincher. It stars Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey, and Gwyneth Paltrow, with R. Lee Ermey, John C. McGinley, and Richard Roundtree.

A serial killer known only as “John Doe” (Spacey) targets his victims based on each of them being guilty of committing one of the seven deadly sins; and two detectives, Lieutenant William Somerset (Freeman) and David Mills (Pitt), must track Doe down before he completes his grisly sermon, to teach people not to trivialize the deadly sins.

Here are some quotes:

[first lines]

Detective Taylor: Neighbors heard them screaming at each other, like for two hours, and it was nothing new. Then they heard the gun go off, both barrels. Crime of passion.

William Somerset: Yeah, just look at all the passion on that wall.

*********

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a homicide.” –Mills, of the ‘Gluttony’ victim

“Long is the way, /And hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” —John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book II, Lines 432-33.

“Fuckin’ Dante… poetry-writing faggot! Piece of shit, motherfucker!” –Mills, banging a book in frustration

“‘One pound of flesh; no more, no less. No cartilage, no bone, but only flesh.’ Merchant of Venice.” –Somerset, of the ‘Greed’ victim

“He’s experienced about as much pain and suffering as anyone I’ve encountered, give or take…and he still has hell to look forward to.” Dr. Beardsley, of the ‘Sloth’ victim

*********

Somerset: Victor’s landlord said there was an envelope of cash in the office mailbox the first of every month. Quote: “I never heard a single complaint from the tenant in apartment 306, and nobody ever complained about him. He’s the best tenant I’ve ever had.” End quote.

Mills: Yeah, a landlord’s dream: a paralyzed tenant with no tongue.

Somerset: Who pays the rent on time.

*********

“It’s dismissive to call him a lunatic. Don’t make that mistake.” –Somerset, to Mills

*********

[Mills and Somerset are reading through the FBI results] MillsModern Homicide InvestigationIn Cold BloodOf Human Bondage … bondage?

Somerset: Not what you think it is.

Mills: Okay. The Marquis de-Shaday …

Somerset: It’s the Marquis de Sade.

Mills: Whatever. The Writings of Saint Thomas Aqua-something.

Somerset: Saint Thomas Aquinas? There it is. He wrote about the seven deadly sins. Is that it?

Mills: Yeah.

*********

Somerset: We must forget our emotion. We must focus on the details.

Mills: I feed off my emotions. How’s that?

*********

“It’s impressive to see a man feed off his emotions.” –Somerset (annoyed), of Mills

“What sick ridiculous puppets we are / and what a gross little stage we dance on / What fun we have dancing and fucking / Not a care in the world / Not knowing that we are nothing / We are not what was intended.” –Somerset, reading from one of John Doe’s journals

“On the subway today, a man came up to me to start a conversation. He made small talk, a lonely man talking about the weather and other things. I tried to be pleasant and accommodating, but my head hurt from his banality. I almost didn’t notice it had happened, but I suddenly threw up all over him. He was not pleased, and I couldn’t stop laughing.” –Somerset, reading from one of Doe’s journals

“I admire you. I don’t know how you found me, but imagine my surprise. I respect you law enforcement agents more every day.” –Doe, to Mills on the phone

“Get this thing off of me! Get this thing off of me!…He – he put that thing on me…! He made me wear it!…He told me to fuck her, and…and I did! I fucked her! He had a gun in my mouth! The fucking gun was in my throat! FUCK! Oh God, oh God…please help me. Help me. Please help me.” –Crazed Man in Massage Parlour, wearing a strap-on with a blade, which Doe had made for him

***********

Mills: You know, see, you bitch and you complain and you tell me these things – if you think you’re preparing me for hard times, thank you, but…

Somerset: But you got to be a hero? You want to be a champion. Well, let me tell you, people don’t want a champion. They wanna eat cheeseburgers, play the lotto and watch television.

Mills: Hey, how did you get like this? I wanna know.

Somerset: Well. [sighs] It wasn’t one thing, I can tell you that.

Mills: Go on.

Somerset: I just don’t think I can continue to live in a place that embraces and nurtures apathy as if it was a virtue!

Mills: You’re no different. You’re no better.

Somerset: I didn’t say I was different or better. I’m not! Hell, I sympathize; I sympathize completely. Apathy is a solution. I mean, it’s easier to lose yourself in drugs than it is to cope with life. It’s easier to steal what you want than it is to earn it. It’s easier to beat a child than it is to raise it. Hell, love costs: it takes effort and work.

***********

Dr. O’Neill: He cut off her nose…

Somerset: …to spite her face. [Of Doe’s murdering the “Pride” victim]

***********

“Detective. Detective. DETECTIVE! You’re looking for me.” –Doe, to Mills

“Wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you’ll notice you’ve got their strict attention.” –Doe

***********

David Mills: Wait, I thought all you did was kill innocent people.

John Doe: Innocent? Is that supposed to be funny? An obese man…a disgusting man who could barely stand up; a man who if you saw him on the street, you’d point him out to your friends so that they could join you in mocking him; a man, who if you saw him while you were eating, you wouldn’t be able to finish your meal. After him, I picked the lawyer and I know you both must have been secretly thanking me for that one. This is a man who dedicated his life to making money by lying with every breath that he could muster to keeping murderers and rapists on the streets!

David Mills: Murderers?

John Doe: A woman…

David Mills: Murderers, John, like yourself?

John Doe: [interrupts] A woman…so ugly on the inside she couldn’t bear to go on living if she couldn’t be beautiful on the outside. A drug dealer, a drug dealing pederast, actually! And let’s not forget the disease-spreading whore! Only in a world this shitty could you even try to say these were innocent people and keep a straight face. But that’s the point. We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it’s common, it’s trivial. We tolerate it morning, noon, and night. Well, not anymore. I’m setting the example. What I’ve done is going to be puzzled over and studied and followed…forever.

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

“It seems that envy is my sin.” –Doe

“Become vengeance, David. Become wrath.” –Doe

[Last line] “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” –Somerset (voiceover)

What must be noted about the deadly sins is that they are emotions, passions. Pride is excessive self-love; wrath is excessive anger, uncontrollable rage; envy (invidia) is a hateful looking on (the evil eye, as it were) at those more fortunate that oneself, and wishing to cut them down; greed is a passion for limitless wealth and luxurious possessions, “the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10); gluttony is a passion for food; lust is an excessive desire for sex (e.g., having multiple prostitutes every night); and sloth, an unwillingness to do anything for the common good, can be seen to be rooted in the emotion of despair, sadness.

We all experience each of these seven feelings at one point or another in life, and it’s perfectly normal and acceptable to feel a little of these emotions, provided we control them instead of vice versa. They become deadly sins when they’re allowed to run wild inside ourselves, driving us to hurt other people.

So the main theme of this film is unrestrained emotion. Doe imagines all seven of his victims to be guilty of allowing their emotions to get the better of them, when really it’s debatable if all of the victims have such poor self-control (though lack of control is certainly true of the men labelled with sloth, wrath, greed, and…envy!).

Is “the disease-spreading whore” guilty of lust, or–far more likely–is she an exploited, poor woman forced to have sex so she can live? Is the model really all that proud of her looks, or does she swallow the pills knowing her only way of making a living has been cut off from her (even modest people wouldn’t want to go through life disfigured)? Does the glutton have an eating disorder, does he have a genetic disposition to obesity, or does he overeat as a manic defence against his own sadness?

Now, the “infamous” defence lawyer (Eli Gould, the “Greed” victim)–having had Victor (the “Sloth” victim) acquitted, and having habitually lied to have other guilty men go free, so he can make bags of money defending them over and over again–is as guilty as Doe says he is, as is Victor…and two others. Still, some sins have been exaggerated.

On the other hand, Doe’s envy isn’t limited to Mills and his “simple life.” Perhaps Doe’s strict religious upbringing has forced him to repress his own desires to the point that he envies the rest of the world for being free to indulge in sins he mustn’t allow himself to indulge in. He hates the glutton’s over-enjoyment of food, so he kills him. Perhaps he secretly lusts after the prostitute (or prostitutes in general), and envies the men who pay to enjoy her, so he has someone make the strap-on with the blade. Perhaps he fell in love with the model, but she broke his heart, and he envies her boyfriend.

The seven deadly sins are so destructive because any surrender to one sin can lead to committing another. Doe’s envy clearly leads to his anger towards “a world this shitty.” The Christian morality he imagines he is adhering to (remarkable self-deceit for a multiple murderer) gives him pride, a sense of superiority over the “common” sinners. That he imagines God has chosen him to kill sinners is outrageously arrogant. His strict sexual morality, the repression of his desires, makes his lusting after prostitutes not only possible, but almost bordering on probable (perhaps “the disease-spreading whore” gave him an STD). Doe also seems, in a way, to be succumbing to sloth.

What would drive a conservative Christian (apart from Western imperialists and their crusading in such things as Zionism and the “War on Terror,” but I digress) to become a multiple murderer? As Somerset cautions Mills, we shouldn’t dismiss Doe’s pathology as mere madness. That would be ignorant. We have to look for causes, traumas, disappointments…despair.

A Christian is supposed to have no illusions about the enormity of sin in the world. His faith in God and Christ is supposed to give him the patience and strength to bear the horrors of everyday life. A Christian is supposed to combat sin by doing good, by setting an example. “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” (1 John 4:8). Doe, on the other hand, sets a bloody example, because he is full of hate…but who does he really hate?

Doe’s motive for murder seems to be based on his knowledge of the bestial sin he feels inside of himself: his pride from seeing himself, a man of faith, as better than the sinners around him; his anger at the sin he sees everywhere; his envy of other people’s happiness; and his possible (if not probable, given his life of sexual repression) lust after prostitutes and the model. His awareness of the evil inside himself, coupled with the blood of Christ having never tamed the beast inside him (despite his faith), must have led to at least a faith struggle he’s denying in himself, if not outright despair…sloth.

He adamantly denies his loss of faith, as he denies his sinning (pride, anger, sloth, and lust) in any ways other than envy; he projects these other sins onto other people, regardless of whether they’re actually guilty of them or not. He rationalizes his pride and wrath, cloaking these sins in the garb of righteousness. He postures as one with pious control over his emotions; underneath that posturing is a repressed, disavowed sloth.

A feeling of sloth (i.e., apathy, despair, and depression) pervades the film, in the literal and symbolic senses. It frequently rains, symbolic tears of the despairing. Somerset is a jaded old cop soon to retire, to end his work. He’s seen so much crime and misery that he sees little reason to think the human condition will ever improve. He hasn’t completely succumbed to sloth, but he’s pretty close to it.

The one with the fiery passion is his idealistic but bad-tempered [!] partner, Mills. We see a dialectical relationship between his idealism and Somerset’s disillusion, for when Doe provokes Mills to his raging extreme, his devastation at the film’s end is his having gone past the serpent’s biting head of extreme rage, a rage over the destroying of his hopes and dreams, to the serpent’s bitten tail of despair, over his having become the very kind of criminal he was supposed to be trying to stop.

(Recall how I use the ouroboros to symbolize the dialectical unity of opposites. The coiled serpent, as I see it, represents a circular continuum, the extreme opposite ends of which are seen where its head bites its tail.)

The moderation of Somerset’s jadedness is what keeps him from reaching the extreme of slothful despair. He flings a switchblade at a dartboard, one time almost hitting the bullseye, at other times hitting further away from it–all times missing the mark (hamartia, or sin). He’s far from perfect, but still a reasonably good man.

Seven does not only refer to the deadly sins; it can also refer to the first seven days of Biblical Creation, the seventh being the day God rested. (Recall Somerset’s words to Mills in this regard: “Well, over the next 7 days, Detective, you’ll do me the favour of remembering that.”) Somerset will retire, finishing his work, as God did at the end of the sixth day; Doe wants to die (i.e., his goading of Mills to shoot him)…eternal rest, after finishing “God’s good work,” or seven days of creating homicides (from the discovery of the “Gluttony” victim on Monday to his death as “Envy” on Sunday).

John Doe freely admits to his personal desire “to turn each sin against the sinner,” as he rationalizes it. The fact that the Marquis de Sade–a fanatically atheistic writer of blasphemous, pornographic fiction in which libertines delight in raping, torturing, and murdering their victims (often underage ones!), then philosophize about how crime is necessitated by Nature–is among Doe’s reading, borrowed from the library, should tell you what kind of a “Christian” he is.

Indeed, Doe enjoys terrorizing and torturing his victims before killing them; hence, the gun pressed against the head of the “Gluttony” victim as he makes the fat man eat until his gut bursts…including eating “little pieces of plastic” (according to the police captain [Ermey]). Monday: the first day.

Then, he forces the “Greed” victim, at gun point, to cut out a pound of his own flesh. The victim’s first name, Eli, is Hebrew in origin; though Gould is Anglo-Saxon, it could easily be an Anglicizing of, say, Goldberg (Glenn Gould, his family surname having originally been Gold, was at times mistakenly thought to be Jewish). Added to this is, from a scanning of the photo of Eli lying dead from his gory wound, the perception of Semitic facial features. I mention these details to suggest, along with the allusion to The Merchant of Venice, Doe’s implied Christian antisemitism, with the stereotype of the ‘greedy Jew.’

A careful reading of The Merchant of Venice will show, however, that Shylock was not being greedy (How could he profit from a pound of flesh?), but vengeful, just as John Doe is being vengeful in killing Gould. However greedy Gould may be, cutting out a pound of his flesh is not, in his case, an appropriate way “to turn [the] sin against the sinner.” If Doe imagines it is, it’s really just him projecting his own wrath onto Gould, making him turn wrath and vengeance against himself. Tuesday: the second day.

Fingerprints on a wall in Gould’s office, behind an abstract painting Doe has turned upside-down, print out the message, “HELP ME.” This is assumed to be Doe asking for help for himself; instead, it leads us to Victor (real name, Theodore Allen), the “Sloth” victim, whose hand Doe has cut off to print the “HELP ME” message on the wall.

Though tied to a bed and kept barely alive over the course of a year (i.e., as if he were too lazy to get out of bed), Victor’s sloth doesn’t come in the form of idleness. Having been given “a very strict Southern Baptist upbringing” (Raised in a strict Christian environment? Sounds familiar.), Victor has lost his faith and turned to a life of crime (armed robbery, drug dealing, and sexually assaulting minors). Again, his loss of faith and turning to a life of crime sounds a lot like projecting John: “HELP ME” seems to be Doe asking for help for himself after all. Wednesday: the third day.

Somerset, Mills, and a SWAT team led by California (McGinley) find Victor’s apartment under the assumption that he’s the seven-deadly-sins killer, only to realize he’s the “Sloth” victim; this mistaken identity reinforces the idea that Doe has projected his sloth onto Victor, however slothful his victim may have been in real life (Victor’s indulgence in drugs and pederasty seems to be a manic defence against his sadness). Victor isn’t quite dead: he gasps for life, shocking all the cops in the room. This shows how the suffering in sloth is really a living death.

Right after Somerset warns Mills to control his emotions, the latter lets his rage fly out of control in front of a man taking pictures of him. The photographer, we later learn, is the killer, having captured Mills in a state of wrath.

Recall that there’s a sad tone throughout this film, with the tears of all the angels in heaven, as it were, falling to the earth in the form of rain. Mills’s wife, Tracy (Paltrow) is sad and lonely in her apartment, knowing nobody in this town that she and her husband have just moved to–apart from Somerset, whom she phones and asks to get together with to talk about what’s troubling her. Thursday: the fourth day.

Somerset and Tracy chat in a restaurant: we learn she’s pregnant and unsure if she should keep the baby (she hasn’t told David). Somerset wouldn’t want to bring a child into the ugly world he sees around him, but he regrets a decision he once made to have his former partner have an abortion.

It’s interesting, just to note in passing, when Somerset and Mills discuss the “Sloth” victim’s landlord, who considers Victor to have been the perfect tenant. As long as the rent is paid on time and there are no complaints about him making any noise, etc., he can be as despairing, directionless, and slothful as he likes.

Somerset and Mills later go get a printout of whoever has been borrowing books about the seven deadly sins, crime, etc., from the library, thanks to the help of an FBI man. Doe’s reading tastes range everywhere from Sade to Aquinas: he’s educated, cultured, and psychopathic. The detectives may not have his real name, but now they know where he lives.

After the incident when Doe shoots at them, Mills chases him through his apartment building and in the rain, and Doe hits him on the head, bloody-faced Mills returns to the apartment building and in one of his rages kicks open Doe’s door. The cops search his apartment, finding a glowing red Cross and hundreds of notebooks of Doe randomly pouring out his nihilistic thoughts on paper; but not one fingerprint is found anywhere.

They do discover Doe’s many photographs, though, including those of “Gluttony,” “Greed,” a prostitute, and Mills. Unlike the many photos of Victor’s transformation from a normal-looking man to a degenerated, virtual corpse (symbolizing how sloth slowly destroys a man), the pictures of the other sinners catch them in a fixed state at the moment, as if that’s all there is to these people. Everyone else is just a static stereotype of a sin in Doe’s mind: only through sloth, a projection, recall, of Doe’s true mental state, do we see how a normal person gradually turns evil. Friday: the fifth day.

Somerset and Mills find the place where the strap-on has been made. We sense again the sloth of society in general when we see how the maker is unconcerned with the implications of having made such an awful thing; similarly, there’s the sloth of the man in the booth of the “massage parlour,” who lets men bring suitcases and bags of questionable things, like the strap-on, for use with the prostitutes.

At a bar together that night, Somerset and Mills discuss the contrast between the jadedness of the former vs. the idealism of the latter. In spite of all the sobering experiences Somerset has had over the years, Mills still won’t give up on his ideals. Somerset can sympathize with the slothful attitude, for how much easier it is to have such an attitude than it is to cope with life, but he hasn’t completely given up on the idea of trying to help, even though he’s retiring.

If we see Mills’s passion for making a difference as a cop as being near the biting head of the ouroboros (i.e., at the neck, so to speak), and we see absolute despair as being at the tip of the bitten tail, we can see Mills as being closer to that tail than is Somerset, who is further along the length of the serpent’s body, past the bitten tail and in the hind-to-middle area. Somerset has numbed to the suffering; for Mills to despair, though, all he needs is a little push. Saturday: the sixth day.

The large photo of the beautiful model, the “Pride” victim, is seen over her bloody, disfigured body in bed. Again, Doe imagines her sinful state to be a static, unchanging thing, as seen in that one photo.

When Doe gives himself up to the police and we see his bloody hands, we discover why he leaves no fingerprints anywhere. He’s been cutting them off, annihilating any knowledge of his true identity just as he has done by going by the anonymous name of “John Doe.” These two acts symbolize his wish to annihilate himself, just as he wants Mills to kill him. He wants to die because of his sloth and despair, however repressed they may be in a man who consciously still considers himself a faithful Christian.

As Somerset, Mills, and Doe go in the car to where the delivery of the box will occur at 7:00 in the evening (a bit after 7:01, actually–the delivery man misses the mark of Doe’s desired delivery time), Mills vents his rage on Doe. When Mills calls Doe’s victims “innocent people,” however, it’s Doe’s turn to be angry.

Any suggestion that his victims didn’t deserve to die for their faults, whether real or imagined by him (surely even the worst of these at least deserved a trial, and not so sadistic a killing!), triggers Doe, since he’s been projecting his own sinfulness onto them. His affectations of piety are really his narcissistic False Self, reaction formations of him pretending to intend good, a mask hiding his pride.

Doe’s anger rises to such a pitch that, ironically, it’s Mills who tells him to calm down; then, when Doe provokes Mills about the life he’s been allowed to keep having (after the killing of Tracy and the unborn child), Mills releases his fury once again.

Deep down, Doe wishes he could have the innocence of a child, as Jesus said we need to have to enter heaven (Matthew 18:3). It isn’t just Mills’s simple life that Doe envies; he also envies Tracy’s sweetness and the innocence of the unborn child. Now, Doe’s envy shifts into the Kleinian version.

While Doe has projected his sinfulness onto his victims, and onto all of the bad people in the world around him, he would also engage in projective identification, that is, project what he imagines is his Christian goodness onto the unborn child. Still, he cannot extricate himself from his own sinfulness, so that evil part of himself will still be inside the unborn child; then, when he’s projectively identified with the child, his Kleinian envy will make him wish to spoil the mother’s goodness. This is part of Doe’s phantasy, part of what drives him to kill Tracy and the unborn child. And in this connection, killing the unborn child is thus again the fulfillment of his wish to kill his projected self.

When Mills realizes his wife’s head is in the box, the despair is overwhelming. We all know he won’t be able to refrain from shooting Doe; there’s no hope that he’ll be able to control his hunger for vengeance, because any man would want to avenge the murder of the woman he loves, even men with much better control of their anger.

The enervation of sloth implies a lack of emotion, a numbness; but this is a superficial observation, for sloth comes from a deep sorrow, an unconsolable sadness stemming from a feeling of hopelessness, of despair…from a sense of wondering what the point is in even trying. Hence, sloth is as unrestrained an emotion as pride, anger, envy, greed, gluttony, and lust are. Mills is about to go from one extreme emotion (wrath) to another (sloth); he’s shifting from the biting head of the ouroboros to its bitten tail, from an extreme urge to do something to an extreme realization of the futility to do anything.

When Doe sees Mills walk over to him with the gun, about to put a bullet in his head, he closes his eyes, knowing he’s about to come to rest: “to die, to sleep,/ No more; and by a sleep to say we end/The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation/Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep…” (Hamlet, Act III, Scene i, lines 60-64). Doe’s despair is like that of the Dane. Sunday: the seventh day.

Sunday is the Lord’s Day, the Christian Sabbath, the day of rest. Doe has finished his work: he has seen all the mayhem that he has made, and it is very good (in his twisted imagination, anyway). Now he can rest. Somerset is about to retire, and rest. Mills will rest in prison for murder. Doe, in driving Mills to despair and devastation, has killed him, too.

Mills’s sloth is a living death, like moribund, gasping Victor tied to that bed. Mills’s despair is not only from losing the family he loves, not only from losing his freedom outside prison walls, but worst of all, from losing his ideal of being able to fight crime, knowing he’s no better than the “fucking crazies” he despises and wants to put in jail.

Ira furor brevis est.