Analysis of ‘Network’

Network is a 1976 satirical black comedy written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet. It stars Peter Finch, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, and Robert Duvall; it costars Ned Beatty, Beatrice Straight, and Wesley Addy.

Finch won a posthumous Best Actor Oscar, Dunaway won Best Actress, Chayefsky won Best Original Screenplay, and Straight won Best Supporting Actress. Network is ranked #64 among the 100 greatest American films according to the AFI, and it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” In 2005, Chayefsky’s script was voted by the two Writers Guilds of America one of the 10 greatest screenplays in the history of cinema.

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

The opening and closing credits remind one of those of 1970s TV shows. The narrator (Lee Richardson‘s voice) fittingly sounds like an anchorman.

The essential point to the satire in the film is how the news media is reflective of the profit motive. Lower ratings for a news program, or any other TV show, mean lower profits, and this can’t be tolerated.

Longstanding United Broadcasting Systems (UBS) anchorman Howard Beale (Finch) is to be fired because his ratings have gone unacceptably low. This, among other personal problems in his life, which have arisen over the past six years or so (the death of his wife in 1970, his alcoholism), has driven him to contemplate suicide. Here we see how, under capitalism, human life is less important than profit.

Beale announces his plan, on his last TV appearance, to “blow his brains out” on live TV, shocking everybody. He is pulled out of his chair while he angrily protests with foul language and even punching someone among the crew…behaviour that’s in satirical contrast with the stereotypically calm, unemotional anchorman (in fact, soon after this incident we see a number of anchormen on TV screens discussing this sensational breaking news with the usual calm objectivity).

His announcement of his plan to kill himself on live TV has also done something that hasn’t happened to him in years: it has raised his ratings. Again, death is often more profitable than life.

His friend and fellow TV veteran, UBS news division president Max Schumacher (Holden), cares about him and wants him to have a dignified last moment on the air. Schumacher is also infuriated that Frank Hackett (Duvall), who works for the Communications Corporation of America (CCA), has made him lose face during a speech to stockholders with the CCA and UBS, planning to take over his division without having consulted him. So Schumacher’s putting Beale back on the air, instead of firing him outright, is also meant as a big “go fuck himself” to Hackett (as Schumacher explicitly says).

Again on live TV, Beale carries his newfound notoriety further and says his reason for claiming he’s intended to kill himself is because he’s run “out of bullshit.” He keeps saying “bullshit” over and over again during the broadcast, shocking some and amusing others. UBS’s ratings soar, and now we go from capitalism favouring death over life, to capitalism favouring vulgarity over “respectable broadcasting.”

Indeed, Diana Christensen (Dunaway), the ambitious new head of the network’s programming department, is thrilled with how Beale’s capricious and eyebrow-raising antics are pulling UBS out of its ratings slump by, paradoxically, dumping it into the gutter, so to speak. She wants “angry shows” that will allow the common people to vent their frustrations–not out of any sympathy for their problems, of course, but out of a wish to exploit them to make more money for UBS.

This wish of the media’s to exploit public discontent is paralleled in today’s world, where people can share all the memes, videos, and newspaper articles they want on Facebook, Twitter, etc., content that exposes all the injustices of the world, and vent all the people’s anger at those injustices…

…but nobody ever does anything about them.

Social media is more than willing to allow us to vent our anger (violations of “community standards” notwithstanding, of course), for our continued use of Facebook, Twitter, etc. ensures the continued making of profits. Christensen would have UBS do the same thing with Beale.

She manages to convince Hackett to go along with her plans, since he sees things only in terms of dollars and cents. Schumacher, who doesn’t want to see his troubled friend exploited for profit, doesn’t agree with her. Be that as it may, though, he is charmed by her beauty, and flattered by her claim to have had a crush on him when he once lectured at the University of Missouri. The two of them will begin an affair.

His infatuation with her, a narcissistic woman driven only by ambition and caring little about people or human relationships, is allegorical of our infatuation with TV, pop culture, movies, and the media in general (and in today’s world, we can expand all of this to an obsession with our relationship with social media). As Schumacher himself says to her when he finally comes to his senses and ends their affair: she’s “television incarnate.”

One of Christensen’s angry, radical targets for exploitation is a far-left terrorist organization called the Ecumenical Liberation Army (ELA). She sets up a TV show for them called “The Mao Tse-tung Hour.” One member of the ELA, Laurene Hobbs (played by Marlene Warfield), who calls herself “a bad-ass commie nigger,” finds herself deeply invested in the financial success of the show, always harping on angrily about her “distribution charges.”

In this satirical take we can see how even once-dedicated Marxists can sell their souls to capitalism. Consider the individuals and governments that have compromised with the market or to imperialism. Consider the Che Guevara T-shirts sold, and the Marxist books sold by eager capitalists who couldn’t care less how many people get radicalized by them…as long as the sellers are making a lot of money. Christensen, like capitalism, poisons everything she touches.

To get back to Beale, we find him having what would seem to be divine inspiration…of course, he’s simply losing his mind when hearing voices in bed, but it’s amusing to entertain the thought that he’s gone from suicidal alcoholic to the “mad prophet of the airwaves,” who is “denouncing the hypocrisies of our times.” In this way, we’re rather like mad King Lear who thought of Tom o’ Bedlam as a “noble philosopher.”

This merging of a news media man with a prophet is a satirical masterstroke for Chayefsky. The paradox of juxtaposing the lying corporate media with a ‘truth teller’ who has been ‘touched by God’ is coupled with the equivalency made between two messengers that are slavishly, uncritically followed by the masses.

This hilarious mixing of contradictory…and not-so-contradictory…elements is intensified and symbolized by Beale’s sudden fainting spells. When we first see him swoon, it’s brought on by extreme stress and his growing mental instability. Every time after that, as we see on “The Howard Beale Show,” it comes across as his divinely inspired ἐνθουσιασμός.

Before the show is set up, he’s already getting followers. Hackett and Christensen are thrilled, though Schumacher is trying to stop them from exploiting Beale. Hackett calls the mad anchorman’s rantings and ravings “a big-titted hit,” commodifying Beale as one would commodify the large breasts of a porn star. In this way, Hackett is demonstrating a character orientation that Erich Fromm called “the marketing character,” someone who uses people as commodities to profit from.

Fromm explains: “For the marketing character everything is transformed into a commodity–not only things, but the person himself, his physical energy, his skills, his knowledge, his opinions, his feelings, even his smiles. This character type is a historically new phenomenon because it is the product of a fully developed capitalism that is centered around the market–the commodity market, the labor market, and the personality market–and whose principle it is to make a profit by favorable exchange.” (Fromm, page 388)

Fromm elaborated on this elsewhere: “In the marketing orientation man encounters his own powers as commodities alienated from him…The way one experiences others is not different from the way one experiences oneself. Others are experienced as commodities like oneself; they too do not present themselves but their salable part.” (Fromm, page 53) Hackett sees himself, as a slave and hatchet-man for CCA, as a commodity; he also sees Beale as a commodity.

Everyone is worried about where Beale is, since he has unaccountably wandered off in the rain, like a wild, inspired prophet. Schumacher is worried about his friend; Hackett and Christensen are worried about their ‘product.’

Finally, Beale shows up at UBS for his next live broadcast, soaked in rain and in a coat and his pyjamas. He looks in the camera and says the famous line: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” This is his command to his followers, who are to shout it from their windows. Of course, people all over the US are shouting the line, and Christensen is thrilled that Beale is stirring up all this emotion.

Again, though, it’s just a meaningless channeling of popular rage; it achieves nothing but an improvement in UBS’s ratings. The “not gonna take this anymore” isn’t any more conducive to revolution than “The Mao Tse-tung Hour.”

The death of Edward Ruddy (played by William Prince), one of the old guard of UBS and someone sympathetic to Schumacher’s idea of how to run the news honestly, is the subject of Beale’s first appearance on his new show, a farce of TV commercialism including other shows of the ‘prophecy/fortune-telling’ theme that Christensen has concocted. His show beings with the studio audience chanting, like obedient automatons, Beale’s “mad as hell…” catchphrase.

What Beale has to say is, in all irony, utterly true: the replacement of Ruddy–and the decent, respectable journalism that he and Schumacher represent–by Hackett, Christensen, and their for-profit news as entertainment is an abomination and growing social evil, a prophecy we can see as very real in our media world today. Still, Beale’s audience is interested only in the spectacle he puts on, not the content of his message. This is an all-too-true observation of our experience of the media today.

Beale tells them that everything they see and hear on the TV is fake…a perfectly true judgement, but this truth doesn’t move his riveted audience one bit. They want to be amused, not informed. They want to be led by him, not to think for themselves. They listen to him not to be enlightened; they listen to him for the mere sake of listening to him.

So when he tells them, like a good prophet, to go to God, go to their guru, go to themselves…they’d rather just stay rapt watching him and not move a muscle without him. He tells them to turn off their TVs, as they of course should do, turn it off right in the middle of the sentence he’s speaking…but of course, they won’t.

He is the true and false prophet, all rolled into one.

His ecstatic fainting seems staged, but that’s OK with his audience.

So, why all of this hero worship of Beale, with the entertainment gained from watching his wild antics, without listening to his message or taking it seriously?

The psychological state of his followers can be described in terms of a combination of the ideas of Lacan and Kohut. The TV screen, on which Beale is seen, is a symbolic mirror for his viewers. In admiring “the grand old man of news,” his audience is transferring their idealized parental imago onto him. This one-on-one staring at the image on the screen thus puts them in the Imaginary Order.

Now, this transferred ideal parental imago is an internal object his audience has of their fathers; it’s also an ideal-I seen originally in the mirror reflection, but now moved onto the TV screen. So in worshipping Beale, his audience is actually projecting their unattainable ideal, the narcissistic version of themselves, onto him.

Such narcissistic projection onto TV celebrities is the satirical basis of Network. Instead of us communicating with each other, listening to the words of others and sharing our own words with them, we’d rather just gaze in awe at images on a TV screen (or, in today’s world, images on a phone or computer monitor). Instead of maturing and integrating with society and culture (the Symbolic Order), we’d rather have a one-on-one relationship with a face on a screen that only seems to be looking back at us like the specular image of a mirror–a regression back to the Imaginary.

Though Schumacher would protect his friend from Hackett’s and Christensen’s exploitation of him, and though he wants to preserve an ethical way of presenting the news, he is nonetheless infatuated with Christensen, the film’s beautiful personification of the charms of TV. Because she is “television incarnate,” his looking at her face is like looking at a TV screen with mesmerized eyes. He is as drawn to the allure of television, in a symbolic way, as Beale’s audience literally is to him.

Schumacher’s infatuation with Christensen has devastated his wife, Louise (Straight, whose brief scene expressing her hurt rage was all that was needed to win her an Oscar). We see, in the scene of his confession of his adultery to her, how the media destroys human relationships–a fake one-on-one relationship replaces real relationships.

So indeed, as good as Schumacher is, he too is lured into the seductive trap of the media. For even the best of us can be sucked into staring stupidly at a screen. Christensen’s beauty and charms are a narcissistic mirror of how he’d like to see himself. His relationship with her, therefore, parallels Beale’s relationship with his idolatrous audience.

Now, Beale starts out at the lowest of the low in his life, as an alcoholic widower facing the loss of his job and contemplating suicide. Then, it’s the very wild antics of his, those that were merely his reaction to his low point, that have pushed him over the edge of that low and raised him, paradoxically, to the top.

In a number of posts, I have compared the dialectical relationship between opposites to the head and tail of the ouroboros. In Network, Beale’s suicidal ideation is the serpent’s bitten tail; his meteoric rise to fame is a move from that tail to the serpent’s biting head.

Of course, Beale carries his newfound fame and influence too far for CCA’s comfort. On one show, he discusses a plan that the conglomerate has to allow an Arab takeover of it in exchange for some much-needed money. This time, his audience does listen to him, and they do his bidding to petition the US government to stop the Arab takeover. Hackett, Christensen, and especially, CCA head Arthur Jensen (Beatty) are most upset with Beale.

Beale is taken to meet Mr. Jensen, who curiously is dressed like a man from the late nineteenth century. One is thus reminded, by his choice of clothes, of the robber barons of the era.

He takes Beale into a large conference room, where all the CCA big brass make their decisions. He dims the lights for the right dramatic effect (the scene’s darkness also parallels Beale’s scene in bed when ‘divinely inspired’ for the first time). Then Jensen rebukes Beale for having “meddled with the primal forces of nature” (i.e., stopping the CCA deal with the Arabs).

Jensen gives a long speech about how, apparently, capitalism is the Guiding Force, the pantheistic Essence, of the entire cosmos. The universal Oneness of money pervades all, it would seem. There are no nations or peoples; there is only the global, cosmic market, which permeates every atom of existence.

This equating of capitalism with God is yet another satirical masterstroke of Chayefsky, for not only does it comment on the universal worship of the Almighty Dollar, paralleling our worship of TV, computer, and smartphone screens, and of the media in general, but it also prophesies the neoliberalism that was only nascent in the mid-1970s, and is ubiquitous and in full flower now…une fleur du mal. More than even that, it links the authoritarianism of religion with capital.

Everything that people were “as mad as hell” about in the early-to-mid 1970s–the bad economy, crime, etc.–can be connected to the oil crisis of 1973, which ended the prominence of the Keynesian economics of 1945-1973 and saw the beginning of the end of the welfare capitalism of the time. OAPEC brought about an oil embargo in response to the West’s support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War, a move that in turn raised the price of oil and caused the first of two oil shocks.

This move of OAPEC is why Beale doesn’t want the Arabs to take over CCA and UBS. Jensen will not, however, have Beale stand in the way of fulfilling the neoliberal prophecy. In fact, he’d have Beale evangelize it on his TV show.

Jensen is now the new god inspiring Beale, it would seem.

Fittingly, when Beale does his next show, instead of giving rousing speeches that galvanize his followers, he talks about the gradual decline of Western democracy. Our lives, he says, will become increasingly meaningless and valueless.

Now, such a prophecy, starting in the mid-1970s and continuing until now, in the 2020s, has been perfectly accurate. First, there was Reagan’s union-busting in the early 1980s. Then, his and Thatcher’s deregulating and tax cuts for the rich allowed millionaires to become billionaires who could control the government all the better.

Next, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc (recall Beale’s prophecy that communism is finished even as of the 1970s), along with the reintroduction of the market in China and Vietnam in the 1980s, meant the Western governments no longer needed to provide welfare capitalism to appease the working class and stave off socialist revolution. The imperialist capitalist class could do anything to anybody, and with impunity. (Indeed, as Beale says, the US is as strong as ever, and will continue to be.)

Hence, Clinton’s gutting of welfare in the mid-1990s, the disproportionate incarceration of minorities, the allowing of mergers and acquisitions in the American media (aptly prophesied in Network, in CCA’s takeover of UBS), and the first “humanitarian war” in Kosovo in 1999. The Patriot Act, as part of the global “war on terror,” would continue to erode Americans’ democratic freedoms, and would be re-authorized by Obama, with the NSA surveillance of emails and smartphone messages that was exposed by Snowden.

Assange‘s Wikileaks exposure of American military abuses in Iraq (via Chelsea Manning) has unleashed the wrath of the Western political establishment, and his shameful incarceration and persecution have jeopardized the future of journalistic freedom. Now, thanks to the not-so-benign agenda of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, fear of a disease with a survival rate of about 99% has goaded people into taking dubious, hastily-produced vaccines.

Beale is right: we’ve lost a huge amount of democratic freedom thanks to the rise of neoliberalism, and our lives have become meaningless and valueless. It’s the truth, but it’s a depressing truth. Accordingly, the ratings for “The Howard Beale Show” are dropping. Naturally, CCA wants to get rid of Beale, but because Jensen likes the message Beale is preaching, he wants him to stay on the air in spite of the drop in profits. Hackett, Christensen, et al thus decide to have Beale assassinated on his show by members of the ELA.

Beale, thus, has come full circle: he has gone from wanting to kill himself over poor ratings to being killed by others over poor ratings. He has gone from the bitten tail of the ouroboros to its biting head, then down the serpent’s coiled length (which symbolizes a circular continuum between the extremes) back to the tail.

It is fitting that the film ends with TV screens showing not only his bloodied body, but also commercials like the classic, “He likes it! Hey, Mikey!” Life Cereal ad. Beale is as much a commodity as a cereal is.

Network is more than a film. It is a prophecy of our times.

Analysis of ‘Quartet for the End of Time’

I: Introduction

Quatuor pour la fin du temps is a 1940-1941 piece of chamber music composed by Olivier Messiaen. It was composed for an unusual combination of instruments: piano, violin, clarinet in B-flat, and cello; because these were the instruments played by the only musicians available to perform the piece at its premiere–Messiaen, Jean le Boulaire, Henri Akoka, and Etienne Pasquier, respectively. These four musicians premiered the piece, in January 1941, as prisoners of war in Stalag VIII-A, then in Görlitz, Germany.

Messiaen was inspired by this passage in the Book of Revelation: “And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire…and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth…And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever…that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished…” (Revelation, 10:1–2, 5–7, King James Version). What particularly struck Messiaen was the notion that there would be no more time.

He claimed that he wasn’t interested in using his music as a symbolic theological comment on the Apocalypse. After all, how can one make such a comment with only instrumental music (Iain G. Matheson, at the beginning of his essay on the Quatuor, addresses this question. [Hill, pages 234-235])? Instead, Messiaen was preoccupied with the idea of freeing music from the regularity of time.

Here are some recordings of the Quatuor, one with the score, and another of a live performance.

II: The Movements

There are eight movements: they represent the seven days of Creation, then the eighth day, Christ’s Resurrection.

i) Liturgie de cristal (“Crystal Liturgy“)
ii) Vocalise, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du temps (“Vocalise, for the Angel Who Announces the End of Time”)
iii) Abîme des oiseaux (“Abyss of Birds”)
iv) Intermède (“Interlude”)
v) Louange à l’éternité de Jésus (“Praise to the Eternity of Jesus”)
vi) Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes (“Dance of Fury, for the Seven Trumpets“)
vii) Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du temps (“Tangle of Rainbows, for the Angel Who Announces the End of Time”)
viii) Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus (“Praise to the Immortality of Jesus”)

As Robert Sherlaw Johnson noted in his book, Messiaen, there are “thematic and textural relationships between the movements, which shape the work as a whole” (Johnson, page 63): ii and vii, which share certain dissonant thematic material; iii and vi, which are monophonic, lacking in chords, harmony, or counterpoint; and v and viii, which, apart from being duets for a string instrument and piano, are also rearrangements of compositions of Messiaen’s from the 1930s.

III: Liturgie de cristal

This movement opens with the clarinet playing a blackbird’s song and the violin playing that of a nightingale. Messiaen described it thus: “Between three and four in the morning, the awakening of birds: a solo blackbird or nightingale improvises, surrounded by a shimmer of sound, by a halo of trills lost very high in the trees. Transpose this onto a religious plane and you have the harmonious silence of Heaven.”

Indeed, the violin and clarinet here are playing, independently of the cello and piano, a musical trademark of Messiaen’s that he introduced for pretty much the first time in the Quatuorbirdsong.

For Messiaen, birds are symbols of divinity (he was a devout Catholic his whole life). Also, their free-form singing, blissfully unaware of the musical rules of melody, tonality, and rhythm, represent the beauty of total freedom. Thus, their calls are also free of the constraints of musical time.

As part of his wish to free music of the shackles of time, Messiaen had the piano and cello each play a differing isorhythm (the piano, playing a twenty-nine chord sequence over a rhythm of seventeen values, and the cello with a five-note melodic shape over a rhythmic ostinato of fifteen values; the cello part’s rhythm is also non-retrogradable, giving no true beginning or end to the rhythm, suggesting eternity). Also, the rhythmic ostinato in the piano part is based upon three Hindu rhythms, the talas ragavardhana, candrakala, and lakshmica.

Messiaen, as something of an orinthologist, had had a love of birdsong from his early years. He used to go out into fields with sheet music and notate the bird calls he heard. Now, he was finally using their divine music as an integral part of one of his compositions, something he’d do ever after. He loved birds’ freedom to fly anywhere in the sky. As a POW in Nazi Germany, he could only have loved such freedom.

IV: Vocalise, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du temps

The angel’s announcing of the end of time comes with dissonant chords on the piano, a quick flurry of ascending and descending notes on the clarinet, then a sustained note and a trill on it while quick sixteenth notes are played on the violin and cello. These features are more or less heard again, then after quick ascending sixteenth notes on the violin and cello, we get trills on the violin, cello, and clarinet, and a dissonant piano ending leads to the ethereal, mystical middle section, with–as Messiaen called them–“the impalpable harmonies of heaven.” In this middle section, the violin and cello play the melody of the sixteenth notes, but slower and often in eighth notes. The A-B-A movement ends with more or less a repeat of the dissonant beginning, albeit in an inverted form.

It’s curious that Messiaen took the passage from Revelation, where the angel says, “there should be time no more.” Now, a more accurate translation would say, “there shall be no more delay,” as we get it in the New English Bible; the New Oxford Annotated Bible also uses “delay” instead of “time.” While I’m guessing that Messiaen’s old French Bible read, “Il n’y aura plus de temps,” my modern French Bible says, “Il n’y aura plus de délai [time-limit].” The original Greek used the word χρόνος (i.e., “time”), but in the context of the passage, it too meant “delay.” So, in most modern cases of translation, delay is used rather than time.

It’s interesting how people project themselves into their interpretations of things. (Anyone who has read enough of my analyses of films, etc., knows that I project my own inner preoccupations into them all the time.) Messiaen was preoccupied with freeing musical time from its traditional restraints, so when he read the Biblical passage, he took the word time literally, at face value, rather than seeing that what the angel really meant was, “We have no time left.”

No disrespect intended to Monsieur Messiaen (who happens to be one of my all-time favourite composers!), but this inaccuracy of his with regards to the background and creation of the Quatuor isn’t an isolated incidence. He claimed that the cello used for the premiere lacked a string, while Pasquier insisted it had all four strings, and his part would have been impossible to play with three. Messiaen claimed the premiere was performed before an audience of about 5,000 people, when there were really only about 400 (no more could have fit in).

Messiaen was correct to say that the piano had keys that stuck when played; but though he said of the premiere, “Never had I been listened to with so much attention and understanding,” one of the other musicians remembered the audience’s reaction differently. Given Messiaen’s idiosyncratic, modernist compositional style, the other musician said, “The audience, as far as I remember, was overwhelmed at the time. They wondered what had happened. Everyone. We too. We asked ourselves: ‘What are we doing? What are we playing?’”

Since we’ve established that some of Messiaen’s recollections of what happened at the first performance aren’t completely reliable, I believe that some of his other comments can be regarded with some suspicion, too. The Quatuor, as with his music generally, is considered apolitical; but given his predicament then and there as a POW of the Nazis, among the cruellest and most inhumane scum in history, I find it hard to imagine his suffering not influencing the conceptualizing and creation of the Quatuor.

He recalled being stripped naked, as were all the prisoners. They were cold and underfed. In fact, Messiaen developed chilblains because of the extreme cold and malnutrition. Even though, as a composer tasked with writing a piece for himself and the other three musicians to play, he was relieved of much of the worst treatment in the prison, he still suffered terribly. Given what we know about the brutality and contempt for human life that is Naziism defined, we can trust Messiaen to be accurately recalling this harsh aspect of life during his stay in Stalag VIII-A. It’s doubtless that he was traumatized.

Such trauma surely influenced the concept behind his composition. He claimed that there was little to no theological commentary in his musical presentation of the Apocalypse, but rather only a wish to liberate musical time…but why should we believe this? One of the central features of the Apocalypse is not only the glorious saving of the Christian faithful from the world of sin, but also the judgement and punishment of the wicked (e.g., the Nazis). Such an outcome would have to have been a wish-fulfillment for him.

Surely Matheson thought so in his essay: “Messiaen’s decision to use this particular text [Revelation 10: 1–2, 5–7] rather than any other may well have been prompted by the prisoner-of-war conditions in which he found himself, in which time might indeed have seemed literally endless, and the Apocalypse close at hand.” (Hill, page 235)

Related to the idea of time is temporality, which also refers to the laic, secular world. Indeed, the French word temps, like the Latin word tempus (which is used in the Vulgate Latin translation of Revelation 10:6), is cognate with temporal. So when Messiaen consciously wished for freedom from musical time’s traditionally equal measurements, he also unconsciously wished for freedom from this world, ruled by Satan (John 12:31), and in particular for liberation from Stalag VIII-A.

He didn’t overtly express any wish, in his music, to be anti-Nazi for fear of angering the SS. So when he was freed from the prison in 1941, he taught harmony in the Paris Conservatoire even while France was still occupied by Nazi Germany, free of any fear of further persecution. His reticence on political matters surely was a shrewd move to save his life; hence, the Quatuor is ostensibly only about ‘freeing musical time.’

V: Abîme des oiseaux

This movement for solo clarinet reminds me of Edgard Varèse‘s Densité 21,5 for platinum flute. It demands considerable technical ability on the part of the clarinettist. There are slow, long crescendos that require great breath control (see, for example, the 13th measure). Akoka grumbled and complained of how difficult this movement was to master, but Messiaen urged him and encouraged him to keep trying.

Of this movement, Messiaen said, “The abyss is Time with its sadness, its weariness. The birds are the opposite to Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs.”

So, in time, we have sadness…for Messiaen, the sadness and weariness of having to pass the time in a Nazi prison. Since birds are the opposite of time, they represent freedom from incarceration in our temporal world. Accordingly, we hear the clarinet play birdsong. The free-form rhythm once again represents Messiaen’s wish to free musical time of traditionalistic, regular measurement.

VI: Intermède

In the centre of the Quatuor, this short, jaunty interlude in 2/4 time contains several references to thematic material heard in other movements: for example, the flurry of quick ascending and descending clarinet 32nd notes (C-sharp-D-sharp-F-sharp-G-sharp-B-natural-G-natural-C-natural-B-flat-F-natural) heard in the second movement (and the third [B-D-sharp-F-sharp-G-sharp-C-sharp-G-natural-C-natural-B-flat-F-natural, in the 20th measure]); also a softly played, but ominous anticipation of the opening theme of the sixth movement.

For the most part, though, the movement is a cheerful one, including a passage with the violin and cello trading pizzicatos and an arco melody of D-B-G-F-natural-B-natural-A-flat-C-sharp-G-natural in the cello’s high register; then, as a kind of relative subdominant to that, a melody of G-E-C-B-flat-E-flat-D-flat-F-sharp-C-natural (measures 24-31).

VII: Louange à l’éternité de Jésus

This movement, in which the cello plays a sobbing, plaintive, high-pitched melody over mostly soft piano chords, is a rearrangement of the fourth movement (titled either “L’Eau“…”Water” or “Oraison“…”Prayer”) of Fête des belles eaux (“Celebration of the Beautiful Waters”) for six ondes Martenots, from 1937. The tempo is infiniment lent, extatique (“extremely slow, ecstatic”): this extreme slowness is meant to represent a sense of endlessness, eternity.

The beginning of the cello melody seems to be in the second of Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition–namely, the octatonic scale. This movement is assuredly one of the most beautiful things he ever wrote. Though the longing felt seems unfulfillable, the harmonic resolutions ultimately satisfy that longing.

One passage that I especially like is from measures 15-17, in which the cello melody tops off the piano’s playing of (what at least sounds, to my not-so-well-trained ear, as) a D-sharp dominant seventh sharp ninth chord, an E major seventh chord, a C-sharp dominant ninth chord, a D-sharp augmented chord, and a resolution to E major. Then there’s the ending (the last three measures), with the cello playing a melody of ascending notes (E-G-natural-A-sharp-C-sharp) of the diminished seventh chord, resolving on the high octave of an E-major piano chord.

By “l’éternité de Jésus,” Messiaen means Jesus as understood as the pre-existing Word from the beginning of time. In this meditative music, we can sense Messiaen’s mysticism.

Since this music is derived from his Fêtes des belles eaux, and the original movement was alternatively titled “L’Eau” or “Oraison,” I find there to be interesting connotations, from a mystical point of view, in all of these titles: eternity of Jesus, the beautiful waters, and prayer.

In this music Messiaen would be both praising and praying to Jesus, an urgent pleading to save him from the Nazis. A mystical connection with the Divine, often achieved through prayer or meditation, has sometimes been described as oceanic; I have addressed this idea myself in music, and in the name of my blog.

And sometimes, in the lowest depths of our suffering, as Messiaen surely felt in Stalag VIII-A, we can find the extreme of hell phase into the extreme of heaven, a dialectical shift from one polar extreme to its opposite state. I’ve compared such a meeting of opposites, on a circular continuum, to the ouroboros‘ biting head and its bitten tail.

When Messiaen suffered in the prison, made music there, then was released, he experienced something comparable to Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, and so we can see in the parallel experiences a mystical union of Messiaen and Messiah, at least in a symbolic sense.

VIII: Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes

As I mentioned above, this movement parallels the third in its monophony: though all four instruments are heard, none plays harmony or counterpoint. Every single note, played collectively, is a unison or an octave.

In spite of the monophonic melody, though, Messiaen manages to infuse plenty of musical tension in his “dance of fury.” We are, after all, dealing with the Final Judgement here, the sending to hell of sinners, which contrasts dialectically with the preceding movement’s serenity. I sense his wish for his Nazi captors to receive God’s judgement.

He exploits loud and soft dynamics as well as irregular rhythms (with measures lacking time signatures), using non-retrogradable rhythms as well as augmentation, diminution, added values, and the derivation of Greek rhythm and meter. All of these techniques serve to realize his wish to free musical time of its traditionally dull regularity.

One passage (at about 28:03 in this video), expressed in cycles of five beats (i.e., eight sixteenth notes and an eighth note), we hear notes whose pitches fly in all kinds of wild directions, yet paradoxically, the last note of each of these cycles, the eighth, is always the same pitch: an F-sharp (A-flat for the clarinet in B-flat). The result is a paradoxical juxtaposition of melodic desultoriness and stasis. This mixing of the erratic and the static can be seen to represent the conflict Messiaen felt between wanting to roam freely and being incarcerated.

Elsewhere, at about 28:35 in the video, we hear the piano and clarinet play a grim, three-note ostinato: F-natural, C-sharp, and A-natural on the piano, and G-natural, E-flat, and B-natural on the clarinet, the notes of an augmented triad. This ostinato is subjected to rhythmic augmentation and diminution: first slowly–as quarter-notes, eighth-notes, then quarter-notes again; then, as half-notes, quarter-notes, then half-notes again; then quickly three times as eighth-notes, sixteenth-notes, then eighth-notes again. Again, time is permitted no predictable sense of regularity.

IX: Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du temps

Recall that the Biblical verses describe the angel who announces the end of time as being “clothed with a cloud, and a rainbow was on his head,” with one foot on the land and the other on the sea. The colours of the rainbow were important to Messiaen, who had synesthesia and saw colours in his mind’s eye whenever he heard this or that musical idea. In the second movement, which parallels the seventh, he used harmonies that made him see the orange and blue of the rainbow).

A dreamy tune in 3/4 opens the movement with a sad, upper-register cello melody played over soft piano chords; this theme will alternate with developments of the dissonant opening theme of the second movement. That dreamy tune will return with the clarinet in the background playing a melody based on the ascending and descending octatonic scale, the second of Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition. Just before the end of the movement is the dreamy tune played in trills on both cello and violin, and on the clarinet, with piano arpeggios in the background.

As for the dissonant sections, I’d like to speculate on why an increasing use of dissonance was appearing around this time (i.e., the late 1930s and into the 1940s) in Messiaen’s musical career. To be sure, his music was, from the beginning, technically dissonant, through his use of modes based on equal octave divisions, since he liked the colours these unusual melodies and harmonies, derived from the modes, evoked in his imagination. Indeed, early Messiaen sounds like an exotic version of Debussy, who also sidestepped tonality without sounding harsh.

But the Messiaen of the 1920s and 1930s largely lacked the harsh dissonances we would begin to hear by the time of the Quatuor. The middle section of Les offrandes oubliées (<<<starting at 3:32 in the video), in its musical description of “the forgotten offerings” of grace and salvation, and therefore the descent into sin, is somewhat more dissonant. Chants de terre et de ciel has some dense piano chords, admittedly. But the really huge dissonant sonorities begin with pieces like Visions de l’amen, Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus, and Harawi; they grow even more extreme in pieces like the Quatre études de rythme, Cantéyodjayâ, and Chronochromie. I believe these extreme dissonances were Messiaen’s way of expressing, and of exorcising from himself, the lingering trauma he received from his experience as a prisoner in Stalag VIII-A.

Now, the quite dissonant Chants de terre et de ciel, composed in 1938 and premiered in 1939, was a celebration of the birth of his son Pascale in 1937, which would seem to contradict my speculation that his aggravated use of dissonance was the expression of trauma. But consider what was happening politically in Europe at the time. His son’s birth was a year before the Anschluss and the Munich Agreement, when the leaders of England and France were trying to appease an increasingly ambitious, imperialistic Hitler. Underneath Messiaen’s surface joy over the birth of his son must have been an unconscious anxiety over the boy’s safety.

His trauma in the Nazi prison would have increased the kind of violent feelings he felt even after his release, and the use of tone clusters and other dissonances could have been his way of venting these violent feelings, a projection of the violence he had introjected from the Nazis. These violent melodic and harmonic ideas can be heard in this seventh movement of the Quatuor, not only in the piano chords, but also in the creepy-sounding cello glissandi and col legno, and the screeching violin, cello, and clarinet sounds at the end (38:43 in the video, just before the brutal piano in the bass register), which might remind the listener of horror movie music.

Messian’s piano arrangements of birdsong, the pitches never altered to fit any scales, are particularly dissonant, as can be heard in any of his compositions since the Quatuor. Could there be a relationship between his conception of birds’ freedom and the discordant representation of their singing…an expression of pain coupled with the yearning to fly away free?

X: Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus

This final movement is a rearrangement of the second section of Messiaen’s organ piece, Diptyque (<<at about 5:12 in the video), transposed up a major third from C to E, with the violin playing the melody over piano chords largely in pairs each of thirty-second notes and double-dotted eighth notes. In 4/4, it’s played much slower (extrêmement lent et tendre, extatique, with an MM of an eighth note equalling about 36) than in the Diptyque (with an MM of 58 equalling an eighth note, très lent), the slowness again meant to represent the everlasting life of heaven, after time has ended. This movement thus parallels the fifth.

Whereas the fifth movement contemplated Jesus as the pre-existing Word from the beginning of time, now Jesus is meditated on in his resurrected spiritual body, in the Second Coming at the end of time.

The movement is scored in E-major, though the modes of limited transposition add a great deal of chromaticism to the mix. Instead of the sad, unfulfillable longing of the fifth movement, this one is full of spiritual joy, for in Christ’s immortality we have a sign of the conquering of death, something very important to Messiaen, given how close death must have felt to him as a prisoner in Stalag VIII-A. It ends with a high E on the violin and high-register E-major sixth chords on the piano.

XI: Conclusion

Though for Messiaen, the Quatuor was, as he consciously expressed it, a wish to free musical time from the traditional prison of regularity and measurability, it was also, through the symbolism of the passage in Revelation, chapter ten, an unconscious wish of his to be free of his Nazi tormentors. Anyone else who happens to be a Christian can content him- or herself with the Biblical ideas musically expressed.

But what of those of us today, who love this 20th century masterwork, and don’t share the religious faith that inspired the conceptualization behind this music? How can we derive our own meaning from the Quatuor?

I’d like to propose a secular interpretation that will be relevant for us in the 21st century, one that uses Christian symbolism to illustrate that meaning. I’ve already discussed what must have been Messiaen’s extreme aversion to all things fascist, even though he didn’t dare give it expression at the time, in front of Nazi guards. Now, the polar opposite of the far right (barring such nonsense as the horseshoe theory) is, of course, the far left.

Granted, I’m sure that Messiaen, the devout Catholic, would have been just as horrified of atheistic communism as he was of fascism. But my concern here is with his unconscious feelings, the associations that the unconscious mind makes, and the way that repressed feelings return to consciousness in unrecognizable ways. Messiaen may not have liked the socialist alternative to fascism, but he definitely wanted to go as far from Naziism as he could. Maybe he simply didn’t know what he liked in political terms, for Christian moral teachings aren’t as far removed from socialism as one might think.

Though one tends to associate Christianity, and especially the authoritarian aspects of Catholicism, with right-wing, conservative thinking, there is much in the Christian tradition that can be associated with the left. Liberation theology is only the tip of the iceberg in that respect.

Just as socialists wish to feed, clothe, and give medical aid to the poor, so did Jesus say of giving such help, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:40) On the other side of the coin, just as socialists excoriate the amassing of obscene amounts of wealth, so did Jesus say, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25) And just as socialists despise televangelists who hoard wealth tax-free, so did Christ drive the money changers out of the Temple (Matthew 21:12)

Furthermore, the Messiah was a revolutionary figure, meant to liberate the Jews from Roman imperialist oppression. Later on, the Church cunningly downplayed Jesus’ revolutionary leanings (i.e., “Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.” —John 18:36) in order to reconcile itself with the Roman authorities; but Jesus originally said, “I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34) Similarly, as I mentioned above, Messiaen was smart enough to avoid admitting to any anti-Nazi intent in this composition.

Since imperialism has in our time reached an extreme that is threatening our world with nuclear war (How’s that for ‘the end of time’?), and fascism has in many places come back in style–a tried-and-true tactic that capitalists use to beat back political agitation from workers–we can see the Quartet for the End of Time as not only a music of consolation for our suffering today, but also as a clarion call–the seven trumpets!–for a revolutionary end to all the war, ecocide, alienation, income inequality, and immiseration of the Third World.

The end of time, for us socialists, is the end of the dialectical, historical struggle between rich and poor–first, master vs. slave, then, feudal lord vs. peasant, and finally, bourgeois vs. proletarian. Let this music inspire us all to break out of our fascist prisons, these cages of ours, and fly freely and sing with the birds.

Robert Sherlaw Johnson, Messiaen, Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1975

Peter Hill, editor, The Messiaen Companion, London, Faber and Faber, 1995

Analysis of ‘Johnny Got His Gun’

Johnny Got His Gun is a 1938 anti-war novel written by Dalton Trumbo, published the following year, and adapted into a 1971 film, which was also written and directed by him (with an uncredited writing collaboration from Luis Buñuel). The film stars Timothy Bottoms, with co-stars Kathy FieldsMarsha HuntJason RobardsDonald Sutherland, and Diane Varsi.

The book was temporarily taken out of print several times, when such wars as WWII and the Korean War broke out; for the book’s anti-war sentiment was deemed inappropriate at those times. Having been a member of the Communist Party USA during WWII, Dalton agreed to the non-printing of his novel, as long as the Soviet Union remained allies with the US against the Nazis during the war. As for the far right, isolationists among them sent Trumbo letters asking for copies of the book while it had been out of print. He reported the letter-writers to the FBI, but it turns out the FBI was far more interested in him, a leftist, than in the rightist writers.

The novel tells the story through a third-person subjective, or limited, narration, meaning we get the story from the protagonist’s point of view, that of Joe Bonham (played by Bottoms in the film). This means that the perspective of the medical staff is given only in the film adaptation. Other differences between novel and film include the rearrangement of some scenes into a different order, and the inclusion of scenes in the film with Christ (Sutherland) generally having been written by Buñuel (assuming IMDb is trustworthy here), although the scene of Christ playing cards with Joe, the redhead, the Swede (played by David Soul), and the other soldiers is in the novel (Book II, Chapter 16), and around 27-30 minutes into the film.

The film was originally a modest success, but became a cult film after Metallica‘s video for their songOne,” which included scenes from the film, revived interest in it. In fact, Metallica bought the rights to the film so they could use scenes from it in their video without having to pay royalties on it.

Links to quotes from the film can be found here.

Joe Bonham, a young American soldier in WWI, has been severely injured from the blast of an artillery shell, rendering him limbless, eyeless, deaf, and without a nose, tongue, or teeth. To make matters worse, the army medical staff taking care of him, not knowing who he is (three minutes into the film), and mistakenly thinking he’s decerebrated from his injuries, assume that he feels no pain or pleasure, and that he has no memories or dreams; so they keep him alive for medical research.

Joe gradually comes to the horrifying realization that all that’s left of him are his torso, genitals, and mutilated head (from Chapter 3 onward), with only the sense of touch left to link himself with the world, and with his consciousness intact to realize the virtually hopeless state that is the remainder of his natural life. This is alienation in the extreme, as only war can cause it.

The medical staff are keeping him alive so they can study him, the rationalization being that such study can be a help to future injured soldiers. When he realizes fully what’s been done to him, he’d like to kill himself by cutting off his own breathing, but he can’t, because the staff have him breathing through tubes directly connected to his lungs (Chapter 5, pages 28-29).

So, the overarching theme of the story is loss, lack. Joe has lost not only all the body parts that can make him useful, help him to enjoy the company of other people, or give his life meaning; not only has he lost his will to live and his faith in God (especially by the end of the story); but he has lost the very ability to end his life.

Normally, desire is aroused by a stimulation of the senses, so we’d think that a lack of those senses might cause one to be able to resist the sensual temptations of the world and attain peace, nirvana; but Joe is someone used to the physical pleasures of the world, to the enjoyment of relationships with other people, so being deprived of all of that, all of a sudden, is something he cannot accept. His is a Lacanian lack giving rise to desire: a desire to be useful to others, to be recognized and acknowledged by others, to be wanted by others (e.g., his girlfriend, Kareen [Fields]).

How can he be worth anything to anybody (other than that impersonal medical staff who are exploiting him for their own purposes) in his mutilated state? As a quadruple amputee with his face blown off, he’s been symbolically castrated, though, ironically, his genitals are still intact (Joey’s got his gun), they being the symbol of desire par excellence. Instead of letting go of his desires, which would lead to nirvana, he has them all the more, trapping him in a symbolic samsara. His is a living death: note how the novel is divided into two books, called ‘The Dead,’ and ‘The Living.’ It’s as if he’s dying (despair), then living again (new hope), then dying again (frustrated hope), then living again (revived, if feeble, hopes), a symbolic reincarnation into a world of endless suffering, of hell.

His hell is the undifferentiated world of what Lacan called the Real. He cannot tell day from night, dream from waking life, or fantasy from reality (especially with all the sedatives he’s getting). He cannot measure time with any degree of accuracy, though he certainly tries very hard to.

Communication borders on impossible for him, except towards the end of the story, when a nurse uses her finger to spell “MERRY CHRISTMAS” on his bare chest (Chapter 17, page 86); and when he uses the Morse Code, tapping the back of his head on a pillow, to communicate with the army brass, only to have his wishes rejected. Therefore, his connection with the Symbolic Order, the therapeutic world of language, culture, and society, is a tenuous one.

The paradoxically terrifying/beatific world of the Real, or to use Bion‘s terminology, O, is one beyond the senses, a suspension of memory and desire. James S. Grotstein says, “A transformation in ‘O’ is attainable only by the disciplined abandonment of memory, desire, understanding, sense impressions — and perhaps also the abandonment of ego itself.” Such a place could be heavenly, like nirvana, if Joe could just let go of his ego and the world he’s lost; but of course, he’ll never do that, so he can only experience the hellish aspect of O, the Real, which is dialectically right next to the heavenly aspect (consider my use of the ouroboros, which symbolizes a circular continuum, the dialectical relationship between opposites [i.e., the serpent’s head biting its tail], to get at my meaning), depending on whether or not one clings to desire.

Trumbo’s novel begins with memories of sounds, like the sound of the telephone ringing. His hearing is the first thing he discovers he’s lost, and ironically, he has a ringing sound in his ears, reminding him of the telephone. Added to this, he remembers a sad phone call at work in the bakery: he must go home, for his father (Robards) has died. More of the theme of loss.

Other sounds Joe remembers are of music, his mother’s singing (beginning of Chapter 2) and piano playing (Chapter 1), something he’ll never get to enjoy again. In subsequent chapters, Joe remembers other sensory pleasures, like his mom’s home cooking (Chapter 2), a listing-off of various delicious foods (her baked bread, her canned peaches, cherries, raspberries, black berries, plums and apricots, her jams, jellies, preserves, and chilli sauces; the sandwiches of the hamburger man on Fifth and Main, etc.), all foods he’ll never get to taste again. He describes the aches and pains in his arms and legs, doing hard physical labour, in the hot sun, to the point of exhaustion (Chapter 4, pages 19-21).

He describes going to bed with Kareen (Chapter 3, page 15; and about nine minutes into the film), their one and only intimate time before he’s shipped off to fight the war, an indulgence her father allows, amazingly. All of these vivid sensual descriptions are here to underscore, for the reader, all that Joe has lost.

The film symbolically reflects the difference between what he had (and what he wishes he still had) and what he’s lost by showing his memories, dreams, and fantasies in colour (the dreams and fantasies being in saturated colour), and showing his current, hellish reality in the hospital in black and white. Indeed, all he has left are his memories and fantasies.

All these memories of his reinforce in our minds that Joe is a human being, with a heart and feelings, with dreams, hopes, and desires, like everyone else. He’s more than just a guinea pig for the medical staff to study and experiment on.

This understanding is the anti-war basis of the story: soldiers aren’t just pieces of meat (like the piece of meat that Joe has been reduced to) for the army and ruling class to use for their selfish purposes. Of course, these selfish purposes–the imperialist competition to control the lion’s share of the world’s land and resources–are cloaked behind rationalizations of keeping the world “safe for democracy.”

Now, what is meant here by “democracy” is not really the power of the people, but what is properly called the dictatorship or the bourgeoisie, or the rule of the rich. Boys like Joe are recruited to kill and die to protect and serve the interests of the capitalist class. This story’s setting during WWI is significant in how Lenin at the time wrote Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, a polemic against the war (understood as an inter-imperialist competition among the great powers of the time for land and resources), which was very unpopular in Russia. And as soon as the Bolsheviks took power, they worked to get Russia out of the war.

If only American communists could have been so successful.

The novel’s defiant, anti-war tone reaches its highest pitch at the ends of Books I and II, in which Joe speaks contemptuously of that old lie about the “fight for liberty.” As Joe says on page 49, “What the hell does liberty mean anyhow?” His response to the importance of liberty is “my life is important” (page 50). As for Joe’s defiance of the war machine and what it has done to him, hear Donald Sutherland’s reading of passages from the end of Book II (pages 103-104).

Now, since Joe has realized what a big mistake he made believing the bourgeois imperialist lie of ‘fighting for democracy,’ we should try to understand what originally drove him to buy into that lie. It was his love of his father and his wish to identify with him, to win his father’s love. Though his father cynically realizes that ‘defending democracy’ is really just about “young men killing each other,” Joe as a naïve little boy just goes along with the apparent virtue of such a fight. After all, as his father says, “Young men don’t have homes; that’s why they must go out and kill each other.” (Recall, in this connection, the fourth line in the bridge to the lyrics of the Black Sabbath song, “War Pigs,” which came out close to the same time as the film.)

Joe deems his father a failure who has nothing but his phallic fishing pole to give him distinction (not even Joe has distinction, apparently, as his father frankly tells him), but this is the only father little Joe has. Joe manages to lose that fishing pole one day when fishing not with his dad, but with his friend, Bill Harper (Chapter 9, and at about 1:16:30 into the film). The loss of the fishing pole is another symbolic castration. Joe’s memories of his father hugging him, and wanting to receive a hug from him, are–I believe–wish-fulfillments of Joe’s (the line separating his actual memories and how he wishes to remember his past is a hazy one). His father’s death, and the loss of the fishing pole, goad Joe–through guilt feelings–into being willing to do what “any man would give his only begotten son” for…kill and be killed for democracy.

This choice of words, “only begotten son,” is intriguing. It reminds one of John 3:16. Joe’s father would give his only begotten son to die for an ideal, freedom, which sounds like God the Father giving His only begotten Son to die for our sins, so sinners can live in an ideal world, heaven, which is freedom from sin and death.

This comparison leads us to the understanding that Joe, in the extremity of his suffering, is comparing himself, however obliquely, to Christ. He is suffering in an excruciating manner similar in a number of ways to how Jesus suffered. In his state of living death, Joe is harrowing Hell, so to speak, as Christ did.

The two books of Trumbo’s novel, recall, are named “The Dead” and “The Living.” The reverse order of these names suggests resurrection. On the other hand, Christ will return to judge the living and the dead (1 Peter 4:5). This understanding gives depth to Joe’s dreams and fantasies of conversing with Christ, for it gives meaning–and a sense of grandeur–to Joe’s suffering.

His dream of a rat biting into a wound behind a bandage on his side, or his chest (something he, at first, can’t tell from waking reality–Chapter 7, page 41; and 45 minutes into the film) suggests the spear in Christ’s side. The loss of Joe’s limbs is analogous to the stigmata in Christ’s hands and feet; recall how he believes the doctors have amputated his arms and legs–for example, he feels the pinching and pricking of sharp instruments when they remove the bandages from where his left arm would have been (Chapter 3, page 13). And the mutilation of Joe’s face parallels Christ’s crown of thorns, the digging of those thorns into His head.

The mutilation of Joe’s body, and the mental disorientation he feels as a result, symbolizes and literally means that he is in danger of suffering psychological fragmentation. Pathological narcissism–in Joe’s case, the covert kind in which one sees oneself as a grandiose victim–is an effective–if dysfunctional–defence against such fragmentation. In Joe’s case, this narcissism expresses itself by his comparing of his suffering to that of Christ.

In the film, when Joe is with Christ in one of his fantasies (46-50 minutes into the film)–when Christ is doing His carpenter work–and Joe is speaking about his fears of having the rat nightmare again, the two are looking in each other’s faces as if Joe were looking into a mirror…that is, the narcissistic mirroring of the self in the other. As a dream, the scene is a wish-fulfillment for Joe in which he hopes to find a solution to the rat nightmare problem, which of course Christ can’t solve, because Joe’s problems are material, not spiritual, ones: Joe has no mouth with which to yell himself back into consciousness, he has no eyes to open, and he has no limbs with which to knock the rat off of him. This must have been a scene that atheist Buñuel wrote, for Christ is no help to Joe, and He Himself acknowledges that no one really believes in Him.

Joe remembers his Christian Science preacher from childhood telling him that God is Spirit (35 minutes into the film), as is man in his true nature, which makes Christ vaguely comparable with Joe, who barely has a body anymore, and barely has any sensory contact with the physical world. Joe, like Christ on the Cross, feels “forsaken” (Chapter 20, page 101) by the medical staff, who refuse to grant him his request to be taken around in a glass box and presented as a kind of freakish icon to teach people about the horrors of war.

To be taken all over the US and displayed thus, as an anti-war icon, is comparable to Christian missionaries traveling the world and spreading the Word of the Gospel (Matthew 28:19). Joe’s message of saving lives, though, is the salvation of physical lives, not that of spiritual ones. “He had a vision of himself as a new kind of Christ as a man who carries within himself all the seeds of a new order of things. He was the new messiah of the battlefields saying to people as I am so shall you be.” (Chapter 20, page 103)

As we can see, this association of Joe with Jesus is far more apparent in the novel, especially towards the end, than in the film. And if he is like Christ, we can find Mary parallels, too.

First, when Joe realizes the extremity of his predicament, he feels as helpless as a baby in the womb (Chapter 7, page 37), and he–in his thoughts–calls out to his mother for help (Chapter 5, page 25). This association of limbless Joe with a baby in the womb can also be linked with his recollection of his mother’s telling of the Christmas story, with Joseph and pregnant Mary trying to find an inn in Bethlehem to spend the night (Chapter 17, pages 88-90).

Without his mother to know of his mental cries for help, Joe must rely on the care of the nurses, on whom he transfers his Oedipal feelings, which have resurfaced as a result of his regression to an infantile state, this being part of his coping mechanism.

Having transferred feelings of Oedipal love from his mother onto the nurses, Joe finds one nurse in particular–as noted especially in the film (Varsi)–whose tearful compassion for him is receptive to that love. Accordingly, she masturbates him (Chapter 14, page 72); about an hour and fifteen minutes into the film). Remember, though, the blurred line between his fantasy world (i.e., wish-fulfillment) and his reality. How much of her massaging is real, and how much is his imagination?

Since the Oedipal transference is sent to her, and since it is she who writes “MERRY CHRISTMAS” with her finger on his chest, this nurse can be seen as the Mary to his Jesus. The tears in her eyes over his suffering make her a kind of mater dolorosa, Our Lady of Compassion.

Now, these Christ and Mary parallels do not mean that Trumbo was trying to present a Christian “prince of peace” kind of anti-war story. Such symbolism only serves to express the gravity of Joe’s suffering through the use of familiar religious imagery. This is no story about “faith, hope, and charity“: on the contrary, it is about bottomless despair, which is especially apparent at the end of the film.

Joe’s pitying nurse would be an exterminating angel, were one of the doctors not to stop her from cutting off Joe’s air supply to euthanize him. The doctor, whose “stupidity” is bluntly noted by the chaplain in the film, would keep Joe alive in that hellish state so he can continue to be studied. For this is the whole point of war: the exploitation of young men to kill, to be killed, and to be otherwise used as a kind of commodity for the benefit of the powerful.

Unable to kill himself, unable to live in any meaningful way, unable to communicate and be listened to (i.e., to re-enter the social world of the Symbolic; our libido seeks other people’s company, as Fairbairn noted), and hovering between consciousness and unconsciousness because of the sedatives the doctors keep giving him, Joe is trapped in the undifferentiated void of the Real. If he could only let go of his attachment to his ego, that illusory self we all have from our contemplation of our mirror reflection, the Imaginary, then he might find peace.

But his was never a Buddhist or Hindu upbringing, of course: it was a Christian one, from which he derived his narcissistically amplified ego by identifying with Christ. And since even the religious systems of the Far East typically hold up the authoritarian and class basis of their respective societies, they would be of little help to him, anyway. His predicament is a material one, not a spiritual one. The eternal death of his Hell is not being able to choose when he can die.

He might see himself as Christ-like, as a fisher of men, but he lost his father’s fishing pole…just as he’s lost everything else. And just as Joe’s father is dead, so is God the Father dead…hence, there’s no Christ to wake Joe out of his nightmare.

Jason Morton’s New Poem

Here’s another poem by my friend, Jason Morton, whose work I’ve written about before. As before, I’ve put his words in italics to distinguish them from mine; after the text will be my analysis.

Absolution a myth
Created by man
To make me into what I never was
A sinner a winner
A child like wonder
Bursting stars in my eyes
Only pain can penetrate the lies
As deliverance has fallen short
Like an angel who is a forgotten
Figure in my mind and my eyes
Listen to the wind
And sift through the lies

Am I worthy to be redeemed?

Here we find the poet struggling with feelings of shame, guilt, and low self-esteem, brought on by such demeaning authority figures as those symbolized by the Church.

There’s the hope of absolution, though it’s a hope never realized. Ostensibly, it’s meant to make one a better person, but what it really does is try to make one into what one never was: an obedient follower.

“A sinner” is supposedly redeemed and made into “a winner” and “a child like wonder” reminding one of Matthew 18:3: “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

Note how childlike is split into two separate words, indicating how far one really is from being the sweet, innocent, childlike ideal that religious authoritarianism claims it wants for us, but is really a kind of code word for obedience and conformity.

“Bursting stars in my eyes” suggests a blinding by the celestial light, the poet’s eyes exploding, being destroyed by the authority that would see for him. Learning the truth of this abusive authority is inevitably painful, hence “only pain can penetrate the lies.”

“Deliverance has fallen short” because the promises of redemption made by the authority are never kept. This having “fallen short” is like a new Fall of Man, a second falling from grace.

He feels “like an angel who is a forgotten/Figure in [his] mind and [his] eyes.” Would this forgotten angel be Lucifer, the one who used to be a great angel, but is now so disgraced as to be the Devil, his former goodness no longer remembered? Is the poet’s shame so extreme? Has the authoritarian structure harmed him that badly?

An interesting moment of ambiguity comes at the end of this last quote. “And my eyes” could end the passage about the forgotten angel, or his eyes could–in a surreal sense–“listen to the wind/And sift through the lies.” Perhaps this means that he hears a wind, the breath-like ruach, which he can’t see, because the Spirit of God is only believed to be there; it’s actually nonexistent.

In spite of the obvious unreality of the authoritarian narrative, be it literally religious or otherwise symbolic of some other kind (i.e., the authority of family, politics, etc.), he still feels the trauma of unworthiness that the narrative has imposed on him. Hence, “Am I worthy to be redeemed?”

I think he’s worthy enough not to need redemption. The question is, can those who so shamed him ever be worthy of redemption?

I have my doubts about that.

Analysis of ‘Pet Sematary’

Pet Sematary is a 1983 supernatural horror novel by Stephen King, the one he considered his scariest (King, page ix) because of a real-life situation in which his toddler son ran off to a road and almost got hit by a truck (page xi). It has been made into two film adaptations, the 1989 one starring Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, Blaze Berdahl, and Fred Gwynne; and the 2019 version starring Jason Clarke, Amy Seimetz, and John Lithgow.

Here are some quotes from the 1989 film, the screenplay written by Stephen King:

“But he’s not God’s cat, he’s my cat… let God get His own if He wants one… not mine.” –Ellie Creed, afraid of her cat, Church, dying on the road in front of the Creed’s home

“The barrier was not meant to be crossed. The ground is sour.” –the ghost of Victor Pascow

“The soil of a man’s heart is stonier, Louis. A man grows what he can, and he tends it. ‘Cause what you buy, is what you own. And what you own… always comes home to you.” –Jud Crandall

Louis: Has anyone ever buried a person up there?
Jud: Christ on His Throne, NO! Whoever would!?

“Today is thanksgiving day for cats, but only if they came back from the dead.” –Louis Creed

“I knew this would happen. I told her when you were first married you’d have all the grief you can stand and more, I said. Now look at this. I hope you rot in hell! Where were you when he was playing in the road? You stinkin’ shit! You killer of children!” –Irwin Goldman, at Gage’s funeral, to Louis…then punches Louis

Louis: I’ll bite, Jud. What’s the bottom of the truth?
Jud: That, sometimes, dead is better. The person that you put up there ain’t the person that comes back. It might look like that person, but it ain’t that person, because whatever lives on the ground beyond the Pet Sematary ain’t human at all.

Rachel: It’s okay, Ellie! You just had a bad dream.
Ellie: It wasn’t a dream, it was Paxcow! Paxcow says daddy is going to do something really bad!
Rachel: Who is this Paxcow?
Ellie: He’s a ghost, a good ghost! He was sent to warn us!

“Rachel, is that you? I’ve been waiting for you, Rachel. And now I’m going to twist your back like mine, so you’ll never get out of bed again… Never get out of bed again…NEVER GET OUT OF BED AGAIN!” –Zelda Goldman

“I’m coming for you, Rachel… And this time, I’ll get you… Gage and I will both get you, for letting us die…” –Zelda, who then cackles

“Darling.” –reanimated Rachel, to Louis

The deliberately misspelled title is derived from an actual pet cemetery whose sign had the same misspelling, made by a child (page x). In the story, as in the real pet cemetery (it’s safe to assume), a number of the grave markers of the children’s dead pets have other misspellings; these all give a sense of the innocence of children who must learn to come to grips with loss.

I see another possible interpretation of the “Sematary” spelling, that it is a pun on seminary, or a school of theology. To study God is to study life’s meaning, as well as the mystery of death, the afterlife, and how to cope with suffering and loss. In this connection, recall the surname of the protagonist, Creed (the Christian belief system), and the name of their cat, Winston Churchill, usually shortened to Church. Pets are churches that, through their deaths, teach children about loss.

There are two cemeteries in the story, the good one (the Pet Sematary) and the bad one (the Micmac burial ground). The good one helps children deal with their grief and to learn to accept loss; but the bad one, which resurrects the dead and transforms them into demonic versions of their former selves (because the ground is inhabited by a Wendigo, an evil spirit of the First Nations tribes of the area), is for those who cannot accept the loss of loved ones.

So, the Pet Sematary is a kind of seminary, if you will, teaching children how to process the grief they feel after losing their beloved pets. The children can imagine that their pets are going from there to ‘dog [cat, hamster, etc.] heaven.’ The misspellings on the sign and grave markers, as I said above, show us the sweet naïveté of these children in their contemplation of God-like things; for as Jesus says in Matthew 18:3, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

The Pet Sematary is in a forest at the end of a long path from behind the house that the Creed family has just moved into. The religious often speak of following the right path to salvation, and the wrong path to damnation. There’s the path to the Pet Sematary (“It’s a safe path…You keep on the path and all’s well.” –page 39), and there’s also that road in front of the Creeds’ new house, where the Orinco trucks dangerously speed by, often killing people’s pets, thus filling up the Pet Sematary.

The inevitability of these trucks going by, something that happens regularly, is symbolic of the unescapable reality of death. Each truck is a juggernaut–not the actual Jagannath of the Hindus–but the apocryphal interpretation that Western observers made of it centuries ago: the idea that the chariot carrying the Hindu idol went non-stop down the road, and ecstatic worshippers threw themselves on the road to be crushed under the wheels of the chariot, in a rite of human sacrifice.

The name of the company printed on the trucks, Orinco (almost an anagram of the Cianbro truck King saw almost hit his little boy–page xi), sounds like a pun on Orinoco, the South American river whose name is derived from a term meaning “a place to paddle,” or a navigable place. Well, the road is good for Orinco trucks to drive on, since nothing can stop those juggernauts…nothing can stop death. The trucks are one with this road of death, a kind of via dolorosa.

So, the path to the Pet Sematary is a way to get to (pet) heaven, and the road the Orinco trucks drive on is a kind of highway to hell…or at least to Sheol. Then there’s the way beyond the Pet Sematary, the deadfall leading up to the Micmac burying ground, an evil sublation of the thesis–the Pet Sematary leading to eternal life for pets–and the negation of that thesis–the Orinco truck road to death. The Micmac burial ground is a place of living death.

That the Pet Sematary and the evil land of the Wendigo, leading to the Micmac burying ground, are closer together than the former is to the road suggests my ouroboros symbolism for the dialectical relationship between opposites (see these posts to understand my meaning)–the closeness between the Pet Sematary’s heavenly Godliness, if you will, and the devilish hell of the Micmac burial ground.

When Jud Crandall (played by Gwynne in the 1989 film, and by Lithgow in the 2019 one) takes Louis (Midkiff, 1989; Clarke, 2019) past the Pet Sematary and up the deadfall–“the barrier [that] was not made to be broken,” page 161–there’s a further trek of “Three miles or more” (page 164) to the burial ground, but before long one senses a hellish, demonic presence among the eerie animal sounds one hears (pages 166-169)…the Wendigo. They may be a while before getting to the burial ground, but they’re already in a kind of hell…Little God Swamp, or Dead Man’s Bog.

The dangerous climb up the unstable branches of the deadfall represents that meeting place where the teeth of the ouroboros bites its tail (symbolizing the meeting of the opposites of life and death, of heaven and hell), that meeting of opposites where, paradoxically, too much careful and nervous climbing leads to falls and injury, whereas climbing that is “done quick and sure” (page 161), never looking down, results in a miraculously safe and successful ascent.

That barrier is not made to be broken because it is so easy to break. Victor Pascow himself–a jogger hit by a car and killed before Louis can save him (page 89)–breaks the barrier to warn Louis never to break it, in thanks to the doctor for at least trying to save his life.

Jud advises Louis to have Church fixed (pages 23-24) because fixed cats “don’t tend to wander as much,” and therefore the risk of him running across that treacherous road, and getting crushed under the wheels of one of those Orinco trucks, will be lessened. The castrating of the cat, though, does nothing to prevent him from suffering the very fate Louis has tried to prevent. His daughter, Ellie (Berdahl in the 1989 film; Jeté Laurence in the 2019 film), loves Church so much that she will be heartbroken to learn he’s dead.

All of this leads us to a discussion of desire and the inability to fulfill it. Lacan considered the phallus to be the most important of the signifiers, since its lack (through symbolic castration) leads to desire, which can never be fulfilled. For Church, desire means the wish to roam and run about freely, whether fixed or not, whether the fulfillment of that desire is or isn’t excessive, transgressive, or dangerous (i.e., the racing across the road as symbolic of jouissance).

For humans, desire is symbolically expressed in being the phallus for the Oedipally-desired mother, though we can apply Lacan’s idea more generally–that of desire as ‘the desire of the Other’ (i.e., wanting to fulfill the desires of other people, wanting others’ recognition)–to the desires of the Creed family and Jud. Louis fixes Church in the hopes of keeping him safe, for Ellie’s sake; but when Church is killed, Jud has Louis take the corpse to the burial ground for her sake, too.

Louis, whose father died when he was three and who never knew a grandfather (page 3), has had strained relationships with father figures, particularly with his father-in-law, Irwin Goldman (played by Michael Lombard in the 1989 film). Irwin actually took out his chequebook and offered Louis a sum of money so he wouldn’t marry Rachel (page 146)!

If we see Louis’s love for her as a transference of Oedipal love for his mother, then his hostility to Irwin can be seen as a transference of Oedipal hate toward the father who left this world before Louis could even get a chance to know him. And Irwin’s disapproval of Louis marrying Rachel can thus be seen as a symbolic Non! du père, in turn resulting in Lacan’s notion of the Oedipally-based manque.

Louis has an even better reason to hate Rachel’s parents when he learns that they made her, as a little girl, take care of her sick older sister, Zelda, whose spinal meningitis made her so deformed and ugly that the sight of her traumatized little Rachel…especially when she found Zelda dead in her bed!

But in Jud, “the man who should have been his father,” Louis has found a good father figure, someone onto whom he can transfer positive Oedipal feelings (page 10). So when Jud, influenced by the Wendigo of the Micmac burying ground, has Louis bury Church there, Louis goes along with it, against his better judgement. After all, Daddy knows best, doesn’t he?

Lack gives rise to desire: Church’s castration, meant to keep him safe from the trucks, drives him to run across the road, to the point of him getting killed by a truck after all; “Cats lived violent lives and often died bloody deaths…Cats were the gangsters of the animal world, living outside the law and often dying there.” (pages 52, 53) The Creeds’ lack of a cat drives Jud, feeling compassion for Ellie, to have Louis bury the cat in the burial ground, though Jud knows it’s a foolish and dangerous thing to do. And Louis, lacking Gage after he is killed by an Orinco truck, is driven to exhume his son’s corpse and–with all the pain and exhausting work it involves–to rebury him in the burial ground. Then he’ll do the same with Rachel after demon-Gage kills her.

All four of these lacks lead to desires, which are excessive wants. The barrier that isn’t made to be broken is, symbolically, the barrier to jouissance, the forbidden fulfillment of excessive desire. We all have basic, biological needs, and as we learn language, social customs, culture, etc., in entering the Symbolic Order, we use language to make demands; but demands, especially the demand for love, are never expressed completely through the limitations of language, so some of that need and demand is never fully satisfied.

The residual lack gives rise to desire, an excess that’s never fulfilled. This remainder, incapable of being symbolized in language, is in the realm of the Real Order, a traumatic world symbolized by the frightening, inarticulate animal cries in the land of the Wendigo and the Micmac burial ground…”the real cemetery.”

The Buddhists teach us that suffering is caused by desire, attachment to things in a universe where all things are impermanent. The reality of death is an impermanence too painful for Louis Creed to bear, so his lack of Gage and, at the end of the novel, Rachel, drives him to feel a desire so excessive as to want to use the burial ground to raise them from the dead.

One cannot have the originally desired object–the Oedipally-desired parent, a universal, narcissistic desire, since, as a child looking up into the eyes of that parent, he or she is looking in a metaphorical mirror of him- or herself, a manifestation of the Imaginary Order–so one spends the rest of one’s life searching for a replacement of that object, the objet petit a. This replacement can never be a perfect substitute for the original, so desire is never fulfilled.

The demonic replacements of Church, Gage, and Rachel can be seen to represent the objet petit a, for they, of course, can never replace the originals…though Louis does all he can to have them replace his lost loved ones. When Jud’s wife, Norma, dies, he wisely accepts her death and never even considers burying her in the Micmac burial ground; but its demonic influence drives him to desire to have Church buried there, for Ellie’s sake, since desire is of the other, to wish to fulfill what one believes others want. Similarly, Louis reburies Gage there in part out of a wish to fulfill what he at least imagines is what Rachel would want…to have her little boy back (“She cried his name and held her arms out.” –page 527).

So, the forbidden fulfillment of excessive desires, jouissance, symbolized by the demonic resurrecting of Church, Gage, and Rachel, is another example of the dialectical relationship between opposites–pleasure/pain, bliss/suffering, heaven/hell, life/death–as I would represent with the head of the ouroboros biting its tail. In passing into jouissance‘s indulging in transgressive pleasure, one goes past pleasure and suffers pain; whereas in the Pet Sematary, one learns to accept loss.

Young Jud originally buried his dog, Spot, in the Micmac burial ground (page 181); then, when he saw what trouble the resurrected dog was, he came to his senses, killed it, and buried it in the Pet Sematary (page 45). The problem is that the desires kindled by the Micmac burial ground are addictive, like a drug–hence, Jud’s ill-advised taking of Louis there with dead Church.

One always wants more, that ‘surplus value,’ or the plus-de-jouir that Lacan wrote about. When animals are brought back, their demonic nature is usually not so bad as it is with resurrected humans (“…because Hanratty had gone bad, did that mean that all animals went bad? No. Hanratty the bull did not prove the general case; Hanratty was in fact the exception to the general case.” –page 390); again, as with the animals buried in the Pet Sematary, they act as a kind of warning to us not to play around with life and death, especially not with human beings.

There is our attachment to what we can’t keep, what we love; and there’s what we wish we never had, what we hate, yet what we must have at least sometimes in our lives. The Buddhists speak of the Three Poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion. Greed represents all those things and people we want in excess, because we want to keep them, but must one day let go of them–still, we won’t want to let go of them: hence the resurrecting of Church, Gage, and Rachel.

Hatred represents what we wish would be gone, but must have, hence Rachel’s trauma in dealing with Zelda, and her shame at feeling glad her sick sister finally died…but the painful memories live on, haunting her, for she can’t get rid of Zelda until she’s properly processed her pain. Hatred is also in Irwin’s refusal to accept Louis as a son-in-law.

Delusion is the false belief that things can be permanent, hence Louis’s reburying of Church, Gage, and Rachel. Even though he sees how evil resurrected Gage is, Louis still fools himself with the belief that resurrected Rachel will be better, because apparently he waited too long with Gage. “Something got into him because I waited too long. But it will be different with Rachel…” (page 556)

So, the message of the novel is that we can’t force our desires onto the world…but we can’t help doing so, even though doing so will only make our suffering worse. We know this, but still do it. “Sometimes, dead is better”…but we refuse to accept it.

The sweetness and innocence of children and animals, as expressed in the Pet Sematary–that seminary, if you will, that teaches us to have the misspelling simplicity of a child entering the kingdom of heaven–turns rotten, into Oz the Gweat and Tewwible (pages 510-511, 513ff), if we try to bend the world to our will. The Wendigo makes all the difference.

As we already know, the Micmac burial ground is a demonic double of the Pet Sematary, with their spirals (pages 386-387, 498) and graves curling like the coiled, serpentine body of the ouroboros; the land of the murderous, greedy, cannibalistic Wendigo that so frightens Louis on his way to rebury Gage, is right where the serpent’s teeth bite into its tail, the abyss where heaven and hell meet.

It’s so easy for the sweet and innocent to phase into their opposite, the Gweat and Tewwible.

Stephen King, Pet Sematary, New York, Pocket Books, 1983

A New Poem by Jason Morton

Here’s a short poem by my friend, Jason Morton, whose work I’ve looked at before. As always, his writing is given in italics to distinguish it from mine.

I dream in grays
Slip away into yesterday’s
That have no meaning
Straining my heart to find a day that will cleanse me of my sickness and help me feel whole
All I’ve ever wanted was to feel as if I had a soul
Things darken and fall apart
Every dream a broken heart
Singing songs or requims
Requires dreams to live off of
And I hold onto a small hope that meaning will be found one day
And the sky will be blue not gray.

And now, for my analysis.

One tends to think of dreams as wish-fulfillments, but the poet only dreams of sad things, “in grays.” This is so because the poet finds little, if anything, to hope for. In those dreams, he will “Slip away into yesterday’s/That have no meaning.” The apostrophe is deliberate, indicating a pun on the plural for yesterdays and its possessive. Of course, we see no noun to go with yesterday’s, and so I speculate that the intended word was nothings, or many instances of emptiness. We don’t see the word, the absence of which ironically emphasizes its meaning.

And this leads us to how those nothings “have no meaning.” The poet’s world is one of nihilistic emptiness. He wishes that “a day [would come] that will cleanse [him] of [his] sickness.” He wishes he could “feel as if [he] had a soul,” and this leads to some indirect religious allusions.

“Things darken and fall apart” is an obvious reference to the third line of WB Yeats‘s poem, “The Second Coming,” which is full of religious imagery referring to the end of the world. It would be useful to take a brief look at the context of that poem in order to see how it links to Morton’s.

Yeats’s poem was written just after the end of WWI. The destructiveness of the First World War led to much of the modern despair and apocalyptic fears that were expressed in the arts of the time. Added to this trouble was the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, to which Yeats’s poem is also connected (his wife caught the virus). It is interesting to point this out in connection with what Morton says in his poem about wanting “a day that will cleanse [him] of [his] sickness”; in turn, we can associate that flu pandemic (albeit with due caution) with the current fears of the coronavirus, which in turn can be a metaphor for the despair and apocalyptic fear the poet may be feeling, feelings many of us share.

My point is that his poem encapsulates the fear and despair many feel these days by using echoes from such work as Yeats’s. In today’s world, we often feel a comparable apocalyptic fear in the form of the environmental destruction caused by climate change; added to this is the fact that war is the number one polluter of the world, as seen in all these imperialist wars going on now. They had their huge war just over a century ago, and we have our many wars now.

The conveniences of upper middle class living give little comfort. “Every dream a broken heart” reminds me of the Roxy Music song, “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” in which a man’s love for an “inflatable doll” is a manic defence against the emptiness and loneliness he feels.

“Singing songs or requims [sic]/Requires dreams to live off of” continues this quest for a manic defence against sadness, a defence in the form of sex (hence the pun on requiem, requires, and ‘re-quim,’ if you will, an addictive, compulsive repeat of the search for quims, or addictions to porn and prostitutes in a wish to avoid dealing with sadness).

Requiems that require “dreams to live off of” reminds me of Requiem for a Dream, a novel about the destructiveness of drug addiction, yet another manic defence against sadness. All of these allusions–the end of the world, the destructiveness of war, pandemics, sex addictions as an attempt to alleviate loneliness, and drug addiction to cope with sadness–these are powerful images that Morton uses to depict the dark modern reality of despair, a true pandemic in our world.

I, too, hope that “meaning will be found one day,” and that the poet’s “sky will be blue” again, as it may one day be for all of us sufferers.

The Legendary Life of the Buddha

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I: Introduction

My commentary below is just a personal interpretation of the symbolism of the Buddha myth; furthermore, the focus here isn’t on the historical Buddha, of which little can be known for sure, but on the legendary narratives. I am neither a Buddhist, nor am I anywhere close to being an expert on the study of Buddhism. The following is just my thoughts on the meaning behind his legendary life story, for what they’re worth, so take it with a generous dose of salt.

The Buddha was known by many names, including Shakyamuni, “the sage of the Shakyas.” The Shakya people had a small kingdom, Kapilavastu, just south of the Himalayas in India; this was around the sixth century BCE.

Kapilavastu was a peaceful kingdom ruled by King Suddhodana and Queen Maya. Later legend claims that the Buddha was born into a royal family (though modern scholars doubt this), which should give us some idea of the political agendas behind such legends. The close association thus assumed to exist between those of high birth and those who are spiritually advanced is another example of how religious traditionalism is used to justify and perpetuate class differences and authoritarianism.

II: Queen Maya

One full-moon night, Maya dreamed of a white elephant with six tusks coming down from the heavens and entering her womb from the right side, prophesying the birth of a great man. The white of the elephant suggests spiritual purity, the god Indra has such an elephant (the animal being seen as a symbol of greatness), and one has often seen wealthy men riding in howdahs on elephants; so we see again the association of high spirituality with a high social position.

Pregnant Maya left the king and returned to her parents’ home, as was the custom of the time. On the way, she stopped in a garden in a park in Lumbini. Here, among the beautiful flowers, she gave birth to the prince under a sal tree. He would be named Siddhartha (“the All-Successful One,” or “He Who Achieves His Aim”) Gautama.

Soon after Siddhartha’s birth, a wise hermit named Asita came from the mountains to the palace to congratulate the king and queen for their new child. Yet he was sad, because as an old man, Asita knew he’d never live to see the baby grow into the greatness he was destined to have: to be a king of kings, or to be a Buddha.

III: Joy and Sadness

Again, we see the association of spiritual greatness with regal nobility, a justification of the caste system that allows the rich to stay rich and keeps the poor in squalor. Asita’s sadness also reflects the dialectical relationship between happiness and sadness: a great child was born, but the hermit would never see that greatness come to fruition. One is reminded of Verse 58 in the Tao Te Ching: “Misery is what happiness rests upon./Happiness is what misery lurks beneath.”

Added to this juxtaposition of joy and sorrow was the death, only seven days after Siddhartha’s birth, of his mother, Queen Maya. Though he was too young to remember her, he in his great spiritual development was greatly affected by her loss. Maya is Sanskrit for “illusion.” Illusion dialectically gives birth to enlightenment. The brief flowering of the sal tree symbolizes impermanence, so this combined with her death emphasizes the association between birth, death, illusion, and impermanence. The young prince would have felt all this.

Not being able to have the Oedipally-desired mother, Lacan observed, is a lack giving rise to desire for anything to replace her, a replacement that never satisfies, the objet petit a. The prince, in his wisdom, knew he’d never have that satisfaction, so he’d soon learn to give up desiring altogether.

Photo by David Bartus on Pexels.com

IV: Growing Up

He and his cousin, Devadatta, were skilled at archery. When the latter shot down a flying swan, though, the prince was full of sadness to see it in pain. Devadatta claimed it belonged to him, but Siddhartha, having pulled out the arrow and rubbing its wound to heal it, wanted it. They went to the court of a sage to decide what would happen to the animal. The sage, wisely knowing that the one who saves an animal has more right to it than the one who tries to kill it, favoured the prince, so it was his. Devadatta would resent this, and the cousins would be spiritual rivals later in life.

When the prince came of age, he wanted to know what the world outside his palace walls was like. His father, the king–worried that he would want to be a spiritual teacher rather than his successor to the throne–tried to distract him with indulgence in worldly pleasures: beautiful dancing girls, wealth and finery, etc. Siddhartha still wanted to go outside.

Here, instead of seeing the association between high spirituality and high social rank, we see the contradiction between the two. The prince would resolve this contradiction, to an extent, by marrying his cousin Yaśodhara and, by her, fathering a son, Rāhula; but he would still go outside.

V: His Four Trips Outside

On his first trip out, through the East Gate, he would see an old man. On his second trip, through the West Gate, he’d see a sick man. On his third, through the South Gate, he’d see a dead man’s funeral. This must have brought out feelings of his dead mother, his unattainable objet petit a.

Suffering is universal…especially for the poor.

On his fourth trip, out the North Gate, the prince saw something encouraging, for a change: he saw a holy man sitting in peace. This gave the prince hope that suffering can be ended…even in a world of poverty.

VI: Giving Up His Power

The contradiction between high social rank and high spiritual attainment is highlighted once again when we see the prince having made the Great Renunciation, giving up his position of regal power to help humanity and end suffering. Siddhartha’s decision to do this should be an inspiration to all in positions of political or financial power: give it up, and end class conflict. Sadly, far too few of them heed the message this inspiring renunciation gives us.

Siddhartha was twenty-nine years old when he chose to go from prince to mendicant, going from holy man to holy man for spiritual guidance, and practicing strict asceticism. None of the teachers had the answers he sought.

His asceticism grew more extreme; first, he ate only one grain of rice a day, then he stopped eating altogether. Five men became his disciples. It had been six years since he’d left the castle. His extreme self-denial was harming his physical health.

Photo by Emily Hopper on Pexels.com

VII: From Suffering to Enlightenment

Just as Siddhartha’s ventures outside the castle walls showed him visions of increasing suffering, then a glimpse of holy inspiration, so would the increasing suffering he felt from his extreme asceticism lead to the holy inspiration of discovering the Middle Path.

The dialectical relationship between this increase of suffering, leading to greater spiritual awareness, can be compared to the points on a circular continuum that I’ve used the ouroboros to symbolize: the point of departure is the serpent’s biting head, the increasing suffering is movement along the length of its coiled body towards its bitten tail, and the enlightenment is a return to the biting head. I’ve written of the ouroboros as a symbol of the dialectical relationship between opposites (which meet where the serpent’s head bites its tail) in many other blog posts.

A girl named Sujata gave almost-dying Siddhartha some rice pudding and milk, and helped restore his health. His five followers, though, disappointed at his ‘weak resolve,’ left him.

VIII: Meditating Under the Bodhi Tree

Now better, he sat at the foot of the Bodhi Tree to begin meditating. He was determined not to get up until he’d attained enlightenment. This hard resolve of his is an interesting parallel to his previous, self-starving effort, with the crucial difference being one of success instead of near self-destruction. Of course, nirvana is a kind of destruction…that is, of an illusory self.

Mara the demon tried to tempt Siddhartha from finding enlightenment through pleasure (i.e., the devil’s three beautiful daughters) and through guilt (i.e., from having abandoned his kingdom). He resisted these temptations.

He was assailed with the temptations of Mara again, whose devils rained arrows on him; yet in his growing power, Siddhartha either transformed the arrows into flowers or had the arrows fly back at the devils. Turning arrows into flowers symbolizes the wise way to deal with hate: to turn it into love; one is reminded of Verse 197 in the Dhammapada: “Indeed we live very happily, not hating anyone among those who hate; among men who hate we live without hating anyone.” Also, there is Verse 5: “For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love, this is an eternal rule.” The arrows flying back at the devils symbolize bad karma.

Mara claimed that only he could be the greatest, and that Siddhartha had no claim to greatness. Siddhartha responded by touching the earth, an appeal to the mother goddess, who acknowledged him as a great sage. Mara knew he lost.

IX: Becoming the Buddha

Finally, at the age of thirty-five, Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment. From now on, he would be known as Buddha (“the Enlightened One”), Shakyamuni (“the Sage of the Shakyas”), the World-Honoured-One, or Tathāgata (“the One Thus-gone”).

He now understood the Four Noble Truths: the universality of unhappiness in the world; the cause of unhappiness, being desire; the way to end unhappiness, being the extinguishment of desire; and the following of the Eightfold Path to end unhappiness.

He got up from the Bodhi Tree and went to Benares to teach others how to end suffering, for his compassion for all–those who didn’t know the Dharma–necessitated his helping them. Mara tried to tempt him away from sermonizing, too, but of course the demon failed.

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X: His First Sermon

The Buddha found his five old followers who’d thought he’d given up on trying to find enlightenment. They quickly realized how wrong they were about him, and they became his disciples again. To them, he preached his first sermon, in the Deer Park in Benares.

He taught that one must avoid the extremes of indulgence in pleasure, on the one hand, and of self-mortification, or enduring extreme pain, on the other. Doing neither is useful or worthwhile. The Middle Path, avoiding the extremes, is useful and worthwhile. He also taught the Four Noble Truths.

One must follow the Noble Eightfold Path, in which each part builds on and reinforces the preceding and succeeding parts: right understanding, right intention, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

One cannot have the right intentions without the right belief system, or understanding of the world, as a foundation for those intentions. Of all the good deeds one can do, speaking the right way (i.e., with kindness and honesty) should be the easiest. Good deeds should lead naturally to doing honest work (i.e., non-exploitative work, and not cheating people).

Right effort (i.e., resisting temptations before they arise, abandoning sin when it has arisen; also, arousing and maintaining wholesome states of mind) should grow from this living of a good life, and in turn that effort should lead to right mindfulness (i.e., always keeping one’s mind on the goal of liberation). Right concentration, that is, meditation, is an extension of mindfulness to every second of one’s thoughts.

XI: No Gods, No Self

Since the gods are part of the phenomenological world of pain and suffering, they cannot help us attain nirvana, which is a state of no-thing-ness, of a fluid, ever-changing reality that is unlike any perceived ‘fixed’ state of being. Our attachment to previous forms of being, wishing them never to go away, is what causes our suffering.

Without the aid of the gods, we must rely on ourselves. As daunting a task as this is, to attain enlightenment on our own, we nonetheless have Three Jewels to take refuge in: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

When one speaks of ‘self’-reliance, though, one must use the word self with caution; for the Buddha taught that there is no self (anattā, or anātman), in direct contrast with the Hindu concept of one’s eternal soul, Atman, being one and the same as Brahman, or the eternal oneness behind the whole universe. If all is impermanent (anicca), there can be no soul; karma is what binds people to the cycle of reincarnation.

How can one reconcile the contradiction between the Hindu conception of Atman with the Buddhist concept of anātman? I use the dialectical relationship between opposites to do that. Impermanence is, paradoxically, the one permanent reality. Self and other are unified, as I see them; Atman and Brahman are one. Brahman is an infinite ocean of perpetual change, ever flowing from one temporary state to another, from one dialectical opposite to the other, and we are a part of that endless flowing, though we think we each have a self. Lacan recognized what a lie the notion of a fixed, permanent self is, in our experience of the mirror stage.

In any case, the Buddha was not interested in speculation about theological or philosophical matters; he just wanted to end suffering, and thus to focus on what would help end suffering. These issues were recorded in the Lesser Mālunkyāputta Sutra.

XII: The Fire Serpent

He went to the Kingdom of Magadha, where he stayed overnight in the hall of the sacred fire of Agni, worshipped by the three Kasyapa brothers. There, a fire snake emerged to attack him, but he used his radiant power to charm, calm, and defeat it. The three brothers were so impressed (and repentant that they’d tried to have the Buddha killed) that they and their many disciples joined the Sangha. (The story is represented on a fragment of a stone slab from Gandhara.) He would teach them the Fire Sermon.

The vanquishing of the fire serpent symbolizes the defeating of the fires of desire. In this story, I also see, in the calming of the snake, an illustrative example of what in psychoanalytic circles is Bion‘s theory of containment. Normally something a mother does to pacify her agitated baby, or what a psychotherapist does for his or her psychotic analysand, containment involves receiving the agitation of a distressed person (this agitation and distress being known as the contained) and being a container for it. One detoxifies the contained distress and returns it to the upset person, but it’s now in a tolerable, acceptable form. (See here for more on Bion and other psychoanalytic ideas.)

The Buddha made himself the container of the fire snake’s ferocity (the contained). He used what Bion called alpha function to soothe and calm the snake. The ‘heart of the Buddha,’ that is, his calm, loving, compassionate way replaced the ferocity with calmness and returned this now-soothing energy to the serpent. This kind of soothing and pacifying, reflected in the Christian tradition by the notion of ‘turning the other cheek,’ is the ideal way to deal with the hostility of other people. If only it weren’t so difficult to do…

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XIII: Spreading His Message

The Buddha’s message spread so far that it was received by followers of all social classes, from the poorest and hungriest to the richest of kings, including King Bimbisara of Magadha, who donated a garden of squirrels to the Sangha, the Bamboo Grove Monastery.

The Buddha returned to the Shakyas to see his father, King Suddhodana, his wife, Yaśodharā, and his son, Rāhula. The king had hoped he’d be dressed better, but the Buddha knew he didn’t need fine clothing. Purity of heart is more important. Soon, all the Shakyas became Buddhists.

These incidents, including the donation of the Prince Jeta Monastery through the (unnecessary) covering of the ground with thousands of gold coins, show how the Buddha’s message of love, compassion, and conquering of desire can win over even the wealthy and powerful.

XIV: The Three Poisons

Still, conquering our passions is never easy, even for committed monks. The three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion must be constantly guarded against; and even monks can miss the mark, as the Buddha noted in the quarrel among the monks of Kosambi, which even he couldn’t resolve (over a fairly minor problem, unclean water that mosquitoes might breed in), and threatened a rending asunder of the congregation.

Suffering isn’t caused only by wanting to keep things we cannot keep (greed) because of the reality of impermanence; it’s also caused by not accepting the unpleasant things that must be (hatred), even if just temporarily. The delusion behind all of this is the belief in a permanent pleasure and permanent non-existence of pain. All things, both good and bad, flow to us and away from us, like ocean waves.

XV: Devadatta

Speaking of sinful Buddhist followers, we mustn’t forget the Buddha’s envious cousin, Devadatta, who as a fellow Buddhist monk formed a splinter group to rival the Sangha. According to the Theravada Vinaya, Devadatta persuaded Prince Ajātasattu to have his father, King Bimbisara, killed (or jailed?); then he hired mercenaries to kill the Buddha.

But the mercenaries couldn’t bring themselves to do so horrible a deed, and they joined the Sangha instead. Devadatta made other attempts on the Buddha’s life, such as throwing a huge rock from up high on a mountain to crush him (it missed), and releasing an intoxicated elephant to trample him (as with the fire serpent, the Buddha used his powers of love and compassion to tame the elephant).

Devadatta eventually repented of his sin, but karma would have its way, and when he approached the Buddha, the earth opened up and sucked him into the Niraya Hell.

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XVI: Angulimāla

There are sinners who pretend to be good, like Devadatta; then there are those who are unabashedly bad, like Angulimāla, a robber who murdered hundreds, having cut off a finger from each victim to wear on a necklace (hence, his name).

When he encountered the Buddha, Angulimāla had already murdered 999 victims and was craving his thousandth, to fulfill a demand made by his old teacher for a thousand fingers. So wicked had Angulimāla become that he was actually considering murdering his own mother! Karma would never support such a crime, hence the Buddha’s intervention.

When he appeared on the road through a forest in Kosala, Angulimāla began chasing after him. Strangely, the killer was running as fast as he could, with his sword drawn, but the Buddha was just calmly walking. Even more strangely, instead of catching up with the Buddha, Angulimāla found the distance between himself and his prey lengthening!

The killer yelled at the Buddha to stop, to which he replied that he’d already stopped, and it was his pursuer who needed to stop. The killer repented and became a monk, who then had to endure the wrath of the families and friends of all of his murder victims; the Buddha told him to endure their hatred with patience, for such was his karmic burden.

This story demonstrates the superiority of calm over the passions; it also teaches how even the worst of people can be redeemed and made good.

XVII: The Buddha Enters Parinirvana

The Buddha spread his message for almost fifty years before finally falling ill and dying at about the age of eighty. He was going from Rajagaha to Savatthi. He reached a forest bordering Kusinara and rested between two large sala trees.

His disciple, Ananda, made a bed for him under the shade of the two trees. Subhadda, the Brahmin, came to see him, and he became the Buddha’s last disciple. He lay on the bed, reclining.

As he lay dying, the Buddha consoled his mourning disciples by saying that all things arise and pass away. “All compound things are transitory,” he said. “Seek out your liberation with diligence.” Then he died.

He went into the state of parinirvana, the end of his last physical life and into nirvana. Twentieth century scholars gave his dates as 563 BCE to 483 BCE, but recent scholarship considers the following dates as more accurate: from about 480 to about 400 BCE.

XVIII: Prodigal Sons

There is a story in the Lotus Sutra, about a young man who runs away from home, then, destitute, accidentally finds himself returned to the city of his (unrecognized) father, now a wealthy old man who recognizes his son and wants to ensure the boy inherits his wealth when he dies. Christians sometimes misinterpret this story, thinking that when the father gives his son work, he is making the boy do penance for his former unfilial ways. Part of the motive for such a misinterpretation is to present the forgiveness of the father in the Christian parable as proof of the ‘superiority’ of Christianity over Buddhism. Apparently, only Christianity offers grace; other religions require atonement.

The father in the Buddhist story, however, already forgives his son, and would eagerly have him back; but the boy, in his shame and impoverishment, would never accept being taken in as the son of such a rich man. The father accepts this mistaken feeling of his son, and employs him only to ensure that the boy is always nearby. He will tell his son the truth when the boy is ready to hear it. He also goes over to his son in filthy clothes and works with him.

When the son eventually learns who the rich old man really is, and that he is to inherit his father’s wealth, he is overjoyed to receive so unexpected a fortune, one unearned and given as a free gift. His job of cleaning away dung was not penance, but just something he did because of his inability to comprehend that he already had his father’s favour.

The father represents the Buddha as understood in the Mahayana tradition; the son represents those Theravada arhats who would never believe themselves capable of attaining Buddhahood. The purpose of the story is to tell Theravada Buddhists that, while they may continue practicing Buddhism in their usual way, they may become Buddhas just as Siddhartha did.

In an extended sense, this story can be interpreted to mean that we all have potential Buddha-nature. The Mahayana tradition sees no distinction between nirvana and samsara, two opposites that I would consider dialectical in nature. These things put together can be seen as a kind of grace, encouraging us, as the dying Buddha advised us, to seek our liberation with diligence.

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Analysis of ‘Star Wars’

In this analysis, I’ll be focusing on the George Lucas films, not the Disney debacle (my reasons for this are given below). As inferior as the prequels were to the trilogy of undeniably good films, at least they were a part of Lucas’s vision, not merely a grab for money.

I am saddened by the fact that, in all likelihood, I won’t live to see Lucas’s original idea for the sequel trilogy presented on the screen. All I can do is speculate and use my imagination as to how the Whills are in the drivers’ seats, controlling everything, behind every life form.

Nonetheless, there is enough material in Lucas’s six films to explore how he weaved a narrative–as clunky as his dialogue often was–to combine myth, mysticism, film lore, and (for me, the most exciting part) anti-imperialism.

Here are some famous quotes…and a few infamous ones:

Star Wars (1977)

“The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” –Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi, to Luke

Luke: I can’t get involved! I’ve got work to do! It’s not that I like the Empire, I hate it, but there’s nothing I can do about it right now. It’s such a long way from here.
Obi-Wan: That’s your uncle talking.

Motti: Any attack made by the Rebels against this station would be a useless gesture, no matter what technical data they’ve obtained. This station is now the ultimate power in the universe! I suggest we use it.
Vader: Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.
Motti: Don’t try to frighten us with your sorcerer’s ways, Lord Vader. [Vader walks toward Motti, then slowly raises his hand] Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes or given you clairvoyance enough to find the Rebels’ hidden fortr––[grasps his throat as if he is being choked]
Vader: I find your lack of faith disturbing.

Tarkin: Princess Leia, before your execution, I would like you to be my guest at a ceremony that will make this battle station operational. No star system will dare oppose the Emperor now.
Leia: The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.

Obi-Wan: Remember, a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him.
Luke: You mean it controls your actions?
Obi-Wan: Partially, but it also obeys your commands.

“Don’t underestimate the Force.” –Vader, to Tarkin

Vader: I’ve been waiting for you, Obi-Wan. We meet again at last. The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but the learner. Now I am the Master.
Obi-Wan: Only a master of evil, Darth.

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Gen. Maximilian Veers: My Lord, the fleet has moved out of lightspeed. Com-Scan has detected an energy field protecting an area of the sixth planet of the Hoth system. The field is strong enough to deflect any bombardment.
Vader: The Rebels are alerted to our presence. Admiral Ozzel came out of lightspeed too close to the system.
Veers: He felt surprise was wiser–
Vader[angrily] He is as clumsy as he is stupid. General, prepare your troops for a surface attack.
Veers: Yes, my Lord. [bows and leaves quickly][Darth Vader turns to a nearby screen and calls up Admiral Kendel Ozzel and Captain Firmus Piett.]
Ozzel: Lord Vader, the fleet has moved out of lightspeed and we’re preparing to– [begins choking]
Vader: You have failed me for the last time, Admiral.

The Emperor: The Force is strong with him. The son of Skywalker must not become a Jedi.
Vader: If he could be turned, he would become a powerful ally.
The Emperor[intrigued] Yes… He would be a great asset. Can it be done?
Vader: He will join us or die, master.

Han Solo: You like me because I’m a scoundrel. There aren’t enough scoundrels in your life.
Princess Leia: I happen to like nice men.
Han Solo: I’m a nice man.
Princess Leia: No, you’re not…[they kiss]

“Yes, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.” –Yoda, to Luke

Luke, having seen his X-wing sunk into the bog: Oh, no! We’ll never get it out now!
Yoda: So certain, are you? Always with you, it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?
Luke: Master, moving stones around is one thing, but this is… totally different!
Yoda: No! No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.
Luke: All right, I’ll give it a try.
Yoda: No! Try not. Do… or do not. There is no try.[Luke tries to use the Force to levitate his X-wing out of the bog, but fails in his attempt.]
Luke: I can’t. It’s too big.
Yoda: Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And where you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes. Even between the land and the ship.
Luke: You want the impossible. [sees Yoda use the Force to levitate the X-wing out of the bog and gets flustered when he does it] I don’t… I don’t believe it!
Yoda: That is why you fail.

Darth Vader, after choking Captain Needa to death: Apology accepted, Captain Needa.

Luke: I feel the Force.
Obi-Wan: But you cannot control it. This is a dangerous time for you, when you will be tempted by the dark side of the Force.

“Only a fully trained Jedi Knight with the Force as his ally will conquer Vader and his Emperor. If you end your training now, if you choose the quick and easy path as Vader did, you will become an agent of evil.” –Yoda, to Luke

“Luke. Don’t give in to hate. That leads to the dark side.” –Obi-Wan

Leia Organa: I love you.
Han Solo: I know.

“The force is with you, young Skywalker, but you are not a Jedi yet.” –Vader

Vader: If only you knew the power of the dark side. Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.
Luke: He told me enough. He told me you killed him.
Vader: No. I am your father.
Luke[shocked] No. No. That’s not true! That’s impossible!
Vader: Search your feelings; you know it to be true!
Luke: NO!!! NO!!!
Vader: Luke, you can destroy the Emperor. He has foreseen this. It is your destiny. Join me, and together, we can rule the galaxy as father and son! Come with me. It is the only way. [Luke lets go of the projection and falls into the shaft]

Return of the Jedi (1983)

Luke: Obi-Wan. Why didn’t you tell me? You told me Vader betrayed and murdered my father.
Obi-Wan: Your father was seduced by the dark side of the Force. He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed. So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view.
Luke[incredulously] A certain point of view?
Obi-Wan: Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view. Anakin was a good friend. When I first knew him, your father was already a great pilot. But I was amazed how strongly the Force was with him. I took it upon myself to train him as a Jedi. I thought that I could instruct him just as well as Yoda. I was wrong.
Luke: There is still good in him.
Obi-Wan: He’s more machine now than man. Twisted and evil.

Leia: But why must you confront him?
Luke: Because there is good in him, I’ve felt it. He won’t turn me over to the Emperor. I can save him; I can turn him back to the good side. I have to try. [kisses Leia on the cheek, then leaves]

Luke: Search your feelings, father. You can’t do this. I feel the conflict within you. Let go of your hate.
Vader: It is… too late for me, son. The Emperor will show you the true nature of the Force. He is your master now.
Luke[resigned] Then my father is truly dead.

“I’m looking forward to completing your training. In time, you will call me ‘Master’.” –the Emperor, to Luke

“It’s a trap!” –Admiral Ackbar

The Emperor: Come, boy, see for yourself. From here, you will witness the final destruction of the Alliance and the end of your insignificant rebellion. [Luke’s eyes go to his lightsabre] You want this, don’t you? The hate is swelling in you now. Take your Jedi weapon. Use it. I am unarmed. Strike me down with it. Give in to your anger. With each passing moment you make yourself more my servant.
Luke: No.
The Emperor: It is unavoidable. It is your destiny. You, like your father, are now mine.

Stormtrooper: Don’t move!
Han Solo, glances nervously at Leia…who subtly reveals the blaster hidden at her side: I love you.
Princess Leia: [smiles] I know.

The Phantom Menace (1999)

“Exsqueeze me…” –Jar Jar Binks

Maul: At last we will reveal ourselves to the Jedi. At last we will have revenge.
Sidious: You have been well trained, my young apprentice. They will be no match for you.

“How wude!” –Jar Jar Binks

“Yippie!” –Anakin

Palpatine[Whispering to Queen Amidala] Enter the bureaucrats, the true rulers of the Republic. And on the payroll of the Trade Federation, I might add. This is where Chancellor Valorum’s strength will disappear.
Valorum: The point is conceded. Will you defer your motion to allow a commission to explore the validity of your accusations?
Padmé: I will not defer. I’ve come before you to resolve this attack on our sovereignty now! I was not elected to watch my people suffer and die while you discuss this invasion in a committee! If this body is not capable of action, I suggest new leadership is needed. I move for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum’s leadership. [The Senators begin arguing over Queen Amidala’s decision, as Valorum sits down, stunned]
Mas Amedda: ORDER!!
Palpatine: Now they will elect a new Chancellor, a strong Chancellor. One who will not let our tragedy continue.

Mace Windu, after Darth Maul’s defeat: There’s no doubt the mysterious warrior was a Sith.
Yoda: Always two, there are. No more, no less. A master and an apprentice.
Windu: But which one was destroyed, the master or the apprentice?

Attack of the Clones (2002)

“Why do I get the feeling you’re going to be the death of me?” –Obi-Wan, to Anakin

Barfly: You wanna buy some death sticks?
Obi-Wan[executes a Jedi mind trick] You don’t want to sell me death sticks.
Barfly: I don’t wanna sell you death sticks.
Obi-Wan: You want to go home and rethink your life.
Barfly: I wanna go home and rethink my life. [leaves]

“I see you becoming the greatest of all the Jedi, Anakin. Even more powerful than Master Yoda.” –Palpatine

“Attachment is forbidden. Possession is forbidden. Compassion, which I would define as unconditional love, is essential to a Jedi’s life. So you might say, that we are encouraged to love.” –Anakin

“I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft and smooth.” –Anakin, to Padmé

Mas Amedda: This is a crisis. The Senate must vote the Chancellor emergency powers. He can then approve the creation of an army.
Palpatine: But what Senator would have the courage to propose such a radical amendment?
Amedda: If only…Senator Amidala were here.

“Victory? Victory, you say? Master Obi-Wan, not victory. The shroud of the dark side has fallen. Begun, the Clone War has!” –Yoda

Revenge of the Sith (2005)

“Chancellor Palpatine, Sith Lords are our speciality.” –Obi-Wan

Anakin: My powers have doubled since the last time we met, Count.
Dooku: Good. Twice the pride, double the fall.

Palpatine: Have you ever heard the Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise?
Anakin: No.
Palpatine: I thought not. It’s not a story the Jedi would tell you. It’s a Sith legend. Darth Plagueis was a Dark Lord of the Sith so powerful and so wise, he could use the Force to influence the midi-chlorians to create… life. He had such a knowledge of the dark side, he could even keep the ones he cared about… from dying.
Anakin: He could actually… save people from death?
Palpatine: The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.
Anakin: What happened to him?
Palpatine: He became so powerful, the only thing he was afraid of was losing his power…which, eventually of course, he did. Unfortunately, he taught his apprentice everything he knew, then his apprentice killed him in his sleep. Ironic. He could save others from death… but not himself.
Anakin: Is it possible to learn this power?
Palpatine: Not from a Jedi.

“POWER!!!! UNLIMITED POWER!!!!” –Palpatine, then sending Windu flying out the window to his death

Anakin: I pledge myself… to your teachings.
Sidious: Good. Good… The Force is strong with you. A powerful Sith, you will become. Henceforth, you shall be known as Darth…Vader.

Palpatine: The remaining Jedi will be hunted down and defeated. [applause] The attempt on my life has left me scarred and deformed. But, I assure you, my resolve has never been stronger. [applause] In order to ensure our security and continuing stability, the Republic will be reorganized into the first Galactic Empire, for a safe and secure society. [the Senators cheer]
Padmé: So this is how liberty dies… with thunderous applause.

Vader: You turned her against me!
Obi-Wan: You have done that yourself!
Vader: YOU WILL NOT TAKE HER FROM ME!!!
Obi-Wan: Your anger and your lust for power have already done that. You have allowed this Dark Lord to twist your mind, until now- now, you have become the very thing you swore to destroy.
Vader: Don’t lecture me, Obi-Wan. I see through the lies of the Jedi. I do not fear the Dark Side as you do! I have brought peace, freedom, justice, and security to my new empire!
Obi-Wan: Your new empire?!
Vader: Don’t make me kill you.
Obi-Wan: Anakin, my allegiance is to the Republic, to democracy!
Vader: If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy!
Obi-Wan: Only a Sith deals in absolutes. I will do what I must.
Vader: You will try.

“It’s over, Anakin! I have the high ground!” –Obi-Wan

[Obi-Wan Kenobi has cut off Vader’s legs and part of his remaining good arm on one of Mustafar’s higher grounds. Vader is struggling near the lava river]Obi-Wan[anguished] You were the chosen one! It was said that you would destroy the Sith, not join them! Bring balance to the Force, not leave it in darkness! [picks up Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber]
Vader: I HATE YOU!!!
Obi-Wan: You were my brother, Anakin. I loved you. [leaves as Vader, now too close to the lava river, catches on fire.]

“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!” –Vader, after realizing he’s killed Padmé

Yoda: An old friend has learned the path to immortality. One who has returned from the netherworld of the Force… Your old master.
Obi-Wan[surprised] Qui-Gon?!
Yoda: How to commune with him, I will teach you.

As my ordering of the above quotes indicates, I’m going through these films in the order they were made, rather than their order in terms of episodes. I’m doing this because, first, the above represents the order in which my generation and I experienced them, second, this is the order in which all the plot elements and characters were introduced for us, and third, anyone who hates the prequels so much that he or she doesn’t want to see them dignified with an analysis won’t have to scroll down to the good movies.

Star Wars

I’m also going by the original titles of the films, as you can see, rather than enumerating the “episodes.” It’s a nostalgia thing, as is my reason for giving minimal approval to the changes Lucas made to the original trilogy, most of which–in my opinion, at least–were unnecessary, self-indulgent, and even irritating at times.

Though the story takes place “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” its relevance to so much of what has happened in our world, up until now, shows the Unities of Time, of Space, and of Action, as I’ve described them elsewhere. These are universal themes, happening everywhere and at all times.

The opening crawl says, “It is a period of civil war.” Civil war, among the stars of the galaxy? By ‘civil,’ this means that members of the imperial senate are among those rebelling against the evil Galactic Empire. It’s a revolution from within, hence it’s a ‘civil war.’

Princess Leia claims she’s a member of the imperial senate on a diplomatic mission, when she’s actually behind the stealing of the Death Star plans. Later in the film, Commander Tagge, during a meeting of the imperial big brass on the Death Star, says “the rebellion will continue to gain a support in the imperial senate…”. The rebels are to a great extent made up of former members of the Empire…and what should we make of the Empire?

Note how they’re all Nordic-looking white men…not one of them is an alien, nor are any of them even non-white. We hear either British or American accents…or in the case of Darth Vader’s voice, the Transatlantic accent. The Galactic Empire thus can easily be seen to represent the Anglo-American imperialism of the past several hundred years.

Those dissidents who have left the Empire to join the rebellion are an inspiration to all of us living in the West, those who hate imperialism and late stage, neoliberal capitalism. It isn’t enough to hate the perpetrators of modern evils: we must fight them.

Fight the empire.

Granted, no one ever said it would be easy to fight them. That opening shot, of the tiny Tantive IV being chased and shot at by that huge Star Destroyer, coming from and dominating the top of the screen, establishes and emphasizes just how formidable an enemy the Empire is. Similarly, we in today’s world know who we’re up against, with not only a multi-billion-dollar funded American/NATO military, militarized cops, and their vastly superior technology, but also a trans-national corporate media that lulls us into submission.

Princess Leia’s iconic hairstyle, with its ‘cinnamon buns,’ was at least in part inspired by those of some of the Mexican women, called soldaderas, who fought in the Mexican Revolution. Darth Vader’s costuming, and that of the Jedi Knights, were inspired by that of the samurai, redolent of old, Japanese feudal times; for as benign as the Jedi are, they nonetheless represent a dogmatic, stodgy, conservative way of thinking that lends itself, despite the Jedi’s best intentions, to the authoritarianism of the Republic-turned-Empire.

Indeed, the Galactic Republic was always corrupt to some extent at least (more on that in the analyses of the prequels below); but in the emergence of the Empire, we see that corruption transforming into a kind of fascism. Before the rise of Naziism, the Weimar Republic was seen as a similarly corrupt democracy, hated by the German right and left. The Stormtroopers, whose name reminds us of the Sturmabteilung, wear uniforms that, appropriately, make them look like skeletons. Vader’s skull-like mask reinforces the Empire’s association with death. (Yes, note how masks represent conformity and hide individuality!)

R2-D2 and C-3PO, the only comic relief the franchise ever needed (Sorry, Jar Jar and BB-8), were inspired by two peasants from Akira Kurosawa‘s Hidden Fortress, as was so much of this movie. The first of these two ‘droids is the film’s MacGuffin, in its carrying of the Death Star plans to Tatooine.

In deleted scenes, Luke sees the Star Destroyer and rebel cruiser from his binoculars, then tells his friends, Deak, Windy, Fixer, and Camie, about it (see also Lucas, pages 16-19). Luke has had thoughts of joining the academy, since living on Tatooine is boring and depressing; but his friend Biggs tells him he’s leaving the Empire and joining the rebellion (Lucas, pages 24-27). This revelation gives Luke an important opportunity to begin questioning authority.

[In the deleted scene (link above) with Biggs and Luke, unfortunately Biggs says the Empire are starting to “nationalize” commerce; whereas in Lucas’s novelization, he says “they’re starting to imperialize commerce” (Lucas, page 26, my emphasis), which makes much more sense. How does one “nationalize” commerce in the context of “the central systems”? Also, nationalization isn’t exactly in keeping with imperialism.]

The contrast between feisty R2-D2 and polite and proper C-3PO is striking: the former defies authority, while the latter defers to it, except when the latter has no choice but to defy it. This contrast is emphasized when the two ‘droids part ways in the desert sands of Tatooine.

No analysis of Star Wars is complete without a discussion of Joseph Campbell‘s notion of the Hero’s Journey. Luke’s journey begins with his boring, ordinary world on Tatooine, the status quo. His Uncle Owen won’t let him leave and join the academy, rationalizing that he doesn’t yet have enough staff to replace Luke to work on the vaporators on his moisture farm; actually, Owen, knowing the fate of Luke’s father, doesn’t want the boy to suffer the same fate by getting involved in the conflict between the Empire and the rebels.

Luke’s call to adventure comes when he plays a fragment of a recording by Leia, who needs the help of Obi-Wan Kenobi. The boy is intrigued by two things in this recording: he recognizes the name Kenobi, wondering if she’s referring to old Ben Kenobi; Luke also notes how beautiful she is, not knowing she’s his twin sister (Did Lucas know she was his twin sister from the beginning? Some of us have our doubts about that, if you’ll indulge a little understatement on my part.).

Having tricked Luke into removing a restraining bolt attached to its side, R2-D2 sneaks away in search of Obi-Wan. Luke and Threepio chase after the twittering little ‘droid, only to be attacked by Sand People. Then Kenobi comes to rescue them, this moment being Luke’s meeting the mentor/supernatural aid.

In Kenobi’s home, two subjects under discussion between him and Luke are merged, one that has been of major emotional importance to the boy, and one that will be of major importance for the rest of his life: they are, respectively, his father and the Force. A mystery from Luke’s past, and a mystery to be unravelled in his future.

What’s particularly interesting about this juxtaposition of his father and the Force is that both have been divided into good and bad sides, though of course Luke doesn’t yet realize it. When Ben says, “Vader was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force,” Luke takes note only of, “the Force.”

Saying that Vader “betrayed and murdered” Luke’s father, instead of telling him what we all now know, the ret-con that Vader is his father, represents psychological splitting: Anakin is the good father, and Vader is the bad father. In fact, ‘Darth Vader’ is a pun on ‘dark father,’ or perhaps ‘dearth’ or ‘death (of the) father.’ Furthermore, ‘Vader’ can be seen as a near-homographic pun on the German word for ‘father’…Vater, which is appropriate, given the (unfortunate) stereotypical German association with fascism, and the Empire’s association with Naziism.

Just as there’s a duality in Luke’s father, so is there a duality in the Force; and while this film focuses on the dark side of Luke’s father (though Vader isn’t yet known to be him…and again, Lucas did not yet ‘know’ until after rewrites of Leigh Brackett‘s draft of The Empire Strikes Back), so does it focus on the good side of the Force.

…and what are we to make of this “ancient religion”? The mystical energy field has been compared to such ideas as the Chinese concept of ch’i, a knowledge of which helps the martial artist and samurai, to whom the Jedi can be compared. If one were religious, one might compare the Force to God, and its dark side to the Devil.

In order to defeat so intimidating an enemy as empire (be it the Galactic Empire of the Star Wars saga, or in our world, today’s US/NATO empire), one may find it helpful, at least in strengthening one’s sense of hope, to believe in some kind of Higher Power. For some, that might be God, the Tao, ch’i, or Brahman, as the Force can be seen to represent.

For me, the Force represents a kind of dialectical monism, the light and dark sides of which are sublated into the “balance” that is hoped for in the prequels. We Marxists, even though we’re generally not religious, can see the dialectical resolving of contradictions in history and economic systems as being symbolized by these yin-and-yang-like sides of the Force.

One interesting point made by Kenobi, in his description of the Force, is that it is “created by all living things,” rather than having created all life. This reversal is crucial in understanding how the Force is unlike any god. It’s useful for atheistic Marxists, too, who in our struggle against today’s imperialism, believe in dialectical materialism, in which the material world, and its dialectical contradictions, come first…then ideas come from the physical (i.e., through the brain). This conception is opposed to the Hegelian idea coming first (i.e., the Spirit), and physicality is supposed to grow from ideas.

So even if we’re atheists, we can derive hope from the dialectical materialist unfolding of history gradually resolving the contradictions of today and ending imperialism. This hope can give us the strength and resolve to carry on fighting our empire today, just as the rebels hope the Force will be with them. Even Han Solo, who doesn’t believe in the Force, uses its power, if only unconsciously.

We can also find inspiration in the Hero’s Journey, all the while understanding that it is no easy path to go on. Luke himself goes through his own refusal of the call when he tells Ben that he “can’t get involved.” Only the stormtroopers’ killing of his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru will radicalize him into going with Ben to Alderaan and learning the ways of the Force.

This radicalizing of Luke is interesting in itself. During the “War on Terror,” we in the West have been propagandized into believing that “Islamists” are just crazed fanatics driven to violence by their ‘backward’ religion, rather than by such things as drone strikes from imperialists that kill Muslims’ families, thus radicalizing them, as Luke as been.

That Tatooine is a desert planet, symbolic of Third Word poverty, is significant. That desert poverty makes it easy to compare to life in the Middle East and north Africa, whose populations have been oppressed by Western imperialism (starting with the British and French empires, then Zionism and American neocons) for decades and decades. Recall that Lucas filmed the Tatooine scenes in Tunisia.

The killing of Luke’s aunt and uncle, pushing him to join Ben and learn how to be a Jedi, means that Luke is crossing the first threshold and beginning his hero’s journey. Those of the imperialist mentality would say Luke is becoming a terrorist…well, when hearing that, just consider the source.

The poverty and want of Tatooine, a planet among those in the Outer Rim (an area whose very name tells us already just how marginalized it is), indicates the economic aspect of oppression in the galaxy. The Empire in this context should be seen to symbolize the bourgeois state.

The role of any government, properly understood, is to represent and protect the interests of one class at the expense of the others. Coruscant–a planet that is one big city all over (a city of flying cars and night lights that visually remind us of the Los Angeles of Blade Runner), and that is the seat of the galactic state (in either its republican or imperialistic form)–is representative of the First World, with all of its wealth and privilege. The contrast of Coruscant against such desolate planets as Tatooine and Hoth should help us recognize the state in the Star Wars saga as the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

Along with the desolation of Tatooine is the sense of alienation felt among its inhabitants. The aggression of the Sand People, gangsters like Jabba the Hutt, and the ruffians in the Mos Eisley cantina are indicative of such social estrangement as caused by the Galactic Empire. There’s so much needless fighting among them, a hostility that, if channeled properly, could be directed at the Empire instead.

Macho Han Solo, a cowboy without a hat, is yet another example of the “I’m alright, Jack” kind of rugged individualism in a world where solidarity against the Empire is needed far more. A deleted scene shows him with his arm around a pretty girl whom he calls “Sweetheart” when she leaves so he can meet Luke and Ben. Han’s involvement with the rebels, led by another “sweetheart,” will make a much-needed change in his character.

But for now, we just have the cocky he-man…so much so that, as a nod to all of us who saw the original version of this film, we can say that Greedo never fired a single shot before Han blew him away. Han, at this point in his life, wasn’t meant to be a good role model for children.

Another point needs to be made about Mos Eisley spaceport, as it was originally conceived: it originally had far fewer people, aliens, etc. That was the point–it was a lonely place where anyone trying to hide from the Empire could lie low and hope not to be apprehended. Adding all that CGI may have made the scenes more visually interesting (to those with shorter attention spans), but sometimes less is more.

While it’s interesting to see the scene with Han Solo talking with Jabba by the Millennium Falcon, in another way, it’s better without that scene, for its omission gave Jabba a sense of mystery (Who is he? What does he look like?) until we finally see his infernal sliminess in Return of the Jedi. Besides, Han’s calling him a “wonderful human being” (my emphasis), even if meant sarcastically, sounds rather out of place (He doesn’t even say that in the novel; instead, he says, “Don’t worry, Jabba, I’ll pay you. But not because you threaten me. I’ll pay you because…it’s my pleasure.”–Lucas, page 89).

There are many variations on how the hero’s journey can be told, depending on the story. Some steps may not be presented in the exact same order, and some may be combined into a single step, or into fewer steps, or omitted altogether. A hero different from the main one may fulfill a few of those steps, too. Depending on one’s interpretation of the plot structure of Star Wars, a number of such changes can be seen to have happened in this film.

The Millennium Falcon’s being pulled by the tractor beam into the Death Star, and the ensuing struggle to rescue Leia and get out, seem to be a combination of the belly of the whale, the road of trials, the meeting of the goddess, approaching the cave, woman as temptress, and the ordeal. Beautiful Leia is thus both the goddess and, in terms of her potential love triangle with Luke and Han, the temptress. Almost being crushed in the trash compactor would be the ordeal.

While many decry the dearth of female characters in the original trilogy, and to mention the only nascent progressivism of 1970s and 1980s movies is seen to be a lame excuse for this dearth; what these three films lack in quantity of strong women is more than made up for in quality of strong women. Iconic Princess Leia is, if anything, a parody of the damsel in distress.

Indeed, Lucas takes the traditional trope of the dashing male heroes rescuing the pretty girl in danger, and he subverts it, not only by showing Leia take charge in the detention area (blasting a hole in the wall leading to the trash compactor), but also by showing how inept Han and Luke are in their bumbling attempt to save her.

As the sparks fly between bickering Han and Leia, we’re already sure of one thing: they have the hots for each other.

One important thing to remember about Luke’s relationship with Ben, though, is that the old man has become the father the boy never had. Luke has transferred his filial feelings from mysterious Anakin onto Ben. With this understanding, we can know what to make of Luke’s watching of the light-sabre duel between Ben and Vader.

When Luke watches in horror at the two men fighting, he sees the symbolic good father versus the bad father. This brings us back to what I said above about psychological splitting. Luke’s rage at seeing Vader cut Ben down with his red light-sabre provokes in him what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position, the persecutory anxiety felt as a result of the frustration felt towards the split-off bad parent. Luke fires his blaster at the stormtroopers, wishing he could hit Vader in revenge for having killed the good father…now, for a second time.

On the other hand, Ben’s allowing himself to be struck down is motivated, not only out of a wish to sacrifice himself so the others can escape (thus making his sacrifice to be symbolically a Christ-like one, resulting in Ben changing from a physical to, if you will, a kind of spiritual body); but also as a form of atonement for having failed to train Anakin to be strong enough to resist the temptations of the Dark Side, and for having dismembered him and left him for dead amidst the molten lava of Mustafar. In this sense, it is Ben, rather than Luke, who has made atonement with the father. In his changing into a Force ghost, Ben has also had a kind of apotheosis.

The ultimate boon or reward is achieved when Han and Luke get the Millennium Falcon out of the Death Star and return Leia to the rebels on Yavin. Han will be paid well for his services in rescuing her, but her and Luke’s disapproval of his mercenary attitude will push him to change his ways and receive the ultimate boon: the honour of being a true hero, what Luke has already achieved.

An analysis of the Death Star plans reveals a weakness in its design that the rebels can use to their advantage and destroy it. Here we see dialectics again: “the ultimate power in the universe,” as Motti boasts of the Death Star, “is insignificant next to the power of the Force,” as Vader corrects him.

Han’s refusal of the return, that is, to return to the fight against the Empire, prompts Luke and Chewie to guilt trip him to the point where he, at the last, crucial moment, rescues Luke from without, shooting at the three TIE fighters led by Vader, who is just about to destroy Luke’s X-wing.

Though for the sake of pacing, it was necessary to cut out most of the scenes with Biggs, these omissions were unfortunate; for their inclusion would have added emotional depth to when he is killed. The scene mentioned above, with Biggs on Tatooine telling Luke of his joining the rebels, establishes the two of them as best friends; then the added scene of the reunion of Luke and Biggs among the X-wing fighters, just before they fly off to confront the Death Star, further cements this friendship.

Han’s saving of Luke, though, just before he trusts his feelings and uses the Force to destroy the Death Star, means the boy now has a new friend…and friends are what we need to defeat imperialism.

The Empire Strikes Back

Just as the major planet for the first half of the 1977 film is a barren, hot planet, the major planet for the first half of the 1980 film is a barren, cold planet. Both planets, Tatooine and Hoth, are desolate places in contrast to the city-planet of Coruscant, symbolic of the contradiction between, respectively, the Third and First Worlds; the desert and ice planets are also dialectically opposed for self-explanatory reasons.

Luke’s face being mangled by the Wampa may seem to audiences to be the Star Wars plot’s attempt to explain the change in Mark Hamill‘s looks (he’d been in a car accident in early 1977), but in all likelihood, it wasn’t. Leigh Brackett’s first draft included the Wampa attack, which had the ice creature slash Luke “across the face,” leaving him with “one side of his face a mass of blood”; this was written as early as about 1978, and so thought up even earlier. Hamill wasn’t yet a well-known actor as of 1977, and he looked OK when filmed with Annie Potts in 1978’s Corvette Summer, so neither audiences nor Brackett (in the late 70s, just before she died) would have thought much of the change in his looks by the time of the 1980 film.

The hostility of the Wampas (some of which try to break into the rebel fortress, as seen in some deleted scenes), like the hostility of Tatooine’s Sand People and gangsters, reflects again the alienation felt among the life forms of the desolate, poverty-stricken planets in the Mid and Outer Rims, marginalized by the Empire.

Luke’s only way to save himself from the Wampa is to get to his light-sabre, which is lying in the snow on the ground, out of his reach (for Luke, hanging upside down, has his feet held in ice on the ceiling of the Wampa’s cave). He needs to use the Force, of course.

In Donald F. Glut‘s novelization, Luke imagines the light-sabre already in his hand (Glut, page 192). Just in time, it flies up from the snow and into his hand. This using of the Force involves acknowledging the links between oneself and the objects all around us. Acknowledging such links is part of the cure of alienation, which in turn helps us build the solidarity needed to defeat imperialism.

Speaking of such solidarity, Han is conflicted over leaving the rebels to pay off Jabba the Hutt and staying to help them; his decision to rescue Luke from the icy cold (not to mention his feelings for Leia) resolve his conflict.

The Disney producers of the “sequel trilogy” thought that all they needed to do to pique the interest of Star Wars fans was to have Han, Luke, and Leia involved on some level in the new stories. Those producers missed the point of what made the magic in the three heroes’ presence: their interaction with each other–the bickering, the love rivalry (before Lucas retconned the story to make Leia Luke’s sister, of course), and most importantly, the camaraderie of the three.

Camaraderie among heroic revolutionaries is crucial to defeating imperialism. This is part of the use of the word comrade among socialist revolutionaries. The word gives verbal expression to the solidarity needed as the cure for alienation, and the word also reinforces a sense of egalitarianism.

Contrast this mutual love and respect among the rebels with the mutual ill will and alienation felt among the officers in the imperial army. First, there’s the scowling and sneering between rivalrous Admiral Ozzel and Captain Piett; then there’s Vader’s Force-choking of Ozzel for having been “clumsy” and “stupid” enough to have come “out of light speed too close to the [Hoth] system,” and promoting Piett to admiral.

Luke is not the only one going through the hero’s journey in this movie. Han’s refusal of the call has Leia frowning at him, but their being chased in the Falcon by Vader and the Star Destroyers is his crossing the threshold and road of trials.

Luke’s trip to Dagobah, to be trained by Yoda, is his meeting with the mentor, whose lifting of his X-wing out of the swamp is an example of his supernatural aid. That swamp planet, just like the desert planet and the ice planet, is full of treacherous life forms whose hostility is symbolic of the alienation caused by imperialism. Luke is literally approaching the cave when Yoda tests his ability to control his fear with the Vader apparition.

Han, Leia, and Chewie are symbolically in the belly of the whale when in that giant slug among the asteroids, the chase through which having been a scene in Brackett’s first draft. Han’s growing romance with Leia is his meeting with the goddess, her beauty making her the woman as temptress.

As Luke learns about the Force, we finally learn about the nature of the Dark Side. The spiritually good are “calm, at peace, passive,” while the evil give in to “anger, fear, aggression.” The Dark Side is “quicker, easier, more seductive.” Yoda tells Luke that if you turn to the Dark Side, “forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will”…but that’s not entirely true, given that Anakin will redeem himself by the end of Return of the Jedi.

It would be truer to say that, “Once you start down the dark path,” it will be harder and harder to turn back, but not impossible. Yoda’s insistence, on the impossibility of returning to the good side after having gone down the dark path, seems to be an instance of the dogmatism of the Jedi clouding up the truth.

When Luke encounters the Vader apparition in the cave, Luke’s own version of the road of trials, his panicked parrying of Vader’s light-sabre and slicing off of Vader’s head is a wish-fulfillment, Luke’s getting revenge on Vader for cutting through Ben at the neck in their Death Star duel.

Since Vader is the bad father (as discussed above), Luke’s fear in fighting him represents the persecutory anxiety felt in the paranoid-schizoid position. But when the mask explodes and reveals Luke’s face, this represents how the bad father is an internalized object residing in Luke’s psyche. To kill off this introjection is to kill off a part of himself. Thus, Luke must integrate his splitting of good Anakin and bad Vader if he is to find spiritual peace and stay with the good side of the Force. This understanding is part of his atonement with father.

It is interesting to see how Luke, as he learns how to move stones around, is typically in postures reminding us of yoga asanas. In this connection, Yoda’s name (originally Minch in Brackett’s first draft) is an obvious pun on yoga, a philosophy that is all about finding the union, the oneness, in all things, a joining of the human spirit and the Divine spirit.

The energy of the Force “surrounds us and binds us,” as Yoda tells Luke. In the 1977 film, Ben has added that the Force also “penetrates us.” This penetrative aspect within us is the Living Force, existing in the spirit of each living thing, which is rather like Atman; the aspect of the Force that surrounds and binds us is the Cosmic Force, which is rather like Brahman. As an energy field in all things, the Force is thus that infinite ocean I’ve written of so many times–the Unity of Space.

After having tested Luke’s patience by pretending to be just an annoying little alien (a test Luke fails when he presumes that the “great warrior” could never be this “little fella,” an implied racial prejudice Luke quickly outgrows), Yoda scoffs at Luke’s longing for adventure, his having always “looked away to the future, to the horizon…never his mind on where he was, what he was doing.” If Luke wants to master the Force, he must focus on the Eternal NOW–or as I’ve called it, the Unity of Time–rather than the past or the future, which are just human constructs and have no basis in material reality.

Very little in these movies is overt about the capitalist basis of imperialism, but there are a few significant indications. Jabba the Hutt is a gangster, and as I’ve shown in a number of film analyses, mafias–criminal businesses–make a perfect metaphor for capitalism. Han owes Jabba for having dumped off spice, a narcotic many in the galaxy use recreationally as a manic defence against the despair they feel from their alienation. The Empire may disapprove of the trafficking of spice, but it sometimes has uses for gangsters and bounty hunters, too.

Later, when Boba Fett finds Han Solo, Darth Vader is content to let the bounty hunter take Han to Jabba the Hutt once Vader has Skywalker. Fett is worried that, if Han dies either through the torturing (to make Luke want to come to Bespin) or through the carbon freezing, Han’s great worth will be reduced to nothing. In other words, Han is being treated as no more than a commodity, a common problem those in the sex industry suffer under capitalism.

To get back to Luke, though, his training in the Force is moving him further away from alienation and closer to a linking with all things. As he moves stones around, Yoda’s soothing voice tells him to “feel” the Force, that is, the connections between all things that make moving things with one’s mind possible. When Luke can’t imagine how he can lift his X-wing out of the water with his mind, he is ignoring the microscopic wave-particles that are everything, and he’s ignoring how the Force links all things together.

On Bespin, a planet whose theme, oddly, is clouds and sky rather than land or water, Lando Calrissian has set up a business independent of imperial meddling. His business would seem to represent the right-wing libertarian ideal of capitalism without government interference. Up in the sky, among the clouds, Bespin is a heavenly utopia…

Let’s remember, though, that Lando isn’t exactly trustworthy. He’s been a “gambler, con artist, all-around scoundrel,” as Han describes him in the novelization (Glut, page 275); so we should be wary of Lando’s conception of utopia. He has won the ownership of a Tibanna gas mine in a sabacc match, or so he claims. He’s not part of the mining guild, which on the one hand would be a cartel regulated by the Empire, but on the other hand would be, in part, like a trade union. Free-market-minded Lando, with his lack of love for the Empire, would never want inclusion of his business in a guild.

In fact, in his desperate–and ultimately futile–attempt to protect his business from the Empire, Lando makes a deal with Vader to hand over Han, Leia, and Chewbacca. The fascist capitalist state that is the Empire, however, betrays Lando with the “altering [of] the deal” as cold-bloodedly as he has betrayed Han et al, in true Judas Iscariot fashion. Right-wing libertarians similarly pose as anti-government, yet they’ll support the state if it’s convenient for them. Just take note of the Koch brothers to see what I mean.

Right-wing libertarians fail to see the link between capitalism and the state, in part, because they imagine the old free-competition of the 19th century to be something they can revive as long as they minimize ‘pesky, intrusive’ government. But capitalism in its modern, imperialist stage is a concentrated, centralized, monopolistic form in which industrial cartels have been merged with the banks, resulting in finance capital. The need for markets to expand ever-outwards and take over foreign lands, as a counterweight to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, renders a return to the “free market” an impossibility. Capitalism without a state that’s protective of private property is also an impossibility.

The Empire’s takeover of Lando’s mining business is teaching him the reality of these impossibilities, and teaching him the hard way, so he quickly repents of his betrayal of Han, Leia, and Chewie. As a member of the vacillating middle bourgeoisie, Lando may be what Mao considered an enemy of the people if he shifts to the right, or he may be considered the proletariat’s friend if he shifts to the left. The Empire has pushed him to the right by making him betray our rebel heroes, but the imperial takeover of his business has pushed him to the left, so now he wants to help Han, Leia, and Chewie.

The suffering that Han, Leia, and Chewie are forced to endure is that part of the hero’s journey known as the ordeal. The freezing of Han in carbonite is, once again, the belly of the whale, with him as Jonah, who formerly didn’t want to do God’s work and preach to the people of Nineveh, and when freed from the “great fish,” Jonah had changed and would do the right thing. Han hasn’t committed himself to the cause of the rebellion, but being encased in carbonite will effect a spiritual transformation similar to Jonah’s.

Frozen Han, taken to be put aboard Slave I, looks like he’s the focus of a funeral procession. It’s as if he is dead, taken in a coffin. In James Kahn‘s novelization of Return of the Jedi, Han speaks of his experience of having been frozen in carbonite: “That carbon freeze was the closest thing to dead there is. And it wasn’t just sleepin’, it was a big, wide awake Nothin’.” (Kahn, page 370)

When he’s unfrozen in Return of the Jedi, his will be a Christ-like resurrection, Han’s apotheosis. Lando, as the Judas of this Passion, doesn’t even get his thirty pieces of silver from the Empire; instead, he has his business taken from him. He doesn’t hang himself in remorse: Chewbacca chokes him instead.

Meanwhile, Luke has had visions of a future in which his friends “are made to suffer.” (I wonder if Yoda has put the visions in Luke’s head, to test him again.) Nonetheless, Luke on Dagobah should be keeping his focus on the NOW, rather than be distracted by the future, which is “always in motion.” His fears of the future are a temptation to the Dark Side.

When Luke rushes over to Bespin to face Vader, it’s yet another example of the rebels fighting against formidable odds. One must fight the Empire, but Luke isn’t ready. He hasn’t learned how to control the Force. Though he’s controlling his fear and anger, he has revenge in his heart.

With the understanding that Vader is the bad father, Luke’s light-sabre duel with him is a dramatization of Luke’s experience of the paranoid-schizoid position. Vader–as the bad father using the Force to hurl objects at Luke, hitting him with them–is thus the ultimate abusive parent.

His causing Luke to lose his grip on his light-sabre, as well as cutting off the hand that holds it, makes Vader a symbolically castrating father as well. His revelation that he is Luke’s father, saying, “Search your feelings; you know it to be true,” means Luke can already feel, through the Force, that Vader really is his father. Only splitting and projection can cause Luke to feel any doubt that Vader and Anakin are the same man.

The wish to keep the good and bad fathers split means Luke cannot bear that Vader is telling him the truth, so he’d rather fall to his death. Hanging outside, below Cloud City, Luke is experiencing a kind of dark night of the soul, an existential crisis. Becoming a Jedi was supposed to be about Luke identifying with his father; such an identification gave his life meaning. But if his father is the very evil he has been trying to defeat, then what meaning can there be in his life?

Now, in order to achieve this identification, Luke has no choice but to experience reparation with the father, in his good and bad aspects as they exist in Luke’s psyche, a true atonement with the father. This is what Melanie Klein called the depressive position: Luke must also cope with the Dark Side of the Force to grow spiritually.

As I said above in the discussion of Luke’s father and the Force, these two are interconnected. A reconciliation of Anakin with Vader is intimately related with ‘bringing balance to the Force,’ or sublating the good and dark sides of it. Since, as I said above, the Force can be seen to represent the dialectic, which involves a resolving of such contradictions as the light and dark sides of the Force, a reconciling of Anakin and Vader, the good and bad father, is another such dialectical sublation.

In the fight against imperialism, we all–as a part of our own hero’s journey–must resolve dialectical contradictions such as those of the rich vs. the poor, the oppressors vs. the oppressed, the state vs. the people, etc.; but also we must make reparation, as best we can, with all those people in our lives whom we split into good and bad versions, then project their bad parts out, far away from ourselves, in an attempt never to have to deal with our shadows.

Luke must learn how to achieve such a reparation. When he has resolved and reunited the good and bad objects in his mind, he’ll be a true Jedi Knight. This ability to accept the Anakin in Vader, and the Vader in Anakin, is how he can have already learned all that he needs to learn, with no more need for training from Yoda by the time of the beginning of Return of the Jedi.

Return of the Jedi

Just as in Star Wars, the emphasis is on the good side of the Force and on Luke’s father as a good, but mysterious, man (we didn’t know Vader is Anakin, for the ret-con hadn’t happened yet); and in The Empire Strikes Back, the emphasis is on the Dark Side of the Force (Vader’s Force-choking of Ozzel and Needa to death, Luke’s failure in the cave, and the cliff-hanger ending) and Vader as Luke’s bad father revealed; in Return of the Jedi, we have a sublation of the light side thesis and dark side antithesis, and of Vader as having equal potential for evil and good.

And just as, in the original version of this trilogy, Jabba the Hutt was something of a mystery until the 1983 film, so was the Emperor largely only spoken of until this third film. (Though the switch from Clive Revill‘s Emperor to that of Ian McDiarmid in the later version of Empire Strikes Back was one of the few justified changes that Lucas made–for the sake of preserving continuity among all six films–I’ll always have a nostalgic place in my heart for the Revill performance.) The paralleled late emergence of these two villains suggests, in personified form, the dual mysterious cause of all our oppression (capitalism and its state) being discovered only at the end, after careful reflection frees us from our cultural brainwashing.

As I said above, gangsters like Jabba the Hutt represent the capitalistic aspect of oppression in the galaxy, and the Empire represents the statist aspect. Just because the Empire apprehends smugglers of spice (Jabba’s drug business), though, this doesn’t mean the capitalist and statist aspects are mutually exclusive, as the right-wing libertarians would have us believe.

Vader allowed Boba Fett to take Han Solo to Jabba rather than follow the bounty hunter to Tatooine and do a sting on the gangster in his palace, thus to eliminate a huge part of the spice trade once and for all and morally justify the Empire’s authoritarian rule. This inconsistency of the Empire to arrest some smugglers, but not go after their bosses, is in a sense comparable to the US government’s hypocritical “War On Drugs,” which was an excuse to target counter-culture types like the hippies and the Black Panthers (of whom the Star Wars equivalent would be miscreants like Han Solo), but also, through the CIA, subjected many non-consenting Americans to LSD.

Another similarity between what Palpatine and Jabba represent is the commodification of living beings. The Emperor wants Luke to replace Vader as his Sith apprentice; he would own Luke. As he says to Luke in that sublimely evil voice, “You, like your father, are now…mine.”

That Jabba commodifies others is so obvious that it scarcely needs going over, but I’ll do it anyway. Apart from keeping Han frozen in carbonite and hanging him on a wall like a work of art, a human being treated as a mere possession, Jabba has females chained up near him to dance for his pleasure…and if they don’t want to satisfy his lust (which, naturally, is invariably not wanting to), they can sate the Rancor‘s appetite instead.

When Han is released from the carbonite, not only is this a symbolic resurrection (and his time in Jabba’s infernal palace, with all of its horrors, is like a harrowing of hell), but it’s also rather like Saul’s conversion to Christianity, since Saul was blinded temporarily when encountering Christ on the road to Damascus. Now, instead of refusing the call to adventure (as Saul refused to be a Christian), Han, upon his rescue from Jabba, can commit to helping the rebellion (as Saul, renamed Paul, could commit to spreading the word of the gospel).

The contrast between alienation and solidarity is striking: Jabba and his fellow scum laugh at the suffering and death of others (even the Gamorrean Guard gets neither pity nor help when he falls into the Rancor’s pit); while Leia, Chewie, Lando, and Luke all work together to save Han, Luke even saying that Jabba may profit from a deal from releasing Han.

When Jabba dies, it’s ironic how Leia uses the very instrument of her enslavement and commodification by him–the chain–to strangle him to death with. His fat, slimy ugliness is a perfect image with which to present his licking lechery, for it is this very goatish, gluttonous expression of lust that makes such men so unattractive to the beautiful women they desire. It’s also fitting that his little pet is named Salacious Crumb.

The commodifying of Luke, Han, et al is carried further when they’re all punished for Luke’s killing of the Rancor (the only living being any of Jabba’s scum feel pity for). The Sarlacc is a giant mouth in the Dune Sea, in the middle of the Tatooine desert (a monster preferably without the added CGI); the throwing of victims into it, treating them as mere food, is the ultimate commodification of the living.

After rescuing Han, Luke returns to Dagoba, only to find Yoda dying of old age after having confirmed that Vader is Luke’s father. Now Luke, for sure, must reconcile the good father with the bad, an experiencing of the depressive position, a resolving of opposites, the dialectical sublation of the good and bad sides of the Force that will ensure that he is a true Jedi Knight.

Indeed, Luke’s wearing of black, and even having worn a black cloak when entering Jabba’s palace, make him look like a Sith Lord, though he is in no way surrendering to the Dark Side. The contrast of his clothing with his light-side leanings symbolically suggest such a sublation of the good and bad.

Still, resolving those dark and light contradictions doesn’t mean he won’t have to face Vader again. When opposites are sublated, the cycle of the dialectic begins again: the sublation becomes a new thesis to be negated, and these two contradictions must be sublated. Luke, with the integration of the internal objects of the good and bad father, must face evil and be tempted by it (his wearing of black in part symbolizes that temptation), as it’s personified in Vader and the Emperor.

Because of the integration of the good and bad father that Luke has experienced, he tells Ben’s Force ghost that there is still good in Vader, to which Ben replies that there’s “more machine than man” in Vader. Not only is this true in the sense that Vader is a cyborg (mechanical arms, legs, and breathing apparatus), but also in the sense that he is a slave to the imperial machine. With Luke’s love for Anakin, we begin to feel something we hitherto never thought we would: we pity Vader.

This ability to feel pity and love (as opposed to the heartless cruelty just seen among Jabba and his ilk), a pity extended even to a villain who is actually enslaved to the Emperor, is a crucial ingredient in the defeat of imperialism. Recall what Che once said about love: “the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.”

Ben imagines Luke’s pity and love to be excessive, as something ruining their hopes of defeating the Empire. Then Luke says that Yoda spoke of another hope…

…and as soon as I hear Ben say that the other Skywalker is Luke’s twin sister, I think of how moviegoers must have first reacted to this in theatres back in 1983. They must have been cringing and squirming in their seats, whispering to themselves, “Please, Lucas! Don’t make her Leia! Don’t make her Leia!” And then, when Luke says, “Leia! Leia is my sister!” those moviegoers must have reacted as Vader did when learning he killed Padmé: “NOOOOOOOO!”

…and somehow, Leia has always known Luke was her brother, which means she must have known when she gave Luke those kisses that got him so excited. And why didn’t Luke feel even private embarrassment at all that previous sexual innuendo with his “sister”? I can accept the ret-con of Anakin as Vader, but the incestuous implications of this new change make it more difficult to smooth over (especially since Leigh Brackett’s first draft had Luke’s sister as someone else, someone named Nellith). Yes, even the sacred original trilogy has its flaws.

Our heroes go to the moon of Endor to knock out the new Death Star’s deflector shield. The theme of this moon is all forest, suggestive of the jungles of Vietnam: I make this comparison because Lucas, in a discussion of Star Wars with James Cameron, stated explicitly that the Ewoks, with their primitive weapons going up against the Empire and its vastly superior technology, were meant to represent the Viet Cong and their resistance to US imperialism. The rebels are also “Charlie.”

As you can see, Dear Reader, I’m not merely imposing a Marxist agenda on Star Wars. There is real evidence to back up my interpretations. Lucas, having begun filmmaking during the antiestablishment 1970s, was a left-leaning liberal back in the days when that modification, “left-leaning,” actually meant something, even if used among bourgeois Hollywood liberals whose political ideals are far removed from mine.

Though Lucas’s egregious fourth Indiana Jones movie fashionably vilified the Soviet Union, to be fair to him, he also acknowledged, in an interview, the greater artistic freedoms given to Soviet filmmakers, if not the freedom to criticize the government. The capitalist compulsion to maximize profits has always stifled artistic freedom.

Though the Ewoks represent the North Vietnamese, their physical form, as space-age teddy bears, was another fault of the film. “Dare to be cute,” Lucas said. Speaking of capitalism, the Ewoks–whose name we knew even though ‘Ewok’ is never said in the movie–were a toy to be sold and profited from, to say nothing of the Ewok movies and cartoons. At the risk of contradicting myself with my above preaching of pity, I must acknowledge that we Ewok-haters can comfort ourselves when we, at least, get to see a few of them die during the Battle of Endor.

To elaborate again on the hero’s journey, as it is manifested in Return of the Jedi, Yoda and Ben telling Luke he must face Vader again is his call to adventure. We see Luke’s refusal of the call when he says he can’t bring himself to kill his own father. Luke’s interacting with Yoda and Ben’s Force ghost is his meeting with the mentor and supernatural aid. Luke’s giving himself up to the Empire on Endor is his crossing the threshold and the beginning of his road of trials. His going with Vader to the new Death Star is his approaching the cave. Inside the Death Star with Vader and Palpatine is Luke in the belly of the whale, and his agony at watching the rebel fleet attacked by the imperial fleet is his ordeal.

Luke’s temptation, to take his light-sabre and strike the devilish Emperor down with all of his hatred, is like Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness, and like the Buddha’s temptation by Mara while sitting under the Bodhi tree. After Luke’s successful resistance to the temptation, it is understood that he will train a new order of Jedi Knights, just as Jesus gathered his twelve disciples, and the Buddha began his teaching of the Dharma, after their triumphs over temptation.

Luke’s light-sabre, lying on the arm of Palpatine’s throne rather than in Luke’s hand, is representative of Lacan‘s notions of symbolic castration and lack, which lead to desire. Desire here is not to be understood in the sexual sense, but lack as the cause of desire (i.e., want in both senses) is clearly relatable to Luke’s temptation; and Palpatine is exploiting this want to the hilt. Indeed, the Emperor’s feeling of Luke’s anger, the hate that is swelling in him, is giving Palpatine a high comparable to that of cocaine.

“Man’s desire is the desire of the other,” Lacan said, meaning that we desire the recognition of others, and we desire to be what other people desire. Luke wants his father to acknowledge him as a Jedi, and he wants Anakin to want to be a Jedi again. Vader wants what Luke wants, only we must replace the word Jedi with Sith. Palpatine wants mutual alienation among all three of them.

Between the inability of Han’s team to knock out the Death Star’s shield generator, the rebel fleet having to face not only the imperial fleet, but also a fully-armed and operational Death Star, and Luke’s growing temptation to give in to his anger and hate, we see again how the anti-imperialists face near-impossible odds.

How can they overcome such a formidable foe? Through linking, connecting, and solidarity, which come from empathy and love. Up until this film, we’ve seen largely human rebels, without any alien comrades (save Chewie). Now, not only have the rebels linked with the Mon Calamari (led by Admiral Ackbar) and Lando’s first mate aboard the Falcon, Nien Nunb, they have also linked with the Ewoks, who will be a crucial distraction for the imperial troops on Endor.

During Luke’s duel with Vader, once he’s regained control of his anger, he must be sensing through the Force that the tide is turning with the space battle and the struggle on Endor, and that the shield generator is finally down. Luke works on building his link with Vader by mentioning the good he feels in his father, the conflict between Anakin and Vader.

Later, Luke’s fear for his friends, especially for “Sister,” is an echo of young Anakin’s fear for his mother and for Padmé; so Vader can exploit Luke’s fear to bring him out of hiding. Vader pushes Luke too far, though, by suggesting finding Leia and turning her to the Dark Side, and Luke’s need to protect one link paradoxically endangers his link with his father.

Slicing off Vader’s mechanical hand holding his red light-sabre, a symbolic castration comparable to usurping Cronus emasculating his father Uranus, Luke is now in the position to usurp his father as Palpatine’s new apprentice. Luke looks at his own mechanical hand, remembers how much of Vader’s body is machine, and regains his compassion for the Anakin inside.

Foolishly, though, Luke throws his light-sabre away, a symbolic castration of himself, for he now has no protection from Palpatine’s Force lightning. Though love and compassion are crucial, necessary conditions for defeating imperialism (in how they help form links between people to build solidarity and eliminate alienation), they are not sufficient conditions. There are still contradictions to be resolved, and we resolve them by fighting the Empire.

We see rebels in uniforms, just as we saw the Soviets in uniforms during the Cold War, because they all knew the realities of imperialism: they had an enemy to fight, and wars are won only through military discipline, as personified in troops in uniforms. Luke must keep his compassion, but he mustn’t act like a soft-hearted liberal.

Now that Luke is being zapped with the Emperor’s Force lightning, there’s only one hope of him being saved–by the Anakin buried deep down inside of Vader. This stage of the hero’s journey is rescue from without, just as–at the end of the first Star Wars movie–Luke needed Han to intervene when Vader was about to blow him up in his X-wing as it flew along the Death Star trench.

In this tense moment, with Vader looking back and forth between Luke and Palpatine, we feel as though we can see through his mask to see the conflict on his face. We don’t need the scene altered, with Vader saying “No” before picking up the Emperor and throwing him over the precipice. This sacrificial act, Anakin’s redemption bringing balance to the Force, is the atonement with the father.

After blasting the Death Star’s reactor, Lando must fly the Falcon outside in time before the whole space station blows up, as must Luke while carrying Vader’s dying body. This final struggle is, at least in a symbolic sense, the crossing of the return threshold, the road back.

Back in The Empire Strikes Back, when we saw the back of Vader’s scarred head without his helmet on, it looked creepy, because we thought of him merely as a villain. Now that we’ve made a link with Vader through Luke’s love, we see his scarred head and face with ironic pity. Instead of cheering for Vader’s death, as we would have had it happened in the 1977 film or three quarters into the 1980 film, we’re saddened.

Back on Endor with the victory celebration, we see the apotheosis of the Force ghosts of Anakin, Yoda, and Ben, the masters of the two worlds of the Living and Cosmic Force. Redeemed Anakin (best seen played by Sebastian Shaw!) has experienced, if you will, a kind of resurrection. The linking of all life forms in the galaxy, the end of their alienation, replaced by love, empathy, friendship, and solidarity, is the ultimate boon and reward, giving them the freedom to live without imperialism.

The Phantom Menace

Since the prequels are so obviously inferior to the original trilogy, I won’t be going over them in quite as much detail. Nonetheless, in terms of exploring political allegory, there are some interesting ideas in these films.

Many people have criticized Episode One for having so bland an opening conflict as the taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems. Actually, the film itself acknowledges this blandness when Qui Gon says, “I sense an unusual amount of fear for something as trivial as this trade dispute.” To me, it seems reasonable to start the conflict with something small and build from there.

Let’s reconsider this trade dispute as an allegory for the beginnings of neoliberal capitalism in the mid-1970s. While it’s easy to see the Empire as symbolic of the fascistic extreme of statism, we should see the Trade Federation, with its droid army, as symbolic of the more capitalistic aspects of imperialist aggression. Recall that the East India Company had its own army.

The greedy Trade Federation is opposed to the taxation of trade routes, just as “free market” capitalists are opposed to higher taxes. The Trade Federation blockades and invades Naboo, causing a “death toll [that] is catastrophic,” symbolic of how “free market” capitalists insinuated their way into the Western political system, resulting in Reagan, Thatcher, etc., and beginning the widening of the gap between the rich and poor, in turn resulting in more homelessness and other forms of suffering. This suffering has crept in…insidiously…

Controlled opposition between the Republic and the Trade Federation has been orchestrated by the Sith, symbolic of the ruling class that pits liberals against right-wing libertarians. Palpatine’s plan is divide and conquer.

Market fundamentalists like to fantasize that there is no coercion in “true capitalism.” Reagan and Thatcher, who preached about “small government,” nevertheless bloated the state with the arms race and engaged in such coercions as the Falkland Islands War and the invasion of Grenada. Capitalism, in the form of imperialism, forces itself on people far more than Reagan’s so-called “evil empire,” the USSR, did.

Alas, what could have been done to fix the many things that were wrong with the prequels? I’d say, essentially, that Lucas should have done what he did with Empire and Jedi: he should have collaborated on the script (i.e., written out basic treatments, and used his money to pay first-rate screenwriters to do rewrites of his clunky dialogue), hired talented directors to inspire better performances, and he would thus have been free to focus on what he’s good at–world-building and visuals (i.e., production).

As for the interesting theory by Lumpawaroo on Reddit–that Jar Jar Binks was really a secret master of the Dark Side, whose clumsiness was really a kind of zui quan (pronounced “dzway chüen”); and he would have shown his true colours in Attack of the Clones, had Lucas not chickened out after the backlash from fans–I imagine such a change would have improved Phantom Menace, at best, only marginally, since, as we know, so much more was wrong with the movie.

Presenting Anakin as a yippee!-shouting little kid deflates his grandeur as a tragic hero, Macbeth-style, in the worst way. Still, I feel sorry for Jake Lloyd and Ahmed Best, who’d had such high hopes that Phantom would shoot their acting careers into the stratosphere, instead of making them objects of ridicule and fan hate.

We learn that Anakin’s was a virgin birth. Qui Gon believes that the boy is the fulfillment of a prophecy that someone, especially endowed with the Force, will bring balance to it. In other words, Anakin is to be understood as a Christ-like, Messiah figure. Given what we know Anakin will eventually become, we wonder if he’s really Christ, or Antichrist.

This extreme good, at one with extreme evil, leads us back to dialectics. Qui Gon believes Anakin was conceived by the midi-chlorians; while, in Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine, when speaking of Darth Plagueis‘ ability to influence the midi-chlorians to create life, will imply that he (or Plagueis?) used them to create Anakin. Did ‘God’ create Anakin, or did ‘the Devil’? Was his creation a bit of both good and bad fathers?

…and now we must come to a discussion of a much-hated topic among Star Wars fans: midi-chlorians. Fans complain that midi-chlorians, in giving a quasi-scientific veneer to the Force, cheapen and demystify it, taking away its mysticism. I’m pretty neutral in my attitude towards midi-chlorians: I can take them or leave them.

Since we already know why most people dislike the idea of midi-chlorians, to balance things out, let’s consider a brief defence of them. First of all, they are not the Force; they are merely microorganisms that connect living beings with the Force. We all know that some are more Force-sensitive than others, and that the greater or lesser number of midi-chlorians simply explains these differences. The Force itself remains a mystical enigma.

Secondly, the Jedi’s understanding of midi-chlorians could be seen as a misunderstanding. Never assume that Lucas’s characters, including the sympathetic ones, always reflect his own personal philosophy of the Force. One of the things we glean from the prequels is how neither the Jedi nor the Republic are infallible: their collective errancy, both in knowledge and in morals, is a major factor in their downfall and in the rise of the Empire. The Jedi’s theory behind midi-chlorians, at least in part, can be seen as every bit as much a pseudoscience as creationism is for Christian fundamentalists. The greater or lesser midi-chlorian count can be the pseudoscientific basis of feudal Jedi elitism.

Thirdly, the midi-chlorians seem to be an introduction to Lucas’s concept of the microscopic Whills. He insists that he had this idea way back in the mid-1970s, though he hadn’t yet gone public with it. The Journal of the Whills was introduced in his novelization (page 4); we don’t know for sure if he’d meant at the time that the Whills were micro-biotic (and given all of his ret-cons over the years, we might imagine that, for all we know, the Whills were originally giants!), but it’s far from impossible that they were always meant to be microscopic. A pun on mitochondria, the midi-chlorians aren’t the Force, but they connect a Jedi with the Whills, which are the Force…and as I’ve argued repeatedly here, links and connections between living things are what this saga’s moral base is all about.

Finally, the microscopic Whills could be seen to symbolize the particle/wave duality in everything, the “energy field created by all living things.” The point is that mysticism hasn’t been replaced by “junk science,” but rather that it has been complemented with something part-junk, part-real science. Science and religion aren’t necessarily always in a state of mutual contradiction.

Back to the story. Anakin is a slave, indicating how the Republic, failing to solve this violation of a living being’s rights, is far from the ideal form of government we assumed it was from the original trilogy. The bizarre election of queens, who serve mere terms in power, rather than rule in the context of hereditary dynasties, allegorically suggests the phasing out of feudalism and phasing in of capitalism.

The only way one could conceivably rationalize the nonsensical form in which politics are depicted in Star Wars is to say that, “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” people arranged power structures far differently from the way we have arranged them here on Earth. Class struggle, in the forms of master vs. slave, feudal lord vs. peasant, and bourgeois vs. proletarian, is shown with these forms coexisting simultaneously rather than replacing each other in succession, as if to make a commentary on the commonality of all three power structures on our planet. Willing suspension of disbelief, my dear readers…

Anakin’s being taken away from his mother, Shmi, has been traumatizing for him, as it would be for any of the younglings separated from their parents at so tender an age. The difference, however, between Anakin’s yielding to the Dark Side, versus the other younglings’ staying with the light side is Anakin’s bad influence, Palpatine, as will be dealt with below.

The Jedi replacement for empathic parental love is mere submission to authority, which under normal circumstances can be kept stable, despite how problematic it is; but the danger of the narcissistic lust for power that the Sith represent shows the cracks in not only the Jedi armour, but also that of the bourgeois democracy of the Republic.

The Jedi Council sense Anakin’s fear and knows the danger such fear leads to, but they have no empathy for a boy torn away from his mother; they, after all, have been torn away from their parents at so much younger an age that they’ve lost touch with such feelings of familial attachment. Their own failed linkages to the most crucial ones of their early lives has clouded their judgement on so many other matters.

Many have criticized the ‘boring’ political scenes in the prequels, but a presentation of politics is indispensable to their plot. Here we see how Palpatine has manipulated his way into power. Why would we not see the politics behind his rise?

We see not only how he puts on a superficial charm, with his avuncular smiles, but also the corruption in the Republic, kowtowing to the Trade Federation and their bribery. The relationship between the Republic and the Trade Federation parallels the true relationship between the state and capitalism, however the right-wing libertarians may try to deny it.

The corrupt Republic, just like the evil Empire it morphs into, not only allows slavery in the Outer Rim, but also allows gangsters like the Hutts to exist–gangsters who manage gambling on dangerous pod races, which symbolize the brutal, cutthroat competition of capitalism, as opposed to the cooperative society of linking, empathy, and love that could exist if such corruption were ended.

Queen Amidala knows that the only way she can end the Trade Federation’s occupation of Naboo is to fight a war with them, for they represent capitalist imperialism–which in our world has brought about the US embargo on Cuba, and the sanctions on Venezuela and the DPRK–before the rise of the fascist version of imperialism seen in the original trilogy.

She will be able to defeat the Trade Federation only by linking the people of Naboo with the Gungans, through cooperation and solidarity. They succeed, though the Trade Federation will continue to oppose such linking through the separatist movement seen in Episode Two.

Attack of the Clones

While the romance between Anakin and (now Senator) Padmé, unlike that of Han and Leia, is terribly botched because of Lucas’s awkward dialogue, it does establish an important transference for Anakin, from his mother to the senator. In this movie, he fears his mother dying, his nightmares coming true; in the next movie, he’ll have nightmares of Padmé dying.

Two poles of Anakin’s personality structure would have his mother empathically mirroring his grandiose self back to him, and a father would be an idealized parental imago for him…only he, of course, has no father. With his mother taken away from him, Anakin doesn’t even have her. To replace a father for an idealized role model, Chancellor Palpatine has stepped in!

Normally, Anakin would get empathetic mirroring from his mother; instead, he’ll get that mirroring from Padmé, as he does just after he’s killed the Sand People for killing Shmi. On the other hand, Palpatine is puffing up Anakin’s grandiose self by telling him he’s the greatest Jedi of all. Empathetic mirroring and idealized role modelling from one’s parents, if done well, can help a child to grow up with restrained, moderate, and healthy levels of narcissism; with the severing of these necessary links in Anakin’s life, though, we can see how a sweet boy will turn into fragmented Vader.

Obi-Wan, as Anakin’s master and teacher, does give him some psychological stability. Anakin even says that Obi-Wan is the closest he’s ever had to a father, and conversely, Obi-Wan regards Anakin as being like a younger brother. So the Jedi mentoring does compensate…to an extent…for the severed parent/child links with the taking of Force-sensitive younglings to make them Padawan learners. In Anakin’s case, though, such compensation is far from enough.

More splits in linking come with the separatists, led by Trade Federation head Nute Gunray (who, in my opinion, as an embodiment of Chinese stereotypes–slits for eyes, a flat face with no nose, and worst of all, a weaselly, cowardly personality–is far worse racism, even if unintended, than Jamaican Jar Jar). Other separatists include the Banking Clan, and potential separatists include the Commerce Guild and Corporate Alliance, more references to capitalists who don’t like the statist regulations of the Republic.

Helping the capitalist separatists is former Jedi and secret Sith Lord Count Dooku, who–played by none other than Christopher Lee of the old Hammer movies–is an obvious and cheesy reference to Dracula. Capitalists have been compared to vampires and bloodsuckers by, respectively, Marx and Malcolm X, so Dooku as the separatists’ helper is fitting. His Sith name is Darth Tyranus, and the unaccountable private tyranny of unbridled capitalism is oft-noted.

Again, Dear Reader, just so you don’t think I’m imposing a leftist agenda on Star Wars, consider this quote from the novelization of Attack of the Clones. Count Dooku says to the separatists, ‘”And let me remind you of our absolute commitment to capitalism…to the lower taxes, the reduced tariffs, and the eventual abolition of all trade barriers. Signing this treaty will bring you profits beyond your wildest imagination. What we are proposing is complete free trade.” He looked to Nute Gunray, who nodded.’ (Salvatore, page 260) The capitalism implied in the film is made explicit in the novel.

Because Dooku is a Sith, and therefore replacing Darth Maul as Sidious’ apprentice, he is also helping the Republic’s side by secretly establishing the creation of an army of clones. Dooku’s helping of both sides is another example of Palpatine’s divide and conquer. As part of the allegory for our times, the clone army can be seen to represent the militarization of our police, as well as the growth of fascistic forms of imperialism.

The clones are being made on an all-ocean planet called Kamino. These aren’t peaceful waters, though: it’s all stormy seas…wind and rain–a tempestuous origin of war. The idea that the troops are clones is interesting in itself: none of them is an original human being; all are mere copies of another human being–the ruthless bounty hunter Jango Fett. What’s more, their accelerated physical growth is contrasted sharply with their lack of individual wills. They are “docile,” blindly obedient. Thus, all of these traits put together make the clones a perfect metaphor for the police and military of our world today: the unthinking death squads of capitalism and imperialism.

The fact that the Clone Wars are a mere staging of a conflict between those personifying capitalism (the separatists and Dooku) and those representing the state (the Republic), a staging whose purpose is to consolidate Palpatine’s power, is an allegory of the false dichotomy between capitalism and the state, a truth the right-wing libertarians can deny all they want. The two sides are contradictory in some ways (in a larger sense, there are contradictions in everything), but complementary and unified in others. Capitalism feeds off the state, and vice versa.

The Jedi are fooled into going along with this charade of a war because, as believers in the authority of the Republic, they display the authoritarian mentality of their own religion, symbolically a throwback to feudal authoritarianism. What is understood by all too few in this story, that is, Padmé, Bail Organa, and later, Mon Mothma, is that war itself is the enemy, and the fighters on both sides are that enemy…including the unwitting Jedi, who represent religious authority.

The planet where Obi-Wan discovers the truth–about Dooku’s betrayal of the Republic, and the separatists’ raising up of a droid army to do war with the Republic–is named Geonosis, a portmanteau of the prefix geo- (“earth,” or planet Earth) and gnosis (“knowledge”). So Geonosis is the planet of knowledge, of revelations of the truth…a desolate planet like our own warlike Earth.

Dooku is a political idealist who has become disillusioned with the corruption in the Republic, hoping that, through separatism and Sidious’ help, he can bring about the political changes he wants to see happen. His siding with the capitalist separatists puts him allegorically with right-wing libertarians (see quote above, from Salvatore’s novelization) and their wish for “limited government”: having whole star systems break off from the Republic thus limits its sphere of influence, and its governance.

His working with Sidious, who he knows is Palpatine, shows allegorically the hypocrisy of libertarians who use the state “to shrink” it, especially for an imperialist form of capitalism that, the freer it gets of regulations, the more it grows, requiring more state protection of private property in the form of such things as military bases.

Dooku hopes to goad Obi-Wan into helping him kill Sidious so he can be the new Sith master, which would involve him ruling the galaxy instead. Little does Dooku know that Sidious is just using him as another stepping stone in his rise to power. Similarly, so many politicians imagine they can work within the system to change and reform it, only to be swallowed up by the very system they hope to remake in their own image.

Mace Windu and Ki-Adi Mundi can’t imagine Dooku to be a murderer (i.e., responsible for the attempts on Padmé’s life) because, apparently, it is not “in his nature” to murder. This shows the conspicuous absence of wisdom among the Jedi, comparable to the naïve thinking among many religious people about the ‘righteousness’ of their fellow believers. In this short-sightedness of the Jedi, we see their own contribution to their eventual downfall.

Amid the Jedi’s overconfidence in their own ability to use the Force (followed by their realization of the limits of this ability, a realization that comes too late to save them) is Anakin’s own arrogance, a narcissism encouraged by Palpatine, as noted above. His lack of an idealized parental imago (no father), and lack of empathetic mirroring from the mother who was taken from him, means Anakin is in a vulnerable psychological state, making him susceptible to pathological narcissism (an element of the Dark Side of the Force). The danger of psychological fragmentation (in this film, symbolized by Dooku’s severing of his arm) is never far from him. He needs the love of Padmé (his new empathetic mirror) to help him hang on. As we’ll soon see, though, he’ll lose even that.

Revenge of the Sith

A staged kidnapping of Palpatine by Dooku draws Anakin and Obi-Wan to rescue the chancellor. It is Palpatine’s secret plan, however, to replace Dooku with Anakin in the ensuing light-sabre fight.

Since Palpatine, as the Dark-Side-wielding Sith master, is the very personification of malignant political narcissism in these movies, it is easy to compare his schemes with those of pathological narcissists. By staging his kidnapping, he can play the victim. In his grinning at handless Dooku and telling Anakin to “kill him now,” Palpatine is demonstrating the typical idealize/devalue/discard tactic of narcissists–a problem normally applied to romantic relationships, but one easily applied to politics. Dooku has had his uses for Palpatine; now, he has none. Anakin is to be idealized now.

Palpatine continues his playing the victim when he tells Anakin that he fears a plot by the Jedi Council to take over the Republic. This victim-playing, of course, is projection, another narcissist’s tactic, for we know which user of the Force is really taking over.

General Grievous can be seen as a double for the future Darth Vader, since he too is only the fragments of a body protected in armour. Thus, he can be seen as a projection of Anakin’s bad self: recall how Anakin, with a sinister smile, calls Grievous “that monster.”

Anakin’s idealizing of his father figure, Palpatine–an idealization mirrored back to him, since the latter wants the former to be his next apprentice–blinds him to the chancellor’s hidden evil. Combine this idealizing with his fear of losing Padmé as his empathetic mirror (whom he’s already lost in his mother), and we see the enormous psychological danger Anakin is in.

Some people believe that Palpatine is deformed by his Force lightning being deflected by Windu’s light-sabre, but I go with the camp that believes that he was already deformed from his excessive use of the Dark Side. If it has been caused by the deflection, why isn’t Luke also deformed after his sustained zapping by Palpatine in Return of the Jedi? That bits of Windu’s light-sabre may have been mixed into the deflected lightning is an interesting but inconclusive theory; perhaps this mixing is a factor in his deformity, but I’m not convinced it is the whole reason.

I find the theory that Sidious has used Sith alchemy to create a mask to hide his deformity more convincing. After the mask has been destroyed by the lightning, making a new one will be too difficult. Besides, blaming his scarring on the Jedi will give him political sympathy, thus further consolidating his power.

As it says in the novelization of Revenge of the Sith: ‘Palpatine examined the damage to his face in a broad expanse of wall mirror. Anakin couldn’t tell if his expression might be revulsion, or if this were merely the new shape of his features. Palpatine lifted one tentative hand to the misshapen horror that he now saw in the mirror, then simply shrugged.

‘”And so the mask becomes the man,” he sighed with a hint of philosophical melancholy. “I shall miss the face of Palpatine, I think; but for our purpose, the face of Sidious will serve. Yes, it will serve.”‘ (Stover, pages 362-363)

Interpret this passage as you will, Dear Reader, but to me, “the mask [becoming] the man” sounds a lot like Palpatine’s false face becoming Sidious’ true face. Palpatine’s mask, as his false face, represents his narcissistic False Self, the image of the kindly, avuncular old man that he would have the public believe him to be. His malignant True Self, symbolized by the deformed face and yellow eyes, is the man, Sidious, that the mask (Palpatine) has ‘become.’

“Lies, deceit, creating mistrust” are the ways of the Sith, as Yoda observed at the end of Episode Two. These ways are clearly seen as Palpatine manipulates Anakin into distrusting the Jedi. Such deceit and creating distrust are typical of narcissists when they recruit enablers and flying monkeys to help them do smear campaigns against their victims, all the while playing the victim and projecting their malicious intent onto their victims.

Seen in a political context, this is how we see narcissistic politicians rise to power, by smearing their enemies and claiming to be victimized by them. Hitler rose to power by appealing to the popular prejudices of Germans through blaming Germany’s economic woes on a ‘back-stab’ by Jews and communists, whose fault it supposedly was for having lost WWI. Furthermore, fascism rises whenever capitalism is in crisis, as in the 1920s and 1930s…and as it is rising now. Similarly, Palpatine’s Empire is rising because of the crisis of the Clone Wars.

Now, as evil as Palpatine is, and as evil as the Sith are, this doesn’t mean that their perspective is entirely evil (though their fascism is entirely so), and that the Jedi perspective is entirely good. Palpatine does have a point, if a limited one, about “the dogmatic, narrow view of the Jedi.”

The strict rules of the Jedi (no attachments, no sexual relationships, little expression of emotion, etc.), as well as their taking of younglings from their parents at such early ages, are all problematic; so a Sith critique of these issues would, to this extent, be a valid one. That the Jedi never use anger, fear, or aggression at all, though, is debatable. I have my doubts that Obi-Wan felt no urges to vengeance when fighting Darth Maul after Qui Gon’s death. I guess that the Jedi use these forbidden emotions at least a little bit, but keep such use minimal.

Notions of ‘bringing balance to the Force’ thus must involve a reconciliation–to some extent, at least–of the light and dark sides. On a literal level, Vader’s killing off of all the Jedi, as terrible as that is, is such a bringing of balance to the Force, since it ends with two Jedi (Obi-Wan and Yoda) and two Sith (Vader and Sidious). On a deeper level, ending the Jedi Order means ending their dogmatic authoritarianism, and thus allowing the Force to be expressed more freely.

Also, the rise of the Empire has an accelerationist effect, intensifying the need to restore justice and end the corruption that began in the Republic. The very desperation to fight the formidable Empire, as seen among the rebels, is the very impetus needed to give them a strong enough motive to fight. The Nazi invasion of the USSR pushed the Red Army to defeat Hitler. The metastasizing of neoliberalism, with the fascist tendencies we see today, push us to fight imperialism. So this intensifying of evil brings balance by impelling the drive for good.

Ultimately, the rift between the Sith and the Jedi is the very splitting Luke experiences in his conflict over how to feel about his father (see above). His love awakens the Anakin hidden deep inside Vader, and Anakin’s redemption ends the splitting between the good and bad sides of the Force, the dialectical sublation that brings balance.

As I said above, the Sith are largely, generally evil, but not 100% so. It’s debatable whether Darth Plagueis really cared for the others he saved from dying (i.e., Was Palpatine lying about that?); but Dooku had a look of empathetic concern on his face when he noted young Boba Fett’s grief upon seeing Jango decapitated by Windu, and Palpatine could have easily found a new apprentice instead of flying out to Musatafar and saving mutilated, burned Vader.

All of these instances demonstrate at least a little good remaining in the Sith. If some good could be noticed in Vader by Luke, as well as by dying Padmé, then some good could be found remaining in Dooku and Palpatine, too. Still, the rift between the Sith and the Jedi causes such powerful splitting in Anakin’s mind that he won’t acknowledge any good in the Jedi; their faults are too great for him to bear, and his idealizing of Palpatine causes him to ignore the evil of the atrocity he commits in killing all the younglings.

Such splitting happens when we dehumanize those deemed the enemies of imperialism. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, too many of us in the West allowed (and sometimes still allow) the US government and its corporate media to demonize Muslims in general and Iraqis in particular (despite Bush’s lip service that Islam is ‘a religion of peace‘). Just as Bush said, “either you’re with us, or you are with the terrorists,” so does Anakin say, “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy.”

Granted, Obi-Wan is wrong to say, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes,” given the Jedi’s absolute stance against passion leading to the Dark Side (as a point of no return), but the absolutism of Anakin’s splitting is enough to push him over the edge and into evil.

Splitting–not just the psychological splitting of our mental representations of people into absolute good and bad, but also the splitting into every contradiction of our world: rich/poor, oppressor/oppressed, exploiter/exploited, etc.–is the fundamental problem of our world. As young Anakin says to Shmi in Episode One: “the biggest problem in this universe is nobody helps each other.” All splitting, no links between people. No links, no mutual aid.

Anakin’s internal splitting is at its height when he’s on Mustafar, a volcanic planet symbolic of hell. In his paranoid anxiety, imagining that Obi-Wan is ‘turning Padmé against him,’ we see him experiencing the paranoid-schizoid position; Obi-Wan, who is the closest thing Anakin has had to a father, is now perceived as the bad father, while Palpatine is perceived to be the good father.

The key to ending contradictions like empire vs. colony is rooted in integrating the dark and the light, finding balance in the Force, a sublating of the contradictions that Anakin will be able to achieve only through being exposed to the love of his son.

The ‘Sequel Trilogy

I reject the Disney trilogy because it isn’t canon; it’s glorified fan fiction made by a corporation. Disney rejected Lucas’s story in favour of ‘pleasing the fans’ (translation: maximizing profit for Disney). While, to be fair, there has of course always been a huge merchandising element in Star Wars, in the Disney trilogy it’s only been about money-making.

As a result, there’s no direction in the movies, because they were never properly planned. It’s Lucas’s story, and his ideas should have been respected, if modified to remove his more inanely conceived details. The Disney producers must have thought, “Well, as long as there’s a lot of action and excitement that makes the fans feel as though they’re in the Star Wars universe, good enough. We’ll make a lot of money. Actual storytelling isn’t all that important.”

Other faults to be found in these films include villains who aren’t particularly menacing. Kylo Ren and Hux do a lot of shouting and throwing temper tantrums, whereas in the icy coolness of Vader, Tarkin, and Palpatine, we see a frightening self-assurance that rarely needs to show anger.

Rey is a Mary Sue. (Yes, there are male versions of such characters, and generally, I’m not particularly enamoured of them, either.) She never needs any substantial amount of training to become a formidable Jedi. Now, just because screenwriters give flaws to an otherwise strong female character doesn’t mean the writers are sexist; and just because male audiences accuse a strong female character of being a Mary Sue, doesn’t necessarily mean they are sexist, either.

Luke has flaws–he’s reckless; Han has flaws–he’s macho and, at first, uncommitted to the rebel cause. Leia is, perhaps, a bit too feisty and impulsive for her own good at times. Still, these three characters are very much loved. Characters need flaws to become more well-rounded and nuanced, and therefore more relatable. They need to be tested and to encounter setbacks so they can grow and become strong. Rey gets all her abilities handed to her on a silver platter.

The politically correct liberal script writer has to stop being condescending to women, thinking they’re too insecure to accept a flawed heroine. To have strong female characters as iconic and memorable as the famous male ones, they have to be fallible, too. For this reason, I don’t include Superman and Captain America among my favourite superheroes (I also wish those two weren’t so iconic and memorable).

To get back to what’s wrong with the Disney trilogy in general, The Force Awakens is a point for point repeat of the 1977 movie. The Last Jedi goes from that extreme to the other, namely, throwing monkey wrenches into the plot. “Subverting expectations” is a euphemism for cheap surprises. The Rise of Skywalker is little more than fan service; the shoe-horning in of Palpatine, which cheapens Anakin’s redemption in killing him, is claimed to have been planned from the beginning of work on the Disney trilogy. Given the obvious lack of planning and coherence between the first two films, with no hint of an anticipation of Palpatine’s return, can we really buy this ‘planned’ return excuse?

The Whills

Unlike the all-too-safe regurgitation of the same old Star Wars story that Disney did, Lucas’s original intention for the sequel trilogy was going to involve a whole new world. Instead of the setting being only in the vastness of space, it was going to include a micro-biotic world, too.

This would have been risky, especially since the fans weren’t happy with the midi-chlorians, but risk is what innovation is all about, and while it could have failed (as, to a great extent, the prequels failed), it could have also triumphed (had Lucas got the right writers and directors to present his vision in an appealing, relatable way). It also, success or failure, would at least have been his story, properly brought to an end.

This microscopic world presumably would have been presented with a plethora of video-game-like CGI, but it also would have been a totally new world, a totally new idea, instead of what Disney gave us: being limited to the same old light-sabre, blaster clichés. Lucas would have given us the world of the Whills.

We would have been brought closer to an idea of how the Force really works, for the Whills are the Force. Whills is a pun on will; consider Qui Gon, in explaining midi-chlorians to little Anakin, saying that the midi-chlorians tell us “the will of the Force,” as he also says that finding Ani and training him as a Jedi is the will of the Force.

The Force is best understood without our distracting senses, as Ben tells Luke when he’s practicing with the remote on the Falcon. With the blast-shield on, Luke can’t see the remote as it fires at him, but using the Force means not needing to see it. In other words, the Force can be understood to be the thing-in-itself, not phenomena we know of through our senses.

What we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell around us is the world as representation, Schopenhauer tells us. The thing-in-itself, known in all things, is the world as will. This will is all the urges (to anything) that are in everything in the universe, not just in living things. This will can be related to the Whills.

Now, Schopenhauer’s pessimistic philosophy regards will as a bad thing, since will leads to desire and suffering. Schopenhauer was influenced by Eastern philosophy and religion (e.g., Hinduism and Buddhism), just as Lucas is. One must resist will in order to find spiritual peace–nirvana. Both the Jedi and the Sith, in their growing mastery of the Force, are demonstrating the will to power.

Mark Hamill didn’t feel that the pessimism in Luke in The Last Jedi was true to the character’s usually optimistic outlook, and I agree with him generally on that; but Luke’s pessimism in that movie does dovetail with Schopenhauer and Buddhism, if I’m interpreting the nature of the Whills correctly. This pessimism, in the sense of the Whills being not necessarily good, is perhaps the one thing in the Disney trilogy that approaches Lucas’s story on some level.

With my assessment of the Force as symbolic of the dialectic (see above), we can see it as a marriage of heaven and hell. The divine state is both ecstasy and trauma. The Whills don’t give us a Force of sentimentality. To be truly at peace, we must embrace neither the light side exclusively nor “a larger view of the Force,” as Palpatine would characterize the Dark Side. Perhaps the point is, when we come in touch with the Whills, we must let them go. We master the Force, then give it up.

In the meantime, though, as we strive to rise and grow spiritually, we must remember that the evil will dominating the world is imperialism.

Fight the Empire.

Analysis of ‘In Bruges’

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

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

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

Here are some quotes:

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

“Bruges is a shithole.” –Ray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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