Analysis of the Oedipus Myth

I: Introduction

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

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

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

II: Sin and Punishment

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

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

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

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

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

III: Oedipus Is Born

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

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

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

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

IV: Swollen Feet, and the Sphinx

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

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

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

V: The Riddle

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

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

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

VI: Unnatural Knowledge

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

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

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

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

VII: Pride Comes Before a Fall

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

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

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

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

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

VIII: Ignorance Is Bliss

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

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

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

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

IX: Carnal Knowledge

Allow me to digress for a few paragraphs…

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

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

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

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

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

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

X: Arousing Pity and Fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

XI: Hamartia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

XII: Peripeteia and Anagnorisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what peripeteia has there really been?

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

XIII: Matrilineal or Patrilineal Succession?

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

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

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

XIV: Oedipus’ Eye-Gouging as his Fragmentation

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

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

XIV: Oedipus at Colonus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

XV: Antigone

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

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

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

XVI: Conclusion

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of “The Machinist”

The Machinist is a 2004 Spanish/American/French/British psychological horror film written by Scott Kosar and directed by Brad Anderson. It stars Christian Bale as Trevor Reznik, an emaciated, insomniac machinist unable to cope with guilt feelings. His worsening mental state causes him to spiral into a psychotic break with reality.

This is one of Bale’s best performances in my opinion. His dedication to the role–outstripping that of Robert De Niro (who gained about 60 pounds for Raging Bull)–involved losing 62 pounds. Michael Ironside, Jennifer Jason Leigh, John Sharian, and Aitana Sánchez-Gijón all play supporting roles.

Here are some quotes:

“If you were any thinner, you wouldn’t exist.” –Stevie, to Trevor

Trevor Reznik: Stevie, I haven’t slept in a year.
Stevie: Jesus Christ!
Trevor Reznik: I tried him too.

“Congratulations, Reznik. You just made my shit-list!” –Tucker

Marie: Trevor, is someone chasing you?
Trevor Reznik: Not yet. But they will when they find out who I am.

“A little guilt goes a long way.” –Trevor

“How do you wake up from a nightmare if you’re not asleep?” –movie tagline

Trevor Reznik: I wish there was some way I could repay you.
Miller: Well, for starters you could give me your left arm.

Ivan: Oh, no. You look like you seen a ghost.
Trevor Reznik: Funny you should say that. The guys at work don’t think you exist.
Ivan: That’s why I can’t get a raise.

“You’re going straight to Hell on Route 666!” –‘Route 666’ Loudspeaker

“I’d like to report a hit-and-run.” –Trevor [repeated line]

[after realizing his fault] “I know who you are… I know who you are… I know who you are… I know who you are.” –Trevor

“Right now I wanna sleep. I just want to sleep.” –Trevor [last line]

The film begins, actually, towards the end of the story. Trevor is at the height of his psychosis, disposing of a body rolled up in a rug into the ocean at night. Someone with a flashlight shines it in his face, agitating him. Nothing else is revealed of the scene at the time: we’ll have to wait until the end of the film to find out. This refusal to let the truth be known will be a feature of Trevor’s psychology, as we’ll see later.

Trevor Reznik’s name is a pun on Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails; this is appropriate, given the downward spiral that Trevor is experiencing. The Machinist is also influenced by Dostoyevsky‘s novella, The Double, just as Black Swan is. Ivan is Trevor’s double…but which one is the good version of him, and which the bad? It isn’t who Trevor thinks it is.

Actually, there are a lot of doubles in this movie, a lot of pairings: Trevor and Ivan, Trevor and Miller (Ironside), Maria (Sánchez-Gijón) and Stevie (Leigh), Maria and the actual server in the airport diner, Supervisor Furman and Tucker, Maria and Nicholas, and even Trevor and Stevie, and him and Maria. I’ll explain each of these pairings now.

Ivan is Trevor’s double in that he is a hallucinated projection of everything Trevor wishes he could forget about himself. This is why, psychologically and metaphorically speaking (as opposed to the physiological cause–his insomnia), he’s emaciated: he wants to remove so much of himself that he would thin himself to death; hence Stevie’s remark that if he were any thinner, he wouldn’t exist. Trevor reacts to this joke in a spirit of levity, moving almost like a ghost, for he, with his death drive, would like to project so much of himself outward (i.e., out into Ivan) that he would disintegrate.

Trevor can be doubled with Miller in that, in causing the accident that costs Miller his left arm, Trevor is projecting his own psychological fragmentation onto Miller. Trevor is distracted by his hallucination of Ivan, which causes Trevor to lean on and press the activator (which then can’t be turned off), which in turn causes Miller’s sleeved arm to be stuck and pulled into the cutting zone of the mill, where his hand is then mutilated. Later, the same accident almost happens to Trevor, who flips out on his coworkers, imagining in his paranoia that they have tried to get revenge on him.

He wants to project his own violence onto others instead of admitting his guilt to himself. He would tear the ugly parts of himself away and give them to others, to his Ivan hallucination, to his coworkers; he’d even project his unconscious fantasies of self-injury and of the reducing of his body to nothingness (manifested otherwise by being hit by a car outside the DMV, and by his emaciation) onto Miller by ‘accidentally’ hacking off his arm.

Maria and Stevie are doubles in that both women serve as metaphorical mirrors of what Trevor would like to see smiling back at him, to remind him that there still is something good inside of him, making him worthy of love. These women give him his desired recognition of the Other that Lacan wrote of. As mirrored reflections of his need for love, both women are thus each a double of Trevor. Maria even repeats Stevie’s line that if he were any thinner, he wouldn’t exist.

These reflections are illusory, though, in that Stevie is a prostitute whose affections he is paying for (recall when she says, worrying about him dying of insomnia, “You’re my best client. Can’t afford to lose you.”; then he sarcastically says, “Gee, thanks.”); and Maria is every bit as much a hallucination as Ivan is. Thus, with Maria as a fantasy waitress compared with the real server in the airport diner seen towards the end of the film, both waitresses are doubles of each other.

Trevor’s boss, Supervisor Furman, is a somewhat gentler version of the foreman–nasty, scowling Tucker (Furman–foreman: note the pun). Their power and authority over Trevor and the other machinists reflect the worker alienation felt under capitalism. One worker calls out, “Master Tucker, motherfucker,” so they don’t like the foreman…but they dislike Trevor so much more. The existence of unions, the earnestness of the investigation of Miller’s accident, and Miller’s pay settlement can smooth over the rough edges of a working life under capitalism only so much: imagine how much worse it is in sweatshops in the Third World. Trevor’s job is, sadly, among the best American capitalism can offer the working class. Furman is thus like the ‘good cop,’ and Tucker is the ‘bad cop.’

Finally, Maria and her son, Nicholas, can be seen as doubles in that both are harmed by Trevor’s accidentally hitting and killing her boy. He dies, and she is emotionally scarred by the loss…both are victims of Trevor’s hit-and-run irresponsibility, and therefore personify his repressed guilt.

In this connection, it’s interesting to note Trevor’s ride with hallucinated Nicholas in “Route 666” in the amusement park scene. As I’ve explained elsewhere, 666 refers to the Roman emperor Nero, who had his mother, Agrippina the Younger, killed (and who, it was rumoured, committed incest with her), and who also–or so it was once believed–kicked his pregnant wife, Poppaea Sabina, causing her to have a miscarriage. The historicity of the kicking and incest are dubious, but we’re concerned with theme and symbolism here, not with historical accuracy.

Trevor is well-read; we see him in his apartment reading Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot early in the film. He also has a good vocabulary, far better than Miller’s. This all suggests that he’d be well-educated enough to know about such things as Nero’s wickedness, if not the historical inaccuracy and bias of Tacitus and Suetonius, the latter of whom gave this uncorroborated account of the kicking in The Twelve Caesars: “Though [Nero] doted on Poppaea…he kicked her to death while she was pregnant and ill, because she complained that he came home late from the races.” (Nero, 35, page 233)

My point in mentioning all of this is that Trevor–in fantasizing about going with Nicholas on the “Route 666” ride–is unconsciously associating his guilty self with the mother-killing, child-killing, incestuous Nero of legend (if not exactly of history). In killing the boy physically by hitting him with his car, Trevor has also killed the boy’s mother emotionally. Trevor, we learn early on, is also saddened by the death of his own mother; he transfers his unconscious Oedipal feelings for her onto pretty Maria, for whom he has romantic feelings.

Trevor can never sleep, for there’s no rest for the wicked (derived from Isaiah 57:20-21). Trevor does murder sleep. He’s tried Christ, as he tells Stevie while in bed with her…but he clearly identifies more with the Antichrist.

The guilt of killing a child and evading responsibility is overwhelming for Trevor, so he must try to erase the crime from his mind by using the defence mechanism of repression. The problem with repression is that the anxiety-causing memory never goes away; instead, it reappears in consciousness, though in an unrecognizable form.

[This is why psychoanalysts use the word unconscious, rather than the somewhat fuzzy word subconscious. We’re not talking about burying pain deep down ‘underneath consciousness,’ where one may hope it will never reappear. No!…the pain gets repressed, then it bounces back into consciousness, yet we don’t know it’s there–it’s unconscious, not known.]

In Trevor’s case, we go beyond what isn’t known: he doesn’t want to know. This refusal to know is what Wilfred Bion called -K. This is also why Trevor grows increasingly isolated, since growing in K involves social interaction and linking through exchanges of projective identification. Instead of interacting with real people, Trevor socializes mainly with hallucinated people.

Trevor is experiencing an extreme version of what WRD Fairbairn called the “basic schizoid position.” This means that Trevor is engaging in splitting: instead of relating to objects (i.e., other people) in a normal way, seeing them as grey mixtures of good and bad, he sees them in black-and-white absolutes of all-good people and all-bad people.

His relationship with Stevie, up until his complete psychotic breakdown, is what Fairbairn, replacing Freud‘s ego, called the Central Ego (Trevor) as linked to the Ideal Object (Stevie); this object is ideal because relationships with real people are ideal, that is, psychologically healthy.

His relationship with hallucinated Maria is Fairbairn’s Libidinal Ego (Trevor) with the Exciting Object (Maria), replacing Freud’s id. Trevor’s relationship with hallucinated Ivan is Fairbairn’s rough equivalent of Freud’s superego, the Anti-libidinal Ego, or Internal Saboteur (Trevor) linked to the Rejecting Object (Ivan).

Ivan is Trevor’s projected bad conscience; Ivan rejects Trevor’s every attempt to forget running over and killing the boy; Ivan also rejects Trevor’s other projections, like his post-it notes, imagining someone other than himself is writing them. This is why Trevor comes to hate (and imagines himself killing) Ivan, and imagines Ivan wants to kill Nicholas, when it’s Trevor who’s killed the boy. In hating and feeling hostility to Ivan, Trevor is hating his projected self.

Maria, as the Exciting Object of Trevor’s Libidinal Ego, is a double of Stevie in more than that both women give him solace as his symbolic, empathic mirrors. He has romantic feelings for pretty Maria, just as he has sexual feelings for Stevie. Part of these feelings is in how Maria is not only a mother, but is a reminder, a transference, of his own mother. Recall the scene in his fantasy date with her, on Mother’s Day, in the amusement park, when he takes a photo of her and Nicholas in front of the merry-go-round. He pauses for a moment, addled by a memory of a photo taken of him as a boy (Nicholas’s age) with his mother in front of the same merry-go-round, about two decades before.

This transference from his mother onto Maria, especially in light of his fantasy date with her in her home, the two of them having some wine, suggests unconscious Oedipal feelings in Trevor, that universal narcissistic trauma. This connection becomes more evident when he looks at a large glass bowl on Maria’s coffee table in the fantasy; it’s actually in his apartment, having belonged to his mother when she was alive. It’s also a yonic symbol.

These unconscious Oedipal feelings, transferred onto the mother of the boy he’s killed in the hit-and-run, compound his guilt and pain to the point that he loses the courage to face up to what he’s done. Killing her boy is like harming his own beloved mama; and since her son has been killed, it feels as if Trevor has killed himself. Small wonder he’s self-harming: not sleeping leading to a rapid loss of weight, and even deliberately walking out onto a road to be hit by a car (driven, incidentally, by a mother with her child beside her).

Added to all of this is Trevor’s repeated endangering of others whenever he drives: running red lights and nearly colliding with other drivers (at the same intersection where the accident occurred that killed the boy), just to chase Ivan’s car, that of a man who doesn’t even exist! Also, he still lets himself be distracted by such things as his car cigarette lighter instead of keeping his eyes on the road. One would think that he’s learned his lesson since the accident a year before, but these continuous acts of carelessness are examples of the unconscious reenactment of trauma that Freud, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, called “the compulsion to repeat.”

Prior to all of Trevor’s self-destructive acts, he showed off an overtly narcissistic persona, driving a 1969 red Pontiac Firebird, wearing stylish cowboy boots, sunglasses, and overconfidently allowing himself to be distracted by his cigarette lighter as he lights his cigarette, just before hitting the boy. Elsewhere, he is seen in a photo with his coworker, Reynolds, having proudly caught a huge fish.

This narcissistic False Self served him well until the accident. Now he, in his shame, must disavow and repress all these acts of ostentation, for it’s this cocky overconfidence that’s led to killing the boy and hurting the mother on whom he’s since transferred his narcissistic Oedipal feelings. That False Self has been his only defence against psychological fragmentation…and he’s now lost that defence.

This disavowing and repressing of narcissistic grandiosity and idealizing of the Oedipally-desired parent, as Heinz Kohut described in a diagram on page 185 of his book, The Analysis of the Self, is seen in Trevor’s denial that he’s in the fishing photo with Reynolds (that it’s grinning Ivan, rather than proud Trevor, in the photo), his denial that Ivan’s red sports car is really his (with the licence plate number reversed), and the delusion that Nicholas is still alive.

Kohut’s notion of the bipolar self is what he considered the basis of healthy psychological structure: the two poles are the grandiose self, as seen in healthy, cowboy-boot-wearing Trevor, and the idealized parental imago, as expressed in his memories of his mother, his internalized object of her in his mind. When one of the two poles is compromised, as in the case of Trevor’s mother dying, the other pole is emphasized in order to compensate, as we see in Trevor’s grandiosity, him as the cocky, stylish driver of the Firebird.

When both poles are compromised, however, there’s the danger of psychological disintegration, as when Trevor’s grandiosity is blown to pieces after hitting the boy. His only way to hang on is through his relationship with Stevie, his fantasy with hallucinated, guilt-easing Maria, and the projection of all his cockiness onto hallucinated Ivan.

When he imagines Stevie is part of the “plot” to persecute him (because he can’t accept that it’s him in the fishing photo, rather than his Ivan projection); then he finds no Maria working in the airport diner; then he learns that slitting the throat of a hallucination doesn’t kill it, he realizes he has no more illusions to hide behind.

The post-it note that says, “Who are you?” and the one with the hangman game are again projected onto an imagined outsider sneaking into Trevor’s apartment, instead of him simply admitting that he’s been writing them all himself. Stevie says that hit-and-run drivers should be hanged, reinforcing a guilt he keeps trying to deny. He keeps guessing wrong answers to the hangman game: TUCKER, MOTHER, MILLER,…until finally, he admits it’s KILLER–himself.

The hanged man in the game is a stick-man drawing, a mirror of emaciated Trevor (just as the stick-people of Maria and Nicholas in the Mother’s Day card are mirrors of his guilt, those whom he’s killed metaphorically and literally) in his unconscious wish to thin himself to death. His deliberate avoidance of the right answer, KILLER, is an example of Bion’s -K, the refusal to know the truth about himself. As a result of -K, he creates Ivan, a bizarre object, a hallucinated projection of himself.

Trevor’s slow but sure discovery of the truth (his going from -K to K), as horrifying as it is for him, is like Oedipus‘ gradual discovery of his patricide and incest with his mother, Iocaste (recall Nero’s rumoured incest with his mother, Agrippina the Younger, another link with Trevor’s Oedipal feelings), as contrasted with Tiresiaswish not to tell Oedipus the painful truth (this was Bion‘s elaboration–K–of the psychoanalytic truth of the Oedipus complex).

Emotionally shattered and physically scarred Trevor looks at himself in the mirror, seeing not only the reflection of his battered body (from having let himself be hit by the car outside the DMV), but also grinning Ivan. This is Lacan‘s mirror, in which he’s alienated from himself, the awkward, fragmented real Trevor as contrasted with Ivan, who is no longer seen as an evil projection, or as the Rejecting Object of Trevor’s Anti-libidinal Ego, but as Trevor’s ideal-I, the cocky, carefree narcissist he wishes he could still be.

Free of any guilt, Ivan can compel Trevor to turn himself in to the cops. Ivan is thus both his ideal-I and his morally judging superego. Trevor now knows who he is; he also knows who he once was–the guilt-free, cocky, grinning man now projected onto Ivan. Trevor can no longer pretend he’s the good guy, and that everyone else–especially Ivan–is bad.

Ivan is the good double of the bad original–Trevor…the KILLER.

When Trevor has, at last, come to grips with what he has done, and accepts his guilt, he can finally sleep, as he does at the end of the film. Accepting his guilt comes from his finally being able to process his emotional experiences, taking the agitating elements from the outside world–what Bion called beta elements–and using alpha function (the processing of those emotional experiences) to turn the beta elements into alpha elements, or thoughts that can be used in dreams, waking thoughts, etc. Trevor’s hitherto inability and unwillingness to do this processing (-K) is what’s caused his psychosis. [Click here for a thorough explanation of Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts.]

In his book, Learning From Experience, Bion explains: “If the patient cannot transform his emotional experience into alpha elements, he cannot dream. Alpha-function transforms sense impressions into alpha-elements which resemble, and may in fact be identical with, the visual images with which we are familiar in dreams, namely, the elements that Freud regards as yielding their latent content when the analyst has interpreted them. Freud showed that one of the functions of a dream is to preserve sleep. Failure of alpha-function means the patient cannot dream and therefore cannot sleep. As alpha-function makes the sense impressions of the emotional experience available for conscious and dream-thought the patient who cannot dream cannot go to sleep and cannot wake up. Hence the peculiar condition seen clinically when the psychotic patient behaves as if he were in precisely this state.” (Bion, page 7)

Hence, Trevor cannot sleep and dream, and he cannot wake up from the nightmare that is his psychosis. It is only when he sees his fantasies and projections for what they really are that he can finally sleep, and thus escape his waking nightmare.

Analysis of “Joker”

I: Introduction

Joker is a 2019 supervillain origin story film directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. Though based on the DC comic book character, this film takes many liberties with the story material by creating a background for the Joker that has hitherto been kept deliberately mysterious.

The notion of him starting out as a failed comedian comes from Batman: The Killing Joke, but other elements come from two Martin Scorsese films starring Robert De NiroTaxi Driver and The King of Comedy. This origin story nonetheless can be reconciled with the comic book canon somewhat in that, given how the story is told from the Joker’s point of view, and given his psychotic penchant for mixing fantasy with reality, he is an unreliable narrator; so it hardly matters if events in the movie contradict those of the comic books.

Phoenix’s performance deservedly won him the Best Actor Oscar. For her plaintive, brooding cello soundtrack, Hildur Guðnadóttir won the Best Original Score. The film itself has also been praised (with nominations for such Oscar categories as Best Picture and Best Director), in spite of such controversies as the baseless fear that its sympathetic portrayal of a mentally-ill loner, who shoots people, would inspire incel murders. Actually, the film–despite Phillips’s denial of having intended any political message–is clearly presenting a drama of class war.

II: Quotes

“Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” –Arthur Fleck/Joker

[written in notebook] “I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.” –Arthur

[written in notebook] “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” –Arthur

“You don’t listen, do you? You just ask the same questions every week. ‘How’s your job?’ ‘Are you having negative thoughts?’ All I have are negative thoughts.” –Arthur, to his therapist

“For my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do. People are starting to notice.” –Arthur

“I know it seems strange, I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, I don’t know why everyone is so rude, I don’t know why you are; I don’t want anything from you. Maybe a little warmth, maybe a hug, ‘Dad,’ maybe just a bit of common fucking decency!” –Arthur, to Thomas Wayne

“I haven’t been happy one minute of my entire fucking life.” –Arthur

“You know what’s funny? You know what really makes me laugh? I used to think that my life was a tragedy…but now I realize…it’s a fucking comedy.” –Arthur, to his mother before killing her

“When you bring me out, can you introduce me as Joker?” –Arthur, to Murray Franklin

Murray Franklin: Okay, I- I think …I might understand it. You…did this to start a movement? To become a-a symbol?
Joker: Come on, Mur-ray. Do I look like the kind of clown that could start a movement? I killed those guys because they were awful. Everybody is awful these days. It’s enough to make anyone crazy.
Murray: Alright. So that’s it, you’re crazy. That’s your defense for killing three young men?
Joker: No. They couldn’t carry a tune to save their lives. [the crowd boos and jeers] (growing frustrated) Ugh, why is everybody so upset about these guys?! If it was me dying on the sidewalk, you’d walk right over me! I pass you every day, and you don’t notice me! But these guys… What, because Thomas Wayne went and cried about them on TV?!
Franklin: You have a problem with Thomas Wayne?
Joker: Yes, I do! Have you seen what it’s like out there, Mur-ray? Do you ever actually leave the studio? Everybody just yells and screams at each other. Nobody’s civil anymore! Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy. You think men like Thomas Wayne ever think what it’s like to be someone like me?! To be somebody but themselves?! They don’t. They think we’ll all just sit there and take it like good little boys! That we won’t werewolf and go wild!!

You’re awful, Murray.” –Arthur, coldly

Joker: How about another joke, Mur-ray?
Franklin: No, I think we’ve had enough of your jokes.
Joker: What do you get…
Franklin: I don’t think so.
Joker: …When you cross…
Franklin: I think we’re done here now, that’s it.
Joker: …A mentally-ill loner with a SOCIETY THAT ABANDONS HIM AND TREATS HIM LIKE TRASH?!?!
Murray Franklin: Call the police, Gene!
Joker: I’ll tell you what you get!
Franklin: Call the police.
JokerYOU GET WHAT YOU FUCKING DESERVE!!!! [pulls out his gun and shoots Murray in the head, instantly killing him]

[Joker, in a police car, is laughing and chuckling at the chaos being spread to Gotham City]
Cop 1: Stop laughing, you freak. This isn’t funny.
Cop 2: Yeah, the whole fucking city’s on fire because of what you did.
Joker: I know… Isn’t it beautiful?

[Arthur is laughing loudly during a psychiatric examination at Arkham Asylum. He soon settles down, but still laughs]
Psychiatrist: What’s so funny?
Arthur[laughing and chuckling some more] I was just thinking…just thinking of a joke. [shot of a young Bruce Wayne standing over the bodies of his dead parents as the camera pulls back and Arthur’s laughter is heard]
Psychiatrist: You wanna tell it to me?
Arthur[softly whispers] You wouldn’t get it.

III: Mirrors

The story is set in 1981, as the film’s use of the old Warner Bros. logo of the time suggests. We hear the news on the radio describing a garbagemen’s strike in Gotham City, resulting in pileups of garbage bags all over town. Just as M.A.S.H., set during the Korean War, was meant as an allegory of the Vietnam War, so can Joker, set in early 80s Gotham, be seen as an allegory for our neoliberal time (in fact, because of the general strike in France, garbage is piling up there, too). The earlier time in which the film is set is a mirror to our present time.

Already we see, in this garbagemen’s strike, an indication of class war: if the workers’ demands would simply be respected, the mess would be cleaned up. The filth in the city, and the fears of it leading to the spread of disease, shows how little the rich care about the poor. The pileup of filth is a mirror to the political and economic corruption of our world.

We see Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) putting on clown makeup in front of a mirror. He puts his fingers in his mouth, stretching it upwards and downwards to make smiles and a frown (and remember that a ‘smile is just a frown turned upside-down’).

What’s established in this scene are two themes: the psychoanalytic symbolism of mirrors, and the dialectical relationship of opposites. These themes can also be fused in the form of the self-other dialectic, in which we can see the self in the other, and vice versa. One thing mirrors its opposite.

Fleck’s mirror is Lacan‘s mirror: the man looking in the reflection is Arthur’s real, socially awkward self; the reflection is his ideal-I, the successful comedian he wishes he could be. In his attempts to be that great comedian, to smile and make others smile and laugh, he finds himself constantly failing…hence, frowning.

The idealized image in the mirror is a lie, for the very formation of an ego–as opposed to the awkward, fragmented self one really is, lacking a clear definition between oneself and the outside world of other people–is also a lie. Hence, Arthur is alienated from the ‘self’ he sees in the mirror; that ‘self’ is really someone other than himself.

Similarly, he idealizes other people, such as Murray Franklin (De Niro) on the TV, whom Fleck sees not only as his idol as a comedian, but also as a kind of father figure, since he doesn’t know his real father. Seeing Murray’s face on the TV is thus like looking into a metaphorical mirror for Arthur.

Indeed, there are a number of such metaphorical mirrors, or idealizations of other people seen as reflections of one’s narcissistic self. Apart from Murray, these ideals include Arthur’s mother Penny (Frances Conroy; his idealization of her is Oedipal), Thomas Wayne (played by Brett Cullen, Wayne is idealized by both Flecks, who imagine the billionaire to be Arthur’s father), and Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz), whose finger gunshot to her head is imitated…mirrored, by Arthur. Charlie Chaplin, the comic tramp that penniless [!] Arthur sees mirrored on the silver screen, is another ideal.

Those are the idealized reflections, but then there’s the real Arthur looking at the literal or symbolic mirror reflection. The real Arthur is coming apart; he is experiencing psychological fragmentation, and a narcissistic False Self, as dysfunctional as that may be, is an effective defence against fragmentation. Hence, Arthur’s transformation into the Joker.

IV: Opposites Attract

The Clown Prince of Crime (a perpetrator of it), as we see in this film, starts out as a victim of crime: he’s beaten up by the kids who’ve stolen and broken his sign over his face; he’s docked pay for the sign, whose theft and breaking weren’t his fault…not that his boss, agent Hoyt Vaughn, wants to listen (this is tantamount to wage theft); and he’s assaulted by the three Wayne employees on the train, making him snap and kill them.

The dialectical unity of opposites is best symbolized in Arthur’s involuntary laughing, a result of pseudobulbar affect. His pained laugh, which he–in his embarrassment–desperately tries to control, looks like a cross between laughing and weeping; the sad aspect is especially apparent when we see it typically happening whenever something bad happens to him. Smile, though your heart is aching…

All Arthur has ever wanted is recognition, an acknowledgement that he exists. To make a kid laugh on the bus, such a happiness is the mirrored reflection of a smile Arthur’s own wounded inner child yearns to be able to do, but for real, for a change.

Lacan said, “Man’s desire is the desire of the Other,” that is, we feel desire in terms of other people. We desire what we imagine others desire, and we desire recognition from other people. Arthur imagines that, in making others laugh, he’s fulfilling their desires; and in doing so, he’s fulfilling his own desires by getting people’s recognition. Once again, we see the self defined in terms of the other.

While watching the Murray Franklin Show on TV with his mother, Arthur fantasizes that he’s sitting with the studio audience. This scene establishes the fact that not all we see and hear in this film is really happening. In fact, a lot more of it could be fantasy. Could all of it be fantasy?

Even if all of it is, the themes of class war and of alienation–social, worker, and inner alienation–are real enough to deserve examination. People like Arthur Fleck have existed and continue to exist; their problems of loneliness, mental illness, and exploitation by the ruling class countervail the Joker’s ‘fake’ origin story so many times over that the Arthur Fleck story might as well be 100% true.

I will argue that the Joker is Arthur’s False Self, his narcissistic defence against psychological fragmentation; on the other hand, the Joker (the only version of him that is ‘real’ to us, i.e., that we have seen in the comic books and in previous movies) could be imagining Arthur as a fake version of his past self in order to win people’s sympathy. Which version of him is real, and which is fantasy? Here we see how the opposites of fantasy and reality attract, as do those of the self and the other.

Arthur fantasizes that Murray would give up all his fame and wealth just to have Arthur for a son. As an aspiring comedian, Arthur wishes to identify with his idol, Murray, just as any son, upon the dissolution of his Oedipus complex, identifies with his father.

V: Comparisons With Other Films

Some interesting comparisons can be made between films in that De Niro is playing Murray; he also played Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy and Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Arthur is both the fantasizing, failed comedian counterpart of Pupkin and the journal-writing psychotic counterpart of Bickle. Similarly, Murray is the TV show host equivalent of Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) in The King of Comedy. In this use of De Niro, we see a further identification of Arthur with his TV-mirror reflection and father figure, Murray Franklin.

And since Arthur is an unreliable narrator, who may have killed fewer people than we see him kill (Does he kill Murray, or is that scene as much a fantasy as is his scene sitting with the studio audience? And what about the excessive number of shots fired from his gun on the three yuppies on and off the train?), Joker could be seen as the proletarian version of American Psycho. And this leads to an interesting inter-film coincidence: Christian Bale played both Patrick Bateman and Batman, the latter of whom would “complete” Heath Ledger’s Joker!

Fleck’s mother always calls him “Happy,” imagining that “he’d always been such a happy little boy”; but his ‘happiness,’ linked with his involuntary laughing and his failed attempts at comedy, is just a reaction formation against dealing with his profound sadness, a form of manic defence against depression. In this, we see the unity between the opposites of happiness and sadness, as when he–taking care of his mother–has seen his life as a tragedy, then–smothering her with the pillow in the hospital–sees his life as a comedy.

VI: The Love Gun

Randall, a clown colleague of Arthur’s, gives him a gun for his protection against any future attacks from punks like the teens at the film’s beginning. This pistol is a symbol of the Lacanian phallus, which is itself symbolic of the thing we lack, and therefore desire. Arthur’s lack, as mentioned above, is a feeling that he doesn’t exist (Lacan’s manque à être), which shifts into symbolic castration (manque á avoir, ‘lack of having’), the powerlessness he feels as a poor, struggling clown/comedian.

It’s around when he gets the gun that he begins to fantasize and obsess about Sophie. He dances in his living room holding the gun, imagining he’s talking to her and that she’s impressed with his dancing. His erotic pelvic moves emphasize the phallic nature of the gun, and when he accidentally shoots a hole in the wall, and his mother complains about the noise, it’s as if she’s caught her boy masturbating. Apologizing to her, he feels ashamed. Later, when he fantasizes about Sophie at his door, and she asks him about his having followed her, and hopes he’d “come in and rob” her in her apartment (obvious sexual symbolism), he playfully mentions the gun he has…more sexual and phallic symbolism.

When he performs for the hospital kids and the gun falls out of his pocket and onto the floor, we see another symbolic castration, his loss of power (he gets fired, and thus can no longer be the ‘happy’ clown he imagines his mom wants him to be…”to spread joy and laughter”). Ironically, it’s his dancing about that causes the gun to fall out. Actually, Arthur has missed his calling: he should be a dancer, not a comedian. Dancing is natural for him: he doesn’t even seem to need lessons.

He regains his power when killing the three men on the train with that ejaculating, phallic gun (a comparison I made in my Taxi Driver analysis, too). He escapes to a public washroom and does another of his therapeutic dances. Using the gun to kill his tormentors, projecting his pain onto them, is therapeutic and empowering, as is his dancing, perhaps the purest art form of all, since it involves the direct, instinctive movements of the body to express oneself (‘express,’ to press outward, to project outside what has been bottled up inside, to take what’s in the self and put it in the other).

VII: Thomas Wayne

Unlike the kind Thomas Wayne of Batman Begins, this one is an unsympathetic, Trumpish sort. Accordingly, his attitude towards the angry poor is offensive and condescending–he calls them “clowns,” yet he hypocritically claims that, if elected mayor of Gotham, he’ll help the poor, even though really doing so would be against his class interests as a billionaire.

Yet aptly-named Penny imagines Wayne will save Gotham, as many poor Americans believe their incumbent–who has cut (or at least proposed to cut) food stamps, taxes for the rich, and funding for healthcare and education, yet has also sought to boost military spending into the billions–actually cares for them. She idealizes Wayne, just as Arthur has idealized images of Murray, Sophie, and Wayne in his head, mirror images that don’t reflect the truth.

There’s more fantasizing when Arthur imagines Sophie at his door asking about his having followed her (something no woman in her right mind would be happy about); then he imagines himself dating her, with her enjoying his disastrous standup comedy routine, and her with him in the hospital with his mother. One wonders: have the fantasies increased now that he isn’t getting his medication? Is the rest of the movie especially unreliable?

This leads back to the discussion of class war: the cuts in funding that cause Arthur to lose both his therapy sessions and his medication. Problems like these underscore how a movie set in 1981 (before Reagan had really begun to force ‘small government,’ and ‘free market‘ capitalism on the US) is actually a parable for our much worse times. The cops accuse the Joker of causing the social unrest at the end of the film, instead of taking responsibility for protecting the capitalist system that has really caused the unrest.

VIII: Mommy and Daddy Issues

But what is the thing that makes Arthur totally lose it? Not so much these problems mentioned above, not even Murray humiliating him on TV, but that archaic, narcissistic trauma that–in all of its variations–is universal: his love/hate relationship with his parents.

Heinz Kohut‘s theory of the bipolar self posits that we all get our sense of self, as children going through primary narcissism, through the grandiose self on one side (which says, “I’m great, and I need you, Mom and Dad, to mirror my greatness back to me!”) and the idealized parental imago on the other (a mental internalization of one’s ‘godlike’ parents that says, “You, Mom and Dad, are the greatest, and I get my greatness from your love!”). Lacking this validation, a person is in danger of either pathological narcissism or fragmenting into a psychotic break with reality.

Such fragmenting, with only a narcissistic False Self as a defence against it, is exactly what’s happening to Arthur. When his mother plants the seed in his head that his rolling-stone papa is billionaire Thomas Wayne, he naturally wants to idealize the man as much as she does.

When Arthur meets young Bruce, the two facing each other with the gate of class difference separating them, I suspect that Arthur is fantasizing about touching the boy’s face and curling it up into a smile. No child would tolerate a stranger touching him like that without at least some resistance, especially a rich child raised to believe that the lower classes are ‘inferior.’

Arthur’s wish to make Bruce smile, as with the boy laughing and facing him on the bus, represents his own wish to smile by having happiness mirrored back to him. It’s his wish for recognition, just as he’d have Thomas acknowledge him as his son.

But as always, his wishes keep getting frustrated. In the public washroom with Thomas Wayne, Arthur sees both of them in the mirror reflection, himself juxtaposed with his idealized father, another kind of ideal-I. Not only does Wayne, however, deny that he’s his father, in an even more devastating blow, he claims that Penny adopted Arthur.

Arthur claims that Thomas resembles him (“Look at us,” he says. “I think you are.”): is this a fact, or is it wish-fulfillment? Thomas’s denial of paternity could easily be part of a cover-up to avoid publicizing a scandalous adultery with a former employee, complete with documents forged by the unscrupulous Dr. Benjamin Stoner. On the other hand, especially with regards to Arthur’s unreliable point of view presenting the story, we must also consider how far-fetched it is to believe that he and Bruce Wayne are half-brothers.

Arthur’s visit to Arkham State Hospital seems to confirm his worst fears: his mother’s medical documents seem to confirm that Penny adopted him as a child. What’s worse–and this seems to be real–he reads of her having allowed her then-boyfriend to abuse him when a boy. The physical abuse little Arthur suffered included blows to the head that must have caused his pseudobulbar affect; the ex-boyfriend also chained him to a radiator and left him deprived of food.

IX: Trauma Leads to Madness

Those who prefer leaving the Joker’s past a mystery, leaving it “multiple choice,” seem to be reinforcing, intentionally or not, the idea that criminal psychopaths are just “fucking crazies,” as Detective Mills calls them in Se7en. I prefer to go with the trauma model of mental disorders, and I believe that Arthur’s reading of his mother’s medical records has triggered repressed childhood memories, forgotten traumas. People aren’t just ‘born crazy,’ they are made to be mentally ill.

Erich Fromm, in Man for Himself, explains how, in a general sense, one becomes evil rather than is innately so: “If life’s tendency to grow, to be lived, is thwarted, the energy thus blocked undergoes a process of change and is transformed into life-destructive energy. Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life. Those individual and social conditions which make for the blocking of life-furthering energy produce destructiveness which in turn is the source from which the various manifestations of evil spring.” (Fromm, page 162, his emphasis)

Worse than having triggered the memory of Arthur’s repressed childhood traumas, regardless of whether or not the medical documents have been faked, the seed of doubt has been planted in his head: is Penny not his biological mother? Are both of his parents unknown? Did both parents abandon him when he was a child? Does nobody love him?

He has experienced traumatic disappointments on both poles of his personality (in Kohut’s sense): his grandiose self has been shattered with humiliations and rejections, and his parental idealizations have proven false to him.

He’s had a bad day.

Only transforming into the Joker will keep him from falling apart.

With both parents having abandoned and betrayed him, Arthur will perceive them as only bad internal objects in his mind. This is Melanie Klein‘s notion of the bad mother and bad father, causing him to experience what she called the paranoid-schizoid position, a splitting of internalized objects into absolute good and bad, and a paranoid fear that the bad objects will harm him. (Click here for a more thorough elucidation of psychoanalytic concepts.) There are no good objects for Arthur…only bad ones. Now, he will feel an urge to kill his parents, both biological and symbolic.

X: Metamorphosis

After smothering Penny (whose very name he hates) in the hospital, Arthur returns home; having learned (or, as I suspect, fantasized in his narcissistic imagination, leading to a fantasy of murderous revenge) that Murray wants him as a guest on the TV show, Arthur is seen looking in a mirror as he dyes his hair green. This is him constructing his False Self as the Joker, looking at his ideal-I in the Lacanian mirror and striving to live up to that ideal.

Murdering Randall helps further cement Arthur’s new identity as the Joker, so his transformation is complete. Hearing the music from, thankfully, only the largely instrumental section of Gary Glitter‘s “Rock and Roll” (speaking of sickos…and Glitter will get no royalties for the song’s inclusion in the soundtrack, so don’t worry about that), we see Arthur enter the elevator and leave his apartment all decked out in Joker garb and clown makeup.

In several scenes, we’ve seen sad Arthur climb that interminably high staircase up to his apartment as the evening sun is going down. I’m reminded of a passage from Milton‘s Paradise Lost: “Long is the way/And hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” (Book II, lines 432-433) Now as the Joker, though, he joyfully dances his way down the stairs. Instead of struggling his way up in search of heaven, he’s dancing down to hell.

Two cops chase him into a train filled with his followers, the anti-Wayne protestors in clown masks. These people, who regard him as a hero for killing the three Wayne employees, are each a mirror reflection of him, giving him the recognition he’s always craved. To help him escape from the cops, he even steals and dons a clown mask to mix in better with the crowded protestors, and to cause a fight among them to stop the cops from being able to continue their pursuit. His wearing of the mask reinforces the false nature of his Joker persona; he’s making himself mirror his fans.

XI: When Homicide Is Suicide

As I said above, I believe his appearance on the Murray Franklin Show is a fantasy, as much a fantasy as his first appearance in the studio audience. (At the very least, the producers of the show would have cut to commercial and gotten rid of him as soon as he began flaking out on live TV, long before he’d have had a chance to take out his gun.) In the first fantasy, Murray is Arthur’s symbolic good father, a transference from his unknown father onto Murray; in the second fantasy, Murray is the symbolic bad father who, like bad mother Penny, must be killed.

Note how, during his rant on the show, the Joker complains of how we must suffer and “take it like good little boys.” This sounds like a child suffering from an abusive father, authority figure…or Penny’s abusive ex-boyfriend, another substitute father for little Arthur. In his fantasy, he kills symbolic father Murray and gives a long kiss to the elderly woman sex therapist, Dr. Sally, who could be considered a symbolic mother transference (recall how he says he loves Dr. Sally). How Oedipal.

I’m guessing he fantasizes about killing Murray while actually still in his apartment, where he’s similarly fantasized about shooting himself, this suicide ideation being a recurring idea throughout the film. In imagining he’s shot Murray, he’s really shot that mirror image of his idealized self, his identification with the idealized parental imago that he now hates, and has replaced with his new ideal-I…the Joker. So this is yet another example of the self mirrored in the other, and vice versa.

XII: Destructive or Constructive Revolution?

He is delighted to see all the rioting and violence on the streets of Gotham, all those people in clown masks hating Wayne and the other rich of the city. Their anger mirrors his own, even though he insists he’s apolitical: recall his words to Murray, “I don’t believe in anything,” echoing the nihilism of the Germans in The Big Lebowski. Arthur finally has the recognition he’s craved; the rioters want what he wants–chaos and destruction. Accordingly, he does another dance, this time for his fans on the police car. He puts his fingers in his bloody mouth, pulls them upward, and unlike his frowning before the mirror at the beginning of the film, this time he makes a genuine, if gory, grin.

Now, we can sympathize with the anger of these people and their wish to destroy the current, corrupt social order. Revolution cannot, however, end with only violence; one must build a new world after the destruction of the old, and return to stability. The Joker and his clowns don’t want to rebuild.

It’s interesting how the Trotskyist Left Voice largely praises Joker for its insurrectionary message, while this Marxist-Leninist blog is critical of the film for its stopping at the violence and chaos. These two strands of socialism respectively advocate either violent, permanent, worldwide revolution, or the building up of socialism, be that building-up in several countries, or even just in one, if continued revolutions elsewhere aren’t possible for the time being.

Though the Joker imagines that a life of chaos is the only one for him, and that his current, laughing madman self is the real him, remember what I said above: his Joker persona is a narcissistic False Self that keeps him from psychologically falling apart. A rebuilding of society, on socialist principles, would restore the cut funding to social services, giving Arthur back his psychotherapy and medication. Socialism would also work to end the alienation he suffers.

XIII: Bruce Completes Arthur

It’s interesting how both Arthur and Bruce have lost their parents by the end of the film (be they Arthur’s actual or imagined parents), and in the loss of both people’s parents, both a supervillain and a superhero are being born. In this we see a mirroring of the Joker and Batman, of the one completing the other, the self-other dialectic…there’s a bit of one person in the other, and vice versa.

The one scene in the film not ‘narrated’ by Arthur (i.e., he isn’t in this one scene) is when Joe Chill shoots Thomas and Martha Wayne. Arthur, in Arkham, laughs about that moment, presumably having read about the murders in the newspapers and imagining a private joke. In contrast to the first scene of him laughing/weeping during a therapy session (also, just to reinforce the parallels, with a black female therapist [as was fantasized Sophie, in a way, a therapist for him], but now we’re in a white room instead of the dark room of the beginning), this time he’s really enjoying the laugh.

His therapist may not get the joke, but I think I do: he, in having inspired the clown protestors, is indirectly responsible for the murder of Bruce’s parents; because Chill, in the clown mask, is a metaphorical mirror of Arthur. This makes Arthur like young Jack Napier of the 1989 Batman film, to note yet another interesting coincidence between films. Traumatized Arthur knows young, traumatized Bruce will want revenge on him, just as he’s wanted revenge on the whole world.

Arthur=Joe=Jack=Joker=Bruce=Batman

It would be interesting to see a sequel to Joker, with Batman–the bourgeois superhero par excellence (Tony Stark ranking a close second)–fighting the permanently revolutionary Joker. What a complex, morally and politically ambiguous story that would be, where such dialectical opposites as hero and villain intermingle, as do the self and the other, happiness and sadness, and bourgeois and proletarian heroism and criminality.

If I, in my flight of ideas, have left you confused, should I explain further?

Nah.

You wouldn’t get it.

Projection and Gaslighting

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

In this post, I’m not going to be talking about the kind of projection most people usually think about, which involves imagining that other people have one’s own good or bad personality traits. The kind of projection I’ll be discussing, what Melanie Klein called projective identification, is, however, just as commonly practiced between people; in fact, it’s the most primal form of pre-verbal communication and interaction between people, starting with the mother/infant relationship, as Wilfred Bion noted in his theory of container/contained.

Projective identification involves actually pushing out those personality traits, emotions, etc., and imposing them on other people, actually manipulating others into manifesting the behaviour associated with one’s own personality traits, emotions, etc. Emotional abusers, those who practice gaslighting, use projective identification to an especially great extent.

My late mother was never formally diagnosed with NPD, but as I’ve discussed in many blog posts, I have every reason to believe she had pathological levels of narcissistic traits, even to the point of malignant narcissism. As many narcissists do, she cleverly hid her disorder behind a mask of altruism, all the while bad-mouthing and triangulating anybody she either disliked, envied, or felt in some sense threatened by.

One way she kept her pathologies hidden and unknown to the world, even to us in the family, was by projecting her faults onto other people, in the Kleinian form I described above. She projected her narcissistic self-absorption onto me, calling it “autism,” from the old definition it had a century ago (i.e., Bleuler‘s notions of excessive social withdrawal, admiration of oneself, etc.). Since I was an impressionable child at the time, I naïvely and uncritically accepted the label, and found myself acting accordingly. My acceptance of it was a case of introjective identification.

This is what narcissists and emotional abusers do: as self-psychology originator Heinz Kohut pointed out in his book, The Analysis of the Self (pages 176-177 and footnote of page 185), narcissists vertically split off and disavow everything they hate about themselves (along with horizontal splitting, through repression), everything about them that reminds them of how flawed they are, and they find a suitable victim to project those faults onto. They use gaslighting and denial to trick the victim into believing he or she has the victimizers’ faults, and the victim so thoroughly believes he is the flawed one that he displays and manifests those very faults; thus, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

My mother and her flying monkeys, my elder siblings, all projected their faults onto me from when I was too young to suspect their true motives. Their projections–in the form of my mother’s gaslighting and lies about me being “autistic,” and in my siblings’ almost daily insults, verbal abuse, bullying, and making fun of me–instilled in my pre-teen/adolescent mind that I was so flawed, I behaved in the very awkward, inappropriate ways associated with such flaws, thus ‘confirming’ their judgements of me.

But my awkwardness was based on false beliefs about myself, not on reality.

I’ll give a few examples of my family’s projections. My eldest brother, R., back when I was a teen and he was in his early/mid 20s, would sometimes hear me talking too loudly (a natural thing overexcited teens will do); and instead of just telling me to lower my voice–a reaction that a young man of his age should have been mature enough to give–he felt it was necessary on such occasions to say, “Can you be an ass quietly?” It never occurred to the egotist that he was the one being an ass.

On other occasions back then, he would call me a “wimp.” Recall how I explained in other posts–his young-adult meanness towards me was really based on his anger towards our dad (from back when he was a teen), on whom he was too much of a coward to release that anger. Any young adult jerk can take out his anger on a pre-teen/adolescent, designated as the family’s emotional punching bag. R. was projecting his own weakness onto me (in fact, when he as a teen was having his problems with Dad, he was so weak about it that he dropped out of school and ran away from home; whereas when I was a teen and being emotionally abused by up to five people, I was strong, stuck it out, and stayed home until finishing university, then I left home as a young adult); and he was gaslighting me into thinking I, a kid at the time, was the weakling.

My older sister, J., the family’s number one golden child (my two older brothers, R. and F., being somewhere in between golden and lost/invisible children), was fond of pointing out how “rude” I often am (which, to be fair to her, I must confess has more than some truth to it), though she had no qualms about being rude to me if she wanted to (the same goes for my mother, who also liked to complain about my rudeness). J. would, for example, be talking to me, and if I interrupted–which, granted, I shouldn’t have done–she’d snap “I’m talking!” at the top of her lungs. On another occasion, when I was 14 and too preoccupied with a high school bully to remember to thank her (about 19-20 years old at the time) for a ride to school, she–feeling narcissistic rage at the time, no doubt–screamed at me for being “ungrateful.” Wow, J., what graciousness you have.

Then, recall how in this post she barked at me to remember to say goodbye to our grandfather at our grandmother’s funeral about thirty years ago. She then rationalized her bitchiness by lecturing to me about how “rude” it is not to say goodbye to the funeral guests (my crime was daydreaming when all the goodbyes were being said: dissociation is a common C-PTSD trait, an escape from the pain). When I angrily tried to stick up for myself, she shouted four-letter words at me to silence me. What graciousness, J.! Again, she was projecting her personality problems onto me; and our mother’s biased defence of her attitude was just more gaslighting.

I’ve also mentioned elsewhere how my older brother F. used to harangue me about ‘not caring about anyone but myself,’ when it was his bullying of me, as well as that of R. and J., and Mom’s gaslighting of me with the autism lie (not to mention all the bullying I’d suffered at school as a kid), that had alienated me from society so much that it should have been no surprise at all that I grew so aloof from others and their needs. F.’s brute stupidity blinded him from the obvious consequences of his and others’ actions.

What’s more, I knew of several occasions when J. and Mom complained of him and his wife being ‘cheap,’ or in some other sense detached from the family (one example involved his family habitually arriving late at family get-togethers). Now, to be fair to F., this complaining was probably motivated, to at least a large extent, by J.’s and Mom’s narcissistic judging and competing to be the family member ‘most worthy of love and respect’; but given what I know of how mean F. is capable of being (if only to me), it’s far from impossible to believe that J.’s and Mom’s gripes had at least some substance. And if that’s true, surely to a fair extent, then his complaining of my ‘uncaring’ nature is partially projection, too.

All of them taking their little bites out of me over the years allowed them to shed hateful parts of themselves, or at least fool themselves into thinking they’d done so. This shedding, this projective identification, was a major factor helping them to build self-confidence (even if based on a narcissistic false self), raise families, and function in society in ways that it’s been much harder for me to do.

Research on the long-term deleterious psychological effects of bullying on its victims (developing social anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicide ideation, etc.) shows that it is a serious problem in our society that must be addressed. Bullies and emotional abusers are stealing victims’ happiness, their self-esteem, and their very ability to live.

So, what can we do to repair ourselves? If you can’t afford a therapist, you could consider free online therapy. I recommend such forms of self-care as ASMR, EMDR therapy, meditation, self-compassion, and repeating lots and lots of affirmations to offset all the vicious lies your abusers made you believe about yourself.

Yes, lies. That’s what projective identification and gaslighting are all about. Everything nasty they said, or are saying, about you was and is only a reflection of themselves, not of you. They were and are telling you about their faults; when they say these faults are yours, they’re lying.

Now, there’s also no doubt that the abusers really believe the lies they tell you. This doesn’t mean they’re merely mistaken in their judgements: it means they’re lying to themselves as well as to you. Their false belief doesn’t mean they’re lying less (i.e., that they’re being delusional); it means they’re lying more, for recall that narcissists have a false self they want to present to the world.

My family fancied themselves as all confident, polite, considerate, and thoughtful of others. They loved to flatter themselves in this regard, in their private thoughts, if not always openly in public. (J., for example, once bragged to me of being a follower of “the religion of human relationships,” during the very same years she alienated me from her with an endless stream of condescending, snarky, know-it-all remarks.) In reality, my siblings were in an exclusive social club, jealously competing for our late mother’s love and approval while believing, uncritically, all of her denigrating comments about our cousins, our father, and–of course–me.

So what you must do, Dear Reader, is aggressively work to counteract all the brainwashing your abusers subjected you to. Take the time every day to remember every compliment you’ve heard other people give you, remind yourself of good, loving moments in your life (dig deep into your brain and search for those long-forgotten moments…find them!), and make lists of everything you’re good at. This, over time, can gradually boost your self-esteem.

Those good moments, those good words–for far too long trivialized and invalidated in your mind by your inner critic–must be revived. They not only have every right to all the attention that you’ve unfortunately given your negative thoughts and memories, all those mean things your abusers said and did to you…they have so much more of a right to that attention. The mean words you heard were lies, projections; if you believed all that nonsense, why not give it a try to believe the good words, regardless of whether you think they were valid, or if you think they seemed not to be?

We need to reprogram our brains to stop just uncritically accepting every negative opinion we hear (each one just a projection), getting emotionally invested in it, believing it, and using confirmation bias to find ‘proof’ of it in our everyday problems and mistakes, thus reinforcing the negativity. Instead we must take those nasty comments and say to ourselves, “That’s just his or her opinion. I don’t have to believe it.” Don’t be emotionally invested in it.

Instead (and this will be difficult, given all the abuse we’ve endured over the years), we must magnify the positive words we hear from others (embrace those good projections!), get emotionally invested in them (feel good about them!) so we can believe they’re true, then find proof in our daily successes of the truth of those compliments. We must do this healing work every day without fail, over and over again, so that eventually we can turn things around and finally start to like ourselves.

If thinking straight ‘happy thoughts’ seems too unrealistic to you at the moment (yes, abuse does weigh us down that much!), you can start with Kati Morton‘s “bridge statements,” which start with small but realistic compliments and slowly work your way up. You can combine that with starting your day with several diaphragmatic breaths and at least 10-15 minutes of meditating, among other suggestions I shared in this blog post. Remember that this is a long process that will achieve results only gradually. Breaking free from the past isn’t at all easy; but it isn’t impossible, either.

Whatever you do, don’t believe your abusers’ lies and projections. Those people are sellers of falsehoods. To put it crudely and bluntly, your abusers are full of shit; and if they’re full of shit about you, then you must be so much better of a person than they say you are.

Bringing Us All Together

The ego, understood as a separate, isolated entity that develops apart from others, is an illusion. The human personality is constructed only through its relationships with other people. These relationships can be of the two-way kind, that is, a narcissistic, dyadic relationship in which two people mirror each other (Jacques Lacan‘s other with a lower-case o); or they can be a communal sort (Lacan’s Other), involving many people who interact and share, but also respect each other’s autonomy.

Everyone who is healthy goes from the dyadic, one-on-one relationship (i.e., parent/child) to the communal sort, with varying levels of success, depending on how well one can get over the traumatic transition from the child’s primary narcissism (ego love) to object love, or love of other people. Those who fail to get over this trauma are in danger of developing secondary narcissism (the pathological kind that upsets so many of us), or they suffer a psychotic break with reality, a fragmenting of the personality. These failures, in their mild to severe forms, are part of the basis of social alienation.

In previous posts, I have written about the problem of social alienation, in its socioeconomic and psychological forms. I have also written about how the development of the personality is based on its relations with other people, and that there is a dialectical relationship between self and other.

I have compared the healthy and unhealthy relationships between self and other (or Other), as well as the traumatic, fragmentary state of alienation, to different points on a circular continuum that I symbolize with the ouroboros. The biting head and bitten tail of the serpent represent the meeting extreme opposites on the circular continuum, while the coiled length of the snake’s body represents all the intermediate points on the continuum, the moderate tints and shades of grey between black and white.

The unhealthy relationship between self and other, placed at the biting head of the serpent, is of the Oedipal, dyadic, one-on-one sort commonly seen between parent and child, who look lovingly into each other’s eyes as if no one else existed. Their looking and smiling at each other is like a mirror reflection, for both of them are narcissistic extensions of each other. This is Lacan‘s Imaginary, a world of literal and metaphoric mirrors, respectively the mirror stage and the dyadic parent/child mirroring.

The healthy self/other relationship is that of the individual with society in general, where the individual acknowledges, recognizes, and respects the individuality and autonomy of every other person he or she encounters. Here, the Other is not a mere extension of one’s narcissistic self. This healthier area is represented all along the coiled length of the body of the ouroboros; the healthier the relationships, the closer one comes to the head (without reaching the narcissistic biting teeth), while the more dysfunctional they are, the closer one comes to the bitten tail. The whole length of the serpent’s body, preferably towards the head, of course, is Lacan’s Symbolic register, the realm of language, culture, and society.

The most dysfunctional realm, the traumatic one, is at the bitten tail, where reality is too painful to bear, and one attempts to escape the pain through a psychotic break from reality and enter a world of fantasy. This is the undifferentiated world of Lacan’s notion of the Real, a state of being that cannot be processed because it cannot be symbolized or put into words; there are no differential relations in the Real, as there are in the Symbolic. The healthy escape from this traumatic state is through talk therapy, a putting of trauma into words, a moving from the bitten tail along the length of the serpent’s body towards its head.

Note how this traumatic realm is right next to the narcissistic, dyadic realm, where the serpent’s head bites its tail; this is where, originally, parent and child mirrored each other, a kind of Oedipal Garden of Eden, if you will, as I’ve described that mental state elsewhere. My point in describing all of this, metaphorically in terms of places on the ouroboros’ body, is that there is a point where happiness, pleasure, and ‘good health’ go too far. Sometimes, happiness is too happy, and fulfilled is too fulfilled. It’s Spenser‘s bower of bliss.

To be truly happy, one has to allow oneself to be at least a little unhappy. Happiness and sadness must be allowed to coexist, to be brought together, to flow into each other like the waves of the ocean; if we don’t allow this unity, this intermingling of opposites, they will come together in another way, typically one for which we aren’t prepared; for one way or the other, the serpent’s head is always biting its tail.

The excess of pleasure that one gets in the dyadic, narcissistic relationship comes from enjoying the self-other dialectic in the form that Heinz Kohut described as the grandiose self mirrored by the idealized parental imago, which is the original, Oedipal parent/child relationship, but whose idealized aspect can also be transferred onto a lover, a spouse, a therapist, or even a political demagogue. One wishes to see, mirrored in the other, an idealized version of oneself.

Needless to say, it isn’t healthy to use another person to reflect one’s grandiosity onto oneself, to use another as an extension of oneself, as narcissists do in order to defend themselves against the fragmentation that is so dangerously close to the narcissistic state. This perilous proximity is symbolized where the snake’s head (narcissistic, illusory paradise) bites its tail (Sartre‘s hell of other people, whose critical glances and remarks imprison one’s self-concept in a never-ending need for external validation and approval).

The ego is formed through illusory mirror reflections, literal ones or metaphorical ones as described above. One strives to be the ideal-I one sees in the reflection, an ideal that one loves and hates at the same time, precisely because it’s an unattainable ideal. Through all of this striving, though, one forgets that the ideal isn’t a real representation of oneself–it’s an illusion.

Similarly, the idealizing of the metaphorical mirror reflection–that of, say, the parent a child smiles at and who mirrors the smiles back at him or her–the idealization of this parent, or the objet petit a (as manifested in the lover, spouse, therapist, political demagogue, movie, sports, or pop star, or the pornographic model) who is a transference of the originally, Oedipally-desired parent, is also an illusion, a projection of the ego’s narcissism.

When both poles of Kohut’s conception of the child’s self–the grandiose self and idealized parental imago as described above, these two poles that say, “I am great, and I need you, O perfect Mom and Dad, to validate my greatness”–break down because the parents and general social environment fail to empathize with the child’s needs, he or she is at that dangerous area of fragmentation, symbolized by the bitten tail. The child either builds a narcissistic False Self to be protected from psychological disintegration, or the person falls apart emotionally.

Children need their parents’ love and empathy to help them grow and thrive in the social world, but they need to have their narcissistic sense of omnipotence let down and frustrated in tolerable amounts, too. This gradual, bearable letting down is symbolized by a sliding down from the Edenic head of the ouroboros to the upper middle of its coiled body. Traumatic, extreme disappointments will make the child slide in the other direction, from biting head to bitten tail.

A crucial part of this tolerable frustration of the wish to fulfill the dyadic, Oedipal parent/child relationship is what Lacan called the nom, or Non! du père, that is, the demand of the other parent for the child to end his or her fantasy of eternally having the Oedipally-desired parent all to him- or herself. This frustration, if dealt with well, brings the child out of the dyadic, narcissistic, one-on-one relationship and into the larger social world of interacting with many people, who aren’t seen as mere extensions of the self, but who are recognized as independent entities in their own right. This is a shift from the unhealthy to the healthy self-other dialectic.

My point in describing all of this, if my overbearingly academic choice of words isn’t giving you too much of a headache, Dear Reader, is that we must promote as much societal togetherness as we can. This may be a point so obvious as not to need making, but the purpose of the psychoanalytic concepts used in this post (click here for a fuller explanation of them) is to explain the psychological mechanisms that can shed light on how relationships go sour, how people revert to narcissism, become alienated, or lapse into psychosis instead of resolving their conflicts.

The narcissistic, dyadic relationship leads to envy and jealousy if a third party interferes with the duo; if not resolved properly (i.e., if the Name of the Father, in its literal or metaphorical senses, isn’t accepted by the child), we can have, at worst, the kind of scenario depicted in Psycho when Norman poisons his mother and her lover (a symbolic father). To avoid facing his guilt over the matricide, Norman has his internal object of his mother take over half, if not all, of his personality. He never escapes the one-on-one, parent/child relationship; she may be physically dead, but she lives on in his mind.

Part of the building up of a healthy personality in a child is encouraging his or her wish to seek out knowledge (Wilfred Bion‘s K) in the social context of interacting with people, or in making links (hence, Bion’s K, L, and H-links, standing for Knowledge, Love, and Hate–K being the most important link). Attacks on linking are a major problem to be resolved, for the resulting -K, a stubborn refusal to grow in knowledge through connecting with other people, when taken to extremes, leads to psychosis, as does Lacan’s notion of foreclosure, a refusal to let the non/Non! du père take one out of the dyadic relationship and into society.

Bion states that a thought is an emotional experience, something a baby doesn’t yet have the thinking apparatus (alpha function) for processing, so its mother must do its thinking for it, until it has built up its own thinking apparatus and can thus do its own thinking. Thoughts, understood as emotional experiences, start off as external stimuli (beta elements) that assail the consciousness; if they can’t be processed and used for thought (beta elements transformed, by alpha function, into alpha elements), they are ejected.

A baby ejects these overwhelming beta elements, and its mother receives and contains them for it; as a container of her baby’s agitated response (the contained) to the rejected beta elements, the mother soothes her baby through her capacity for reverie. Her comforting communication with the baby is a sending back of those elements, now alpha elements that are tolerable for the baby to receive.

This sending back and forth of beta and alpha elements between baby and mother is done through projective identification, which goes beyond projection‘s mere imagining of one’s own traits to be in another person, but involves actually pushing those traits and elements that are inside oneself onto the other, making him or her manifest them in reality.

Not only do babies and their primary caregivers engage in projective identification‘s trading back and forth of psychic energy, but so do patients (especially psychotic ones) and their therapists, respectively in the roles of baby and mother; for psychotics, as Bion observed, lose their grip on reality by rejecting beta elements to such an extreme extent, such an extreme level of -K, that they lose their ability to process external information properly. Their ejection of beta elements creates a beta screen that blocks off reality.

It’s this blocking off of the external, social world that is the source of mental ill health, willful ignorance (-K), and social alienation. A bringing together–union, integration–is the solution.

The blocking off is a characteristic of splitting into absolute good and bad objects, what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position (PS). The integrating tendency, and bringing together of the good and bad aspects of an object, is characteristic of the depressive position (D). One tends throughout life to waver back and forth between splitting and integration, or as Bion notated it, PS<->D.

Since everything is interconnected, whether we like it or not, this means that whatever goes on without goes on within, too, in one way or another. So if we split external objects and reject the bad parts, we split their internalized equivalents, too, and eject these split-off bad parts. Hence, the attacks on linking, -K, and ejection of beta elements, leading to the erection of a beta screen.

The social isolation resulting from this splitting results in the kind of psychosis seen in Pink in The Wall, the wall he builds around himself being essentially a giant beta screen.

The beta screen that refuses to let in any new experiences, knowledge, or social connections, and the fragmentation that results from the ejected, split-off parts of the self, results, in turn, in the creation of bizarre objects, which are hallucinatory projections of those split-off parts. What we look at or listen to seems to be watching and hearing us, too. This is another example of the psychotic break with reality that is caused by the breakdown of society.

A shifting back and forth between PS and D is inevitable, to an extent. The unity of everything will always be qualified by duality, hence dialectical monism, yin and yang. One must nonetheless strive to minimize PS, which is situated where the serpent’s head bites its tail, and try to maximize D, along the coiled middle of the body of the ouroboros.

As selfish as desire is, even it is oriented towards objects, or other people. WRD Fairbairn replaced Freud‘s drive theory with an object-seeking libido, or a desire to have relationships with other people, as over mere pleasure-seeking. Lacan said that desire is of the Other, a desire to be recognized by the Other, a desire for what (one thinks) the Other desires. So again, even in selfish desire, we exist in relation to others.

We never exist in isolation, as isolated as we may want to be from others. If we reject others, as Fairbairn‘s Anti-libidinal Ego reacts to the Rejecting Object (Fairbairn‘s replacement and approximation of Freud’s superego), we’ll still fantasize about imaginary, internalized people, as the Libidinal Ego does with the Exciting Object (approximating Freud’s id). We need to get out of this splitting mindset, and get back into the real world, engaging the Central Ego with the Ideal Object (approximating Freud’s ego), since being in real relationships with real people is the ideal of mental health.

We must allow the flow of energy in and out of ourselves, to grow in K, to contain beta elements and turn them into alphas. We must tear down the walls, or beta screens. We must replace narcissistic, dyadic, mirrored relationships with social ones. We must regard the ego as a drop in an infinite ocean of humanity, not a separate, walled-off entity.

The Ouroboros of Psychoanalysis

In a number of posts, I have used the ouroboros as a symbol for the dialectical relationship between opposites. The serpent’s biting head is one extreme, its bitten tail is the other extreme, and every point on the length of its body, coiled into a circle, represents a median point on a circular continuum between those dialectically related opposites. Therefore, any extreme can phase into its opposite, and vice versa.

I believe such a dialectical relationship between opposites can be demonstrated in the field of psychoanalytic theory. I will make such a demonstration below. I have already done so, to an extent, in my post, The Psychoanalysis of Narcissistic Parental Abuse. I’d like here to expand on that.

The extremes of frustration and hostility felt by a baby towards its non-breastfeeding ‘bad mother‘ during the paranoid-schizoid position (PS), which is at the biting head/bitten tail area of the ouroboros (i.e., the extreme opposites, side by side, indicate the black and white, all or nothing, thinking behind splitting), lead to a fear that the baby has annihilated its ‘good mother’ in unconscious phantasy, or has provoked a retaliation in the ‘bad mother.’

The seeming destruction of an external object results in a fear of the destruction of the internal equivalent of that object, for there is a dialectic of the self and other, too. There’s a bit of the other in the self, and vice versa.

For these reasons, the baby passes over the biting head/bitten tail of the ouroboros (as manifested in PS) and, passing over the head to the serpent’s upper body, the baby reaches the depressive position (D), wanting reparation with the mother (and the internalized object representing her) that it now realizes is both good and bad. The thesis (‘bad mother,’ that is, the ouroboros’ bitten tail) and negation (‘good mother,’ or the biting head) are sublated (the good and bad aspects are integrated into one complete human being, represented by the serpent’s coiled middle body).

The self-other dialectic, as seen, for example, in the Kleinian concepts of introjecting objects and projecting unwanted, split-off portions of the subject (via projective identification), was expanded on by Wilfred R. Bion in his description of the mother/infant relationship. He saw that the establishment of a baby’s thinking apparatus was made through this dyadic relationship, through a mother’s containing of her baby’s ejections of intolerable external stimuli.

For Bion, thoughts are emotional experiences coming from the outside world–“thoughts without a thinker.” These stimuli (beta elements) assail the baby, who doesn’t yet know how to cope with them. It needs its mother to do its thinking for it; so when it ejects the intolerable beta elements, she receives and contains them, and through using the alpha function the baby hasn’t yet learned how to use, she converts the agitating beta elements into tolerable alpha elements, and sends these latter elements back to the baby.

[Click here for a more thorough explanation of psychoanalytic concepts.]

This process (maternal reverie) of a mother helping her baby to process unacceptable external stimuli, this trading back and forth of energy through projective and introjective identification, is how an infant gradually develops an ability to do the mental processing by itself. In other words, this is how an infant learns how to think.

The use of alpha function to convert beta elements into alpha elements is something we do all the time, because our mothers helped us acquire this skill when we were infants. The agitating beta elements, hitting us from the outside world, are the emotional experiences of being at the ouroboros’ bitten tail. When we process the feelings, we slide along the coiled length of the serpent’s body, using alpha function, until we reach the biting head, when the experiences have been fully assimilated and have become alpha elements.

Babies cannot do this yet, so their mothers do the processing for them, then send the fully-converted elements back to their babies. The babies are thus able to go from bitten tail straight over to biting head, without any trauma.

If, however, a mother doesn’t do this containing properly for her baby, or if other agitations occurring later in life, for some reason, cannot be processed and converted into alpha elements by the affected person, he or she may be stuck in the ‘bitten tail’ area of the ouroboros for an unacceptably long period of time, and the agitation may turn into a nameless dread.

This nameless dread may, because of the lengthy experience of PS, result in the affected person splitting off large chunks of his or her bad internal objects, projecting them outward and creating hallucinatory bizarre objects. In other words, the affected person has a psychotic break with reality.

For there to be mental health, PS must shift over to D. The process of developing alpha function for oneself, that sliding along the length of the serpent’s coiled body, from its tail to its head, is done through the K-link, a growing of knowledge through object relationships, the self-other dialectic of inter-personal communication.

So, mental growth and learning comes from tolerating and processing unpleasant emotional experiences, and such growth is best done in an exchange of feelings between people. This exchange of feelings is done through empathic mirroring. This mirroring is originally between a mother (or primary caregiver, male or female) and her infant.

When I speak of the self-other dialectic, I refer to the close bond between two people, the blurred boundary between them, since projections and introjections of psychic energy are passing back and forth between them. Since a young child is going through primary narcissism, and one hopes he or she will soon mature past ego-libido into object-libido, empathic mirroring between the child and his or her parents, at least one of whose internalized objects will be an idealized parental imago, is vital for the child’s health.

These mirrored relationships and idealized parental imagoes are what Heinz Kohut called self-objects, or internalized relationships a child has with his or her primary caregivers that help the child to build stable and healthy psychological structure. If the child’s narcissism isn’t dealt with tactfully by his or her parents, if the child’s fantasied omnipotence isn’t let down in small, tolerable amounts, the lack of needed empathy will result in a split sense of narcissism, of repressed and disavowed narcissism vs. a feeling of low self-worth, a placing at the biting head/bitten tail of the ouroboros.

In other words, healthy people have a proper mix of pride and humility, somewhere in the middle of the serpent’s body, between the extremes. Pathological narcissists, on the other hand, have wild grandiosity as a mask to hide self-hate, where the head bites the tail.

So, during these early years, a child uses his or her parents as both an ideal and a mirror for him- or herself. Parents are seen, to at least some extent (the depressive position, D, notwithstanding), as extensions of the child’s self.

And here is where the Oedipus complex fits in.

The child’s relationship with his or her idealized parent–be this the opposite-sex parent of the classical Freudian version, or the same-sex parent of the negative Oedipus complex–is a narcissistic one, a dyadic, one-on-one mirroring that coincides more or less with such things as the establishment of an illusory ego in the mirror stage. The idealized parent corresponds to the ideal-I in the specular image.

The clumsy child sees him- or herself in the idealized specular or parental image looking back…but that other person isn’t really the child. He or she is alienated from the image, from him- or herself, from the idealized parent looking back. The biting head of the ouroboros is connected…united…with the bitten tail, but the two are opposite ends.

The tip of the serpent’s tail can be seen as symbolically phallic, as the ouroboros’ mouth can be seen as yonic. The union of the two can thus be seen as symbolizing the unconscious phantasy of incestuous union between parent and child. The union needn’t be literally lustful; it can simply represent the wish to have that one parent all to oneself…not shared with siblings, or, God forbid!…the other parent. Hence, this is a narcissistic love.

Before the other parent comes along and breaks up this dyadic, mutually mirroring relationship, the child feels him- or herself to be in an Oedipal paradise of jouissance, that transgressive excess of pleasure that leads to pain (going past the ouroboros’ biting head to its bitten tail), though the receiver of these paradoxical sensations still wants them.

I like to allegorize this Oedipal state with the myth of the Garden of Eden. In this scenario, Adam represents the child, Eve is the mother rather than the wife (for she is “the mother of all living,” Genesis 3:20), the serpent is the ouroboros of the growth of Bion’s K, and Yahweh Elohim is the father. (I touched on this allegorizing in the psychoanalytical aspect of my analysis of mother!)

Please note that I’m assigning these roles in a metonymic sense: the child (Adam) could be male or female; the mother (Eve) could be either parent, as long as he or she is the Oedipally desired one; and the father (God) could be either sex, as long as he or she is the one breaking up the Oedipal union.

The rib coming out of sleeping Adam, which is then shaped into Eve, represents how the child sees the parent as an extension of him- or herself. No sense of the difference between what Winnicott called me and not-me has yet been made by the child. Adam wakes, sees her, and says, “bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” (Genesis 2:23)

Bion saw (pages 45-49), in the Oedipus myth, the importance of the growth of knowledge (K). Oedipus would know the truth even if it destroyed him, while Tiresias, who already knew, warned Oedipus not to seek it out. Knowledge is desired, but having it can be painful.

Similarly, Yahweh Elohim warns Adam and Eve not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge: this is the Name of the Father (le nom, or le Non! du père), the nom suggesting the nomos, or law, and the Non! being the prohibition against enjoying the (often understood to be carnal) knowledge that the forbidden fruit offers.

Nevertheless, the serpent, subtler in K than all the other animals, tempts Eve to eat of the fruit. Her offering of it to Adam, and eating it with him, represents the container/contained relationship between mother and child, the building up of a thinking apparatus for the infant, its ability to use alpha function, its growth in K.

Bion used a feminine symbol for the container, suggesting a yoni, and a masculine symbol for the contained, a phallus; so container/contained symbolically suggests copulation. I’ve already associated the yoni with the ouroboros’ mouth, and the phallus with its tail. This is how the subtle serpent in the Garden represents the ouroboros’ growth in K.

In enjoying the taste of the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:6), Adam and Eve are experiencing the transgressive pleasure of jouissance. The child is enjoying the Oedipally-desired parent’s love and attention, but this one-on-one relationship can last only so long. Even the child can feel surfeited by the pleasure, and want to escape it. No wonder Lacan called the excess “plus-de-jouir,” a kind of surplus-value of pleasure that is beyond what is acceptable.

Remember, the yonic serpent’s mouth has teeth. Its union with the phallic tail leads to the threat of castration. The expulsion from the Garden of Eden is the dissolution of the Oedipus complex. The child has gone from the excess of pleasure (jouissance) of the ouroboros’ head to the extreme of pain in the bitten tail.

The dyadic, mirrored relationship of the Imaginary must be transcended to allow entry into the social world of the Symbolic. The other (who was Mother) must now be the Other of all people, who cannot be narcissistic extensions of the self; they must be understood as independent subjects in their own right. The pain of paradise lost is the endless search for someone to satisfy the objet petit a, a replacement for Mother.

The objects that are found to satisfy the objet petit a can do so only temporarily, for there is never a complete fulfillment of desire. Desire stretches beyond need; it always wants more…there is never enough. Desire is also the desire of the Other: one wants what others are seen to want; so again, we see a manifestation of the dialectic of the self vs. the Other.

One begins with manque, the lack that is the cause of desire, symbolized by castration at the bitten tail of the ouroboros; one seeks out an object to satisfy the desire, a movement from the tail along the coiled middle of the serpent’s body; and when one finds a temporary satisfaction, one reaches the head…but the satisfaction results in a moving past the biting head back to the bitten tail of lack, and the cycle must begin again. It thus goes round and round, ad infinitum.

The realm of communication parallels the cycles of desire in how each word in a signifying chain only temporarily holds meaning, the signified. No one word can decisively contain a meaning, since a word can house many meanings, whichever meaning it may house, at a given moment, depending on the context, or on whatever words are positioned before and after it in the signifying chain.

The flow of meaning can be compared to a river whose current moves under a continuous plane of broken ice, this ice being all of the signifiers. One follows the current, passing by each crack in the ice which represents the space between words. Meaning is fully grasped only if one continually reads or hears word after word, never stopping. The ultimately unfulfillable search for absolute, complete meaning is thus like the never-ending quest to satisfy desire.

My ouroboros metaphor can also demonstrate this idea. One seeks meaning by beginning to read, or to hear a speaker utter, the first word (the bitten tail). One reads/hears that word, grasping its meaning (the biting head). Then one leaves that word to come to the next (the coiled length of the serpent’s body, or the Aufhebung of the previous thesis and negation).

Lacan literally used the word Aufhebung in describing the experience of each signifier. I prefer to translate the German noun as “sublation,” but he translated it as “cancellation.” Such is the transitory nature of how meaning is held in a word: it’s here one moment, gone the next, as we move on to the next word in line.

Understanding grows in this cyclical manner, through communication in society’s shared signifiers, culture, and customs. It’s the growth in K, but here it’s in the Symbolic Order rather than the dyadic, mirrored mother/infant relationship of the Imaginary.

K grows through pain, originally in the form of receiving beta elements that a baby needs its mother to help it cope with, helping the baby develop the ability to think. The child recognizes him- or herself as a distinct ego in the mirror reflection, and le nom/Non! du père breaks him or her away from Mother and introduces him or her to developing the K-link through a shared language. K continues to grow through pain, in the seeker of an object to replace Mother (objet petit a) finding people to communicate and bond with. Temporary satisfaction, returned manque, and resumed seeking.

A similarly cyclical process happens with repression, which doesn’t involve burying anxiety-provoking feelings in the unconscious forever, because those emotional experiences bounce back into consciousness, only in a new form, safely unrecognizable to the person agitated by those feelings. Such anxiety-provoking feelings are thus new beta elements being ejected.

There’s the anxiety-provoking feeling (the bitten tail), the repression of that feeling (the biting head), and the transformation and resurfacing of that feeling in a manner unnoticed by the person feeling it (the movement along the length of the serpent’s coiled body).

The above are but some of the many ways that the dialectical nature of reality, as symbolized by the ouroboros, can be manifested in psychoanalytical concepts. It’s further proof of the unity in duality, and of the dynamic, wave-like swaying between only seemingly contradictory phenomena.

This oneness that is experienced behind the veil of language’s differential relations, known only when one abandons memory, desire, and understanding, is Bion’s O, and Lacan’s Real Order. It can be traumatic, but it can also lead to a kind of mystical state. It’s the marriage of heaven and hell, the giving up of the fraudulent ego of the Imaginary, and the embracing of intuition that transcends the ever-elusive meaning behind the signifiers of the Symbolic.

Properly accepted, this terrifying Moby-Dick in a transcendent, mystical infinite ocean of Brahman can put an end to the quest to satisfy desire, which only leads to more suffering. It’s like the bodhisattva who, having attained nirvana (the ouroboros’ tail), returns to samsara (the biting head) to help sufferers, for he has sublated the two (the middle of the serpent’s body).

I make the comparisons to Buddhism and mysticism because psychoanalytic technique is used to help us better understand the mind, in the hopes of healing various forms of mental illness and emotional pain. Lacan spoke of unfulfillable desire, and Buddhism and mysticism aim at ending desire and the suffering it causes.

I’m no Buddhist or mystic, and I’m certainly no expert in psychological matters of any kind. But I like to write about such matters, relating them to dialectics, in the hopes that I can make some kind of contribution, however small and amateurish, to an understanding of ourselves, our desires, our suffering, and how to end the latter two. Perhaps someone better educated than I am on such matters can find a use in what I’ve written here, and apply it in a way far better than the one I’ve so cryptically expressed.

Glossary of Psychoanalytic Terms

Introductory Remarks

Whenever I write up something here and I make reference to psychoanalytic terminology, I find myself hitting a wall, so to speak. Many of these concepts are obscure and not well-known to the public, and so I have to explain what they mean…every time I use them, and that meticulous repetition can be tedious.

To explain the terms, I typically add links to various online sources: Wikipedia, Encyclopedia.com–the Free Encyclopedia, etc. The problem with these sources is, what is said in the articles for each psychoanalytic concept is so convoluted, so verbose, and in so roundabout a way, that I feel my readers must be all the more frustrated…as am I.

So I’ve decided, in this blog post, to explain all those concepts myself, in as accessible and down-to-earth a language as I can make it. In future posts, whenever I find myself using a lot of these terms, I’ll add a link to this post, so my readers can have quick and easy explanations of these often abstruse ideas.

When it comes to classical Freudian psychoanalysis, my readers can go here for all the basic concepts, like free association, dream interpretation, parapraxis, the stages of psychosexual development, the id, ego, and superego, the life and death drives, etc. It’s all explained there.

There is much, however, that came after Freud, and it isn’t all that well known to the general public; so I’ll have to go over each concept, one by one, here. I hope this helps.

Glossary

Alpha elements are thoughts, emotional experiences, feelings, etc., that have been processed and converted from beta elements (see below). Alpha elements exist in a form acceptable to the mind, unlike beta elements, and can be used in dreams, waking thoughts, etc. Wilfred Bion devised these terms (see entry below).

Alpha function is what is used to convert unacceptable and unpleasant beta elements into alpha elements. Since a baby doesn’t yet have the developed mental apparatus for doing this converting and processing of agitating external stimuli (beta elements), its mother, usually and traditionally, will do this converting for it until the child can do the alpha function for itself. Again, this concept comes from Wilfred Bion.

Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object–Originally called the “internal saboteur,” this part of WRD Fairbairn’s endopsychic structure corresponds vaguely with Freud’s harsh, judgemental superego. Put in other terms, it can be called the “anti-wanting-I” (as Lavinia Gomez calls it, p. 63), and it refers to that part of the personality that rejects people (this subsidiary ego is connected with what Fairbairn called the Rejecting Object); it is angry, and it doesn’t want relationships. It’s “anti-libidinal,” because for Fairbairn, libido isn’t about seeking pleasure simply to satisfy drives and neutralize psychological tension, as it was for Freud; instead, Fairbairnian libido is about seeking relationships with other people (objects–see below), in friendship and love.

Attacks on linking occur when the normal building up of knowledge through object relations (i.e., links with other people) is stifled by an unwillingness to link, to learn. Wilfred Bion was concerned with the development of knowledge (what he called the K link, see below) through a sharing and trading, back and forth, of emotional experiences in the form of projective identification (see below), especially between mother and baby.

Through this process of sharing feelings, external stimuli (beta elements–see below) are transformed by alpha function into alpha elements (see above), which can now be used as thoughts to learn by and remember. Originally, a mother does this sharing with her baby, to help it build up a thinking apparatus so it later can do the thought processing for itself.

However, sometimes traumatic experiences, personal biases, prejudices, etc., can close one’s mind to new experiences, and this impedes the ability to do linking, hence “attacks on linking.” Taken to an extreme, these attacks on linking, through -K (a refusal to know–see below) can lead to psychosis, as Bion observed.

Beta elements are external stimuli that haven’t yet been processed into thoughts, or alpha elements (see above). If they are too upsetting to the receiver, as they pretty much always are for a baby, they are ejected and passed on psychically to other people, if possible, through projective identification (see below).

This is why the mother is so crucial to a baby, who isn’t yet capable of processing these agitating stimulations; she becomes a container (see below) for the baby’s beta elements, and for all the baby’s anxieties, fears, and frustration that stem from its inability to process the beta elements. She does alpha function (see above) for the baby through a process called maternal reverie (see below), transforming the upsetting emotional experiences into acceptable ones (alpha elements), and returns them to the baby, soothing and pacifying it.

I imagine beta elements with the metaphor of insects: mosquitoes, ants, horseflies, cockroaches, etc., that come at us, stinging or biting us, or crawling up and down our skin, irritating us. When either our mother uses alpha function for us as babies, or when we learn to do it for ourselves, the ‘insects’ vanish–they have become alpha elements, thoughts we can now deal with and use for learning and growing.

A beta screen is built up when there are excesses of unprocessed beta elements that have been ejected because the receiver of them finds them too troubling or traumatizing to deal with. Perhaps one cannot rid oneself of them by giving them to other people through projective identification (see below). In any case, too much of a beta screen can lead to psychosis, and to bizarre objects (see below), which are hallucinatory projections of one’s inner psychotic state.

Wilfred R. Bion was a British psychoanalyst born in India. Having dealt with psychotics for many years of his career, and having been a member of the object relations school (he was a follower specifically of Melanie Klein, whose notion of projective identification he developed considerably), Bion was concerned with the development of knowledge (K, see below) as conceived as a link between the subject (oneself) and objects (other people, or internalized representations of them in the subject’s mind–see below).

He developed a theory of thinking that originates with what he called “thoughts without a thinker,” and which grows over time, through projective identification (see below) with one’s mother until one can process one’s own thoughts through alpha function (see above) and thus be one’s own thinker of them, unlike a baby…or a psychotic, for that matter.

The bipolar self is a concept devised by Heinz Kohut (see below) for explaining how people can have a healthy, stable sense of self. He discussed it in his book, The Restoration of the Self. The two poles giving this stability are the idealized parental imago (see below) and the grandiose self (see below). If one pole is compromised, a person will rely heavily on the other pole. If both poles are compromised, though, one may develop pathological levels of narcissism as a defence against fragmentation (see below).

Bizarre Objects are what Bion called hallucinatory projections of fragments of a psychotic’s personality. When beta elements (see above) aren’t being processed and converted into alpha elements (see above) useful for thought, an accumulation of them creates a beta screen (see above), blocking out new experience and inhibiting the growth of knowledge (K-see below).

The psychotic’s personality fragments and splits off hated parts of himself, then he attempts to project those pieces outward. In his hallucinatory state, he begins to imagine that those split-off parts of himself have engulfed the objects surrounding him, for example, a phonograph.

As Bion describes it with a few examples here (page 48), if the split-off projection is preoccupied with seeing, the psychotic thinks the phonograph is watching him; if the projected fragment is preoccupied with hearing, the phonograph seems to be listening to him as much as he hears its recorded music. The phonograph is a bizarre object.

The central ego, linked to the ideal object, is one of the three subject/object configurations of WRD Fairbairn’s endopsychic structure. This configuration corresponds roughly to Freud’s notion of the ego.

In a healthy person, the central ego is predominant, because the ideal object represents real people in the external world with whom we should have relationships, as opposed to the fantasied relations that the two split-off, subsidiary egos and their corresponding objects (libidinal ego/exciting object–see below, and anti-libidinal ego/rejecting object–see above) have. As with Freud’s ego, Fairbairn’s central ego is connected with reality.

For Fairbairn, libidinal need is object-need (i.e., the need to form relationships with other people, as opposed to the superficial, empty pleasure-seeking found in Freud’s id and represented in Fairbairn’s libidinal ego/exciting object), so the “ideal object” is a real person to be friends with or to fall in love with.

The capacity for concern is DW Winnicott’s term for when an infant comes to an ambivalent understanding of its parents’ combined goodness and badness. It learns that there is a difference between “me” (the infant) and “not-me” (its mother), who has a life and needs of her own; so it must learn to be responsible. The term “capacity for concern” is Winnicott’s rough equivalent to Melanie Klein’s notion of the depressive position (see below), when a child repents of his or her hostile feelings towards the bad mother/father and seeks reparation (see below) with his or her parents.

A contact barrier is formed between the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind as a result of healthy alpha function (see above). Alpha elements (see above), or processed thoughts made from external stimuli (beta elements–see above), can cross the contact barrier and be used in dreams or in waking thoughts.

When alpha function is impaired, and beta elements are ejected rather than processed for thought, instead of constructing a contact barrier, what ends up being constructed is a beta screen (see above), which–taken to extremes–can lead to psychosis and the projection to bizarre objects (see above). This is another of Wilfred Bion’s concepts.

Container/contained, represented by the feminine Venus symbol and the masculine Mars symbol respectively (therefore making them yonic and phallic symbols), is Bion’s extension of Melanie Klein’s concept of projective identification (see below). It is applied mainly to either the relationship between the mother (container) and infant’s agitation (contained), or to that of the therapist (container) and the patient (contained).

This relationship is how the K link (see below) develops. A baby is assailed with beta elements (see above), and its mother must use alpha function (see above) to process the beta elements and convert them into thoughts, or into an emotional experience the baby can tolerate (alpha elements–see above), because the baby hasn’t yet developed the thinking apparatus needed to deal with agitating external stimuli. A baby therefore needs its mother to do its thinking for it.

Hence, the mother is a container of the baby’s projected agitation, fears, anxieties, anger, frustration, etc. (the contained). Through maternal reverie (see below), the mother soothes her baby and transforms its irritation into something it will find emotionally acceptable. The baby projects its stressful feelings, which result from external excitations (beta elements) it can’t understand or deal with; Mother introjects and contains those feelings, then transforms them into feelings the baby can handle; and finally, she sends these tolerable versions of the feelings back to the baby.

The depressive position is one of Melanie Klein’s concepts. It’s a mental state that comes into being after the splitting (see below) into absolute good and absolute bad of the paranoid-schizoid position (see below). During the first few months of life, a baby is content when the mother’s breast presents itself for feeding. This part-object is called the “good breast”; but when the breast doesn’t present itself to the baby when it wishes to feed, it’s the “bad breast.”

In its frustration over the unavailability of the “bad breast,” the baby engages in sadistic phantasy (see below), vengefully wanting to bite, devour, and destroy the breast. The baby doesn’t yet understand that the available, satisfying “good breast” and the unavailable, frustrating “bad breast” are both part of the same, good and bad mother. These breasts are perceived as separate, black-and-white opposite, part-objects. This splitting is the “schizoid” part of the paranoid-schizoid position.

Later, after much hate has been given by the baby to the “bad breast,” it begins to realize that the mother is one whole object, with both good and bad breasts–or more accurately, with both good and bad aspects in the same person. The baby now feels guilt and remorse for its former hate, and it fears retaliation from the “bad mother” (this being the “paranoid” part of the paranoid-schizoid position), but more importantly, it fears losing the “good mother,” who is now seen as connected with the bad. The baby now enters the depressive position, feels ambivalence towards good and bad Mother, and seeks reparation (see below) with her. Integration of the good and bad aspects of Mother, Father, or anyone, leads to mental health.

Envy, in the Kleinian sense, is something a baby feels towards its mother. It wishes, through unconscious phantasy (see below), to spoil all goodness within her. Wilfred Bion elaborated on Kleinian envy when he discussed why -K (see below), a stubborn refusal to grow in knowledge, should exist (Bion, page 96), as summarized below.

The infant splits off and projects fear into the breast with envy and hate. The breast in K would contain and soothe the baby’s fears through maternal reverie (see below); but in -K, the breast seems enviously to remove what’s good and valuable, and the baby’s fear grows into a nameless dread, a fear of annihilation (see below).

WRD Fairbairn was a Scottish psychoanalyst and a contributor to the object relations school. He broke away from Freud in many ways, especially with respect to drive theory as a basis for libido. For Fairbairn, people are primarily driven by an urge to have relationships with other people, so mere pleasure-seeking represents a breakdown of object-seeking libido (e.g., people turning to drugs, drinking, porn, and promiscuity, out of a failure to have real human relationships–see Fairbairn, pages 139-140).

Fairbairn accordingly replaced Freud’s id, ego, and superego with, respectively, the libidinal ego/exciting object (see below), the central ego/ideal object (see above), and the anti-libidinal ego/rejecting object (see above). Note how each of the three egos is connected with an object, since for Fairbairn, the primary goal of the subject, or self, is to link with objects (other people–see below). Failure to do so leads to either the pleasure-seeking discussed above, or to a rejecting, misanthropic attitude, or to some combination of the two.

Foreclosure, or forclusion in the original French, is Jacques Lacan’s word for the subject’s refusal to leave the dyadic, one-on-one Oedipal relationship of the Imaginary (see below) in order to enter the broader world of society’s shared signifiers, language, culture, customs, and laws as embodied in the Symbolic Order (see below). Lacan claimed that staying in this antisocial, narcissistic state can lead to psychosis.

Thus, forclusion is comparable to Bion’s notions of accumulated beta elements and the beta screen (see above), as well as -K (see below) leading to the projection of fragments of the self into bizarre objects (see above).

Fragmentation is a psychological falling-apart of the personality, a lapsing into a psychotic break with reality as a result of extreme, unprocessed trauma. Hated external stimuli (beta elements–see above) are ejected from the self; rejected parts of the self are split off and projected outwards, leaving a reduced, impoverished self that can no longer distinguish fantasy from reality.

Heinz Kohut was especially concerned with this problem and its relationship with narcissism, as is Otto Kernberg, though their approaches to the problem differed in a number of ways. Both recognized that pathological levels of narcissism are often a defence against fragmentation, generally in the form of constructing a false self, a mask to hide the true self (see below).

Good and bad breasts and/or parents are the result of splitting (see below) when an infant experiences the paranoid-schizoid position (PS–see below). A baby, during the first few months of its life, understands its mother to be only a part-object, the breast, rather than a complete person. When the baby wants milk and the breast appears, this is the “good breast.” When it doesn’t appear, it’s the “bad breast,” against which the baby feels anger, frustration, and vengeful sadism–biting the nipple, etc.

Later, when the baby realizes its mother is a whole person, having both available and unavailable breasts, it can feel ambivalence towards her coexisting good and bad aspects. It is now in the depressive position (D–see above), but it may engage in splitting again and return to PS at any time if she, or its father, behaves in frustrating or withholding ways; for one can oscillate between PS and D throughout one’s life.

A good enough mother (or father), in DW Winnicott’s use of the expression, is as good as a parent needs to be in order to provide small, tolerable levels of frustration to a child to help it learn how to adapt to the external world and do reality testing.

The grandiose self is one of the narcissistic aspects of what Heinz Kohut called the bipolar self (see above), the other pole being the idealized parental imago (see below). Both poles are necessary to form psychological stability.

A child’s grandiose self would say, “I am great, and I need you to validate that greatness for me; I am perfect, and I need you to confirm it,” or to mirror the grandiosity. When such validation is rarely or never given from parents who fail to be empathic, the child will try to compensate by over-relying on parental idealization for his needed stability. If the idealizing pole (“You, Mom and Dad, are my ideal mirrors of greatness! You are perfect, and I am a part of you!”) also fails, one may resort to pathological levels of narcissism to prevent a psychological falling-apart (see fragmentation, above).

A holding environment is what DW Winnicott recommended as a healthy environment in which a baby can grow and thrive with its mother. The idea is to create a facilitating environment that is attuned to one’s maturational needs. The idea is extrapolated from the mother/infant relationship to that of the therapist and patient. The emphasis is on empathy, imagination, and love between caregiver and infant. It can be compared, in some ways, to Bion’s theory of container/contained (see above) in both parent/infant and therapist/patient relationships.

A good enough mother (see above) facilitates the child’s transition to autonomy through the holding environment, allowing the baby to be completely unconscious of its need for a separate individual. Failure to provide holding can result in the child’s developing of a false self; successful holding results in the child’s cultivation of a true self (see below).

The idealized parental imago is Heinz Kohut’s term for one of the two narcissistic configurations of the bipolar self (see above). This pole is about idealizing one’s mother or father as a self-object (see below), and using this parent as an internalized object (see below) within the mind to give a child psychological stability. This pole would say, “You, Mom and/or Dad, are my heroes, my role models! Please, never fail me or disappoint me in embodying the perfection I see in you!” The other narcissistic configuration is the grandiose self (see above).

The idealizing transference is what Kohut used in therapy to repair a narcissistic patient’s damaged idealized parental imago (see above). The therapist (e.g., Kohut) would take on the role of the parent in this transference (see below).

Identification is the taking on of the character traits of someone else in order to emulate him or her. Typically, the term is used to refer to a child adopting his or her same-sex parent’s personality traits as part of the dissolution of the Oedipus complex. For example, a boy fearing punishment from his father (i.e., castration anxiety), because of his wish to take his mother from his rival father, results in him identifying with his father and renouncing his Oedipal desires.

The Imaginary is one of three orders that Jacques Lacan devised to describe differing mental states. The Imaginary is an early state associated with a child’s dyadic, Oedipal relationship with Mother, whose face (metaphorically, a mirror) reflects the child’s narcissism (i.e., his grandiose self–see above) back to him.

The Imaginary also involves a literal mirror reflection, in how a child establishes his ego through seeing and recognizing his reflection for the first time in the mirror stage (see below). Here, one is preoccupied with images: that of oneself in the specular image, and that of the Oedipally desired mother, who looks lovingly back at one, just like a mirror reflection.

Internalization and introjection are terms referring to the taking into the mind of external stimuli or objects, and incorporating them in one’s personality. The external elements, especially when they are one’s conception of other people (objects–see below), thus become internal objects, which live in one’s mind like ghosts haunting a house, and thus influence how one sees the world.

Jouissance, or “enjoyment” in the original French, is a term Jacques Lacan used to describe a transgressive overindulgence in pleasure, a desire that ultimately can never be fully satisfied, since one always wants a little more than can be given. Jouissance can be felt in a child’s enjoyment of his mutually reflective relationship with his Oedipally desired mother; but when Father forbids this dyadic relationship to continue as such, the boy must find replacements for her, which are never fully enough to sate his objet petit a (see below).

In jouissance, pleasure and pain are often intermingled, given the extremes to which one may go to experience something ‘beyond the pleasure principle.’ Indeed, the surfeit of pleasure felt in jouissance was something that Lacan compared to Marx’s concept of surplus value, for this is an excess of pleasure leading to pain, or what I would call passing from the biting head of the ouroboros to its dialectical opposite, the bitten tail. As the Buddhists have always understood, the fire of desire causes the fire of pain.

K/H/L links are part of Wilfred Bion’s terminology for how a subject relates to objects (see below); they refer, respectively, to knowledge, hate, and love, with knowledge being by far the most important, since Bion as a therapist was mainly concerned with how knowledge is accumulated as a means of ensuring mental health.

As Bion himself stated: “I prefer three factors I regard as intrinsic to the link between objects considered to be in relationship with each other. An emotional experience cannot be conceived of in isolation from a relationship. The basic relationships that I postulate are (1) X loves Y; (2) X hates Y; and (3) X knows Y. These links will be expressed by the signs L, H and K.” (Bion, pages 42-43)

In this formulation, X is the subject, or self, and Y is the object, typically another person. What this means is that in “x K y,” where x represents the infant and y the mother, the emotional experience between them results in the infant growing in knowledge, starting with a healthy container/contained relationship (see above) between the two, through mutual love between them (x K y, because x L y).

If the mother/infant relationship is stifled or strained, perhaps because of, or resulting in, x H y, the consequence is -K, or a rejection of knowledge, a refusal to grow and learn. For Bion, knowledge is not something one has, but is rather something one gradually accumulates through linking with others. “As I propose to use it it does not convey a sense of finality, that is to say, a meaning that x is in possession of a piece of knowledge called y but rather that x is in the state of getting to know y and y is in a state of getting to be known by x.” (Bion, page 47)

Furthermore, -L is not H: it is a lack of love. -H is not L, or liking: it’s a lack of hate (Bion, page 52). -K, a denial of knowledge and an aptitude for misunderstanding, can lead to psychosis if taken to extremes, but in other circumstances can be superior to K. Sometimes not knowing, in the form of exchanging emotional experiences through projective identification (see below) is better, if that emotional exchange is too painful to bear, as in the case of abusive relationships.

At other times, the emotional exchange between people is beneficial, even crucial, for growing in knowledge. To illustrate the point with an example from my personal life, I did most of my learning of music in relative social isolation: I would have learned and grown as a musician much better if I’d sung and played guitar in more bands.

Melanie Klein was an Austrian-British psychoanalyst and one of the founders of object relations theory. She did pioneering work with children, giving them toys and observing their playing to determine the nature of their psychological state. There was, however, controversy between her and Anna Freud over how to treat children.

Klein developed the theory behind splitting (see below) and integration, especially as observed in children, and she devised such concepts as the paranoid-schizoid position (see below), the depressive position (see above), and the good and bad breast (see above). Her work had a great influence on such later psychoanalysts as DW Winnicott and Wilfred Bion (see entries).

Heinz Kohut was an Austrian-American psychoanalyst; he conceived self psychology. His focus was on treating narcissistic patients, who, until his and Otto Kernberg‘s work with them, had been considered largely untreatable; there has, however, been controversy between him and Kernberg over how to treat narcissistic patients.

In Analysis of the Self, Kohut wrote about how to treat narcissistic patients, which involves transferences of the grandiose self (see above) and the idealized parental imago (see above). In The Restoration of the Self, Kohut wrote about what he called the bipolar self (see above). Parents, as a child’s self-objects (see below), are supposed to help the child achieve a healthy sense of self by nurturing the grandiose self through empathic mirroring, and by being role models for him or her (idealization).

If the parents, through a lack of empathy, fail as self-objects for the child, he or she is in danger of fragmentation (see above) or of developing pathological levels of narcissism. To develop healthy, restrained narcissism, a child must be let down in tolerable amounts (optimal frustration), little by little, so that he or she gradually learns that the world doesn’t revolve around him or her.

Jacques Lacan was a French psychoanalyst, one of the most influential since Freud. He is known for having incorporated into psychoanalytic theory such diverse influences as poststructuralism, Hegelian philosophy, the anthropological work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Ferdinand de Saussure‘s work in semiotics. Critics have thus accused Lacan of having an impenetrable, unreadable writing style, and of reducing almost everything to language.

His work constituted a “return to Freud,” through his emphasis on such things as the talking cure (“The unconscious is structured like a language.”), and through his metaphorical reinterpretation of the Oedipus complex. He conceived of three orders, the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real (see entries), linking them together in a Borromean Knot.

The libidinal ego, connected to the exciting object, is one of the three configurations of WRD Fairbairn’s endo-psychic structure. It corresponds roughly with Freud’s id. It is a subsidiary ego, along with the anti-libidinal ego/rejecting object configuration (see above), as against the central ego/ideal object (see above).

Because of splitting (see below) as a result of faulty object relationships, the libidinal ego seeks out connection through pleasure-seeking; thus, this split-off, subsidiary ego links with an exciting object (celebrities to idolize, porn, prostitutes, etc.) instead of seeking out relationships with people in the real world.

The manic defence has been discussed by such object relations theorists as Melanie Klein and DW Winnicott (see entries). It is a defence against feelings of guilt, sadness, and depression through pleasure-seeking and indulgence in feelings of excitement and elation (or mania).

Though it isn’t strictly a part of bipolar disorder (which used to be called manic depression), the manic defence can be seen as related to it, in the sense that one swings to, and tries to stay with, the manic pole in order to avoid suffering the depressive pole.

Manque, French for “lack” or a “want” of something, is a Lacanian term to describe the feeling of not having a desired thing, such as the feeling of a lack of existence. It can also be related to Lacan’s metaphorical interpretation of penis envy, in the sense of lacking the phallus as a signifier.

The mirror stage is what Jacques Lacan called the first time a small child sees and recognizes his or her reflection in a mirror. This milestone in a child’s development, helping him or her to establish a sense of ego, initiates him or her into the Imaginary Order (see above).

One sees oneself in the mirror, but one is not the specular image. The child sees a whole, unified image in the reflection, but he or she feels him- or herself, all awkward and clumsy, to have a fragmented body. Hence, there’s a sense of alienation from oneself, an estrangement between the ideal-I of the specular image (an ideal one strives to approximate as close as one can, throughout life) and the flawed, real person looking at the mirror reflection.

Maternal reverie is the capacity a mother has to introject her baby’s anxieties, fears, and frustrations (the baby’s contained), and to process them while soothing her baby, or to be a container for those feelings (see above). After processing the baby’s agitation, she transforms those negative feelings into ones the baby can tolerate, and sends them back to it. This process of being a thinker for her baby, done through the passing back and forth of emotional experiences with projective identification (see below), is how a baby develops an ability to do the containing, or the processing of external stimuli (beta elements–see above), and thus thinking for itself.

The mirror transference is part of Heinz Kohut’s therapy for narcissistic patients. The therapist acts as a mirror for the patient’s grandiose self, indulging his narcissism in a way that his parents failed to do when he was a child. Over time, the therapist will let the patient down little by little, in bearable amounts (optimal frustration) so that through transmuting internalization, the patient can develop a cohesive sense of self without the need of his formerly pathological levels of narcissism.

There are three forms of this transference, each involving different degrees of regression and the nature of the point of fixation. They are the merging transference (or fusion, a total immersing of the therapist into the psyche of the patient), the twin-ship/alter-ego transference (in which the therapist is felt to be like the patient–see below), and the mirror transference properly speaking (in which the therapist is felt to be in service of the patient’s needs).

Because of this whole absorption of the therapist into the patient’s identity in the merging transference, the therapist must have a considerable amount of patience and forbearance to endure this giving of himself over to indulge his patient.

A nameless dread is Bion’s term for the fears of annihilation that one may feel if overwhelmed by agitating beta elements (see above) and/or a lack of containment from one’s mother or therapist. Normally, a mother’s capacity for maternal reverie (see above) is used to soothe a baby’s anxieties by being a container for them (the contained–see above). If the baby’s agitation isn’t thus processed and sent back to it in a tolerable form, that agitation, fear, and anxiety worsen, threatening mental illness. The same danger can arise if a therapist fails to be a container of his or her patient’s unease.

The Name of the Father, or nom du père in the original French (punning on Non! du père) is a concept Jacques Lacan devised for describing how a child transitions away from the Oedipal, narcissistic, dyadic relationship with his mother in the Imaginary, and enters the Symbolic Order of society’s shared signifiers (see entries). The name, or nom, suggests the father introducing the signifiers, language, and law to his child. The non! is the father’s prohibition against his child’s desire to have Mother all to himself.

O is what Wilfred Bion called “the deep and formless infinite,” or Ultimate Reality; it’s what Western religion would call “God,” what Eastern religion might call “Brahman,” or “the Tao,” and what I would describe metaphorically as the infinite ocean. O is thus a mystical concept Bion believed is experienced only by abandoning memory, desire, and understanding. One arrives at it through intuition, a looking inwards, not through sensory experience.

Since O is the ineffable, a truth not adequately expressed in words, and because it has both blissful and, paradoxically, traumatic sides (whichever side one experiences depends on one’s openness to it and one’s spiritual maturity), it can be compared in many ways to Lacan’s Real (see below).

An object is anyone or anything in relation to the subject, or self. Usually in the context of psychoanalysis, an object is another person when related to the subject. Thus, objects can be actual people in the external world, or they are internalized representations of such people in the subject’s mind (internal objects–see above), thus subjected to such mental distortions as according to the subject’s disposition.

Object relations theory is about how the personality develops as a result of the subject’s relationship with objects (see above). The personality will take on the traits and disposition it has based on one’s relationship with one’s parents or primary caregivers when a child. So, someone with a friendly, loving disposition probably got this from loving parents, while someone with a harsh disposition probably got his attitude from harsh, abusive parents.

Object relations involves the introjection of traits from others, resulting in internalized objects of those people in one’s mind (see above). These objects live in one’s head like ghosts in a haunted house, influencing the way one thinks, feels, and experiences the world around us.

Important object relations theorists include Melanie Klein, WRD Fairbairn, DW Winnicott, John Bowlby, Wilfred Bion, Michael Balint, and Harry Guntrip.

The objet petit a is Jacques Lacan’s expression for the unattainable object-cause of desire. One strives to find it, to experience jouissance through it (see above), but one can never fully experience it to satisfaction. The petit a is “little a” in French, the a standing for autre, “other.” There is the autre of the mirrored, dyadic relationship with the mother, as well as the projection of the ego into the specular image, in the Imaginary (see above); but after the dissolution of the Oedipus complex due to the Name of the Father (see above), one replaces that autre with the Autre of society (“The unconscious is the discourse of the Other.”). The wish to find gratification of that original petit a continues, never satisfied, throughout life, in failed attempts to replace it with a transference to someone or something else.

The Oedipus complex needs to be dealt with here in a post-Freud context, because in order for it to be convincingly understood as a universal, narcissistic childhood trauma, we must go beyond the limitations of the classical Freudian concept of incestuous desire for the opposite-sex parent, and the murderous phantasies directed against the same-sex parent.

To expand the concept and show its universality, we must consider a number of its variations. First, there’s the negative Oedipus complex, which is an inverse version describing a love of the same-sex parent and a hate of the opposite-sex, rival parent. Then there’s little girls’ pre-Oedipal love of their mothers prior to the castration complex, which is supposed to make them switch to loving their fathers.

On top of all this, Melanie Klein’s description of splitting (see below) the parents into good and bad mothers and fathers (see above) complicates matters, so loving one parent and hating the other isn’t a uniform, unchanging feeling. Though the depressive position (see above) allows for reparation (see below), integration, and ambivalence for one’s parents, the bad parent’s integration with the otherwise Oedipally-desired one, and the integration of the good parent with the otherwise hated rival one, mean we must qualify all this Oedipal love and hate and give it nuance.

Finally, there’s Lacan’s metaphorical interpretation of the Oedipus complex. A child is in a dyadic, one-on-one relationship with the Oedipally-desired parent, represented here metonymically–for simplicity’s sake–as a little boy with his mother. He sits on her lap, and they look in each other’s eyes lovingly as they cuddle; he is surfeited in his jouissance (see above) with her. His narcissism is mirrored back to him in her loving eyes: this is him in the Imaginary (see above), and she is the autre, his objet petit a.

She is his idealized parental imago (see above), complementing and mirroring his grandiose self (see above), to use Heinz Kohut’s terminology. The boy lives with her as if no one else existed, like Norman Bates and his mother between the death of his father and her meeting the man who would inflame his jealousy to the point of poisoning them both with strychnine.

Speaking of men who ruin the boy’s Edenic relationship with Mommy, he soon realizes that she is in a sexual relationship with Daddy, who won’t allow him to stay in that one-on-one relationship with her. This prohibition is the Name of the Father (nom du père, or Non! du père–see above), an opposition to the boy’s narcissistic wishes, an opposition that he is too little to be able to overcome.

The threat of castration, manque (“lack“–see above), is a metaphoric one that forces the child out of the Edenic jouissance of the Imaginary and into the Symbolic Order (see below), from the autre to the Autre (other/Other–see below) of the larger social world, its language, shared signifiers, culture, customs, and laws. Here, the phallus is a signifier of what is lost in the Imaginary, and of entry into the Symbolic, all at the cost of the lost jouissance. Paradise is lost. One must now search in vain for the objet petit a in an attempt to replace the lost Oedipally-desired parent.

So the Oedipus complex, understood in this more nuanced, metaphoric sense, is a universal, narcissistic childhood trauma. One must give up that desired parent, as a mirrored extension of one’s grandiose self, in order to function in society. If one fails, or refuses, to do so, this foreclosure (see above), this refusal of the K-link (see above), can lead to mental illness, as seen in Norman Bates.

Omnipotence is an infantile mental state in which a child imagines him- or herself capable of anything through wishful thinking. He or she thinks this way before reality testing causes disillusion. As DW Winnicott explained, a good enough parent (see above) will indulge the infant’s omnipotence up to a point–i.e., a mother provides her breast quickly enough so the baby will imagine it has made the breast appear by his or her own power–then the parent will disillusion the infant little by little, in tolerable amounts, until the child can accept reality as it is.

Lacan’s notions of other and Other (autre and Autre in the original French) address how other people are experienced by the subject. The autre is another person as experienced as a mirrored reflection or extension of oneself in the Imaginary (see above). Typically, this other is the infant’s mother in the dyadic, narcissistic, one-on-one relationship.

The Other, on the other hand, indicates radical alterity. Such another person is not assimilable with the self, but is another subject in his or her own right. This sense of otherness results from the Name of the Father‘s prohibition (see above) of the child’s Oedipal indulgence, requiring the child to enter the Symbolic (see below) and accept the unconscious world of signifiers, societally-shared symbols, culture, and law. (“The unconscious is the discourse of the Other.”)

The paranoid-schizoid position (PS) is Melanie Klein’s expression for a baby’s experience of splitting (see below) its mother into good and bad breast part-objects, then a good and bad mother whole object (see above entries). When the baby is frustrated from the unavailable “bad breast,” it projects rage and sadism onto that breast (e.g., biting the nipple).

But what goes on without also goes on within, so a mother split into good and bad results in the baby’s internal world being split into good and bad, too. Furthermore, the baby fears reprisals from the mother whom it has injured in phantasy (paranoid anxiety). It also fears how its splitting may have annihilated the good mother (i.e., when she is absent for an indefinite period of time).

Several months later, the baby comes to realize that the good and bad aspects are part of the same mother, and the depressive anxiety of the depressive position (see above) drives it to seek reparation (see below) with its mother.

Phantasy (deliberately spelled this way) refers to unconscious imaginings one has in order to deal with the frustrations of the external world. One usually thinks of an infant’s violent phantasies directed against the “bad mother.”

Projective identification is Melanie Klein’s extension of regular psychological projection. With projection, one merely imagines one’s own personality traits, good or bad, to be seen in other people; but projective identification takes this idea one step further, in actually manipulating others to manifest those traits in the real world, not just in one’s imagination.

Wilfred Bion took Klein’s concept even further than that, using it to explain how a baby acquires the ability to think “thoughts [originally] without a thinker” and to process emotional experiences by trading these feelings (the contained) back and forth with its mother (the container–see above), whose capacity for maternal reverie (see above) uses alpha function (see above) to process the baby’s beta elements for it (see above) and turn them into alpha elements (see above).

Lacan’s Real is what cannot be symbolized, expressed, or processed through language (i.e., the network of differential, interrelated signifiers of the Symbolic–see below). The Real Order is undifferentiated; “it is without fissure.” The inability to process or verbalize experience in the Real is what gives it its traumatic quality. The Imaginary (see above) is a narcissistic world of reflected images (the mirror, Mother smiling back at her baby, etc.); the Symbolic is the social world of shared language, culture, custom, and law; and the Real is what one has no way of relating anything to–it’s the thing-in-itself, thoughts without a thinker, in many ways, like Bion’s O (see above).

Reparation is a Kleinian term for a baby’s reconciling with its mother (as an internalized object–see above) after realizing she encapsulates both good and bad aspects. In the paranoid-schizoid position (PS–see above), the baby split Mother into good and bad, because sometimes she was frustratingly unavailable (e.g., not providing the breast); accordingly, the baby in its rage attacked Mother in unconscious phantasy (see above). But now, through its fear of losing her as a complete internal object including both good and bad, it wants to make amends with her, as it were, in its mind.

A selected fact is what Wilfred Bion called any idea that one could use to link a patient’s ideas together in the process of psychotherapy. The patient, because of his attacks on linking (see above), has made a psychotic break with reality. In science, the notion of a selected fact, as used by Henri Poincaré, is to give coherence to a group of scattered data, and therefore to give order to the world’s complexity; whereas Bion’s use of the term is to give order and coherence to a patient’s scattered thoughts, to bring the patient from the paranoid-schizoid to the depressive position (see above).

A self-object is the self’s use of and relationship with an object (see above) for the purpose of establishing psychological stability or structure. The earliest and most basic self-objects are those an infant has with its parents, hence the idealized parental imago (see above). The analyst will be an important self-object for his or her patient in the narcissistic transference. Other possible self-objects can be one’s allegiance to a political ideology, to one’s nation, one’s admired writers, artists, etc.

Heinz Kohut coined this expression, using it as a key element in self psychology.

Splitting, or black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking, is a defence mechanism one uses to deal with the frustrating aspects of people and the external world. Splitting happens when one cannot reconcile the good and bad sides of people and things. Splitting the object also involves a splitting of the self.

Object relations theorists like Melanie Klein and WRD Fairbairn (see above entries) developed our understanding of splitting with Klein’s notion of the paranoid-schizoid position (PS–see above) and Fairbairn’s notion of splitting the Central Ego/Ideal Object (see above), resulting in two subsidiary egos, the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object, and the Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object (see above entries).

The Symbolic is one of Jacques Lacan’s three orders, along with the Imaginary and the Real (see above entries). One enters the Symbolic when the Name of the Father (see above) causes the dissolution of the Oedipus complex (see above) and its dyadic mother/infant relationship, bringing one into society and its shared symbols, language, culture, customs, and law. Engagement with the Symbolic Order is essential for mental health, freeing one from the narcissistic Imaginary Order. Failure or refusal to enter the Symbolic, what Lacan called foreclosure (see above), leads to psychosis.

Transference is the shifting of feelings from a relationship with one person (typically one from childhood, as with a parent) to one with another person (often, as in a patient with his or her therapist). These can be such feelings as love or hate. Freud found the transference useful as a crucial part of the treatment; for him, it wasn’t a resistance, but was rather the very work needed to be done.

Since transference in a therapeutic context involves the feelings the patient has for the analyst (e.g., the doctor reminding the patient of his or her Mom or Dad), countertransference refers to the analyst’s feelings about the analysand; it can give the therapist valuable insights into what the patient is trying to elicit in him or her.

A transitional object is what DW Winnicott called a comfort object (like a teddy bear, a doll, or Linus’s blanket), used to help a child make the transition–from having Mother as an extension of him- or herself–to recognizing the difference between “me” and “not-me,” to accepting that Mother cannot always be there for the child, that she and the child are separate entities. Thus, being disillusioned about not having omnipotence (see above) is bearable for the child.

The True Self and False Self are what DW Winnicott called different personality states of a healthy or unhealthy sort. For Winnicott, the False Self is a defensive façade causing one to lack the spontaneity, energy, and vitality of the True Self; accordingly, the False Self leaves one feeling dead and empty.

Elsewhere, the False Self is often used to describe the façade of excellence that a narcissist presents of himself to the world, in an attempt to impress others and thus trick the narcissist into thinking his False Self is his True Self.

The twin-ship/alter-ego transference is a narcissistic transference that Heinz Kohut used in his therapy for patients with a narcissistic personality disorder. It involves establishing a sense of similarity between the analyst and analysand, seeing the one as a “twin” or “alter ego” of the other; this likeness is without the sense of the analyst’s ego feeling engulfed and absorbed into that of the analysand, as felt in the merging transference (see mirror transference above).

Donald Woods Winnicott was a British psychoanalyst, and an important theorist in the object relations school (see above). He started as a paediatrician in the 1930s, but then came under the influence of Melanie Klein (see entry above). He helped develop such concepts of hers as the manic defence (see above), and he came up with a number of his own original ideas, such as the transitional object (see above) and transitional phenomena, the “me” vs. “not-me” relationship between an infant and its mother, and the True Self/False Self (see above).

Winnicott hosted a popular BBC radio program from the 194os to the mid-1960s, giving advice to mothers on how to raise healthy children. His concept of the “good enough mother” (see above) was a reaction against the excessive tendency he saw at the time to seek psychotherapeutic help for problem children.

Conclusion

Anyway, that’s all for now. As I learn more about psychoanalysis, I’ll make changes to this wherever I’ve said anything inaccurate. Remember that I’m no trained expert in the field; I’m just somebody who reads a lot. If anyone out there knows better about these topics and feels I could do with a better explanation here or there, pointing out my mistakes kindly in the comments will be appreciated. Thanks!

Further Reading

Melanie Klein, Love, Guilt, and Reparation and Other Works 1921-1945, The Free Press, New York, 1975

Melanie Klein, Envy and Gratitude and Other Works, 1945-1963, The Free Press, New York, 1975

W. Ronald D. Fairbairn, Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, Routledge, London, 1952

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

D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality, Routledge Classics, New York, 1971

D.W. Winnicott, Holding and Interpretation, Grove Press, New York, 1972

Lavinia Gomez, An Introduction to Object Relations, Free Association Books, London, 1997

Sean Homer, Jacques Lacan, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, London, 2005

Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Approach to the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1971

Heinz Kohut, The Restoration of the Self, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1977

Stephen A. Mitchell and Margaret J. Black, Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought, Basic Books, New York, 1996

Wilfred R. Bion, Learning From Experience, Maresfield Library, London, 1962

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

Analysis of ‘Evil Dead’

Evil Dead is a supernatural horror/comedy movie franchise that began with the trilogy written and directed by Sam Raimi (with Evil Dead II co-written by Scott Spiegel, and Army of Darkness co-written by Ivan Raimi), produced by Robert G. Tapert, and starring Bruce Campbell as Ash Williams. I’ll be dealing with these three films, not the 2013 reboot or the TV series.

Here are some quotes:

The Evil Dead (1981)

“Oh go to hell, I’m not honking at you!” –Scotty

“I believe I have made a significant find in the Kandarian ruins, a volume of ancient Sumerian burial practices and funerary incantations. It is entitled Naturon Demonto, roughly translated: Book of the Dead. The book is bound in human flesh and inked in human blood. It deals with demons and demon resurrection and those forces which roam the forest and dark bowers of Man’s domain. The first few pages warn that these enduring creatures may lie dormant but are never truly dead. They may be recalled to active life through the incantations presented in this book. It is through the recitation of these passages that the demons are given license to possess the living.” –Voice on Recorder

[getting freaked out by the recorder]  “TURN IT OFF!!!” –Cheryl

[after being raped by the trees and running back to the cabin] “No, no it was the woods themselves!” [sobbing] “They’re alive, Ashley, the trees, they’re alive!” –Cheryl

“I know now that my wife has become host to a Kandarian demon. I fear that the only way to stop those possessed by the spirits of the book is through the act of…bodily dismemberment.” –Voice on Recorder

[after becoming possessed] “Why have you disturbed our sleep; awakened us from our ancient slumber?” [shouts] “You will die! Like the others before you, one by one, we will take you.” [falls to the floor] –Cheryl

“Why does she keep making those horrible noises! Her eyes. What’s wrong with her eyes? For God’s sake, what happened to her eyes???!!” –Shelly

[her face is smoking and scarred] “I don’t know what I would have done if I had remained on those hot coals, burning my pretty flesh.” –possessed Shelly

[singing] “We’re going to get you.
We’re going to get you.
Not another peep.
Time to go to sleep.” –possessed Linda

“Join us…” –Voice of Evil Force

Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn (1987)

[Ash’s hand gains a life of its own.] “You bastards. You dirty bastards.” [sobs] “Gimme back my hand…GIMME BACK MY HAND!” –Ash

[Ash stabs his possessed hand with a kitchen knife, pinning it to the floor.] “That’s right…who’s laughing now?” [grabs the chainsaw and revs it.] “Who’s laughing now? ARRRGHH!!!” [cuts the hand off at the wrist.] –Ash

[to his freshly sawn off possessed hand] “Here’s your new home.” [He then places a bucket and a stack of books on it to trap the hand; the top book reads “A Farewell to Arms“] –Ash

**********

Bobby Joe: Honey…you’re holding my hand too tight.

Jake: (looks at her) Baby, I ain’t holdin’ your hand.

(Bobby Joe looks down at her hand, seeing Ash’s possessed right hand gripping it. As she screams, the lantern breaks, and she’s gone by the time another one’s lit)

**********

[upon gaining the chain saw in place of his lost right hand] “Groovy.” –Ash

**********

Henrietta: [her severed head wobbling on the floor] Hey! I’ll swallow your soul! I’ll swallow your soul! I’ll swallow your soul! I’ll– [Ash steps on Henrietta’s head]

Ash[aims shotgun at her face] Swallow this. [shoots Henrietta’s head]

Evil Dead III: Army of Darkness (1992)

“Well, hello, Mister Fancypants. Well, I’ve got news for you, pal, you ain’t leadin’ but two things right now: Jack and shit… and Jack left town.” –Ash, to Duke Henry

“All right, you primitive screw-heads, listen up! See this? This…is my boomstick! – [continuing nonchalantly] – It’s a twelve-gauge, double-barrelled Remington. S-Mart’s top of the line. You can find this in the sporting goods department. That’s right, this sweet baby was made in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Retails for about $109.95. It’s got a walnut stock, cobalt-blue steel, and a hair trigger. That’s right…shop smart: shop S-Mart…Ya got that?!” –Ash

“Now I swear, the next one of you primates even touches me…” [yells, shoots at the pit Deadite, then shoots again] –Ash

“Yo, she-bitch, let’s go!” –Ash, to demoness

[as he is about to kiss Sheila] “Gimme some sugar, baby.” –Ash

“Klaatu Barada NNNNNNecktie. Nectar. Nickel. Noodle. It’s an ‘N’ word, it’s definitely an ‘N’ word! Klaatu… Barada… N” [clears his throat into his hand, then pauses]  “Okay… that’s it!” –Ash

“Hail to the king, baby.” –Ash, to female customer in S-MART

The Evil Dead

Evil spirits haunt a forest where there’s a cabin that Ashley, Scott (Hal Delrich), Linda (Betsy Baker), Shelly (Theresa Tilly), and Ash’s sister, Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) are going to spend their vacation in. A demonic presence races over the ground, past the trees, and to a road where the five are in a car on the way to the cabin. The demon jerks the steering wheel in Scott’s hands, throwing the car onto the side of oncoming traffic…an approaching truck! Scott regains control just in time to swerve back onto his side of the road.

Scott is a rather obnoxious fellow, cursing at a couple of hitchhikers on the road just after his scary moment of having lost control of the car. Cheryl is quite high strung, and she senses the evil of the area before the others do. Their fear and trauma, symbolized by the demons, drives the five to fight with each other rather than bind together.

In a corner of the cabin, Cheryl tries doing some drawing, but a demon takes control of her hand and forces her to draw a crude rendering of the cover of the Book of the Dead (the original–and in my opinion, better–name for the movie) in jagged lines. A trap door to the basement moves, frightening her.

The point here is that the demons are already loose and preying on the five vacationers. No reading of the incantations in the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis is necessary to release the evil spirits: they’re already free and roaming about, within the woods.

When the five vacationers are sitting at the dinner table, about to eat, the trap door to the basement suddenly swings open, startling them. The basement can be seen to symbolize the unconscious, and the evil spirits can similarly be seen to represent the return of repressed bad internal objects (representations of other people in our minds), as WRD Fairbairn once discussed, and even compared to demon possession, as he does in section 5 of this paper.

The terrors that the five vacationers suffer thus represent the kind of traumas that separate us from each other, and make us want to fight with each other rather than come together in solidarity. The five of them look down into the dark shadows of the basement framed by the open trap door.

Cheryl imagines the noise was just from an animal down there (a perfectly reasonable speculation that cocky, mean Scott laughs at, saying it’s “the stupidest thing [he] ever heard of”), though her speculation is probably a denial of her inner fears that it was really a demon that made the noise.

Scott goes down into the basement, exploring the symbolic unconscious. Ash goes down later. They find, near a torn down poster of the film, The Hills Have Eyes (an interesting bit of foreshadowing), a tape recorder, a dagger with a skull carved into the handle, The Book of the Dead, and a rifle that Scott stupidly points at Ash, right after hiding in the darkness to scare him, just for the fun of being annoying.

The two men bring everything up and play the tape for all five of them, Cheryl being the most reluctant to hear. A man’s voice is heard, describing the demonic subject matter of the book. Since his words on the tape, and words in the book, have been found in the basement, a symbol of the unconscious, we can understand the words to be a representation of how Jacques Lacan said, “The unconscious is structured like a language.” The chanting of the ancient language can release the demons, symbolically the repressed bad internal objects (and the traumas associated with them), and it can send the demons back to the spirit world, as we learn in Evil Dead II.

The speaker on the tape is an older man, a researcher who has discovered the book and translated it. Since he believes in these evil spirits, I can’t believe he was stupid enough to use the incantations to release the demons. I think the chanting we hear him do on the tape is really an attempt to bind them and return them to the spirit world. He’s failed, speaking of having unwittingly “resurrected” them, and so the demons are flying wildly through the forest.

Recall that Cheryl makes her friends stop playing the tape, then Scott fast-forwards it before playing it again. We missed the part in between, where the man presumably tells his purpose in saying the incantations…I suspect an attempt to return the demons to the spirit world, not to release them.

The man speaking on the tape is apparently old enough to be the five vacationers’ father; his voice can thus be understood to represent the Name of the Father, introducing the Symbolic Order and bringing about the entrance into the world of language, culture, society, and law, the way to ensure (or at least promote) communication, connection, and amity between people; for his reciting the ancient language of the book–the language of the unconscious, or its system of symbols and signifiers–is an attempt to send the demons away from our world.

Cheryl, the odd-one-out of the five visitors, doesn’t want to hear the tape. She finds it frightening, and screams to have it shut off. Her terror symbolizes a rejection of society and community, and a rejection of the growth of Knowledge (-K) through linking with other people, what Wilfred Bion called attacks on linking, or what Lacan called foreclusion. These rejections of community and learning from experience, Lacan and Bion observed, can lead, in extreme cases, to a psychotic break with reality.

Accordingly, Cheryl is the first of the five to become traumatized by the demons (who symbolize bad internal objects, remember), and the first to be possessed. The chanting of the words on the tape is like being assailed with what Bion called beta elements, raw sensory data from the external world that Cheryl isn’t able to (and thus refuses to) internalize, process, and transform (through alpha function) into more soothing, emotionally acceptable thoughts, or what Bion called alpha elements. The beta elements are too painful, and too traumatizing, to process.

When an excess of beta elements is rejected and expelled from the mind, a beta screen is built, a wall that keeps external stimuli from entering the mind to be processed, so learning (through linking with other people) cannot happen. This beta screen is symbolized in the movie by the walls of the cabin, which keep out–to an extent, at least–the demonic forces (symbols of the traumatizing beta elements) that race about outside in the forest and try to get in the cabin. An excessively formed beta screen leads to psychosis, creating bizarre objects (hallucinatory objects that are really projections of the psychotic’s turbulent inner mental state); this lapsing into psychosis happens first to Cheryl when she goes out into the forest and gets raped by the trees.

Knowledge (Bion’s K) is normally acquired through links between people (object relations) in the form of projective identification, a projection of energy, personality traits, etc., from one person to be introjected by another; this originally happens between a mother and her baby, the latter not yet having its own thinking apparatus for processing unpleasant external stimuli (beta elements) and transforming them into pacifying thoughts (alpha elements); so the mother must do this processing (containing) for the anxious, fearful, frustrated baby through what Bion called maternal reverie.

Sometimes, though, this growth of knowledge through links between people doesn’t succeed, and the attacks on linking can, in extreme cases, lead to psychosis. That’s what’s symbolically happening to the five people in that cabin. Sometimes containment becomes negative containment (see Bion, pages 97-99), and projective identification (symbolized by demons taking possession of people in the film) is painful, instead of the soothing mother/baby relationship described in the previous paragraph. Instead of containing fears and anxieties, pacifying them, negative containment turns the bad feelings into a nameless dread: such is the fate of the five in the cabin.

Bion’s extension of Melanie Klein‘s notion of projective identification–what he called the container (using feminine, yonic symbolism) and the contained (using masculine, phallic symbolism)–involves the expelling of one’s own traits, energy, feelings, etc. (the contained), into another person (the container), symbolically as in the act of coitus. So when the trees rape Cheryl, the evil spirits are projecting all their hostility, aggression, anger, and trauma into her, forcing her to introject it all, thus possessing her.

The demons force their vicious beta elements (the contained) onto her (the container), then she–back in the cabin with the other four–tries to expel those beta elements (symbolized by the viciousness of the demons) onto Linda and the others.

Ash listens to more of the tape recording (with headphones, so as not to upset Cheryl), as Scott was more willing to hear it when she wanted it turned off. Since the man on the tape–as I explained above–is a symbolic father for all five of them, speaking the language of the unconscious (what Lacan called “the discourse of the Other“) and providing the “talking cure” that pulls us out of the narcissistic, one-on-one relationship with Mother and brings us into a healthy relationship with society, the two young men’s willingness to listen to ‘Father’ on the tape means they will last longer against the demons (symbols of traumatized, psychotic states) than the three young women will. The men’s psychotic breaks with reality will come later, Ash’s especially.

Ash hears of the researcher’s wife (she being the symbolic mother: her demonic state will be made explicit in Evil Dead II, though the implication that she’s among the demons in this first film will be enough for now) having become possessed, and that the only way to stop the possessed is through dismemberment. I believe the man’s chanting was meant to expel back to Hell demons that had already been roaming the woods, but he failed, because the demons were provoked by the chanting (as they are after the tape recording is played, and it upsets Cheryl) to fight back and possess his wife.

The man’s resurrecting of the demons already roaming the woods was, in my interpretation, really an unintended provocation of them to manifest themselves even more, to stop him from finishing; had he been allowed to finish reciting all the incantations, he might have properly expelled them back to Hell. As I said above, I don’t believe such a well-educated, erudite man would ever be stupid enough to wake demons from their slumber.

His recitation of the ancient language is so emotive, with such dramatic conviction, that he must believe in their magical powers; he isn’t just enunciating the words out of scholarly curiosity. If he believes in their power, surely he isn’t just resurrecting the demons for the sake of doing only that…he hopes eventually to send them back to Hell.

In Evil Dead II, the beginning of a recitation of the mystical words first arouses an incarnation of them, then once recited in full, they’d be expelled back to the spirit world. What’s implied in the first film is made more explicit in the second one. I believe the researcher had already encountered demons earlier in his life, driving him to hope that, with the discovery of the Book of the Dead, he could send all the world’s devils back to Hell. He knew the risks of flooding the world with demons, but he foolishly took the risk anyway, with tragic results for himself, his wife, and the five in the cabin.

Symbolically, this failed attempt to send evil spirits back to Hell represents failed attempts to cure trauma. It may lie dormant, but it’s always there, ready to be triggered and brought out into the open again.

So possessed Cheryl picks up a phallic pencil (the negative contained) and stabs Linda in the ankle with it (the resulting bloody wound symbolizing a negative container yoni). Projective identification passes ferocious demonic possession onto Linda.

Prior to the attack on Linda, we see a touching love scene between her and Ash, when he gives her a necklace. This is the one substantial moment of love and bonding between two people in the whole film; but in the framework of this film, bonding can exist between no more than just two people.

He pretends to be asleep on the couch, with the necklace in a box. She sees it, and wants to take the box out of his hand. They alternate switching between giving each other furtive glances and pretending not to look at each other. This is a kind of mirroring. Then, he puts the necklace on her, and they go to a mirror to see how it looks on her.

This seeing of themselves in the reflection is an example of how Lacan saw the psychological implications of looking at oneself in the mirror, which he saw as a narcissistic moment in the Imaginary Order. Ash and Linda see the idealized image of themselves in the mirror, as a couple totally in love; but the reality of who they are, as fragmented, awkward people fighting each other, will be revealed soon enough.

One reason peoples of all cultures have venerated the dead is historically out of a wish to keep ghosts in the realm of the dead and not to trouble us in the land of the living. This was true of the peoples of ancient Mesopotamia, including the Sumerians from the whom the Book of the Dead has come.

Another reason for ancestor worship is to strengthen the ties of kinship and community: in our modern, alienated Western society, in which Bion’s notion of “attacks on linking” is the norm, it’s easy to see why, in the film, the evil dead are running rampant in the forest, and why the researcher would want to return those spirits to the land of the dead, rather than release them on all of us in the physical world. Thus, this trilogy can be seen as an allegory about the breakdown of society, leading to the disintegration of the psyche.

After the attack on Linda, the spirits break the window to Shelly’s and Scott’s bedroom, and they take control of her. Scott investigates, and possessed Shelly attacks him, scratching deep, bloody cuts into the side of his head: more projective identification, his cuts being the negative container of her demonic rage, the negative contained. Soon enough, he’ll be possessed, too.

But for now, he must stop her, and he does it by chopping her body into pieces. This mutilation symbolizes the psychological fragmentation that introduces a psychotic breakdown. First, society breaks apart, then each individual falls to pieces, as symbolized by Shelly’s dismembered, bloody body parts lying and shaking on the floor.

Outside at night, we see a full moon in the enlarged form of a moon illusion; the symbolism of this huge moon intensifies, through its association with lunacy, the growing psychosis in the cabin and in the woods. A cloud of darkness begins to shroud the moon, symbolizing how Bion’s -K, a wish not to know, but to be in a dark cloud of ignorance instead, leads to psychosis.

Scott, traumatized from having killed his girlfriend, wants to leave. He goes out into the woods and learns just how right Cheryl was about the possessed trees when he himself is attacked by them, his face all slashed up by the branches. Again, the attacking, scratching branches are Bion’s negative contained, and Scott’s wounds are the container; this projective identification–a passing of the demons’ evil into him, all the more ensures that he is soon to be possessed.

The most heartbreaking possession of all, for Ash, is that of Linda. Her eerie giggling, like that of a naughty little girl, suggests the reliving of a childhood trauma of Ash’s, of being teased in the schoolyard during recess.

It upsets him so much that he slaps her hard several times, something he’d naturally never want to do to the woman he loves. What’s worse, deep down, he knows he has to kill her, but of course he can’t: he just freezes with that rifle pointed at her. Meanwhile, possessed Cheryl, locked up in the basement and banging on the door in hopes of breaking the lock, represents those repressed traumas in the unconscious, trying to come out. Locking her up in the basement represents failed attempts at repressing trauma, for she will come out eventually.

The psychoanalytic talking cure, something that would be symbolized in the movie by the completed chanting of the ancient Sumerian language (which I believe isn’t even fully achieved at the end of Evil Dead II), requires a long time of the patient’s continued free associations, dream analyses, etc., to bring about the eventual healing and ridding of psychopathological symptoms. At first, the bringing of traumas to the surface is painful, with lots of resistance from the patient; this resistance is symbolized by the demons attacking any reciters of the Sumerian text. If the recitation is finished, as it would seem to be by the end of Evil Dead II, the demons are finally sent back to Hell.

The demons trick Ash by making him think that Linda and Cheryl are back to normal (symbolically, a form of resistance as discussed above), but only for an ever so brief moment. They then go back to their demonic forms, with Linda singing, “We’re gonna get you,…” etc., in a nyah, nyah, nyah-nyah, nyah melody, just like childhood teasing in primary school.

Eventually, Ash has to do the heartbreaking thing and kill her, that is, after she’s stabbed him with a knife, working the negative container/contained mechanism of projective identification on him so he’ll be possessed at the end of the movie. We see him tensing, fidgeting in conflict and agitation as he holds the chainsaw over her; then we see the torment he feels digging her grave outside, and finally having to use the shovel to decapitate her when she leaps in the air in an attempt to pounce on him.

Projective identification is also symbolized by all that blood that is splattered all over his face and body. Possessed Cheryl manages to escape from the basement. Ash goes down there, into the symbolic unconscious, where he sees a surreal spectacle of blood oozing out of an electrical outlet, soaking a lightbulb with red, etc. This gore symbolizes the attempt by the mind to expel traumatizing beta elements. Then, he hears an old gramophone playing a recording of 1930s jazz; a film projector plays an old film against a wall. These two things symbolize old memories recorded and stored in the unconscious, along with all that trauma.

Finally, Ash goes back up to the ground floor, and there he has to fight off possessed Cheryl and now-possessed Scott. Ash is crawling on the floor, his leg held by Scott while Cheryl is hitting him with a poker from the fireplace.

All Ash has as anything to defend himself with are, absurdly, the Book of the Dead lying by the fireplace, and his necklace gift to Linda. He manages, after several unsuccessful attempts, to hook the necklace onto the book and drag it nearer to him.

He thinks that throwing the book into the fire–instead of completing a recitation of the ancient language–will destroy the demons. The use of a necklace (the round glass pendant of which looks like a tiny mirror), in aid of getting the book symbolizes his dubious belief that his undying love for Linda, their one-on-one, mutually reflective relationship as felt in the Imaginary Order, will save him from the psychological fragmentation, the emotional falling apart, that the demonic world represents…Lacan’s formless, undifferentiated, ineffable, chaotic, and traumatizing Real Order.

Ash’s gazing on his own reflection in the mirror prior to this final confrontation, when he touches the glass and sees it rippling like the water of Narcissus‘ pond, should be enough to inform him of the narcissistic illusion of the reflected image, the self-absorbed world of the Imaginary Order. Ash will continue to use narcissism as a defence against the threat of fragmentation, as we’ll see in our analyses of the two sequels below.

As we know, the spirits–having given him the false confidence that he’s defeated them by throwing the book into the fire, with that spectacular, splattering disintegration in front of him–race through the forest, through the cabin, and finally onto him, possessing him at the very end of the movie…leading directly into the second film…

Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn

This movie begins with an abbreviated recap of the events of the first movie, but much, if not most, of this recap actually contradicts what we saw before. We don’t see Cheryl, Shelly, or Scott at all; we’re under the impression that Ash and Linda alone went to the cabin for a romantic vacation, for we see only this couple in the car on the ride there.

What’s more, Linda is played by a different actress (Denise Bixler), and one with the shapely, curvaceous, buxom, ‘flawless’ looks of a model, rather than the wholesome, down-to-earth prettiness of Betsy Baker’s Linda. The scenery also has a more dreamlike quality (i.e., matte paintings for the forest landscape at night). Ash apparently can play the piano, and Linda can dance, twirling around with the grace of a ballerina. In other words, what we’re seeing on the screen is not so much Ash’s memory of what happened, but a fantasy, an idealizing of his one-on-one relationship with Linda, rather than his socializing with all his friends and sister.

Ash, having been taken by the demons at the end of the first movie, is now experiencing the same psychotic break with reality as the other four did. The trauma of having decapitated the woman he loves is more than enough to push him over the edge. His memory is selectively reimagining how he wants to remember what’s happened, and minimizing the painful parts to the best of his ability.

His willful forgetting of key elements from the first movie (his sister, Cheryl, being raped by the trees, then stabbing Linda in the ankle with a pencil; Shelly being chopped into pieces by Scott, who then–with Cheryl–melts into oblivion) is an example of Bion’s -K, the refusal to gain knowledge, process it and deal with it, rejecting such knowledge to the point of becoming psychotic.

When the demons enter Ash’s body, they send him flying through the forest until he hits a tree trunk, then falls, face first, into a large puddle. Now, it’s Ash’s turn to have the ugly face of the possessed; but the sun has risen, and the demons retreat until dusk. Ash is again given the false confidence that he’s safe, thanks to the sunlight; such confidence is false because we know the demons also attack in the daytime, as when they jerked Scott’s steering wheel, and when a flying “deadite” attacks Ash and the knights in AD 1300 at the end of this film.

His lying face down in the puddle reminds us of Narcissus staring down at his reflection in the pond. Indeed, over the course of this movie and the next, we’ll see Ash using narcissism as a defence against fragmentation, for he will be endlessly threatened with a psychological falling apart, the looming danger of falling into psychosis.

To follow my meaning, we must first understand how a narcissistic personality disorder functions. The grandiose self is only one half of it. The other side involves idealizing someone else, originally the infant’s primary caregiver (traditionally, its mother); then this idealization is transferred onto someone outside the family (e.g., one’s girlfriend), after the dissolution of the Oedipus complex. The idealized other reflects grandiosity back to the self, like Lacan’s mirror in the Imaginary Order.

The idealized parental imago and grandiose self are the two poles that Heinz Kohut said were necessary to give the self structure, thus making a healthy personality in which narcissism is restrained and moderate. Lacking such a structure, one uses pathological levels of narcissism to defend against falling apart, as Ash does in this and the next film. After killing his girlfriend, his idealized ‘other self,’ Ash has only his grandiose self to hang onto as a defence against psychosis…an ever-looming threat.

A few significant things should be noted about the researcher and his wife as they’re understood in this sequel. Recall that the wife was possessed in the first film as a result of his reciting of the ancient language. In Evil Dead II, we learn that his name is Dr. Raymond Knowby. He, as I’ve stated above, is the symbolic father, an internal object from the basement/unconscious, and the name of the father brings one out of the dyadic, Oedipal relationship with the mother (here symbolized by Henrietta, Knowby’s wife) and into society. Knowby thus is Bion’s K, which helps one grow in knowledge and mental health…something Knowby would do if allowed to finish reciting the incantations.

During Ash’s fantasy-memory of the events of the first movie, we see the tape recorder on the ground floor, not in the basement. The former floor is the conscious mind, the latter the unconscious; so Ash’s ‘memory’ of the previous events is a consciously constructed fantasy, a preferred version of what’s supposedly happened.

Part of that fantasy is a photo of Knowby’s daughter, Annie, whom we’ll see with her boyfriend/colleague, Ed Getley, later. The fact that we see this photo of Annie on the desk beside the tape recorder–as opposed to no photo of her, and the tape recorder found in the basement, as in the first movie–means her arrival in the cabin is at least in part an element of Ash’s fantasy. So in Evil Dead II, it’s not always easy to distinguish his fantasy from reality.

Her blonde good looks are somewhat similar to those of Linda in this sequel, too, suggesting perhaps a wish-fulfillment on Ash’s part to be reunited–if not with Linda–at least with a similar-looking woman. Since she’s Knowby’s daughter, a fantasized potential union with her could strengthen the notion of her parents as symbolic parents-in-law of Ash, thus representing an unconscious Oedipal relationship with them.

His continued resistance against the evil dead, symbols of Bion’s traumatizing, agitating, and ejected beta elements, results in the creation of bizarre objects–hallucinatory projections of his inner psychotic state. I’m referring to the scene with the laughing deer head on the wall, and the laughing books, electric light, etc. Since these are all projections from him, he of course is laughing like a madman, too.

Part of his worsening psychotic state is his alienation from himself, as we see in his reflection in the Lacanian mirror, which reminds him of his having sliced up Linda with a chainsaw. The ideal-I in the reflection is being his judgemental super-ego, dumping a guilt trip on awkward, bumbling Ash, who looks in horror at the reflection.

His self-alienation grows when a demon possesses his hand, which attacks him by breaking dishes on his head in the kitchen. Its attempt to kill him with a meat cleaver forces him to stab it with a knife, then hack it off with the chainsaw.

Separating it from his body and trapping it under a garbage pail (weighing it down with a pile of books topped with A Farewell to Arms…yuk, yuk) won’t keep him safe from it. The comic aspects of this and the following movie should be understood–from the point of view of my interpretation–to represent the absurdity of delusional thinking.

The arrival of Annie and Ed (who expect to find her parents there), along with two country bumpkin locals (Jake and his pretty girlfriend, Bobby Joe) carrying their bags results in Ash–mistaking them in his psychotic disorientation for more demons–accidentally shooting Bobby Joe, grazing her left shoulder with the bullet. To what extent are these four arrivals real, and to what extent are they a part of Ash’s deluded fantasy?

To the extent that this meeting of five people is fantasy, and to what extent real, will determine how much of the alienation felt is still in Ash’s head, and how much of it is social alienation. In any case, this sequel continues the themes of social and mental breakdown seen in the first film.

For wounding Bobby Joe, and–as Annie et al wrongly assume when seeing the bloody chainsaw–causing the deaths of Dr. Knowby and Henrietta, Ash is locked up in the basement, as his sister, Cheryl, was in the first film. The other four play the tape and learn what really happened. Possessed Henrietta is woken up in the basement.

Since I see Dr. Knowby as the symbolic father of all in the story, residing as an internal object in the unconscious (symbolized by the basement, recall, where the tape recorder was originally found in the first film), I see his wife, Henrietta, as symbolizing the internalized object of the mother, in her good aspect as the object of Oedipal desire, and in her bad aspect as symbolized in her possessed form.

Ash begs the others to let him out of the basement before Henrietta gets him, since symbolically–as Melanie Klein conceived the bad mother internal object–she causes terrible persecutory anxiety in the paranoid-schizoid position (a state of mind involving splitting Mother into absolute good and bad, and originating in the first few months of infancy, but which one can return to at any time throughout one’s life). Ash, trapped in the basement/unconscious, is experiencing archaic, primal, childhood trauma.

He’s let out, but possessed Henrietta is kept in there. Soon, we see her change back into her original, loving mother form, in an attempt to trick Annie into freeing her from the basement. This switch to original Henrietta shows the contrast between the good and bad mother that is part of splitting, the essence of the paranoid-schizoid position.

She sings “Hush, Little Baby” to Annie, reminding her of when she sang it to her when Annie was a baby. Since it’s actually the possessed Henrietta singing, we see here a kind of parody of the good mother’s soothing of her baby’s distress through maternal reverie (see above).

Because Henrietta is possessed of a demon, that means symbolically that both the good mother and the bad are united, which would be understood if one experienced the ambivalence of the depressive position; but in their traumatized state, Annie, Ash, et al can only see an archaic mother split into ‘good’ (the singing, loving Henrietta) and bad (possessed Henrietta). Hence, Annie denies she’s her mother. Annie is stuck in the paranoid-schizoid position.

Societal breakdown is once again symbolized by the continued infighting amongst the five people, especially when Ed becomes possessed. Ash runs off to find an axe, and Annie–wrongly thinking he’s just running away in fear–calls him a “fucking coward!” Ash returns and chops possessed Ed to pieces; apart from her screaming at all of Ed’s green gore, though, Annie doesn’t seem all that upset about her butchered boyfriend, which could be seen to tie in with her being a replacement Linda in Ash’s fantasies.

The ghost of Dr. Knowby appears, telling them to use Annie’s and Ed’s newly-found pages of the Book of the Dead to drive away the evil spirits, to save themselves and to save his soul (for his recklessness in having recited the ancient language). In his repentance over having unintentionally released the evil spirits, we see, in the ghost of Knowby, an integration of Klein’s notion of the good and bad father, the sadness in the ghost’s countenance a mirroring of Annie’s experience of the depressive position.

Bobby Joe screams when Ash’s possessed, disembodied hand is gripping hers; she runs out of the cabin and into the woods, to be grabbed by the trees (in a manner reminding us of what happened to Cheryl), then dragged away to her death.

Annie does the best improvised translating she can of those new pages she’d brought with Ed: they tell of a “hero from the sky” (who we later learn is Ash) landing in AD 1300, and saving the people of that time from the “deadites”; I see this as part of Ash’s narcissistic fantasy, his defence against psychotic fragmentation–it will be developed in the third film. Ash says this “hero from the sky” didn’t do a good job of defeating the demons; since I see this as all part of his grandiose fantasy, his saying the hero failed is just false modesty, his denial of his growing narcissism.

Reciting the incantations will first bring about an incarnation of the demons, then completing that recitation will open a time rift and send them back into the past. Note how Annie says nothing of sending the demons back to Hell, which I believe a better, and complete, translation would reveal (as the ghost of her father has suggested), if she were to have the time to do so. For whether they’re demons of the past or of the present, the demons are still with us, bad internal objects lingering in our trans-individual, collective unconscious.

Jake takes the rifle, points it at Ash and Annie, and demands that they go out into the woods and help him find his pretty girlfriend. As for reciting the incantations, Jake sees no value in that, so he takes the pages and tosses them into the basement with Henrietta, then forces Ash and Annie at gunpoint to go outside and look for Bobby Joe.

Jake’s refusal to allow the incantations (a symbol of the talking cure, recall) to be recited is representative yet again of Bion’s -K, a stupid, stubborn refusal to gain knowledge and link with people. He should be helping Ash and Annie; instead, he cares only about his girlfriend, who is a narcissistic mirror of his own grandiosity. He prizes his dyadic relationship with her over general community and society.

The racing demon rockets toward them and possesses Ash. Annie and Jack get back to the cabin, where he is killed and she is attacked by possessed Ash. He picks her up and throws her against a wall, knocking her unconscious.

He approaches her with intent to kill her, but fortuitously, he sees his necklace gift to Linda lying right next to Annie, whose motionless unconsciousness resembles death. Why is that necklace, by sheer chance, lying so close to Annie?

Since Ash has been having auditory and visual hallucinations (i.e., those bizarre object projections of his psychosis right before the appearance of Annie et al), it’s easy to believe that much of what ensues (as well as much of what precedes) is figments of Ash’s deluded imagination, too.

This is why I believe Annie could be a fantasy of his, a potential replacement of Linda. The sight of that necklace beside knocked-out, unmoving (i.e., seemingly dead) Annie reminds one, unconsciously, of truly dead Linda. Ash is unconsciously transferring his love of Linda onto Annie. His mourning of Linda when he picks up the necklace, combined with the unconscious hope of having Annie replace her, helps pull Ash out of his psychotic state (symbolized by the demon possession), and so he returns to normal.

Kohut’s notion of the bipolar self requires, on one end, an idealized parental imago (see above) and, on the other hand, a mirroring of one’s own grandiosity, in order to have healthy personality structure. If one end breaks down, a person relies ever so much more on the other end to compensate and maintain that structure. If both ends break down, there’s the threat of fragmentation, psychosis, and pathological levels of narcissism are thus often used as a defence against that fragmentation.

In these two films, Dr. Knowby and his wife, Henrietta, the symbolic idealized parental imagoes found in the basement/unconscious, have failed spectacularly to measure up to the parental ideal, he for releasing demons into the world instead of (as I speculate was his real intention) binding them and sending them back to Hell, and she for being the demonic bad mother.

Without the symbolic idealized parents, Ash can have recourse only to Annie as a replacement of Linda, to give him the empathic mirroring he needs in order to re-establish psychological structure and become emotionally healthy again. Her reciting of the pages, which symbolizes the talking cure that will pull Ash out of the traumatizing, formless, indescribable, chaotic Real Order and bring him back to the Symbolic Order of language, culture, custom, and society, further reinforces how important she is for helping him regain his sanity.

An interesting detail about that necklace is its round, glass pendant. Since glass gives off reflections, the pendant is like a miniature mirror. Thus, as a gift Ash gave to Linda, and now something lying next to unconscious Annie, it symbolizes that mirroring of love and empathy that helps Ash rid himself of being demonically possessed, and helps him, through narcissism, ward off the threat of fragmentation.

Annie comes to, he strenuously convinces her that he’s no longer possessed, and they work out their plan to retrieve the pages Jake threw into the basement with possessed Henrietta. They go into the toolshed, fit the chainsaw to Ash’s stump, and he uses it to saw off the rifle, which he puts in a kind of holster on his back. Fancying himself a bad-ass demon-destroyer now, he enjoys the flaring-up of his narcissism.

Groovy.

When he goes into the basement to find the soaking-wet papers (symbolically, the Lacanian language of the unconscious), he tosses them up far too easily to Annie (symbolically, bringing what’s unconscious up to consciousness), as if he were throwing up a softball; one would expect the pages to fly apart in the air, but with the blurring between psychotic fantasy and reality, and with his narcissistic overestimation of himself in that fantasy, anything seems possible. Part of Ash wants to be cured enough to fantasize an easy passing up of the pages.

In the final confrontation with Henrietta, symbolically the bad mother internal object from the unconscious, her neck elongates into a serpentine form. So here, she in a sense resembles Tiamat, the Mesopotamian sea-goddess who is usually described as a sea-serpent or dragon, and who as a primordial deity can be likened to the archaic mother.

Annie now sings “Hush, Little Baby” to the mother/monster, echoing the parody of Bion’s container/contained/maternal reverie that Henrietta did on her daughter. Annie’s containment of Henrietta’s demonic rage thus temporarily tames her, distracting her so Ash can hack her head and arms off with the chainsaw. This ends with a repudiating of the idealized parental imago (Ash blowing her head away with the rifle) and having only Annie to give him stability.

Ash and weeping Annie embrace, suggesting the potential of a love relationship between them. Now, Annie has only begun a reciting of the incantations from the pages, which bring the demons into the flesh. Symbolically speaking, this reciting brings the traumas out into the open, but it isn’t enough to heal them. She must be allowed to finish.

Part of Ash wants her to finish (Bion’s K), but another part of him (his disembodied, possessed hand) doesn’t (-K), for a thorough processing of all his traumas will be too painful for him to bear. So his demonic hand, holding the Kandarian dagger, stabs Annie in the back. Narcissistic Ash fancies himself a great hero, but he hasn’t saved anybody in this or the last movie.

Dying Annie struggles to continue reciting, and she manages to bring about the time rift to send the demons back into the past…but before finally succumbing to her death, has she really completed the reciting sufficiently to send the demons back to Hell? I don’t think so. If she has, surely the time rift would be closed up, at least.

All she’s accomplished is sending them…and Ash…back in time to AD 1300. Her death signals the last of his hopes for a love to replace Linda, to mirror his grandiosity. Totally lacking in what Kohut called healthy psychological structure, Ash is overwhelmed with the threat of fragmentation, a psychotic break with reality.

His only way to hang on now is to indulge in narcissistic fantasy, where as a man of the enlightened future, he can imagine himself as ‘superior’ to the “primitive screw-heads” of the year 1300. As the “hero from the sky,” he can indulge in a grandiose messianic fantasy. Narcissism is his last defence against fragmentation.

Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness

Bruce Campbell, whether he wants to be or not, is more or less synonymous with Ash, so calling this third film Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness is essentially the same as calling it Ash vs. Evil Dead, or whatever you want to call it. The story is now all about narcissistic Ash fighting his demons.

As with the second film, this one begins with an abbreviated recap, and reimagining of, the first two films. And as with Evil Dead II, this contradictory reimagining of Ash’s past is just that: a mix of fantasy and fact.

Ash introduces his place of work here–S-MART, a store that sells a variety of commodities, from hardware and housewares to rifles. In his narcissistic imagination, he portrays himself as the ideal employee: hair neatly combed back with a curl in front (a bit like Superman), and dutifully telling customers to “Shop smart: shop S-MART!”

As the ‘ideal employee,’ he’s imagining himself a better employee than many, if not most, of his co-workers. How Ash really is as a worker–be it in S-MART, or wherever he actually had a job prior to his fateful vacation in the cabin–is probably somewhere below that ideal; and given his goofy awkwardness, probably far below.

His wish to believe he’s better than most of his co-workers shows how his social alienation, and Lacanian self-alienation, now spill over into the Marxian concept of alienation; for his “Shop smart: shop S-MART” wish to gain his boss’s favour indicates at least some level of class collaboration.

His wish-fulfillment goes further: we learn that Linda also worked in S-MART; and instead of seeing either the original actress, with her natural, realistic beauty, or the one with the conventional, model-like beauty of the second film, we see Linda with the familiar face of a celebrity–Bridget Fonda, who had already established herself, as of 1992, as a major Hollywood actress in such films as Godfather Part III, Singles, and Single White Female. Thus, Ash’s narcissistic self-deceit extends to idealizing Linda even more, making her a movie star in his fantasies.

The quick recap of the horrors of the first two films is not only for the sake of pacing and getting on with beginning this third story: it’s also because, as I see it, the less detail that Ash needs to go over, the less painful it will be for him. Wilfully forgetting exactly how he acquired his traumas is, once again, Bion’s -K; knowing too much hurts too much.

In his AD 1300 fantasy (note how it isn’t, say, 1301, or 1318), Ash is in chains and being taken to a castle to be thrown into a pit of “deadites.” Narcissists like fancying themselves as victims as much as they like fancying themselves as dashing heroes.

When I describe Ash as ‘narcissistic,’ I don’t mean it in the sense of malignant narcissists who lie, manipulate, and do smear campaigns on their victims. I’m referring to Ash’s change of character as his way of coping with all the traumas he’s suffered: the deaths of his sister and girlfriend, as well as those of Scott and Shelly; also, there are the traumatic disappointments in the symbolic parents of Knowby and Henrietta.

Because of these shocks, Ash has gone from being the unassuming, nice guy of the first film, next to having a psychotic breakdown in the second film, and now, finally to cope with all of this pain, he’s become cocky and belligerent. This is the comic, amusing Ash who’s entertained us, and whom we all love, but that doesn’t change how grandiose he’s imagined himself to be. Indeed, it’s that combination of cocky and awkward that we, as an audience, identify with, and that’s why we love Ash so much…he’s human.

He looks down on the people of 1300 as “primitive screw-heads” and “primates” because seeing himself as above the average person is the only way he can hang on. Since he is, in reality, a careless, bumbling fool, the only way he can feel superior is to indulge in a fantasy world where the average person is ‘behind’ him by almost 700 years.

In the pit, when he has to fight off the possessed, and the wise man tosses down his chainsaw, note how Ash jumps up and effortlessly fits his stump into the chainsaw, all in one flawless attempt. Note how we hear the Early Modern English of writers like Shakespeare, rather than the Middle English of 1300, earlier than even Chaucer. What we’re seeing in this film is not a representation of time travel back to that year, but rather Ash’s fantasy, what he thinks it might have been like.

In this fantasy, Ash is the dashing hero who is waited on by beautiful women who serve him grapes, wine, and roasted meat. The lovely Sheila quickly switches from wanting to kill him to wanting to kiss him. He’s loving every minute of it, needless to say.

The comical absurdity of his fantasy reaches the point of looking like the cover of a Harlequin Romance when he, with his muscular chest showing and his hair blowing in the breeze, holds Sheila and says, “Gimme some sugar, baby,” and they kiss. Ash gets some ass: he’s no longer interested in finding a new love to replace Linda; he connects with women now only out of pleasure-seeking.

Note how this movie is not, essentially, a horror film like its predecessors: it’s a comedy/adventure/fantasy with the trappings of horror in the form of “deadites,” skeletons, etc., and even they are comic rather than frightening. This change in genre is due to the fact that Ash, in his bordering between narcissism and psychosis, is no longer engaging with the real world. He says he wants to go back to his world in the early 1980s…but does he really?

The people of this world cohere socially much better than we’ve seen in the first two films; there’s hostility only between Duke Henry the Red’s people and those of Lord Arthur, as well as, of course, between man and the “deadites.” But this world isn’t real–it’s all in Ash’s imagination.

The wise man tells him that, in order to return to the present time, he must find the Book of the Dead, the Necronomicon, for that book has the magical incantations and formulas to send him back. Since the words in the book symbolize talk therapy, we see again that the only way to be cured of trauma is to face it, to talk one’s way through it. The unconscious is structured like a language, it’s the discourse of the Other. One is cured through a building of knowledge…K.

The wise man tells Ash that, when he finds the book, before taking it, he must say words humorously similar to, “Klaatu, barada, nikto,” a reference to the words of Earth’s salvation in The Day the Earth Stood Still. This allusion is further proof that what Ash is experiencing is fantasy, the details of this dream-world coming from his memory and imagination rather than from the external world.

Still, while the wise man is importuning Ash to memorize the exact words through repetition, Ash displays more -K, his refusal to learn by committing the words to memory. He arrogantly assumes he’s already learned the “damn words,” but talking things through properly, using all the resources of the language of the unconscious to articulate emotion, is crucial to curing trauma and restoring mental health.

Ash rides his horse into a forest (suddenly, he knows how to ride a horse), where he finds himself chased by the racing demon of the first two films. As with Cheryl running to the cabin after being raped by the trees, and Ash rushing back to the cabin after discovering the ruined bridge in Evil Dead II, he–having fallen from his horse–is trying to run away from trauma instead of facing it.

He runs to a windmill, the farcical scene reminding us of that of another deluded, bumbling narcissist who fancies himself a great hero, Don Quixote. Ash gets inside and closes the door behind him, imagining he’ll be as safe from demonic possession as he supposedly was in the cabin of the first two films. The windmill’s walls, like those of the cabin, are a beta screen keeping out traumatizing beta elements (see above).

His being chased by a demon in the forest and using a shelter to protect himself from it suggest what’s really happening to him, as opposed to his medieval fantasy. The windmill is one of his many hallucinations; he’s really alone in the 1980s, having run through the woods and back into the cabin. No horse, no hero…just Ash.

Inside, he sees his reflection in a mirror in the darkness. Thinking it’s someone else, he runs at it and smashes it into pieces. This, once again, is Lacanian self-alienation, between oneself and the specular image. It’s Ash in the reflection…yet it isn’t Ash.

Miniature, demonic versions of Ash emerge from his reflections in the shattered pieces. These are more of what Bion called bizarre objects (see above for links), hallucinated projections of Ash into the external world. They’re a result of the excessive use of a beta screen (the windmill’s walls) to keep out traumatizing beta elements (the demons).

These mini-Ashes attack him, making him trip, bang his head, fall, burn himself, and get a pail stuck on his head. His bumbling reactions to his attackers symbolize the difference between the dashing hero, the ideal-I he saw in the unified, original mirror reflection, before he ran at and broke it, and the clumsy, uncoordinated, fragmented self that Ash really is.

He projects his fragmentation symbolically onto the pieces of broken glass, then into the mini-Ashes who have come out of them. He also projects and denies the bad parts of himself onto the mini-Ashes. Such projection and denial are part of what Kohut called the vertical split of the ego into the grandiose part of the self and the rejected part.

One can project and deny all one wants, just as one can try to repress one’s trauma (as symbolized by locking Cheryl up in the cabin basement), but those bad parts of the self are still, and always will be, part of oneself for as long as the trauma isn’t treated. Hence, one of the mini-Ashes goes down his throat and back inside him, right after they all give him the Lilliput treatment.

He runs outside with an eye having grown by his shoulder, and out there we see the giant moon illusion we’d seen in the original movie…another suggestion that the windmill and medieval world are all just delusions and hallucinations of his. That moon is again, a moon of lunacy, symbolizing his still-psychotic state.

A second head grows out of the spot where the eye was, and soon a second body grows beside Ash’s original; then the two come apart. A good Ash, and a bad one: he has projected his undesirable half again, in a narcissistic attempt to be only the hero.

That the bad Ash and the mini-Ashes are all comical in nature shows how good Ash, in his narcissistic imagination, deflates the worth of the bad Ashes, big and small; just as the army of skeletons, soon to be seen, are also made to look ridiculous. Ash is projecting his bumbling foolishness, as well as his bad side, onto all of them.

After beating bad Ash (by disfiguring his face with a gunshot) and burying him, good Ash finds the Necronomicon…three books! The consequences of his -K are apparent when he forgets the exact wording of the three-word formula to take the correct book and leave the area safely. Symbolically, his failure is a restatement of the theme presented throughout this trilogy: the talking cure, which brings us out of the trauma of the Real and back into the culturally shared signifiers of the Symbolic, must be followed–to the letter, as it were–to its completion, not left halfway.

Once again, narcissistic Ash thinks he’s projecting his foolishness onto others, but the foolishness is always his own. His stealing of the book, while faking the enunciation of the three words, causes the raising of the dead, who are now headed for him and the castle to retrieve it.

Ash is now despised by Arthur, the wise man, and all the people in the castle. Arthur calls him a “braggart,” and a “coward.” But since this is Ash’s fantasy, this negative feeling towards him cannot last long; so he proves his mettle in not only leading the men to protect the book and the castle, but also to train the men in wielding spears (another skill he’s suddenly endowed with), and to have Duke Henry the Red’s men help.

Sheila is captured by a flying deadite, taken to the risen bad Ash, and possessed of a demon. The two will lead an army of comical skeletons to attack the castle. In the ensuing battle, Ash proves his bravery with a sword (yet another suddenly acquired skill…more narcissistic fantasy), and his ingenuity with modern science (quickly gleaned from textbooks conveniently found in the trunk of his car…even more narcissistic fantasy).

With the defeat of bad Ash and the skeletons, Sheila is restored to her original beauty, and–thanks to the help, however belated, of Duke Henry the Red’s men in the fight–the two groups of people become friends. Since this trilogy has mainly been about the breakdown of society through shared trauma, this anomalous amity between people is just more of Ash’s wish-fulfilling fantasy.

When Ash is about to be returned to his own time, he is given precise instructions on how to prepare for his travel ahead through time. But once again, he fails to pay attention to detail (-K), and depending on which ending you see, he either returns to the present while bringing the possessed with him, right into S-MART, or he sleeps too long and wakes in a post-apocalyptic world.

Both endings are acceptable: either he resumes his narcissistic fantasy of being a dashing hero and ladies’ man in today’s world (leading to Ash vs. Evil Dead), or he witnesses the horrific conclusion to how collective trauma (and how oversleeping symbolizes -K, a refusal to learn from history) leads to social breakdown, then ultimately to the annihilation of the human race, which is a truly evil dead.

Narcissistic Envy and Jealousy

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

The development of pathological narcissism can in some ways be connected to the irresolution of the Oedipus complex, for as Don Carveth has noted, this complex is a narcissistic trauma. Still, we must first clarify what the Oedipus complex really is; a brief explanation of other psychoanalytic concepts helpful in understanding narcissism (a more detailed exploration can be found here, if what’s written below is frustratingly obscure) will be made below, too, before I get into a discussion of how my family conflicts can be seen as an example of narcissism based on Oedipal envy and jealousy.

The best way to understand the Oedipus complex is in a metaphoric sense–far more than just Freud‘s literal, primitive conception of wanting to remove the rival, same-sex parent and wanting to possess the opposite-sex one (or, in the case of the negative Oedipus complex, children loving the same-sex parent and hating the opposite-sex one). The desire for the one parent doesn’t have to be sexual, incestuous; and the hostility to the other parent doesn’t have to involve murderous phantasies. The child simply doesn’t wish to share the desired parent with a rival; he wants that parent all to himself.

Furthermore, as I’ve touched on elsewhere, the desire and hostility don’t each have to be reserved for only one parent or the other; a child typically has a love/hate relationship with both parents, based on his or her acceptance of what Melanie Klein called the “good” and “bad” mother and father aspects of both parents, understood when the child has developed a sense of ambivalence for them, derived from the depressive position, a resolution of the black-and-white splitting from the earlier paranoid-schizoid position.

Anyway, the Oedipal situation is best understood as a narcissistic relationship we all, as little children or infants, had with an idealized parent and the rival other parent, who annoys the child by drawing Mother’s attention away from him or her. Usually the ideal parent is the mother, idolized by little boys and girls–these latter kids during the pre-Oedipal phase–because the mother usually has more access to, and (unfortunately, due to sex roles and the patriarchal family) responsibility for, the babies than the father has.

This narcissistic period occurs in what Jacques Lacan called the Imaginary Order, sparked by the mirror stage, when an infant sees his or her mirror reflection for the first time, then conceives him- or herself as a coherent, unified being (as opposed to the spastic, fragmentary body the infant otherwise perceives himself to have). The reflected image is an idealized self–just as the mother’s smiling face, which the baby sees as a metaphorical mirror reflection of itself, is the face of an idealized person the child imagines to be an extension of itself, rather than an independent being in her own right, with her own needs and desires.

The notion of the mother as an extension of the baby is intensified since, as Wilfred Bion observed (and expressed with his idiosyncratic terminology), the baby needs the mother to provide her ability to think for it and process its outer stimuli (beta elements), because the baby doesn’t yet have a developed thinking apparatus. The mother is a container, holding all the upsetting, frightening external stimuli for the baby (the contained) in a state of maternal reverie, then transforming the baby’s pain, anxiety, etc. into a pacifying form it can accept (alpha elements), and returning it to the baby.

This, according to Bion, is how Knowledge (K) develops for the infant, a transferring of energy back and forth, from infant to mother and back again (container/contained), via projective identification; acquiring knowledge, however, may be desired or feared. (Bion observed this of Tiresias in the Oedipus myth, when the blind prophet was reluctant to tell King Oedipus that he was responsible for his father‘s death, and that he had married and committed incest with his mother. Read more here, pages 45-49.)

A narcissistic mother, already lacking in empathy, may not be all that willing to help her babies grow in knowledge through reverie and Bion’s notion of containment, thus causing the babies’ anxieties not to be processed and soothed, but rather to be turned into a nameless dread; the frustrated baby thus, in self-defence, limits its acquiring of knowledge (-K) from what it perceives to be the “bad mother.” The narcissistic mother would rather have her children dependent on her than be independent in knowledge.

This building-up of knowledge exclusively through the mother (or, by extension, the infant’s Oedipally-desired, male or female primary caregiver), can thus be a bad thing if this desired caregiver is the baby’s more-or-less only window to the world, barring the intervention of a third party (Father, or by extension, the rest of society) to round out and give nuance to the child’s experience of the world. The child thus never matures or fully leaves Lacan‘s narcissistic Imaginary Order to enter the Symbolic Order, to acquire fluency in the language and shared symbols of society, and thus fit into society.

In a similar vein, Heinz Kohut wrote about how the infantile narcissistic state is composed of two poles: 1) the idealized parental imago, an image of the loved parent (what Kohut called a self-object to satisfy narcissistic needs, or to validate and affirm the ego’s narcissistic self-image), which is introjected and felt to be an internal object inside the child’s mind; and 2) the boastful grandiose self, which can be related to Lacan’s narcissistic ideal-I from the mirror stage. If these two poles’ effectiveness in building psychological structure for the child are compromised (e.g., because of an unresolved Oedipal conflict), he or she could develop pathologically narcissistic traits as an adult.

Since the mirror doesn’t have to be a literal one (i.e., the infant–looking at his mother’s loving face [see Homer, page 24]–can see a symbolic mirror reflecting both his ideal, grandiose self and his idealized parent, an extension of himself via projective and introjective identification [container/contained]), we can see how Freud, Lacan, Bion, and Kohut can be fused. This is the self/other dialectic, the human personality as understood in a relational sense with other people, the psychic bridges between us all.

So, the Oedipal relationship with (usually) the mother is one of mirroring narcissism back to the child and of giving narcissistic idolatry to the desired parent. The problem for the child is that this two-way, mirroring relationship can’t last forever. As the child gets older, he or she must come to accept that the prized parent has desires for someone else (the other parent, a boyfriend/girlfriend, etc.). The parent can’t belong exclusively to the child, and this traumatizing disappointment must be gotten over.

Most of us can get over this, to at least a reasonable extent, hence our infantile, childhood narcissism is let down tolerably, bit by bit (optimal frustration), and reduced to socially acceptable levels by the time we reach adulthood. Some people, on the other hand, because of some arrest in their childhood development, never sufficiently resolve this Oedipal trauma; these people grow up with pathological levels of narcissism, and throughout their lives need people to mirror their grandiosity back to them in the form of narcissistic supply.

I believe my mother suffered such unresolved traumas when she was a child, having been born in England two years before the Blitz, which–even if the bombings hadn’t happened in the city or town she, as an infant, had been in at the time–at least would have exposed her to a great level of parental stress in her immediate environment.

More significantly for her, though, would have been the death–several years later–of her father, to whom she’d have had a great Oedipal attachment, him being her metaphorical mirror when she was a little girl in the 1940s. Finally, her move with her widowed mother to Canada, by the 1950s, would have ripped her away from the–to her–idyllic, Edenic world of her origins, and put her in a strange new world she’d have found difficult to adjust to at such a tender, young age.

Because of these disruptions in her childhood development, she would have needed to fill in the voids where empathic mirroring was supposed to be. I believe she would eventually use my dad, my siblings, and me to fill in those voids, either to mirror her grandiose self back to her (i.e., my sister, J., her golden child, her idealized self), or to have people onto whom she could project the hated parts of herself (me–the scapegoat, or identified patient–and her nephews, L. and G., and eventually S., too, as I’ve explained in previous posts). To an extent, even my dad got scapegoated (whenever he displeased or disappointed her, which was frequent); so when he took me under his wing when I was a kid, the rest of the family blackballed me all the worse.

If Dad and I were mirroring each other, Mom was getting all that much less of a mirroring from me, causing her narcissistic injury. Narcissists are known for their wish to hog all the attention to themselves, so anyone taking any of that coveted attention away is seen as a rival to be envied. A key personality trait of people with NPD is envy: envy of others as well as a perception that others envy them, something easily interpreted as projected envy.

I believe that my mother’s envy of Dad’s ‘usurping,’ if you will, of some of that attention was part of her motive to fan the flames of jealousy that my brothers, R. and F., felt when Dad seemed to favour me over them. Their jealousy would have been a manifestation of their unresolved negative Oedipal feelings toward Dad; the same would apply to my sister, J., in her Oedipally-inspired jealousy. The Oedipal situation is all about narcissism, family rivalry, competition for love, and therefore, jealousy.

Jealousy differs slightly from envy, in that the former involves a fear of losing someone’s love to another person (this was my siblings’ problem); whereas envy involves irritation over one person having some kind of advantage, something or someone the envier lacks, thus making the envious one want to hurt the object of his envy (Mom’s problem).

I believe Mom envied the attention I gave to Dad, so she set up two camps in the family: those who were ‘loyal’ to her (my three siblings), and those who were ‘disloyal,’ Dad and me; this division into camps was the basis of much of the needless conflict in our family. While much of my father’s grumpy, authoritarian nastiness was due to his excess adherence to conservative values (his slavery to tradition), I believe a lot of his adversarial nature came from his bitterness in having married a narcissist, all while lacking the psychological vocabulary to give expression to his frustrations (one of Dad’s many bigotries was his hate of psychiatry, which he believed spawned many social ills).

So, by pushing R., F., and J. to focus their attention on Mom, to mirror her grandiosity back to her, and by punishing them if ever they failed to do so, Mom was causing my siblings to have–at least to a significant extent–an insufficiently resolved Oedipal conflict, a conflict she exploited to her advantage. They idolized her, felt a guarded hostility to Dad (criticism of him was allowed to a point; criticism of Mom was taboo, with rare exceptions), and tormented me for daring to do what they’d been forbidden to do: to have roughly equal proportions of affection and hostility for both parents.

I’m not saying R., F., and J. felt only negative feelings for Dad: a certain, circumscribed amount of affection for him was seen by Mom as not only acceptable, but appropriate and expected (after all, we had to maintain the public image of being a ‘good, loving family’). A similarly limited love was doled out to me by all of them, ‘as appropriate.’ J., as the golden child, was especially obligated ‘to love’ me.

The conflict that my mother promoted was also meant to stay within certain ‘acceptable’ limits. Mom was at least partly responsible for having failed to resolve the mid-1970s conflict between Dad and teen R. over the relative triviality of his bad grades at school. I speculate that she may have, in fact, helped escalate the conflict leading to teen R.’s leaving home; it’s all described in more detail here–scroll down about a third to halfway into it; read there also about his ranting to me, years later, of Dad supposedly loving J. and me more for having gotten better grades in school…Oedipal jealousy. Mom thus had to be careful not to let family fights escalate into physical violence, or into any of us, still underage at the time, running away from home.

Hence, Mom tolerated anyone verbally abusing me, but drew the line at physical violence (i.e., when she knew F. had perpetrated it); also, Mom’s use of the autism lie on me (read about that here) could have been partially motivated by a wish to ensure I’d be too scared to run away from home, she having implied that I was ‘too mentally incompetent’ to be able to take care of myself.

The family was fond of scorning me as some kind of overgrown child. But if I’m right about this repressed, unconscious Oedipus factor as the basis for so much of my conflict with Mom and my siblings, as well as their conflicts with each other and with Dad (all those unresolved Mommy and Daddy issues), we now can see who in my family, deep down, were the truly childish ones.

R., F., and J. were in a perpetual competition to see who was the ‘worthiest’ of Mom’s love, never realizing that conditional love isn’t love at all. They based their (and my) worth on how much of Mom’s love we had ‘earned’ (in earlier posts–some of which are among the links given above–I gave many examples of my siblings implying they’d ‘earned’ a love I hadn’t). Their sense of emotional stability, self-confidence, and ability to function normally in the world was based on the comfortable, flattering illusion of that love. I saw through the family’s bullshit, and they shame me for daring to have that Tiresias-like insight, Bion’s K, which they are probably still too afraid to uncover.

Wilfred R. Bion, Learning From Experience, Maresfield Library, London, 1962

Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Approach to the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1971

Sean Homer, Jacques Lacan, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, London, 2005

Forgiveness vs. Understanding

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

To all those abuse victims out there who can, whether it be for religious reasons or otherwise, forgive their victimizers, I must say that that’s commendable of you. I must respectfully disagree with this attitude, however, as I find the unrepentant abuser to be unworthy of forgiveness.

The forgivers do have a good point, though. Simmering in perpetual resentment, ruminating over the abuse, and constantly reminding oneself–as a reaction to second-guessing–of why one is angry and hurt: these things punish only us, while our abusers go to bed every night and not miss a wink of sleep.

Is there another way, a solution that allows us to have peace without giving our abusers something they haven’t earned? I think so–it’s understanding.

Instead of just regarding them as evil, or as assholes, we should try to understand the course of events that lead them to become who they are. This is why reading about the causes of narcissism, ASPD, and other Cluster B personality disorders is so important.

I personally focus on narcissism since I believe my late mother had NPD, maybe even malignant narcissism (though I can never know for sure, since she was never diagnosed). While psychoanalysis obviously doesn’t have the final say on the causes and treatment of narcissism, it does provide a number of insights worthy of at least some consideration. I recommend reading Heinz Kohut, though his writing is wordy, academic, technical, and therefore very difficult to read through.

Kohut focuses on the narcissist having been deprived of empathy (mirroring) from, and of a solid role model (idealized parental imago) in, his or her parents, resulting in the hated parts of the narcissist’s personality being repressed or disavowed, split off from the self (I interpret this latter defence mechanism as projection, or projective identification, a passing of their own faults onto other people, their abuse victims).

Beyond problems like these, though, it’s often said that narcissists and psychopaths are the way they are, at least in part, because of severe childhood trauma from various forms of abuse and neglect (i.e., disrupted parental bonding). So we can understand what made them that way, though it never gave them any special right to do what they did to us; hence I favour understanding over forgiveness.

I’ve explained in previous posts why I believe my late mother developed pathological levels of narcissism, traits she denied in herself by putting on a False Self of the altruistic, ‘loving mother’ (even though she constantly bad-mouthed her nephews–and me, in all probability–behind their backs and mine), and by projecting her faults onto me, the family scapegoat, or identified patient.

I’ll review those reasons here below, as well as give what I think are the reasons her flying monkeys, my older brothers R. and F., and my older sister J., the golden child, were such bullies to me when I was a child, teen, and young adult.

Born in London, England in 1938, and therefore subjected on at least some level to the Blitz starting two years later, my mother must have had a traumatizing infancy. Added to this, her father–whom she deeply loved–died when she was a little girl…more trauma. Then she emigrated with her mother to Canada, leaving behind the whole world of her childhood to enter a totally unfamiliar one…even more childhood trauma.

The thing to be amazed at is not how screwed up my mother was, but how well she kept herself together. I believe she used a grandiose self as a defence against psychological fragmentation, the emotional falling-apart or disintegration of the personality.

Now, that grandiose self of hers wouldn’t have lasted long in a world that doesn’t tolerate braggarts. I’ll bet her mother–already with enough on her plate, and struggling to raise Mom on her own until meeting the man who would be my step-grandfather–was particularly annoyed with my then-teenage Mom’s egotism. I’m guessing Grandma shamed Mom for it, instead of empathically mirroring it, as Kohut would do in treating narcissists, and letting her grandiosity down in levels tolerable for her to endure, so she could cultivate the moderate, restrained, healthy, and mature amounts of narcissistic tendencies of normal people.

My then-adolescent mother (assuming my speculations are correct) would have had to bury her shame and adapt, transforming her overt narcissism into the covert kind. Part of this would have involved replacing boasting about herself with smearing other people behind their backs. Over the years, she would have honed her skills at observing people, gossiping, and spreading rumours, to the point of rarely, if ever, getting caught having told a lie.

Getting married and having children would have given my mother the perfect setting to play her manipulative games. Children are blank slates, ideal for moulding into whatever kind of people the narcissistic parent wants them to be. A spouse who can be dominated, and whose contempt for all things psychological and psychiatric would preclude his benefitting from gaining any insight into human nature (a perfect description of the disposition of my late father), would be a perfect match for a narcissist, too.

The thrill of dominating a whole family in this way would be an irresistible pleasure for a narcissistic mother. The master of puppets could then indulge her fantasies of superiority and power-wielding by taking advantage of naïve children who desperately need parental love and approval, tricking them into confusing parental bullying with discipline and correction of misbehaviour.

She could play Pygmalion, sculpting her sons’ and daughters’ personalities and self-perceptions into whatever she wanted them to be. All that shame my Mom had from her original egotism and self-absorption could be projected onto an innocent, unsuspecting child (me). The idealized version of herself that she wished she could equate with what she saw in the mirror would instead be projected onto another of her children (my sister, J.), whom she could look at as if looking at her own reflection. The pain of emotional neglect, or a lack of empathic mirroring, which she got as a child could be expelled from her and projected onto her remaining sons (my brothers, R. and F.).

The stage was set: we, her sons and daughter, would contain all her pain, dejection, and self-hate (J.’s pain being the pressure, as the golden child, to be everything Mom demanded she be, and to embody every virtue Mom failed to embody herself). By containing all these hurts for Mom (as, under normal circumstances, a mother in reverie would contain the pain and anxieties of her baby), we unwittingly freed her to function normally in society…or at least to seem to be functioning so.

Now, that was the dysfunctional way my mother dealt with her pain. With my brothers, the source of much of their nastiness to me was in their strained relationship with our father: this is especially true of R.

In all the blog posts I’ve written about my family, I’ve said comparatively little about the faults of my father, in large part because–in spite of how egregious his faults were–I don’t consider him to have had pathological levels of narcissistic traits (I don’t consider F. to have them either, however much of a bully he was to me). We need now to consider the role Dad played in all of our family’s problems.

Dad had a reactionary attitude towards child rearing. If we kids did wrong, he imagined shaming us into doing right would work. He was a staunch conservative, and an ardent advocate of spanking. If you got poor grades at school, or showed a lack of interest in improving them (he was a high school teacher back in the 1960s), you were going to have a hard time with him. Enter my academically disappointing brothers.

J and I got good grades in school (especially her…and Dad growled at me from time to time if I ever got disappointing grades), so he was generally nicer to us. Dad actually took me under his wing, mentoring me, even. Now, bear in mind that his influence wasn’t always a good thing, given his bigotry against blacks, Jews, gays, the left, etc., and teaching kids bigoted beliefs is considered a form of emotional abuse. Nonetheless, this closeness between Dad and me incurred jealousy in R. and F., giving those two pricks a motive to bully me.

Now, as understandable as my elder brothers’ jealousy and rage were, it doesn’t come even close to justifying R.’s and F’s viciousness towards me. Why should I have been punished for having one family member reasonably (far from absolutely!) on my side? Consider the heartbreak I felt to learn how my mother, with her eight WTF moments (<<see here, scrolling down to Part VII: Conclusion), had never really been on my side, with J. as her mini-me, helping her. Would Mom’s cruelties to me justify my being vindictive to R. and F., given Mom’s general favouring of them over me (e.g., looking the other way when they bullied me)?

Am I not allowed one family friend (which Dad wasn’t in the strict sense, for he verbally abused me on many occasions, as did the others, typically for minor things I’d done to annoy him)? Dad looked well on J. usually; and she and Mom were pals, she being the golden child. Though R. was often nasty to J. for the same reason he was to me (i.e., our better school grades), he was nasty to her only a fraction of the time he was to me; and F. generally wasn’t mean to her–only to me.

Something else had to be going on to explain the family’s aggravated abuse on me; even my personal faults (which, I admit, are far from few) cannot account for the volume of viciousness they all showed me. This is where my poison-tongued mother came in.

I believe that her childhood traumas, as outlined above, caused her to imagine that isolation and conflict are standard elements in human relationships, that a large dose of resentment and hostility mixed in with otherwise ‘loving’ family relationships was her normal. Hence, all the rancour she inspired among us.

I was scapegoated by her, and so, I believe, was our henpecked father, to a great extent. So my ‘friendship’ with him made us into the ‘bad team’ of the family during my youth in Canada; and Mom, R., F., and J. were the ‘good team,’ since they gave Mom substantial amounts of narcissistic supply. All three of my siblings felt varying levels of bitterness towards Dad, and I believe Mom stoked the flames of their animus towards him, just as she had towards my three cousins. Conflict was her normal, as long as it didn’t get pushed too far.

It did get pushed too far once, back in the mid-70s, when then-teenage R. went through some emotional problems leading to his swallowing over a dozen pills, then later leaving home, that is, not moving with us from Toronto to Hamilton. I’ve gone over what happened back then in more detail here (<<<scroll one third to halfway down), with my speculation that Mom was at least partially, significantly responsible for the escalating conflict between him and Dad.

I believe part of her motive–in lying to me that mythical shrinks judged that I was too mentally incompetent (from her having lied to me about having infantile autism) to “make even a good garbageman” (!)–was so I’d be too scared to run away from home, as R. had. Her autism lie, designed to make me seem inferior and irritating instead of worthy of compassion, would also make me seem totally unworthy of the favour I’d been getting from Dad, thus making my siblings loathe me all the more.

Mom’s final lie to me, told on R.’s cellphone while she lay on her deathbed, that she “gave [me] the most love” during my preteen/early adolescent years (scroll down to Part 6 here for the whole story) was, I believe, calculated to stir up more jealousy in R., who was sitting by her bed when she said it to me. (For the record, Mother dear, lying about me having autism, lying that psychiatrists had thought I should be locked away in an asylum due to mental retardation, and allowing my siblings to bully me, are not examples of how to give a son any love, let alone “the most love”!) She wanted my siblings to believe that I, as ‘undeserving’ as I was, was the parental favourite!

The absurdity of such a belief (and, therefore, the cruelty of her making them believe that) is obvious, and should be obvious to them, given not only J.’s golden child status against mine as the scapegoat, and not only because of how R., F., and J. grew up largely thinking their bullying of me was morally defensible (thanks not only to Mom’s winking at the vast majority of it, but also to her rationalizing and minimizing of their cruelty, and her invalidating of my side of the story), but also how Mom had said, years before on at least two occasions (one of them with J. present), that F. was her favourite. I believed Mom at the time, but now that I know what a pathological liar she was, I believe she said it to stir up jealousy in J. (her real favourite) and me.

The point of stirring up all this conflict was to make the three of us compete for Mom’s love. J.’s self-righteous moralizing, as with R.’s and F.’s, was to tell me, “See, Mawr? We’re more deserving of Mom’s love than you are!” One time, in a fight with F., I claimed his ‘caring’ for other people (as opposed to his accusation that ‘I don’t care about anyone but myself’), was just to get attention. Furious, he yelled four-letter abuse at me and threatened to hit me: was his anger because I’d said something unfair…or because what I’d said was true?

Just as Mom used projective identification to expel what she hated in herself onto me, so did R., F., and J. project what Mom and Dad had made them hate in themselves onto me. They needed to get rid of that poisonous pain…by using me as the receptacle of it?

Anyway, my point is that I can understand why everyone in the family was the way they were. Mom was manipulating them as much as she was manipulating me, though in different ways. I won’t forgive them, though, because their willful ignorance of what really happened in that family makes them unworthy of being forgiven for their wrongs against me. They wouldn’t be able to bear learning that Mom never really loved any of us, but only pretended to, while using us instead to give her narcissistic supply.

I say, leave my siblings in the security of their illusions that Mom was loving, that they were all good, and only I was the one with the problems. It’s the most loving thing I can do for them.