‘Experiment,’ a Poem by Jason Morton

Here is another poem by my friend, Jason Morton, whose work I’ve written about a number of times before. Again, as before, I’m putting his poem in italics to distinguish his writing from mine:

Shattered symmetry
Breaking every side I thought i held
No longer one
I can’t see through my broken eyes
Everything I once held true
Is no longer real or harmonised
Every lip every kiss
Every touch and every finger tip
Don’t!
Touch!
Me!
I can’t shatter anymore than this
It is so visual
And the high
Is residual
Where Lucifer claims me
I fall where my blood Cascades
And puddles beneath me
In a moment I am but a breath away
From transparency….

And now, for my analysis.

The title ‘Experiment’ may seem at odds with the content of the poem, but when you consider the etymological origin of the word–it comes from the Latin experimentum (‘a test, a trial,’), which in turn comes from experiri, ‘to try, test,’ from ex, ‘out of’ and peritus (‘experienced, tested’), from the root per-, ‘to try, risk’–we can see a plausible relationship between title and poem. The poet has tried things, tested them, had experiences, and has had disastrous results.

The trauma and pain of life’s experiences, tests, and trials has resulted in psychological fragmentation for the poet. Everything has broken apart for him: he is “No longer one.” Normally, the danger of fragmentation is averted by caregivers, lovers, and friends, who empathically mirror and validate one’s feelings and experiences; but in the case of the poet, these would-be empathic mirrors, or what Heinz Kohut called self-objects, have failed him.

So he “can’t see through [his] broken eyes,” which are broken mirrors reflecting those shattered ones that failed to empathize and validate his feelings. Fragmentation can lead to a lost sense of reality. Nothing is “harmonised”; all is discord for him. In the second line, we see a deliberate use of a lower-case i, which symbolically expresses this sense of a broken self.

Those body parts and actions that normally express love and empathy, “Every lip every kiss/Every touch and every finger tip,” he is deprived of them, so he rejects any subsequent attempt to show affection for fear that such attempts are fake. They seem deceptions meant to betray his trust once again. Hence, “Don’t!/Touch!/Me!” Even these three words are broken apart, each given its own, separate line, divided with the exclamation marks of violent shouting.

After being rejected from the outside world, after experiencing frustrations from out there, one tends to respond with the defence mechanism of splitting, of breaking up objects (both internal and external) into black-and-white opposites of absolute good and bad, then expelling the bad halves to protect oneself from the pain. When taken to extremes, this splitting, this rejecting of so many parts of oneself, can result in one feeling as if he has little of himself left, hence the danger of fragmentation. Hence, the poet “can’t shatter anymore than this”.

There is a fleeting pleasure in rejecting, the relief of not having anyone around to hurt oneself, if only for the moment. Thus, “the high/Is residual”. The kind of pain typically felt is the trauma personified by “Lucifer,” the devilish inner critic, Freud‘s overbearing superego. Lucifer (‘light-bringer’), was a beautiful angel before he was cast out of heaven and thenceforth known as Satan. His goodness turned into overweening pride; thus Lucifer is a perfect metaphor for the self-righteous, cruel inner critic.

This inner critic “claims” the poet, making him “fall where [his] blood Cascades/And puddles beneath [him]”. Capitalized ‘Cascades’ suggests (if only unconsciously, like a parapraxis in typing) the many waterfalls in the world, in turn suggesting a huge outpouring of blood, so great is the poet’s pain and loss from so much splitting and projecting of unwanted objects.

“In a moment [he is] but a breath away/From transparency….” Since he “can’t shatter anymore than this,” his fragmentation is approaching disintegration. He is almost transparent because he is about to vanish. Pain and trauma can lead to the extremes of psychotic panic. These problems indicate how imperative it is not to trivialize psychological trauma. Mental illness is on the rise, and for many reasons, including some that I’ve complained about in many blog posts.

Let’s hope the poet can bring the pieces back together, and soon.

Archaic Trauma

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

By “archaic,” I refer to the use of the term by post-Freudian psychoanalysts like Melanie Klein. She wrote of the terrifying archaic mother that exists in babies’ minds during their first few months, when they’re experiencing what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position. This position is a splitting of the internal object of the mother into extremes of good and bad, accompanied by intense persecutory anxiety after trying to split off and project the bad mother.

Heinz Kohut also referred to archaic feelings in the infantile mental state, old feelings that are brought back to the surface of consciousness in the adult patient through the narcissistic transferences. He studied and treated patients with narcissistic personality disorders, those who “are suffering from specific disturbances in the realm of the self and of those archaic objects cathected with narcissistic libido (self-objects) which are still in intimate connection with the archaic self (i.e., objects which are not experienced as separate and independent from the self).” (Kohut, page 3)

So I’m using “archaic” to mean old emotional experiences from early childhood and infancy, repressed as the years go by and forgotten about. Yet remember that whatever we repress comes back, though in a new and unrecognizable form.

Many of our traumas are of this archaic kind. As infants, we can’t prevent moments when our parents frustrated us, which results in us using the defence mechanism of splitting, or dividing our internal mental representations of our parents into absolute good and bad, and then projecting the bad half outward. If those parents have gone beyond being merely frustrating, and have ventured into being emotionally neglectful or even abusive, imagine how much more severe the splitting will be, and how much more severe the archaic trauma will be.

I’ve written several times before of my speculations on what my mother’s infancy and early childhood must have been like, she having been born in England in August, 1938, and doubtlessly having been surrounded by stressed-out parents and relatives during the Blitz, if not having endured the ordeal of bombings right there in their own city.

To have to take in, as a tender infant, such overwhelming agitation would have been unbearable. Such bad vibes would have had to be expelled and split off from the self. There’s no way an infant would have been able to process such archaic trauma.

The two poles of my mother’s nascent personality–those two being her infantile grandiose self, using her own mother as an empathic mirror of it, and her father as idealized parental imago–were in an unstable state because of the war. When her father died, she as a child lost the idealized pole, her beloved role model, forever; when, as I suspect, she found her now-single mother too busy and stressed to be sufficiently emotionally available for her, the other pole was insecure.

Her mother’s marrying of her now step-father must have caused some friction, that of the “No one can replace my daddy” sort. To defend herself from the psychological fragmentation that would accompany this weakening of her bipolar self–which, had it not been weakened, would have resulted in her grandiose self being let down in bearable amounts (known as “optimal frustration“), leading to mature, restrained, and healthy levels of narcissism–my mother would have had to build up a pathologically narcissistic False Self.

This False Self of hers gave her stability, allowing her to function in the world, in spite of her pathologies. That archaic trauma, however, was never resolved. Whatever gets pushed back into the unconscious will return, as I said above, though in a form that isn’t easily recognized.

I have every reason to suspect that, now grown-up, married to my dad, and a mother, she regularly behaved like a tyrant to my elder siblings, my brothers R. and F., and my sister, J, when they were little. I suspect that the bulk of the abuse they suffered from her was either before I was born, or when I was too young to know what was going on, let alone remember.

I’ve already related the story of our mother bragging (decades after the incident) about pulling down the pants of R. (then a kid) and publicly spanking him in a supermarket for “being a brat” (his fault, for all I know, could have been anywhere on a continuum from “being a brat” to just causing her narcissistic injury). “He never did it again,” she boasted, proud of her power over a little boy.

I’ll bet there were many instances of her doing this kind of thing to all three of my siblings, of her (and, to be fair to her, of our dad doing it, too) beating them (physically or mentally) into submission. The archaic trauma that they’d have felt, at so young an age, would have made it virtually impossible for them to process what had been done to them, let alone understand its true meaning.

Children at such a tender age are far too helpless to go around questioning the motives of their parents. In their state of utter dependency, children cannot afford (literally) to contemplate the possibility that their parents are, often if not almost always, bad people. When punished, bullied, threatened, or abused by Mom or Dad, a child will find it easier to blame him- or herself for the problem; this is a defence mechanism called turning against oneself.

The frustrating bad parent is nonetheless still there, and the child has to deal with the resulting pain in one form or another. As I said above, the child can engage in splitting, recognizing only the good parent and attempting to project the bad one far outside himself. This ejecting, I believe, is what R., F., and J. did with those aspects of our mother that were so hurtful. They also turned against themselves whenever she flew into narcissistic rages, instead of contemplating the far more painful possibility that one of the two crucial people feeding them, clothing them, and putting a roof over their heads often got mad at them for immature, totally unjustified reasons.

J., the golden child of our family (and therefore the top candidate to be the narcissistic second-in-command in our family, since our father tended to be bad-mouthed by our mother, that is, if she felt he’d crossed her in some way), would have been disappointed in Dad’s insufficient empathic mirroring of her grandiose self; so J. would have compensated for this insufficiency by having Mom as her idealized parental imago.

Because of this idealizing, J. would react to any of our mother’s rages with fawning. What makes my elder siblings’ world have psychological stability is their bedrock belief in the narrative that our mother was a ‘wonderful, loving family woman’…yes, one who gossiped about and bad-mouthed her nephews, stirred up resentment and division in our family, and emotionally abused me with gaslighting and lies about an autism spectrum disorder I’ve never had. Some love.

This insistence that Mom was ‘so wonderful and loving,’ just like Mom’s having told me on her deathbed that she’d given me “the most love” (i.e., more than she’d given R., F., and J., which is utter nonsense–she most obviously favoured J., her golden child), was a blatant example of reaction formation. To keep alive the myth that ‘we’re all one big happy, loving family,’ R., F., and J. speak of Mom’s wonderful love instead of facing up to the painful reality that was the opposite of this fabled love: at best, she loved us conditionally–if we gave her narcissistic supply, she was good to us; if we failed to give her that supply, there’d be hell to pay. R., F., and J. learned how to play Mom’s game.

I didn’t learn the game, because I didn’t want to (I hate phoniness). I would also pay dearly for that refusal. I paid for my individual ways by being made into the family scapegoat, or identified patient. My ‘illness’ as that ‘patient’ was the autism lie, a label used to make me feel different from everyone else, and thus to isolate me, judge me, and make me feel inferior to the rest of the family.

You see, they all had their forms of archaic trauma, and they needed to release all that pent-up pain. In me, someone five years younger than J., six years younger than F., and eight years younger than R. (making them adolescents when I was a little boy, and young adults when I was an adolescent), they had the perfect emotional punching bag. They projected everything they hated about themselves onto me, and displaced all their frustration at the split-off bad mother and bad father onto me. Getting all that negative energy out of themselves allowed them otherwise to function.

I, on the other hand, didn’t have the luxury of a younger brother or sister that I could take out all my pain on. That my elder siblings, mother, and to an extent my father, could use me for that purpose shows not only how spectacularly they failed at being that ‘loving family’ they fancied themselves to be, but also shows what cowards they were. Anyone can take his frustrations out on a powerless child; not everyone can look in the mirror and see what’s wrong with himself.

Now, to be fair, on a number of occasions, I as a teacher have found myself blowing up at students (little kids, generally) whenever they irritated me, frustrated me, or made my job stressful in any other way. I have also, unlike R., F., J., or our late mother, usually apologized sincerely to those kids and made genuine efforts to control my anger. And I have never used gaslighting on a student to make him believe he had a mental disorder he doesn’t have, to maintain power over him.

The bullying that my family subjected me to involved intimidating me to the point where I rarely dared to fight back. This, of course, started when I was very little, and they were all much bigger than I. At the time, my caving in to them and letting them walk all over me was a simple survival tactic. By the time I’d grown taller, I was already programmed never to fight back. Our mother’s typical defending of them at my expense only reinforced that programmed passivity of mine. The bullying I endured in school didn’t help, of course.

This timidity of mine, my ‘freeze‘ response, was based on my archaic trauma. If I ever dared to fight back, I knew the family would double down on me with their nastiness, because they never wanted to lose power over me. Their rationalizations over why they ‘had to’ get so nasty (I was ‘so frustrating’ and ‘annoying,’ while they apparently never were), combined with a few good deeds done here and there for me, reassured them of their collective delusion that they were always ‘loving’ to me.

Our family relationships were based on lies, for not only did Mom have her False Self, but she also assigned False Selves to us: I had to play the role of scapegoat; J. was the golden child; R. and F. were somewhere between golden children (to the extent that Mom had them be that way) and lost children (to the extent that she and Dad would have them that way); and Dad, to an extent, had the ‘tyrannical parent’ label projected onto him by Mom. None of us could be our authentic selves, for keeping the family myth alive was all important.

Curing these archaic traumas, however, is crucial to our healing process. We have to dig deep down into our early years to find the root cause of this pain. The fact that uncovering this pain is…well, painful…naturally discourages us from trying, and many of us cannot afford psychotherapy.

I find that mindfulness meditation is helpful in finding a state of calm with which to start the day, a way to contain all my agitations, but it isn’t enough. In Bion‘s containment theory, we learn (originally as babies through our mothers’ help) how to process agitating emotional experiences, detoxify them, and transform them into acceptable feelings. My ocean meditation, imagining my body to be part of an infinite ocean, with waves of energy flowing in, through, and out of me, can represent this taking in of agitating feelings, detoxifying them, and passing out the transformed, soothing vibes.

I’d be fooling myself, and I’d be being disingenuous to you, Dear Reader, if I were to say that such meditating is all we needed to do. Meditation helps a lot, I think, but we need to do more to detoxify our archaic traumas.

This is where putting trauma into words comes in. We need to face those old, painful experiences and find a way to express our feelings about them, without judgement, and all the while validating how we feel. When the trauma hit us, we felt angry, hurt, betrayed, frightened, crazy…and it’s OK to have felt that way. There’s no shame in feeling these feelings; such feelings are part of being human.

We have to feel these feelings, write about them, talk about them, create art based on them…whatever will help the healing process. We have to mourn the loving family we never got to have. This is how we get past the paranoid-schizoid position–that of splitting everyone and everything into black-and-white halves, then ejecting the bad half instead of facing it–and move into the depressive position–of integrating the split halves, seeing everyone and everything as a grey mixture of good and bad…because whatever splitting we do outside is also split inside ourselves.

In case you’re wondering, Dear Reader, if I’m at all working on integrating the split halves of my ‘good mother’ and ‘bad mother,’ as well as the split halves of my siblings, the best answer I can give you is this. Though, through the course of this and almost all of every other post I’ve written about my family, you’ve read me bash each and every one of them; I’ve also on occasion acknowledged that they all have their good sides, too, including my late mother. My negative judgement of them (and I’m sure they have the same overall assessment of me, too) is based on finding that what’s bad in them exceeds what was and is good in them.

As for the remaining ‘good mother’ in my mother, I have this quandary that I can never resolve: how am I to judge those times when she was good to me, that is, when the goodness was real kindness on her part, and when was the goodness just a reward for having given her narcissistic supply? What percentage should I attribute to the former, and what percentage to the latter? Given all the evil she’d done to me, I find I can only assume that the former portion is the smaller–much smaller–amount. Given the collective narcissism she spawned in her flying monkeys, my siblings, I can only assume that their genuinely heart-felt moments of goodness to me were also few and far between.

It’s an awful feeling going through your life knowing your family never truly loved you, that it was more of an act put on to preserve their public image than anything sincere. You go through life not knowing what real love is, not knowing who to trust, because the dysfunctional, abusive family you grew up in is how you define a ‘normal’ family, in the absence of strong alternatives. When loving people present themselves to you, you tend to reject them because your trauma won’t allow you to trust even people totally worthy of that trust.

Because of these difficulties, it is imperative that we go through these archaic traumas and find ways to heal. You don’t want to continue with the same destructive patterns that those traumas caused you to make into habits. There are lots of videos on YouTube (you might like Michelle Lee Nieves‘s videos, or perhaps Richard Grannon‘s) and online articles out there; I recommend you look for them, if you find that what I’ve written is ineffective.

Meanwhile, do mindfulness meditations, engage in self-care regularly, catch yourself whenever you engage in negative self-talk, practice self-compassion, write about your traumatic feelings (that’s what I’m doing here, for myself!), listen to positive affirmations while in a semi-hypnotic, meditative state (to make you more suggestible to the affirmations), and find communities of support.

Remember, above all, that you are none of those awful things your abusers called you. All that verbal abuse was just them projecting everything wrong with themselves onto you. None of that was you. And if you’re none of those bad things, why not begin to believe that you’re a whole lot of good things instead?

Analysis of ‘Star Wars’

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

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

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

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

Star Wars (1977)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Return of the Jedi (1983)

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

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

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

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

“It’s a trap!” –Admiral Ackbar

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

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

The Phantom Menace (1999)

“Exsqueeze me…” –Jar Jar Binks

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

“How wude!” –Jar Jar Binks

“Yippie!” –Anakin

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

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

Attack of the Clones (2002)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revenge of the Sith (2005)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fight the empire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Empire Strikes Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Return of the Jedi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Phantom Menace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attack of the Clones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revenge of the Sith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘Sequel Trilogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Whills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fight the Empire.

Analysis of 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